A Mate That’s Deep in Love
First Mate Desiree Atarashii first noticed the creature as it crossed the ramp to the rust-brown spheric wormer, Lemuria. She deduced from the slender shape and mass of fibrous hair that it was a woman. But the white unitard, clinging tightly, meant to accentuate groin and chest (rouse the smirking boys and girls¾do you think she/he’ll play?), emphasized a featureless columnar shape. Difficult to stare for long¾jagged bright green patterns migrated across the clothing. Another lustrous sign of estrous, pathetic on that meager figure¾like a little girl in her mother’s low-cut simuleather dress.
Desiree covered her eyes with her hand—an instant of dark against the turquoise methane-ammonia sky, glaring and spiraling, busily torturing her from beyond the pellucid walls of the Veladare spaceport. Too many skies and suns and horizons¾and did we really need all these bloody colours? This skull-piercing was the epilogue to last night’s group sex / drug ritual at the Hedonia Club, built within the mountainous husk of a nnmutig beast, whose walls gave forth synchronous sensations of roughness and smoothness, scents of oranges and excrement. The livid quivering forms moaning in charcoal shadow were egg-shaped, tentacled, skeletal, bipedal (of course). Remember, my girl, that we’re humans¾our shamelessness is well renowned, a weatherworn mate had told her at one of the Ancient Mariner Taverns one evening. You think we lack self-awareness? Hardly. Blobs of jelly housed in bone feed us to ourselves and keep the other predators out. Call it simply a need to be noticed. For are we not idealists, as Bishop Berkeley taught: to be seen is to be?
“What is that?” she asked Gerdun, Second Mate, whose branched body had the appearance of pumice and whose raspy exhalations through various pores constituted laughter.
“One of the mendacii. Agamic humanoid species.”
“Agamic?” Though the extracortical layer in her brain facilitated translation, there was occasional semantic dissonance
“Asexual.” Gerdun emitted suspirations of mirth, blithely waving one of his many limbs. “I didn’t expect you’d be familiar with such a malady, First Mate.”
“I’m ‘familiar’ with a few things beyond sex, my friend.”
“You’ve misjudged me, ma’am. I revere your intelligence as I admire your passion.”
“Hmph! ῾Passion,’” she repeated. “In terran, it means ῾enduring inflicted pain.’”
The oblong screen in the observation compartment displayed the passengers’ lounge: multileveled, with numerous sets of wide shallow steps leading to plush blue platforms, as in a 3VAK musical. Passengers and crew were disseminated in coveys throughout the room for the first of many parties that would divert them for the next three days. Gravity had on occasion caused a few setbacks for ships shrinking to particular size for higher-dimensional travel. The Huey had dissolved with fifteen hundred people aboard when its ingredients decohered and veered to a binary system. A one in twenty-five billion chance, said the actuaries, of a repetition. But wrongful-death litigation from the passengers’ estates had lasted twenty-five years, so policy ordained that the wormer begin each trip by strolling at just under light speed in a negative-energy-warp bubble until it was at least two light-days from any solar mass. Then it could start slashing into space and time.
“I hate this bloody lag time,” Desiree said to Eos.
“Eeyeh!” Eos exclaimed¾a term which in terran would have been rendered as “Ah!” or “Oh!”—expressions of pleasurable recognition or distress. “At last! You know I am not easy with a voyage until you complain.”
“I’m sorry if it annoys you.”
“Not at all, my dear one. Were you not listening? It comforts me.”
Eos’s flattened concave head was nearly as wide as his shoulders, and his downy orange skin and rotund body were mostly veiled by a satiny red robe. The row of tiny tenebrous eyes scanned the passengers, but only out of bemused perusal. He was neither beautiful nor prurient, but so attentive and condolent as to be sublimely attractive. As ship’s Suitor125 (qualified to commune with over 200,000 species), his job was to comfort, and within a day or less, passengers would be maneuvering for his counsel, interrupting his every meal or cycle of rest. Now, at least, Desiree could possess unreservedly his companionship.
At this moment she was relaxed and grateful. She shifted slightly on the ledge of white plasmaprene that warmed and conformed to her body. She most often restlessly awaited the moment that the wormhole could be cut and passengers and crew submerged in Level 8 consciousness until the ship reached the playgrounds on Gethi-Minus.
When, she asked Eos, had Level Five consciousness become so insufferable? It was undemanding, even carefree. There were reiterative equipment checks, questions to answer, apprehensions to mollify. She chatted up the tourists in the translucent corridors while, within her cortical sheaths, neuronal metalogic gates chattered isochronally with the array of redundant optical overminds, neural guidance modes, quasivital systems, and e-plasmotors behind the walls. The machines were designated en masse as a male “Captain.”
“The absence of trauma, my dear one,” Eos replied, “is not equivalent to serenity. Prophets of every civilization have taught that existence is entwined with suffering. From my homeland on Yawarakaii comes the well-worn verse: ῾Behold this life! Ennui / Spliced with catastrophe.’ . . . I’ve heard, though, that terrans go to bed happy, and wake up the same. Or perhaps they once did.”
“I’m not especially concerned,” she replied, “with the emotional state of terrans.” She had descended from the petulant residue of emigrants from Earth. “It’s just that even at Level Two there’s no relief.”
She could never specifically remember her dreams but arose from the liquid suspension chamber with sore eyes, a dry mouth, and an obscure but oppressive dread. “I choose sexual partners as some kind of preventative,” she said. “I keep hoping to store up memories to replay¾fend off darker images.”
“What of last evening’s debauch at the Hedonia?”
“Nothing there to keep.” Oh, what a merry, frenzied, intermingled mass, so earnestly convulsing. She’d been too comatose to climax, or feel.
Mennemis, the OD, entered the compartment. He possessed curly hair, thick lips, and bright teeth. “Atarashii,” he began, his head characteristically pitched sideward when he spoke to her. “Captain says we’re off on our BPS.” BPS matched biopsychosexual factors of passengers to crew for symmetric distribution. The implication was, of course, that she should serve the relational needs of the leftovers. “He’s hoping you can help him out.”
“I might if I find someone interesting. I usually do.”
“Captain has a list¾”
She held out her hand, open-palmed. “As I said, I might choose one. I’m all for ῾helping out.’ I’ll stand extra watches, I’ll clean their rooms¾but I won’t make the rounds in them.”
Mennemis compressed his lips and shook his head. “Captain’s really in a bad¾”
“Please don’t do that.”
“Do what?” he asked, his eyes widening in feigned bewilderment
“The roundabout: letting the Captain down equals not doing my job equals negative ratings in my file and little black marks chasing me across my career. He knows that whatever I do is a favor. He can’t order me, he can’t threaten me, and if he tries to treat me like a Second Mate or less, I still won’t do it, and we can take it up with the Board when we get back.”
At the mention of “Second Mate,” Mennemis winced, offended by the indeliberate denigration of his rank. He restored himself by contemplating her breasts. “Okay,” he said, a singsong Cassandra, “but Captain’s gonna be really, really¾”
“Yes—and we’re really, really sorry about that,” she said.
“Eeyeh,” Eos quietly moaned, after Mennemis had departed. “You have affronted our Officer on Deck.” The lipless line of his mouth formed a grin.
She shook her head and made a scraping sound in her throat, as bitterness attenuated to mirth. “I rather think it was my ῾front’ that suffered the indignity if you noticed.” She wore the clinging gray one-piece uniform that was required, but she’d had it altered to add more thickness and diminished constriction around the torso, to resist the salacious hypocrisy of a fashion that revealed what it would conceal. As First Mate, she was entitled to refuse all propositions. But she had assumed that right even as a grunt, despite warning letters, pay deductions, and “advice” from her betters. Even Lieutenant Vaterlich had been compelled by senior officers to counsel her, though he smirked as he did so, speaking aloud as if for the benefit of an audience, his crescent-shaped eyes darkly glittering. “You can never truly be a ῾mate,’ Atarashii, so long as you deny its . . . its denotative . . . imperative.” So nicely phrased! Vaterlich was a wordsmith.
