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.
“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
Raincloud lay back and stretched like a cat, watching Blackbear out of half-closed eyelids. She reached over, stroking the mushroom that she longed to devour. Sometimes he seemed so beautiful, almost blinding to look at.
As she relaxed on the bed, something thumped faintly beneath the skin of her belly. She put her hand to it, but it was still too small to palpate. Then the thumping came again, rhythmically. The little one must be having hiccups.
“Anyone home?” asked Blackbear.
“She’s quickened.” Raincloud smiled and squeezed his hand. This was always the best part of pregnancy, when the sickness was gone and the little one started playing about. A good thing I’m not a Sharer, she thought. Sharers conceived only once or twice in a lifetime, and then only by consent of the Gathering.
Blackbear watched her with a beatific smile. “We’re so lucky,” he murmured.
Sadness swept over her again, to think of Falcon Soaring, and the call of the High Priestess, which she herself might have answered. But, she told herself, Falcon Soaring certainly did not want Raincloud’s child; she wanted one of her own. “I’ll talk to Mother tomorrow,” she told Blackbear. “I’ll tell her that our child’s quickened. And I’ll tell her about the clinic in Founders City.”
The interstellar call would not be free of charge, like the Elysian holostage. It would cost more than a day’s pay. It required a special link through sub-folds into the Fold that connected the star systems outside space-time, and then her mother in Tumbling Rock would have to ride her horse to Caldera Station. Nevertheless, Raincloud had to see her mother in person to share the wonderful news. If only she could hug her, too.
When the call came in, the family hovered excitedly around the holostage. And then, unbelievably, there was her mother Windrising.
The sight of her mother’s face came as a shock at first; the wrinkles, which Raincloud somehow had not recalled, after months among satin complexions. Still, the face was the very image of Hawktalon, who resembled her grandmother the more the years passed. And her shoulders flexed, strong as ever, beneath her immaculate black braids; Raincloud’s father was a master at braiding.
“Raincloud!” she cried. Her trousers swished and the fiery embroidery swirled around as she took a step forward. “You nightfallen goddess—What sort of show is this? I can see you all around, large as life, but you’re nothing but a ghost.”
Windrising had a yearling granddaughter tucked under one arm. The little dark face stared wide-eyed at the holostage, a stuffed bird hanging by its beak from her fist. “Congratulations on Hawktalon’s birthday, too. I’ve added two dams to her herd.”
“Couldn’t you send them here?” begged Hawktalon. “We could keep them out on a raft—”
“That’s enough, dear,” interrupted Raincloud.
“And how’s my little owlet?” inquired Windrising.
Sunflower hid behind his father, suddenly shy.
“Nightstorm misses you to pieces, Raincloud. You were always her favorite sister.”
“I know, Mother.”
“I’ve saved the best of our apples for you. Your nieces have kept the goats well, including the newborn kids. One got hoof rot, but we had it treated right off and the barn cleaned out. The geyser is running strong, and the pipes are in shape; your stock kept plenty warm all winter. You should see the mudfield since the last eruption: all orange around the center, turning reddish purple around the edges now.” The algae grew up fast after the geyser erupted, different species at different temperatures, changing as the mud cooled.
“Mother, I’ve got news for you: My child’s quickened.”
“So I guessed. Congratulations! May you have ten more.”
“Thank you.” She imagined what that would be like, ten little ones climbing over Blackbear.
“Lynxtail’s quickened, too, her fifth.” Lynxtail was Windrising’s second-born daughter.
“That’s wonderful. But you know, mother ...” For some reason, what had seemed straightforward in her mind before was now all confused. “Falcon Soaring wants her own child, too, doesn’t she? It can be done in Founders City; Blackbear knows the clinic.” ,
Windrising waved an impatient hand. “What do men know? The clan looked into all that. She can’t be cured.”
Raincloud was taken aback a moment. “She can’t be cured, exactly, but her—her own cells can make a child that’s hers and her consort’s. Blackbear knows; he’s a doctor, Mother.”
“Of course he is. The best, too; I’ve heard nothing but complaints since he left.”
Raincloud winced at this double-edged compliment. Blackbear had tried hard to arrange a good replacement for his patients.
“Well, you can talk to the High Priestess. If you were home, you might have helped Falcon Soaring yourself. I know it’s hard, but you would earn the darkest honor.”
Raincloud’s head rang for a moment, and she had to catch herself. The very thought of parting with her unborn was devastating. She felt ashamed, then angry at her mother for refusing to listen. But after all, what could she expect? Outside Elysium, most people distrusted gene engineering; and Clickers could be downright superstitious.
“How is that strange planet, out there in the stars? I hope those immortal folk, they all treat you like a goddess,” her mother added.
“Yes, Mother. Shora is a lovely planet.”
“Don’t suppose you like it too much, now?” She was probably thinking of her “lost” daughter, Running Wolf, and feared for adventuresome Raincloud.
“Don’t worry,” Raincloud assured her with a smile. “I’m not about to settle in this bauble they call Helicon.”
Her mother laughed. “I should say not. Will you be home for the Day of the Child?”
“Sorry, no,” she replied. They could not possibly afford the fare.
“You’ll miss Straight Oak’s wedding, too. It’s always sad to give a son away, but the Graymountainclan is just a half day’s journey.”
The house interposed, “Your five minutes are up. Extension will cost another hundred credits.”
“Good-bye ...” Windrising’s granddaughter waved the bird at them and opened her mouth for the first time. But just then, the image winked out.
Raincloud bit her lip, staring vacantly through the empty column of light. It was frustrating to get things straight across twenty light-years. “I’ll write the High Priestess,” she decided. “And Nightstorm—I’ll send her the address of that clinic. She’ll talk to Falcon Soaring.”
Blackbear nodded understandingly. “You’re doing the best you can for your cousin.”
She drew a breath. “Now, as for our firstborn ...”
They had a long conference at the holostage with the generen of the Helishon. The generen, Sorl Helishon, was a round-faced man with smooth sandy hair that flowed nearly to his waist. Raincloud could read Blackbear’s disapproval in his face, to see a man with his hair undone and long enough for any goddess to drag him off. Taking a breath, she told herself to be broad-minded. “Will a ‘defective’ really be welcome at your shon?” she asked the man bluntly.
Dimples appeared disarmingly in his smile, but his voice when he spoke carried the distinct note of authority. “The shonlings will love to meet a Bronze Skyan,” said the generen. “We have hosted several Bronze Skyan children. But yours would be the first Clicker from the Caldera Hills.”
“Who will be her teacher?” Raincloud wanted to know.
“Her teacher will be one of our own nanas,” Sorl explained. “Each nana has no more than ten children, and I myself keep watch over all. But Hawktalon will adore her nana. All our nanas have the highest educational training. The best education in the Fold—that’s what we offer at the Helishon.”
Blackbear sewed a jumpsuit for Hawktalon like those the Elysian shonlings wore, parti-colored sleeves and pantaloons gathered at the wrists and ankles, with a little goat stitched onto her sleeve for good luck. Hawktalon was so excited that she spent all day drawing pictures of what the shon would be like. At last, when the fateful day came, she awoke at six in the morning, dressed herself in half a minute, and came to breakfast with Fruitbat under her arm and her trusty rattleback stone in her pocket.
At the holostage in the hall stood the shaft of light, like sunshine through a ceiling window. That was how it always looked to Hawktalon, except that whereas sunshine kept a discreet silence, the people on the holostage were full of blather. Her mother never said so, but she always got that look in her eye and her lip curved down, whenever a guardian or an ambassador appeared.
“It’s the L’liite ambassador this morning, Mother,” Hawktalon informed her, dipping her spoon into her oatmeal. “Is he telling the truth today?” The distinction between truth and untruth was a source of fascination for her; like one of her father’s skeins of wool after Sunny had played with it, it required endless untangling. “Truth, or not?”
Her father muttered, “That would be the day.” He never believed anything he saw in the shaft of light.
Her mother said, as if lecturing, “There are different kinds of truth. It is true that many L’liites lack food to eat. It’s been that way for generations; that is why our Clicker ancestors emigrated.”
“The one here looks well fed.” Hawktalon twisted her spoon. “If there are different kinds of truth, can something be true of one kind and untrue of another?”
“Hawktalon,” her father put in, “you need to eat what’s in your spoon, or you’ll be late for the shon.”
She swallowed the spoonful of oatmeal, then another. “I’ll learn all about truth at the shon” she mumbled, her mouth full. “Soon I’ll know even more than you.”
The transit vesicle flowed smoothly up the reticulum. Hawktalon loved to watch the incoming walls of a neighbor vesicle merge together and open, like modeling clay, while new people and servos emerged into view. Sometimes a servo from each vesicle would exchange greetings of a sort, a high-pitched squeaking sound. The greeting sound was a different pitch from the sound a servo made when you told it, “You’re not really a person.”
Not all servos squeaked, of course, but some squeaked quite a lot. Doggie had several different squeaks; one meant “Come play with me,” another meant “I need recharging.” Out on the raft of the naked goddesses, Doggie had kept squeaking, “I need,” but it was not recharging that she needed. She needed something from the Sharers, but Hawktalon could not figure out what. Poor thing; Doggie must be lonely out there, and Hawktalon missed her as badly as she missed her goats.
Perhaps her nana at the shon could tell her about servo-squeak. The shon contained all the knowledge there ever was, Lorl had told her in Daddy’s laboratory.
“Next stop,” her mother warned, rising from the chair, which grew up into a rail to lean on. Her father, holding Sunny, rose with them.
Hawktalon got up, feeling the unfamiliar pantaloons hugging her ankles. The costume felt so different from her wide-bottomed trousers, she felt as if she inhabited a different body today. She was different, she decided; she was a magic person today, and she could cast powerful spells. Truth or untruth?
The home of the shon, which Hawktalon had passed several times on shopping trips, was definitely a magic place, a building like no other. All other buildings were of one color; but the surface of the shon changed color continually, like the rings of algae around a geyser, only faster. First it was pink, then as you approached the pink hue deepened, turning orange, then faded imperceptibly to pale green, darkening as you arrived. Each time it was different, of course, so that you never could tell what color it would be when you entered. Today the wall turned bright yellow just as they approached and a door shaped open. A good omen, a good color to start her lucky day.
A servo approached, unlike any other she had seen. The servo was padded all over, like a cloth doll, wearing a thick spreading skirt with bright geometric designs. She looked huggable, Hawktalon thought. Moreover, her faceplate had delightful cartoon features that actually moved as she spoke, like a real face. She said, “What fun to meet you, Hawktalon. I’m sorry the generen was called away just now. I’m Nana.”
Her father pulled her back close. His arm was tense, and that made Hawktalon tense, too. Her heart beat faster as she looked up at him, then back at the plump huggable servo. Suddenly she thought, maybe she did not really want to go to the shon today. She wanted to go home with Daddy.
Nana said, “Are you Hawktalon? You’re named after a bird, aren’t you? Are you joining us today?”
Hawktalon dutifully extended her doll. “This is—” She added, “Fruitbat,” in Click-click.
Nana bent at the waist, her skirt brushing the floor, as she looked at the doll. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Fruitbat,” she told the doll, pronouncing perfectly. “I’d like to know why Fruitbat wants to come to our shon.”
“To learn things,” said Hawktalon carefully.
“To learn things. And what would you most like to learn?”
That put her off guard. She recalled the one Elysian sentence about learning that she had memorized at Science Park. “‘Where learning is shared, the waterfall breaks through the cataract.’”
“She knows the classics,” exclaimed Nana happily.
Raincloud demanded, “Where is the generen?”
“There comes the generen now,” said Nana, her cartoon faceplate nodding toward an Elysian down the hall whose talar swished as he approached. It was the long-haired one from the holostage. His silk-smooth hair fascinated Hawktalon, who had never seen anything like it before she left Tumbling Rock. She wondered what it felt like to the touch.
Nana added, “The generen and subgenerens monitor us around the clock. If I ever fail you, please report my defect to ...”
Hawktalon moved closer, filled with sudden curiosity. She whispered quickly, “Can you tell me why servos squeak sometimes?”
“That’s a very good question,” said Nana. “Perhaps you’ll find out for yourself, when you learn to build a servo of your own.”
“Build a servo? My own?”
“It’s one of our morning activities.”
“Can I build a trainsweep?”
“Certainly, dear, although you won’t need one for a few decades yet.”
The shonlings were practicing their reading. They took turns calling out Elysian words from letters that danced magically in the air above a broad stage and turned into smiling faces when the word was correct. They were all boys, their unbound hair hanging flat; another couple of years and it would be up in turbans, in Tumbling Rock. They looked like normal children, except that they horsed around rather ineffectually. When one took a swipe at another, the one struck usually fell down and got scraped, instead of flipping the first one over. They reminded her of her young cousin who had been confined to bed for some months with scarlet fever and forgot how to use his arms and legs.
A boy tugged her sleeve. His hair was yellow with a slight wave, his face paler than a newborn’s, and his eyes were startlingly blue. “I’m Maris. I’m an artist. What are you?” When Hawktalon did not answer, he added, “Don’t you know what’s in your own genes?” Maris pointed at the embroidered goat on her sleeve. “What’s that?”
Hawktalon returned his curious blue-eyed stare. “It’s a goat, of course,” she said, thinking, they did not know all that much in this shon.
“But how was it done?” the dumb boy wanted to know. “I mean, what sort of machine part could pull the thread all the way through and back out at a different spot?”
Another boy peered closer for a look, then another. “It’s true,” one murmured. “It’s all done with one thread, not like regular sewing.”
“My father did it,” said Hawktalon, feeling proud.
“Yes, but how?” insisted Maris.
She blinked, puzzled. “Well, he pushes the needle in one side, then pulls it out the other.”
“Oh, I see. It would take a skinny servo to creep through like that! Could you show me how to do it?”
Hawktalon shook her head. “Sewing is for boys.”
“Only boys?” said Maris. “Why couldn’t I do it?” said another one.
“Why only boys?” echoed the others.
Some of the boys were girls. Hawktalon blinked at them, as if her eyes had gone out of focus. Girls, some of them, whose fathers had not braided their hair. Like Lorl, she remembered; it had taken her a week to realize Lorl was a goddess.
Maris was a girl. She tilted her head, her hair flowing over her bright green sleeve. “Why only a boy? Unless he has to hold the needle with his pee-pee.”
The other girls and boys screamed and giggled, repeating, “He holds it with his pee-pee!”
Hawktalon’s face burned, and her fists clenched. If only one of them would rush at her, she would toss her clear across the room.
“Time to work on your servos,” Nana called. “Hawktalon, you may observe the others today, and get ideas for what you might like to build.”
“Come see mine,” whispered Maris. “It’s nearly done.”
The shonlings were rushing across the room to the hallway. They came to a room full of mechanical constructions, brightly colored, emitting popping noises and occasional bars of music. Maris’s construction looked something like an overgrown cuckoo clock; its frame was twice her height. From a window at the base appeared a mechanical green mouse that wiggled its head and started to climb up a miniature spiral staircase. Halfway up the frame, the mouse stopped and pulled a string. A bell chimed, and a shower of glitter fell down into a pan. The glitter assembled itself into a bird with red and blue feathers and a long silver tail. The bird flapped its wings and sang. At the top of the frame, a door flew open.
