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The Universes of Stephen Goldin

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h1={color:Black;}. THE UNIVERSES OF STEPHEN GOLDIN

[* *]

A Guide to the Author’s Speculative Fiction

 

Published by Parsina Press at Shakespir

Copyright 2017 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

About Stephen Goldin

The Fiction of Stephen Goldin

      Series

      Individual Novels

      Short Story Collections

Samples

      The Eternity Brigade

      Polly!

      Shrine of the Desert Mage

      Jade Darcy and the Affair of Honor

      Scavenger Hunt

      Assault on the Gods

      Into the Out

      Quiet Post

Free Ebook

Connect with Stephen Goldin

ABOUT STEPHEN GOLDIN

Stephen Goldin is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose professional career spans more than 50 years. Born in Philadelphia, he has lived in California since 1960. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Astronomy from UCLA and worked as a civilian space scientist for the U.S. Navy for a few years after leaving college, but has made his living as a writer/editor most of his life.

His first wife was fellow author Kathleen Sky, with whom he co-wrote the highly acclaimed nonfiction book The Business of Being a Writer. His current wife is fellow author Mary Mason. So far they have co-authored two books in the Rehumanization of Jade Darcy series.

He served the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as editor of the SFWA Bulletin and as the organization’s Western Regional Director. He has lived with cats all his adult life. Artistically, he enjoys Broadway musicals and surrealist art.

This guide will give you an introduction to his work. You will find a list of his fiction titles (including the order in which his series should be read), introductory samples of some of his books, a way to get free ebook copies, and other ways to find out more about him.

THE FICTION OF STEPHEN GOLDIN

(most titles available at your favorite ebook retailer)

 

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Agents of ISIS

Welcome to the first great space opera decalogy of the twenty-first century! Agents of ISIS, an update of and an improvement on the old Family d’Alembert seriues, is an epic saga describing the fight by the men and women of the Imperial Special Investigation Service to preserve humanity from the forces of chaos and destruction. The author has expounded on the differences between the Family d’Alemberrt series and the Agents of ISIS series at his blog, The Ingesterie.

 

 

|^. p={color:Black;}. |^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 1: Tsar Wars. With humanity scattered across the galaxy on hundreds of worlds, the Empire is the only force for order across the stars. Without it, interstellar conflicts would bring chaos and billions of deaths.

 

But the tsar has been in a coma for five years now, and his grand-niece, the only apparent heir, is only 14 years old. In this hour of crisis, the task of preserving the Empire falls to two untrained—but far from unskilled—agents of the Imperial Special Investigation Service. Can they make a difference against the vast forces arrayed against them?

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|^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 2: Treacherous Moon. Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the pleasure moon Vesa and simply vanished without a trace. Is this part of some vast galactic conspiracy?

 

To find out, the Imperial Special Investigation Service dispatches its two best agents to look into the matter—and the shocking truth they reveal leads to a chain of discoveries that eventually threatens the stability of humanity’s entire interstellar Empire.

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|^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 3: Robot Mountain. By sheer accident, the Imperial Special Investigation Service stumbled across a fiendish plot against the Empire—using a time bomb to blow up the tsaritsa and throw the galaxy into chaos.Now, to learn the truth, its agents must infiltrate a hollow mountain, the lair of a mad robotic genius, while simultaneously protecting her majesty from a hidden assassin. And somewhere, a time bomb is ticking.

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|^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 4: Sanctuary Planet. The galaxy’s top criminals have not only been getting away from police, they’ve disappeared from sight entirely. Suspecting something far more sinister than a mere crime wave, the top agents of the Imperial Special Investigation Service delve into the matter—only to discover this is the tip of a galaxy-spanning conspiracy that threatens to undermine the stability of the Empire itself.

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|^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 5: Stellar Revolution. A hidden conspiracy is plotting to use the tsaritsa’s wedding as the occasion to overthrow the true ruler and start a bloody revolt to take over the throne for themselves. Meanwhile, in the depths of interstellar space, a flotilla of space pirates is gathering. Is it mere coincidence, or a coordinated attack to topple the Empire and seize control of all human-occupied space? The Imperial Special Investigation Service must unravel the plots and thwart these plans before it’s too late.

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|^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 6: Purgatory Plot. An armed cadre of fundamentalist extremists threatens the security of the interstellar Empire, while uprisings of separatist traitors spark outrage on dozens of planets around the galaxy. The agents of the Imperial Special Investigation Service must find the common thread and de-fang these vipers before the wildfire of revolution engulfs the galaxy.

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|^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 7: Traitors’ World. Space pirates harass interstellar shipping. On the frozen world of Gulag—where, for centuries,the Empire’s worst traitors have been exiled—dangerous plots are hatching. Time is running out for agents of the Imperial Special Investigation Service to save the Empire from the most serious revolt in its centuries-long history.