“I had so wanted, sir,” she’d responded soberly, “to offer my chastity to the Lord.”
Vaterlich burst out laughing and transformed it into a choking cough. He pressed his fist to his mouth and waved at her¾a palliative dismissal. He was the rare superior who never betrayed an insinuative tone¾delineating sex as company policy and, accordingly, an executive dividend. Because of him she’d not only escaped sanction but had been promoted from Third to Second to First Mate.
“I’m surprised you didn't suggest that as Second Mate he should do a turn as lady of the evening,” Eos said.
“Nobody should be at the mercy of that damned BPS. Anyway, he’d just get indignant and remind me he’s entitled to be as principled as I, being a ῾warrior’ too.”
“True enough, by some definitions.”
When the company realized they could inlay combat tactics and fighting techniques in the cortex, they gleefully calculated how much they’d save by not having to pay for warriors. But flabby VPs discovered, after being artificially inseminated with bushido, the way of the warrior, that reflexive fighting postures caused painful injuries in bodies lacking grace and endurance; and that the art of war could be subverted into rage and delirium carrying one to impetuous death. The economizing practice of overstimulating amateurs was abandoned, but there remained those like Mennemis, convinced a warrior needed naught but conductive polymers.
Now she scanned the scaly, lubricious, iridescent mass of creatures in the lounge for a candidate, even as a great numbing weariness descended upon her. There were humans, of course, prime cuts¾lean and muscular and pulchritudinous, as she was. But she’d dyed her short hair bright yellow, accentuating her olive skin, distinguishing herself. Protoplasmic surgery made homeliness a matter of choice. But other species were confused—and cross-cultural commerce impaired—by an uncommon human, so prettiness was prescribed.
There was a tall green-furred Derogian with a smooth, white face, like a mask. A possibility. Or the¾
A vexation at the back of her head: PROBLEM. Random passenger scans showed that passenger 14TßŸ@iyakweli was deceased.
“While you’re gone, I’ll choose one for you,” Eos said to her when she explained what had been discovered.
“I trust you,” she said, and Eos, glancing at her with his multiple eyes, winced rather than smiled, sensing the emotion around the commonplace phrase, and pressed one of his stubble-fingered hands over hers. A fevered current overcame her.
“False identity, Gerd?” Desiree asked as she entered the lounge, knowing the joke he would make of it.
Gerdun tilted his dendritic body a few degrees toward her. “Perhaps only delayed mortification, First Mate. A passenger needs to be advised of her/his/its death.”
“I imagined that being able to think at the speed of light, the Captain might have become aware of this a bit sooner.”
“Indeed. But it is imperative that the passenger be counseled, or consoled. You are best suited to do so, having a courteous and ‛curtsyous’ manner.”
“You are cruel, Gerd, which I’m obliged to admire.”
Gerdun emitted myriad tonal breaths of amusement.
The passenger, Iya Kweli, was the mendacia she’d noticed boarding the ship. She was categorized in the manifest as “female.” Desiree searched the crowd, wariness causing stresses to form along her body. The massive wall screens issued low-toned harmonies and displayed brightly colored statistics.
“You are the First Mate, are you not?”
Iya Kwelli stood beside her.
“Yes, I am.”
“There is some difficulty, and I was told to speak to you about it.”
Iya Kwelli was petite, and Desiree could see now that the bountiful brunette hair concealed an elongated head. Her eye sockets were narrow and slanted like accent marks, but the eyes placidly signified ataraxia. The animated emerald patterns on her clothing made Desiree remember renderings of neon signs on ancient terran ruins, such as BOB’S BAR & GRILL, enticing nothingness in the night.
She realized Iya Kwelli was awaiting a reply.
“I’m sorry¾you were saying?”
“You were to look at this?” She held out her arm and pulled up the sleeve of her unitard. With her forefinger, Desiree grazed the mark just beneath the pale skin: 21X21. Her “ticket” for the voyage.
“Security scans of the subdural mark, uh, suggest that you are—departed.”
“Yes.” Her lips, a primrose ellipse against her pallid face, were slightly upturned¾in patience or indifference. “We are often accused of being dead, because terran physicians, encountering us amid lingkaran, the ceremony we undergo at¾what would approximate the age of puberty in human cultures¾diagnose us as deceased. Such ignorance is understandable.”
“And shocking,” she muttered wryly.
“Don't let it trouble you. Policy calls for cellular analysis. Though not painful, it’s lengthy and uncomfortable, and I¾”
She felt the mendacia’s hand on her arm. It was a hand small and fine; a hand that bestowed radiant warmth and comforting certitude.
“I submit myself to you,” Iya Kwelli said.
That febrile rush again, as she’d experienced in revealing her feelings for Eos. But those emotions were the product of many years and voyages together. And to be evoked again, so effortlessly? Perhaps the excess of drugs last night had made her vulnerable, or there was some catamenial sensitivity. Could she be ovulating? She said, feebly, “Your¾cooperation is appreciated.”
Desiree’s unvoiced report to the Captain declared that the cellular test was contraindicated. Why? the Captain prodded. Possible compromise to cultural ethos, she replied, having learned from Gerdun that mendacii tended to resist clinical “sightseeing” as a violation of bodily integrity. In the absence of evidence of crime or health hazard, obliging her to be tested could result in an “incident”¾ i.e., twenty-five years of litigation. Though the Captain was rarely uneasy, his silence betokened hesitant acquiescence.
“There is no need for verification,” she told Iya. “Though we’re brutish, we’re bashful about treading on taboos.” She felt the unaccustomed tug of a smile on her face.
“You know, then, of our customs?” Iya wondered, stepping nearer.
“Minimally, Iya Kweli. The extra cortical sheaths we carry can stow enough information, usually, to prevent egregious cultural blunders.”
“Oh, ῾Iya,’ surely. And one could not imagine you making a blunder, First Mate.” Again, Iya laid her hand on Desiree’s arm.
“Please call me ‘Desiree,’” she answered, though she had determined to thwart the familiarity of sharing forenames. “Well, I must return¾”
“Excuse me, Desiree,” Iya said, “but I have learned of a virtual pastime often practiced by travelers. Something about ῾hell’?”
“The Ten Hells,” Desiree said. “It’s been superseded by MindFuse. But the Lemuria, like most wormers, is out of season with interstellar marketing.”
“I would like to play it. It requires at least two, not true?”
“Uh, yes. One should be experienced¾serious errors can result in some pain¾and the mentor should be relatively sober. . . .”
Iya’s stare had silenced her.
“I—uh—I might have some time tomorrow to—introduce you to the game.”
“I would be grateful.” Iya bowed her head.
“Eeyeh, how wondrous!” exclaimed Eos as she reentered the lounge. “She was my choice for you.”
“I think you need to skim mendacian biology,” she replied, laughing, “if they put any useful reference data in those SANEs of yours.” She occasionally teased him about how Yawarakaian physiology mandated the use of a nanochip complex called “Synthetic Ancillary Neuronal Enhancements,” or SANEs, in lieu of homegrown gray (or blue or pink or transparent) brain matter.
But Eos did not reply¾only stared at her with his minuscule eyes. She felt a brief, rapid flourish of anxiety, like insects’ wings.
Desiree had the microlinkage already planted in her cortical sheath, but Iya had to don a metaplastic skullcap. They lay on cushioned couches, embedded with sensors, in one of the viewing cubicles. The Ten Hells were actually eight, the first an iron-walled waiting area crammed with the condemned―or, rather, “condamned.” The challenge was in bullying through the mob to the bloated purple judge that sent them off to the hells. The tenth was a garden in which a white judge announced that they had completed their penance and were due for rebirth. Between the points of quest and denouement were eight Gehennas in a downward spire. As these were nonmaterial worlds, players were projected into them naked¾fortunately a stylized nakedness that approximated their bodily forms without such blatancies as nipples or genitalia. Desiree disliked any uncontrolled exposure of her person—even a simulated one—and avoided this pastime, except at a passenger’s request.
