Joan Slonczewski has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, twice. In 1987, for A Door into Ocean, and in 2012, for The Highest Frontier. Her fiction shows her command of genetics and ecological science as well as her commitment to feminism.

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“A thoughtful, well-crafted novel...Memorable.”—Publishers Weekly

“Masterful story”—Library Journal

“Magnificently detailed.”—Chicago Sun-Times

The pristine city of Elysium floats on the water world of Shora, inhabited by ‘immortals’ who have succeeded in unlocking the secrets of life. Outsider Blackbear Windclan wants to share the secret of immortality with his own people, but can he, and the City of Elysium, survive the corruption and decadence that immortality has bred into the ageless society.

And what of the consciousness of self-aware nano-sentient servitors and their quest for vengence?

“An enormously impressive achievement.”—Kirkus Review

“A major feat"Booklist

Daughter of Elysium copyright © 1993, 2010 by Joan Slonczewski. All rights reserved. This book may not be copied or reproduced, in whole or in part, by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise without written permission from the publisher except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

2010 Edition published by Phoenix Pick.

 

DAUGHTER OF ELYSIUM
by Joan Slonczewski

Part 1

Chapter 8

Verid Anaeashon sat in a secluded garden at the heart of the Nucleus.

The heliconians swirled overhead, their long narrow wings flashing iridescent blue as they settled upon the passionflowers. Verid watched them sip their nectar, then lap up pollen, too, the high protein food they needed to last their six-month lifespan. Then they rose in flight, trembling like an arpeggio in a concert hall.

At the right end of the mooncurve sat the Prime Guardian Hyen Helishon, the golden sash draped across his plump figure, and between them Verid’s immediate superior, the Subguardian for Foreign Affairs, Flors Helishon. Flors was lean, his cheeks slightly sunken, fair-haired with startling blue eyes—the only thing startling about him, Verid thought.

They were gathered for their daily staff conference. Sharer relations were snarled again over the fruit flies in Papilion, and L’li’s newly announced tariff on imported rice threatened to spark an interworld trade crisis. Yet unexpected hope arose from, of all things, Raincloud’s little “duel” with the Urulite warlord.

But any meeting of substance required reflection, and must commence by viewing the butterflies. These flashy heliconians, their blue wings barred red and edged white, were the favorite of the Prime Guardian; whereas Verid, even after so many centuries, longed for the subtle hues of the leafwings. Nonetheless, she had adapted, learning to release herself and let her lifetime rise upward upon those tiny wings. Her hands relaxed upon her knees, her fingers yielding one by one to memory.

Six centuries before, yet it seemed only last year, she had just “metamorphosed” from the shon, in Anaeaon, home of scholars whose books fluttered as profusely as their butterflies. As her genes predicted, she became a logen. But then, she fell into the arms of Iras, the sparkling visitor from Letheon, and left Anaeaon behind.

As a logen, she took on a Sharer cause: the right of native Sharers to shelter fugitives in the tunnels of their rafts, a tradition dating back to the Valan occupation of Shora. The treaty gave their Sharer hosts the right to harbor even the worst violator of Elysian law. She had won the case; and yet, the friends she had lost ... Her eyes burned at the memory, and the flitting shapes blurred before her.

Two centuries later, as if it were yesterday, Verid had returned to the Anaeashon as its generen. As generen she had watched her own shonlings grow up and metamorphose, and face heartbreaks of their own. Another two centuries yet, and one of hers, an extraordinary gray-haired child, had succeeded her there.... She watched a heliconian take off with its nectar, leaving but a shivering leaf behind.

And then, eight years ago, a mere eyeblink, Hyen Helishon had rotated to Prime, and he called on her to join his staff. Hyen’s star had risen, and hers as well, as they knit the strands of peace and prosperity. But like lightning, what springs up quickly must soon fade away.... With a shudder, she lost the soaring butterfly among hundreds.

The spell was broken. She saw Hyen’s hands trembling, for he was moved by his own recollections. How solitary we are, Verid thought, each one of us with our layered histories floating in the sea of time.

Between them, Flors stretched his arms and straightened his back. Clearing his throat, the Subguardian looked sideways at Hyen.

Hyen nodded slightly. “Well, Flors?”

“The Sharers are responsible, all right.” Flors referred to the fruit flies in Papilion.

“They admit it?”

“Of course not. The webfingered women all enter whitetrance the minute we set foot on their raft. Why would they do that, if they’re not the culprits?”

Verid said quietly, “The Sharers on the raft outside Papilion have ‘unspoken’ Elysian visitors for the past year, well before the fruit flies appeared.” The plague of fruit flies had now spread throughout the floating city.

“The gene analysis is conclusive,” Flors added. “The flies carry the telltale DNA prints of Sharer lifeshaping.” Lifeshapers were the Sharer gene-engineers, whose ancestors had first taught the Heliconians. “It’s time to tell them: Clean up the flies, or else.”

Verid’s lips parted, about to mention the long-standing Sharer grievance about noise pollution. But she saw Hyen lift his head with a thoughtful tightening of the lips, and she kept silent.

“I wonder,” said Hyen. “A quick move is rarely the best response to Sharer trouble.”

“True,” admitted Flors. “It only rewards them.”

“They take us for children.”

Verid smiled to herself. She recalled the Sharer proverb about a hatchling squid—”Ink first, think next.”

“Those flies aren’t exactly lethal, are they?” Hyen added. “Why not raise this at the Sharer World Gathering?”

The Sharers of Shora gathered yearly, sending delegates from rafts all around the ocean. They met at Kshiri-el, a raft descended from historic Raia-el, whose Gathering had led the resistance against Valan invaders before the Heliconians came. The World Gathering took up all sorts of issues, including disputes among raft Gatherings, as well as differences with Elysium. It would meet again in just over half a year.

Flors looked relieved. “The World Gathering—Verid can handle that.” Verid always represented Elysium at the Sharer World Gathering. Flors considered Sharers a domestic nuisance, preferring for himself the “real” foreign affairs of Valedon and L’li.

“The L’liite tariff,” said Hyen, taking up another subject. “What do you recommend?”

The L’liites had just slapped a tariff on imported grain. Bronze Sky and other agricultural worlds strongly opposed the tax. Valedon, of course, opposed any restriction on trade.

“We can’t accept the tariff,” said Flors. “It’s contrary to the spirit of the Free Fold.”

Verid asked, “What about those new loans you’ve approved? Perhaps L’li needs the revenue to pay them back.”

Flors gave her a meaningful stare. They all knew that Iras had negotiated the loans. Elysium was a small world. “It is up to Bank Helicon to get their money back. In the meantime, how many L’liites will starve if grain prices rise any higher?”

Verid was silent. She had opposed the L’liite loans, distrustful of the last two generations of L’liite leadership. Over six centuries together, one was bound to disagree with one’s mate now and then.

“Right,” agreed Hyen at last. Elysian opposition would probably weight the balance; L’li would rescind the tax. “Anything new on the Urulite incident?” Hyen referred to the destroyed freighter.

“No,” said Flors. “Only the so-called invitation from the Legate for Cultural Affairs.”

“Ah yes.” Hyen grinned. “Ready to hop a ship to the Azure Throne?”

Flors ignored the Prime Guardian’s remark. “An ‘invitation,’ to a newly hired foreigner, at the end of a drunken feast. When no outsider has penetrated Urulan in two centuries. What do they take us for?”

Urulan had closed itself to outsiders, shortly after the Free Fold was formed. Who could have foreseen how long that self-imposed isolation would last, and how virulent a direction their people would take? Even Verid had been shocked; Elysians found it hard to remember how swiftly the populations of other worlds turned over, forgetting the gains of their ancestors.

Flors went on. “Verid should never have called him in. I opposed calling him in, you may recall. I opposed even the appearance of acknowledging any official status of that legation, which has long outstayed its permit.”

The Urulite legation had originally come as part of an interstellar children’s craft fair organized by the generen of the Helishon. The generen—either out of uncanny foresight or incurable naïveté, Verid had never decided which—had sent an invitation to Urulan. Urulan’s acceptance, and request for a visa for its delegates, had caused shock waves in Foreign Affairs. Verid had fought hard for approval, and Flors never forgave her. But after they came, the bureaucracy conveniently never got around to sending them home. The craft exhibitors had left, but the Legation stayed on, in the hands of the astute Lord Zheron.

“The legation covers espionage,” Flors insisted. “Day and night, Zheron taps our transmissions and reports to the Imperium.”

Verid murmured, “The spy is spied upon.” What better way to gain insight into a closed world?

“This would be a good time to deport them,” said Flors. “While memory of the Valan freighter is fresh, even the generen and other bleeding hearts will have little to say. I’ve begun the paperwork; I await only your word, Guardian.”

Verid’s pulse quickened, but she did not rise to the bait. Bickering between subordinates only irritated Hyen.

Hyen pursed his lips and looked around at the passionflowers, as if the matter were of small consequence to him. “You’re right, Flors. Ruthless bastards, those Urulites, nipping a freighter in free space. Still, prudence, you’re always telling me. Do a study, analyze, prioritize. Let’s have Foreign Affairs conduct a study on the costs and benefits of closing out the Urulite legation.”

Flors stiffened, and the hollows deepened in his cheeks. Then he shrugged. “At the very least we must put out a statement, since an official representative of our office visited the legation—without my approval, I may add.”

This last Verid could not let stand. “The translator Raincloud Windclan is only support staff. No approval was needed.”

Hyen waved an impatient hand. “Read me your statement, Flors.”

Flors took a lightbox from his pocket and read from the screen. “The Urulites are attempting to paper over their guilt by effusions of false goodwill. The reports we hear from refugees of that desperate world only confirm the impossibility of serious contacts. Any official exchange with the Imperium would have to meet these preconditions: acknowledge and pay reparations for the Valan freighter; cease genocidal repression of rebel provinces; return, in person or remains, the thousand or more foreigners taken prisoner over the last two centuries; accept investigation by the Free Fold Humane Commission of charges of slavery, bestiality, and abuse of women ...”

Well familiar with the list, Verid listened in silence. Flors was right, of course, in every detail. And yet, how little he knew of humanity. If people were music, Flors would be “unmusical.”

Hyen nodded. “Sounds good to me. Anything you’d care to add, Verid?”

“‘Nonetheless,’” she added, “‘the Republic of Elysium aspires to peaceful relations with every inhabited world, including Urulan, and will pursue every reasonable avenue toward that end.’”

“Excellent. That wraps it up, I’d say, Flors.”

Flors lifted his head and straightened his arms, as if to rise. “With your permission, Guardian; I have another conference shortly, with Guardian Tenarishon.” Jerya Tenarishon, the most formidable woman in the Guard of Twelve. What was her concern? The other Guardians were poking into foreign policy, nowadays, instead of leaving it to the Prime Guardian as they used to. Hyen’s support was faltering, for several reasons ... She would try again to warn him.

As he rose, Flors turned to Verid. “If you’re really thinking of visiting the Azure Throne,” he warned contemptuously, “you might think again. The moment you or that foreign translator sets foot on Urulan, you become the property of the first man who sets a hand upon you.”

“I’ll remember,” Verid dryly assured him. “In Raincloud’s Hills, a similar fate would be yours.”

Hyen laughed hard, his abdomen shaking. After his Sub-guardian had departed he shook his head. “Quite a list,” he said, as if admiring such a catalog of depravity.

“No one deplores it more than I,” said Verid with feeling. “Nevertheless, none of our many problems with Urulan can be solved, so long as Urulan considers us a foreign enemy and we view them as the fount of all evil.”

“I agree. The question is, can this Lord Zheron be taken seriously? By the way, you win your point: Raincloud’s gender was no obstacle.”

“That only shows how desperate they are to make contact. As for Zheron, he affects flamboyance, but he takes only water after the first drink.”

“What exactly did he say when you called him in?” Hyen asked.

“He said that the freighter attack was a mistake on the part of someone in the Imperial Command, and that it triggered a major upheaval in the regime.”

“How generous of him.”

“There’s probably some truth to it. A couple of their generals have dropped out of sight.”

“And you replied?”

“I offered, in confidence, to send an emissary any time they’re ready. Without preconditions.” Exactly what Zheron now requested. Her pulse rate increased.

“Let’s hope he keeps it confidential. Or Foreign Affairs will put the heat on us.”

The heat would turn on Verid, of course, not on the Prime Guardian.

“Tell him we’re interested,” Hyen said, “off the record, of course, at the same time that the Foreign Affairs statement goes out. Then, after a decent interval, send that translator back for another chat.”

She had known all along that Hyen would assent, but still, it came as a relief. Relaxing, she let herself breathe in the scent of passionflowers. “So far, so good. One step at a time,” she cautioned. Nothing would change overnight.

“Yes, yes. Prudence,” Hyen muttered, motioning to a servo. The servo brought a tray of delicacies, from which he helped himself to a pair of protein-rich floral cakes. All Elysian food was processed by molecular synthesis from recycled organics. Hyen ate thoughtfully, lifting his gaze to the butterflies. “If there’s one thing I’d like to do in my time, it’s to visit the Imperator.”

Verid hid a smile. “Imperator” was an overblown title, she thought, for the tyrannical ruler of a rather backward planet. Yet the centuries of isolation had cast an attractive spell on Urulan; its bizarre fauna and outlandish customs had caught the imagination of many an outsider. Who could resist the mystery of the Imperator of the Azure Throne, his visage never recorded? She helped herself to a synthetic carrot, delicately carved into a tree of curlicues. As the servo waiter passed, she nodded her head with a whispered thanks.

“Such courtesy,” teased Hyen. Verid was often ridiculed for her politeness to servos, as if she took them for people. Better that, she countered, than mistaking people for servos. Hyen rose to go. “I don’t suppose,” he added in the same jocular tone, “you’ll be joining our little ‘outing’ on your Visiting Day.”

Hyen’s little “outings” were notorious. His taste includes women and men, of varied physique and often questionable character, and the party might last for days on end. To a point, his exploits had only enhanced his stature; but of late, the extra medical fees had grown embarrassing. “No, thanks,” she replied. “Do watch yourself—the logens, you know.”

“Yes, my good generen.”

Hyen’s remark recalled Verid’s decades as a “parent,” the generen of the Anaeashon. It occurred to Verid that her old gray-haired shonling had scheduled a logathlon that afternoon. Kal had taken on a prominent medical researcher, of all things. She would view the match that evening with Iras, providing no new interstellar crisis intervened before then.

The logathlon took place at the oldest public butterfly garden in Helicon. Trees entwined with passionflowers cut through several street levels; the scent was overpowering, even from the upper street level where Blackbear and the lab students watched. A shimmering cloud of heliconians enveloped the trees. Amidst the trees lay a small theater, where the choice seats were paid for. Most of the voting audience watched from afar by holo stage.

The lab students had set up a holostage which showed Tulle and her opponent at close range. Tulle wore her full train, glittering with pink and silver-winged amaryllis. The logen, Kal Anaeashon, wore stark white as before, with only the single dead leaf at his throat. What a contrast to his shonsib Alin, arrayed in richly embroidered leafwings, sitting now with Blackbear and the lab students. Alin leaned his head on his fist, lost in thought. A heliconian fluttered up to the rail, its golden wings ribbed in black.

“Tulle Meryllishon, Director of Developmental Medicine,” Kal began. “Your awards and achievements in your field are so well-known, it would be superfluous to list them here.”

“To list yours, logen, would take the next hour,” rejoined Tulle, her face above the holostage calm and confident.

At her rejoinder Onyx laughed, and Sunflower laughed, too, just for the fun of it. “Kal gets teaching awards about every other year,” added Onyx. “It’s become an embarrassment.”

“His students are all hypnotized,” muttered Draeg.

Blackbear frowned, trying to hear what was going on. After all, if the vote went badly, the Guard could shut down Tulle’s research program.

“Can you explain to us,” Kal was saying, “what your research is about, and why the Guard supports it?”

“With pleasure,” said Tulle. “The aim of our work is to improve and perfect the process by which Elysian embryos develop into shonlings. Our previous achievements include a fifty percent decrease in defectives, a thirty percent decrease in advanced morbidity, and an estimated twenty-five percent increase in longevity. Science offers endless potential to improve our quality of life.”

“Improved quality of life?”

“Exactly. Better regeneration of bone, so the structures don’t buckle after a thousand years; more resilient tissues of heart and brain, for increased survival following accidental injury; again, I could easily fill the hour. In short—my work directly extends that of the Heliconian Doctors who founded the first shon.”

“Improved quality of life,” Kal repeated. “Might that include ... the ability to conceive offspring?”

At this Pirin and Lorl stirred and muttered together.

“‘Offspring,’” repeated Alin at Blackbear’s shoulder, emphasizing the Elysian word. “The word means ‘animal progeny.’”

“An insult,” said Onyx. “Shonlings are for people.  But then, natural born children wouldn’t be shonlings, would they?” Elysians had no word for human-born children.

Tulle was describing the Fertility Project. “A small fraction of our work is aimed at germ-line generation of ageless progeny. This project is of great interest, from the scientific perspective; and it attracts attention from foreigners across the Fold.”

“Foreign attention, that’s good, Tulle,” added Alin as he watched. A logen himself, he had coached her for the encounter. “Elysians love foreign attention and prestige; the voters will be impressed.”

Meanwhile below, Kal continued easily, as if it were just another conversation. “Tell me something. A beautiful inscription stands above the door to Science Park. What does it stand for?”

Alin frowned at this departure, and the others drew quiet.

“You know better than I, I’m sure,” Tulle told Kal. “The inscription reads, ‘Where learning is shared, the waterfall breaks through the cataract.’ It’s from The Web.”  The ancient book all Elysians were so sensitive about. “Is that translation quite accurate?”

“It is not,” answered Tulle, her voice heightened. “The original Sharer words read, ‘Where learning is shared, the amnion breaks and hope is born.’ You see—because natural birth is alien to us, we reject even the reference to it, even the mention of ‘hope.’ What does this say for us as a people? I say the Heliconian project is incomplete. Let us work to reclaim our birth-right.”

A burst of applause came from the audience below. Above, Pirin and Lorl applauded, too.

“The words were inscribed by the original Heliconian Doctors,” Kal rejoined. “They knew what they were doing. They told us not to hope for children, but instead to lead lives of beauty, beauty unwithered by age and decay, the unfettered beauty of a waterfall.”

Tulle said with impatience, “I see no conflict between beauty and shonlings.”

The audience was quiet now.

“Look at the foreign worlds,” said Kal. “Look at L’li and Valedon, where children enter life not in shons, but in ‘families,’” he said, using a Valan word. “Wherever families exist, there is poverty and violence. Poverty, because the vast majority of families can never support themselves above subsistence level; and violence, because men fight on behalf of their families. Ask any good soldier what he fights for, if not the good of his family.”

Blackbear blinked at this. Whatever could that logen be talking about?

Hawktalon crept behind him and leaned her chin on his shoulder. “Daddy, are they done yet?”

“Sh, I’m trying to hear,” he replied hurriedly.