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|^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 8: Counterfeit Stars. Having had its plans thwarted too many times by the Imperial Special Investigation Service, the evil conspiracy declares war directly on the brave men and women who serve in the agency. Impostors sabotage the Service’s work, and the Commissar himself falls under suspicion. ISIS must confront itself to prevent being torn apart from within.

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|^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 9: Outworld Invaders. For centuries, now, humanity has expanded into space without encountering an alien civilization. Suddenly, the peaceful outlying planet Omicron is attacked by an ominous outside threat—and the Imperial Special Investigation Service finds itself joining forces with the conspiracy it’s been battling for years to save mankind from external danger.

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|^. p{color:Black;}. BOOK 10: Galactic Collapse. Finally the evil conspiracy reveals itself in all its true power, bringing the Empire to its knees. Even the Imperial Special Investigation Service is helpless in the face of the unexpected, overwhelming attack. But the Empire strikes back with all the resources at its disposal—hoping against hope that will be enough to save humanity.

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See the Amazon reviews

[* The Parsina Saga*]

|^. p={color:Black;}. |^. p{color:Black;}. The Parsina Saga is an Arabian Nights-style epic fantasy tale, weaving romance and adventure through a world of djinni, undersea cities, flying carpets, and demons. It comprises four complete novels: Shrine of the Desert Mage, The Storyteller and the Jann, Crystals of Air and Water, and Treachery of the Demon King.

 

Now all four of these novels are gathered together in a single ebook boxed set, priced to provide a considerable savings over buying each of the books separately. The complete story appears, unexpurgated, in this one volume.

 

Impoverished storyteller Jafar al-Sharif is mistaken for the thief of a holy urn. He and his daughter Selima escape capture by impersonating mighty wizards—but this imposture brings them into further danger, and sets them on a journey around the world to recapture a lost relic. Meanwhile, the real thief of the urn is in league with the king of the demons to enslave the world under the power of evil.

 

The Parsina Saga is a gripping journey through an exotic world that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

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Each of the volumes is available for individual purchase;

 

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See the Amazon reviews

Read a sample

[* The Rehumanization of Jade Darcy*]

(Written in collaboration with Mary Mason)

 

|^. p={color:Black;}. |^. p{color:Black;}. Jade Darcy and the Affair of Honor

For the past five years, Jade Darcy has not seen another human being. A computer-augmented mercenary, she lives on the planet Cablans, a stopover point for traders from hundreds of worlds -- and a good place to meet customers who need the services of a skilled warrior.

She turns down what she considers a suicide assignment: traveling to an enslaved world to assassinate one of its military leaders. But then she learns there's another human being on Cablans -- a human being with the potential to expose Jade's mysterious past, with possibly fatal results.

All of a sudden, a suicide mission looks positively appetizing….

 

This is the first published volume in the Rehumanization of Jade Darcy series.

 

See the Amazon reviews

Read a sample

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|^. p{color:Black;}. [_ _]

Jade Darcy and the Zen Pirates

At first, expecting her new job to be easy, Jade Darcy is oblivious to the religious strife wracking the world of Restaapa.

Jade and Megan Cafferty, her employer, discover that the Restaapans are in the process of choosing a new heir to the throne. During this process, the candidates hatch plots against anyone they see as a danger to their victory. Each one of them will go to any extreme, even murder, to assure his election as Restaapa’s heir.

Jade and Megan are pegged as threats that must be eliminated. And Jade has the difficult task of restoring order to Restaapa as well as protecting her own life.

 

This is the second published volume in the Rehumanization of Jade Darcy series.

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[* Mindsaga*]

 

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Mindflight

Alain Cheney is a spy who desperately needs to come in from the cold. Earth is able to maintain what control it can over its former colonies by using telepathic spies. But what even the spies don’t know is that, once they reach their late thirties, they begin exhibiting mental instability and must be eliminated to protect the program as a whole.

 

Alain Cheney is one of Earth’s best telepaths, but this only makes him more susceptible. He has to battle not only his physical condition, but also his own organization in an attempt to survive.

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Mindsearch

On the planet Iwagen, Richard and Mara Cheney have taken over their late parents’ project, a hospice for telepausal Dur-ill telepaths, hoping to start a new telepathic generation.

 

But someone else is interested in Dur-ill telepaths, too. A mind-being called the Mentad has been growing on Dur-ill worlds, absorbing Dur-ill telepaths into itself and becoming a collective consciousness with many bodies. It learns about the Cheneys’ hospice and stages a deadly raid.

 

When his sister is taken by the Mentad, Richard must seek the aid of the Terran Intelligence Agency, the very group responsible for trying to kill his parents. With Agency assistance,Richard will stop at nothing to free his sister and the others from the Mentad’s clutches.

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[* The Star Rooks*]

(Written in collaboration with Kathleen Sky)

 

|^. p={color:Black;}. |^. p.

