by Vonda N. McIntyre
Jan Hikaru’s Journal:
Contacts in a spaceport bazaar are tenuous and quickly broken. Most of the people are transients—I’d leave too, if I could. I never had to think about money before, and the sudden realization that it’s necessary is disconcerting. But I won’t ask my father for support, nor have I petitioned my mother’s estate. I’ve been thinking more about myself and my numerous faults than about money. I’ve been lonely. Yet, somehow, I’m more content than I was as a respectable reader at university, learning everything and knowing nothing. I’ve just begun to realize how much time I’ve wasted.
Ichiri has not quite disowned me. He simply did not answer my letter. I won’t write him again—I’m not even sure why I feel I owe him any explanations. All I want is an attempt at understanding. He may be hoping I’ll give up and come home, so he can pretend he never knew about my brief bout with rebellion and—to him—insanity. Then neither of us would lose face. I don’t know yet, but I think I’m stronger than that.
If I never went home, he would be able to forget that his only offspring has blond hair, and he would be able to immerse himself completely in his fantasies. I can’t bend myself to them anymore—they have become stronger, more pervasive, and, worse, more intrusive on other people’s lives. Yet I can’t forget him. I still love the old man, on a level much deeper than that of my resentment.
I sat in a bar all evening, keeping myself mildly intoxicated. That helps very little. I become introspective. If I got more intoxicated, maybe I could begin to believe my father’s fantasies. I could proclaim myself legitimate son of the bastard son of the emperor of ancient Japan, then they could ship me home and I would live happily ever after in a world of stories and words that no longer have any meaning. I see by those lines that I am still a little drunk.
I met a retired navigator while I was drinking. She is almost deaf and almost blind—she’s outlived many of the ships she served on. Her hair has aged from ebony to white, her eyes from black to luminous gray. Too many flights have battered her, and stray radiation has turned her corneas to ground glass. They could be restored, but not the optic nerves. Yet she has a dignity about her that her tremors and deafened near-oblivion cannot strip away. She is ubiquitous, yet unique. A hundred castoff, worn-out relics wander in this bazaar alone, but she is the first with whom I’ve talked at length. She could go to one of the homes established for her kind, but she would have to leave space to do that, and she says it would kill her. She says she was born on old earth: she says it defiantly, with her clouded eyes glaring from her dark face, and she dares anyone to say she lies, or to be repelled by her. She was born there—it’s true in spirit. And perhaps even in fact, though I’ve always been taught that earth was dead and abandoned.
The old navigator and those like her rely on the aid of the younger members of their society, who know they in turn will be cared for. Tonight she and I talked so long that everyone else went off to sleep through daybreak, so she came with me to my cheap little room. Now, while I write, she is dozing on the cot, lying close to the wall, because, I think, she does not wish to displace me from my bed. She has given, now she will accept—but she does not take.
The scarlet darkness cooled gradually to maroon as Mischa followed the rising caves toward Center. She was tired, thirsty, hungry. She had been in the deep underground for several days, wandering and exploring, guided by intuition and the experience of other, similar escapes. But now it was time to return to the city.
She wished she could stay away longer and extend the limits of her range. The strangest sights were deepest in the earth, delicately sculpted by eons, or, rarely, rarely, built by people who had abandoned their immense constructs when they had no more need for weapons of war.
Mischa heard a noise and stopped. The sound came again, a faint scratching of metal against rock. A few shards of stone clattered down the wall and fell at her feet. She looked closely, at shoulder height, and laughed. A tiny machine quivered at the edge of a small new hole, seeming to sniff the air. As Mischa watched, the antenna mouse extruded a shiny metal lead and backed away into the darkness, leaving behind a new connection to the communications network. This far from Center there was no one to use the leads, but the mice worked on, directed in a random and useless pattern by some lost and forgotten program.
Mischa continued upward; the cave was no longer completely natural, but had been smoothed and straightened into a long, regular passage.
A faraway glow appeared and increased as Mischa walked toward it: light-tubes, marking Center’s outskirts. Few other people ventured beyond the illumination, for they were afraid. Some of the fear Mischa understood. An hour before, she had caught a glimpse of a cave panther: amber eyes, smooth, black pelt, wide strokes of whiskers, when it started at her silent approach and sprang away. But the outcast people of the deep underground were more feared. People who half-believed in them used their presence to frighten disobedient children. Mischa knew the underground people existed, though she had never met them. She had seen their painted symbols on the tunnel walls, and learned to heed the caution, but she found no reason for fear. The outcasts were shyer than the panthers.