“I’m done playing.”

“Go play with Doggie.”

“Doggie’s done playing, too ...”

Below, Kal was saying, “That is why Elysium was founded such that reproduction belonged to the Republic, through the shons, of course. All of our children belong to us; collectively, we ensure their material welfare and security. It is no accident that our people have achieved unprecedented civilization, envied by all other worlds. And peace—the Free Fold itself was conceived here.”

Onyx commented, “The Sharers had more to do with that. He should know better.”

Above the holostage Tulle leaned forward. “Are you saying that families cause war?”

“The history of our species, and of our brother apes as well, is that families kill other families. But in Elysian society, the community as a whole provides for our young citizens, and rears just enough of them for each calling. It is no accident that we have outgrown murder and warfare.”

Tulle paused, apparently taken aback by this argument. Blackbear was so beside himself, he could hardly listen. “How can anyone say such things?” he demanded of Onyx. “He wouldn’t even know what a family is.”

Tulle responded at last, “What about Sharer families? The Sharers practically invented ‘peace.’”

So did Clicker families, thought Blackbear. Clickers had emigrated from L’li precisely to avoid its wars and famines. Clickers had always lived in peace.

“The Sharers,” said Kal, “regulate their families strictly by their Gatherings. In effect, they are one decentralized shon.”

“We can regulate our families, too,” said Tulle. “Regulation is up to the Guardians. My concern is science, not politics.”

“Very well,” said Kal, “let’s talk science. You’ve just hired a foreign doctor to redesign a human gene to enable ageless females to ovulate ...”

The logen must be referring to him. Blackbear gripped the rail to stare at Kal below. Then he returned to the close-up view. The man’s face unnerved him; such calm features, saying such outrageous things.

“Are they done yet, Dad?” whined Hawktalon.

Draeg handed the girl a lightcube. She grasped it eagerly, watching the channels change to various research files. “Where’s the castle game, Uncle Draeg?” Sunflower toddled over on tiptoe to peer over her arm.

“... does the young doctor realize what it would take to implement such a treatment on his home world? First, even once ovulation is possible, all embryos will have to be transferred to a shon for anti-aging treatment, even if they are returned to their families at term. The cost of a shon to treat fifty children per year would exceed the budget of Founders City.”

Tulle replied, “You have only moved from Elysian politics to interworld politics. Worse, you make the patronizing assumption that foreign scientists are naive and cannot think two steps ahead.”

“Exactly,” observed Onyx. “You tell him, Tulle.”

Blackbear nodded vigorously, while Draeg muttered some L’liite phrase that was no compliment.

In the visi-monitor, Kal was shaking his head. A wisp of his gray hair stirred in a slight breeze; an extra air current must have turned on. “Remember that we Elysians remain foreign scientists on Shora; the Sharer treaty so states. The Sharers originally gave us their science—at a price: No application of that science may threaten the equilibrium of our common biosphere. Has the Sharer World Gathering looked at your work?”

Alin clapped his hands to his head. “Great Helix—the Sharer World Gathering? He won’t take it there?”

“Shora,” whispered Onyx. “The Sharers will tie us in knots for years.”

Chapter 9

After the logathlon three days would elapse before the vote was tallied. If the vote favored Kal, the question of Tulle’s research support would be placed on the agenda of the Guard of Twelve.

“I can’t understand it,” Blackbear told her. Tulle was watching letters appear above a holostage in the lab, the results of the DNA sequence analysis of some of Blackbear’s Eyeless alleles. “How does he get away with such lies?”

“Foreigners don’t vote,” she answered succinctly. “Think of it. If you were infertile, wouldn’t you like to come up with a reason why it’s morally superior? Elysians readily swallow that argument.”

“Some do, you mean,” said Pirin indignantly. “What are the shons, if not twelve quarreling families? Are private families any worse?”

“Do the shons quarrel?” Blackbear asked with interest. Clicker families were full of quarrels, about runaway livestock, and husband-prices, and babies desired by childless relatives. For the villagers, it was great entertainment. Of course, Blackbear and Raincloud, returning from the University, had kept above that sort of thing.

“Sure they do,” said Pirin. “There’s all sorts of rivalry between shons. Ask Alin—much as he detests Kal, his shonsib, you couldn’t get him to admit that anyone outshines an Anaeashon. We must spend half our gross income on athletics and art contests. It doesn’t lead to war and murder.”

Blackbear agreed. “Clickers don’t have murderers, either. We teach our youngsters spiritual defense.”

“I don’t know,” Lorl said thoughtfully. Lorl studied gene expression in advanced age; she herself avoided the fertility project. “It takes much skill to be a generen, to teach shonlings the heights of beauty and civility. I don’t know that just anyone should do it.”

“What are you saying, Lorl?” Pirin demanded. “You think I’m not smart enough to raise a shonling?”

“I’m not sure I’d be smart enough—or wise enough.”

“Where Blackbear lives, anyone can raise a shonling upon reaching puberty. It doesn’t lead to barbarism.”

“That’s true,” Blackbear agreed. “But we do get lots of help from our uncles and grandparents, and of course the High Priestess.”

“None of which we have,” said Lorl. “That’s why the generen is such a crucial position.”

Pirin laughed. “The generen’s just a political appointee. Anybody could do the job.”

Tulle looked back from the DNA sequences. “If that’s true,” she said, exasperated, “then Kal is right, that reproduction belongs to the Republic! You’ve argued yourself into a circle, Pirin. Now I see Kal’s true plan: to get all of us so tied up in politics that we leave off from our experiments.”

The vote on the logathlon favored Tulle by a narrow margin. The students were relieved because now Kal could not call on her again for another six months, and they could get back to their work. Only Blackbear was not inclined to let the matter drop, particularly since the reporter servos, having figured out who the “foreign doctor” was, had come to pester him.

“They say he’s taken it to the Sharers,” Blackbear warned.

“Bad news,” Draeg agreed. “Let’s get as much done as we can, before we hear from them.”

“Can’t we demand a rematch?” he wanted to know. “I’d like to tell that logen a thing or two.”

“What?” exclaimed Draeg. “You, take on the Killer? You’re nuts.” He punched Blackbear in the arm.

“You can’t,” Onyx explained. “Only a logen can call a public logathlon; otherwise there’d be chaos. Don’t think Alin’s not tempted—but even he knows better.”

“Why is everyone so afraid of Kal,” said Blackbear irritably. “I’m not afraid to set the record straight. He’s just a man.”

“Go tell him yourself,” said Onyx. “You’ll have to visit his mate, first; his servo, that is. He calls her ‘Cassi.’” Onyx chuckled, and Blackbear wondered what was so funny about that.

Then he remembered: “Cassi Deathsister” was the name of an ancient Valan exile among the Sharers, the narrator of The Web. Kal certainly had a warped sense of humor.

Draeg snapped his fingers. “Why not call a hearing? Anyone can do that. We’ve done it lots of times, for the simbrid question and other things.”

Onyx agreed. “A hearing helps diffuse the issue. Hold enough hearings, and they’ll be too bored to watch the logathlon next time.”

“How does a ‘hearing’ work?” asked Blackbear.

“Just announce one, over the network,” Onyx said. “Invite whoever you want; Alin, for instance, would speak well. But any citizen, invited or not, is welcome to show up and have his say.”

“The only catch is, it’s open-ended,” said Draeg. “You have to stay as long as they want to talk. It can last for days.”

“Not for us,” said Onyx. “Our longest was five hours, on the simbrid question. The longer hearings are usually border disputes.” Even on an ocean world, cities managed to argue over their borders.

“Can I invite Kal, too?” asked Blackbear.

“Sure.” Onyx laughed again. “You’ll be sorry, though.”

So Blackbear went ahead and scheduled a hearing to explain his research on egg development. The obliging servo voice at the holostage helped him send “invitations” and post notices in the public register. He took a moment at his terminal to peruse the register, to see what else was going on. Sure enough, there was a hearing on Helicon’s northern border with Papilion, out in the ocean somewhere. What purpose could such a “border” serve? Fishing rights? Another hearing was about international lending—sponsored by Bank Helicon, Blackbear noted with a smile. Another, on “exploitation of foreign workers,” caught his eye. Perhaps he ought to attend that one.

Meanwhile, Tulle asked him to take his analysis of Eyeless down to the molecular level. So Onyx helped him “expand” the model embryo until the very chromosomes within a single cell extended around him.

The Eyeless DNA specified a protein which Onyx optimistically called “ovogen.” In germ cells, ovogen appeared to regulate several steps in the formation of egg cells. But of course, the same DNA sequence is present in every cell of the body. Other cells made slightly different versions of “ovogen” to regulate different developmental steps in outer eye tissues, heart muscle, and a host of other mesodermal structures. Ovogen’s function in the other organs was unknown.

In order to make ovogen, the gene had to direct synthesis of an RNA copy; this RNA migrates to the ribosome, a factory which puts together the protein. All of this happens inside each microscopic cell. The cell contents are laced with a network of vesicles and channels which transport the protein to its site of action; this “endoplasmic reticulum” had actually inspired the design of the Helicon transit reticulum.

Of course, the gene for ovogen had to be under strict control, because cells have to become eggs only in the ovaries, and only at the right time in development. It would not do for humans to have egg cells sprouting out of all parts of the body, like a flowering plant. So a dozen other genes specify control proteins that bind to the ovogen gene, preventing or activating the copying of RNA. Some of these control proteins have other functions; for instance growth hormone, which maintains youthful muscle strength, but loses its effect in later life. Growth hormone and other control proteins had been “corrected” by the Heliconian gene engineers. But this “correction” had left ovogen “turned off”—permanently. No ovogen RNA was copied; no protein was made; and no germ cells migrated to become egg cells in otherwise healthy ovaries.

Onyx had mutated the control site of Eyeless, hoping to restore its response to the binding proteins. Now Blackbear could test the mutations for expression of ovogen, first in the model, then in tissue culture.

Hawktalon soon learned to set up tissue cultures, and progressed to programming the apparatus for protein assays. She was also good at keeping an eye on the equipment, to make sure the servo did not change its mind for some reason and start assaying some unknown protein. Much impressed, Tulle offered to put her on the payroll one day a week, the maximum allowed for shonlings. Blackbear was grateful for the extra income, and Raincloud was proud to see her firstborn doing something as responsible as herding goats.

Now that the simulator was working again at full capacity, Onyx maintained it strictly. A list of “don’ts” appeared on the console, including, “Don’t swear at machine; scatology disorients the network.” Draeg got the simulator to image the cardiac fibers developing in his heartless mutants. What he found was so exciting that he managed to persuade Pirin to test his mutations in a live simbrid embryo.

One day Draeg arrived in lab looking strangely sick, his complexion darkened to a dusky violet. Blackbear eyed him with concern. “You getting enough sleep, Brother?” he asked in L’liite.

At that Onyx laughed and slapped her knees. “Draeg’s okay—he’s gone native! Breathmicrobes,” she explained. “You know, that’s how the Sharers swim underwater an hour at a time. The microbes in their skin absorb oxygen from the water. A good thing, when you live out alone on a raft.  Does it work, Draeg?”

“It does,” Draeg told her. “So far I’ve doubled my time underwater, and it should get even better. I’ve been trying to screw up my nerve for this all year. You should try it, Brother.” He gave Blackbear a friendly shove. “Don’t worry, my little bacteria aren’t that contagious. Hey, you’ve got to sail out to my raft and see.”

At the Nucleus, Raincloud translated Imperial broadcasts and awaited word from Verid on Lord Zheron’s invitation. Lem was anxious too, for he hoped to accompany Verid to Urulan. Raincloud considered warning him not to offer himself to Urulite females—he’d survive about five seconds, she thought.

But only Flors’s statement came out, a blast at the Imperium, barely softened at the end. Lem shook his head. “It will all come to nothing, if Flors has his way and kicks the legation out.”

Why do that? she wondered. The internal politics of Helicon still puzzled her. By now, most of the Subguardian’s associates were preoccupied with the L’liite tariff plan.

At home, it occurred to Raincloud that her cycle was more than a month overdue. Her breasts felt tender, and she woke up queasy early in the morning.

“Do you think you could teach the kitchen to make my ‘corncrunch’?” Raincloud asked Blackbear at breakfast. “I’d like to keep some in my pocket, and on the night table.”

“Of course, dear,” he said, looking up hopefully. Corncrunch was a mixture of cracked corn coated with honey, which Raincloud had snacked on to steady her stomach before. “Are you carrying again?”

“Goddess willing.”

His eyes widened. “Another little one! What good news for the clan.” He came back and hugged her, fondly running her beaded braids through his fingers. “We’ll need to find a doctor,” he added. He had delivered infants himself in Tumbling Rock, but it was unwise to treat one’s own family.

She smiled meditatively. In the Hills, it was said that the Dark Goddess is reborn in every womb. And in The Web, the great wordweaver said, “The mother is born in her child.”

Sunflower, who had woken early that morning, crawled sleepily into her lap and rubbed his head against her breast. “Milk, Mother?” he muttered, his voice muffled by the thumb in his mouth.

At that she winced, knowing she had to give up the token nursing for the sake of the unborn. “I’ll read you your rabbit book, Sunny.” She would get the kitchen window to print out a shelf full of bright new storybooks for him.

While Sunflower tiptoed off to fetch his book, she noticed Hawktalon looking at her oddly. “Is it true?” the girl asked in a muffled voice. “Another little Sunflower?”

“Or another girl,” said Raincloud. “But don’t mind about it now, dear. Besides, it’s not yet quickened.” For Clickers, the conceptus had no “personhood” until it quickened; the mother might keep it or not, before then. Of course, Raincloud wanted her child.

Still, Hawktalon’s eyes blinked fast, and her face seemed to struggle between a smile and a scowl.

“What’s wrong, Hawk?” Blackbear asked softly.

She burst out, “Will I still get my birthday?”

“Of course you will, dear,” her parents both exclaimed. Raincloud shook her head. “Wherever did she get that notion?”

“It’s right on our calendar,” Blackbear insisted, “three days from now.”

“You said time was money,” Hawktalon explained, “and money was short. And babies take up both.”

“Excuse me, Citizens,” interrupted the house. “Prepare to receive a transfold interstellar call.”

“Transfold?” exclaimed Raincloud. “You mean, from Bronze Sky?”

“Calling party, Nightstorm Windclan. Do you wish the barrier removed?”

“Goddess, yes—right away!”

The wall of nanoplast surrounding the holostage began to melt away, as the Windclans hurried into the sitting room. A column of light grew above the holostage, flickering confusedly. At last the connection steadied. Raincloud’s sister appeared, flanked by her two turbaned husbands, Tallwheat and Halfmoon, and their five children. Nightstorm wore her braids in a striking crossed-diamond pattern, which Tallwheat was particularly skilled at making. The girls, too, had all their dark coils newly done up. Their expectant faces all shone with the rich darkness of fertile soil, none of those pasty Elysian complexions.

Suddenly all their eyes widened and mouths fell open, as if the Bronze Skyans had just caught sight of Raincloud’s family on the stage. The children smiled and held out their dolls, except for the littlest in Tallwheat’s arm, who screeched and buried his face in his father’s chest.

“There’s the birthday girl!” Nightstorm called to Hawktalon, in her full contralto voice. “Five years old! You didn’t think we’d forget, did you?” Five Bronze Skyan years, a bit over seven years standard.

“You surprised us, all right,” said Raincloud. “You’re three days—”

“Just because you’re out on some other planet?” Nightstorm went on, as if Raincloud’s words had not yet reached her. “We scheduled it weeks ahead; nearly missed our time, too, because one horse is lame. Did you eat your cake yet?”

Suddenly Raincloud realized. She clapped her hand to her head. “We’re three days behind. We forgot, Shora’s day is longer.”

“Yes,” said Blackbear, shaking his head, “the Elysians stretch out their ‘hours’ to compensate. No wonder we’re off.”

As their words reached her, Nightstorm looked puzzled. “Three days behind? A day’s a day, isn’t it? Anyway—say, Hawk, did your present arrive yet?”

Nightstorm, who had quit school early to help their mother build up the livestock, had little patience for the world beyond Tumbling Rock. No matter, she managed one of the wealthier clans of the Hills.

“Not yet,” said Hawktalon eagerly. “What is it?”

“It’s a surprise, of course.”

“It’s a stethoscope!” shouted Nightstorm’s younger daughter.

Tallwheat gave the girl a squeeze. “Don’t be rude to your mother.”

Nightstorm chuckled. “She’s got the clan’s stubborn streak. Well, Hawk, you’ll grow up to be a doctor, too. Your father’s a good one, and as a goddess, you’ll do even better.”

“I won’t be just a doctor,” Hawktalon announced solemnly. “I’ll be a linguist.”

The children back on Bronze Sky squirmed and fidgeted, awaiting her delayed reply. Nightstorm’s daughter looked up at her mother. “‘Linguist’? What’s a linguist, Mother?”

Nightstorm shook her head. “Such fancy notions. Be good like your mother, Hawk; don’t forget the clan.”

Raincloud winced, feeling sorry for Halfmoon, who turned his head away. Halfmoon originally had married their sister Running Wolf, the “white goat” of the clan. Everyone had hoped the marriage would settle her down, but instead she had run off to Founders City to make her fortune in trade. So Nightstorm had remarried Halfmoon, to preserve the clan’s honor; but their sister was forever lost to them. It happened; there were one or two in every clan.

“How’s Mother, and Dad?”

“They’re fine, and Clanmother’s getting on as if she were twenty years younger. Before I forget, I bagged the pair of double-horned goats you wanted, off the slope behind Crater Lake. I shipped them just as you said...”

“Great, thanks!” Raincloud had hit upon the rare goat variety, found only on the Bronze Sky, as a return gift for Blackbear’s lab director, who ran a preserve. She could always count on her first-sister, never fail.

“Goats?” repeated Hawktalon hopefully. “Can you ship me my goats, too?”

“... we all miss you so much,” Nightstorm was saying. “You’re famous around here; I don’t know any Clicker family that’s traveled so far—”

The image shivered and faded out. Sunflower ran to the holostage and scrabbled over it, as if trying to find where his cousins had got to. Doggie crept over the stage, too; the trainsweep seemed to delight in imitating everything the two-year-old did.

The double-horned goats arrived in time for Raincloud’s next Visiting Day, when she visited Tulle Meryllishon in order to return her mate’s courtesy. None the worse for their voyage across the Fold, the spindly-legged animals stretched their necks to feed, their ears pointing straight out sideways like the arms of a toddler. The goats delighted Tulle, who rubbed her hand in their coarse white hair and rubbed the emerging horns. Her capuchin, too, was entranced, scampering up to ride the back of the ram. Hawktalon, who had come along with Raincloud, busily told the Elysian what forage the goats like best, and how to inspect their hooves for disease; in the end, she could barely let them go.

“This is where we ought to live, Mother,” said Hawktalon, jumping with excitement. “We could have our flock, then. Please?

Raincloud swallowed her embarrassment. “We’ll be home again in a year, dear.”