Painting the Roses Red

Marc Shikari, an inspector for the Interstellar Investigation Institute, knows something illegal is going on. The diMedici family, a clan of interstellar swindlers, is trading stock madly among several different worlds—all among themselves. Every transaction seems legit, but Shikari knows there’s got to be more to it than that. What’s their angle?

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The Devil Behind the Leaves

Marc Shikari, an inspector for the Interstellar Investigation Institute, knows the diMedici family, a clan of interstellar swindlers, is out to steal a priceless statuette. They’ve practically admitted it to him.But knowing it’s going to happen and preventing the theft are two entirely different matters! |

Individual Novels

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The Eternity Brigade

A classic of military science fiction.

Hawker was a good soldier -- so good, in fact, that the Army asked him and his buddies to sign on for an extended hitch. What they couldn't know was that the extension would last forever. Century after century, war after war, Hawker and his comrades were re-animated over and over to fight on alien planets with ever more advanced weapons. The reasons for the wars were incomprehensible, but that didn't matter. All that counted was the fighting itself.

From incarnation through incarnation, one goal remained in Hawker’s mind. Somewhere, somehow, there had to be a way out of the loop. And he was determined to find it.

See the Amazon reviews’

Read a sample

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Polly!

A comic novel of hope and blasphemy

 

Herodotus Shapiro has had an unbelievably bad week. His wife left him. The IRS is after him for thousands of dollars. His home/bookstore burned down. On his way to take refuge at his brother’s place he got a speeding ticket. And now his car has broken down in the middle of the desert in front of a large mansion. What more can go wrong?

 

But now his world takes a turn for the weird. The mansion has a snowman on the front lawn—in the desert in July. The house, which is bigger on the inside than on the outside, is owned by Polly, the most preternaturally beautiful young woman he’s ever met. Polly is an acrobat, a gourmet chef, a psychologist, an international financial consultant, a physicist and a woman of who-knows how many other incredible talents. She has an unbelievable library, an art collection of all the world’s great masterpieces and a print of a previously unknown Marx Brothers film. Her toilet paper is actually silk.

 

And she seems to have some mysterious plans for him….

 

Read the Amazon reviews

Read a sample |

 

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Into the Out

 

Tamara Ruben and ten of her high school classmates are on a field trip in the California desert when they stumble across a long-dormant spaceship. Without warning, the ship takes off with them aboard, stranding them alone in interstellar space with no idea where they’re going or what they must do when they get there.

 

Now they must figure out the ship’s workings to keep themselves alive… and Tamara realizes her mind is being taken over by a set of alien Voices that may or may not be trying to help her. Can the inexperienced teenage crew learn to cooperate to solve the unprecedented challenges they’ll face on their historic journey?

 

Read a sample |

 

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Scazvenger Hunt

 

It was supposed to be a game. The idle rich of galactic Society loved to invent useless little games to keep themselves occupied—and the greatest was the Scavenger Hunt. Visit different worlds, pick up hard-to-get items that can’t simply be bought, and have a fine time. A clever way to pass empty moments.

 

Tyla deVrie and her twin brother, Bred, follow the family tradition of entering the Scavenger Hunt. But little do they realize as they hop from planet to planet aboard Bred’s decadent space yacht that the Scavenger Hunt is far more than a game; it will irrevocably change their lives. That is, if it doesn’t end them first.

 

NOTE: This book was originally published by Laser Books in two parts, Scavenger Hunt and Finish Line. The Parsina Press edition is complete in one volume, as it was originally intended.

 

Read s sample |

 

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Assault on the Gods

 

Starship captain Ardeva Korrell is used to fighting prejudice, both because she’s a woman in what’s normally a man’s line of work and because she’s from a world with a misunderstood religion. But now, on a trading mission to a backwater planet, she finds herself with another kind of fight on her hands; she and her small crew must battle an army of robots and defeat the tyrannical, god-like beings who have enslaved the native population.

 

The task before them is straightforward: to storm the gates of Heaven itself!

 

Read a sample |

 

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A World Called Solitude

 

Birk Aaland is a political outcast from Earth's tyranny, and has been living for years on a planet inhabited solely by robots, ever since his ship crashed here. Now another ship has crashed, and there is again a single survivor -- a woman who's desperate to warn Earth of an alien invasion.

 

But Birk is perfectly happy with his current exile -- until a twist of fate intervenes, causing each of them to re-evaluate their lives and their total existence. |

 

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Quiet Post

A surreal comedy

 

The Quasiverse: A land that’s a combination of Oz, Wonderland, Discworld, and general surreality, where anything can happen and often does; a land of snow globe mines and french fries plantations; a land where bossy birds can have teeth and locks can be very particular about how you stick a key in them; a land where you never know what color the sky will be when you wake up in the morning and where murder victims can be only randomly dead.