Mischa reached the light spilling from the small round room ahead: a wellcell, the only source of good water for this section of the city’s fringes.
Cut rock gleamed softly with condensation, and the air was sharp with the cool damp tang of limestone. In the middle of the circular chamber, the rim of the well projected a few handsbreadths from the floor. A tall figure in purple and black lay on its wide edge. His near-white hair spread across the worked stone. Mischa hesitated, then went toward the young man. She sat on the wall and reached out to shake him, but stopped with her hand almost on his shoulder when she saw the green flash of his eyes. Her brother stared straight up at the light above him.
“Hey, Chris.” She did not understand why he was not in Center. He never went home; he had not needed to for two years.
“Go away.” His voice held a thin note, a whine that had never been there before. His hand hung in the water, and his shirt, wet to the shoulder, clung to him as though his arm were only bones. He was much thinner than the last time Mischa had seen him.
“No dreams,” he said, sounding close to tears.
“Go away.” He flung his arm over his face, covering his eyes, flinging sparkling drops of water across the bright sand and dark water. His hand was pale blue and parchment white, seeming translucent. Veins and bones protruded beneath the skin. Above the shush of water, Mischa could barely hear his slow and shallow breaths. For a moment, with a heavy fist of apprehension in her stomach, she wondered if he had stopped breathing altogether. He had not, yet her apprehension coalesced: she knew why she felt afraid.
She slid off the edge of the well and touched him. “Chris—”
He struck out as though he had forgotten who she was or that she was ever there. Because he had not planned it, because she had not expected it, he hit her, hard enough to knock her back. She lunged and reached for him, but he lost his balance and rolled. The water closed over him and sloshed against the well’s side, reflecting in irregular waves.
Mischa straddled the wall. Her face might be bruised, but Chris was not strong enough to hurt her. He floated motionless, face down. She reached out and down and caught the tail of his shirt. As she pulled him toward the rim, he revived, flailing and choking, trying to fight her. When he almost pulled her in, she let him go and waited.
His struggles slowly ceased. He hung in the water; ripples surrounded him. He looked up at her, and intelligence leaked back into his eyes.
“Give me a hand.” Still whining, self-pitying, yet trying to demand.
“I tried,” she said. She brought her bare feet up on the wall and crossed her arms on her knees.
Chris paddled slowly toward the edge, reached for the stone, caught it and held on. “Bastard,” he said.
“And you too.”
He pulled himself half onto the wall, stopped, and swung his leg up to hook his heel over the corner. Water splashed out of his boot and dripped from his shiny black pants and bloused sleeves. He held himself there, trembling, unable to pull himself any farther.
“Misch…” His voice was very weak.
She dragged him out of the water, over the wall, into the sand. He fell against her; she supported him. He tried to lie down, but she would not let him. “Home, Chris, huh?”
“I want to go to sleep.”
She did not answer, but pulled his hand across her shoulders and put her arm around his waist, turned him and took him away, down a radius and toward Center. He stumbled, and leaned on her heavily, but he came.
Chris was twenty, half again as old as she. He looked taller than he was, as Mischa would when she finished growing. Chris’s hair was pale, almost colorless, fine-textured, tending to fall across his eyes. Mischa’s was darker, a shade between dark blond and brown, untidily cut, but it had the same texture and the same tendency. Her forehead was wide, her jaw strong and rather square. Chris’s face was more delicately built, and the fine bones were accentuated by his painful thinness.
What marked them truly close was their eyes. The startling green was an unlikely shade, but no one had ever asked either of them if they heightened the color.
“Why’d you come down here?”
He took some time to answer. “Where?”
“So near his niche.” For Mischa and Chris, their uncle had no name.
“I didn’t know I was…” His voice trailed off, and Mischa kept him walking until he began to make weak and ineffective movements of escape. “Why don’t you let me sleep?”
She stopped, let him go, and looked up at him. “Could you? Even if I let you try, right now?”
He met her gaze, for just a moment. It was like looking deep into a person she could too easily be, if she ever let herself become as frightened as Chris was now. He looked down. “I can’t dream, Misch. I forget…” His voice rose, and he grabbed her shoulders as though to shake her in anger, but he had to use her as a support. “I never dream anymore.” Terror and despair were the only emotions he had left.