Tulle smiled. “You are lucky, to live among such beautiful animals. Would you like to see the rest of mine?”

They toured the preserve, seeing animals and foliage saved from all the worlds before terraforming. From L’li, three-limbed one-eyed tree climbers writhed along branches in search of fruit; the tree climber would bore through the shell and insert its stomach to digest the juices. From Bronze Sky, ethereal gliding creatures with scissor-shaped jaws circled over a stream, waiting to pounce on swimming things. Raincloud recalled the look in the eyes of the Sharer envoy to her world, and it brought a chill to her heart. All these creatures had died, that humans might inhabit L’li and Bronze Sky.

There were creatures, too, from dead Torr: zebras, wolves, and cheetahs, species never brought to terraformed worlds. All roamed freely in spacious enclosures landscaped to resemble the original habitats, as far as they could be reconstructed. And then, Tulle showed them, with particular pride, the gorillas.

Raincloud felt her heart beat faster. It seemed indecent, somehow, to think she might see a reminder of Rhun. But she followed Tulle to the tree-lined enclosure.

The dark thick-furred apes lay in a heap on top of one another, seeming to enjoy each other’s company. A grizzled old grandmother stared out at Raincloud, shrewdly, she thought. The creature sat on her haunches, twisting a stick between her wrinkled black fingers with their rounded nails. The flat nose and cavernous nostrils, the thin, smooth lips, the striking eyes set deep within a surprisingly hairless face—Homo gorilla, once assigned a genus distinct from human, now shared the genus Homo. Their genetic code had long ago betrayed their closeness, a closeness which unscrupulous humans now abused. And yet, she found herself asking, should she regret the ancestry of her beloved teacher?

Rhun, of course, had only distant descent from gorillas; his thickened eye sockets and thin lips had hinted of it. But she recalled the hands of the servant at Lord Zheron’s table. With a shudder, she turned away.

In the office of the Sub-Subguardian, a document came to life above the table. Elysian documents never stood upon solid ground, Raincloud mused to herself; they hovered unsubstantially, like the words of angels. She straightened her back and viewed the text with a wary eye.

“We’ve accepted Lord Zheron’s invitation to visit Urulan,” Verid told her. “There are conditions, of course,” she said, nodding to the text. “I’d like you to return for more formal discussion.”

“I see.” Raincloud swallowed back a tinge of nausea; she would snack on corncrunch later. By the fourth month it would subside, she reminded herself. “Who exactly has ‘accepted’?”

“The Prime Guardian directed me to accept. This is highly confidential, of course, since the Republic has no relations with Urulan. First, I will visit the Imperium with a small entourage to lay the groundwork. If all goes well, the Prime Guardian will then make a state visit.”

That would shake up the Fold, all right. “You’ll take Lem along, I assume.”

“Zheron expressly asked for you.”

“Out of the question,” said Raincloud. “I am ‘with child.’”

Verid paused, and her face turned blank, as if to hide whatever she might think about Raincloud’s exceptional condition. Then she nodded respectfully and permitted herself a smile. “This is, I confess, a novel concern for me. Nonetheless, gestation takes nine months, does it not? Nothing will happen right away; it may take us weeks, even months, just to negotiate conditions.”

“I will assist you in Helicon,” Raincloud insisted, “as I was hired to do.”

Verid’s eyebrows rose, and her voice intensified. “Are you so sure of your choice? Think, what a historic opportunity to make the world safer for your children.”

“You Elysians have no children to risk.”

“Our shonlings themselves were the first to invite the Urulite delegates to their craft fair.” Verid leaned forward, fixing her gaze on Raincloud. “Zheron has advanced views on the rights of sims. Your teacher risked his life to escape bondage. You can return his legacy.”

Raincloud’s face grew hot, and she took a deep breath. “You know nothing about that.” And yet, she bleakly realized, she had no answer. She owed it to Rhun, and even to that creature in Tulle’s preserve who shared his lineage. If Urulan rejoined the community of worlds, the sims might be freed.

Suddenly she recalled that logathlon. Her anger boiled over. “What do you Elysians know of freedom? For all your wealth, you live in a glass cage. You never sow and reap your own. Where I come from, every family has their own herd of goats and their own hot spring out back to run the generator. What do you think you live for—beauty? Nothing but bread and circuses.”

The Sub-Subguardian lowered her voice meditatively. “There’s the Snake, remember. The Snake brings good, and does not ask why.”

Raincloud felt her skin crawl, and she gripped the arms of her chair.  The Snake, caught in the mouth of the six-armed Goddess.  How could this Elysian begin to know what the Dark Goddess meant? She stared at the diminutive woman with her thick black eyebrows.

Nightstorm would have gone, if the Goddess called her, as the Snake was called. But how could Raincloud know what she was called for, here, so far from the Hills? And what was the fate of the Snake, if not to be eaten?

Chapter 10

Blackbear returned from the lab at his wits’ end. The simulator was having fits again, and his mutant test would have to be redone. His hearing on the Fertility Project was less than a week off, and he still could not answer all the questions Alin had warned would come up. He had left the diapers home for once, but Sunflower wet his pants three times; the child had regressed completely. And Hawktalon had given up on tissue culture to spend the day with her crayons, drawing goats and stick figures on Doggie’s back. The four of them, including the much-decorated trainsweep, collapsed exhausted in the house.

“What’ll you eat, kids?” muttered Blackbear. At least there was no cooking and cleaning, he reflected; Elysium had its compensations. But what a job he would have unspoiling everyone when the family went home to Tumbling Rock.

The “visit” of Raincloud’s sister had set him wondering again about home. He missed his old clan members keenly, especially his brother Quail with the two pairs of twins. Quail usually remembered to call; but then, it was hard to keep track of men once they married out into different clans.

And how were his patients back in Tumbled Rock getting on with the doctor in the next town? The goddess whose fractured femur he had set just before departure—had it healed up all right? And the young father of four, with testicular cancer—had he kept up his chemotherapy treatments, a day’s journey for each? It felt odd, not to be getting calls at midnight anymore.

When Raincloud at last got back from the Nucleus, she avoided his look, preoccupied. Somehow everyone made it through dinner without mishap, except Sunflower who managed to fall off the chair onto his head.

With the children asleep, Blackbear sank into his bed, his ears still ringing. Raincloud sat by the night table, nibbling a handful of corncrunch to steady her stomach for the night. Her breasts peeped out cheerfully beyond her bare back and shoulders. He watched appreciatively, but doubted he would have the energy to please her tonight.

Raincloud turned her head toward him, the beads swinging back across her neck. “They want me to go to Urulan.”

He blinked at her, perplexed. “Urulan? That’s impossible.”

“Zheron invited me.”

“Well you said no, didn’t you?”

“Sh, keep your voice down,” she whispered, “the holostage might hear you. I could lose my job—”

“You can quit the darn job for all I care,” he exclaimed. “You can’t go off to Urulan and end up in chains. Why don’t you think of us for a change?”

Raincloud straightened her back, and her breasts rose as she took a breath. “Should I shun the volcano’s slope, too? Should I never build a house, for the earthquakes? Blackbear, you know my clan would always provide for you.”

He still felt angry, and yet foolish for losing his temper. “Why should it be you?” he insisted more quietly. “If you farm the slope of the volcano, at least you bring the clan a rich harvest. What is there on cursed Urulan for you?”

“I owe it to Rhun to go. Besides—our clan is part of the universe. If Urulan threatens Elysium with missiles, some day they’ll threaten Bronze Sky, too.”

He had never had a teacher like Rhun, Blackbear reflected; the doctors at the medical school were more formal. He had met the old sim once or twice, an odd sort of fellow who asked unsettling questions. But why should Rhun’s ghost have such a hold on Raincloud? “The universe is none of our business,” he said. “Let the High Priestess speak for the universe.”

“Then why did you come here? Did the High Priestess send you out to find immortality’? Or would she call it blasphemy?”

He did not answer. He had carefully avoided the temple before they left.

“You still have to call on Verid,” Raincloud reminded him. “You tell her yourself.”

Endless Elysian courtesies. “All right,” he muttered. “Let’s get some sleep.” He switched off the light, then turned over away from her on his side, pulling up the coverlet.

The bed dipped as Raincloud got in. “Blackbear,” she whispered, putting a hand on his waist. He could see her hand, as his eyes adjusted to the dim amber night-light provided by the house. He still did not move, for he was too tired and angry. “Blackbear, you know I always think of you first. Right now I want to see the mushroom come up ...” Her hand probed insistently, like six hands, he imagined, all six of the Goddess. He felt himself growing warm and hard. For a moment he wanted to cry, then he lost himself in desire.

On his next Visiting Day Blackbear set out for the Nucleus. For once he left the children behind, with Raincloud. At first he panicked every few minutes, feeling certain his empty arms had left something precious behind. He kept telling himself the children would love to have their mother to themselves all day, and Raincloud had sworn she would get Sunflower potty-trained at last.

At Tulle’s suggestion, he had made for Verid an embroidered scene of the Day of the Child, the next holiday of the Clicker year, another five months off in springtime. On that day the High Priestess and all the assistant priestesses of the temple led a great procession of families up the hill to the cave of the Sacred Snake, which the children passed one by one. He had stitched the scene on his Visiting Days, after completing Hawktalon’s last garment. Such handwork was much prized in Elysium, Tulle said.

The scene reminded Blackbear how much he missed the steady march of the year’s seasons. Shora had its seasons too, of course, but no sign of them seemed to penetrate the floating city. The weather rarely entered Elysian conversation. Only Draeg observed that he hardly dared enter the ocean now that the great seaswallowers had arrived along their march from pole to pole, consuming all in their path except the largest rafts. The meadow of raft seedlings that had greeted the Windclans on arrival would soon be cleared.

At the Nucleus, a servo frisked him down, an octopod whose tentacles slithered around him; he repressed the impulse to fend them off with rei-gi. Another servo showed him to the Foreign Affairs sector. He recalled how angry he was; he still could not get over their treatment of Raincloud.

He recognized the Sub-Subguardian immediately, from her appearances on the news. In person, Verid looked even smaller than he had expected. Her eyebrows rose expressively. “My highest duty, to meet you at last,” she said, beckoning him to her office. “Your handwork is famous around Helicon; what a privilege to receive some.”

Blackbear did not know what to say. It was hard to talk back to a goddess, especially one of such authority.

“How is your project?” Verid asked. “Will we have fertile Elysians soon?”

Or ageless offworlders, he added to himself. “The Eyeless gene looks promising,” he admitted.

“Which is ...?”

“The gene controls egg development.”

“So in the future, females may be fertile while males are not. What a scandal! That should keep our logens busy.”

“We’re working on the male germ-line, too.”

Verid laughed. “Never mind, it doesn’t take much to keep logens arguing.”

“Well let them have their arguments,” he exclaimed suddenly. “It’s ‘duels to the death’ that worry me. My mate did not come here for any such thing.”

“I suppose not,” said Verid quietly. Her hands rested on the arms of her wooden chair, an unexpected reminder of home. “None of us came into the world expecting to find missiles pointed at us from twenty light-years away.”

Blackbear waved his hand impatiently. “You have to live with volcanoes. It doesn’t mean you have to jump into one.”

Verid’s lips wrinkled, as if restraining a laugh. “I should hope not! Blackbear, I know you think of your children, too. Do you know how many children I have? Over two thousand, from my decades as generen. They’re all grown, now; but somehow, children never fully leave their shon, don’t you think?”

It was true. He still remembered himself in his father’s arms, years after he had moved to Raincloud’s clan. “It’s not the same,” he told her. “Our clan is linked by blood. Besides, you can’t possibly raise two thousand children as you’d raise one. It sounds like the orphanage in Founders City.”

“We are orphans,” she observed. “Daughters and sons of Elysium; but those of us who remember Helix ... are orphans.”

Helix, the world that had shared destruction with lethal Torr. His scalp crawled. “Torr was a deathworld, taken over by machines. That can’t happen again.”

Suddenly her face went blank. “Not on Urulan,” she observed. “That, at least, is unlikely. But there are dangers worse ...” She smiled again. “What fools we must seem, to you. Yet Urulan is my daily business, just as volcanoes are yours—and I promise, we won’t jump in.”  The Sub-Subguardian was deceptively disarming.  “I have to take you out somewhere,” said Verid, “or it doesn’t count as ‘visiting.’ If we’re done with confidential matters—have you been to the concert hall?”

Blackbear resigned himself to yet another form of Elysian entertainment. Out in the street-tunnel, Verid in her long train of leafwings might have been just another citizen strolling to view the butterflies, except for her ever present octopod who followed never more than a meter behind.

The concert hall was a vast darkened interior of a sphere, something like a planetarium. Blackbear sat next to Verid, momentarily uneasy at being next to a goddess in the dark. But the auditorium was filling up, after all, and the security octopod dutifully planted itself several seats over. The scents and perfumes were enough to make one swoon.

A sound grew out of the darkness, imperceptible at first, deep enough to be felt in the bones. An earthquake, it seemed at first, but it changed, as new tones came in like distant bells. Then firesparks of light appeared, winking out almost before they had come. At last the sparks showered into the audience, who could actually toss them back into the darkness.

Other pieces followed, a feast for the eyes and ears. Holographic dancers sprang out, as spirited as those who danced for the Goddess; the figures almost seemed to glide into the audience and carry people away. For instrumental works, live players hung suspended overhead, fingering their flutes and strings. The texture of their music was familiar to Blackbear, though the particular instruments were foreign. The servo announcer noted with pride that Elysians had designed more than a hundred new electromechanical instruments throughout their history.

The final work started off somewhat like the first, with a low, barely perceptible line of sound. But this line traced a melody, as simple as the ones children sing. One by one, additional lines of melody added on, some of them actually sounding like voices singing, although in no language he knew, until the full complexity of it burst upon him. For some reason the incredible beauty of it left him very sad.

“What did they say that was?” he asked Verid as they were getting up to leave.

“It’s known as the Song of Joy, although it always sounds rather sad to me.”

“Elysians composed it?” He could imagine Alin coming up with something like that.

“It’s from old Torr.” Before Torr fell to the machines. Blackbear shuddered.

“The original instrumentation is a matter of much debate.” Verid’s eyebrows rose at him. “If you think Helicon is bad, in Anaeaon they’ll even hold logathlons over ancient music.”

“Well, personally I wish they’d all stick to music.”

At that Verid laughed very loudly, and a couple of heads turned. “You’ve taken on a ‘volcano’ yourself, I hear. Don’t worry, though, you’ll come through all right. Good luck with your hearing.”

Upon Blackbear’s return, Raincloud crowed with success over Sunflower’s training. Apparently the two-year-old had spent the entire day on and off the potty, with various enticements.

“All right, Sunny,” called Raincloud. “It’s time to perform. Look, Sunny: Doggie’s waiting at the potty. See? Hurry up and show Doggie how to do it.”

“Hurry up and show Doggie,” echoed Hawktalon.

The pet trainsweep, now scribbled all over with animals and stick figures, was stationed right next to the potty. Sure enough, Sunflower tiptoed over and strained to pull his pants down over his chubby legs. Then he sat upon the little seat, smiled broadly, and made a stream of water in the receptacle.

“He did it! Hooray!” shouted Hawktalon, clapping her hands.

“Very good,” said Raincloud. “House, please,” she called, “a teaspoon of fudge ice cream.”

“I show Doggie,” said Sunflower proudly, as Raincloud fetched him the spoonful of ice cream.

Blackbear sank into a chair and contemplated a day without diapers. “I think we might all have fudge sundaes.” Except for Doggie, he thought. The trainsweep jiggled happily, emitting a squeak now and then.

The hearing on the Fertility Project was held at the swallowtail garden outside Science Park. Raincloud had taken Hawktalon to the circus with Iras, and she would have taken Sunflower too, but Blackbear knew he would feel better having the boy with him. Now Sunflower was off playing with Doggie among the bushes full of caterpillars. The tiptoeing boy with his pet trainsweep had drawn nearly as full a crowd as the hearing.

Onyx had agreed to help Blackbear conduct the session; Tulle came too, of course, but declined to take part directly, lest it seem that Kal’s logathlon had obliged her. Draeg and Pirin had come, and Alin sat in the audience up front. Blackbear felt good to see him; Alin would not let him down. He and Alin were regular sparring partners now—with the holostage turned off.

Other citizens trickled in, after their customary five or ten minutes viewing the butterflies. Onyx pointed out several notable logens; then she stopped with an exclamation. “Look—it’s the Guardian Jerya Tenarishon!”

The Guardian was tall for an Elysian, and the butterflies on her talar were unusually striking, their pale blue wings marked with “eyespots.” A golden sash crossed her chest to her shoulder.

“She’s a logen, and now a Guardian,” Onyx added. “If the voters of Tenarion support her, someday she’ll rotate in as Prime.”

“No sign of the Killer yet,” remarked Draeg.

Blackbear smiled, but in fact he was disappointed. Perhaps Kal would arrive later on. He was determined to set that logen straight.

Onyx at last pounded the gavel to open the hearing. She held up a lightbox and read from a prepared text, describing her research on egg genes in considerable detail. It sounded much like one of Tulle’s grant proposals; and, judging by the file size displayed in the lightbox, it would take nearly as long to read.

Blackbear had chosen a different approach. After one last anxious glance at Sunflower, he explained in halting Elysian why he had traveled across the Fold to study ageless embryos. “My people begin to wither and lose their strength at an age when most of you are barely out of the shon. We have children, yes; but they all live with the sadness of watching us die. Why should we have to make this choice? Humans have always longed for children, and for long life, in the same breath.

“Our Clicker families deserve longevity, as surely as you do.” Blackbear carefully said “longevity,” not “immortality,” a word which touched a nerve for some reason. “We are a peaceful people,” he insisted, wishing that Kal were there to hear. “Our children don’t cause wars. We draw our essential needs from the Hills—we grow our own crops, harness our thermal springs. Yet the very earth preys on us; it’s a harsh land, one that no one else wants. Even if we don’t age, life will remain a challenge for us.” Unlike Elysium, where life’s main challenge seemed to be the subversion of Visiting Days.

“You are a peaceful people, too,” he concluded. “Why shouldn’t you as individuals rear children of your own, to carry on your own traits and character? Instead of leaving them all in a—” he tripped over the word “orphanage.”

“Preserve,” completed Onyx. “Like an animal preserve; that’s what the shon is, if you think about it.”

“In any case,” Blackbear continued, “no one would be forced to have children, just because it’s possible. Freedom of choice—isn’t that what your republic is about? Let us scientists do the science; then you, and your elected representatives, may choose to use that knowledge or not.” As he concluded, Blackbear was sweating. He had never given a speech before, much less one about freedom and democracy, but Alin had insisted that he put this last bit in.

There was polite applause.

In the audience, a citizen dressed in yellow butterflies stood up and began speaking rapidly. “Your science sounds most impressive, but as usual you foreigners persist in the most perverse notions about the shon. How else can you rear a child with a modern education, if not in the best professional shon? How do you manage?”