Despite her discomfort, she was inspired by Iya’s exuberance and grace in this amalgam of Buddhist, Taoist and Chinese myths. In the Hell of the Upside-Down Sinners, Iya swam unerringly through their groping arms and clawed fingers toward the escape hatch (striated to mimic passing tigerfish). Desiree admired the forceful crisscrossed movements of her threadlike prepubescent body. In the Screaming Hell, which was also the Hell of Being Flayed Alive, they dodged among the gory tendinous forms of peeled sinners, and Iya mimicked and exceeded their screams, like Montresor, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” mocking Fortunato as he walled him in the catacombs. For the Great Burning Heat Hell, they were placed in a great wooden cauldron amid feculent souls awaiting boiling oil to engulf them from above. Iya was smiling. . . .
The Hells were dissolved by the force of the irritant in Desiree’s head. She rose from her couch and saw that Iya too had emerged from the trance. A party of speculators had been reported missing on the Garden Planet.
“What exactly is a ῾Garden Planet’?” Œssyrachin asked Desiree as she strolled toward the ovate dropship. Œssyrachin was a querulous Isu'rsan. The armless body was braced by a tripod harness of bone, arrayed with flexive skeletal pincers. His proboscis and drooping lips lent him haughtiness. “And why do we have to make a visit?”
“One: I don’t know,” Desiree replied. “Two: we’re the closest ship, not in a wormhole, not a military or emergency vessel.”
“In other words,” Œssyrachin groused, “we don’t have a good excuse.”
“You know it’s part of the contract when you trade this far out from Galactic Center. Brave new worlds and all that. And there’s no law enforcement on the planet¾no sentient beings either, as far as we can tell.”
“Oh, really? Then who put a garden there, jakhannab?” It was an idiom; obscene in relation to Isu'rsan sexual mores and practices, and so convoluted that it was wiser to render it as “lady.” “We’ve already gone three light-days out of our way for this.”
“You mean I’ve been out for three days?” She felt panic at the irretrievable loss of time.
“There was no need to disturb your neurochemical romp with Iya Kwelli,” Gerdun interjected. “The Third Mates did their job of cajoling the passengers into their coffins. They’re not aware that anything’s amiss.”
“Not until they get to Gethi-Minus,” Desiree said, “and realize their two-week vacations have shrunk to eight days.”
The scans showed that the garden enveloped the entire planet. Not even the Captain could ascertain how it had gotten there.
Eos and Iya entered the dropship bay. Desiree scrutinized them. Eos blurted, “If the speculators have somehow offended the inhabitants¾”
“Somehow? When aren’t they offensive?” grumbled Œssyrachin.
“¾I am directed to assist in negotiations.”
“Yes, Eos,” Desiree said, glancing at Iya. “But passengers are not to be endangered¾”
“We mendacii are adept at mollifying stress,” Iya said. “I might be useful. Also, I volunteered with the understanding I would waive all rights to seek compensation in the event of injury.”
“We don’t know what to expect,” Desiree argued. “It could be¾”
Iya smiled at her. “I’m not afraid.”
“First Mate, you amaze me!” cried Gerdun. “Have you become an elder sister?”
She noticed Mennemis had turned up and was grinning at her, flaunting his translucent teeth. Dammit! Naturally, they’d foist him off as a helper.
Eos said, “She does have the right to join us, First Mate¾the dangers having been explained to her. And she could as well be extremely useful.” Eos was being brusque (for him), to protect her. He touched her elbow, and they stepped away.
“You’re troubled,” he said softly, “and not merely about potential liability.”
She considered protests or feigned ignorance, but pretense was unavailing against Eos. “I’m more than ‘troubled.’ I’m terrified of becoming enamored of an asexual being.”
“As you are with me.”
“Well, of course, with us there’s love, but ours is a spiritually¾” She stopped, realizing what he meant. “No. You can’t compare them. This”¾she gestured insistently toward the group waiting at the dropship¾“is daraku. Impure. Somehow emotional . . . maternal, lascivious . . .”
“Still, a kind of love.”
She released a blustering exhalation. “As if we knew what ῾love’¾”
He moved nearer to her, murmuring, as if fearful of embarrassing her:
“Call it not affection
that makes of matter composition.
Passion strengthless to augment
aught of leaf or fruit.
Lust¾once piquant, now unsavored¾spurned
when sentient our senses turn.
This is love, peerless, transcendent,
“Sounds Shakespearean. I’m sorry. I’m being ethnocentric—or homocentric. Some Yawarakaian poet?”
Eos nodded, his compound eyes downcast. “Myself,” he said.
“A linguist, a consoler, a bodhisattva, and a poet,” she observed. “I am a proton, clinging to your boot.”
Eos held up his hand. “Self-abasement, First Mate, is prohibited during working hours.”
She held one of his pleated orange hands between hers. “Thank you.” She sighed. “Let’s go, then.”
There was momentary vertigo, and the dropship had landed. They found clear green sky above a plain of tidy reddish grass, triangular bushes, trees in the lollipop shape envisioned in prehistoric crayon drawings. A saffron sun above an oxygonal mountain.
“No different than the scans,” said Œssyrachin. “Those speculators didn’t ‘lose’ contact. They got hyped on dawaa or some such and bounced off the atmosphere into a wormhole. It was probably thwarted creditor-assassins that broadcast the distress.”
Desiree ordered a defensive sweep, twenty-degree intervals, full ready.
“Nothing,” Eos said, after a few minutes. “Trees, haystacks, lily pads in the pond. Your spacious skies and waves of grain, eh?”
“Not mine,” Desiree murmured, looking about. “No groundskeeper, no gardener, no simpering natives. Anything, Gerd?”
The innumerable receptors in Gerdun’s body perceived everything from façade to fundamental force. When electrons changed energy levels and spilled out stylish light, when particles danced in atomic nuclei, he construed patterns. He was known to perceive aberrations eluding even wave/particle sensors, and outclassed sentinel devices.
“Nothing more fun than plant life, First Mate,” Gerdun answered, turning slowly. “Wait, here’s something higher.” He nodded toward the insect crawling in a zigzag beneath them. Its rapidly blinking eyes and clustered legs made it almost endearing.
Eos bent closer to look, mewling his appreciation. “Eeyeh! A lovely thing! I believe it’s a smäär!”
The attack came like a hand curling into a fist. Bark unrolled from trees as flattened, razor-edged insects; lily pads became massive snakes with ruffled collars; furred bundles from underground burrows skimmed the ground toward them baring multitudinous teeth; poisonous lichen blazed a purple trail over the placid grounds. Their diets had likely been coordinated so as to consume their prey down to the chemicals in its waste.
“How did they do that, First Mate?” Gerdun asked in bewildered listlessness. “How did they stay dormant, down past the molecular level?”
The others were immobile, watching the creatures charging. As on Chorion: the Yendid were so swift and savage, no one believed it was happening.
“All right!” she shouted. “Close it up! Quickly now!”
A series of concentric shields made of laser lattices and carbon nanotubes emanated from the center of the compound. Behind them, the team formed a rhombic pattern enclosing the encampment and commenced firing spinners in all directions (so named because they caused particular pairs to speed hemispherically and collide). Gerdun and Mennemis had already sprayed “Aunt Maggie” (antimatter fluids) beyond the perimeter. Beasties on the outskirts exploded or collided with the shields. Those that could penetrate the shields sizzled under the withering touch of the spinners. All of the aggressors perished in surges of blood, dust, and light.