There was nothing Mischa could say, nothing she could do but put her arm around him again and lead him through the tunnels, back to Center, back to his niche. He came obediently, silent now. Glowing light-tubes began to outnumber dead ones. As they passed beneath the lights, their shadows lengthened and shortened like turning spokes.
Nearer Center were more people, but they took no notice of Chris and Mischa: a couple of kids, one sick, no account.
Mischa’s clothes were wet down the side where Chris leaned, clammy and warm against her in the heavy air. But she felt him begin to shiver; she moved her hand against his side and found that all the warmth came from her own body. Chris was cold, all the way through, his energy depleted by exhaustion because he could not sleep and by oblivion because he could not dream.
His boot slid across the stone; he stumbled and fell, pulling Mischa with him. She knelt beside him, holding him up on his knees, engulfed in his limp arms. “Get up, Chris, come on.”
“Leave me alone.”
She could not carry him and he could not stand.
“Get out’ the way!”
Mischa looked up, startled. A miner swayed above them. Mischa could smell the alcoholic taint of his breath, but she had not felt his approach. The sight of helplessness excited him. He struck out at her; he wore heavy rings on every finger of his soft white hands. Mischa threw herself backward into the sand. The miner turned from her to Chris and kicked out viciously. The heavy boot caught Chris in the lower ribs, lifted him, and threw him against the wall. He slid down next to a little pile of trash.
The miner chuckled low in his throat and went toward him, clenching and unclenching his fingers, head low, shoulders hunched. Mischa darted in front of him. She tossed her head and her hair flipped back; he was confronted with anger on the edge of irrationality. “Don’t,” Mischa said. A touch flicked the crystal blade of her knife straight out. The point just grazed the miner’s stomach. As he jumped back, a spot of blood spread on his shirt. Mischa followed him, one step. He backed away. His gaze jerked down to the well-blooded knife. He backed another step, and when she did not follow, he turned and ran.
Mischa wiped the blade. It remained bright, clear ruby from other encounters in which it had tasted blood more deeply. The miner, Mischa reflected, should never have left his Family’s safe rich dome and the machines that did all their work.
Chris was curled around himself, unconscious or simply unaware. He did not move when she shook him, though his eyes were open. She supported his head and slapped him gently until he closed his eyes and opened them again. False euphoria, backed, then overwhelmed, by depression, crept up in Chris and leaked to Mischa. She resonated to the pitch of his exhaustion.
“Let’s go, Chris,” she said, very softly, and he did the best he could.
They walked. Their surroundings grew brighter, warmer, more crowded, noisier. Mischa kept Chris near the wall so she would be between him and other people. She ignored the few who noticed them. None offered help. She did not want it.
“Why were you there?”
“You know why.” She could not quite keep the bitterness from her voice. “I always go to the underground after I have to go home.” She needed the solitude and silence and petrified fragile beauty of the lower caverns, as well as their danger, perhaps, to renew her faith in herself. The echoing paths that humans had never despoiled restored her.
Chris was silent for so long that Mischa thought he had forgotten they were talking; when he finally spoke he might as well have said nothing. “They can still call you, huh?”
Her temper flared, but she damped it and did not answer.
Chris closed his eyes and let her lead him. “I didn’t think Gemmi’d live this long. I really didn’t.”
And again, Mischa had no answer. The sick, stupid feel of their sister remained in her mind. Gemmi’s aura had to fade slowly, like a foul odor. She lived only through others, in the consciousnesses where inhibitions held, and in the soft underparts of the mind where animals still lurked. It was best that she had so little intelligence; she would have been driven insane otherwise. Had her body been so deformed, she would have been exposed to the deep underground as soon as she was born.
“She hasn’t tried to call me,” Chris said, “not for, oh, a long time.”
“Shut up, Chris.” Mischa had kept her own invisible differences almost secret for so long that the defense was automatic. It worried her that Chris was no longer so cautious. The wrong word at the wrong time, and he—or both of them—might be banished from Center.
When Mischa left the city, as she was determined somehow to do, it would be of her own will, her own plan. She had no intention of being driven out because of an ability for which she did not even have a word. Mischa imagined being chased into the deep underground: as a prison, it would lose its beauty and its fascination. And she would be doubly trapped. If she were seen near the city again, she could be killed; if she stayed in the underground and tried to defy Gemmi’s inevitable call to return, she would go mad.