He blinked, and his lips parted. As he struggled to frame a response, a soft squeaking noise out in the garden drew his attention. It was Doggie, jiggling back and forth next to Sunflower. To his horror, he saw the boy methodically stuffing caterpillars into his mouth.

Excusing himself, Blackbear hurriedly got up to rescue the errant child and pull as much chewed caterpillar out of his mouth as possible. A sound scolding followed, under the gaze of a score of curious Elysians getting a first-hand lesson in parenting.

Miserable, he returned to his seat. But Onyx and Draeg were doing a creditable job explaining how they and their siblings had been raised  on  Valedon, including “modern education.”

Another man asked, “Why are you working only on egg genes for females?” It was the same question Verid had asked, half in jest. But this fellow was dead serious. “If females get to be fertile, and not males, they’ll all think they’re too good for Elysian men. You foreigners want to steal all our females; I know that’s what it is. Why should my tax dollars support that?”

“I’ll handle this one,” said Pirin. “There’s hardly any difference between female and male germ cells worth speaking of. They both start out the same, and most of the egg genes turn out to be sperm genes too. Besides, quibbling over sex differences is for foreigners, not civilized people.”

Blackbear put a hand on Draeg’s arm to restrain him.

At last the Guardian Jerya Tenarishon rose to speak, her sash glittering. “As scientists, your work is beyond reproach ...”

Draeg muttered in L’liite, “That’s because you don’t grasp a word of it.”

Frowning, Blackbear motioned him to hush.

“... but my question calls on you as human beings,” Jerya went on. “As humans on this planet, please tell me: What is a human being? In terms of your own work, fixing this gene or that—is a human no more than a machine to be tinkered with? A common servo, say a housekeeper, possesses twice as many neural connections as a human does neurons. Is there any kind of tinkering that you would forbid, on the grounds of humanity, that you would not forbid on a housekeeper?”

At this, Blackbear drew an ignominious blank. All he could think to say was “Humans worship the Goddess in Her temple,” an untranslatable answer that would hardly do here.

But Alin could no longer contain himself. “How could any of us not know, not feel the difference between a human and a machine? The name ‘Helicon’ originally meant, ‘home of the Muse,’” he said. “Humans are musical; humans feel and imagine, envision and re-vision. We can’t put a set value on this quality, any more than fish can put a value on water. No one would dare to tinker with what is human, in a human; in a servo, it’s not there to be tinkered with.”

Jerya smiled. “I hope you’re right, for all our sakes. But you scientists, now, would you never alter a gene, say, to make us more musical?”

Onyx threw up her hands, exasperated. “It’s not in my grant, that’s for sure! Show me the gene, and I’ll tell you if I’d alter it.”

From the audience Tulle arose to explain. “There is no such thing as a gene for musicality, or imagination. Genes can increase the range of hearing of the ear, and assure perfect pitch. Of course, we adjust our gene pool for such talents. But any genetic attempt to stimulate ‘imagination’ may well produce a psychotic. Other worlds have tried this; the Guard of Twelve has never considered supporting such foolishness.”

“Not today,” said Jerya. “We will never know what monsters we wrought in pursuit of long life, back before the records were lost.”

The hearing lasted all day until well into evening, when the lighting dimmed in the street tunnel. The subject wandered; the final hour was taken up by a citizen’s harangue over some border dispute. Sunflower ate enough treats from the servo trays so that he forgot about caterpillars, and he made use of an instant potty-chair which obligingly formed out of nanoplast at the public lavatory.

Tired and exasperated, Blackbear started to hoist the sleepy child up on his back. “I wan’ go home. Ho-ome,” the child wailed.

“Poor dear,” sighed Onyx, putting away her lightbox. She squeezed Sunflower’s leg affectionately between her fingerwebs.

Alin bowed. “Splendid job, Blackbear; you brought it off like a citizen. I’ll catch you next Visiting Day; I’m practicing a new armlock to try out on you.” He approached Tulle, clasping the fold of her train behind her back, the closest to an embrace ever seen in public.

Draeg seemed to have ended with the same high spirits he began; perhaps the breathmicrobes gave him extra stamina. “Hey, we showed those guys a thing or two! That Kal, he was too ashamed even to show up.”

“He should have come,” insisted Blackbear. “He’s got to be set straight. No one really answered his claims.”

Tulle shook her head. “Don’t bother. The more we can distance ourselves from controversy, the better.”

“But people listen to him. He nearly won the logathlon. Next, he’ll go to the Sharers.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Go tell him yourself,” urged Draeg.

“How?”

“Anyhow. You can locate any Elysian anytime, on the holostage.”

“You have to send Raincloud, first,” warned Onyx. “Or else it’s the worst insult.”

The idea, sending his goddess upon such an errand. “Why is it such an insult,” asked Blackbear, “to introduce yourself to someone you have business with?”

Alin turned to him. “It’s our duty as citizens to serve the pleasure of others; but what if one can’t, or won’t, in a given instance? One would lose face all the time; life would be intolerable. By asking indirectly, through a third party, we leave each other a way out.”

“Only servos,” added Tulle, “are called upon without introduction by a mate or a generen. To do otherwise is to tell someone he is no better than a servo.”

Blackbear thought this over, as the others departed. Why not let that Elysian feel like a servo.

With sudden decision, he went to the nearest holostage. “Can you please locate Citizen Kal Anaeashon?”

Kal was at home, his quarters in the upper sector of the first octant; an exclusive district, one unlikely to welcome a trainless foreigner with a crayoned trainsweep and a sleepy child. But Blackbear took the transit reticulum to Kal’s address. Sunflower, now asleep on his father’s back, was no trouble for now.

Out of the transit bubble, Blackbear explored the boulevard until he found the logen’s door.  It must be the one, the right number, with the leafwing sign. “House please announce a caller,” he ordered firmly.

The door simply opened. Taken aback, Blackbear paused at the newly molded frame of nanoplast.

A roomful of diffuse lighting met his eyes, and the sounds of music, similar to those he had heard at the concert hall. Mooncurved seating structures in pastel colors seemed to extend from the walls; there were few distinct pieces of furniture. Books lined the far wall, which curved up into the ceiling.

From one of the seats rose Kal. He wore his usual white robe, a plain talar belted at the waist. His gray hair and dark eyes were even more striking up close. “Doctor Windclan,” he said, with a slight bow. “How may I serve you?”

Blackbear blinked twice and took a deep breath. “Why did you say all those lies in public about my work? You dared not even confront me, at my own hearing. What do you know about ‘families’? Have you ever lived in one? Do you call the Hill people poor, just because we herd goats instead of servos? Do you think our community fails to support our own children? Aren’t you ashamed to refer such preposterous claims to the Sharer World Gathering?”

At this point, Sunflower stirred and lifted his head off Blackbear’s shoulder. “We home yet, Daddy?”

“Not yet, dear,” Blackbear muttered, his civil instinct reasserting itself. “This is Sunflower, my younger child,” he said, bringing him down from his back. Sunflower sleepily held out Wolfcub.

Kal bowed again. “Please come in. Excuse me, just a moment.” He disappeared in back, leaving Blackbear puzzled at the door. Upon returning, Kal presented Sunflower with what was unmistakably a stuffed teddy bear. “It was mine, in the shon,” he explained.

Sunflower embraced the teddy bear, took two steps inside, then lay down and curled up with it on the carpet.

Dazed with astonishment, Blackbear found himself entering the house, taking a furtive glance at the teddy bear. The stuffed bear must be ancient, perhaps twice the age of settlement on Bronze Sky.

A servo came out to the room, a bipedal upright like those that carried trays of delicacies in the butterfly gardens. This one carried no tray and wore no apron. Instead, it wore a sort of talar with bright geometric designs. More startling, it had a “face.” The smoothly rounded dome of a “head” had features, cartoonish images of eyes, nose, and mouth that flickered across the surface like a video projected from within.

“This is my ‘mate,’ Cassi Deathsister,” Kal explained. “It is my highest duty to introduce Blackbear and Sunflower Windclan.”

Blackbear nodded stiffly, at a loss for words.

“I’ve heard so much about you,” Cassi said, “and your excellent trainsweep. I thought I heard her call—is she there?”

He blinked quickly. “Yes, of course.” Doggie had waited tentatively at the doorstep, expecting to be left outside as usual at an Elysian home. Cassi walked to the door and let her in. The two of them went off to another room. As Blackbear watched, he wondered how the trainsweep had “called” her, for he had heard nothing.

Blackbear sank into the seat nearest Sunflower, now asleep on the floor. He refused a glass of something Kal offered. “She’s not really your ‘mate,’ is she?”

Kal laughed, and for a moment his face acquired a wonderful look which soon vanished again. “Not in the carnal sense, of course. My mate from Anaeaon died in the ocean, at a Sharer raft we were visiting, some hundred fifty years ago. He had just completed a new Elysian translation of The Web, and he was collecting clickfly records of other Sharer works previously untranslated. The Sharers called him the ‘Scribbler’; they store their own knowledge not in writing but in the chromosomes of clickflies. The clickflies then spin the words into webs for the reading. It’s quite beautiful.”

So Kal’s first mate had been a man, which seemed nearly as odd as having a servo.

“Why do you want to be immortal?”

Blackbear frowned, but after all, one frank question deserved another. “Nobody wants to age,” he said. “Age is a degenerative disease.”

“So you told us, today. But before, you have said you seek immortality. It’s not exactly the same thing.”

So Kal had followed Blackbear’s hearing, after all—and perhaps his practice sessions as well. What eavesdroppers these Elysians were. “Why didn’t you come today to find out,” he demanded, “instead of spying in secret?”

Kal shrugged slightly. “Foreigners taking on Helicon in public; a brave show, but for me to come seemed, well, unsporting.”

“To stay away was cowardly.”

“You’re right. I should have come.”

The admission did not satisfy him. “If you don’t want to live, that’s fine; but why prevent those who do?”

Kal considered this. “Blackbear, do you know the most serious crime an Elysian may commit?”

“Well ... murder, I’m sure.”

“No, we’ve sanatoria for that.”

Blackbear was silent. In the music from the room, a new voice entered, a hollow, resonant tone.

“Suicide.” Kal paused, then added, “By suicide, one removes oneself and condemns the rest of us to mourn for the next thousand years. A doctor who once assisted a suicide had to flee to hide with the Sharers. Those of us who long to die are despised far more than those who long to live forever.”

It occurred to Blackbear that the consequences of accident multiply as disease and age recede. Blackbear had lost his youngest brother just twenty years ago, and the thought still made him faint. Kal had mourned his lost mate for a century and a half.

“Are you sure you won’t take some water?” Kal was saying at his elbow.

Blackbear accepted a glass of water. He glanced at Sunflower, sound asleep with the teddy bear, quite still. “Sleeps like the dead,” his grandfather used to say.  As a doctor, Blackbear had seen enough dead children to know the difference.

“I know little of ‘families,’” Kal went on, “although yours I’m sure is rich and peaceful. How many children do you have now?”

Blackbear knew well enough why he asked; the size of Clicker families was of great interest to tourists and demographers. “Our Hills can support our growing population, for the next century at least.”

“And what then?”

That seemed far off to plan, but an Elysian would hardly think so. “Bronze Sky still has land to expand.”

“How much, do you know?”

Blackbear tried to envision Bronze Sky’s other continents. Nowhere else were such rich soil and tall mountains to be found. Besides, what if other people filled them up by then? “Someday we’ll terraform another new world.  That’s why the Fold founded Bronze Sky.”

“How long does it take to terraform a world?”

“Eighty years it took, for Bronze Sky.”

“Do you know any good candidates?”

He did not. Twenty years to find one, he thought. His forehead went cold for a moment; then he collected himself. This logen must have made a fake trap with figures.

“Families throughout history have never planned ahead,” Kal said, “until the crisis hits. Most families spend most of their time getting out of one crisis and into the next. Look at L’li with its crowded billions. Even on Valedon, a stable democracy, nine-tenths of the people remain at subsistence level.”

This was news to Blackbear, who knew only Valans like Onyx.

“The Elysian Republic is not for families,” Kal added. “The Republic was not founded on ‘freedom of choice,’ but on communal virtue.”

Blackbear glared at him accusingly. “Who uses up the Fold’s resources? Whose demand keeps the price of metals beyond reach? A single Elysian consumes a thousand times what one does on Bronze Sky—and your economy keeps growing. Twelve million citizens, you might as well be a world of twelve billion.”

“Exactly so.” Kal smiled as if delighted. “Try telling that to the Guard, let alone to our citizens. One’s courage fails, I admit. Now, will it help us to have fertile citizens bearing children every four years, on into immortality?”

Hardly. Blackbear felt his head swimming, and realized he was dead tired. Fortunately he could doze in the transit reticulum on his way back, for the servo voice would wake him up at the right stop. There was one more thing he had meant to ask, but its recollection eluded him.

Chapter 11

At a holostage in the Nucleus, Lem Inashon showed Raincloud how to place a secure call to Zheron’s legation. To her surprise, however, the call was refused. Lem retried it, with the proper codes, but got only the same message; the legation was taking no calls at all.

“How can they get away with that?” Raincloud wondered. “Their bill must be astronomical.”

“They’re in the diplomats’ sector,” Lem reminded her. But he too sounded puzzled. “It’s not like them; they love attention. Well, I’ll let Verid know.”

Raincloud felt much relieved for the moment, though disappointed. In the meantime, Verid was unavailable, her office inundated by delegates from Papilion complaining about the fruit fly problem. Their tourist trade was hurting badly, and they demanded some action with the Sharers, who still refused to discuss the matter. Raincloud was curious to know more, recalling her contacts with the fascinating ocean women at their embassy in Founders City. But the matter was outside her department.

She went with Blackbear to a doctor for her prenatal checkups. “You two behave,” she warned the children out in the waiting room, “or Doggie will call us if you don’t.”

Doctor Shrushliu was a resident foreigner of Sharer origin, as one could see from her ocean-born name and her webbed, nailless fingers. But she did have thumbnails, and her scalp had a thin frizzle of hair; perhaps a Valan grandfather, Raincloud guessed.

“First, the surface exam.” The doctor approached her with what looked like a plant with fine tendrils. But the tendrils moved and twined like animal parts. Raincloud drew back. “Relax, please,” said the doctor. “It’s a lifeshaped organism. It will painlessly withdraw a blood sample, to test your chemistry and to sequence the fetal chromosomes.”

“The fetal chromosomes?” Raincloud wondered.

Blackbear explained, “A small number of fetal cells enter your bloodstream.”

Raincloud looked at the tendrils winding around her arm. The Sharers used lifeshaped creatures for all their technology. A thought occurred to her. “The Sharer lifeshapers taught the first Heliconians. Why didn’t they make themselves ageless, long before the Heliconians did?”

“Everyone asks that,” muttered the doctor. “Ask Leresha the Coward, the wordweaver of Kshiri-el.” Doctor Shrushliu next led her to a circular chamber, like a sawed-off spiral stairwell. “You’ll have to empty your pockets,” the doctor warned. “Watches, light pens—anything that deflects the magnetic resonances.”

“It’s an imaging device,” said Blackbear, “based on the magnetic nuclear resonances of organic molecules. Remember, we used one in Founders City to see Sunflower.”

But this one threw up a three-dimensional image of the unborn child that expanded and moved, its eyes round and staring, its limbs twitching now and then. “What,” exclaimed Blackbear, “it’s like the simulator come alive.”

“Your little girl’s swimming just fine,” the doctor told her.

Raincloud smiled. It was good to be “carrying” one again; even at the Nucleus they couldn’t tell her to leave this one home.

“Fetal chromosome sequence is completed,” announced the doctor’s office.

Blackbear looked startled. “Already?”

“Twelve recessive lethals are present,” the voice added, “but none homozygous.”

“No problem. Just keep up the vitamins,” the doctor added, helping Raincloud out of the apparatus and into a seat. She crossed her arms on the desk. “Well, it’s my pleasure to share care with you. Nonetheless, I should warn you that delivering here will cost you ten times what it would outside. I could send you to Kshiri-el, where the lifeshaper will do it for nothing.”

Raincloud considered this. If only she could afford to take her family home to Tumbling Rock for the birth. There, the temple priestesses could prepare her and Blackbear for the time of labor, coaxing the little one out into their loving arms. And Raincloud would be in the proper realm for her dreams to reveal the infant’s name. For her firstborn, she had dreamed of an enormous hawk that swooped down to carry off a mountain goat in its outsized talons. An excellent omen for a firstborn daughter. Her son had inspired a field of golden flowers, taller than the tallest man, their faces broad as dinner plates, full of countless rich black seeds. But here in Helicon, what thing of nature could enter her dream?

She tried again to reach Zheron. Still she could not get through. “All calls rejected,” said the servo voice. Raincloud frowned in surprise. “For how long?” “All calls rejected for the past week. Interference—repairs—contact Sector Oh-three-one ...”

Lem shook his head. “Something is wrong. That servo’s barely making sense; it ought to speak in full sentences, for one thing.”

“Let’s go,” decided Raincloud. “Let’s see what’s up.”

“You think so?” asked Lem. “Without permission?”

“It’s a public facility, after all; the ‘cultural artifacts’ were still on view, remember? The worst they can do is refuse to see us.”

So they returned to the diplomats’ sector. The threshold of the legation seemed unnaturally quiet. “Door, open, please,” said Raincloud helpfully. Lem had his train already removed and folded up by his trainsweeps. He stood with his legs spread slightly, his arms deceptively relaxed at his sides.

No trace of a “door” could be seen in the downward sweep of the edifice, and nothing opened. Behind her, Raincloud’s trainsweeps fidgeted uncertainly.

Lem cleared his throat. “Open, Door, by Foreign Affairs Security Order Oh-oh-six-ten.”

For a moment nothing happened. Then at last a crack appeared in the nanoplast, opening with slow reluctance.

The hall was dark and empty. Exhibition panels stood empty and scattered, while odors of spice and decay hung in the air. Raincloud hurriedly unhitched her train for the trainsweeps, then she took a hesitant step inside.

“Great Helix,” exclaimed Lem. “The devils cut us off and jumped ship somehow, all without a trace.”

“Why? Whatever could have happened?” Raincloud wondered.

“Some imperial overlord reversed his orders, I’ll be bound.” Lem shook his head. “They gave us the slip, all right. Flors will be red in the face.”

Lord Zheron, his men at arms, their wives and servants—all gone. Raincloud shook her head in disbelief. She took a step or two within the deserted hall.

A spot of white caught her eye, across the floor. Warily she approached to examine it. It was a mask with a long wooden handle; the mask of a female, like the one worn by the goddess who had stepped out in front of her just before she left the legation. This one, however, was unadorned, perhaps the mask of a servant.

It came to her, then. She must pursue Urulan, not just for Rhun or the sims, but for their goddesses as well. How could she have forgotten? And now, ironically, the chance was lost after all. There was nothing she could do.

Chapter 12

Blackbear was back at the lab reviewing the results of his mutants. He had tried several permutations of the control sequence for Eyeless. One of them predicted germ cells that actually went through meiosis.