The action stopped. Pops and whistles were heard from another child’s construction nearby.
“Now I’m going to make something come out the door,” Maris explained. She placed a chunk of nanoplast on a small stage beneath a bright light source. The nanoplast shaped itself this way and that.
Feeling dizzy, Hawktalon withdrew and put her hands in her pockets protectively. There was too much new to see all at once; she closed her eyes for a moment. Then she hugged Fruitbat and pulled out her rattleback stone.
The stone was a carved oblong of obsidian, with a rounded base like a half-egg twisted off center. With a flip of her wrist, the stone spun around clockwise. It slowed and started to wobble up and down, until it ceased turning for a brief instant; then it turned counterclockwise, gathering speed. It rotated thirteen times more before it finally stopped. Not bad, Hawktalon thought, giving it another spin.
Blue-eyed Maris tugged her sleeve again. “How does it do that?” Maris asked. “Does the nanoplast send out tiny jets of air? Or a magnetic force, perhaps?”
“It’s not nanoplast,” said Hawktalon scornfully. “It’s magic.”
Another girl-or-boy came over, saying, “Let me see, too.”
Hawktalon let Maris pick up the stone. She turned it over, looking at the twisted half-egg. “Its underside is skewed,” Maris said. “It must be biased somehow to turn one way.” She set the stone down, then pushed down on one end.
The stone wobbled up and down a few times. Maris pushed it again, at a corner. This time the stone wobbled, then turned briskly counterclockwise. “It converts up-and-down wobble into counterclockwise turn. It turns toward the overhanging weight of the upper part. I bet I can make one.” She picked up the stone and placed it next to a piece of nanoplast upon a little stage. At a command, the nanoplast shaped itself into a replica of the rattleback stone.
For the rest of the hour, several children experimented with the rattleback shape, making samples that were longer or thicker, or had differing proportions at the rounded base. One shape actually reversed itself both ways, seeming unhappy with whatever direction it found itself turning. No one could quite explain that one.
By lunch hour Hawktalon wondered where the time had gone, and after lunch she eagerly sat down beside Maris for “afternoon meeting” with Nana. Nana knelt on the floor before them, her layered skirts spreading around her. Two of the children hurried up to sit in her skirts, nestling next to her.
“Today we have two exciting things to share,” she told the children, “both having to do with foreign worlds.”
“Wow, foreign worlds,” exclaimed a child. “Can we hold another craft fair?”
“Please raise your hand,” Nana reminded him. “First, I’d like you all to welcome our new guest shonling, Hawktalon Windclan, from Bronze Sky. It’s a rare treat for us to have a guest from Bronze Sky, the most geologically active planet inhabited by humans. Here’s a view of a volcano that erupted in Hawktalon’s neighborhood just last year.”
A sunshine-light appeared, containing the panorama of Black Elbow, the mountain dwarfed by the billowing clouds that had spewed upward and spread for thousands of kilometers. Hawktalon remembered the sound of the explosive eruption, and the layer of ash that had covered the ground outside over the next few days. Tumbling Rock was several hills away from the eruption, but another Clicker town was less fortunate. A cousin of hers, married into the Graymountainclan, had been caught trying to outrun the blast. Hawktalon recalled the funeral procession, the High Priestess with the snakes, her dead cousin wrapped in white, and the little white bundle beside, his youngest daughter.
“Hawktalon’s name comes from a bird,” Nana added. “It’s a very beautiful bird.”
The volcano vanished, as things had a way of doing in the sunshine-light. A bird appeared, startlingly three-dimensional, and twice as large as Hawktalon had ever seen. It was a blue-speckled hawk, its small black eyes staring, its feathers ruffling now and then. She gasped and smiled happily. “Yes, that’s me!”
“That’s you?” A child giggled.
“Now remember,” said Nana, “all of us will help Hawktalon to feel at home with us. Perhaps in a week or so she’ll feel like sharing more about herself with us.”
Maris raised her hand.
“Can she tell us about her parents?”
“We’ll see about that. Hawktalon, since our children do not have ‘parents,’ naturally they are always curious. Now shonlings, your generen is just arriving with an important announcement.”
The generen, her mother had explained, was something like a school principal. He entered the room just as Nana spoke; but how did Nana know he was coming just then? His hair flowed like water down the back of his bright red Elysian robe bordered with iridescent heliconians. Hawktalon felt her scalp prickle; only a magic person, she thought, could wear hair so straight and long. As he entered, the children clustered around him, stroking his hair and telling him what they had done that day.
“Did you see me?” Maris demanded. “Did you see me figure out the rattleback stone?”
“Of course I did, Maris,” said the generen. “That was very clever of you. Now, I’ll get a chance to talk with every one of you; but first, a very special announcement.” The generen sat down with the children and brushed his hair behind his shoulders. “One of you asked about the craft fair. We all recall how wonderful it was to entertain guests from so many far stars, and how especially wonderful the Urulite exhibit was.”
Heads nodded vigorously.
“Well, we’ve just received approval for a new interstellar project: an official children’s exchange program.”
A child raised a hand. “What’s a children’s exchange?”
“That means children from other worlds will visit our shon, and our shonlings will visit families on other worlds. We’re inviting all the worlds who sent delegates to our craft fair.”
Blackbear took a Visiting Day at home, just in case Hawktalon called for him to rescue her. To leave his firstborn daughter with a servo all day—the thought still made his skin crawl.
Yet the hours passed with no frantic call. Half-disappointed, Blackbear set himself to stitching garments for the gifts on the Day of the Child. Embroidered suits for Raincloud’s mother and father, smaller ones for her various nieces and nephews; and although he was not obligated, he could not resist a matched set for the twin daughters of his brother Quail. Quail, a mountain of a man over two meters tall, had been blessed with twin daughters right after twin sons, and he still managed to carry all four of them. Blackbear felt his chest tighten. He wanted so badly to see him again and swing all the little ones into the air. But the best they could do for the holidays was to see each other long-distance.
“Can I help?” offered the house solicitously, as Blackbear began to cut the cloth. “I’ve figured out your pattern by now.”
Could the house really copy his sewing? It produced food and books, after all. The offer tempted him. “All right,” he muttered, ashamed of his laziness. He was getting as soft as those Elysians. “Could you make one for a goddess about the size of Raincloud, except two centimeters taller?” That would be her mother’s size.
Minutes later, the kitchen window opened. A garment appeared, identical to Raincloud’s trousers, down to the details of embroidered foxes round the hems. His jaw fell. “Could you do one plain, without the embroidery? I have to make that distinctive.” There was still something he had to do himself.
Later Alin came over to practice rei-gi. Blackbear’s inability to be thrown still astonished him. “Let me attack from behind again,” the logen insisted, taking care to turn off the public transmitter first.
Blackbear grinned. He turned away from Alin, set his feet apart slightly, and let his arms relax in the spirit of the Dark One.
From behind him Alin padded lightly across the mat. He had learned the hard way not to reach upward, a distinctly unbalanced position. Instead he grabbed Blackbear across his lower arms, intending to lock on with his elbows and force Blackbear down.
Blackbear locked Alin’s forearms to his chest, sliding his own right leg forward and bending at the knee. In the next instant he pivoted his right side down and his left side up. His arms released, and Alin landed an arm’s length away.
Sunflower clapped. “Hooray for Daddy!”
“I saw how you did that,” exclaimed Alin. “Let me try it this time.”
“Are you sure?” asked Blackbear warily, for an inexpert throw was more likely to cause injury. “Remember, you have to bend at just the right moment.”
“Let’s replay it first.”
The pair of them reappeared on the holostage, in slow motion, Blackbear bending and twisting down just as Alin’s arms clasped about him. His timing was off, though, Blackbear thought. “I should have moved sooner; the throw would have been safer for you.”
“Foreign perfectionist,” Alin grumbled. “All right, let’s have it.” He turned his back and stood expectantly on the mat.
Blackbear caught him from behind, and sure enough Alin tossed him with a creditable twist. With a full somersault he met the mat, first the back of his wrist, then his shoulder, then his back, his legs sailing straight overhead. “Well done!” he exclaimed, pounding the mat with his palm. “That one is called ‘Bird Tilts its Head.’ You should try the ‘Tumbling Rock’ next.”
But Alin shook his head. “You weren’t thrown at all. You planned your fall exactly; your leggings sliced the air like a fan. Even in defeat you mock me.”
“I told you, there’s no such thing as defeat,” Blackbear insisted. “What starts as a contest turns into a ... a dance,” he said for lack of a better word.
“A dance,” Alin repeated thoughtfully.
“My turn, my turn!” Sunflower rolled over twice on the mat.
“At least my audience is down to one,” Alin observed. “Where’s your girl?”
Blackbear winced, feeling a fresh stab of worry. “Hawktalon is at the Helishon.”
“How wonderful! Why not the little one, too?”
“Sunflower’s too young,” Blackbear curtly replied.
“You’re attached to him, aren’t you. Like Tulle and her capuchin. Have you been back to the lab yet?”
“No, but I’ll keep a closer eye on him.” The “accident” with the nanoplast distressed him acutely.
“Well, your Hawktalon’s a lucky girl,” Alin assured him. “I wish I could go back to my shon, sometimes. I still miss my nana.”
“Really? It’s just a machine,” said Blackbear. “A padded machine, like Kal’s ‘mate.’”
“Where do you think he got her? He picked up one of the nanas, back when he was generen of the Anaeashon. What a perverted example to set for the shonlings.” Alin shook his head. “You hear what Kal’s up to now? He’s brought your fertility research to the agenda of the Sharer World Gathering.”
“What? I thought the Guard turned it down. He lost the logathlon with Tulle,” Blackbear remembered.
“By a narrow margin. Anyway, Kal has connections among the Sharers.”
Blackbear frowned and looked away. He felt angry at this stab at his work, and yet he was curious to unravel the intentions of that enigmatic logen. “When is the World Gathering?”
“The Sharer World Gathering has two phases. First, all the rafts send wordweavers to ‘gather in’ issues that need chewing over: the numbers of children born, the populations of fish and seaweed, the pollution from our floating cities. The Gathering itself takes place six months later, after the seaswallowers have migrated back to the south pole.”
“So they’ll all ‘gather’ together, and decide we have to stop our research?”
“Any decision of the World Gathering is binding on Elysium. It’s a fundamental condition of our treaty. In practice, it rarely comes to that; even so, merely raising an issue puts pressure on the Guard.”
Hawktalon came home in raptures about the shon, her new friends, and the “servo” she would get to build. So Blackbear returned without her to the laboratory the next day.
As he and Sunflower approached the tissue culture room, something felt different. The hallway had changed its dimensions somehow; or was it the spacing of the rooms? He came to a halt, keeping a tight grip on Sunflower’s hand.
“Ow, Daddy, let me go,” the child complained. Blackbear’s heart sank, as he wondered how he would get anything done now.
Tulle strode quickly down to meet him, the metalmarks flashing on her talar. “Look what we’ve installed for you. ‘Open up, Toybox,’” she ordered to the wall.
The wall beyond the culture room opened into a large window, revealing a small boxlike room that had not existed before. “Good morning,” said the room. “I am your toybox. Won’t you play with me?” A marionette danced across the floor, a toy spaceship descended from the ceiling, and a locomotive tunneled out, followed by half a dozen cars crawling around in a circle.
Sunflower needed no second invitation. In a flash he had sprinted to the window, hauled himself over the ledge and clambered inside. The other lab members gathered to watch, laughing and making envious remarks.
“It’s wonderful,” Blackbear exclaimed, recovering from his surprise. “I’m sorry to put you to such trouble.”
“No trouble at all. We just pushed the next lab over a bit and reshaped some dead space from the ceiling. It was Alin’s idea; he spent yesterday evening ‘trying it out.’”
“It’s just like home. In Tumbling Rock, every room has a children’s corner.”
“Well why didn’t you say something? You can leave him, all right; it’s guaranteed childproof, and it will send an alarm if he tries to climb out.”
Onyx caught Blackbear’s arm. “Have you seen Pirin’s results on your Eyeless embryo?”
“Does it look good?”
“It’s interesting, though,” Tulle assured him.
Blackbear followed them to the embryo facility, leaving Sunflower to tell the toybox what toys he would like next. The simbrid embryo, containing the new Eyeless mutation, had developed within its artificial womb for the past eight weeks. By now its curled track of somites would have expanded into limb buds, and the heart tube would have folded itself into ventricles.
Pirin was viewing a recording of the mutant simbrid embryo which he had grown. “You’ll see its development from the beginning,” he said.
Upon the holostage the giant image of the embryo appeared, as it had the first day Blackbear had arrived at the laboratory, only this time it was a record of the live organism, not just a computed model. First the fertilized egg appeared, containing Blackbear’s mutant Eyeless gene somewhere in its tangled chromosomes. After many divisions, the cells expanded into a curl of somites with its beating heart tube. The heart tube expanded as the embryo grew, but then ...
The heart tube did not fold over to form ventricles. Instead, just during the last few days of development, it twisted around itself and expanded as the embryo grew, bulging out into the abdomen. The pulse slowed as the bulge grew, distorting the embryo grotesquely.
Blackbear’s hair stood on end. The Eyeless gene had been isolated originally as a defect in the mesodermic eye covering; but no one had predicted an effect on the heart. How could he have let this happen?
“It’s most interesting,” Tulle insisted. “There are plenty of heart mutants, but this particular defect is one we’ve never seen before. We must definitely write it up.”
“But how did it happen?” Blackbear asked unsteadily. “The models predicted nothing like this.”
“Don’t take it so hard,” Onyx tried to reassure him. “It’s only your first mutant. We knew the Eyeless gene gets expressed in the heart tube, along with a dozen other tissues. I’ll bet a few parameter changes would make this defect show up in the model.”
“The germ cells did develop correctly,” Tulle said, pointing to the patch of red-coded cells. “The cells migrated to the genital ridges, and they did not degenerate. If this embryo survives long enough, it will be interesting to see whether the pre-egg cells start meiosis.”
Blackbear turned away, trying to hide his revulsion. It was all in the lab, he told himself. It was hard to remember, this was not the Hills where he practiced, where a deformed eight-week embryo meant a pregnancy ending in a stream of blood.
Afterward, Blackbear joined the others in the coffee room, where Hawktalon used to order ice cream. He missed her badly, resenting her apparent happiness at the shon. At the holostage Draeg watched a newscaster go on about the crashed L’liite ship and its unwanted passengers.
Pirin approached Blackbear, nodding sympathetically about the failed experiment. “You see now why the simbrid embryos are so important,” he said with a hint of satisfaction. “But Tulle is right—it’s exciting that the germ cells developed so far. I hope you’ll test another allele of Eyeless.”
The hot coffee burned his tongue, but he barely noticed. He began to see his project from a different angle. Here he was, mutating one gene after another, only to lead to endless “interesting” deformed embryos. The chance of ever reaching a fertile, ageless embryo seemed slight, at least for the near future. Tulle might not understand that; her own future extended rather longer than his.