Involuntarily, Mischa shuddered. Gemmi had called her, toward insanity, many times. Chris felt her tremble and pressed his hand against her shoulder. “Hey…”
She could not become angry over his undependable concern; she was too used to his unconscious selfishness and his occasional abrupt generosity. “Gemmi sucks out my brain and licks at my eyes,” she whispered. “He’s making her call me more often now—”
“It won’t be long,” Chris said. “We’re leaving earth. We’re going to the Sphere.”
Mischa was caught with surprise and hope. She could hardly believe that he had found a position, after so long. If this were true, everything they had been through was worth it. For two years Mischa had stolen for both of them, to placate their uncle and support their younger siblings and to free Chris for his own work. She had begun to despair, and the changes in her brother had seemed to confirm her fears.
Chris’s eyelids flickered and he smiled his small diffident smile of keeping a secret until the right moment. “I’m leaving Center. Like we talked about. We’ll be so far away Gemmi will never be able to call us… You do want to come?”
Mischa protected herself with distrust. “When?”
“One of the shipowners saw my stuff… my new stuff… Hers is the last ship out…”
“That’s great, Chris.” Mischa clenched her teeth and kept back tears. “Sure.” The last ship had taken off long before, barely avoiding the first sandstorm of the winter. Chris felt as though he believed what he said, but Mischa could not tell if that truth were reality or the remnants of their dreams. Now it hardly mattered.
She shifted her supporting grip on his waist to ease her shoulder muscles, but stopped abruptly when Chris gasped at the pain of his cracked bones. The same pain flared in tandem in Mischa’s side, beating at her reserves of strength and endurance. Chris stood hunched over, swaying. Mischa touched his ribs more gently and found the place that made him wince.
“It’s all right,” she said. “Just a little farther. I won’t do it again.” He let her start him walking. His emaciated muscles had no tone.
A long time passed before they reached Chris’s niche. It was almost in Center itself, on the first circumference out from the main cave. In a crowded and competitive place, Chris had kept his home because fighting with a knife or barehanded, he was good. But soon some chuckie would realize that he no longer had the desire or the ability to fight for anything.
The door was open. Mischa led Chris inside, locked the door behind them, pushed aside the hall curtain, and stopped abruptly, staring. The niche was a five-meter cube cut in stone, rough-polished. The wall facing the entrance had been a quiet, bright scene of a world where things grew, a vision of what she and Chris had imagined of other places. Now the wall screamed with color. “You changed it—”
Chris’s hand slid limply off her shoulder, as though he were giving up the little strength left him, as though he did not need it in this familiar place. He seemed to feel safe. Mischa felt threatened. The left wall had been painted over and experimented on a hundred times since Chris had come here; Mischa had seldom visited without finding a new picture, or design, or invention.
This time, what was left of the top layer of paint was smeared, and the wall had been smashed with a stone. Flakes of paint lay scattered in the sand, and the wall was a mosaic of old work in bits, almost recognizable. Mischa looked at it for a long time, until finally, with a deep breath, she was able to pull her gaze away. She tried not to look at it again, but the brilliant disaster kept catching on the edge of her vision.
She moved between heaps of Chris’s flamboyant clothes to straighten his bed. She threw the filthy tangled blankets on the floor and rummaged for cleaner ones. When she turned back, Chris was curled in fetal position. She sighed, at the point of frustration. “If you want to lie there soaking wet—” She stopped. There was no way to make him feel guilty about himself.
He had wrapped his arms around his head and buried his face between his knees; she could not reach the fastenings of his shirt. She pulled one arm away but it crept back like a sick snake to shield his eyes. The slow-motion wrestling match made her fruitlessly angry. Eventually she got the front of the shirt pulled apart. Once she had dragged the bright frayed material off one arm, the other was not so difficult.
Over sharp bones, under fine gold hairs, a black bruise marred Chris’s blue-white skin. Old scars stood out in darker ridges on his chest and forearms. His boots came off with a faint squelch. When Mischa had finally made him straighten out his legs, his pants were too loose to be much trouble. Naked, he looked very frail. He went limp when she tried to get him to his bed. She shook him and cursed, and very nearly kicked him in the side herself.
Whatever his reasons, he must have been wandering awake near the deep underground for days, because he had passed through hyperactivity and euphoria and false clarity of mind, hallucination and paranoia, and reached the last stage of exhaustion before coma.
“Uh?” His translucent eyelids flickered.
“Is there any sleep here?”
“I don’t want it.” His voice was just a whisper, but the whine had returned.
“You started,” she said. “You can’t stop now.”
“It helps,” he said. “It used to…” He lifted his hand to gesture at the one new wall, but his arm trembled and fell back across his chest. “That’s what I did when I started. It was so good—”
“You were good before.”