 

Martia Rosenthal is escaping from a bad love affair, and enlists for a diplomatic assignment in the Quasiverse. With the combination of her wealth and the position of sub-legate, she’s assured it will be a quiet post. But she reckons without the vagaries of this bizarre world, where the unusual nature of her friends, as well as her enemies, threatens to end her sanity, if not her very life.

 

Quiet Post is an absurdist comedy with surprises around every turn and smiles never far from your lips.

 

Read a sample |

 

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And Not Make Dreams Your Master

 

Dream broadcasting is the latest entertainment medium. Wayne Corrigan and his colleagues at Dramatic Dreams can broadcast dreams directly into your mind as you sleep for the ultimate in personal adventure.

 

But when a mysterious malfunction occurs, Wayne is called on to enter a Dream started by another Dreamer. Once inside, he finds a situation run wild and people enslaved by the original Dreamer—a genius bent on self-destruction.

 

Now, tens of thousands of people—including the woman Wayne loves—are in danger of dying or going insane unless he can find some way to wrest control of the Dream away from a madman.

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Alien Murders

Debprah Rabinowitz Mysteries

 

Deborah Raboinowitz is a literary broker. She travels to alien worlds via virtual reality and sells the publishing rights to Earth books on other planets. But when an alien is murdered right before her eyes, there’s no way she can keep from being involved and solving the murder herself.

 

Then, when an old friend is accused of a murder on a different world, Deborah has to become a lawyer and defend her friend before a kangaroo court by solving that murder, too.

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Crossroads of the Galaxy

 

A book in the tradition of the Heinlein juveniles.

 

Young Alex Bredakoff always wanted to be a star trader. But it wasn’t until his family moved to the Nexus space colony and he met Kasinda Venderling—daughter of a trader, and someone who’s been plying the star lanes her entire life—that he realized how truly exciting—and dangerous—his life could become.

 

But when you’re in a runaway starship with a kidnapped alien prince, flying straight into a sun, it’s a little late to re-evaluate your options.

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Herds

 

Wesley Stoneham, an ambitious lawyer and politician, has just murdered his wife in a fit of rage. Now he’s planning to frame an innocent man for the crime.

 

But he doesn’t realize there was a witness to the crime: an invisible alien who’s visiting Earth via astral projection. Now the alien has two problems: Should he report the crime to the authorities…and if so, how? |

 

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Caravan

 

It’s the 1980s in an alternate-world America. U.S. society has fallen apart under food shortages, fuel shortages, racial unrest and a host of other problems. A group of people intend to escape to another planet and start a whole new world…if they can make it safely across the country—stealing gas and fighting off bandits—to reach the ship before it leaves.

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Trek to Madworld

 

The Enterprise, along with a Klingon and a Romulan shiop, is teleported into a strange dimension by a mad Organian with a riddle to besolved…and the first ones to solve it get anything they want. Captain Kirk and his crew must solve the the problem first—or the balanceof power in the galaxy will be destroyed forever.

 

A story in the tradition of The Trouble with Tribbles, and with an Introduction by David Gerrold.

 

NOTE: Trek to Madworld is not available in ebook format.

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Short Story Collections

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Ghosts, Girls, & Other Phantasms

GHOSTS, GIRLS, & OTHER PHANTASMS is a comprehensive collection of Stephen Goldin’s solo short fiction, containing most of the stories from his earlier collection THE LAST GHOST AND OTHER STORIES. (The “Angel in Black” stories have been broken out into their own volume.) It includes some of his best-known stories, such as the Nebula Award finalist story “The Last Ghost” and the oft-anthologized “Sweet Dreams, Melissa.” The complete Table of Contents lists:

 Sweet Dreams, Melissa

 The Girls on USSF 193

 Nice Place to Visit

 When There’s No Man Around

 Xenophobe

 Grim Fairy Tale

 Of Love, Free Will, and Gray Squirrels on a Summer Evening

 Stubborn

 But As A Soldier, For His Country

 The World Where Wishes Worked

 Apollyon Ex Machina

 Prelude to a Symphony of Unborn Shouts

 Portrait of the Artist as a Young God

 The Last Ghost

 Haunted Houses

The stories in this book run the gamut from humor to pathos, and demonstrate the evolution of a prolific writer in the speculative fiction field. Enjoy!

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Angel in Black

Five supernatural tales from a master storyteller. This book contains the stories:

 For Services Rendered

 Bride of the Wind

 The Chenoo

 In the Land of Angra Mainyu

 The Masai Witch

Visit the Shop, where the mysterious proprietor will take you on journeys into the second sphere—a land of nightmares, the mystical realm where legendary creatures battle for the souls of humans, and where every victory has its price. But do you dare NOT pay?