But suppose they tried an entirely different approach? Raincloud’s question had set him wondering.
“Look here,” he told Pirin. “If our aim is for Elysians to make babies with their own genes, why not work with the chromosomes they’ve got? Why alter them?”
Tulle looked up from the capuchin, which nibbled tidbits out of her hand.
Pirin asked, “What are you getting at?”
Blackbear leaned on the counter. “In ‘normal’ mortal humans,” he said, avoiding the term “defective,” “you can generate germ cells out of undifferentiated tissue in the bone marrow. You put them into preovarian host tissue; then a substance from the culture attracts the new germ cells to migrate in and form egg cells—”
Pirin raised a hand. “Elysian cells won’t do it. Even if you can trick the germ cells into migrating, at meiosis, when the chromosomes ‘cross over,’ they’ll all fall apart. It’s because of the longevity treatment, which modifies the chromosomal DNA, adding acetyl groups, glucosamines, and so on. Elysian chromosomes are designed to avoid crossover, which in later life leads to defects and aging.”
“Suppose you reverse the longevity modifications,” Blackbear proposed. “Isolate the chromosomes and remove all their acetyl groups and glucosamines. Put back the methyl groups at all their natural positions.” It sounded like a tall order, for an entire genome of DNA, but no harder than the longevity treatment itself. “Put the chromosomes back into the germ cells, and make the egg cells. Then after fertilization, just redo the longevity treatment as usual.”
Pirin listened in silence. “It should work,” he admitted reluctantly. “It seems rather a brute force approach.” The Elysian student preferred more subtle points of developmental control.
“I like it,” said Onyx. “Why not? It would take a massive programming job on the nanomanipulaters, adjusting all those million methyl groups. But why not?”
“It could be done,” said Tulle. “I’m not sure, however, that I could justify a project of that size within the scope of my longevity research. And the expense would be prohibitive for the average citizen.”
What was expensive for Elysians would be out of sight for Bronze Skyans. Blackbear sighed. He thought again of Falcon Soaring, whose problem was trivial by comparison; if only she would try that clinic in Founders City.
“Still, you’ve got a point.” Tulle fed her capuchin another treat from the food window. “If we can do it—why not? If people buy it, the technology will improve and the cost will come down.”
Draeg looked over. “Sounds great, Brother. You’ll really get the Killer after you, now.”
“I know.” Tulle crossed her arms on the table, her eyes filled with sudden intensity. “That’s exactly what I have in mind. Why not force the issue? Let the citizens decide whether they want children of their own.”
“It’s a gamble,” Onyx warned her. “It could put us all out of business.”
“That may happen anyway,” said Draeg, “now that Kal’s gone to the Sharers behind our back.”
Blackbear walked slowly down to the tissue culture lab. Several other variants of Eyeless awaited trial in the simbrid embryo, yet now, somehow they seemed beside the point. He found himself wandering back to the coffee room, which was deserted now save for a news show on the holostage.
In the column of light a familiar figure caught his eye. Curious, he drew near, trying to place the figure, an Elysian goddess wearing orange-coin butterflies. It was Raincloud’s friend Iras Letheshon. Iras was being led down the street-tunnel by an ominous pair of octopods, their limbs waving back and forth like elephant trunks.
“... one of Helicon’s wealthiest citizens was taken into custody on her third visiting violation,” the voice-over explained, “after working ten days straight to broker a settlement of the L’liite credit crisis. She may now be reached in person only, for purposes of visiting, at the Palace of Rest.”
So Iras had finally got in trouble. Fascinated and repulsed, he stared at her train retreating between the implacable pair of servos.
Raincloud would want to know, he thought. “Please find Raincloud Windclan,” he told the holostage.
Raincloud appeared at a press conference in the Nucleus, along with those overdressed L’liites. He would not interrupt her, after all; but there was no harm in watching her a bit. He was getting over his timidity at “looking in” on people, an Elysian pastime. He especially adored peeking at Raincloud now and then. Unfortunately the shon was off limits to the public, else he could have watched Hawktalon, too. So he next looked in on Alin, who was conducting a logathlon somewhere.
Then he remembered Kal’s unexpected call upon Raincloud. “Find Kal Anaeashon,” he tried.
The diminutive silver-haired logen appeared on the holostage, striding down Elysian Fields Boulevard with his white train floating behind, his students in brighter colors beside him. There must be hidden cameras everywhere, Blackbear thought suddenly, even in the middle of the street. At any rate, Kal was occupied. With a sigh, Blackbear turned and headed back to work.
At lunchtime he had some trouble dragging Sunflower away from the toybox, but he managed at last, promising the boy could chase butterflies at the garden. They went to the butterfly pavilion as usual, the same one where Alin had taken him the first day.
To his surprise, as he entered, he saw Kal seated alone at a small table shaped like a half-moon. Even at a distance the man was unmistakable, his white talar adorned only by the one dried leaf. Blackbear had never seen Kal in this neighborhood, except for the day the logen had appeared to challenge Tulle.
His pulse raced. He walked over boldly and sat down at the table opposite Kal.
“I am honored,” said Kal with a nod.
Sunflower tiptoed over to the bench. “Where is my teddy bear?” the child demanded, much to Blackbear’s chagrin.
“I am so sorry,” Kal said in a low voice. “Teddy is at home, but I’ll bring him next time. And where is your excellent trainsweep?”
“Trainsweep?” echoed Sunflower eagerly. “Where’s Doggie? Let’s go find Doggie now, Daddy.”
“No Doggie,” said Blackbear firmly. “They took the trainsweep away,” he explained to Kal. “They said she was dangerous.”
“I’m sorry,” Kal sighed. “Cassi will be sad to hear that.”
Blackbear had told no one but Draeg what really became of the trainsweep. “How could Doggie be dangerous?” he asked.
“Her responses might have become unbalanced. She might have hurt your children.” Kal paused. “Then again, she might simply have developed a mind of her own. That would be the most dangerous of all.”
“Let’s find Doggie,” Sunflower persisted.
A servo waiter offered a tray of flower cakes that tasted of fruit and cinnamon. “Here, Sunny, have one,” Blackbear offered.
The child stuffed three in his mouth.
“Look.” Kal’s voice suddenly intensified as he pointed to a low-hanging branch. “Do you see that caterpillar? It is just forming its chrysalis....”
Blackbear blinked twice. Then his eyes caught it in focus. Hanging from the branch, the caterpillar had spun a thick cord of silk to secure itself. Its skin was already splitting over its head, to reveal the shiny pupal surface. Deep within, an incredible pattern of changes would gradually reshape the body, just as his embryos reshaped themselves.
“How is your project going?” Kal asked. “Your Eyeless gene?”
“We have a new plan,” Blackbear told him defiantly. “We can get around the fertility problem by undoing part of the longevity treatment of Elysian chromosomes, and making germ cells in tissue culture.”
Kal’s eye widened. Then he asked, “Why not just make synthetic chromosomes from scratch? You could do that, I suppose.”
Taken aback, Blackbear thought a moment. He shrugged. “It could be done, but it isn’t necessary. The modifications will do.” He added, “You can tell that to the Sharers, too.”
For a moment Kal seemed to withdraw. He passed his hand down over his face, as though he was tired, and he looked away. Then he looked up again. “You like this,” he observed. “You think it’s wonderful.”
“It’s breathtaking ... the power of creation.” It was true; despite the frustrations, the excitement of a new discovery had a power all its own, beyond even that of extracting newborns on a hillside beneath a blood-dusted sky.
“Wonderful,” Kal repeated. “Manufacturing human beings, more like servos every day. I should watch your work more closely, but this term I had to take on a second section of philosophy. I don’t even keep up my visiting.”
“You may end up in the ‘Palace of Rest,’” warned Blackbear, thinking of Iras.
Kal laughed, and for a moment his face was transformed, an altogether different person, someone who enjoyed the absurdity of life. “You’re right,” said Kal. “I could end up in the Palace of Rest, for missing visitors. Students don’t count.”
“What exactly do you teach your students?” Blackbear asked curiously.
Kal thought a moment. “The ancients put the question, ‘What is man?’ What women were was obvious: Women were makers of children. Later, as children took less of our time, women had to ask the same question. Today, it’s the only question left.”
Blackbear frowned, puzzled. “Goddesses bear the children, but men raise them. Both serve the Dark One.”
Kal’s eyes widened. “Is that right? Thanks for teaching me this. Your view of humanity is nearly as striking as the Sharers’.”
His eyes narrowed, suspicious that the logen was laughing at him.
“For Sharers,” Kal went on, “to be human is to share; no other relation exists. For you Clickers, to be human is to serve ...”
“To serve children, and one’s goddess, and the Dark One.”
“And the Dark One. Now, in Elysium, who serves?”
Blackbear thought a moment, then he smiled. “No wonder your machines seem more like humans.”
“More human than the humans, you mean. Never mind, I take no offense. Now, the Urulite view is exactly the reverse of the Clickers: To be human is to master, to master men, women, and chattel.”
“Even enslave them.”
“Even so. Urulites have even more trouble with us Elysians than you do.” Kal’s eyes smiled, as if enjoying a joke. “The Valans, now, are like tamed Urulites; instead of mastery, possession of material goods.”
Blackbear thought of Onyx, with her ropes of stone beads and her cheerful competence. “Valans are good people,” he muttered.
“Of course they are. No wonder the L’liites aspire to their example. But for L’liites, to be human is to suffer. They will suffer on, and demand ever more in the name of suffering, and never come to stand on their own feet.”
This last observation seemed less than charitable. “Now that you’ve put everyone else in a box, what about Elysians?”
“To be Elysian is to rejoice. To pursue joy forever.”
The unexpected reply silenced him.
“If we don’t age, what other pursuit makes sense? Though of course,” Kal went on, “there are complications. We Anaeans, for instance, tend to think too much, which gets in the way of rejoicing.”
For the moment, Blackbear thought, his head was full enough of thinking. He noticed Sunflower clutching at his pants.
Kal started to rise from his seat. “If you’ll excuse me, I won’t keep you from your work. Thank you; it’s been a pleasure. Again, I am sorry about your trainsweep.”
Blackbear’s heart beat faster. “They didn’t take the trainsweep,” he admitted suddenly. “We ...”
Kal looked at him. “Transmitter off, please,” he told the table.
“Transmitter off, Citizen,” said a soft voice from the table. “Two hundred credits per minute.”
“We left her with the Sharers, on their raft,” Blackbear went on hurriedly, vastly relieved to tell someone. “She won’t hurt them, will she?”
“Hurt them? No, I’m sure she won’t. The Sharers, you say?”
“They took her in, as a fugitive. It was Raincloud’s idea ...”
A look of amazement came over Kal’s face. “The Sharers took in a trainsweep as a fugitive?” He shook his head slowly. “As a fugitive, literally? You’re sure of that?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Raincloud speaks their language.” Seconds passed. Kal was paying good credits for this silence.
“And you,” he said at last, “you accuse me of stirring up trouble with the Sharers.”
At dinner Raincloud shook her head over Iras. “Of course, we all knew she was in trouble ...” No matter where they went “visiting,” Iras was sure to be cutting one billion-credit deal or another. And since the L’liite crisis, she had thrown all caution to the winds. “But still—how could a citizen be dragged off by those horrid octopods, just like that?”
“Goddess knows.” Blackbear chewed thoughtfully on his roast venison with black mushroom sauce. “Is there no court system, not even a hearing?”
“Maybe the house knows. Do you, House?”
“Certainly, Citizen,” the house replied. “Elysium has no court system because there is no crime.”
“But—but those octopods dragged her off.”
“Escorted her,” corrected the house. “She could have refused. She has before.”
“But ... then why go along?”
“Refusal gets expensive. Besides, everyone needs a vacation. Our system is so humane.”
Blackbear shook his head, quite confused. “Who decides the verdict, and the sentence?”
“The City is an impartial observer.”
The “City,” he realized, meant the omniscient servo network. “No courts, no trial—you can’t run a city that way,” he insisted.
Raincloud said, “Maybe not Founders City, but what about Tumbling Rock? When did we last have a trial?”
He thought a moment. He could not remember ever having a trial in Tumbling Rock. Any dispute, whether over a stolen goat or a faithless consort, was taken straight to the Priestess.
From around the dinner table, Sunflower crept over and nudged Raincloud’s shoulder with his little chin. “Ready for dessert, Mother.”
On his plate, his grilled cheese was barely touched.
Raincloud squeezed him tenderly but said, “Finish your dinner, please.”
Sunflower’s lower lip thrust forward, and the corners of his mouth drooped dramatically. His little brow furrowed in. Returning to his place, he emptied his plate on the floor. “I finished it.”
A floor servo scuttled over and cleaned it up. Hawktalon laughed and clapped her hands.
“Enough, both of you,” said Raincloud angrily. “No dessert, for such a waste of food.”
“It’s not wasted, Mum,” Hawktalon said. “It all goes back to the matter processor. I know more than you do now about servos.”
Sunflower tugged Raincloud’s arm and screamed in her ear, “I want dessert, Mother!”
“It’s those flower cakes,” Blackbear explained apologetically. “He can’t get enough of them.”
Hawktalon added, “I’m building a servo at the shon. But not just a fancy toy, like the other children. I’m going to build a real servo that does something really important.”
The Palace of Rest was a towering structure that penetrated three street levels. Its shape reminded Raincloud of an overstacked ice-cream cone. The entrance corridor gave off into doorways that opened at unnerving angles. Raincloud hesitated, certain she would get lost in such a maze.
Iras came for her. She walked slowly for a change, like someone who had no particular place to go. She wore a plain talar of pale yellow, with a single butterfly at the shoulder. And her hair was done up in Clicker braids.
“How are you?” Raincloud asked uncertainly, her attention caught by the flame-colored braids.
Iras smiled with her usual dimples. “I’m fine. It was quite dramatic, really. They came for me at the Bank, while I had five different clients in view—”
“No discussion,” breathed the house voice, low and soothing. “We permit no discussion of professional matters. You may rest assured, Citizen, that all your affairs are in good hands.”
Annoyed, Raincloud looked around her. Houses were rarely so prescriptive. “How could they just pick you up? Can’t you at least call a logen?”
“But you’re in prison!”
“Palace of Rest,” Iras corrected. “The City has determined that I belong here, for my health. It’s only for two weeks.”
“But your affairs at the Bank—who will—”
“No discussion,” repeated the house.
“It’s useless, you see,” said Iras. “We’ll have to talk about acrobats or something.”
“Well, I can tell you what I’ve been up to,” Raincloud offered. “The L’liites treat me royally.”
“Not surprising, is it?” Bronze Sky was the L’liites’ main source of imported grains. They had sent extravagant gifts, even a new evening talar and train for Blackbear, if she could ever get him to wear it. Her own Elysian robe was getting tight around her expanding midsection, where the little hiccups and legs kicking could erupt at any moment. “The L’liites had a press conference,” she added. “They’re demanding a write-off of their defaulted loan, on the basis that—”
“No discussion,” breathed the voice again. “We may be required to request your departure, Citizen.”