“Not that good. Not good enough…”
“And this?” She gestured toward the ruined wall, without looking at it. Chris did not answer, but turned his head away. Mischa shrugged. The changed room reached out with tendrils of color, mindlessly, probing at her. It was full of a nervous and dissipated kind of energy. The controlled power of Chris’s earlier work was unleashed here raw.
“You lose a lot when you sleep,” he said. “You have visions that would be the best things you could ever do, but you can’t remember them when you wake up. Your whole brain gets used, but you forget. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
“Now you don’t dream at all.” She said it, and instantly regretted the needless cruelty.
His voice turned ugly and defiant. “Maybe it was worth it.”
Mischa looked around, at the walls of the room where she had been able to sit and imagine what it would be like to leave Center and be free, where now she could only withdraw into herself and hope to escape quickly. She wished she did not care. If she had not cared, she could get up and walk away from him and never come back.
With no emotion, Chris said, “It’s in the carryall.”
She went through the pack and found a vial of round transparent capsules. Fine white filaments writhed slowly inside them. “How many?”
She could feel the lie. She shook two into the palm of her hand and took them to him. “I can tell, Chris. You’re not clear like Gemmi, but I can tell.” She wanted to grab him and shake him, or scream, or cry: Two! You need two! And you never looked for me, you never let me help.
He closed his hand around the capsules. There was hate in his skeleton-face because she would not let him kill himself now, because next time, alone, he might not have the nerve.
He swallowed the capsules and lay back, changed, gradually relaxing. He reached out blindly for Mischa. His hand was skin and bone, starved muscles and sharp, dirty fingernails. She held his hand until his grip slackened and he slept, a dreamless, necessary, torturing sleep, the only kind he had anymore. She felt it come upon him. For the thousandth time she wished her mind were closed to others. In the spectrum of her strangeness, Mischa could feel Gemmi the most strongly; her sister was not only detectable, but could force herself clearly into Mischa’s thoughts from a great distance. At the farthest end of the spectrum, a few people were so calm, so self-contained, that Mischa could hardly sense them at all. She could feel Chris a little more than she did most people: never whole thoughts or words, only vague currents of emotion.
She stayed beside him for a few minutes. Her concern for him was useless. She wanted to cry, but no tears would come, nor could she trace the tangled strings of her sorrow. She had to be selfish to survive, but if her feelings had been due to selfishness she could only have been angry. She could not cry, but she could not hate him either.
She left the cluttered niche and the new painting and the shattered works of genius without looking back. Behind her, Chris was as deep and empty of dreams as the well. The momentary hope he had given her was broken and bitter, and the destruction went deeper because he had left her so alone with their mad childhood visions. She felt much older now, and Chris… she could see herself just like him, starting the day she was not strong enough to defy their uncle.
The radius through which she walked ended on the beta-helix that crawled up the inside wall of the underground city. Below, above, and to either side stretched the immense cavern of Center.
Light-tubes spread across the ceiling like the gills of a mushroom. The instantaneous impression was one of chaos, of tiny gray projections climbing each other to reach the ceiling, spotted here and there with color or movement. Mischa knew the city well enough to see the underlying order: five parallel spiral ramps leading up the walls at a low pitch, giving access to the vertically stacked dwellings. The helices were almost obliterated by years of building over, use, and neglect. The walls of the cavern, crowded with single-unit box-houses piled against the stone, looked like shattered honeycombs. To Mischa’s left, and below her, Stone Palace was an empty blotch of bare gray rock on the mural of disorder. Its two entrances were closed to the rest of the city; before it, the Circle, the wide sandy way that led around the perimeter of the cave, was almost deserted.
In front of her, stretching to the right, the Three Hills rose up, as crowded with dwellings as Center’s walls. Their interiors were mazes and warrens, labyrinthine beyond mythology. Far to her right, at the other end of Center, the gleaming gray hemispheres of the Family domes were just visible, clustered in their own uncrowded section. Below her, in the Circle and in the valleys between the hills, a few people, usually alone, moved on their trivial businesses, hurrying. The smell of humanity made the air a cloying mass that Mischa was not yet reaccustomed to. The last few days closed in around her, and she felt suddenly exhausted. Instead of staying on the path, she cut across the tacit sanctuaries of tiny unit balconies, drawing a few angry cries and ill-aimed missiles of garbage that she ignored.