He showed Onyx first, before telling Tulle. “I chose this part of the DNA sequence because it binds control proteins during egg production in a normal embryo. I mutated the Elysian sequence to look more like the normal sequence. This one mutant had no ill effects in the simulator, and it induced production of ovogen in tissue culture.”

Onyx scanned the culture readings, the numbers floating above the holostage. Meanwhile Blackbear glanced over at Sunflower, who played with a light pen and a chunk of nanoplast in the corner.

“Wow, that looks good.” Onyx snapped her fingerwebs till they hummed. “Wait till Tulle sees this.”

The lab director was more cautious. “The problem with meiosis has more to do with the DNA modifications,” Tulle said. Longevity treatment modified the DNA so as to prevent chromosome crossover, which causes mutation and cancer in body cells but is needed for meiosis in germ cells. “Besides, our simulation is far from exact,” she warned. “As many as fifty percent of our parameters are untested assumptions: production levels of various embryonic proteins, timing of onset, stringency of control. Of course, we do better all the time; as the literature comes in, we put in the reported figures.”

Onyx said, “It’s remarkable how well the results hold up sometimes. The first heart gene Tulle found fifty years ago looked promising in the simulator. And sure enough, the live embryos turned out.”

Tulle nodded. “It cut the rate of defectives by half. All the shons use it, now. That discovery alone would keep the Guard supporting my research. But since then the data bank for our simulator has grown enormously; it’s a much better predictor now.”

Blackbear nodded thoughtfully. “Still, with so many assumptions, can the results really mean much?”

“Surprisingly yes,” Tulle assured him. “I think that real embryonic development allows more room for chance than our theorists admit.”

“But couldn’t you also miss out on mutations that do badly in the simulator but really would work in live development?”

“It’s possible,” Tulle admitted. “There are two or three cases in the literature. Most of the time, we have no way of knowing—until the simulator gets better.”

Onyx shrugged. “A bird in the hand, as they say. Blackbear, let’s talk to Pirin about starting a simbrid.”

Blackbear followed her down the hall, looking forward to testing a live embryo. Yet somehow he felt like a different person than he had been before the night he confronted Kal. The thought of a planet full of Elysians having ten children each, as Clickers did, was hard to clear from his head.

What am I doing here? he wondered suddenly. Just as quickly he drew himself back. He had learned long ago in Founders City to live amidst contradictions.

They passed the culture room where he heard Hawktalon stacking old culture dishes, then the whine of the waste disposal. “Where do our waste dishes end up?” he asked Onyx. “The cultures, the used reagents, all the stuff we dump?”

“Nothing is dumped in the ocean,” said Onyx. “The Sharer treaty forbids it.”

“So what becomes of it?”

“It all flows into the atom separator. The organic elements are recycled into food, clothing, and so on.”

He made a face. “Who would eat that?”

“You do,” said Onyx. “Unless you go out and fish off a raft, like Draeg does.”

“You mean—when I order a steak, it’s not real?” He felt slightly sick.

Onyx laughed. “You think they slaughter a cow and roast it in five minutes? How do you think the food window works?”

He had avoided thinking too hard.

“Most food comes out essentially the same as the original,” she insisted. “It’s programmed down to the molecular level. Really, would you want to eat a dead carcass, in the modern age?”

Draeg came down the hall toward them. “Hey, Brother, I nearly forgot. How’d you make out with the Killer? Made it home alive, I see.”

Blackbear muttered a guarded response, reluctant to discuss the enigmatic logen.

On his next Visiting Day, Blackbear asked the house to replay on the holostage part of Tulle’s logathlon. While Kal’s claims sounded infuriating as before, at least now he could figure out what the issue was.

Then he remembered what he had forgotten to ask. Kal had said the first Heliconians were taught “not to hope for children, but instead to live for beauty.” Whatever did that mean, Blackbear wondered. Surely the one need not exclude the other?

Without quite knowing why, he found himself asking the holostage to locate Kal again. But the logen’s image appeared in a butterfly garden, surrounded by half a dozen Elysian students with short, gaily colored trains. Blackbear quickly disconnected and put it out of his mind.

That afternoon Raincloud came home earlier than usual. “The Urulites are gone,” she burst out. “They’ve vanished, bag and baggage; no one knows how. Foreign Affairs is having a fit.”

“Too bad,” he murmured, trying to hide his considerable relief. “What did you expect of those barbarians?”

Raincloud did not answer. She absently fingered an object in her hand, a white mask on a stick.

Blackbear gave her a fierce hug. “It’s getting time for braids,” he reminded her.

The next morning, a Visiting Day, he redid the braids for Raincloud and Hawktalon, a biweekly labor of love. First, the old braids, perhaps fifty or so, had to be undone, catching all the little beads as he did so, and combed out thoroughly. Once liberated, the black crinkled hair spread out in all directions. Then the spiral pattern was marked out with comb and pins; for Raincloud, a bold cross-squares pattern that accented her high forehead. At last he could braid the strands, trying to keep the tension even while adding on the beads at consistent levels. He loved the scent of Raincloud’s hair; it was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy her for an hour, stealing a kiss on her neck now and then.

Hawktalon preferred the ram’s horn pattern, in which the braids spiraled out from the center. When hers were halfway done, the house called. “Security unit at entrance, Citizen.”

“I’ll handle it.” Raincloud went to the door, her fresh braids glistening, still moist like a newly emerged butterfly. From the doorway, Blackbear heard muttered voices, one a servo, he thought. Then she returned, frowning. “They want to replace our trainsweep.”

“What? Is one of yours defective?”

“No; Doggie.”

Hawktalon’s head jerked around, and the braid slipped from his grasp. “Doggie? Who wants Doggie?”

Goddess,” exclaimed Blackbear, “keep still, dear, please.” Doggie was crawling about Sunflower’s room at the moment, while the boy let out squeals and giggles. “Why should the factory replace it now?”

“It’s not the factory, dear,” said Raincloud. “It’s Public Safety.”

At the door stood a squat cubical servo with a hemispherical cap topped by a bright red light that revolved steadily. Behind the large servo stood a smaller bipedal one, carrying a shiny new trainsweep, identical to Doggie without decoration, as far as Blackbear could tell. “I must inform you, citizen,” spoke the square servo flatly, “that your trainsweep represents a possible danger to public safety. We are prepared to replace it now. The City of Helicon regrets any inconvenience, and congratulates you on receiving new merchandise in place of defective goods.”

That word “defective,” again. “The trainsweep serves us well enough,” said Blackbear.

“I told them that,” whispered Raincloud. “But they know something—they got some kind of data from that Valan servo-trainer.”

“The trainer who bought the rights to Doggie’s network? But she was delighted; she found nothing wrong with it.”

The square servo’s blinking light gave Blackbear a headache. “We are very thorough, Citizen. Innocent citizens have been strangled in their beds by faulty equipment.”

“Great Hills,” muttered Raincloud. “You can’t be serious.”

Blackbear agreed, yet he felt uneasy. The Elysian servos must know what they were talking about.

No!” shrieked Hawktalon. “You can’t take Doggie away, you can’t.” Her half-braided face glared up at him. “Or I’ll—I’ll never eat again!”

Sunflower ran out and clung to his father’s leg. “Doggie,” he wailed.

Above the din, the servo added, “Your replacement will be retrained at City expense.”

Could any servo be trained to act like Doggie?

Raincloud said, “We’re not interested. We appeal the ruling.”

“No appeal. The trainsweep goes today.”

Blackbear gave Raincloud a look of desperation. Sunflower released his leg and hurled himself against the offending servo; Blackbear caught him back just in time.

“I’ll run away from home!” yelled Hawktalon above the din of Sunflower’s sobs.

“Hush, child,” insisted Raincloud. She turned to the Safety servo. “Suppose we ship it offworld for a while?”

The Safety servo considered this. “If the item is sent completely outside Elysian jurisdiction, including satellites, that is your choice. In that case, however, you receive no replacement.”

“Doggie is irreplaceable,” stated Hawktalon.

“We’ll do that,” said Raincloud. “We’ll ship her to Bronze Sky.”

“Very well. You have twenty-four hours.” The two servos departed, hauling off their rejected trainsweep.

“If Doggie goes back to Bronze Sky,” Hawktalon asked more quietly, “can I go back, too?”

Sunflower was still carrying on at the top of his lungs.

“Hush, both of you,” said Raincloud. “To your rooms, now. Daddy and I need to talk.”

With the children settled away, Blackbear started to think. “How much will the freight cost?”

“On short notice? A thousand credits, at least.”

His heart sank. “We were just getting out from under.”

“I know,” she sighed, stroking his arm. “And the children love the thing so. ‘Strangled in bed,’ indeed.” She frowned. “I wonder ...”

“Couldn’t we just keep her out of sight for a while?”

“No, servos all have transmitters. The City can track her at all times.”

“Maybe out on a raft? The signal might not carry.”

Raincloud snapped her fingers. “That’s it! The Sharers are ‘completely outside Elysian jurisdiction’; legally, their territory is another world. If they’d take the machine, that is,” she added doubtfully. “You know how Sharers feel about machines.”

“Draeg will take her!” he exclaimed. “Of course—Draeg lives out on a raft. I’m sure he’ll help out; and then, the children can go and see her now and then.”

The holostage located Draeg in the lower west octant, at a bar that catered to foreigners. “Hullo, Brother,” called Draeg, sidling into the column of light. “The logens after you again?”

Blackbear tried as quickly as possible to explain. When he had finished, Draeg was silent for a moment.

“Let me get this straight,” said Draeg. “You want me to fly you this instant out to Kshiri-el, at the height of the seaswallowers, so that you can leave some dumb servo with the Sharers—the most machine-hating folk in the Fold?”

“Not this instant; this afternoon will do.”

“I’ll go,” corrected Raincloud. “I speak Sharer; I’ll explain to them.”

Draeg grinned. “See you then. Hope you’ve got a strong stomach.”

The shuttlecraft looked the same as the one with the chatty servo voice that had landed the Windclans on Helicon some four months before. The window gave a fine panoramic view of the descending afternoon sun shedding its glitter across the waves; it nearly blinded Raincloud’s eyes, accustomed to the dust-filtered blood-red of Bronze Sky.

“You’re a brave one,” Draeg commented from his buckled seat. “None of my sisters would’ve come out in your condition.”

Raincloud said nothing. If Blackbear had gone instead, he would have been honor-bound to bring along their firstborn daughter. Besides, back in earthquake country the home was the most dangerous place to be.

Her morning sickness was subsiding; even so, the heaving of the craft in strong wind gave her stomach a jolt. She nibbled continuously on corncrunch, one kernel at a time to make them last. At her side crouched Doggie, quivering miserably; odd, to imagine a machine feeling miserable. Next to her, Raincloud had brought a recharger, a brick of nanoplast with a solar membrane to keep the poor trainsweep “fed.”

“Going home early, aren’t we?” the voice of the shuttle asked Draeg. “Thought we’d spend another day out on the town, didn’t we?”

Draeg only grunted in response. This shuttle was even chattier than the last one. “All for a bloody servo, too,” he added to Raincloud. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

“You’ve never heard of a servo hurting anyone, have you?” she asked Draeg.

“There are accidents, now and then. The whole city structure is a servo, come to think of it. You can’t escape it—except the way I do.”

The floor began to drop perceptibly beneath her feet. Below, the ocean’s surface was rising up to meet her. Much of it was packed with green-brown raft seedlings, but here and there a great blue clearing appeared, as if the seedling growth had been scooped out. Within the nearest clearing, she could see the waves spiraling into a whirlpool at the center. Her hair stood on end. “Is that...”

“A seaswallower,” Draeg told her. “You’ll never see the beast itself, a great tube of flesh that can suck down the surface for two kilometers across. They migrate north this season, then back south six months from now.”

“Is Kshiri-el raft too big to be swallowed?”

“I hope so. Besides, grown rafts have other defenses—”

The whirlpool spluttered, and out of it erupted a fountain, like a geyser from a vent in the Hills. The geyser of white foam rose so high that it seemed to hang suspended before it flowed down again. Droplets of spray hit the window of the shuttlecraft, which took a sharp turn to distance itself from the eruption.

“Fleshborers!” exclaimed Draeg. “The monster must have swallowed a nest of fleshborers—eels that can strip you to the bone in minutes. Now it’s trying to disgorge them ...”

The geyser turned pink. Raincloud tried to watch dispassionately.

“... too late, I’m afraid,” Draeg continued. “Fleshborers nest beneath the outer branches of the raft, affording some protection from seaswallowers. Look. Kshiri-el lies just ahead.”

The center of the raft was a gently sloping hill of green, with a shallow crater-like hollow. Outward in all directions, dark trunks of raftwood extended just below the surface, putting up branches which in flowering season would be thronged with orange blossoms. A raft in full bloom made the centerpiece for many a travel poster.

The shuttlecraft landed firmly on the raft core. A strong odor of salt and seaweed blew in on the wind. Raincloud stepped out onto matted vegetation, ground cover with tiny interlocking branches, a sign of defense against aerial grazers. She looked upward. Long-snouted creatures slowly flapped their wings, circling overhead.

“Fanwings,” said Draeg. “They grow large enough to carry off an infant.”

Fish that had evolved wings. Looking back, Raincloud coaxed the reluctant trainsweep outdoors. Water and salt might not be good for a machine, she realized, but they had no choice.

A couple of children appeared, like violet flowers, their hairless round heads gleaming in the sun. They seemed to know Draeg well, for they ran to him, the littlest one waddling like a duck on her big webbed feet. They reached out to him with their long web-fingered hands, trying to climb onto him. Raincloud watched those hands, recalling how their foremothers had lifeshaped their own children, rather than terraform their planet.

Draeg laughed and went on, leading Raincloud across the raft to the building at the opposite end. It was a silkhouse, a tall multispired dwelling built of saddle-shaped panels of woven green and blue seasilk, fibers of a sea plant that grew off the raft. The silkhouse looked deceptively fragile; in fact, Raincloud knew, its twisted panels made for a sturdy, lightweight construction.

A Sharer adult came toward them from the direction of the sea, beads of moisture still clinging to her violet skin. Like the children, she wore no clothes. Unlike the children, her skin was not smooth. It was crisscrossed all over with a fine net of scars, from feet to fingertips, almost as if a patchwork quilt had pressed itself into her skin.

Raincloud could not help staring a little, for even the Sharer envoys to Bronze Sky had never looked like this. Sharers were known for healing, not scarification, but they liked to keep the scars of natural injury. What injury could have wrought this? She made herself look away, across the raft and sky, her eyes avoiding the piercing rays of sun. Sharers of Shora—here, before the fall of Torr, the forebears of this web-footed woman had defeated a Valan invasion. Their words filled The Web, and they had taught the Heliconians. Even today, they still met the universe on their own terms.

The Sharer carried a bucket of little snaillike shells. She put it down to embrace Draeg. “Share the day, Draeg,” she greeted him in her own tongue. “You’ve come back early.” Through her fingerwebs the yellow sunlight sparkled.

Two youngsters clamored for her attention, excitedly telling her how the great “flyer,” the shuttlecraft, had come to roost.

“Uh, yes, Leresha,” said Draeg. Sharer was a difficult language to learn, and it still gave him trouble. “This, uh, sister needs to share words with you. She is Raincloud Windclan, from the world ‘Bronze Sky.’”

Now it was the Sharer’s turn to stare. Raincloud grew cold, guessing what Leresha must think.

“‘Bronze Sky,’” Leresha spoke at last, like a drawn-out sigh. “The world that died.”

That was the Sharers’ opinion of terraforming. Raincloud wanted desperately to say something; it had happened two hundred years before her birth, after all.... But she knew from experience that silence was best. Around them the sea groaned unceasingly.

“Leresha the Coward,” the Sharer introduced herself at last, giving the selfname she must have chosen at her Gathering upon reaching maturity. Leresha was a wordweaver, Raincloud recalled, the one her doctor had mentioned. “May you swim calm seas,” Leresha said. “What help may we share with you?”

Raincloud spread her hands, remembering the custom. “Thank you, Coward. I have a great favor to share of you.” To ask a favor, and to offer one, were both “to share” one; all Sharer verbs worked both ways, equating subject and object. No wonder their speech made Draeg uncomfortable.

Raincloud pointed to the hapless trainsweep. “This animate device, though non-life, has shared good service with our children. The children call her ‘Doggie’; and see, they have even drawn pictures on her back, without harm.”

Leresha examined the crayoned carapace. “Your children served her well,” she agreed seriously. “They draw excellent figures.” Sharers never missed a chance to compliment one’s children.

“But now the Elysians want her to share parting with us,” Raincloud said. “They claim she is dangerous; that she might even hasten death.” The phrase “hasten death” was the Sharers’ concept of killing: since all death was inevitable, the “killer” could only hasten it. Raincloud added, “I do not understand the Elysians’ fear. They share fear of many things.”

Leresha considered this. Above her bald head a fist-sized insect hovered and settled on her scalp, its limbs splayed out. It generated loud rasping noises by scraping a large claw against a smaller one. A “clickfly,” Raincloud thought, one of the Sharers’ messenger insects. She herself would have called it a “rasp-fly,” for it did not sound at all like the clicking of her own language. After Leresha echoed the clickfly’s vocalization, it departed to alight upon an enormous web it had spun beside the silkhouse. The Sharer word for “web” also means “book.”

Leresha said to Raincloud, “One must remember, the Elysians are young.” Sharers considered everyone young, until they bore their first child.

“Elysians are young,” Raincloud agreed, “but they are our hosts. They have asked us to put Doggie away from Elysian territory.”

“They unspeak her?” Leresha asked. “Unspeaking” was a form of ostracism, the gravest Sharer punishment for intolerable behavior. “They unspeak her for a crime she has yet to commit?”

“That is so. That is why we asked Draeg to share keeping of her out here, on a Sharer raft. We provide her nourishment.” She explained the solar electric cell.

Draeg added nervously, “I know that Sharers share dislike with, uh, nonlife devices.”

“Some do,” said Leresha a little sharply. “Some nonlife devices share dislike with us; they stop moving and lie prostrate without a word to say, until a Valan comes to demand ‘payment.’” “Payment” was a borrowed Valan word, unknown in the Sharer tongue. “Never mind,” Leresha added. “We accept your favor,” she told Raincloud. “My raft Gathering has never refused a fugitive and never will. From a dead world, you bring us a ‘dead’ fugitive; so be it. We will share her keeping.”

“Thank you, sister,” said Raincloud, letting out her breath. “Protection of fugitives” was a sacred obligation for Sharers, which the Elysians respected by treaty. It took her by surprise that the Sharers would so easily accord the trainsweep human status. But this little trainsweep could scarcely harm anyone.

“Thank you,” replied Leresha. “Thank you, Raincloud, for sharing this fugitive to quicken our compassion.”

When Raincloud got home, the children pounced on her to tell them everything. Blackbear, too, was curious; he keenly regretted missing the chance to meet the ocean-dwelling goddesses of whom so much was said.