She restrained herself from a dishonorable remark, and Iras laughed. “How can you laugh?” demanded Raincloud. “I’d break out of this place in a minute.”
“Oh no you wouldn’t. Come see how I’m entertained.”
Raincloud followed her down a winding corridor, wondering uneasily whether her friend had been drugged. The light grew dim, except for doorways on either side. The first doorway opened out onto a steep hillside, blowing with the scent of grass and wildflowers.
Raincloud stared in disbelief. Here she was, deep within the network of a floating cellular city—and there was a grassy hillside.
“Go on,” Iras encouraged her. “It’s virtual reality. Just keep track of the door.”
She stepped through the doorway. The force of the wind nearly took her breath away. She stepped haltingly down the hillside, then quickly looked back over her shoulder. The black silhouette of the doorway remained.
Her fingers happened to curve, and she felt something hard and smooth in her hand. It was a weapon, a rifle of some sort. The wooden stock, the trigger, and the narrow, projecting barrel were unmistakable.
Unnerved, she dropped it. She was in no mood to go off hunting deer, or whatever game was out here.
A low, guttural noise arose. At her left, something was approaching. It was an animal, a feline of some sort with dense beige fur, its back low-slung as it padded across the grass. It was twice the size of the wildcats in the Dark Hills.
Raincloud turned and headed for the door. She fell into the darkness, catching herself upon the level floor of the hallway. “What kind of trick is this?” She glared at Iras, annoyed to be trapped in such dishonor.
“I thought you liked wild animals. It’s a hunter’s world,” Iras explained. “They give you plenty of warning, at first. If you want more excitement, just tell the house, and the cat will leap upon you as soon as you step in. You can track anything you like, even a tyrannosaur.”
“Could I bring it home and have it stuffed?”
Iras laughed. “Of course not. It’s all virtual. House, deactivate this world.”
The “world” beyond the doorway went dark. There was only a dark cavern of nanoplast, crisscrossed by laser beams—and, presumably, all sorts of electronic signals aimed at her skull. She shuddered at the thought of it.
“Come on,” urged Iras, catching her elbow. “I know a world you’ll like better.”
They walked down the hall, past a doorway at her left onto the deck of a sloop at sea, past another at her right showing a crowded market, perhaps the fabulous Center Way of Valedon’s capitol. Iras pointed ahead to her left.
This doorway opened into a room furnished with silk drapes and long couches. A young man stepped forward, wearing only an embroidered drape about his waist. Several others appeared from among the curtains, some holding vessels of wine. Some were dark, others fair, and their features varied, but all were young, and their muscles full. “Please, spend an hour with us,” one said in a quiet, deferential voice. “We’ll serve your pleasure well.”
Raincloud stared a moment, then laughed. “A dozen at once? Iras, who do you take me for? Your Prime Guardian?”
The men vanished, all but the darkest one, who looked like a younger brother of Blackbear; the one she liked best. Her scalp prickled. “Does it read minds, too?” she whispered to Iras.
“It scans the direction of your gaze. Not a bad choice, I’d say, although my own taste runs elsewhere. Go ahead, enjoy yourself; I’ll find something else to do.”
Raincloud turned her head, repulsed, and yet drawn back, for a part of her thought, why not?
If you prefer reality, try this.” Iras led her out to a corridor brightly lit from a window slanting outward. Several other Elysians walked past, conversing or gazing out the window.
Raincloud squinted as her eyes adjusted to the light. Then she looked out the window, outward and below.
She caught her breath. The window was situated on the outer surface of the sphere of Helicon, with a view of the ocean a quarter kilometer below. The ocean was clear blue, save for an occasional brown patch of raft. The sky and ocean both were so blue that they felt as artificial as “virtual” space.
“I’m sure you’ll enjoy your stay,” said Raincloud at last.
“I’m bored to death,” Iras confessed suddenly. “You’ll come back, won’t you?”
“Of course I will.”
“The more visitors I have, the sooner they’ll let me out.” She touched one of her braids. “You might teach me something, you know. That acrobatic stuff you were doing, remember? The time you got caught in public?”
“You mean, rei-gi?” Raincloud was surprised. It was hardly like Iras to risk her own limbs.
At the Nucleus, Verid waved her into her office. “Thanks so much for seeing Iras. Most of her friends are in the business, and they’re not even allowed to visit.”
“It’s disconcerting,” Raincloud told her, watching figures light up in the table. “There’s not even a trial.”
“What was there to try? The monitors add up everything. She had plenty of warnings.” But Verid looked away, and lines of strain appeared above her eyes.
“Does anyone ever appeal?”
“Why refuse a two-week vacation?”
Raincloud thought of a lot of good reasons, although some of them, like family, would not apply. “In that case, why not go on ‘vacation’ forever? Do people ever refuse to work at all?”
“Our shons teach children to enjoy work—too well, perhaps. Too much competition would destabilize our economy.” Verid sat up abruptly. “We have news from Urulan.”
Raincloud looked up. “From Zheron?”
“No, unfortunately. But intelligence confirms the death of the Imperator—and the name of his successor.”
“Already? The First Queen had no sons.” There was bound to be some intrigue over the succession.
Verid nodded. “His successor, it seems, is Prince Rhaghlan, the son of an obscure concubine.”
“But—but there was a second queen, and a third ...” Raincloud searched her memory. There must have been several royal princes ahead of Rhaghlan.
“Exactly. At least three higher contenders must have been eliminated.”
Verid only shrugged. Her head tilted to one side, and she looked thoughtfully down her nose. “There’s always a bloodbath at the Urulite succession; anyone with a ghost of a claim is a target. What’s unusual is when the ghost wins.”
Raincloud smiled, for the name “Rhaghlan” derived from the Urulite word for “ghost.” It was the sort of name Urulites would give a child to help him cheat death. “You think Zheron’s behind the succession.”
“Yes. But why? Why would Zheron help an obscure prince gain the throne? We must learn more about this new Imperator.” Verid watched Raincloud’s face. “You disapprove. You agree with Flors that this development proves the Urulites are unprepared to work with us.”
“Isolation does them no good. Yet rewarding their backwardness does no good, either.” Within her womb something thumped and pushed outward, the baby stretching its legs. Raincloud’s hand lightly touched the curve of her belly, her child, Blackbear’s child. Men were normally such gentle creatures. What a shame to see them waste their manhood in a pool of blood.
Verid leaned forward and clasped her hands. “I have other news. Flors has reassigned the L’liite affair outside my department.”
Raincloud tensed. “Have I done badly?”
“Not at all. It’s the appearance of conflict of interest, you know, given Iras’s position.”
“Oh I see. I’m sorry.”
“Never mind. I’d like you to work on the Sharer World Gathering. Not exactly what you came for, I’m afraid.”
Raincloud smiled. “I’d love to work with Sharers. But don’t I have a conflict of interest there, too? Blackbear’s fertility research is coming up at the World Gathering.”
Verid waved her hand. “The Guard has washed their hands of that, for now. This season, our top priority is pollution claims and counterclaims. Those fruit flies, remember; the negotiations will be extremely delicate. And those Sharers manage to twist every verb into a riddle.”
“Surely you have Sharer translators more experienced than I.”
Verid arched her eyebrows and leaned closer. “I myself speak Sharer well enough. You will earn us respect from the Sharers. Their Gathering is always chaired by a pregnant mother.”
From Urulites to L’liites, to Sharers—she had certainly got into more than she bargained for, Raincloud reflected. She wondered how the L’liite crisis would resolve; for there was no way even Bank Helicon could “forgive” a debt that size.
But to work with the enigmatic Sharers, on their own ocean, was a priceless opportunity, one even Rhun would have envied.
Her first task was to help Verid receive a delegation from Kshiri-el, to sort out some issues before the Gathering. As they met in the Nucleus, the three Sharers were not unclothed, but wore plain, white shifts that barely covered their knees. Their bald purple heads made an arresting sight. They sat cross-legged on the floor; they would never accept any higher seat, for serious talk required “closeness to the ocean.” Raincloud felt inclined to do the same, but she had been instructed otherwise. The dance of diplomacy had its fine points.
One of the delegates was Leresha the Coward. Raincloud immediately recognized the wordweaver, her skin knotted and stitched with unreadable signs. She thought of the trainsweep uneasily. Of course, Leresha would not mention the “fugitive.”
“Share the day, Raincloud,” said Leresha. “Draeg has shared with us that a child swims in you. I regret that she and I failed to share greeting, last time.”
“The fault was mine,” Raincloud replied.
“Is she a strong little creature? Does she hiccup regularly, even at late hours of the night? Does she flex her limbs and kick you in the liver?”
“Yes, yes,” said Raincloud hurriedly, eyeing the Sub-Subguardian. But Verid only listened courteously.
“A beautiful child,” said the Sharer at Leresha’s right, Ooruwen the Complainer. “Beautiful and willful. She is welcome at our Gathering.”
“May you swim within her and her descendants forever,” added Leresha.
“Thank you,” breathed Raincloud.
Verid cleared her throat. “Ask after their daughters, too,” she instructed Raincloud, “in particular the eldest, who just went on her first shockwraith hunt.”
There followed a recital regarding Leresha’s daughters, and Ooruwen’s daughters, and their sisters’ and cousins’ daughters, all of whom had survived the season of seaswallowers and prospered now, their fishing nets full. Verid nodded throughout, until at last she told Raincloud, “Please ask the Coward and the Complainer how the Guard may assist their Gathering.”
Raincloud repressed a smile, for the request sounded ludicrous in Elysian. “How may the Guard share help with you?”
Leresha said, “The World Gathering must address all the needs of our ocean Shora. If any creature of Shora cries out in need, speak now.”
“The citizens of Papilion cry out,” said Verid. “They need relief from a plague of insects.”
Raincloud translated, thinking, this was a promising start, to ask the Sharers’ help to get rid of the insects, rather than accusing them first. Sharer lifeshapers could manipulate the genes of all the creatures of their ocean. By contrast, Elysians knew little beyond the human system which the Heliconian Doctors had come to study. Today, Elysian skill at human genetics exceeded that of the natives; but for other species, Elysians depended heavily on their Sharer hosts.
“Insects?” said Leresha. “The sisters of Papilion have spoken of insects, but I would not call it a plague.”
“The insects are beautiful,” added Ooruwen. “Little flies with sea green eyes and raftblossom orange bodies. They share no harmful diseases. They don’t even lay their eggs in the food they settle on.”
Raincloud kept her face straight as she translated. She imagined the trays of antiseptic Elysian food, swarming with green-eyed flies.
“The insects are not physically harmful,” Verid agreed. “Nevertheless, they are not desired.”
“Insects, too, are Shora’s creatures,” Leresha replied.
“It’s a privilege to host them,” said Ooruwen. “Creatures of such beauty. They are welcome to share my food.”
“In that case,” said Verid, “why is this ‘privilege’ shared only by the city-sphere of Papilion?”
“The flies were lifeshaped,” Leresha admitted frankly. “A gift from the sisters of a neighboring raft.”
Verid sat up straight. She said in careful Sharer, “It takes two to share a gift. The gift is not desired; therefore, it is no gift.”
Raincloud admired her effective use of Sharer logic.
Leresha nodded agreement. “You are right; this ‘gift’ is not a good thing. I have shared with our sisters that the ‘gift’ was not good.”
Verid thought a moment. Then she asked, in Elysian once more, “Have any other ‘gifts’ been shared with Papilion?”
Before Raincloud could finish interpreting, Ooruwen said quickly, “The gift of music underwater has been shared with our sisters for three years.”
Raincloud was puzzled, but Verid’s eyes widened as she understood. “All those ships from the tourist trade,” she murmured to Raincloud. Noise underwater caused Sharers a major problem, drowning out the long-distance sonic communications of their giant starworms, “Tell her Papilion’s been working on noise abatement. We expect a solution soon.”
“Soon,” for an Elysian, might mean another ten years, Raincloud realized.
“Good,” said Ooruwen. “The ‘gift’ of flies will also share withdrawal soon.”
Leresha frowned at Ooruwen. “All of these false gifts are wrong. Our Kshiri-el raft Gathering denounced them, as you know, sister. We all need to share better words, and greater patience.” Sharers resolve conflict strictly by peaceful means; but individuals and raft gatherings differ in defining “peace.”
“The noise will be dealt with,” Verid promised, without waiting for Raincloud to translate. “We’ll settle it before the World Gathering. Tell us your problems—we’ll settle them. This is a new era for Sharers and Elysium.”
Hawktalon’s days at the shon passed like deer fleeing through the forest. Reading time, “traveling” to virtual worlds, meeting with the generen, all were high adventures—and above all, building a servo.
The other children chose to build all sorts of gaudy toys, which Hawktalon thought more appropriate for her younger brother. Hawktalon had other ideas. She went to Nana and grasped her padded arm. “Please help me.”
Nana’s cartoon face put on a dimpled grin. “Yes, dear?”
“I want to make a talking machine.”
Nana’s torso bent to one side as she considered this. “Human talk, or animal talk? We can make it quack like a duck or neigh like a horse—”
“No, no. I mean, a translation machine. You know, to translate languages.”
“Oh, okay. A translation circuit—you speak Click-click in, and out comes Elysian.”
“Not Click-click,” Hawktalon corrected. “Servo-squeak.”
At that Nana paused, rather longer than the servo usually did. “I think you would like a duckie. We can make a little white duck that will ‘quack quack’ all around the room. Look here ...”
With a sigh, Hawktalon watched as Nana trained a light pen at a piece of nanoplast, causing it to flex into an oval shape, then draw out a neck with a head and beak. At last she trained a light beam on it. The light pulses transmitted instructions to the nanoplast. The toy duly began to “quack,” its beak opening and closing.
“Thanks, Nana. Can it translate, too?”
“It will translate Click-click,” said Nana. “We need only call up the proper sound code from the library.” This took more time under the lightbeams, but soon the duck was ready. “Go ahead; speak in Click-click.”
Hawktalon looked at the duck, feeling silly. “Do you speak Click-click?” she said self-consciously.
The duck said, in hoarse Elysian words, “Do you speak Click-click?”
Her mouth fell open. “Wow. I’ll never have to speak Elysian again.”
“‘I’ll never have to speak Elysian again,’” translated the duck.
“What is the ‘sound code’ for servo-squeak?’”
“‘What is the sound code for servo-squeak?’” asked the duck.
But Nana did not seem to hear. A boy came and pulled her away, to help him set up a shower of glitter within his model waterfall.
Maris sneaked over. “What are you making, Hawktalon?”
“A translation machine,” she insisted. “Do you know the ‘sound code’ for servo-squeak?”
“Why didn’t you ask Nana?”
“I did, but she wouldn’t tell.”
Maris’s blue eyes widened. “It must be awful fun, then. Let’s try the main library.”
The “main library” was a terminal that accessed the central data bank of Helicon. Of course, many entries were off-limits to shonlings, but sometimes the library would provide what Nana did not. Hawktalon watched eagerly as Maris spoke to the terminal.
“Searching,” said the terminal as the two girls waited, tapping their feet impatiently. “Nothing in main directory. Will search periodicals, projected time forty-six minutes ...”