The fastest way to Mischa’s home was around the Circle, past Stone Palace. Most of the bars facing it were empty and quiet; ship crews were their major patrons, and the ships had all left for the winter. The companions lounged lazily in their decorated nudity, talking and gambling together. They had no audience to which to play, no reason for displaying their physical wares. In an open-fronted bar, curtains of light drifted aimlessly between empty tables, seeming sentient and lonely, searching for companionship.
Even the beggars were lazy, and had, for the moment, forgotten their moans and their feigned, flaunted pain. They ignored Mischa and she ignored them. They revolted her, with their grasping hands and their soft pale bodies and their enhanced deformities. They did not beg for themselves, but for the people who owned them, deigned to feed them, further disfigured them if they grew too healthy, and beat them if they made no profit. Mischa could have pitied them if she had ever seen any one of them defy a master or try to escape, but she could not pity an unthinking acceptance of degradation.
The facade of a lounge brought her up short. She had not seen it before; she did not come this way often. The swirling patterns of sound and color plucked at her, engulfed her, and sawed at her self-control. As they were meant to. A couple of companions, a man and a woman, stopped playing with each other and watched Mischa curiously. She moved toward the facade, drawn unwillingly to it. She brushed her fingers across the tangible boundaries of its masses, and the taste of Chris’s wasted energy and talent washed bitter in her throat. If she had seen this work of his before, she would have known about his pain; if she had seen it soon enough, she might have been able to find him before he was lost. She pulled away as though from a part of herself, stood for another moment, suddenly turned and fled. Two-tone high and low laughter drifted behind her.
In her niche, Mischa woke abruptly, frozen, sweating, shaken by a nightmare, needing to make any sound or movement to break it, but unable to. Her dream was that Gemmi had crept into her mind again, while she was asleep, insinuating herself so deeply she could never be removed. Now Mischa was awake, and Gemmi was gone, but there was no guarantee that this reality was not another dream out of which Gemmi could pursue her.
Believing that would drive her mad. Released from the nightmare, she turned face down and put her arms over her head. The event would recur, in dream or reality, as long as she stayed in Center, or as long as Gemmi was alive. Perhaps she would die, but Mischa could not count on that. She could only keep fighting. Her thoughts went around in small deformed circles, following the Möbius strip of the phrase, We’ve got to get away.
Chris could help no longer, though escape was more essential now than ever. Mischa knew that no one in Center, even the healers, could help Chris; if he had any chance at all to live, it was in the Sphere, the wider civilization spawned by earth.
Mischa had depended on Chris when she was a child. Now his life depended on her.
Her time was her own, for a little while, until she had to begin thinking again about where she would get the money demanded of her and Chris. Since their parents had died, their uncle had become more and more greedy; Mischa was afraid he would begin to require all her time, and draw on Chris’s again as well. With Gemmi, he could do it; and he would, if once he began to disbelieve Mischa’s lies about how long her plans required, or if he discovered that she provided Chris’s share.
Sitting up, Mischa pulled the cover off the bowl of lightcells. The maroon darkness faded in the blue glow. The cells were dull; often Mischa forgot to feed them, and more often she was not in her niche when they were hungry. She sprinkled powdered food across the convoluted surface. The globe glowed a little brighter. Mischa lay back in the tangle of her bed, looking up at the intricate ceiling. Her small cave was almost completely natural. She slept on a pile of blankets along one side. A large wooden chest, holding her few possessions, stood against the opposite wall. Except for the light, the rest of the chamber was empty. In the back wall, a narrow passage led farther into the rock, to a larger concealed cave with a pool of clear water.
Even her home began to close in, as though the stone were folding. Her dreams of leaving earth were crumbling around her. She pulled them back, clutching at them, but they were mist and dust in her grief and anger. Chris was trapped by his dreamless sleep and Mischa was trapped by her link to Gemmi. Perhaps there really was no way out.
Needing space around herself, Mischa slipped through the narrow fissure that led to the deserted radius outside. Walking down the passage, she passed concentric circumference tunnels until she reached the alpha-helix that spiraled, parallel to beta, up the wall of Center. She sat on the ramp, looking out over the cave. Beyond the Family domes that guarded and controlled essential services, the gate to the outside stood tall and solid, closed for the winter while the black sandstorms raged beyond. Mischa missed the neon-orange sun and the iridescent black sand, the stubby cactus-trees and the changing expanse of rolling empty dunes, the carefree manner of the caravannaires and the occasional sight of a ship landing on the field, and even the gray-brown clouds that seldom let the stars shine through.