“The wordweaver thanked me, in the end,” Raincloud concluded. “Can you imagine? For ‘quickening her compassion.’”

Blackbear smiled in amazement. “Compassion ...” He remembered the day Alin tried to ask him.

The Web is all about compassion,” Raincloud explained. “I first took Rhun’s course to read it.” The Web was a dialogue between Sharers and a Valan exile, that took place before the founding of the Republic. Blackbear needed to read it.

“I wish I’d gone to see the raft too,” he sighed.

Having seen the seaswallowers, Raincloud was just as glad he had stayed home. “Two more weeks,” she promised. “Then the monsters will be gone, and we’ll all go out to see Doggie.”

The children cheered. Raincloud wished she felt the same, but a sense of dread would not leave her. What had happened to the Urulite legation? And Doggie—had she really done the right thing? The Sharers must know what they were doing. They had taken far more dangerous fugitives, during the ancient Valan invasion.

That night, alone with her at last, Blackbear watched Raincloud emerge from her clothes and smooth her new braids down over her breasts. He always liked to linger and prolong this time of evening, like the sun of Bronze Sky with its long ruddy twilight. “Raincloud,” he said suddenly. “Would you read to me ... from The Web?”

The Web

Part I

I was born Lady Cassiter, daughter of the High Commander who led the Valan assault on the Ocean Moon. I followed my stepmother into exile here, and joined the Gathering of Raia-el. Then I named myself Cassi the Deathsister, for my brother back on Valedon now wields my father’s weapons, and I myself had slain bears before he was out of diapers. All that is past, yet the past and future clasp each other like knots of the same web: Tear one strand between two, but countless others still hold. Who knows; Torr may yet destroy us, though no one has heard from Torr in twenty years.

This season, the seaswallowers took a raft from our cluster, and many dear sisters will swim no more. I mourned in whitetrance, inside the silkhouse with Merwen the Impatient and the rest of her family. In whitetrance, the present moment recedes, while one’s past and future appear to the mind as outstretching networks of possibility. A lover may appear, or perhaps a daughter yet unborn, and as always the swallowers and fleshborers lurk in the deep.

It occurred to me just then, how simple it would be to make an end now and leave my troubled past behind; with a single thought, my heart could be stilled, and I would pass forever through the Last Door. But then, just at the point of deciding, I remembered that Merwen sat nearby, and that if instead I turned from the Door and awoke, I might share the look of her eyes once more. So, for the sake of Merwen’s eyes, I awoke.

I lifted my hands, still white although the purple was seeping in as the breathmicrobes in my skin drew oxygen. My throat felt dry as raftwood; the trance must have lasted long. I turned my head, my neck muscles aching with stiffness. There I saw Merwen seated cross-legged on the floor, still completely white, almost translucent. The other sisters must have woken by now.

Another Sharer, awake and gleaming purple, came over to us and offered me a cup of water. It was Merwen’s daughter born of Usha, Weia Who Spits up Her Food. Weia, now a mother herself, had attained her unusual selfname as a three-year-old during the Great Deathhastening, the Valan assault which my father had led. At that time, even the littlest of Sharers had had to take selfnames and share their own protection, instead of waiting till they came of age.

“It’s about time,” Weia told me, whispering because Merwen was still in trance. “Everyone else is dancing and feasting late upon the water, even neglecting their fishing nets by day.” After the seaswallowers have passed comes the season of calm, when tiny luminescent sea creatures dance in the waves, making waterfire. Then the Sharer sisters hold a great festival for Shora the Mother of Ocean.

I swallowed some water. “How long?” my voice croaked.

“Three days you’ve been out. And Mothersister’s still out, trying to outlive her name as usual.” Her “mothersister” meant Merwen, whose lovesharer had carried Weia in the womb.

I tried to reply, but no words came out.

“She’s not as young as she used to be,” Weia added. “She’d better watch her health.”

“We dare not wake her,” I managed to say. The intrusion of an adult might trigger death.

“Of course not, but Oolioo will do. Oolioo? Where’ve you got to?” Weia called out of the silkhouse.

Oolioo sauntered inside, a slippery purple fish of a four-year-old. She was young enough to awaken her grandmother; for the cries of the child and the sick are always heard, even in whitetrance.

“Merwen will be angry, though,” I warned. “She’ll unspeak us for Shora knows how long.”

“Then we’ll offer words, instead of unspeech,” said Weia with a wink. “Just the right words.” Weia was right, for to Merwen, a wordweaver, words are as stone to the stonesick.

So Oolioo came and crossed her legs on the mat before her grandmother, who sat white as a statue of alabaster, lost in that inner country that no sister ever shares. Oolioo said carefully, “Grandmama, I have a question. What is this thing called ‘compassion’?”

At first nothing happened. Only the ocean waves crashed on, endlessly, at the raft’s edge outside the door of the silkhouse, where the rays of the morning sun came to rest. Then something flickered and stirred in Merwen’s body. Her breathing deepened, and the purple bloomed through her chest and her limbs, and up her neck, revealing the long pale scar that snaked up into her scalp. She took a deep breath, and she consented to sip from the cup which Weia hurriedly prompted Oolioo to offer. At last she replied to the child, in a voice that still croaked with dryness. “What is ... ‘compassion’? Tell me, Oolioo: Why do you gather whorlshells?”

“Whorlshells?” said Oolioo. “Why, to share the pretty things with my friends, of course, so they will like me better.”

“Excellent.” Merwen’s head turned slightly toward Weia. “They used to send you to me, once, youngest daughter. I see you shared that lesson well.”

Weia’s cheeks darkened, for of course Merwen saw through the trick.

“It’s always a delight,” Merwen added, “to share words with the very young. For they remind us of what we have been, and what part of us lives longest.”

Then Merwen turned to me. My face grew warm, and I fingered the whorlshell hanging from my neck, the sole adornment of my body. “What are you?” she asked. “What have you been, and what shall you become?”

“Whatever becomes me.” I swallowed and added lamely, “I, too, would share learning about compassion.”

Merwen nodded. “Where learning is shared, the amnion breaks, and hope is born.”

“Compassion is worthless,” said Weia mischievously, trying to provoke her mothersister. “That is what many sisters say, alone in their silkhouses, if not in the Gathering.”

A gleam of intensity filled Merwen’s eyes, and I knew then that the Impatient one had returned to us for good. “Do they say so,” she replied. “I wish they’d share this new thought with me. I am well known for my love of all that is new and evil.”

At this, a tear escaped my eye, for there were still those who blamed Merwen for having opened the door of ocean to Valans like myself, and all that followed. “You need water, and food, Merwen,” I reminded her. So she drank and ate, and then we three went out onto the raft to pursue the defense of compassion, the question Oolioo had bequeathed us, while she wandered behind gathering seaweed and fingersnails.

From the water’s edge came Merwen’s granddaughter Adeisha the Shortsighted, an apprentice lifeshaper. Adeisha actually had a Valan father, the first male ever to join a Gathering. The lifeshaper had wisely given her the webbed feet and fingers of her Sharer mother; but her thick black hair and her ingenuous upturned nose were the very image of her father. “Grandmother, and Aunt Weia, share the day,” Adeisha called out. “What do you think of these Heliconians who came to learnshare our lifeshaping?”

The Heliconian doctors had come to us from a distant star, shortly after they discovered the galactic Fold. They sought to learn the Sharer art by which children are conceived between women, the sick share healing, and the creatures of our ocean are bred to wondrous forms.

Adeisha added, “They plan to lifeshape a race whose individuals escape death.”

“They will fail,” Merwen replied as we walked upraft toward the central rim. “But they may fail most beautifully.”

“But our Gathering calls it scandalous! Our sisters won’t accept them, even now after they shared the swallower season with us.”

“The Gathering is right.”

“You surprise me, Grandmother,” said Adeisha. “Surely, in the long run, we need to share friendship with our worthy sisters from the stars. Shora knows, other worlds may send us sisters less worthy, and then we’ll be glad of friends.”

“You are right, too, Adeisha. And you, and the Heliconians, will prevail without my help. Just now, compassion needs my help. Will you join us? We need to show that compassion is not only the most right, but also the most desirable of all virtues.”

“If you can,” added Weia doubtfully.

“I hope you can, Grandmother,” said Adeisha. “When I hear sisters talk, at times I share doubts myself. So I’d like nothing better than to hear you defend compassion.”

“But first,” warned Weia, “you will hear it destroyed utterly. For of all faults a sister may own, surely ‘compassion’ is the worst.”

At her aunt’s remark Adeisha laughed, and even Merwen’s wrinkled eyes smiled. “What a selfname that would make,” said Adeisha, “the Compassionate One! The worst of faults! The Gathering would surely laugh that one down.”

“Perhaps not so soon as you think,” said Merwen. “And yet, you both astonish me; for Weia herself offered her life to save her sisters, at age three, while Adeisha devotes her lifework to the welfare of Sharers great and small. When I see that you both share these doubts, yet practice such goodness despite them, I admire your conduct all the more. I think, Adeisha, it is for you to begin by saying what compassion is.”

Adeisha replied with the earnest, clear-faced look of one whose sixteen years had been largely happy ones. “Compassion is to share oneself for another, without reserve. For example, the mother who gives her life for her child.”

“All at once?” Merwen asked.

“At once, or over a lifetime. Over a lifetime may be harder, in fact, as when one’s daughter suffers stonesickness or some other incurable malady.”

“Like deathhastening,” added Weia. I shuddered to think, for Weia, unlike Adeisha, had been born in time to remember my father’s deathhasteners.

Merwen nodded. “To share a lifetime with a sufferer may take even greater compassion than to die for one.”

Then I asked, “Isn’t the heart of compassion to share feeling with another?”

“Of course,” replied Adeisha, as if that part were the easiest. “But good deeds count more than good intentions.”

“Agreed,” said Merwen. “Now, does a Compassionate One live, or die, only for her own daughters?”

“Of course not,” said Weia. “That would be too simple.”

“She lives, or dies, for other mothers’ children,” Merwen agreed.

Weia, who had walked ahead of us, turned to face her. “A Compassionate One is fool enough to die for anyone, even a flock of deathhasteners. I would have done so, and nearly did.” As a three-year-old, Weia had been held hostage by the deathhasteners; the imprisoned children had refused food, demanding freedom. “So how do you justify such foolishness?” Weia asked. “Isn’t compassion a thing for three-year-olds? Shouldn’t one discard it along with one’s diapers?”

I turned to hide my face, thinking of the other Sharer children and mothers who had died that my father and I might return alive to Valedon.

“Perhaps so,” said Merwen. “But surely, before we discard a thing, we must know what it is, lest instead of diapers we discard a precious bundle of seasilk. What is this thing, this substance, that we call compassion? When water is shared, can we see the water?”

“Yes,” I said, more comfortable with things that are concrete. “We can feel the water, touch it, and taste it.”

“And likewise, when food is shared?”

“Of course.”

“And when a house panel is woven of seasilk, to rebuild our sister’s house after the storm, can we feel that, too?”

“We can hold it in our hands.”

“Is this what compassion consists of, sharing these palpable things?”

I hesitated, unsure now.

Weia said, “If so, then the nonsharer is surely more fortunate than the Compassionate One who shares with others. For if compassion consists of sharing what others need, then who knows one’s own needs better than one’s self? Better to serve oneself, not to share dependence.”

“What you are saying,” said Merwen, “is that the happiest person knows how to share the best things with herself. And how does she learn to do this?”

“Practice,” said Adeisha.

“Practice, starting from infancy,” said Merwen. “The child learns to share care with objects, such as her toys, then more important belongings, then a pet fanwing perhaps, and then with other Sharers. And lastly, she learns to share care with herself.”

Adeisha added, “And with her future selves. By contrast, the nonsharer often seems to act as if her future self is a different person from the present, and therefore fails to serve herself well.”

“Exactly,” said Merwen. “By learning compassion, one learns to care for oneself and future selves. She who shares compassion with a fingersnail, even perhaps with the smallest grain of sand, may be best able to care for herself. Perhaps the Compassionate One is really the most selfish one.”

Weia frowned. “You’re laughing at me.”

“Not in the least, Weia,” said Merwen. “Perhaps we may yet rescue your argument. Does compassion really consist of water, food, and seasilk, these palpable things?”

“No,” exclaimed Adeisha. “No, compassion itself is ... is more ‘central’ than all those things.” Her Sharer word “central” carried some of the same sense as the Valan word “higher.”

“What is it then?” Merwen asked.

There was no sound but the lapping of waves upon the distant outspreading branches of the raft. We had climbed to the central rim, a ring-shaped hill, within whose hollow the Gathering would meet. The Gathering was the assembly of all adults of the raft, all those who had named themselves. Each decision—where to steer the raft, how many children to conceive, how much seasilk to trade with other rafts—required the consent of all present, without exception.

The wind was brisk and carried the sweet scent of raftblossoms from the sea. We seated ourselves upon the mossy bank of the rim, as if to join an invisible Gathering.

Merwen said at last, “When we don’t know the answer to something, we guess. We make a good guess, and then we test it out to see what happens.”

Weia eyed her curiously. “Just what do you guess?”

“A good guess would be that compassion includes a kind of spirit, not just palpable things. Suppose compassion relates to spirit as, say, the property of warmth relates to palpable things. Now, we know much about the nature of warmth.”

“Yes,” I said. “Warmth radiates from all palpable things. This is a law of physics.”

“From all physical things? Even human bodies?”

“All of our bodies. Even Valans, who bundle themselves up in ‘clothes,’ can never completely escape the loss of warmth.”

“A childish custom,” muttered Weia, expressing the common Sharer opinion of body clothing. “Only babies need wrapping up.”

“So warmth is a precious thing,” Merwen continued, “which some conserve by ‘clothes.’ How else do we conserve warmth?”

“Blankets,” suggested Weia. “At nighttime, we huddle together within blankets.”

Adeisha added thoughtfully, “When two of us huddle together, we exchange warmth which would otherwise be lost. Together we lose less than when we stand apart.”

“Yes,” I said eagerly, “even animals know this.” I remembered the litter of puppies in my father’s house; they would scrap and bite each other all day, only to curl up in a heap at nightfall.

“Animals eat each other,” Weia pointed out.

“But animals need warmth as much as food,” said Adeisha. “Even the infant needs her mother’s closeness more than her milk. And the infant is central within us all.”

“Then perhaps,” Merwen went on, “the spirit of compassion is, like warmth, something we radiate helplessly, something which one of us alone can only lose, not conserve. Perhaps for that reason, we desire to share compassion, as naturally as we desire our bodies to come together. Compassion is loving everyone and eating no one.”

I looked away. Weia looked down at her webbed toes, silent. I sat so close to Merwen that I could have touched her, but for some reason I dared not.

From across the rim Oolioo shrieked, chasing after a legfish. Weia got up and headed off to fetch her, stroking her back affectionately. The caught legfish lay between the girl’s arms, its eyes staring up foolishly while its tail frantically slapped against her chest.

Adeisha was frowning after Weia, trying to work something out. “‘Loving everyone’? I think Aunt Weia gave up too easily. If compassion means the total sharing of self, then isn’t the death-seeker the happiest? Isn’t she who feeds herself to a starworm the most fortunate creature in the ocean? Were all of us so ‘fortunate,’ would we not perish in one generation?”

“You are right,” said Merwen. “If one gives oneself up totally, one has nothing left to give. This sounds like a poor sort of compassion.”

“And yet,” said Adeisha, “at the right moment, it may be the most central act of caring possible. How do we resolve this paradox?”

“The answer can’t be found in any one person. Compassion exists within the Web. The Web connects all living things in relations of sharing: when one strand pulls, the next holds. The Web balances all our needs and commitments, to share with others and with ourselves. Each small link strengthens the Web as a whole; just so, an act of compassion anywhere breeds caring everywhere.”

This “Web” was a difficult concept, as alien to my Valan background as the webbing between Sharer fingers and toes. The image Sharers have in mind is that of the web spun by a clickfly, who can be taught to write messages in the intricate pattern. The Web of Shora encompasses all living organisms and their needs for each other, including the community of Sharers. Sharer children are taught that their central aim in life is to strengthen the Web.

Merwen turned away and half rose from her seat, as if to depart. But I could not contain myself. “Merwen—what compassion is there in this ‘Web’? Creatures eat and are eaten. In the end, Shora Herself devours us all.”

Merwen turned, and her gaze burned into mine. “Just so. Why else did you and I sit in whitetrance for three days?”

“Well then,” said Adeisha, “it’s plain that to know compassion better, and to answer my aunt’s argument, we first need to know the Web better. Don’t you agree, Aunt Weia?” she added, as Weia returned, having sent Oolioo off for a swim.

“The Web is a tale for children,” Weia rejoined, mischievous again.

“On the contrary,” warned Merwen, “the Web is a tale only for those who can dive deepest, to the very floor of ocean, without going mad. Take care, dear sisters; I share fear with you.”

“We’re in good hands with you,” Adeisha insisted. “Come, let’s weave in our minds a vision of the true Web, the Web as it could be if all of us understood it better. Then within this Web at last we will see compassion at work.”

II

THE CHILD

Chapter 1

At the Nucleus, Flors was briefing the Prime Guardian on the day’s crises. Verid tried to relax beneath the arpeggio of butterflies, but she could not.

The L’liites had just defaulted on their oldest loan at Bank Helicon, with fifty years left of a hundred-year term. The debt crisis sent shock waves through the economies of several worlds, including Valedon, where factories canceled orders and sent home thousands of workers. Iras was working overtime to renegotiate, but that was only a first step. Everyone expected the Guard to do something; but what? Could Verid tell L’li how to run their planet of twenty billion people? How much of their borrowed cash had been siphoned off into private accounts, back to Elysian bankers who turned a blind eye?

Meanwhile, the Guardian Papilishon continued to press for action on the fruit flies. And, of course, Zheron’s precipitous departure had dashed her hopes of progress with Urulan, while Subguardian Flors was here crowing about it. Hyen listened calmly, with no sign of worry about the growing scandal over his not-so-private life.

Verid took a deep breath and willed herself to relax. She imagined herself a Sharer entering whitetrance to recall her past and envision her future.

She had defended the Sharers once, as a logen. She had argued their right to harbor an Elysian fugitive, a citizen who had broken Elysium’s highest law. A doctor, he had assisted a man to die: a man of nine centuries, old even by Elysian standards, with a rare form of brain degeneration. Was it murder, or compassion? She still debated herself.

Flors at last wound up his postmortem on the Urulites. “As you see, Guardian,” he told Hyen, “the so-called Cultural Legation has solved our problem for us by withdrawing from the planet. No longer will we be troubled by the questionable representatives of that inhuman regime.”

Verid sighed. Flors was worse than unmusical; he was tone-deaf. A precious opportunity had been lost. Why had Zheron taken off, and why without warning? she had asked herself a hundred times. Of course, had he let her know, then Foreign Affairs would have had to know, and documents and explanations would have detained him. But why the haste?