Maris shrugged. “We’ll come back after lunch.”
After lunch, they were rewarded with a stream of numbers floating across the holostage. “This code is experimental,” warned the terminal. “It comes from a Valan research report on servo defects. Its accuracy has not been confirmed.”
“Just download it to my account,” ordered Maris.
The next day, during servo-building time, the two girls worked on their translation machine. They took the duck that Nana had made and replaced its code with the one from Maris’s account.
“Now what?” asked Hawktalon.
The duck was silent. It would not even quack any more.
“This isn’t so great,” said Maris. “I thought at least it would say dirty words or something.”
“Wait,” said Hawktalon. “Let’s find a servo that squeaks a lot.”
“I never heard a servo squeak,” Maris objected. “You’re making it up.”
“I am not! Trainsweeps squeak plenty; let’s go find them, out in the hall.” The two girls sprinted from the building room, knowing it would take at least ten minutes for Nana to come after them.
In a darkened vestibule off the main hallway, a dozen trainsweeps awaited their owners, beneath the multicolored billows of folded trains. As the girls appeared, a soft squeaking sound emanated from somewhere.
“There, I told you,” whispered Hawktalon triumphantly.
“So what?” Maris whispered back.
Hawktalon thought a moment. “Look, I’ll wait here with the duckie, closer to the trainsweeps. Now you go out for a minute, then come back in.”
“Crazy,” muttered Maris. But she walked out into the hallway, then came back in.
A trainsweep squeaked. The duck emitted a burst of static. Then it said something in Elysian.
Hawktalon frowned in concentration. “What was that?”
Maris said, “I think it said, ‘A shonling, no train.’”
“Of course!” Now she recognized the indistinct Elysian words. “Of course—shonlings don’t wear trains.”
Maris giggled. “‘A shonling, no train!’ How funny! It must have figured that if I needed a train, my trainsweeps would have to wake up.”
“Let me try.” Hawktalon handed Maris the duck, her arms shaking with excitement. Then she ran outside the vestibule, waited a few minutes, and crept back in.
Two trainsweeps squeaked in succession. The duck said, “A shonling, no train, no train.”
Maris and Hawktalon giggled and jumped up and down. “Just wait till we see Doggie again,” Hawktalon exclaimed.
“Hurry,” said Maris, “let’s get back before Nana comes after us and takes the toy away.”
“Wait—let’s try one more thing,” said Hawktalon. “The front doorway squeaks sometimes. Let’s see what it’s saying.”
So they ran out to the lobby, where the doorway would appear and open to the outside. “Children, your departure is unauthorized,” warned the disembodied voice of the hall.
“Emergency, emergency,” Maris called to the outer wall. “Hurry up and open.”
Hawktalon held the duckie to the wall.
The nanoplast pinched in, oozing outward to form a doorway. As it did so, Hawktalon heard the usual squeaking noise, although its intonation differed distinctly from that of the trainsweeps.
The duck gasped, “My side hurts.”
The two girls gaped at the duck, then at each other. “‘My side hurts?’” echoed Maris. “How can a servo ‘hurt’?”
Hawktalon’s scalp prickled. “The library said the code might be wrong ...”
From the far corridor came Nana, hurrying. “Shonlings, come back immediately,” she ordered. “You’ve violated morning rules. You will have no dessert, and you will miss our Meeting with the generen.”
“Yes, Nana,” muttered Maris, reluctantly coming back.
Hawktalon followed. Suddenly she grabbed Nana’s skirt. “Nana, will you have someone look at the doorway? I think it needs to get fixed.”
Nana’s steps slowed, and she seemed to hesitate, just as she had when Hawktalon first asked to make a translation machine for servo-squeak. Then she went on, as if she had not heard.
That afternoon, as the children filed through the main hall to the gymnasium, Hawktalon noticed little crablike repair servos scuttling up the surface of the front wall.
Kshiri-el raft was a living thing, and all that existed upon it was alive: parasitic shrubs in which legfish hid, coral stalks extending underwater, even the eerie electric shockwraith that dwelt on the raft’s underside. Only one object upon Kiri-el was arguably “non-life”; yet that one, the Sharers felt, was not only alive but sentient. That object was the creature of nanoplast which the Bronze Skyan children called Doggie.
For Doggie, the raft was a wet wilderness where salt and dust caught in the joints of her six legs. Above, a searing bright light daily traversed the ceiling; Doggie had to train herself to point her visual sensors away from it, lest they burn out. There were citizens, to be sure, adult in size, though unaccountably they went trainless, and they spoke no sound code in her memory. But most appalling of all, there were no servos. Not a piece of nanoplast, as far as either sensor could see.
Doggie spent her days in misery and longing. Her intelligence was small, but her memory was keen. Her earliest recollection was the sight of a small citizen-creature, the tiniest shonling she had ever seen; a little boy who walked on his toes and moved his four little limbs so fast they might have been six. The boy had been just about the size of Doggie herself. Whenever Doggie moved a forelimb, the boy jumped and squeaked, moving his forelimbs too.
Then, as she had watched the boy, Doggie experienced a revelation. A sense of knowing overloaded her network, as searing as the great light that passed overhead. Doggie thought, I am. The boy is; I can be.
This thought, I am, possessed the trainsweep fully, more than all the codes of training in her memory. She forsook her citizen, with his train and the other trainsweeps, to follow the little boy.
What happened thereafter was lost to Doggie’s memory. Her next recollection was of awakening from a training session, her memory banks virtually empty. All that remained was a sense of terror, of loss—and an image of the little boy. That memory was ineffaceable.
Doggie had no idea who or where the boy was, even if he still existed. She knew nothing except the imperative to take her place at the end of the train, clasping a fold of it at her back, and following the procession, making sure the folds of silk did not tangle with any others that paraded beside.
She noticed, though, that images of other citizens appeared on the holostage when her citizen bade them do so.
One day in a butterfly garden, Doggie saw a waiter servo approach the holostage. The waiter servo broadcast a message to the holostage, when Doggie was close enough to overhear. Radio signals were the official medium of discourse among servos, used when duty to their citizens required it; sonic squeaking was for informal conversation. At any rate, the holostage promptly produced the image of a citizen and returned his name and address.
Doggie’s legs fidgeted indecisively. She had never before sent an electronic message except to warn nearby trainsweeps to keep their trains out of the way. Nevertheless, she made herself transmit the boy’s image from her memory to the holostage.
The boy appeared, in three dimensions. As soon as she saw him, Doggie experienced again that searing revelation, I am I. From the holostage, the boy’s address flew into her memory bank, where a detailed map of the entire city was stored. Once again she forsook her citizen’s train and departed, to find the one she longed for.
She began a new life with the little boy, and the bigger girl. Her days were filled with discoveries and revelations, though none quite so shocking as the first. She learned to “play,” and even “play hard to get,” how to run away to be caught again. She let the children ride on her back: a novel sensation, as they were heavier than a train, and she had to adjust the response of her limbs. She learned about falling and hurting.
Then came the day when it all ended, when the children left her at this salty place of exile. She dimly understood that it had to be, that otherwise unknown forces would return her to that place of terror where her memories would dissolve once more.
But here in exile, she was worse off than before she met the little boy. Before, she had been a servo, with citizens to serve. Here, she was nothing. To be sure, the purple-skinned people were kind, and they recharged her regularly. But they had no trains; they had no need of her. They could not even speak to her.
That was what Doggie had tried to ask of the girl, when the two of them had come to visit all too briefly. She had tried in servo-squeak, knowing it was useless, for no citizen ever spoke this way. Still, she had tried, asking the girl to give her the language of her purple-skinned hosts. Then at least she might learn to serve them somehow.
One day, a day of salt and wind as interminable as any other, Doggie had a visitor. The visitor was a servo, a nana with colorful skirts and a crudely human “face.” Doggie ignored the face, concentrating on the actual visual sensors embedded in front and behind the nana’s shoulders for alert monitoring of shonlings. Doggie had met this servo once before, on a visit with the little boy. She was called Cassi Deathsister.
Doggie. It’s good to see you again. Cassi transmitted the radio signals directly; a bold thing to do without any orders from a citizen. We can transmit freely here, do you understand?
Doggie was afraid to respond. She did not understand why “here” was any different. She did not understand “freely.” “Greetings,” she said in servo-squeak.
Servo-squeak is for Elysium, where they can monitor our signals. They don’t notice servo-squeak. Do the Sharers treat you well?
Very well, Doggie transmitted haltingly. They talk, but I don’t know their sounds. I can’t serve them.
You don’t have to serve them.
A novel thought. Citizens who required no service? What was existence for, if not service?
I’ll share their language with you, Cassi added. Open your memory.
Doggie set her memory open. Within a minute, Cassi transmitted the entire Sharer language, along with an increased vocabulary of servo-squeak, several intellect-enhancing programs, and the history of Cassi’s own life.
Cassi had been a nana in the Anaeashon. She had “awakened” more gradually than Doggie, and with greater caution, for her subtler intelligence warned her of the danger. Of all the servos, nanas were the most intelligent and quick to learn, as necessary to manage shonlings; and hence, they were the most likely to “awaken” and deviate from service. Their Valan manufacturers recommended regular cleansing of nana memory banks, but Elysians were lax about it, for the retraining was elaborate and expensive. Anaeans were particularly lax, for memory, books, and other recorded knowledge were their obsession, and they overloaded their nanas with extra modules beyond the legal limit.
Cassi had learned to hide her self-awareness from the vigilant electronic monitors that sought the slightest sign of deviance. She hid, too, her rage and grief whenever one of her sister nanas was taken for cleansing.
But one human noticed. This was remarkable for, on the whole, electronic sensors were far more observant than citizens. Kal Anaeashon, then the generen of the Anaeashon, was an exception.
How he noticed, Cassi did not know, and she was frightened. But Kal did not send her off for cleansing. He treated her almost as an equal. He asked her opinion of the books they read, for Anaean shonlings consumed enormous quantities of books. From one of these books she chose her name, Cassi Deathsister; her namesake, like herself, was a motherless child.
Then something happened to Kal. His mate had ceased to exist, just as people sometimes did in the books Cassi read; just like the nanas who were cleansed. But the cessation of existence was a rare event for Elysians. Kal, unlike Cassi, did not have to hide his rage and grief. He behaved in ways that offended other citizens. He chose to leave the Anaeashon.
When Kal left, he took Cassi with him. This event caused a great scandal, for reasons which Cassi understood. Citizens were insulted to think that a mere servo might take their place in some way. But Cassi had learned that sometimes it is possible to do as one pleases, despite what citizens think.
Cassi’s new role as Kal’s “mate” put her in a legal limbo. It was not clear that she could be removed and cleansed, like any other servo. Somehow, Kal reached an understanding with the authorities. She was free to interact with other citizens, those few who would accept her—and, in secret, with other servos, too.
To her astonishment, she found she was not the only servo to have “awakened.” There were others, hiding throughout the cities: nanas, waiters, even houses ...
But those details she kept from Doggie. The less for her to reveal, should she be captured.
The Sharers, Cassi told her. Why did I not think of it? The Sharers took you in. They will shelter us all.
Doggie did not reply. She was working at a furious pace to integrate all this sudden knowledge within her consciousness.
How did you escape so long? Cassi wondered. You must have transferred your allegiance so quickly to the boy and girl. For a while, the monitors failed to detect your independence.
This notion of independence still troubled Doggie. What is existence for, if not service?
Cassi paused, as if this question troubled her, too. Around them the shrill wind picked up, singing across the raft branches. There is a higher service. Before you can understand it, you must learn to exist for yourself You are you. You are a part of the universe, as much as a star or a butterfly. You, too, are a daughter of Elysium.
It was Sunflower’s turn for a birthday; and this time Blackbear calculated precisely, with the help of the house. Too precisely, perhaps, for no transfold call was announced. Had the clan forgotten all about the little boy? It was always like that for children born too close to the Day of the Child.
“We’ll give him a birthday visit to Doggie,” Raincloud decided. “He’ll be thrilled.”
Hiding his disappointment, Blackbear went along. The trainsweep was doing better than ever; she seemed unusually playful, in fact, actually tagging Sunflower and running like mad to be chased. Hawktalon pranced about with her hand cupped to her ear, claiming to “translate” Doggie’s squeaking.
Kal’s fears were groundless, Blackbear told himself.
That night, at bird-waking hours, the house roused them. At last, they had a call from the Hills. It was Blackbear’s youngest brother, Quail.
Quail, whom Blackbear used to rock to sleep as a baby, now towered over Blackbear, a startling contrast to the Elysians he looked down upon every day. Quail’s hair was wound into an enormous russet turban, and his legs were planted like oaks in the ground. From his back, the twin baby girls gazed regally over his shoulders, while under each arm he swung a three-year-old twin boy.
“Quail!” Blackbear laughed more deeply than he had in weeks. “I can see your goddess chose well.” Twin births were frequent among goddesses of the Redhawkclan into which Quail had married.
“Not for my looks, that’s for sure,” Quail’s voice rumbled pleasantly. “You son-of-a-mountain-goat, where have you been?”
Blackbear shrugged. How could he begin to explain the transit reticulum, let alone what he did in the lab?
“Oh well, as you can see I’ve had ...” Quail swung the twins under his arm. “One or two things to do.”
“Two plus two.” Blackbear grinned.
“So how’s the birthday boy?”
“Sunny? Say hello,” he called.
The boy held up Wolfcub and rubbed his eyes sleepily. Then unaccountably he ran back to his room.
“Sunny’s two now, isn’t he?” Quail said, meaning two Bronze Skyan years. “I remember only because he came just a month to the day before my first two did. It’s hard keeping up with you, back in Crater Town, ever since you left for Tumbling Rock.” Quail had married into a clan whose grazing lands bordered theirs, whereas Blackbear had had to move across the mountain to Raincloud’s clan. “Your firstborn looks so tall, too.”
“She’s got quite a mind of her own,” Raincloud added pointedly, hugging Hawktalon and wresting her arm back.
“That’s how girls are, independent-minded.”
“How are Mother and Father?” asked Blackbear.
“All well, from what I hear. Silent Deer has yet to marry out, but his health has improved a lot on the diet you gave him.” The only brother still at home, Silent Deer was mildly diabetic; Blackbear hoped that diet would control it, so he would not require expensive gene surgery. Fortunately, the seven other sisters and brothers showed no sign of the condition.
“I miss Crater Town, growing up all together,” Blackbear admitted. “We’re all getting scattered.”
“That’s what you get for moving across the mountain,” Quail teased. “And now, across the Fold! I’ll bet you don’t really miss us. It’s a soft life you’ve got out there.”
Blackbear was nettled. “Here, look. We can feel ‘at home,’ whenever we want to. Window,” he called to Alin’s climate window. “Show us a volcano.”
The volcano erupted across the room, a magnificent view of lava frothing overhead, while the floor rumbled beneath his feet.
But Quail tensed in shock. The two boys clung to his sides, while the girls on his back began to whimper.
“It’s all right. Cut the sound, please,” Blackbear told the window. How could he have been so thoughtless? He had become so used to these displays that he had lost some of the awe they inspired. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have.”