She glanced up. “Oh. You. Hello.” Kevin was her age, had bright black hair, eyes the same, and a round, pleasant face. He had caught up to and passed her in height during the last year. A fair thief, he would be better when he finally learned that his impulses were not trustworthy. Even getting caught had not taught him that, but he did run with a gang most of the time. He was almost ready to admit to himself that he was a follower.
“How’s it going?” He kept his voice deferential, almost unctuous.
Mischa did not want to talk to him or listen to him; he made her think of Dav. “What did Dav tell you to say to me?”
“Misch—” Speaking in two tones slid together, his voice oozed unjust hurt.
“I’m really tired of you trying to get me in again.”
“The mess was just bad luck. You only ran with us once.”
She did not give him her opinion of bad luck. “That’s right. I only ran with you once.”
“You could get a lot more with us.”
“I could get ruined, too.”
“Dav said to tell you you can do whatever you want. Everybody would do just what you told them.”
“That’s what he said last time. And everybody else said they would too. But they didn’t. And I’m the one that got hurt.”
“He got you out, didn’t he?”
“Uh-huh. Where were the rest of you while he was doing it?”
Kevin shrugged and looked away.
“I work better alone,” Mischa said. “Let’s leave it at that.”
“Okay.” But he sounded unwilling, as though he had instructions he was reluctant to disobey.
“Hey,” Mischa said.
She pointed. At Stone Palace one of the doors swung slowly closed behind a child in a gilded kilt and collar. It minced along in the sand, in unconscious parody of adulthood despite baby fat and long beribboned curls.
“Come on,” Mischa said.
Kevin followed her down the helix. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she said, as though she had definite and malevolent plans. “You’re crazy,” Kevin said, making the assumptions Mischa had expected.
“Find other company, then.”
He followed her, and they followed the slave child as it followed its memorized route. Mischa was cautious by habit, though the child walked eyes front, incurious, disdainful. It seemed to look down its nose even at things twice its size. It shied away from dirt and disorder, when it should have been making mudpies. It seemed proud of itself, proud of its duties, proud of the collar around its neck.
The slave child walked down the middle of the path, toward the Family domes. Kevin grew increasingly nervous. He and Mischa both were out of place in this part of the city. “But what are you going to do?”
“I told you I don’t know yet.”
“Why waste time on it?”
“That’s just why I won’t come back.”
Not understanding, Kevin said, “Dav—”
“Dav chews his toenails,” Mischa snapped.
Hurt by the insult, Kevin grew silent. He followed her for a few more minutes, then spoke again, hesitantly. “Whatever you’re going to do, I don’t think it’ll work.”
“I’ll see you around, then.”
Having expected her to stop chasing the useless slave, Kevin halted, surprised at the cutoff. Mischa kept going, half-smiling with relief that vanished when he called to her.
“Dav wanted me to tell you one thing.”
“He says he misses you.”
The tightness in her throat was less, this time, than her anger. “That’s too bad,” she said. Dav had been a good friend, a pleasurable companion, but he had drawn on their friendship more than once too often. Mischa did not want to see him again. Too many people were trying to control her life. She had missed Dav for a long time, in the day, in the night, but she did not miss him anymore. She walked away from Kevin and did not look back.
The slave child’s presence in Center, unguarded, was a taunt that would never be answered. Its authority emanated from Stone Palace, where Blaisse, its lord, held half the power in Center. Blaisse did not exert his will as much as Mischa had heard his father used to, but the potential existed. Blaisse controlled any ship that landed at Center from the Sphere, and he was said to possess great weapons. At least the Families believed he did, for they never tried to alter the uneasy balance of power. The Families themselves were unquestionably powerful, for they controlled the law, the food and water, access to the outside, raw materials, even the air. And, of course, electricity: the light.
When the slave child reached the Family domes, it was allowed to enter, a courtesy accorded few others. When it had finished giving the bulk orders, it went to franchises to buy prepared goods: cloth or caked and flavored algae or meat made of pressed sheets of cultured cells. Last it visited the little luxury shops for outside imports that could not be made or grown in Center: fruit, animal meat, fur, sun-drugs. The prices had already risen considerably; they would be much higher by spring. The child pilfered choice tidbits with impunity, ignoring guardbirds that would have been loosed to take out anyone else’s eyes.