Perhaps the Imperator had died. His succession would be uncertain, for the First Queen had no sons. That would draw Zheron home.

“Questionable, indeed,” murmured Hyen. “A pity their departure could not have been ... foreseen.”

“No harm was done,” Flors went on quickly, anxious to escape embarrassment over the failure of his electronic spies. “We’d scarcely have bothered to stop them, anyway. They took passage in a ship of L’liite registry, actually owned by a Bronze Skyan rice merchant.” Flors eyed his Sub-Subguardian coldly. “The involvement of your Bronze Skyan translator now appears doubly embarrassing. I forbid any further interference of that foreigner in Urulite affairs.”

Hyen waved his fingers. “I’m sure Verid knows how to assign her support staff. I suppose you’ve got a statement ready?”

Flors read a statement for the press, his usual catalog of condemnation, essentially saying good riddance.

“Let’s add,” said Verid, “that of course in the future, we’ll always reconsider any reasonable attempt to reopen dialogue.”

“No,” insisted Flors. “There was no official dialogue in the first place. The Urulites themselves would only ridicule our softness. Haven’t you learned that by now?”

Hyen said quietly, “Flors is right this time. They abused our trust.”

Verid acquiesced in silence. Flors then took up the L’liite debt crisis. Everyone wanted action of one sort or another: freeze L’liite assets in Elysium, or reschedule the loans and add development aid; bail out the stricken banks, or let them fail, serve them right for cheating on their Visiting Days. Whatever was done in the end would outrage half the planet.

Her eye caught sight of a caterpillar, spinning its chrysalis. The shiny chrysalis reminded her of Iras, her golden-haired lover. She had warned Iras, decades before, not to trust the new regime in L’li, even in the name of compassion. Small loans to farmers with babies on their backs were a good risk; big loans to young planetary regimes were not. But Iras was more daring, and what did Verid love her for, if not for that.

“It’s still too early for us to step in,” Hyen concluded, as Verid figured he would. “Let the banks do what they can.”

Flors nodded and left for a conference with Guardians Tenarishon, Inashon, and Catashon.

“Well,” Hyen told Verid, “I’d still like to see the Azure Throne one day.”

Verid took a deep breath. She wished Hyen had chosen a Subguardian he respected better, instead of one whom he undermined behind his back. But Hyen, who had a keen eye for talent, distrusted it too near his own power. “Where do you think Bronze Sky will settle its own overflowing billions, a hundred years from now, if not Urulan’s open spaces?” she asked. “The Sharers won’t let us terraform another world, and if we don’t, who will? No one, until there’s a crisis and billions starve. The Fold can’t afford to sit by and watch Urulan poison its own planet with thermonuclear weapons.”

“No,” said Hyen. “But if Urulan is as desperate as you say, then they’ll find their way back here soon enough.”

“How can they, with all our doors shut?”

Hyen shrugged. “The shonlings might hold another craft fair.”

Later, in her walnut-paneled office at the Nucleus, Verid apologized to Raincloud for Lord Zheron’s untimely defection. “Don’t think your efforts were wasted, though,” Verid told her. “The Urulites will have to come back some day, In the meantime, the experience we’ve gained will serve us well.”

Raincloud said nothing, The Urulite missile threat remained, although it had dropped out of the news. As for herself, in her present condition she would do well to avoid duels to the death. She wondered what Zheron would think if he knew she had conceived. An Urulite newborn was not though to exist as a person until its father held it under water and brought it out—if he chose to do so.  And yet, she regretted her lost adventure. She took a breath. “What’s next?”

“Imperial broadcasts have dried up, too,” Verid observed. “There’s a fair bit of work in the archives. Beyond that, we’re shorthanded in the L’liite area just now. How’d you like to assist the entourage of the L’liite trade minister?”

Raincloud raised an eyebrow. Elysian “Foreign Affairs,” she realized, was a small operation compared to the Bronze Skyan State Department. In some ways, Elysium felt like a small town; all their citizens put together added up to but a tenth the population of Founders City. “I understand the current situation with L’li is ... complex,” said Raincloud. “What will happen to Iras’s new loan?”

Verid’s face went blank. “We can’t make exceptions. It’s up to Bank Helicon to reschedule, if they choose.”

“Well, at least a world doesn’t go bankrupt.”

“No,” said Verid. “Though perhaps some should. What do you think should be done?”

She had no answer, except that nobody ought to incur debts outside her clan. “How did the bank ever get into this mess?”

“Big investment brings big returns. Elysians habitually underestimate the volatility of foreign investment.”

Greed, in other words. “You blame too much of your troubles on foreigners. A thousand years ought to teach you better.”

“Exactly,” Verid agreed enthusiastically. “That is what I keep telling Iras. If the poorer worlds want help to remodel their climates and build solar power satellites, why not pay a contractor to do it, instead of a cash handout?”

“That’s patronizing,” said Raincloud. “I don’t mean to absolve the L’liites, though. No one should take on obligations they can’t meet.”

Verid thought this over and laced her fingers. “I suppose the L’liites see it as rich against poor. Why in the universe do we have so much, and they so little? Why should they repay anything?”

This last was too much for Raincloud. “You all think only of money, L’liites and Elysians both,” she burst out. “There are things worth more than money.  Love and honor.”

“And music and butterflies,” added Verid. “And of course,” she added thoughtfully, “one’s reputation.”

Reputation was a matter of concern in the Nucleus these days—in particular, the reputation of the Prime Guardian. Hyen’s sex life was a major scandal, even on the respected Anaeaon channel. Raincloud could not figure out why; he sounded no more disreputable than the average Elysian.

She met the L’liites that afternoon at a reception at their embassy. The trade delegates were nothing like what she expected. Instead of their native dress, which resembled the wide-bottomed trousers that Clickers wore, these L’liites wore talars of gleaming seasilk hung with enough ropes of gems to shame even a Valan gold merchant. Their banquet tables displayed whole roast lambs and suckling pigs, and overflowed with the rarest of fruits and delicacies unknown to her. They hardly looked like paupers showing up for a handout.

The delegates spoke fluent Valan most of the time, and Elysian when appropriate, descending to L’liite only for the purpose of confidential disclosures. One attaché drew Raincloud aside. “Surely you understand us, Sister,” he murmured discreetly. “Your own people chose to leave our world for the same reasons that many still seek to leave today. Our world is too small—what can we do?”

“It’s regrettable,” Raincloud replied cautiously.

“When will our Fold partners see reason? When will another planet be terraformed?”

She took a breath. “Shora is not the place for such discussion.”

The man touched her arm and drew closer. “Tell your ‘guardians’ this: If no new worlds are available, desperate millions will seek out the old ones.” He drew away, leaving Raincloud speechless at this threat.

The next day, despite the bank crisis, Iras met Raincloud at the circus as planned. Her curls radiated like the Bronze Skyan sun at dawn; what stunning braids they would make. “You should be flattered,” Iras told her. “Nowadays, I keep so few Visiting Days, I hardly see anyone.” As she spoke, a servo came down the aisle, not one of the food vendors, but a security octopod. Iras hastily slipped her holocube into a deep pocket of her train.

“A reminder, Citizen,” called the octopod, flexing its tentacles emphatically. “Three more days to catch up on visitation before your accounts close.”

“Yes, I know,” Iras muttered, looking off toward the parade of elephants entering the ring.

“Goddess,” exclaimed Raincloud. “What will they do to you?”

“They’ll freeze all my accounts; even my house won’t obey me anymore. Then I’ll be off to the Palace of Rest.” Iras spoke from experience, Raincloud suspected. As the octopod moved off, a bell tone emanated from the pocket in Iras’s folded up train. She pulled out the holocube and listened to the gesticulating figure within its depths. “I told you, I can’t touch anything to do with terraforming,” Iras replied to the cube. “White holes for geomorphic development, yes; even interstellar missiles, we can channel the funds. But not terraforming.”

“Valan missiles?” Raincloud could not help asking, as Iras put away the cube. “How do the Sharers let you get away with that?”

“Did I say a word about missiles? You didn’t hear it, did you?” Iras responded carelessly. “It’s channeled through intermediaries on several planets. If the Sharers know, they look the other way. After all, Urulan threatens them, too.”

That did not sound at all like Sharer logic, Raincloud thought.

“You’re so understanding about my interruptions,” Iras added apologetically. “Foreigners know the meaning of hard work.”

This annoyed her. “Work isn’t everything. Only a mole grubs for food all day. People need to take time up in the highest Hills, to commune with the Dark One.”

Before Iras could reply, an elephant appeared in the audience behind her, raising its trunk with a shriek; a real live elephant, smell and all. Raincloud gaped in astonishment, as the elephant parade turned into a magic act. There were swirling lights, and men with their heads cut off, and a goddess who levitated. It was a good show, as good as the foreign acrobats, yet somehow, after four months in Helicon, Raincloud had grown rather used to “magic.”

“What do you think of our Prime’s latest scandal?” Iras asked. “Hyen may actually lose the next election.”

Raincloud shook her head in puzzlement. “I thought Elysians scarcely cared what their menfolk were up to.”

“It’s not what he does that counts. He’s done that for years. He collects his lovers, sometimes twenty in one night. He likes different positions, sometimes one partner below and one on top, both at once. It’s quite the thing, I’m told, in the night spots of the Seventh Octant.”

“I thought you said Elysians were not acrobats.”

Iras laughed. “Not in public—that’s the point. Hyen is into gaming, too; whoever lost had to do it in public. Hyen lost.”

Raincloud frowned in puzzlement. “In public?”

“On a holostage.”

“Oh, I see.” She shook her head in disgust.

“You must have seen it; it’s been all over the news.”

“No, I haven’t. I’ve heard only cryptic references.”

“Your house,” Iras said. “You’re registered as a shon, aren’t you?”

“Yes, of course.” Hence Hawktalon’s complaint at her lost privileges.

“Then all your reception is screened and censored.”

“Thank goodness,” Raincloud said with a shudder. But then she wondered, what else might be censored?

“Elysians are claustrophobic; we all have to deal with each other for a thousand years. A reputation lost is irretrievable. Unless you get ‘rehabilitated.’” Iras’s face, lined with strain, belied her light words.

Raincloud said, “All those Visiting Days—you must be fined to death, on top of everything.” And the “Palace of Rest”; what was that like? An Elysian prison?

“The L’liites have cost us more than all the fines,” said Iras. “I’m waiting to hear from them right now on a rescheduling plan. As for my division, we’ll take pay cuts. I expect I’ll have to sell one of my homes in Letheon.” Iras accepted a drink and a flower cake from a black-clothed waiter servo. The show was at intermission, and the noise had abated. The departed elephant had deposited something real on the floor; floor cleaners were collecting the mess to scuttle off with it, to cycle into a fresh batch of flower cakes somewhere.

Raincloud thought of the L’liite reception the day before, and the trade delegate’s threat, which of course she could not disclose. “Why is L’li in such bad shape?” Raincloud wondered. “All those trillions invested over the last century, and still their people starve.”

“Their regime is vastly corrupt.”

“If you know that, then why hand them cash?”

Iras shrugged. Then her face changed; she shivered suddenly and crossed her arms, pulling at her talar. “It’s cold in here,” she said abruptly. “Let’s go out.”

Raincloud followed, perplexed, for she felt no cold. Outside, in the street-tunnel, the crablike cleaners probed every crack of the passage, whose surface inclined lazily up into the facades of music halls and butterfly pavilions. The scent of passionflowers drifted over. Raincloud unfolded her own train as the trainsweeps followed Iras into the stream of Elysians, their trains extending and swaying like giant ribbons. Iras shivered again and she walked briskly, her train stretching at the trainsweeps which hurried to catch up with her.

“It’s a chance we took,” Iras said at last. Raincloud walked beside her, hoping the trains would not tangle. “At the time, L’li had a progressive young leader who promised drastic reforms. But she died, of course. You foreigners have an annoying habit of dying off and leaving affairs in the worst hands. Nothing personal.”

That was true, Raincloud thought. She often despaired of the city folk elected to govern Bronze Sky; the good ones seemed to fall the quickest. “But just a few weeks ago, you were concluding yet another deal with L’li.”

Iras turned off the street-tunnel into a garden of heliconians, orange and black ones, flitting about the tangle of passionflowers. She stopped to meditate. Raincloud liked best to watch the bristly caterpillars, devouring the leaves as a newborn devoured milk.

“We know we’ll never see those loans paid,” Iras said abruptly. “We pity those people.”

Raincloud’s eyes widened. She watched Iras curiously.

“It horrifies us, to—” Iras broke off, breathing quickly. “To be what we are, in a universe of others whose lives are brutish and short. The L’liites especially, whose children die of the most gruesome diseases. How could we not pity them?”

She absorbed this with uneasy sympathy. Verid had blamed the crisis on greed. But compassion mixed with self-deceit was little better.

At dinner, Sunflower took apart his grilled cheese. Picking out the cheese, he arranged the two pieces of bread next to each other so their corners touched.

“Eat, Sunny, please,” Blackbear insisted.

Raincloud frowned at the child, though the sight of her youngest always melted her heart. “Sunny, your food is not a toy.”

“It’s not real food, either,” said Hawktalon.

She eyed her daughter intently.

“She’s been like that all day,” Blackbear muttered. “She walked up to the servos and told them they weren’t real people. She even told the embryo simulator.”

Such impertinence could only be dealt with after dinner. Raincloud looked at Sunflower again.

“It’s a bu’fly,” Sunflower explained, fingering the bread slices.

“Well, eat your butterfly, please.”

“She’ll cry.”

Hawktalon laughed. “She’ll cry! The butterfly’ll cry if he eats her, Mum!”

“You’re excused from dinner,” Raincloud told her daughter. “Please undo your hair for your father to rebraid tonight.”

Hawktalon shook her frizzled braids about her face. “I won’t have them done. Nobody else has to have braids.”

Silence fell. Blackbear stared in amazement.

“You’re a firstborn Clicker goddess,” Raincloud stated flatly. “You’d be a laughingstock without braids.”

“No other shonlings wear them,” Hawktalon said. “Why can’t I go live in the shon?”

“You’re not a shonling.”

“Sure I am. This is a shon.”

“Then you’re already in one.” Her firstborn was getting to match her at linguistics, Raincloud thought.

“I mean a real shon. Like the one Lorl keeps telling me about.”

Blackbear put in, “I told you to stay away from Lorl.”

“Only orphans live away from their families,” Raincloud told her.

“But the shon is a family, too. The shon has professional parents—they’ve been parents for hundreds of years, and they really know all about it.”

Silence again. Blackbear gave Raincloud a look as painful as she felt. Was this the child she had nursed for three years and carried on her back for six?

“The shon isn’t what you think,” Raincloud warned. “It’s not toys and ice cream all day.”

“Of course not, Mother. It’s like school all day. They learn to build spaceships and computers, and write music dramas, and practice citizenship. They study foreign languages and have multicultural experiences.”

Sunflower was rubbing his eyes, and his face wrinkled. “Doggie,” he moaned unsteadily, as if he had just remembered. “I want Dog-gie!”

Blackbear sighed. “He’s going to cry over the trainsweep. He still does this two or three times a day.”

Hawktalon said, “I miss Doggie, too.”

“How would you like to go visit Doggie, next Visiting Day?” Raincloud offered.

The seven-year-old jumped up from her seat, her hands shoving the table forward. “Visit Doggie! Hurray!”

“Doggie, Doggie, Doggie!” said Sunflower.

“Very well, we’ll visit Doggie—if you get your braids done and behave like a goddess from now on.”

That night, Raincloud lay on her back in bed, while Blackbear gently stroked the taut skin of her belly. The light was dim and golden; they had experimented with the house to get it just right.

“Do you feel it yet?” he asked.

She paused, trying to feel, then shook her head. “It’s not yet quickened.” The quickening in the fifth month, when one actually felt the little one moving inside for the first time, was the point when one announced one’s condition to the High Priestess and the clan. Before quickening, the fetus had no existence, and the woman who carried it might put an end to it at will. After it quickened, one was honor-bound to inform the High Priestess.

For Raincloud it made no difference, as she wanted her third child badly, even hungrily; she longed to breathe the scent of its soft hair, as its head rested beneath her chin. She could hardly wait to write the High Priestess, and her mother and father, and Nightstorm.

Blackbear stroked her belly. His mushroom rose and expanded gently. Then he looked up, suddenly alert. “I forgot something. A letter came for you.”

“A letter? From Bronze Sky?”

“It’s got the seal of the Goddess.”

The High Priestess. Why would the High Priestess write her? Such news could only be very good—or very bad. She felt cold and shivered involuntarily.

Blackbear had already risen to fetch the letter. Sure enough, the parchment was sealed with the waxen imprint of the Dark One, her upper arms rising to the dance, her middle arms clenching the snake, her lower arms cradling the child. The Snake’s Day was past; the Day of the Child came next, a few months off. She would miss the Day of the Child in Tumbling Rock this year, she thought with a pang. She pried off the seal.

From the High Priestess of the Seventh Hill of the Dark Goddess, to Raincloud, daughter of Windrising, granddaughter of Wolf in the Wind. Raincloud’s grandmother Wolf in the Wind had given the Windclan its name; it numbered seven daughters and twenty-one granddaughters. The octogenarian Wolf in the Wind still convened the clan council, but her daughters took care of daily affairs. Upon the Clanmother’s death, the daughters would move out to found their own clans.

Whereas the Dark One in her wisdom has made our clan daughter Falcon Soaring unable to conceive of her own ... She frowned, remembering. Her cousin Falcon Soaring had lost her ovaries after infection from a botched cyst removal. Not all the mountain doctors were as competent as Blackbear.

The Dark Goddess since time before memory has called all our daughters the daughters of one mother. So, as our daughter seeks a child, let one of our sisters embrace this honor.

The parchment shook in her hand. Honor—a gift of life.

“What is it?” Blackbear insisted.

“They’ve given up on Falcon Soaring,” she told him quietly. “She’s been declared infertile, and they’re calling for someone to donate a child.” That was the custom, when a goddess could not bear one of her own. Usually another clan daughter, a sister or cousin, provided.

“But—but why didn’t they send her to the clinic at Founders?” Blackbear exclaimed. “I told her, at Founders they can fix that.”

“Really?”

“Sure. They generate pseudoovarian tissue in culture, using her own undifferentiated stem cells. Then the egg’s fertilized in vitro, and there you go.”

“I see.” She thought a moment. “If it’s that easy, how come the Elysians don’t do it?”

He paused. “That’s a good question. I think their longevity treatment scrambles the methylation of their chromosomes.” Both egg and sperm DNA have special methylation patterns which the embryo needs. “Anyway, that’s no problem for Falcon Soaring.”

Confused feelings filled her. If she were home, Raincloud would surely have offered her own child. She wished she could, and yet felt overwhelming relief that she could not, and shame at her own relief. “We must do something,” she said at last. “They have to send her to the clinic.”

“Of course,” agreed Blackbear. “That’s what she wants, a child of her own. I’ll line her up with the best specialist at Founders.”