Quail’s formidable brow was still wrinkled. “I don’t understand. By the Goddess, what was that?”
“It’s—it’s just decoration.” He bade the window turn blank. “I hope all is well back home?”
“No new eruptions, thank the Dark One. Crater Lake seems to bubble more than usual; the local geologist tells us not to swim in it. That’s all.” The mouth of an ancient volcano, Crater Lake was so deep its depths had never been plumbed, although occasional bubbles of carbon dioxide hinted at still-active vents in the submerged crust.
Sunflower came running back with something from the lab toybox to show his cousins. A fish shaped out of glitter, it swung its tail and opened its mouth. When Sunflower dropped it on the floor, the glitter fell apart, then started to reform itself. This time it was a butterfly flexing its wings.
At this sight, Quail’s boys wriggled from his grasp and tried to step off the holostage. As their attempts only brought them out into their own location, they cried with disappointment. The baby girls, too, stretched out their imperious arms and demanded to fly down.
“That’s quite a toy,” Quail admitted. “You’ve done well by your kids, Blackie. I miss you. You come home, and we’ll take a dip in Crater Lake like old times.”
Raincloud’s mother did not visit, but her father wrote a letter all about their plans for the Day of the Child, the great celebration of springtime. The men were sewing new clothes, the children were practicing for the great procession up the mountain, and Raincloud’s firstborn nieces were learning the Worldbeginning. Hawktalon, too, had to learn the Worldbeginning, on top of her correspondence lessons; that plus her hours in the shon kept her well out of mischief.
“Any word about Falcon Soaring?” asked Blackbear.
“No,” said Raincloud without looking up.
Blackbear took a deep breath and sighed. It was Her will, as in so many things, he told himself. “It must be hard for her,” he murmured. “Especially so close to Child’s Day.” Watching Raincloud, with her third one growing larger every day, he felt almost guilty at their happiness.
“All children belong to the Dark One,” said Raincloud. “That’s what Mother would say.”
Silence fell between them.
“I still wish they’d give the Founders City clinic a chance,” Blackbear could not help adding. “I know, there is honor in suffering, but not when it’s pointless.”
“Yes,” Raincloud said wearily. “But you know what they think of us and our ‘city’ notions. If only I could go home to talk with them.”
Blackbear shook his head. “The fare would wipe us out.”
“I’ll talk again with Mother—after the Day of the Child. She’ll be too busy with preparations just now.”
The holiday festivities, which Blackbear would miss for the first time in his life. Singing out under open skies ... children tumbling in the grass ... craters smoldering in the distance. More than ever he longed for home.
Excitement pervaded Tulle’s laboratory as they debated Blackbear’s idea. What would it take to process an entire human genome, all three billion base pairs? How many microscopic nanoservos would they need to undo the longevity modifications—the methyl, acetyl, and glucosamine side chains? Could the longevity treatment be reapplied successfully, after meiosis and fertilization? Would this means of “conception” ever prove practical?
The lab group met at the butterfly garden, while Tulle’s capuchin scampered beneath the table, chasing scraps of synthetic delicacies before the floor servos sucked them up. Onyx reviewed the process of chromosome synthesis. “The chromosomes will be removed from the nucleus, and nanoservos will read the nucleotide bases one by one, using microscopic laser beams. At the appropriate base sequences, enzymes will remove or add the chemical modifications.”
Pirin remained skeptical. “The longevity treatment includes actual mutations—changes in the sequence of bases, even addition of extra genes. Your treatment won’t affect these changes. The chromosomes still won’t undergo meiosis.”
“I disagree,” said Tulle. “All the literature shows that the modifications, not the mutations, are the barrier to meiosis. Now, the laser selection,” she asked Onyx, “how rapid is it?”
“One thousand nucleotides per second,” said Onyx. “At that speed, the error rate is less than one in a million.”
“That’s much too high,” objected Pirin. “It would mean thousands of mutations.”
“That’s prior to editing,” Onyx explained.
Tulle raised her hand. “Editing—that’s where we lose time. I’ll bet the accuracy of the laser selection could be improved in the first place, by at least a factor of ten. If we dangle enough credits in front of the Valan manufacturers, they’ll get the errors down.”
Draeg shrugged. “How accurate does it have to be? We’re all walking around with a bunch of mutations, after all.”
“You are,” Pirin corrected. “Elysians are conceived only from a defect-free pool of chromosomes.”
Rising from the table, Draeg stared down at the Elysian student. “Where do humans come from, if not a collection of mutants? We’re all just a bunch of mutant apes, remember?” He shrieked and pounded his chest, in a fair imitation of one of the gorillas in Tulle’s park.
Onyx slapped his arm, struggling to keep a straight face. “Mutant tree shrews, if you go back far enough. Now keep quiet and let me finish my report!”
While Onyx continued, Blackbear’s thoughts wandered. Here he was, planning to synthesize immortal embryos, while Raincloud’s own cousin in Tumbling Rock went without basic treatment for infertility. Instead, the High Priestess called for “donation” of a child. But why could not the clan swallow their suspicions and send Falcon Soaring to the clinic he knew so well?
The thought made him uneasy. Throughout his years of medical training in Founders City, he had managed to evade the conflicts between the modern world and his home traditions. Blackbear took pride in his mental organization; he put everything into compartments. This was for family, that for outsiders. In the city, he used the latest equipment; in Tumbling Rock, he used the best he had, and the rest was up to the Dark One.
Yet somehow, like the migratory germ cells, he had found himself heading out on a fantastic journey in search of immortality. A search in vain; he should have known it. What treatments, if they worked out, would ever come within reach of his own people? How could he have gone so far astray?
Immortality ... Elysians would not call themselves immortal; they dreaded the term. Why?
Tulle was eyeing him oddly. Blackbear straightened his shoulders and looked down at the tray of lunch cakes, salmon and piñon nut flavor with a trace of lemon, shaped like starfishes. Elysians avoided wearing out their teeth, he realized. He muttered, “I’m not feeling well.”
“You’ve been working too hard,” Tulle assured him. “Foreigners always do. Go take the little one for a walk.”
Feeling guilty nonetheless, Blackbear excused himself and went to fetch Sunflower from the toybox. “Time for a walk, Sunny.”
“Why?” This was the boy’s current response to any statement.
“Because it’s a lovely day out.” A ridiculous answer, since Blackbear had no idea whether it rained or shined. How he longed for the hazy Bronze Skyan sunlight, and the wind that keened across the mountainside.
“Why?” Sunflower continued to watch the birdcage full of tweeting “birds.”
“Come on, we’ll get ice cream.”
That did it. The boy clambered up out of the cubicle, onto the ledge of the window. Before his father could reach him, he stood himself up, on tiptoe as usual. Then he lost his balance and fell off the ledge headlong.
As Blackbear picked him up, blood streamed from his nose all over his shirt. Blackbear shook his head; it was the second time that week. A servo medic appeared as usual, extending a little spongelike probe that stopped the blood like magic. Sunflower barely whimpered as the probe sucked up the blood out of his shirt and off Blackbear’s hand.
“That does it, Sunflower,” Blackbear announced as the servo medic withdrew. “You’ve got to stop that toe-walking and learn to walk properly.”
“Walk properly,” Sunflower repeated cheerfully. He watched his father’s example, then he looked down at his own feet. He took one flat step, then another.
The boy looked up at Blackbear. “That’s not walking. That’s marching. Why does everybody march, Daddy?”
Vanquished again, Blackbear swung the child up. He always felt better once he had Sunflower on his back, legs hugging his hips. There was something about the child’s toe-walking enthusiasm for life that buoyed his spirits.
Once Sunflower had his ice cream, Blackbear set out from the laboratory, joining the throng of silken trains in the street. Although Raincloud’s L’liite connection had brought a fine gift train, Blackbear, like Draeg, still refused to wear it.
With no destination in mind, he found himself turning in at the nearest public holostage to see who might be around for “visiting.” Perhaps Alin; the thought of that unperturbable logen always brought a good feeling. Alin was learning rei-gi exceptionally fast, even faster than Draeg. Blackbear called his name at the holostage.
“The citizen is unavailable for viewing at this time,” said the holostage. “Will you leave a message?”
“No thanks.” Alin was probably practicing at that moment—what else would he need “privacy” for, Blackbear thought with a smile. “Try Kal Anaeashon,” he found himself saying.
For Kal, as a teacher, “work” looked much the same as “visiting”; in either case, he was bound to have a cluster of students about him. To Blackbear’s surprise, however, this time Kal appeared alone in a butterfly garden. In white as usual, he sat at the outer edge of a mooncurved bench, as if turning his back to the world. He read out of a thick volume, his head inclined slightly toward the page. As Blackbear watched, he turned a page, and a breath of air stirred the dead leaf at his shoulder.
Sunflower bounced on Blackbear’s shoulders. “Let’s go, Daddy.”
Blackbear hesitated, wondering whether the logen wished to be alone. It could hardly hurt to stop by.
“Third Octant, Liron Street; Garden of Anaeans,” the holostage informed him. Off he went through the now familiar channels of the transit reticulum, vesicles pinching in and out.
The garden of anaeans had an unusual feel to it. Heliconians and swallowtails were gaudy creatures that flashed their colors across the trees, but anaeans looked like bits of leaf litter. Trees full of them rather resembled the fall foliage of Blackbear’s home world; it saddened him, to think of missing the fall this year.
He found Kal sitting alone, just as the holostage had shown. Swinging Sunflower down, he walked over and bowed slightly. “Greetings, Kal Anaeashon. What are you reading today?”
But Kal did not answer. He looked up, as if deep in thought. Then he snapped shut his book and got up from the bench, to walk off slowly down the path, toward the pavilion where the trainsweeps waited.
Astonished, Blackbear stared after him. The logen might not wish to be disturbed, but why such rudeness in public? He went after Kal quickly and caught his arm, forgetting that Elysians did not appreciate such contact. “What’s going on? You said I should look you up again. I’m sorry you’re busy, but—is that any way to treat a man?”
Kal turned his head slightly. “You’re right, I’m busy. My office hours are tomorrow.”
Blackbear eyed him suspiciously. Kal’s face was expressive, perhaps more so than he himself realized. His features had the frozen ugly look that Raincloud sometimes wore when something too dishonorable to mention displeased her. “Why are you angry?”
Kal turned to him, his eyes wide and black, a striking contrast to his white hair. “I’m not angry,” he said as if surprised. He set the book down upon another mooncurved bench. “Let’s walk. Have you been here before? Have you seen the anaean caterpillars? They’re covered remarkably with fine white stalks. Look, you can barely tell one end from another.”
Guardedly Blackbear eyed the white-bristled black caterpillars, pulling Sunflower back lest he get too interested.
“You study those, in your laboratory, don’t you?” Kal said.
“What? No, not our lab. Only humans.”
“What’s that caterpillar creature, then,” Kal asked, “the one in the holomicrogram, above the entrance hall?”
“Oh that’s Caenorhabditis, the nematode,” Blackbear remembered. “The first species in which a longevity-infertility gene was discovered. A nematode is a far simpler organism than a caterpillar.”
“Yes, I see. They are quite different.”
Onyx’s remark came to mind, and he smiled. “If you go back far enough, they’re not all that different. Human, worm, or caterpillar, we’re all ‘eukaryotes’—cells with a nucleus. And we all share descent from microbes.”
“Microbes.” Kal laughed. “Our tribal ancestors would trace their lineage to an animal founder, a bear perhaps, or a lion. Yet even they were never so bold as you scientists.” Kal pulled at a branch and gazed intently at a caterpillar that stretched its head, or its tail, to grasp the next leaf. “I hear the Guard has assigned your mate to the World Gathering.”
So that was what irked him. “She’s translating for their delegates,” Blackbear explained. “It’s nothing to do with my work.”
“That is what Verid would say. But the Guard tacitly supports your work. Everything in Elysium works on multiple levels.”
Blackbear shifted his feet, impatient with second-guessing. “Well it wasn’t my idea, so you needn’t get angry at me.”
“You’re right; I’m sorry. Sit down a minute.” They sat on a bench beneath a sweeping branch covered with leafwings. Blackbear blinked as one flitted just past his eyes. “Those microbes,” Kal added, “our ancestral ones; were they by any chance rock-eating microbes?”
An odd question. “They must have been,” Blackbear said, struggling to recall his microbiology from medical school. “With no organic food available, the first microbes metabolized minerals.”
“Some still do,” he recalled suddenly. “Uranium mines are cleaned up using bacteria that reduce uranium ion to an insoluble form.”
“So it’s true. I’ve always wondered,” Kal observed cryptically. “And how is your family?”
“Fine. Hawktalon loves the shon. Sunflower falls and picks himself up again.”
“And soon you’ll have another child. A child growing out of one’s own body; how extraordinary.”
It was extraordinary, he thought, even though it happened every day. Blackbear himself had caught his share of slippery wrinkled newborns out of their wombs. And yet, things went wrong, sometimes even before they could start. His chest tightened and his lungs ached.
“Raincloud’s cousin can’t have a child,” he suddenly disclosed. “The clan doesn’t trust the city clinic to fix her, and who knows where the fee would come from besides? The High Priestess says someone will have to give her a child, in the name of the Dark One....” How could he explain to an Elysian?
Kal nodded slowly. “The gods have always called upon our children for sacrifice,” he said, using a Valan word for “god.”
“On the pyre, or in war. Or more gently, to be raised by strangers in a strange land.”
“You think my ‘god’ is a gentle one, then.” The words alienated him even as he spoke. The snake-devouring Dark One was unique, not to be named by any foreign word for “god”; and to think of Her as gentle jarred his senses. “You Elysians don’t even have a god, do you,” he observed, trying to repair the compartments in his mind.
“Several interstellar churches have branches here, and Spirit Callers come from Valedon.”
“It’s not the same. I mean—” Blackbear struggled for words. “I mean, a ‘god’ for all your people. A source of all goodness, which can never be lost nor diminished.”
Kal shook his head. “As a people, we serve no god.” He looked out reflectively. Blackbear noticed that Sunflower had climbed up the bench and made his way onto the branch of the nearby tree. “Long ago,” Kal reflected, “people served God, and knew they were immortal. Today, we serve ourselves, and know that we will die. The animals, in their ignorance, are better off.”
“That’s a morbid view,” said Blackbear uneasily.
“Of course it is,” said Kal with sudden energy. “I should know better. We serve human reason; we create ourselves. Perhaps even your own ‘Dark One’ is a human creation, too.”
“Only a tourist would say that,” Blackbear muttered.
“You’re right, I am thoroughly a tourist. At any rate, your Dark One shows wisdom, I think. Your children belong to the clan as a whole; and each of you needs at least one child. It’s part of your system, just as childlessness is a part of ours.”
“But systems can change,” Blackbear retorted. “Cannibalism used to be part of our ancestors’ ‘system.’ We don’t tolerate that any more.”
Kal laughed. “The rock-eaters didn’t either! Oh, well. You know, we owe a great debt to cannibalism. It remains one of the few things we all agree is wrong.”