Meanwhile, the smäär scurried up Eos’s leg and secreted a fluid allowing it to slip through his ear canal. Its brushlike legs cut a devious path through his brain. Eos fell on the trim grass, uttering guttural moans and sliding on his back, trying to escape the gnawing in his head.
Desiree crouched over Eos waving her spinner, searching hopelessly for a clear shot at an immersed enemy. The SANE in his head did not protect, like her cortical sheath, against earwigs, shattering sonics or infiltrating voices. The smäär slipped out, and Œssyrachin used his acidic spit to make it writhe and decay in a patch of grey.
“You’re supposed to keep specimens like that for testing,” Mennemis said.
“I like watching the little rovno die,” Œssyrachin replied.
Desiree knelt by Eos. His massive chest was rising and falling rapidly beneath the light blue coveralls. Purplish blood filled his mouth and flowed down the perianth of flesh below his chin.
“We’ll move to the dropship and set the moly-assemblers into you¾you’ll be fine,” she said to him. “Gerd¾”
Eos held up his right hand. It was coated with grime. “No need, First May— The little critter’s shredded―my thinking cap.”
He clenched her forearm and murmured an invocation that she did not recognize, and only fragments could be discerned:
“. . . Zomán . . . Dihr . . . Surmand . . . Fihr . . .”
She used her sleeve to wipe away some of the blood. He watched her with his many eyes, moving his lipless mouth. “Nesút . . . Mekekút. . . Jebarot . . . Luhaúkt . . . Inact . . . Hehnackt . . .” He arched his back, groaning mournfully.
“Shouldn’t we take him to the ship, First Mate?” Gerdun asked.
“He’s dying,” she answered. “Moving him will just hurt him.”
“Are you sure it’s hope¾” Œssyrachin started to ask.
“I’m nothing,” she said. “He knows.”
Eos’s words were interspersed with breathless bracing against pain as if that too was part of the chant. A human brain had no pain receptors, but the Yawarakaians suffered there and everywhere.
“Jesus! Why don’t you give him something to shut him up?” Mennemis asked.
“He wouldn’t want to be unconscious now,” said Desiree. “It’s important that he be alert for this.”
“For what? Crying and wailing like¾”
“It’s not about pain,” Iya interjected, standing between them. Though she did not raise her voice, her words were clear and distinct. “When Yawarakaians are dying, they call upon the attributes of the Collective Spirit to prepare themselves.” Desiree noticed that the inconstant color of her uniform had resolved into an untroubled green.
“Well, I’m not listening to this,” Mennemis said. “I’m going back¾”
“You will listen to it, Second Mate. Out of respect,” Desiree commanded.
“You can’t¾” She watched, peripherally, Mennemis glance at her and desist.
The jacksuited heterogeneous crew moved about, nudging dead animals with their feet in the ancient fashion, gathering specimens with electrostatic tongs, recording the scene. They knew the work, though some had never been through battle, and none had ever encountered an ecosystem like this.
Mennemis breathed in exasperated puffs and shifted about, his boots making gruff grindings in the soil. Eos stared at her as he prayed. Her face would be his last image of life. Eyes, look your last! Romeo had cried. Arms take your last embrace! and, lips, O you / The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss / A dateless bargain to engrossing death.
She’d learned ten methods of blowdart evasion but had still managed to get shot. She lay paralyzed on the ground of Chorion while soldiers of the Yendid clan loped toward them
across a plain beset with sharp stone ridges like ossified waves, among soldiers in motionless maculate postures of death. Eos had knelt beside her, as she was kneeling beside him now. He, too, carried a poisonous needle in his flesh, though she wasn’t cognizant of it then. He rose and accosted the Yendid.
He was short and squat, as they were tall and lean. Their rounded maxillae and mandibles made her think of terran primates she’d viewed in holos. So simple and sincere they are—incapable of deceit or brutality, the Ambassador and his peacekeeping force had repeated, immobilized by denial, even as the Yendid slaughtered them.
The Yendid stopped and stared at Eos impassively. They were likely to skewer him just as impassively and finish her.
“Soldiers of Yendid,” Eos declared in the Yendidan dialect, “I stand before you, ready for death. Yet I testify, before the Almighty One, to Whom all things testify, that surely, He shall loose His angry angels upon any that harm this sanctified one”—he gestured toward Desiree—“born beyond shadows . . .”
Eos kept on in this manner, taking phrases from random scriptures, even placing the point of a spear to his middle, until the Yendid, either charmed or bored, withdrew.
Mennemis drew his spinner. “I can’t watch this. For God’s sakes, he’ll be better off¾”
Desiree leapt up from the Noh position and kicked his gun hand with the flat of her foot, delivering a punch to his throat with a bit of superfluous force. He could not control his movements enough to block her. He reeled, wheezing and gagging in the dirt. Gerdun administered a compression hypo to restore him, though he’d be paralyzed for a spell.
She regretted she had left Eos for even a moment. He gazed at her, and beyond her, and said, “The mountain moved.”
He breathed out, and the stillness held him.
The horripilating rush of grief overcame her, and she pressed her face against Eos’s chest, against satiny coveralls and viscid blood, breathing in his scent, of forests and streams over stones. The universe ended and began.
“The mountain moved,” Gerdun repeated.
She numbly stood. “I heard. I don’t know what that means.”
“No, Desiree,” Gerdun repeated, “the mountain moved.” The use of her first name alarmed her. She looked behind him at the green horizon.
Not only the mountain but also the sun was closing in.
In one moment, they were immobile. In the next, the mountain was a colossal, striding, human female, her reddish-brown skin incised in furrows—much like a self-mutilated worthy one would encounter in a Painful Pleasures Club—the sun her cycloptic eye. Then sun and mountain rejoined the landscape.
They poured droning antimatter pulses into her. Her particles, counter-spun, should have scattered convulsively, but the mountain-woman succession went merrily along. They aimed for the eye, but she instantly turned her head just so, as if foreknowing each shot.
“You think the shields will protect us?” she asked.
“Against that?” Œssyrachin answered. “They won’t break if that's what you mean. But we could get impacted in the ground until the air gave out.”
The green sky swirled in marbled vortices. The mountain represents Gaia, the planetary force, the Captain informed her. Atmospheric density has increased by not less than one million percent. There is no feasible escape route. Nothing can pass through possessing an absolute specific gravity greater than--
Yes. Yes. I quite understand, she interrupted. She related to the crew the Captain’s assessment.
“She’s making sure we don’t get rescued,” Gerdun declared.
Gaia remained immovable now, a few hundred metres away.
“Can we run?” Desiree asked. “Fly low?”
“If we try, she’ll bring the atmosphere down on us,” Œssyrachin opined, “or grow a thousandfold and squash the ship.”
“She’s hesitating,” Gerdun observed. “As if she’s reconnoitering us.”
“No,” said Desiree, “she’s waiting for us to do a certain thing, but we don’t know what. Is there a way we can―?”
All at once Gaia’s power looped underground and into Desiree. Utter euphoria bloomed within her, while pointed rods skewered every muscle and bone. The way of things, she repeated. The way of all things. The way. The thrumming and eddying of pleasure and pain made her gasp and stumble backwards.
“Are you well, First Mate?” Gerdun asked. Œssyrachin took a step toward her and Iya watched, briefly agonized. Desiree bent forward and gripped her thighs, taking deep and urgent breaths.
At length, she answered, “Well.” A vessel forever empty can contain an infinity of things. She realized what to do.
“I’m going to the dropship,” she said.