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SAMPLES

*]

 

Hawker knew war in all its perverse permutations. He knew the killing and the pain. He knew the endless waiting in darkness for the enemy attack to begin, that helpless frustration when his fate was in the hands of others. He knew the swift battles, with death and destruction flaring all around him. He knew the quiet and the noise, the calm and the panic. He knew the hatred for the enemy, the scorn for his own superiors, the mystical friendship for his comrades-in-arms. He’d faced the paradoxes of combat and hacked his way through the jungle of its eternal contradictions.

He had mastered the art of mass killing. His original training in slaughter had been on members of his own race, but he had long ago broadened his education, to the point where he could kill any creature his superiors told him was an enemy. Numbers were insignificant; he could kill thousands at the impersonal touch of a button or execute an opposing sentry with his bare hands. Just point him in the right direction and let him do his job.

If Hawker had any opinions of this, his superiors had long ago stopped asking him what they were. He was a creature living solely for war; he had no other purpose. No one knew this better than Hawker himself. There might be peace when he closed his eyes, but there would be fighting when he opened them again.

This occasion seemed little different from the countless others before it. There were bright lights and noises; Hawker could tell that even with his eyes closed. The ground shook with the force of explosions, but they were either mild or far away. There was no immediate threat, but the situation could not be good.

He prepared himself for the training probe, that sharp mental stab which, in a fraction of a second, could implant all the background material he’d need to comprehend the current situation. He knew from experience that the information would flash through his brain in an instant. He would be dizzy for a moment, and then anything he needed to know would be at his fingertips.

But the probe didn’t come. Hawker stood in place, muscles tensed, but nothing happened for almost a minute. Then there was a string of profanity uttered by someone in front of him. Most of it was in a language Hawker couldn’t understand, but he was fluent enough in the art of imprecation to recognize the pattern perfectly. Annoyed that they’d changed procedures on him again, Hawker opened his eyes to face reality once more.

He blinked at the brightness. All around him he could sense his fellow resurrectees reacting the same way. There were rumblings and muttered curses, the rustling sounds of small movements multiplied hundreds of times. There was an acrid smell in the air, a smell of something burning, perhaps something that had once been alive. Despite the burning, though, the room was cold and Hawker was naked. That was the part he disliked most. He’d long ago given up being self-conscious about his body—most of his comrades were from races that didn’t care how a naked human looked—but he hated the vulnerability that came with the lack of clothing. Anything covering his body—be it as simple as a toga or as complex as a personal force field—would make him feel safe, but nudity was uncomfortable.

As his eyes adjusted, he took in his surroundings with professional detachment. He was standing in a crowd of other resurrectees, perhaps as many as two hundred. A third of them were humans, male and female, the rest of various races. All were oxygen breathers, all were from planets with similar gravities and environments. Little details like these told Hawker more about the situation than his superiors would have guessed possible.

He knew, for example, that this world was basically Earthlike; he could breathe and move around without too many restrictions, which was at least a small blessing. The mixture of races made it seem more like a civil war than a war of expansion or conquest; in the latter, high command preferred to use homogeneous platoons because it was easier to instill in them a feeling of racial antagonism. In a mixed group like this it was counterproductive to stir up feelings of alien prejudice.

Since high command had gone to the trouble of selecting members of races that could survive in the same habitat, Hawker knew that this was likely a battle on a relatively small scale. For larger actions they would all be issued battle suits of one kind or another, suitable for creatures from any environment. There was also the implication that this side was losing the battle, or at least poorly equipped. High command seldom selected a ragtag bunch like this unless there was no other choice.

He reached these conclusions without conscious thought. He’d fought so many battles in so many wars that the conditions of fighting were second nature. It hardly mattered any more; nothing did. Winning and losing were merely opposite sides of the same coin, and he’d lived with pain and deprivation so long they were as much a part of him as his left arm. Even death itself was scant respite; he’d probably died hundreds of times by now, though fortunately the resurrection process spared him those memories.

The room they were in was large and drafty, brightly lit with a diffuse glow from walls and ceiling. There were many doors to both the left and right, while the entire front wall was a holographic field. The field was filled with symbols and lines, a surrealistic map of some place Hawker couldn’t even guess at. The symbols made no sense, but they rarely did, to him. Hawker was no strategist or tactician. He was a fighter.

A sergeant stood before the troops. It was an alien, tall and barrel-chested with arms looking powerful enough to tear a man in half. It wore an unfamiliar uniform, with insignia Hawker couldn’t identify, but there was no mistaking that it was a sergeant. Even though the title of sergeant had disappeared centuries ago, along with all the other rankings as Hawker had first known them, the role of a sergeant remained unchanged. Someone had to goad the fighters, instruct them, lead them into battle. Titles could change, beings could change, but sergeants went on forever.

Even as Hawker looked about himself, sizing up the situation, the sergeant barked an order in some language Hawker did not understand. There was no mistaking the command, though. The entire room snapped to attention.