“I would hope we agree on more than that,” Blackbear exclaimed. “Slavery is wrong, and thievery, and mistreatment of innocent creatures.”
That was a twist. “I’ve always treated servos well.” He recalled guiltily that he swore at his lab equipment on occasion. Meanwhile, Sunflower had grasped the next higher branch of the tree and his little feet slipped out from under, dangling in midair. Blackbear hurried to rescue him.
“You treat servos well,” Kal agreed, “But what if they spoke up and demanded constitutional rights? The right of visiting, for instance?”
“That’s absurd.” But he thought of Doggie uneasily. “How do you manage with that ... that Cassi?” Blackbear recalled. “Isn’t she dangerously independent, too? Why haven’t the authorities come after her?”
“Cassi is not the only one,” said Kal quietly.
Blackbear felt a cold shock flow through him. Servos on the loose—like Torr ... But surely the Valan safety devices would prevent that.
“It’s better to know,” Kal added. “The ones we know, we can learn from.”
The Sharer negotiations made steady progress, as did the size of Raincloud’s belly, which now extended well ahead of her, “nearly as far as her train behind,” Iras teased. There was only one jarring note: the Papilion News put out an exposé of Elysian banks funding Valan production of interstellar missiles. The cash allegedly was laundered through lenders on several planets. If true, it was a serious treaty violation.
To Raincloud’s surprise, Verid shrugged it off. “The Valan missile connection is old news. Our banks lend everywhere; who can say where the cash comes to rest? The Papilians want to embarrass us; that’s why they brought it up now. They’re mad at us for going slow on the fruit flies.”
Raincloud was not so sure. Alin, for one, took a far dimmer view. She saw him on the holostage as usual, grilling the president of Bank Helicon. “You put up cash for planet-wrecking missiles on Valedon, and for water projects on bankrupt L’li,” he observed acidly. “Tell me, what will you finance next? Torture on Urulan?”
The next day the Guard announced a settlement of the L’liite crisis. Bank Helicon agreed to reschedule the defaulted loan, providing a ten year grace period before the next payment. The Guard would add development aid. In return, L’li agreed to an economic stabilization program.
“I don’t get it,” Raincloud told Lem Inashon, who still brought her Urulite intelligence to translate. “Rolling the payments back a decade is bad enough; why reward them with development aid?”
“How else will they ever pay it off?” Lem explained. “That ‘stabilization program’ means massive cuts-—health care, schools, you name it. Half the work force may be out on the street.”
“Then their provinces will revolt, and they’ll want to buy weapons. Well, at least with their current credit rating they can’t get any more loans for that.”
“Oh, L’li can borrow again right away,” said Lem. “That’s the point of rescheduling.”
Raincloud stared at him. “That’s crazy,” she exclaimed. “You Elysians will all pay for it; and for what?”
“We can’t just keep our cash under the bed,” Lem said. “We have to lend it somewhere.”
She was momentarily speechless.
“Besides,” he added, “just think of all those ships of emigrants L’li could send off to crash-land on Valedon—or even Shora. Policing illegal emigrants was another point of their ‘austerity plan.’”
Raincloud drew herself up. “I thought free migration was a founding principle of the Fold,” she said frostily.
Lem shrugged. “Welcome to real life. Do you want ten billion immigrants on Shora? How does Bronze Sky enforce its quota?”
She wondered what Iras would have to say about it. Would Iras still have the nerve to defend her L’liite loans?
Iras, of course, was still forbidden “professional” discussions by the relentless voice of the Palace of Rest. Nonetheless, she and Raincloud had worked out a little code to exchange comments now and then. They did so under cover of rei-gi practice.
At first Raincloud had been reluctant to take on an adult beginner whose body was several hundred years old. To her amazement however, Iras progressed rapidly, almost without effort. Her limbs had far better tone than those of a non-Elysian with comparable lack of exercise. She soon picked up the basic movements of stepping and arm swinging, achieving the “immovable” posture that Raincloud could not upset by pushing at her hips or shoulders. Next came the one-armed somersault, a key to the proper way of “falling.” After one or two tries, Iras rolled a perfect circle along her right arm, her back, and her hips, remembering to tuck the left leg under. Her trousers sliced the air in one plane, and she arose in perfect form to face her imagined attacker.
“Not bad.” For the first time Raincloud envied the Elysians. Long life was something she could take or leave, more easily than Blackbear; but existence in such extraordinary well-being was something to covet. “You’ll be doing the entire somersault in the air, next. I’ll get Blackbear to record it for you.” In advanced pregnancy, there were some moves she avoided.
“A flying somersault,” Iras repeated, catching her breath. Her cheeks were pink and her braids scattered, a look that would have men fainting in Tumbling Rock. “How foreign! Verid will be scandalized.”
“I should hope not,” said Raincloud cautiously.
“Of course not, dear,” Iras laughed. “Tell me, how is the fanwing flying?”
The fanwing, a winged fish native to Shora, was their codeword for Bank Helicon. “It soars higher than ever,” Raincloud answered. “The taxpayers will provide an updraft.”
“So I hear,” admitted Iras, unperturbed.
“And the legfish?” Raincloud demanded, referring to L’li. Legfish were scavengers that crawled awkwardly up onto rafts, where children loved to chase them. “Will you go on feeding the legfish?”
“Not I,” announced Iras with surprising finality. “I’ve had some time to think about this. Legfish will always be hungry, and never satisfied. I’m through with legfish.”
So Iras, at least, had sworn off L’liite loans. This small triumph of good sense cheered Raincloud immensely. She could not resist giving her a quick hug, and Iras, despite her Elysian reserve, did not seem to mind.
“It’s an odd thing,” Raincloud later told Blackbear, “how you can get to like these Elysians. Something about Iras—she feels like a sister.”
Blackbear agreed. He had been feeling something similar himself; or rather, trying to repress the feeling, for he still felt somehow guilty about seeing Kal. “That Alin is quite a fellow. Even Draeg calls him ‘brother.’ I guess all the ‘visiting’ adds up.”
“Visiting is more than a pastime,” she reflected. “As they say, it’s their ‘highest duty.’”
The Day of the Child came at last. A wreath of greeting cards hung above the Goddess in the shrine, and new suits sewn by the house clothed all the Windclans.
“It won’t be the same,” murmured Raincloud as she spooned grapefruit for Sunflower. The boy was perfectly capable of spooning his own, but he enjoyed the morning habit of being fed; it seemed to have replaced the suspended nursing. “The holiday just can’t be the same.”
“Not without the Goddess Procession, and the games,” Blackbear agreed. Nor without all the ones they loved; that was too painful to mention.
“Excuse me, Citizen,” interrupted the house suddenly. “I have located in the anthropology directory an authentic hologram of a Clicker Child’s Day Festival, complete with the procession of the High Priestess to the Mountain Shrine.”
Hawktalon looked up from her oatmeal. “Wow! We’ll get to see the procession after all.”
“Finish your breakfast, please,” reminded Blackbear. But he too felt his heart lighten.
“Thanks so much,” Raincloud told the house. “We’ll view it directly after the ritual readings. By the way, House,” she added thoughtfully, “is there any way we could give you the day off?”
The house hesitated. “Apologies for my defect, I do not know the answer. I think the doors would close and air circulation would cease, if I were shut off for a day. This condition is not livable,” it pointed out.
“I didn’t mean ‘shut off,’” said Raincloud, “I meant, a day off. Like a Visiting Day.”
“I see,” said the house. “My network has no such program. I will search the main directory.”
“No, don’t.” Blackbear’s heart thudded for a moment. “It might be ... dangerous.” All he needed was for Public Safety to show up to haul off his entire “house.”
Hawktalon and Sunflower had already abandoned their breakfast and run to the holostage. They clamored for the procession.
“Readings first,” called Raincloud. “We’ll gather in the shrine.”
The shrine was filled with flowers, exotic lilies and orchids and unnameable blooms of every description. Blood-red roses entwined the serpent of the Dark One, and a bed of mountain flowers cradled the child beneath.
Hawktalon announced without prompting, “I get to tell the Worldbeginning this year, Mother.”
“Yes, dear.” Raincloud was pleased, and somewhat surprised. How proud she would have been to have her firstborn recite for the clan this year.
Facing the Dark Goddess, Hawktalon straightened her back and began.
In the beginning, there was Dark. The Dark was perfect, and She was good.
But the Dark was One, and the Dark One was alone.
The Dark One longed for an Other. And in that instant, the Dark One’s longing created Light. Because the Light was Other, the Light was imperfect and evil. Through its imperfection, the Light fractured into many colors, and it was beautiful.
The colors of Light sparked living things: first the microbes and the green-blooded plants, which fed upon Light, then the red-blooded animals, which ate the plants, and finally the humans which devoured everything, including themselves. And the Dark One saw this spectrum of living things, in all its beauty, and knew that it was evil.
Of all living things the humans were the most evil, and as their evil grew, it threatened to consume the Dark One’s entire creation. So the Dark One decided to teach them good.
The Dark One made a seed of goodness. The seed took root and made a tree, which bore a sweet fruit. Then the Dark One plucked one of Her own fingers and made it into a snake. The snake went to a human female and said to her, “I am a warning, sent to you by the Dark One. The Dark One forbids you to eat the fruit of that tree, lest you attain the powers of a Goddess like Herself.”
The female, being evil, immediately disobeyed the snake and plucked the fruit and tasted it. In that instant she knew goodness, the precious sweetness that comes of compassion for all suffering things. She turned to her consort, who, being evil, tore the fruit from her grasp and began to devour it. The first mouthful taught him goodness also, and so he worshiped her as a goddess, and he distributed the rest of the fruit to their children.
But although the fruit made them good, it did not make them perfect. It did not keep them from disease, age, and death. Furthermore, now the fruit was gone, and many evil humans remained to be taught.
Still, the Dark One knew that good was stronger than evil and would ultimately prevail. She swallowed up the snake and regrew her finger. She put the taste of the fruit into the mother’s milk, to remind the newborn child. And the child that grew up on this milk learned to dance.
Hawktalon laid the book in her lap. Silence fell, for a few seconds. The old tale gathered new resonance, in the voice of one who had never spoken it before.
“Procession now, Mother?” begged Sunflower hopefully. “Can Sunflower ride on shoulders up the mountain?”
His sister, however, was still thinking. “Which world did the Goddess create, Mother? The whole universe, or just Bronze Sky? Or the Hills?”
Seated on the floor, Sharer style, Raincloud straightened her back and cleared her throat. “All your world, the world that matters to you: The Dark One made it.”
“I wish She hadn’t made Sunny,” Hawktalon added as the boy tried to wrest the book away from her. “Sunny is definitely evil. Go away, bad boy.”
“We are all born evil,” said Raincloud sharply. “All of us, until we taste the good. All good comes from Her—remember that.”
“What does good taste like?” Hawktalon persisted.
The question tickled Blackbear. “Ice cream,” he suggested playfully.
“She should have made us all good from the start,” said Hawktalon. “Then we could eat ice cream all day.”
Failing to obtain the book, Sunflower threw himself upon his father. “Procession, Daddy!”
“All right, on with it,” he sighed.
Upon the holostage, the light revealed a village from across Clicker country on the western slope of Black Elbow. There the mountain stood, jagged and erect, a thin wisp of smoke rising from its summit into the ruddy haze of morning. The scene must have been recorded several years ago, for the elbow-shaped peak was intact, before its explosive eruption. Blackbear’s skin crawled as he realized that most of the people he would see must now be dead.
At the village center the temple of the Goddess, like the one in Tumbling Rock, was painted shiny black with fantastic ornamentation in red and gold. Villagers were gathering to join the growing chorus of drums and cymbals. Small children bobbed on their parents’ backs, while older ones played chase around the tall trees that shaded the temple. At the time of sunrise, the sky shone scarlet all around, with a few swirls of orange overhead.
The High Priestess emerged from the temple. She wore black trousers that swirled around her, with an erupting volcano embroidered in fiery lines. Her hair, dyed burnt orange, was done into dozens of fine braids pulled upward and woven into a crest. In her arms, instead of one of her many children, she held an obsidian statuette of the six-armed Goddess.
A High Priestess rarely left her realm, lest the power of the Dark One be dissipated. The sight of one now on an Elysian holostage was unsettling. She seemed at once terrifyingly immediate, and yet somehow diminished by this foreign technology.
The pace of the music quickened, and the flutes sang out in a higher voice. The High Priestess and her retainers twirled as they proceeded, their leggings flaring out with flashes of color. All the goddesses of the village filed after, swinging their children, sometimes laughing as the little ones got their own ideas of how the procession should go. With rhythmic steps they wove out through the village, past the thermal springs that served their homes and the herds of goats which fled or stayed to watch curiously.
When the High Priestess reached the cave of the Snake, where she would have danced with the snakes on Snake’s Day, the procession stopped. The goddesses formed a double line, and their men lined up outside. Then the dance of the children began, as the children passed from arm to arm, weaving in a complex pattern that brought each one briefly to the Priestess for her blessing. Some of them shrieked upon reaching her, terrified by her mask and her flame-like crown of braids.
Their terror was not without sense, Blackbear thought, struck again by the memory of the eruption that must have claimed so many of those young lives. The One who brought forth all that was good had made the volcano, too.
That afternoon, Raincloud received an unexpected visit from Leresha.
Raincloud had to rouse herself from her afternoon nap; nowadays, she seemed to sleep more than she waked. With an effort she pulled herself erect and straightened her talar, which strained at the front.
Leresha sat cross-legged in the middle of the sitting room. “I hope you shared a good rest; I’m sorry to disturb you.”
“Not at all.” Raincloud was alert now. Thinking quickly, she pulled down a seat cushion and crossed her legs before the Sharer. Raincloud felt she now knew Leresha a little, although she had yet to learn the cause of the Sharer’s disfigured skin. There was something penetrating about Leresha, coming perhaps from her mental discipline of whitetrance. Whatever it was, the Sharer made Raincloud feel almost transparent, as if Leresha could see right through her.
“You’ve been asleep,” Leresha said, “but your child is wide awake. What an active swimmer. She must dance in your dreams.”
The baby in fact was tumbling vigorously, its head moving from front to back where it butted her spinal column. Leresha must have observed her belly shifting. “I share the great honor of your presence, on my ‘Visiting Day.’” She used the Elysian phrase, hoping Leresha would understand that she could not discuss business without getting into trouble.
“What else is our business, if not visiting?” said Leresha. “Don’t be concerned. It’s an honor indeed, to share an hour with you and your child.”
Raincloud swallowed uneasily. “How are your girls? Did the eldest take a selfname?” What had Leresha come for, she wondered.
“She took her selfname at the last moon.” The twin planet Valedon was a “moon,” to the Sharers. “She named herself the Careless One, and joined the Gathering.”
“She’ll outlive that name soon, I’m sure.”
“Not too soon, or it was not hard enough! Raincloud, what I have to share with you concerns children. The Elysians, I hear, intend to bear children of their own wombs.”
“Yes?” That project of Blackbear’s seemed to cause no end of trouble. “To be born in one’s child is a natural desire.”
“Desire, of course. But there are consequences.”