It lay wrapped in blue cloth behind a sliding panel. She’d kept it with her furtively on every wormer or dropship, in every permaplast, clammy overnight hotel. It had a round simulated-ivory handle covered in crosshatched pseudoleather. A wooden scabbard etched with demons’ faces. A curved, gold-plated titanium alloy blade, sliding out, hissing as it manifested itself. The katana was the soul of the samurai. A sword, rightly used, quells the barbarous while lying in its sheath, the ancient texts maintained. She had purchased it from an expatriate merchant on a tourist satellite orbiting the twin stars of Eng and Chang. Even in the seventeenth century, swords were made on a production line, the secrets of the authentic sword-smithery having been lost. Now they were fabricated by molecular alignment. And it was two-edged, in violation of tradition. Absurd to wave this about when Gaia resisted long-distance antimatter weapons. But it was said that when such a sword was plunged into a stream, flower petals would swerve to avoid touching it.
She also grabbed a spinner and grav-repulsor harness as she left.
Mennemis, sitting on an inflated pedestal and massaging his neck, started laughing when she came near them. “She’s brought her toy,” he said raspily.
“And you are a toy warrior,” Œssyrachin spat, watching crew members lower Eos into a plasmaprene coffin.
“Don’t think this won’t go to the Board,” Mennemis said. “I had legal authority for euthanasia under the circ¾”
“Take this to the Board,” Œssyrachin said with cheerful venom, unholstering his hunting knife with one of his pincers. Gerdun restrained him while Mennemis cowered on the tiny stool.
“Oolybatsii, darling,” Desiree said. The universal enticement, a request to smile¾that she’d heard from prostitutes in Isu'rsan ports¾so startled Œssyrachin that he grinned and desisted, while several nearby crewmembers, jitteringly studying the mountain, burst out laughing. She laughed too—until she glimpsed Eos’s form through the semiopaque casket. On the ground, but never below it. His body would be reverently reduced to particles.
Gaia was still stationary. Desiree strapped on the harness. It was like an oversize thong with suspenders, the pleated black tubes enveloping her from pelvis to crown. She’d fastened the sword and spinner to her belt. The spinner was L-shaped, weighty, like the ancient forty-fives, modified to supply a point-seven increase in payload¾a compromise to reduce the skepticism of the crew. “If I can get between those eyelids, maybe I can stop it.”
“Like Remoheyll,” Gerdun said, “who kills a giant Ballena by stuffing poison plants in its breathing hole.”
“Sure,” she said, tightening straps. “More apropos here might be the terran legend of Odysseus putting out the eye of Polyphemus. Anyway, she seems pretty enamored of the classics.” Desiree glanced at Iya, who remained so consummately tranquil. Would she be so if Desiree died?
Stop! Errant thoughts could distract her at the imperative moment. The ten thousand incidentals would flow, but she must be receptive yet centered; active, yet revealing nothing of herself; concentrated through mushin: the non-abiding mind.
“You can’t be doing this alone,” Œssyrachin protested.
“I have―certitude,” she said.
She ascended silently but felt the vibrations within the tubes. Fearsome algid air pressed upon her.
Now Gaia was revived. Desiree contemplated her immensity, her striated hide. Her head had somewhat the shape of a tulip, with star-pointed hair.
Gaia made no attempt to grab her. I’m too far away and too skittish, like an irritating insect. She wants to be certain of snaring me.
The harness wavered, tilted. The encampment was a diorama below her. She flew upward, transversely, toward the concave skull. Ignoring the hands, as if I’m not bright enough to notice them. Precipitously, Gaia reached for her. She spun the repulsor and rolled off Gaia’s fingertips. But Gaia slapped her away.
Flung, upended, she felt her brain lurching in her head. Contrecoup¾where the brain injuries begin. But I’ll be dead soon enough. She righted herself and sped toward the luminous disk of Gaia’s eye. She unsheathed the sword and lifted it along the line of her body, then chopped the tubing above and before her. She’d seen paintings of a samurai halving an enemy’s head through the helmet with a downward stroke.
Desiree pressed buttons, retracting bolts. She surged forward unyieldingly to precipitate a careless response.
As Gaia’s hands converged on her, Desiree released the electromag interlock, and the harness crumbled. Desiree vaulted and rolled, choking in a malevolent gust. She tripped the spikes in her boots and alighted diagonally on Gaia’s nasal bridge. The eye was closed, but she sliced away a portion of the nictitating membrane and thrust her sword into the bright translucent tissue. She forced the hilt and her right arm through. Neuromuscular numbness possessed her, and she stumbled. She’d lost the sword, lost the--
She clung to Gaia’s forehead with her left arm and the blunt remainder of the other.
Though Gaia’s consciousness was disrupted but for an instant, her vivacity had been mortally wounded. She tumbled backward languorously. Thousands of metres below were scraps of land and skins of sea.
Why did you do this? Gaia asked as they tilted against the wind.
You killed my friend, Desiree answered.
Why did you do this? Gaia demanded.
For Iya, she replied. The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service, there resides . . .
The green sky was sliding up. She was “lying” in a gurney amid the vibrations of the positronic field that sustained her. The stub of her arm was wrapped in thermoplastic layers.
Iya appeared, was gone, and returned, a bobbing apparition. Desiree felt as if she were in a canyon. She thought of Eos in his case.
Desiree flailed, and the gurney halted. Gerdun stepped up, waving his myriad limbs. “Relax, First Mate. We’re a few metres from the dropship¾”
She lifted her legs over the gurney’s verge. “Just let me walk there. I can stand.” He has so many branches, and I had only two, but it's mine that gets carved up. They were in the shadow of a great wheel of soil and stone¾the base of the mountain that rested horizontally across the land, adamantly misplaced, a toppled statue. The mountain should have crashed through the planetary crust, but Gaia, she realized, had dispossessed herself from it and gently eased its fall. Thus had Desiree survived.
“Ne nivay, darling,” Œssyrachin said. “You've proved yourself¾as if we needed proof. Relax and savor the victory.”
Upright, she felt throbbing dizziness erupt through her. Her legs were jerry-built as she unsteadily studied Iya. “I killed her.” She swallowed. “I killed Gaia just to know¾”
“Know?” Iya asked.
“You would be safe. You were safe.”
Iya stepped closer, frowning disconcertedly. “Oh! You were thinking of¾”
“I protected you. My duty—” Her emotions confounded her speech. “I want to protect you. I love you.”
Iya embraced her, gently pressing the side of Desiree’s head to—what would have been her breasts. The frail body warmed and excited her even amidst the pain.
“Do you know what you love? What everyone loves?” Iya stepped back slightly to fix upon Desiree’s eyes. “The Beauty of God reflected in the soul.”
Desiree beheld her bandaged foreshortened arm. See the Beauty.
“So are we all attracted to one another, in love,” Iya declared.
“No,” Desiree said, amid a tremulous sickening rush. “There is also—I want you to yearn for me.”
“The soul needs transcendence,” Iya insisted, “but we stifle it with craving, a momentary potency.”
Desiree slumped onto the resilient rim. “So, you mendacii . . . disregard the body.”
“Mendacii are not identical. Some are hermaphroditic. There are planetary cultures in which the mendacii serve as third spouses in marriages. Among the amginee, for example, a mendacia conceives after intercourse with a male amgin, and then passes the fertilized ovum through her male organs to a female amgin.”
Gerdun and Œssyrachin lurked respectfully in attendance. A few metres ahead was the yellow dropship, shaped like a gourd. A newly manifested sun blistered the horizon, a range of purplish mountains shuddered, the green sky thrashed circuitously, all boding Gaia’s vengeance. The planet’s bursting a bit, but please continue your lecture.
“So,” Iya was saying, “the mendacii are very―”
“Sorry. Sorry to intrude,” Desiree said, holding up her right hand―then realizing she had no right hand―“but I wanted to ask, just to be certain. You’re not . . . sensual?”
“It is not my nature.”
“Examine your feelings. You feel an attraction, but to what? What is the goal of your desire?”
Desiree lay back into the suspension field. “My name. A pun.” She chuckled. “My goal is a roundabout to me.”