The sergeant looked them over with the same air of disdain sergeants have always affected. Then, when he was satisfied that the troops were in hand, he lectured them in the same incomprehensible tongue he’d first spoken. Hawker stood, naked and cold and progressively more annoyed at the bureaucratic fuck-up that created this farcical situation. The troops weren’t even separated according to language, and no translator sets had been provided! Hawker had taken hypno implants of at least two dozen languages at various times, and this one still did not fall within any of them. The situation must be very bad indeed for high command to screw up this badly.

The sergeant spoke for twenty minutes, making frequent references to the holographic map behind him. Sometimes he spoke matter-of-factly, sometimes in a bellow of exhortation. Hawker stood in place like a good soldier, listening to every incomprehensible word and not even bothering to make sense out of it. He’d long ago given up on that. War never made sense; you just blundered through it any way you could.

During the sergeant’s speech, the ground continued to shake. The enemy bombardment, if that was what it was, grew closer. Neither the sergeant nor the troops took any notice of it, but there was plenty of commotion outside the doors on either side of the briefing room. Running footsteps, shouts, practically an odor of panic seeping in under the cracks. Things were not going well at all.

None of that was Hawker’s concern. His only job was to fight, and it didn’t matter whether his side won or lost. The fighting was all that counted, and it would continue to the end of time. The merry-go-round wouldn’t stop, and there was no way to get off.

His briefing finished, the sergeant dismissed the troops. Those who had understood him turned to the left and began filing out those doors. Those who hadn’t—and Hawker was far from the only one—followed the others’ example. No one spoke much until they were through the door, out of the sergeant’s immediate sight. Then a flood of babble broke loose.

“Anyone here speak English?” Hawker yelled into the general din. When there was no response he asked again, then worked his way down through the list of other languages he spoke with some degree of comprehension. Finally, when he’d worked his way down to Vandik, he got an answer. “Here.”

Hawker and his answerer kept shouting at each other in Vandik, closing the gap between them until they finally drew together. Hawker found himself confronting a female humanoid who came barely to his shoulders. She, too, was naked, but covered with a yellow-green downy fur. Hawker tried to remember the name of her race, but found he couldn’t. They had been enemies at one time in the distant past, but had long since become allies.

“Could you understand what he said?” Hawker asked in his imperfect Vandik.

The female answered in an accent so thick he could barely make out what she said. Her grammatical structure, too, seemed strangled—although his knowledge of Vandik was centuries old and God only knew what had happened to the language in the interim.

“Is civil war,” she said. “Is being this town fighting on all sides around. Bunker is this in which we are. Is will be fighting up top. Is must for us to hold off fighting for six hours. Is reinforcements will be coming at then. Is now for us to go get uniforms and weapons. This way.”

Hawker followed his tiny compatriot to the supply line, where uniforms were being doled out by laconic quartermasters. When his turn came, the being in charge gave him no more than a quick glance and reached behind him onto a shelf. He thrust the uniform and mess kit into Hawker’s face and brushed Hawker aside to deal with the next man in line.

The uniform was a chocolate brown, one-piece jumpsuit with a uniseal seam up the front and a red armband on the left sleeve. Hawker struggled into it, hopping first on one leg and then the other while being jostled by the other soldiers around him, all struggling to get into their own uniforms. The jumpsuit was at least a size and a half too large, and he almost found himself wishing this were a world with a hostile environment; at least then the army took slightly better care to see that battle armor fit the wearer.

The only place where the size of this uniform was crucial was in the gloves; he’d be handling weapons, and he didn’t want excess material getting in his way. He pulled the gloves down as tight as he could, making a slight tuck at the wrists to hold the fabric in place. The fingertips were still too long, but there was little he could do about that right now. Maybe if he was issued a knife he could cut the tips off altogether.

He fastened the mess kit to his waist and hurried after the woman he’d spoken to. He found himself standing in another line—this time for weapons disbursement. Two other soldiers had gotten into line between her and him, though, and he had no languages in common with either of them, so he could only stand impatiently and wait his turn.

When he finally reached the front, the clerk asked him a question. Hawker shook his head to indicate he couldn’t understand. Nodding, the clerk half turned and gestured at the rack of weaponry behind him. Obviously Hawker was being given a choice of what he wanted.

Unfortunately, he didn’t know the precise conditions under which he’d be working. He didn’t know how close he’d be to the enemy, nor what their arms or defenses would be like. He’d have to choose general-purpose weapons with the broadest possible application and hope to use them to his advantage. There wasn’t much selection. His side, the forces defending this town, were obviously pressed to the wall, and were trying to hang on with the scantiest of resources.

Of those weapons with which he was familiar, he chose four grenades, an energy rifle, a wide-dispersion laser pistol and a pair of throwing knives. He’d be able to fight anything coming within a hundred meters of him; beyond that range, it was someone else’s concern.

Dressed and armed, now, he looked around to see what came next. People were organizing themselves into squads of ten. Hawker looked about and found the alien—a Spardian, he suddenly recalled—who’d talked to him in Vandik. Her group was not yet complete, so he went over to join her. If worst came to worst, he’d at least have one member of his squad to talk to.