Unmolested and avoided, the child made its loop of Center and returned to Stone Palace, to give up its responsibility and again be a plaything competing with other playthings for the attention of some noble. Mischa let it go. She looked up at the clean gray stone where units had been stripped away and crumbled into rubble to give the Palace and its lord the privacy they required. Mischa felt no animosity toward Blaisse for the destruction; it had been done long before either he or Mischa was born.
Mischa smiled a wry private smile and turned back the way she had come.
Jan Hikaru’s Journal:
My friend the blinded navigator tells stories of greater or lesser credibility, and her words flow like poetry. The blind poet: a character so ancient it has become an archetype: Homer, Miriamne and my friend. I listen to her and talk with her for hours every day.
People come to her: children, young navigators, even captains, to tell her of ships about to depart for places I have heard of but never seen. She questions each with equal courtesy, thanks them, and stays. She is waiting for something. Of late she has become restless. I have a feeling that soon she will make her way down to the field, find a ship of whatever destination, and leave.
I’m discovering that I have never been frightened before. I am frightened now, of losing her, of loneliness.
Kirillin was a tall, ugly young woman with knife scars down her cheek and a purple birthmark like a mask across her eyes. She always wore opaque black. She was older than Chris by a few years, and ten years removed from being a sneakthief, but she was a good friend. For many things she had been Mischa’s teacher, from tricks of the trade of thievery to biocontrol of fertility. Mischa went to her shop and leaned against the doorframe.
Kiri glanced up. “Hello, Mischa.”
“Hi.” She gestured toward the back of the room where five kids were playing three-coin. “Need more help?”
Kiri smiled with the half of her face that worked. “What have you got in mind? An honest job?”
“Thought I’d try it.”
Kiri raised an eyebrow. “It would be a real shame to distract such a good thief.”
“I’m getting old for it.”
Kiri’s laugh was all she needed to indicate her skepticism. “Just what are you planning?”
“Let’s see,” Kirillin said. “My senile old mind seems to recall seeing a Palace footwarmer prancing by a little while ago. I’ll be hiring out for delivery soon.” She frowned. “Close?”
“But you do need more help.”
“That’s a hell of a risk.”
“I want to talk to Blaisse.”
Kiri laughed, quickly, sharply, with surprise and disbelief. “He’d rather have you steal from him.”
“Give me a chance, Kiri.”
Mischa folded her arms and let her hair slide across her eyes. “When did you see Chris last?”
Muscles tensed along the side of Kiri’s face. “I don’t remember. A long time ago.”
“One of the shipowners hired him, but he… got sick. I’ve got to get him out of Center, Kiri, or he’s going to die. Maybe away from here they can help him.”
“Mischa, but what can you say to Blaisse?”
She hunched her shoulders. “I don’t know. I don’t have a special thing I can do, like Chris does. But I can do anything, if you show me once. I’m pretty smart. I’ll just have to convince him to let me on one of his ships.”
Kiri levered herself from her chair and stared out the window at the bare gray Palace space, taking time. “I think you’ll be hurt,” she said.
“I’m risking something too,” Kiri said. “I won’t guarantee you. If someone will hire you anyway, all right. That’s all I’ll do. I’d rather not do that.”
She smiled an ironic smile made ugly by scars and paralysis. “Yeah, sure.”
Mischa joined the group at the back of the room and gambled with them, allowing herself to win a little, until all the others were hired and she was left alone with Kiri.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to take you, Mischa.”
“They ordered from a lot of places,” Mischa said. “I’ll wait a while longer.” She sat against the back wall with her knees drawn up to her chin. Kiri limped back and forth across the front of her unit, but the movement tired her. Once she bent down to massage her stiff leg just above the knee. Mischa knew better than to suggest that Kiri ask a healer to stop the pain. The response would be a cold glare, and a long, long silence.
Kiri finally sat down by the window, glancing nervously into the Circle now and then through the one-way screen. When her gaze lingered, Mischa stood up, waiting. A merchant entered a moment later. “I need a deliverer.”
“It’s very late,” Kiri said. “I have no one who’s guaranteed.”
He scowled. “I want some kind of insurance.”
“How long have you had this one?”
“Not very long.”
“How does she work?”
“I haven’t had any complaints yet,” Kiri said.
He grumbled and argued, but finally hired Mischa. Merchants had a tendency to feel demeaned if they had to do their own delivering. Holding her temper, after having been inspected like a cut of meat, Mischa followed him out, and half-grinned thanks to Kiri. Kiri did not smile back.
Copyright © 1975 Vonda N. McIntyre
by Vonda N. McIntyre
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-048-4