Desiree bided for sleep in her viscid chamber, dressed in a soft, blue nightshirt, swathed arm resting on her belly. She hoped the arm would be grown again from cells in the dog-end. She detested this time when every scene would be replayed. She would writhe, stretch, sigh, grunt and groan in shame or anger invoked by comments she had made, occasions when she should have spoken, clever replies she had not opportunely conjured. Now all the minor cruelties and impatient gestures were revisiting her; images of needy people she had avoided. Everything abrupt or inconsiderate that she had said or done to Eos agonized her.
And then there was the maudlin display before Iya Kweli and the crew. “I want to protect you!” “I love you!” She dreaded the remarks that would be made, especially by Mennemis, after debarkation and stand-down. And, she thought, for years to come. Had she forever lost their respect by falling for an asexual creature? An azoiphiliac, they’d call her, lover of lifeless matter, with a pathetic unidirectional longing for holograms, literary characters, a voice, a scent.
During survival training on Ubódstvœn, you wore long underwear and thermal socks in 12 ºC and dashed across implacable whiteness. There were faults, traps, holes, but you sprinted at full speed and scanned the ground. Hesitate, panic, and you failed. She plunged into a glacier crevasse. Abrasive implosion, stinging ears, blue shadows on white. The only chance for warmth was catching an ogie£, whose blood was a stimulant. But though her reflexes were quick, her hands were numb, and the bulb-eyed, bulb-bottomed little rovno cavorted away as her raw fingers scraped frozen snow. Soon metallic cold embodied her (her essence was ice; she was a stalagmite amid crystal formations). Before the lapse of consciousness, she remembered the story of Christ, in his tomb, waiting to arise from the dead. . . .
She realized that it was she who was arising into the rescue ship.
“No one’s supposed to catch the ogie£,” Captain Vaterlich had said, smiling at her as she stood at 75º in an alignment litter, wrapped in thermoplastic layers and an antibody mask. “You must be taken to the moment when all training falls away, when the abyss opens. It’s essential in war that death be no longer an unknown. It’s one of the okugi that can’t be learned otherwise.”
“I don’t want to learn any more okugi.” She could scarcely move her lips in the narrow space the antibody mask allowed.
“Hidden methods are the essence of ῾war,’ and you are a warrior.”
“I thought the essence of war was propagation. Winners make more babies.”
Vaterlich chuckled. “I suppose that’s true.”
“Why is it so difficult?”
“Why does it take so much effort to think under pressure, keep your skills sharp, stay brave, disciplined . . . good? Why weren’t we made to do these things easily?”
He had pressed his hand against the edge of the litter, close to her head, abruptly surrendering the tension in his body, slouching. “Desiree—” He stopped, straightened, rubbed his right forefinger back and forth across his blond mustache and sighed.
“I won’t give you a lot of pseudo-Taoist babble,” he said, “about ‘what’s meant to be,’ but . . . Why didn’t the universe grow cohesively, like a tree; or why wasn’t it created all at once, like a light turned on? Why begin with a single point and explode into bits—if that’s really what happened? And yet, to spite its chaotic destiny, the bits cohered to form planets and galaxies and us. This is what I see, beneath every surface. Nothing but frantic particles. But the particles are struggling to keep rock or woman or raindrop whole.”
The fat man ordered her to remove her shorts and top and leggings in the floodlit concrete room. He glanced at the wall, and she understood that they were watching. At first, she decided to refuse outright. Then she chuckled as she sat on the smooth stone bench, and crossed her legs. In the historical holograms, they always started by kicking off their shoes, then sensuously pulling stockings down their legs, twirling them around their heads, throwing them at the men. The tease: prolonged disrobing that was meant to arouse the audience with the gradual revelation of the undiscovered essence.
She bent the ankle of her left foot back and forth until the foot came free. She did the same with her right. The lower legs snapped off like sectional pieces of plastic. She tossed them away and batted her eyes at the unseen audience. Poising, she held her disjoined thighs over her head and kissed the air. Here is what you long for. She could hear the hoarse protests of the men behind the walls.
The disconnected body upheld itself like a habit, so that she could, quickly and angrily, rip fabric and cast off arm, breast, abdomen, hip. The voyeurs raged and cried. . . .
In the passenger’s lounge among empty platforms, a woman approached her. Her white silken bodysuit revealed a lithe, muscular body. She had long, luxuriant hair and ovate eyes, cosmeticized. On any voyage, Desiree would have noticed and soon approached such an alluring tourist. Desiree had learned to challenge and entice¾with the emotional pheromones of empathic voice and sensual resolute gesture, the maneuvered nearness of bodies, intimations of erotic delights. And this beauty would have chosen no man, no one else.
But a great weariness overcame her. She could not glance up, but contemplated the blue, luxuriant floor, sensing the shape of the woman in amber light.
To say she wished to be a man was common nonsense. Are you glad, then, to be a woman? She would contemptuously agree, mindful of the implication in the question, that she was content to be fancied and defiled. Woman, man, or stone. She would be all. She would be nothing.
A year later, Mennemis had succeeded in getting her disciplined―a demotion to Third Mate. She resigned immediately. Then she went “home”¾to Rukutan. She stood on the corrugated stairway leading down to the mine’s living unit. Above was the transparent dome disclosing dense yellow clouds that dispensed sulfuric rain on the blighted brown soil.
Planetary miners sifted the air and the soil for titanium, uranium, iron, and neon. And gathered sulfuric acid as well. But her father always had contempt for his space and time. “This place is filth,” he said of Rukutan. “Sunura, now. It rains diamonds on Sunura.” Indeed, lightning storms in its methane atmosphere made carbon soot harden into graphite and then diamond as it fell. But it was because of their abundance on planets like Sunura that diamonds had been gradually rendered worthless. Still, terran progeny adhered to ancestral delusions about the innate sanctity of such elements.
She felt, below her, the strata of metal floors, machines, and bestials within this barrel sunk into the world.
She still had no right arm. In its place was a silver cybernetic limb with three pincers for fingers, linked by cables to the stump. The arm could not be regrown because the toxic fluids in Gaia’s eye had prevented cellular regeneration.
She descended helically toward light. Her parents were eating at a white plastic table in a room cluttered with bulky soiled equipment. Dull greenish light blurred shadows, movements, sounds.
“Finished approving the place?” her father asked. They were looking up at her as they chewed. They were pale and emaciated, with broad, glossy foreheads.
She released a humorless aspiration. “It’s not for me to¾”
“You’ll get used to it,” her mother said. “You did before.”
“I won't be here that long.”
“Really? I’m sorry! Where’re you expecting to go?” Her father smiled widely. Fujukaina egao. He had the lucent, bloodshot eyes of a man dominated by work, drugs, and anger.
“Anywhere. I’ve got skills¾”
“They revoked your work permit, remember, Joóo-san?”
Miners’ children had three years of “technical” training: rudimentary reading, math, electronics, and chemistry at the Kóozan Institute. Her predecessors had graduated scornfully: So what if this shit-hole company paid for my education? I’m made for better than this. But they returned to the mining station. Intragalactic networking was a lie.
But there was an alternative for women: indentured servitude. Sailing by day and sex by night. Even as a child she’d understood that freedom was a fantasy. She could be a miner or a mariner―and prostitute. One company or another would own her.
When she was twelve, recruiters for Peregrinus Caelitime Industries visited the school. She’d expressed her eagerness for shipping trash through wormholes. Parental permission was required, naturally. Of course! She’d told the recruiter. A child needs to feel she has her Mom and Dad’s support. They’ll be grief-stricken, but . . . She’d managed to ineptly counterfeit their brain-wave patterns on the approval chip with an outmoded neural scanner. He had only to transmit a request for verification to her parents to divulge the fraud, but he was distracted by Desiree’s friend, Le-Dah, who was twelve also but had long red hair and proud breasts. Desiree had cultivated her to be a shill.