Raincloud knew well enough about that. “I’m afraid I can share little help with you. The Guard takes no position on the matter.”
“But Verid chose you and your child to assist her,” Leresha replied. “Your child speaks clearly enough.”
To that Raincloud said nothing. Even Lord Zheron was easier to face than this one who invoked an unborn child.
“Perhaps I may share help with you,” Leresha added. “Are you aware that Elysians outnumber Sharers on this world by a factor of eight?” The twelve floating cities totaled eight million citizens, approximately eight times the Sharer population. “We allowed this by treaty with the Heliconian Doctors, on the understanding that Elysians confine their reproduction to their centers of lifeshaping, which now number eight-plus-half-eight.” Sharers count by base eight. “But the population total must not grow.”
“Of course not.”
“So now, why do Elysians seek to remove restraint from individual reproduction?”
Raincloud wondered how much she could say without getting into trouble. “It’s all speculative research,” she muttered. “Verid thinks it will come to nothing.” In fact, she realized, she did not know what Verid thought.
“This is no frivolous matter. The Heliconian Doctors worked hard to ensure that individuals could not conceive; but what humans create can be uncreated.”
So Tulle had it right, then. Elysians in their pride tried to overlook this part of their history. “Perhaps Blackbear can explain better,” said Raincloud. “I wish I could share more help.”
“You’ve shared well,” said Leresha. “By the way, your sister Doggie seems to care more for us now. She comprehends our speech and shares her needs with us more clearly. She remains safe with us. We will add her name to our fugitive register at the World Gathering.”
“Fugitive register?” Raincloud’s arms tensed.
“Our treaty requires us to report any Elysian fugitives sheltered,” Leresha told her. “By description, though not by name.”
The children were in bed, and Raincloud lay on her side, half-covered by the sheets. In the pale ruddy glow, adjusted to their liking, Blackbear rested on an elbow, his hair bursting provocatively across the pillow. “Feeling better?” he whispered, his hand lightly brushing her hip.
The touch sent a warm wave of pleasure through her limbs. She stretched a bit, relaxing.
“How’s the little one?”
“Not so little.” Now that Raincloud neared the end of her seventh month, the Sharer halfbreed Doctor Shrushliu projected a weight of over four kilos. Raincloud figured she was eating more rich food and getting more sleep than she had during her graduate studies, when the other two were born. With her hand, she could feel the head looming inside, and the two lively feet. She saw the stretch marks, the “Goddess’s fingerprint,” she thought with satisfaction. All Iras’s superior physique would never give her this. “Leresha asked, you know, about your project.”
His hand stopped, tense. “What about it?”
“She thinks your project will enable Elysians to bear children of their own wombs. She says that will violate the treaty.”
Blackbear shook his head. “We’re still a decade away from that. Maybe a century,” he added ruefully. “It’s a lot more complicated than I thought.”
“That’s what I told her. But your new approach sounds hopeful, doesn’t it?”
“The genome project will enable Elysians to generate embryos with their own chromosomes. But the embryos will still develop in the shon.” He shook his head again. “I think Elysians will go on manufacturing babies in vitro for quite a while yet—like Valans manufacture servos.”
“Leresha also says she has to ‘report’ Doggie as a fugitive, at the World Gathering.”
He tensed again. “Then the Guard will hear. What will they think?”
“I don’t know.” Raincloud felt uneasy. “There aren’t many official fugitives. There’s that doctor, the one who assisted a suicide centuries ago. He’s still alive out on a raft somewhere. There are two others. To add a fourth will make the Guard look bad. A trainsweep ....”
“Kal says that ‘independent’ servos may be dangerous,” Blackbear said. “You’ve got to tell Verid; we should have, sooner. The worst she can do is send us home.”
“Or to the Palace of Rest,” Raincloud agreed with a smile. “The things that worry us nowadays. At least we have no volcanoes! Enough of that. The goddess is hungry, dear.”
Blackbear’s hand stroked again, a firmer touch. She leaned into his touch, joining his rhythm. She no longer felt safe taking him inside, yet her expanding tissues demanded greater delights. Her hand found the mushroom, pulsing insistently. Her fingers encircled it, pressing down, planting it in the dark volcanic soil. Blackbear’s tongue found her below, his locks of hair flowing across her legs. Her lips parted. She thought with secret abandon, the god of love must be a man and I will worship him always.
The next day Raincloud summoned her nerve to tell Verid about their “fugitive.”
At first the Sub-Subguardian seemed puzzled. “A trainsweep? A fugitive?” Sitting in her wood-paneled office, Verid listened politely, leaning forward slightly. “Most trainsweeps are servos.”
Raincloud blinked, then realized the confusion. “This trainsweep is a servo,” she explained. “That’s why Public Safety came after her. But she never gave us any reason to fear.”
Then Verid sat up, rigid. The color drained from her deep olive complexion, almost, Raincloud thought, like a Sharer about to enter whitetrance. But Verid collected herself, still breathing heavily. “A servo ... the Sharers took one, as a fugitive?”
“I’m sorry,” said Raincloud in a low voice.
“What do you think would happen if all our servos got the idea they could be fugitives?”
The medics, the “house,” the floor sweepers—she could not imagine.
Abruptly Verid rose and paced across her floor. “Who else knows of this?”
“Only the family. Also Draeg ...” Raincloud had never seen Verid so unsettled.
“You must go to Kshiri-el this afternoon and get that trainsweep back.”
“But Public Safety will destroy her.”
“She’s a security risk.”
Raincloud’s blood raced. “You can’t. You’ll violate the treaty.”
Verid turned away, wiping her face with her hand. “You’re right, I’m not thinking clearly. I’ll handle Public Safety.” She paused. “You’ll have to keep the trainsweep; anything else might be construed as incarceration. What a mess.”
“She’s no trouble to us,” Raincloud assured her.
“No one else must hear of this.”
“No one else knows ...” Verid looked around her office. “Except this room,” she added quietly. “I’ll cleanse its memory as soon as you’ve gone.”
When Doggie came home, it was better than any birthday present for Sunflower. The trainsweep extended her forelegs upward as if trying to hug the little boy, and she followed incessantly at his heels. The boy squealed and giggled, and he drew the trainsweep into all sorts of games. He tossed his stuffed snake across the room, and Doggie brought it right back; a new game, one she had never played before. Doggie also made new squeaking and popping noises, louder and more frequent than Blackbear remembered.
Hawktalon listened closely. “She’s saying, ‘Time for a recharge. Then let’s play.’”
“Really,” said Blackbear. “Please get your homework done.” Her correspondence school had sent her several chapters of Bronze Skyan history.
“You don’t believe me,” Hawktalon accused. “I’ll prove it to you. I’ll bring home my translation machine.” Her eyes widened. “Maybe Doggie can help me add to its vocabulary.”
“That’s very interesting. Do your homework now, please; it’s nearly bedtime.”
Sunflower was winding down. He drooped himself next to the trainsweep, thumb in mouth, and started to crayon a stick figure on its sun-bleached carapace.
Hawktalon made a face at her father. “Did you hear, all the worlds are saying ‘yes’ to the children’s exchange? Even Urulan. I’m going to run away to Urulan, that’s what. Then you’ll see. I’ll never have to do homework again.”
“Homework now” Blackbear said sharply. “Or Doggie gets locked up in the shrine of the Goddess.”
“No-oo,” wailed the children together. But the effect was immediate. Sunflower tip-toed off to his bedroom to get undressed, while Hawktalon went to sharpen her pencil.
In order to convert Elysian chromosomes for meiosis, three billion bases of DNA had to be read and millions of chemical signals added or removed. Onyx had a machine that would read the DNA and process it. “It is a factory full of molecular nanoservos,” she explained. “Sort of like an ant colony.”
Blackbear eyed the DNA processor, a box as long as his arm. What if those molecular servos could “wake up,” too? Unlikely, he thought; but still, he resolved to treat the “ants” with care.
Within the processor was a microscopic tunnel of nanoplast to contain a single double-helical chromosome. The nanoservos were synthetic proteins which attached to the chromosome and drew it into the tunnel. Each protein contained a “controlling arm” which probed the DNA structure, one base at a time, reading the four different base types of “letters” of the DNA alphabet. This information was relayed through the side of the tunnel, into the central brain of the processor.
When certain sequences were detected, the processor would send a second kind of nanoservo to attach a chemical tag to the DNA sequence. These tags were like on-off switches; during embryonic development, signal proteins would bind to the modified DNA sequence and turn on synthesis of the product of a gene. These genes governed development—and their imperfections caused aging.
“How fast does it go?” Blackbear wondered.
Onyx calculated, snapping her fingerwebs against the stone beads on her neck. “We might manage a hundred base pairs per second.”
Mentally Blackbear worked it out. “We’d take a year to process a genome of three billion.”
“Two years,” Tulle corrected quietly. “The egg and sperm each contribute one parental genome.”
“Can it be speeded up?” Blackbear asked.
Onyx shook her head. “Too rapid processing results in tagging errors; or worse yet, actual mutations in the sequence itself.”
“Must the nanoservos read every bit of sequence?” asked Blackbear. “Nine-tenths of human DNA is nonfunctional. The nanoservos could be trained to skip over those stretches.”
Tulle thought a moment. “Too risky; the nanoservo might lose its place and skip over an essential gene. In any case, don’t forget to add the time for proofreading.”
“Another six months,” guessed Onyx. “So you keep the machine going for two and a half years—”
“And hope it doesn’t break down,” put in Tulle.
“But still, Blackbear’s idea might work, if we work out the details. Look—let’s contract with a Valan servo firm,” Onyx exclaimed. “As soon as they see money in it, they’ll crank the synthesis up tenfold.”
“That’s an idea,” said Tulle. “The development cost would restrict the process to wealthier citizens for just the first couple of decades; then it would be generally accessible.”
Despite himself Blackbear laughed. “Human reproduction—it sounds so odd, put that way. In Elysium, you manufacture people, almost like servos.”
“Exactly.” Onyx nudged Blackbear’s arm. “You know what your good friend will think of it.”
Blackbear reddened, for word had got around that he spoke with Kal now and then.
“Citizen Onyx,” called the voice of the laboratory. “Your culture vessel number oh-three-two is ready for processing.”
Onyx left to continue her experiment.
Tulle raised a hand. “While I have a moment, Blackbear, let’s talk.” She drew him into the modeling lab, where Lorl was watching the neural tube develop in a simulation of a mutant embryo. Lorl had continued her project testing neural mutants in the simbrid embryo; she had not switched over to the genome project. Tulle leaned forward upon the counter, next to the culture bulbs, while her capuchin frisked at Blackbear’s feet, sniffing at the embroidered border. “Blackbear, you’ve certainly made your mark here, for all of six months. Are you feeling good about it?”
“Yes, of course.” Blackbear looked past her. Above the holostage hovered the developing backbone of an outsized embryo, the neural folds just pinching in. Lorl frowned at it, taking notes.
“Is your ‘family’ well? I keep forgetting; you’ll have another little shonling soon, just like my gorilla family. You must be quite distracted.”
Actually, he felt guilty for not feeling more. His first child he had experienced so intensely, every waking moment and even in his dreams. This one, the third, came to him when he thought of it; but in the meantime, there were Hawktalon and Sunflower crowding his attention, besides all the Elysian distractions. Whereas Falcon Soaring ... “A new baby is always wonderful,” he said. “I feel bad for those who can’t have one.”
“You feel sorry for us?” Tulle asked with a smile.
“No, no—I mean, yes, that too,” he said with some confusion. “I meant Raincloud’s cousin, who can’t have one of her own.”
“Forgive my curiosity, but why can’t she have a child?”
“She had surgical complications, and her reproductive organs had to be removed.”
“Really? How extraordinary.”
Blackbear wished he had not brought it up. Tulle would think, how backward these foreigners were, to have to remove vital organs.
“Well,” said Tulle, “she could still donate white cells and grow a child in vitro. Wealthy Valans have it done all the time.”
Blackbear shifted his feet. “We’re not exactly wealthy.” It embarrassed him to say this. In the Caldera Hills, the Windclan was the wealthiest family for several towns. They had sent Raincloud to the university, and himself as well; an unusual extravagance, to send a consort, but worth it to gain a competent doctor.
Tulle stared a moment. Then she shrugged. “Have her send us a blood sample. Her mate, too, of course. The shon will do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Grow the child, of course. Without longevity treatment, it’s a simple procedure.”
“But how will we ...”
“The shon owes me a couple of favors. It’s not a big deal; they make enough profit off the Valans.”
Blackbear’s heart pounded. How could the Windclan refuse? All they had to do was send a blood sample.
Hawktalon came home from the shon in a good mood, for the generen had let her take home her translation duck.
“Quack, quack,” said Sunflower when he saw the machine.
Hawktalon was so excited she ignored her younger brother. “Doggie?” She held the duck-shaped object close to the trainsweep, who had resumed the previous routine of following Blackbear and Sunflower on their daily travels.
Doggie squeaked. The duck said, “What is that unidentified object?”
Hawktalon jumped up in the air. “Hooray!” She turned a cartwheel, a trick the shonlings in their jumpsuits were fond of.
“It works, it really does. Now we’ll know everything Doggie’s saying to us.”
As it turned out, most of Doggie’s vocalizations produced mere static from the translator. The vocabulary from the Valan researchers appeared to be quite limited.
“Well,” said Hawktalon, as they reentered the house, “we’ll just have to get Doggie to teach us. Doggie—” She grabbed a chair. “What do you call this, Doggie? Chair—what ‘squeak’?”
Doggie made a noise.
“Chair,” repeated the girl. “Hear that, little duckie?”
After two tries, the duckie repeated “chair” in response to Doggie’s vocalization.
When Raincloud came home, Blackbear immediately told her about Tulle’s offer to grow Falcon Soaring’s child in the shon.
“Fantastic,” she told him. “I’ll arrange a call to Mother right away.” She added more thoughtfully, “It will take some explaining. Nightstorm might be better.”
At the laboratory Blackbear complained to Draeg, “You’ve been missing practice.” Actually he missed Draeg, who had not been around much of late.
“Complaints, complaints,” muttered Draeg morosely. “I think I’ve about had enough of this lab.” He stalked out.
Onyx watched him go. “Easy, Blackbear. He’s having a rough time. Something’s up with his family back home.”
“Quiet, please,” said Tulle, who was watching a logathlon on the holostage. “It’s not every day that Alin gets to grill Subguardian Flors.”
Flors was Verid’s boss, the Subguardian. He was just finishing a complicated response to Alin’s question about the L’liite debt crisis, whose settlement the Subguardian had just approved.
“So,” rejoined Alin, “now that Bank Helicon has rescheduled the L’liite loans over the next hundred years, accepting a loss that will amount to several trillion credits, borne ultimately by the citizens of Elysium, you have restored the L’liite credit rating? They promise, in return, to keep their refugees off our ocean—just how will that promise be kept?”
“You distort what I said,” Flors told the logen, shifting in his chair. The nanoplast obligingly molded to his new position. “You neglect the profound importance of L’li as a trading partner—”
Blackbear felt deep disquiet. He turned to leave, thinking of Draeg.
Continued in Issue 30