The leader of this particular squad was a human, but Hawker quickly established that the two of them had no language in common. Once again the Spardian was pressed into service as a translator, informing Hawker that their squad had been assigned to defend Sector 14 against possible breakthroughs by enemy troops. Hawker nodded. There wasn’t much more he needed to know; he could take his lead from the rest of the squad.

When everyone was outfitted, the sergeant reappeared and said a few more words—probably last-minute instructions and/or words of encouragement. No one really listened; each squad was busy trying to make itself into a fighting unit rather than the random assortment of individuals it actually was. Perhaps the sergeant himself finally realized he was hindering more than helping, for he shut up abruptly and let the squad leaders do their job.

There was little enough time for that. All too quickly, the troops were pointed to the elevators and brought to the surface, where they’d be dispersed to their particular sectors.

Hawker’s first glimpse of the surface confirmed all his suspicions. The town they were defending was in bad shape; in fact, to all appearances it was lost already.

The sky overhead was dark, despite having two suns above the horizon. Clouds of black smoke hung over the city, evidence of fires wrought by enemy weapons. Although the air on this planet should have been breathable, the stinging sensation of smoke made it far from pleasant. There were tears in Hawker’s eyes, and he wished there’d been gas masks available; rubbing at his eyes with the backs of his hands, he followed the rest of his squad to their designated sector.

All about them was rubble and desolation. Hawker had no idea what world he was on, what the original inhabitants had been like or how splendid their town had looked before falling to the ravages of this war. He could only see the end result: no building over four stories stood intact, and even the smaller ones had windows shattered by the constant bombardment of enemy artillery; large impact craters dotted the streets, hindering progress; vehicles abandoned, overturned, burned; dead bodies lying everywhere, some killed directly by enemy fire, others indirectly by being trapped under a collapsing building. And nowhere, other than his fellow troopers, could Hawker see a sign of life. Everyone capable of fleeing had already deserted the city, leaving the opposing armies to decide the issue.

Let the soldiers fight it out, the citizens said by their actions. Then tell us what the outcome is. At times like this, Hawker often wondered what the difference was between cowardice and common sense.

The squad moved quickly through the empty streets, crouched low to avoid possible gunfire and taking cover behind deserted buildings along the way. Overhead, an occasional ball of blue flame would drift lazily through the sky. Hawker had never seen anything quite like them in battle before, but he hardly had to be told they were dangerous. His guesses about them were confirmed when one of the blue fireballs brushed lightly against the top of a building several hundred meters away. The structure promptly exploded, knocking the entire squad to their knees and showering the area with tiny bits of rubble, hardly more than a fine dust. Hawker instinctively covered his head, but he needn’t have bothered; the blue fireballs didn’t leave pieces big enough to cause any damage.

Their sector, it turned out, was an area of some ten square blocks near the outskirts of the inner city. The neighborhood had been oriented toward small businesses and shops, with few tall buildings and only a scattering of residences. As a result, it had fared better than some other, more important target areas. Only a couple of structures had suffered even minor damage, there were no casualties lying about, and the streets were quite passable.

Probably too passable, Hawker thought, surveying the scene with a professional eye. The enemy could march a battalion through these streets, and all we’ve got is a ten-man squad to stop them. He was already making mental notes of the most effective places to use his grenades to block the streets, should it be necessary.

They came to a halt and the squad leader broke them down into two-man teams, each to patrol its own area within the sector. Since the Spardian was the only squad member Hawker could communicate with, he found himself teamed up with her again. They said little as they marched out to their post, at the most forward area of the sector. Hawker surmised his squad leader wasn’t happy having someone he couldn’t talk to, and had purposely assigned him to the front lines. Hawker was the most expendable person in the group.

He and the Spardian woman scouted their area and quickly found a secure vantage point in a narrow stairway leading down to a cellar. Peering over the top they had an almost unobstructed view of the street in both directions, while being reasonably safe themselves. With that accomplished, they settled in to wait.

He tried to talk some more with the woman, to find out whether she knew any more of the situation than he did. Their mutual command of the Vandik language, however, was only good enough for the most basic communication, and the woman was not very talkative anyway. Perhaps she resented being sacrificed at the front lines merely because she was the only one who could communicate with Hawker. She told him tersely that she, like he, was a dub, and that the sergeant had only sketched the situation briefly. Then she reverted to sullen silence, implying Hawker should do the same.

Hawker settled back against the wall and waited for the enemy to make its move. He’d learned long ago that a soldier has to cherish any quiet moment he can find. From the way this battle seemed to be going, things wouldn’t be quiet for long.

He pawed through the mess kit they’d given him, looking for a cigarette. It was, by now, a vain hope; he hadn’t seen any tobacco for centuries. There were other drugs to act as mild stimulants or euphoriants, but he’d never found them quite the same. Damn! You wouldn’t think it was that hard to dub a fucking cigarette, would you?