Le-Dah stayed with mining, but Desiree had been raised and trained to be a “wormer” and a warrior. There followed two years of hefting crates of equipment and overseeing the anthroid laborers by day and returning to her bunk at night, her muscles aching, to spend hours on her back, enduring the weight of crewmen’s bodies, the flabby bulges of their flesh and brutal thrustings, their sour, acrid stench. And the implanted contraceptive mechanism intensified menstrual cramps into stealthy agony.
She’d bought her way out of her contract and signed up with what they called the Tramp Corps. But she had renounced her tricks for ever and all.
Now, because of her conviction (without trial) for the “attempted murder” of Mennemis, she could not apply for a work permit for five years.
Children squatted on the floor among the coils of cable and great cylindric laser-cutters, the smooth-bladed “plugs” and “feathers” that she’d always imagined as silverware for giants. “Who’re the kids?”
“Mom’s a surrogate now,” her father answered.
“But sometimes we’ll get a kekkán no áru the parents don’t want,” her mother explained. “So here they are.”
“We get to keep the money, o’ course.” Her father grinned.
The children didn’t appear to be faulty, except for the scabs of dirt on their faces, arms, and legs. They were alert, vigorously agile, shoving, squealing, preoccupied. Their skin had a pale seamed look, as of powder concealing wrinkles. Their eyes were close-set and circular, as on animated idols. She had looked like this.
“You’ll stay here,” her father declared. The room had the shape of a left triangle¾the corroded ceiling arching ever lower to the left corner where the bed was tucked. The same or similar bed to the one on which she’d slept: a wooden frame and a fluid-filled elastic mattress. Scattered over the mattress were sharply pointed colored pens and coarse gray paper like the ones she had used as a child. The sheets of paper were blank. She might have been comforted by her old drawings and poems. Within the mattress were chemicals that ostensibly simulated restful waters. They were cutaneous narcotics inducing comatose sleep and nurturing insensitivity.
“Okay,” she said, settling on the sharp edge of the frame. She felt empty, dried, gouged, like an arroyo. The pincers of her right arm made scraping sounds as she flexed them. I won’t be alive in five years. If she wasn’t a First Mate, where could she go? Change her identity? Caelitime companies had her cellular scans. She was “marked,” like a card-counter among the casinos. She could probably begin again in indentured servitude to some illicit enterprise. She was sliding into sunyata―emptiness.
“And,” her father said, “you’ve a visitor. You remember your cousin, Phedo?”
He had flagrant eyebrows, and thick blond hair combed back in a crest. “Hi, Des,” he said, his voice mollifying and malignant. His slit eyes studied her. He was tall and muscular, promenading in pants of sienna pseudoleather, open-necked pseudosilk shirt displaying the tattoo on his chest, a serpent that became a woman in varying light. Slinking to her bed at night and touching her, pleasure and shame searing her.
But she’d been three years old, then, and he’d been sixteen. After thirty years he still looked to be in his twenties. Nanometric repair, perhaps.
“Phedo’s in charge of security,” her mother said, leaning into the room beside her husband. “He needs to ask some questions, in private.”
“We’ll leave you to your work,” her father said. He started to close the door.
“You can leave the d—” It slammed, hollowly. She heard their sliding tread. They were giggling.
From the two dim yellow lights in the wall behind him, she could discern his pockmarked cheeks. Odd that he hadn’t gotten laser resurfacing.
“Remember me?” he asked her.
“Not you. What you did.”
He shrugged. “What I’m gonna do now is help you through your rehabilitation, ningyoo.” He slid closer. “You’ll become a righteous woman. Saved and purified.”
She smiled. Let him come near, and she would teach him—how warriors treated the predator. But she looked down at her tiny delicate feet. She was only three years old.
“I think I better inspect you first, for weapons and needle marks and such. I’ll need to take off that pretty nightgown.”
She was crouching, balancing on the mattress. It barely sank beneath her, but its surface was gluey. He weighed five times what she did, but mass could not be determinative. Otherwise, the training was of little use. What training? She tried to remember some of it, any of it. Did she have a three-year-old memory too? Wait. Her right arm had reformed. Numbly, she glanced at her two frail opalescent arms. She clutched a colored pen in each hand.
He was closing in, his glimmering eyes attesting to his appetite. “Come on, baby doll.” He reached out, murmuring. “After a while, you’ll start to like it.”
She bounced up and jammed the pens into his underarms. At his reflexive cringing response, she front-kicked his groin. The smallness of her foot allowed her to locate precisely the soft objective. He lurched back and slammed his head against the slanted wall. He palmed his groin and screamed, just an octave too high for a manly bellow.
She ran toward the door but halted as it was flung open. “Goddamit!” her father shouted. He and some hardmen came at her, arms extended like curling tongs. She’d have no defense or defenders. Not at three, not at thirty-three. She turned left, to the rust-red wall. An escape of a sort. She sped toward it, hoping primal inhibition wouldn’t slow her down. I can’t break through, she thought, but let me convince myself I can. At least I can choose my own death.
A sudden hammer-blow and she no longer seemed to breathe, rebounding from the rigid raspy surface, shedding fragments of skull and teeth.
—Then the metal softened on contact, and she burst through the wall. Her skin was seared by the sulfuric rain, her lungs cringing in the virulence of Rukutan’s atmosphere. But she was underground, far underground!
—Then the wall became a shivering curtain, revealing a room with colored shadows.
—Mitotically the moment had divided into four cells of existence, in which she was being fondled abrasively, colliding with the wall, suffocating on the planet’s surface, stumbling into the room. She observed herself from a fifth cell, which was vibrant but hollow.
Everything dissolved into the room. Thick red carpet with intricate designs. White walls edged with blue. To her left, sunlight passing through a floral-patterned window of stained glass. To her right, a golden pitcher and washbowl on a stand. Across the room was a long red couch covered in white cloth.
For an instant, a man was sitting there.
Again, she was raped by Phedo, crushed by the wall, choked by the atmosphere, watching from the empty cell, watching herself watching.
Then the solitary room again. The man could have been a hologram or a photograph, so briefly did he appear. But she remembered his long robe and tall felt headdress, secured by a turban. A holy man? A shaman? He had a round face, luxuriant black mustache, beard, and hair. His eyes were crystalline, heavy-lidded beneath black eyebrows, set amidst deep lines. But she knew that though he was physically a man he was not bounded by human characteristics. Though he had not spoken, words had been conveyed to her. She regretted she had not heard his voice. She regretted she could not reply, or approach him. But perhaps she could not have borne to hear him, could not have endured his gaze or his nearness. She wanted to embrace him, and yet she was afflicted with anxiety even to imagine it. How could she be brazen and familiar with God? But he was not God. With Eos, she had debated whether God should be considered as “he” or “she” or “it.” “None of these,” Eos had argued. “God, if God, cannot be classified or subdivided.”
What she had beheld was one in his own category of existence, not God but nevertheless divine. He had assured her she was not to grieve over what God had willed for her on this material plane. She would enjoy blissful days on worlds of spiritual glory. She would assuredly attain blessings, delight, and grace, in this present life and hereafter. . . .
Outside Lemuria she lingered, watching the surging multicolored ocean below the plateau on which the spaceport rested. Gethi-Minus consisted of meager lands circling about an immeasurable sea. There was a vigorous immigrant influx, inspired by tattled tales of undersea societies accorded perverse reverence: rumors of slavery, infant sacrifices, and eternal wars in submarine empires. Many tourists stayed at the faux-emerald city where they delighted in the random killing, raping, torturing, and humiliation of peasant prisoners. Rates were astounding, reservations taken decades in advance. She watched the slender swaying shapes of plankton and seaweed, their deep reds and blues tingeing the waters. There was a constant breeze of brine and damp that made her feel as if she were drifting.