Raincloud thought it over. She could do better than offer her own child—she could help her cousin have one of her own. “The thing is, how to bring it up? You know how touchy Clanmother gets after she’s made a decision.” She nodded. “When mine quickens, I’ll call Mother to announce it. Then I’ll talk to her about Falcon Soaring.”

Chapter 2

The polished obsidian Goddess faced them as they knelt for their morning devotions. Blackbear eyed the snake transfixed forever between Her jaws, and the child suckling in her lower arms. Your child is My child, She seemed to say.

Raincloud’s features glowed with the flush of pregnancy, as she began the morning prayer. “Blessed are Your great arms that made the serpent, Your full breasts that feed all children of creation, and Your burning fingers that lift up our spirit in the dance of joy.”

Hawktalon’s new braids gleamed, but she slouched forward and pouted. Usually she was so eager to be grown-up, but today Blackbear had to nudge her. She straightened her back and told the Goddess, “You’re not a real person, either.”

Raincloud yanked the child to her feet; Hawktalon gave a sharp cry. “For shame,” exclaimed Raincloud. “You’ll spend the whole day in your room.”

“Then I’ll never come out,” Hawktalon called as she was hauled off, attempting the “Tumbling Rock” without success. “I’ll tell the nanoplast never to make a door again!”

Blackbear cradled Sunflower on his lap. “Shall I stay home with her?” he asked as Raincloud returned.

“Perhaps,” she said doubtfully. “She might like that too well. Let her miss rei-gi practice, then take her to the lab as usual. That ought to be punishment enough.”

In the transit vesicle Hawktalon was withdrawn, unresponsive to her father’s friendly remarks. But she behaved herself otherwise. Sunflower avidly watched the news on the holostage. A derelict L’liite starship had just made an emergency landing on Valedon. It held nearly a thousand illegal immigrants, half of them children with staring eyes and skeletal faces. To ship them back to L’li would be expensive, perhaps impossible politically.

As the vesicle fused and their seats dissolved away, Blackbear tightened his grip on Sunflower’s plump little hand. How fortunate he was that his ancestors went to Bronze Sky.

His grip was not tight enough to keep the toe-walking child from falling twice in the street, scraping his knee, then his elbow. But today Sunflower refused to be carried, having taken it into his head to imitate big sister. Thank goodness the “pavement” was so antiseptic, thought Blackbear. With relief he ascended the ramp to Science Park.

The lobby display of Caenorhabditis writhed overhead as always, its transparent body tracing elegant curves. He paused, recalling Raincloud’s question about cultured ovaries. He ought to have answered better, he thought; he should know precisely why the aging treatment prevented adult cells from dedifferentiation into pseudo-germ cells. He had to finish reading those references.

At the Fertility Lab Blackbear’s Eyeless gene had been transferred into simbrid embryos under Pirin’s direction. With luck, Tulle predicted, they would develop normally and make ovaries with something close to normal egg cells. The simian hybrids developed at the pace of human embryos, so it would take weeks or months to see the results. In the meantime, Onyx taught him to mutate Eyeless to several variants which ultimately might develop even better.

Since the L’liite ship landed on Valedon, the mood in the lab was tense. Draeg now refused to speak to the Elysian students, whose disdainful looks betrayed a prejudice that disturbed Blackbear. Only Onyx and Blackbear managed to keep on good terms with everyone.

During the simulator’s frequent downtimes, Draeg held forth at length about the crisis. “Do you know what it’s like to grow up in a cubic mile of metal without tap water?” he told Blackbear, who was trying to transfer tissue cultures while keeping an eye on Sunflower. “You drink from the sewer. My mother’s first three babies died of the runs. My two younger sisters were sold to a brothel to buy a dowry for the eldest. My brother and sister both have a permanent stoop from working the looms since age three—that same damned textile firm whose trade rep took Raincloud to dinner.”

Blackbear swallowed and nodded. The nanoplastic tissue culture vessels, with their billion miniature intelligent circuits, came in and out of focus before his eyes.

“What do you think will happen if our world accepts the austerity package Bank Helicon wants? Just what do you expect?” Draeg shouted in Blackbear’s ear.

Screams emanated from the next room. “No, no,” wailed Sunflower.

“Hawktalon, leave him alone,” Blackbear called out. “Finish those inoculations.”

“It’s not me, Daddy,” her voice insisted. “The nanoplast is swallowing him.”

Blackbear jumped up from his seat; a culture vessel fell and clattered on the floor. He raced out in time to see Sunflower engulfed in an amorphous shell of nanoplast, slowly folding up around him. Sunflower shrieked as his arm got stuck in the rising stuff.

“No, don’t!” Onyx turned from her embryo scans and caught Blackbear’s arm. He twisted her off and reached for the child. He pulled at the nanoplast, but it molded to his fingers and caught him fast. He wrenched his hand out; the stuff pulled apart, and some blobs of nanoplast fell to the floor, oozing across. His hand reddened as the pressure of the stuff constricted his fingers.

Onyx pointed a small oblong control unit at the nanoplast engulfing Sunflower. A red homing beam hit the stuff; it stiffened and stopped moving. “Now you can pry it off,” Onyx shouted above Sunflower’s howls. She aimed the control unit at Blackbear’s hand, then at the other blobs wandering across the floor.

The nanoplast splintered with a sickening crunch as Blackbear pried it from his hand and pulled the shell apart from around Sunflower. Most of the other lab members had wandered in by now, intrigued by the sight of a child in a fullblown fit of screaming. Tulle’s capuchin scampered off to inspect a crawling blob of nanoplast that Onyx had missed.

“I was just experimenting,” explained Hawktalon. “I pushed two culture vessels together real hard, and they stuck. They oozed together like soap bubbles. So then I stuck on another one, just one or maybe two. I told him not to sit on it.”

Back at the house Blackbear awoke from a nap, all too brief, when Raincloud got home from the Nucleus. His lingering sense of dread meant he must have dreamed of his lost brother again. He pulled himself up on the bed, tired and depressed. “Make us a creamed goat stew please,” he mumbled to the house. “With one dish of golden fritillaries.” The last was an Elysian concoction his goddess had grown partial to, a vague mixture of fruit and fish flavors that came shaped in orange butterfly wings.

Raincloud kissed him on the forehead. He watched her rounded belly, thinking of the thumb-sized creature with its moon-like eyes that dwelt inside.

“And how’s my big girl, and my little sweetie?” she asked, picking up Sunflower to kiss him on the head.

“Hawk is in her room, adding fractions and reading colonial history.” At least the girl had been, under strict orders, the last he had looked. “Your ‘little sweetie’ nearly didn’t make it home.” He recounted Sunflower’s mishap with big sister.

Raincloud listened gravely. “This is no place for a firstborn goddess. If we were home, I could send her ‘cross clan for a week; her aunt Ashcloud would put the fear of the Dark One into her.”

“Better yet, to the temple. Let her learn to kiss the snake.”

“Hawktalon would make a good High Priestess,” said Raincloud thoughtfully. “It takes a knack for people, as well as a nerve for snakes. Another year or two, and she can apprentice—if she dares. Well, for now there’s one more option.”

“What do you mean?”

“She said she wants to go to the shon.”

What? You can’t be serious.”

“I’ve looked into it,” said Raincloud. “The generen says Hawk wouldn’t have to live there full time; she could go as a day student, as often as we like.”

Blackbear slumped back on the bed; too tired to think anymore. A book slipped on the shelf; by now the bedroom walls overflowed with books that Raincloud had printed out to stock her own library. From the kitchen came warm odors, and the house announced, “Your dinner, Citizens.” He knew he would find the food on the table and the places set. The children would be spoiled wretched.

“Pull my pants up, Daddy,” called Sunflower, having used the potty. There was still something a parent was good for.

Raincloud added, as he rose to help Sunflower, “It’s either that or send her to the Sharers with Doggie.”

He did not reply, as Hawktalon approached the dinner table.

Raincloud sat at the table, admiring the exotic meal. “By the way, dear, you’ll never guess who met me for lunch today.”

“Not Iras?” Giving Sunflower a pat on the bottom, he lifted the child way overhead to “fly like a spaceship.” Then he put him down and watched him run off on tiptoe to wash his hands.

“No, for some reason Iras doesn’t answer. It was that logen of yours, Kal Anaeashon.”

Blackbear stopped still. For a moment he felt as if an electric shock had passed through him. The memory of that strange encounter came back. Then he shook himself, puzzled.

“Do sit down,” Raincloud insisted.

“Kal Anaeashon? Whatever did he want?”

“Why, he said you’d met his ‘mate,’ so he returned the compliment! Raincloud grinned at him. “A good excuse as any. He’s not at all forward, I must say. Nor bad looking, with his silver hair. He’d make a good second consort,” she teased.

Blackbear laughed. “Kal’s taste is for men.”

“Really.” Raincloud thought this over. “That explains it, then. Most Elysians who want to meet me have one thing in mind.”

Whatever was Kal up to, he wondered.

“He asked after you,” she added, “and after Sunflower, and even Doggie. Can you imagine, an Elysian taking notice of a trainsweep?”

“Doggie, Doggie!” chanted the two children, banging their forks on the table. Hawktalon crowed, “We’re visiting Doggie tomorrow!”

“Yes,” Raincloud assured her, “we’re visiting Doggie tomorrow. You’d better be on your best behavior, or the fleshborers will get you.”

In the wake of the seaswallowers, the ocean below was blue after all, as sparkling blue as in the video brochure. The blue horizon was so sharp against the pale blue sky that it looked like a paper cutout. Blackbear had never seen such a clear horizon, in all his years on Bronze Sky.

“Are we there yet?” demanded Sunflower for the fourth or fifth time, strapped into his seat in the shuttlecraft.

Hawktalon held her video map up to her face; Blackbear hoped this was not a sign of nearsightedness, which would mean delicate surgery. “No, we just passed Loryu-el raft. Kshiri-el is the next one in this raft cluster. Sharer rafts always come in clusters of eight,” she added importantly.

Raincloud looked intently out the window, while Draeg seemed lost in his thoughts. Raincloud had visited Draeg’s home before, but for Blackbear it would be the first time.

“Prepare for landing on Kshiri-el, Citizens,” came the cheerful servo voice.

The raft below looked like a cut-off tree trunk whose roots still radiated outward and stretched below the surface. The “surface,” though, was ocean, and the “roots” were branches dense with green foliage. The central area of the raft was covered with other sorts of plants, commensal or parasitic to some degree. Matted leaflets, like ground pine, squished underfoot. Fanwings circled above, emitting sighing cries; one of them swooped and snatched up a legfish from the raft.

Blackbear welcomed the fresh air in his lungs and followed Draeg across the raft, holding firm onto Sunflower’s ankles as the child straddled his back; safer than the shoulders, as the child had grown. Hawktalon skipped along happily. “You’re sure the trainsweep’s all right?” he asked anxiously, dreading disappointment for them.

“It’s had royal treatment,” Draeg assured him. “Sharers don’t often get fugitives to look after nowadays.”

A silkhouse rose before them, its blue and green saddle-shaped panels fitted together into concave spires. At raft-level, one of the panels suddenly dilated, like a mouth opening in surprise. Two Sharers emerged, completely purple and hairless, and held out their webbed hands. Blackbear knew Sharers did not wear clothes, but the sight of these unclothed goddesses made him less uncomfortable than he expected.

“Leresha the Coward, and her lovesharer Eerea the Lazy,” Raincloud whispered. Lovesharers could make daughters together, with the help of the lifeshaper to fuse the ova and provide the “paternal” methylation patterns.

From out of the silkhouse “mouth” crept the cherished trainsweep.

“Doggie!” Hawktalon got down and embraced her, the six legs flexing beneath her weight. Doggie seemed to have fared well enough in exile. The crayon drawings on her back had faded in the sun.

“Down, Daddy!” insisted Sunflower. The child hurried off, then shrieked, having caught his toe in the matted greenery and fallen on his face. Raincloud picked him up, saying, “You’ve got to stop toe-walking, dear.”

Leresha spoke with Draeg and Raincloud in a melodious voice, a language which seemed all vowels.

“Did Doggie cause any trouble? Ask her, Raincloud,” said Blackbear.

Raincloud spoke in the same melodious language. The Sharer gestured toward the trainsweep and the children. “Doggie’s no trouble, Leresha says,” Raincloud told him. “But Sunflower’s knee looks bad. We ought to fix it up.”

Sunflower was bleeding profusely at the knee, for the scab had scraped open at the same place where he was hurt the day before. Alarmed, Blackbear hurried over to take a look. “Could we wash it off?” No servo medic was about to come, he realized. He reached for gauze and antiseptic from his own pack.

“Leresha says we can take him below to the lifeshaper,” Raincloud explained.

Leresha added, in Elysian, “He will fix his bruise by the lifeshaper.”

Blackbear eyed the Sharer more closely; and for a moment, what he saw made him forget the bleeding child.

Leresha’s skin was not smooth as amethyst, like that of her lovesharer. She was patterned all over with fibrous scars, crisscrossing her body, as if every patch of skin had been transplanted. What trauma could have happened to her that even the lifeshapers could not fix—or would not?

“The lifeshaper will fix him,” Raincloud agreed with a firm look at Blackbear. “Come along, Doggie,” she added, knowing the child would not be parted from the trainsweep. Blackbear was less than eager to try out novel medical treatment on his own son. It was only a scrape, he told himself; still, he would watch that “lifeshaper” like a hawk. Reluctantly he followed Raincloud into the silkhouse.

The interior was filled with an otherworldly bluish light, filtered from the upper panels of seasilk. The lower panels were covered with brilliant yellow swirls of moss or fungus, a non-Torran organism that combined fungal metabolism with mosslike leaves and rhizoids. Sharers “painted” their walls with it, in patterns of striking beauty.

Leresha led everyone down a hole into the woody interior of the raft. The lifeshaper appeared, a smooth-skinned purple goddess introduced as Yshri the Foolish One. Blackbear sat Sunflower on his lap, and Doggie crept right up to his leg to get a better look. What an odd little machine.

The lifeshaper bathed the child’s knee in a clear liquid. Then she applied a plant stem which twisted suddenly like a snake. Blackbear felt his hair stand on end, and he nearly snatched the child away.

“It’s all right,” Raincloud whispered. “Who do you think taught the Elysians all they know?”

From the twisting stem, a pink substance oozed out and worked its way smoothly into the scraped knee. “There, Daddy,” said Sunflower. “It’s all better now.”

Anesthetic, he thought. But more—something odd was happening to the knee. Instead of clotting over, the edges of wound had merged seamlessly with the pink substance, as if already growing into new skin. He watched, hardly believing his eyes.

“Thanks,” he told Yshri, imagining what marvels he could learn here. “I’d like to see your facilities some time.” Egg fusion, limb regeneration, eco-engineering—it was hard to imagine these things in such a seemingly primitive setting.

“I would gladly share learning with you,” said the lifeshaper, “in another week’s time. Today my apprentices are all out celebrating.”

Draeg added, “It’s the end of the swallower season. Just wait till tonight when the waterfire comes out!”

“We have to catch the shuttle,” warned Raincloud.

“Oh, all right. I’ll give you brothers a quick tour, anyhow,” Draeg insisted. “There’s the flying squid mating pool, and the shockwraith’s lair; and there’s even a war memorial, from the ‘Great Deathhastening’...”

Draeg and the Windclans formed a ragged parade across the raft, Sunflower riding triumphantly atop the trainsweep. Blackbear groaned inwardly, foreseeing the squalls when it came time to depart. “If only we could just take the servo home,” he muttered to Raincloud.

“Leresha asked me about that,” Raincloud told him. “She needs to know why Doggie is here, why the trainsweep was cast out.”

“Well, if she finds out she can tell us.”

Draeg paused. “Look out there,” he pointed toward the horizon. “See that little raft offshoot way out?”

A small patch of gray-green could be seen, like a smudge on the horizon.

“A raft branch dips underwater,” Draeg explained, “then comes up to sprout an offshoot raft, a kind of vegetative propagation. Now out there on that offshoot raft sits a Sharer unspoken; that’s the worst punishment a Sharer can get from the Gathering.”

“What was her crime?” Blackbear asked.

“She stole fish from another raft’s nets. She’s ‘sick,’ the others say. They bring her food, of course.”

Raincloud observed, “It works the other way, too. A Sharer can unspeak the whole Gathering.”

“Of course; if you’re mad at your Gathering, you can go sit out there until they mend their ways. A queer lot, these Sharers.”

Hawktalon pulled at the flare of her mother’s trousers. “Doggie’s trying to tell us something, Mother.”

Raincloud stopped. “Really? How do you know?”

“Listen.”

Raincloud crouched down beside the trainsweep and listened. Blackbear drew nearer, but all he could hear was the murmuring ocean.

“She squeaks,” Raincloud observed. “It’s a called ‘sonic byproduct.’”

“Well,” said Hawktalon, “she does that whenever she wants something.”

Blackbear regarded his daughter in puzzlement.

“Come, Brothers,” Draeg called back to them. He turned, leading them inward away from the ocean, up a gentle rise to the rim of the central hollow. “The war memorial lies here.” His foot extended and scraped at an old slab of raftwood, which someone must have cut out and set here long ago. Its surface was scorched black. “It’s from Raia-el, a raft long dead. They don’t last more than a couple of hundred years. On this spot, during the Great Deathhastening, the Valan invaders burned six Sharers in whitetrance; literally burned them down.”

Blackbear shook his head. “It’s hard to believe. The Valans are ... so modern.”

“They’ve had a thousand years to grow up. Every people is born in blood.”

“The Clickers weren’t,” objected Blackbear. “Our founders drew together under the Dark One, but we hurt no one.”

Draeg laughed. “What about your own planet—terraformed! How do you know what alien souls were lost?”

“Nonsense,” said Blackbear uneasily. “They tested for sentient life.” Any finding of nonhuman sentient intelligence had to be reported to the Secretary of the Free Fold. None had ever been found.

Raincloud said, “The Sharers were not born in blood.”

“That may be true. But who protects the Sharers today? Who fends off the hungry hordes?”

Blackbear looked up, and his gaze swept the surroundings: the endless razor-sharp horizon, the stately fanwings sailing across the sky, an occasional flying squid rocketing out of the water. “It’s so beautiful,” he exclaimed. “If all people could only see such beauty, there would be an end to wars.”

Draeg shook his head. “You can’t eat scenery. There will always be war on the poor.”

“Now Draeg,” said Raincloud. “You can’t blame all your world’s troubles on everyone else. It’s your own government that’s corrupt and mismanaged.”

Had anyone else spoken thus, Blackbear thought, they would have ended up in the dirt. But Draeg had a rare respect for Raincloud. He regarded her with dignity, then replied. “Do you suppose the sewer drinkers have much say in things? Whose cash keeps all the corrupt ones in power? Wouldn’t your Elysian Guardians support even the Urulite Imperator, if he served their interests?”

No one answered. A brisk wind picked up, sighing over the raft. The trainsweep crept in between the children, listening.

Continued in Issue 29