She’d delayed climbing out of the sleep chamber. She should have been present near the hatch of the wormer to smile and bid the passengers a pleasant stay or good life or safe journey. But she’d wanted to avoid Iya Kweli.
Was it shame? Perhaps. For three days she had shunned the intoxication stations, the combat pits, gambling grottos, pleasure houses, even the self-stimulation devices in her hotel room. She tried to recall the divine personage, prophet or manifestation and what he’d told her. Grieve not on this . . . this material plane, he had instructed. There would assuredly be . . . something, something, and grace, in this . . . the present life and hereafter.
Dammit! She pressed her head and back against the granitelike outcrop behind her. She rubbed her temples. Was enlightenment supposed to leave a hangover? Flouncing through star systems and broaching planetary cultures, she’d soon recognized that there were too many prophets, saints, and messiahs; too many shriveled, revered dispensaries of insight. Now she’d had her portion of transcendence, and it was not a vision but a bloodletting. She breathed out exhilaration and despair. The satiety of food, the jolly blur of intoxication, the pulsing ecstasy of orgasm—all were no more to her now than fulgurating convulsions of the mind as it nestled into obliteration.
She had treasured the spirit of the warrior’s way, despite the deprivation and injury it demanded because it made her feel exalted and secure, because it convinced her that she was—yes! Unique, and everlasting. The esoteric religious literature told of ritual acts for the development of the body, speech, and soul, all with the goal of creating an “adamantine essence.” That was what she had yearned for—to be diamond. But now that warrior spirit, that angelic counselor, shunned her. Even the potency she had drawn from Gaia had forsaken her. She was unmoored and alone, and she mourned. “Oh God!” she said, calling out to the One she had always reviled.
She didn’t notice someone near until she spoke. “Hello, Desiree.”
Desiree looked up at the young woman in the white bodysuit that disclosed the tautness and rounded prominence of muscle and flesh. She had torturous black hair, and round eyes encircled with silver. She stood very near, sweet-scented, smiling. The same one Desiree had encountered in her catatonic dreaming.
“Hello,” Desiree responded, reflexively retreating a few centimeters. “I¾can I help you?”
“I’m Iya Kweli.”
“Well, ῾Iya Kweli’ is deceased, as you discovered. She’d been scheduled for this wormer but got herself killed en route to the spaceport. Something about a faulty solar shield on the shuttle. I had a¾a friend obtain her subdural ῾ticket.’”
“Then you were never a¾”
“A mendacia?” She laughed. “Hardly. My name is¾well, we’re comfortable with ῾Iya’ aren’t we? My father is a Protector-Contractor of a system near galactic center. I had an affair with Gem-yi, one of his Strategists¾forbidden, of course, extending a toe below my caste. Daddy was advised of this and sent him on a mission to the outlands. I was defiant, I was bored, and¾well, I really did care for him. So, I followed after. Of course, I didn’t want to be caught by my father’s goons.”
“But why the mendacian disguise? You could have done some metaplasmic¾”
“Body sculpting wouldn’t help. You know they can track cell signatures. But complete transmutation isn’t that difficult, really. It’s a matter of reordering particles. They inject nanosurveyors, you see, then coordinate data with an electromemory of aleph-null bytes or above.”
“I knew they could regenerate a limb,” Desiree said, raising her restored right arm, “but to regrow the entire¾”
“It’s terribly expensive,” Iya said in an elegant drawl. “Or it will be when it goes on the market. My uncle couldn’t afford to do it outside the grants, and he owns the patent! He warned me it wasn’t infallible¾yet. But I was determined. He owes my father no allegiance, and he was delighted at the chance to test the equipment on a normal. Usually, they have to take convicts or beggars. The counterpart device¾for reconstruction¾was smuggled onto the Lemuria.”
It was implausible that a contraption could be “smuggled” on the ship without the Captain’s cognition. But even the Captain could be corrupted. And she was too exhausted for skepticism.
“The choice was perfect,” Iya was saying. “My father would never envision me in a mendacian body¾too offensive to my vanity, of course.”
“How did you know so much of the mendacian culture?”
“I have polymer implants, like your Second Mate Mennemis. Plus conk drugs that put in appropriate reflexes and gestures.”
“And what you said about, about loving the Beauty of God in the soul, and the soul craving transcendence. Do you believe in it?”
She pressed her lips in a frown and tilted her head to the right concessively. “Sure. They’re wonderful ideas. . . . But there’s something more interesting to consider.” She lightly stroked Desiree’s arm, then glanced up at her in a look both leering and contemplative. “The moment I saw you, I wanted you. I nearly forgot about my appearance and dragged you to my room. Now you see me as I really am”¾she lifted her arms away from her exemplary body¾“and I’m sure it pleases you.”
“Oh, I’ll keep looking for him of course. But this is an adventure, after all. Besides, what will you do otherwise, until your ῾ship sails,’ as they used to say?”
Sailing. Yes. A notion that had been dropped into the spécial psyche. A yearning for that shimmering expanse. How sad that Iya regarded hasty sex as “adventure,” or that one could be so capricious and casual while seeking after love.
“I’m sorry,” Desiree said, “but I really liked Iya Kweli, the mendacia. I regret to say I really don’t care for you¾as a person. Nothing personal.” She smiled.
Iya’s face tensed, and she blinked rapidly. “Fine, then. I just thought I’d do a poor old sappho like you a favor.” Sappho? Desiree chuckled. Suggesting one’s Eros was at all restricted was as cruel as accusations of impotence or frigidity.
“And I really appreciate it,” Desiree replied, the good humor exceeding the sarcasm, which surprised her. “I wish you a happy life, Iya,” she called out as Iya strode away.
She wondered at her new-found asceticism. Was it divinely inspired? But why would the Creator reach through the multicosmoses to the infinitesimal Desiree? Why now?
When she was five, she could see the multiple processions of planets beyond the daylight―the etheric gleaming, iridescent rings, stripes, and spangles. At night she saw not stars but suns, copper suns, and blue cloth suns and porthole suns; and comets like the fiery hearts of angels. She was immersed in the trueness and symmetry of things. But that was too soon usurped by wretched awareness. She began commuting through the heavens, garroted by obligations, plotting relationships, fearing sleep, until wanting could be cured by resolutely alternating the stimulation and deadening of nerves. When the nerve endings refused to respond there would be taedium vitae, a “weariness of life,” as today, when she did not, or could not, cherish the opulently authentic Iya Kweli. Now arousal and oblivion were one to her, as were the pride of failure and shame of success, the indulgence of poverty and the austerity of wealth, the self-doubt of the physician and the butcher’s righteousness.
The Earth, so Eos had said, was ultimately civilized by religion. War and poverty and injustice had ceased, families and governments united¾routine utopian scenario. But Eos had also told her: Terrans go to bed happy, and wake up the same. She’d never been happy on either occasion.
The person she’d envisioned in that room might have brought about this paradisal transformation. Unfortunately, she’d never get to Earth. No wormers traveled there.
But she could be watchful. She could test the hypothesis that being attuned to intimations would attract rumors, writings, or adherents.
And if she happened on any of these—then? Many times, she had affirmed that existence was mundane and meaningless, but within this conviction was a particle of trust that could be taken unawares and vitalized. “Trying on the gown” was the common term to describe the seeker’s method. Though, of course, one might do so for a drug club or sex cult or congregation of suicidal flagellants. But she could try on the devotee’s gown with the confidence that she could as easily remove it. But truly, truly, she would burn everything away, all of herself, to feel, for an instant, infinite joy.
The breeze off the worldwide pond was quickening, and the smell of water had intensified. Desiree waited. Soon there would be rain.
Note: The title and basic plot of this story are derived from “A Maid That’s Deep in Love,” performed by Pentangle and released on the album Cruel Sister (1970).