He sighed. The army never did anything right; why should he have expected them to start with that?

There were three tubes of the pasty stuff they called food. Each tube was a different color, and each had a written description in a language Hawker couldn’t read. He wasn’t particularly hungry at the moment—resurrection always re-created him at a state halfway between lunch and dinner—but he’d learned to grab a meal when he could. Hawker sucked on the tubes of paste, still reflecting that it would have been just as easy for them to dub good food. But he was probably going to die soon anyway.

Two of the tubes filled him up, and he was debating whether to open the third when his partner tensed. He hadn’t seen any motion upstairs himself, but the Spardian was facing the opposite direction. Hawker quickly stuck the unopened tube back in his kit, fastened it securely to his belt, and took up his energy rifle.

Any animosity the Spardian felt toward him vanished now. The alien woman spoke a few words into the comm on her wrist, letting the squad leader know something was happening here, then raised her own weapon in readiness. Cautiously she crept up the stairs until the top of her head was barely even with ground level. Hawker was content to let her take the lead in these matters; his spirit of adventure had evaporated long ago.

The Spardian motioned for him to come up close behind her. When he had done so, she whispered for him to stay there while she ran to a vantage point across the street, where she could get a better view of what was happening. Hawker nodded and brought his rifle up, ready to cover her during her charge. The woman braced herself, then darted out from cover onto the street and across the way to a recessed doorway. The instant she left, Hawker was up with his rifle ready, aimed down the street where his partner had been looking. But he saw nothing, and the Spardian made it across the street without drawing any enemy fire.

Hawker lowered his rifle, but did not relax. Something had spooked the Spardian, and he was not about to take chances. He peered through the smoky gloom that pervaded the city, even here in this untouched neighborhood, looking both ways along the street for the slightest signs of trouble.

There was a movement back in the direction from which they’d come. Hawker spun, rifle at the ready once more. A tall, thin figure was making its way through the haze toward the Spardian. It was not any member of their squad, that Hawker knew for certain. A memory sparked in his mind, an image of an army of these gaunt figures charging up a hill at him—quite unmistakably the memory of an enemy.

The Spardian was busy watching the front; she wouldn’t see the creature approaching her from behind. Hawker thought to yell out a warning, but didn’t want to betray both of them to any enemy within earshot. Lifting his rifle, he fired one quick bolt at the approaching figure, and the alien toppled to the ground, dead.

Hawker’s partner saw the flash of his rifle and turned in time to see the victim fall. At first she froze; then, after checking the front to make sure she wouldn’t be seen, she left her doorway and ran back to the dead body to check it out. She knelt beside it for a moment, then shook her head and ducked for cover once more inside a storefront. She spoke into her wrist comm again, and this time her voice came out of the unit built into the fabric of Hawker’s sleeve. “Why did you that?”

“That was a ….” Hawker strove to remember the name of that creature’s race. “A Cenarchad. We fought them not long ago.”

“Is being fifty years past. Cenarchads to us are allied.” Her tone made it clear she thought him almost as bad a menace as the enemy troops out there.

“Well how the hell was I supposed to know?” Hawker exploded. “I was trying to save your fucking life. You sure as shit didn’t bother telling me how to tell the difference between friend and enemy. If you don’t want any more fuck-ups, you damn well better explain a few things.”

The Spardian was quiet for a moment, probably translating his outburst into terms she could understand and then holding in her own temper. When she did speak, her words were well modulated and controlled. “Is being civil war now almost one year whole. Other side leaders stealing our records, dubbing our people. We having only back-up patterns. Old knowledge is ungood—is friends, enemies on both sides.”

Hawker paused to consider. If the enemy did have a copy of the soldiers’ molecular patterns, the battlefield would be utter chaos. “How do we know who to shoot, then?” he asked.

“Is look at armband. Red is us, blue is they.”

Hawker looked at the colored band on his left arm. Thinking back on it, all the uniforms issued in the bunker had red armbands. Checking more carefully, he could see that the band was just loosely basted on. “What’s to keep someone from changing armbands?”

Across the street, he could see the Spardian shrug. “No one liking being shot by own side in accident.” She paused. “Not even Cenarchads.”

Hawker ignored her sarcasm. True, it would probably be easy enough to change armbands and infiltrate the enemy lines—but imagine the irony of returning to your own side and being shot as the enemy. It was probably being done, but Hawker had no stomach for that double-sided game.

“I sometimes think that’s your strongest asset.” It was Green’s voice coming back to him after all these centuries. “You have no imagination. You see only straight forward, without looking to either side. If there’s an enemy there, you shoot. You don’t worry about peripheral issues. People with imagination waste too much energy thinking about incidentals. Keep it up, Hawk, even if they kid you. You’re really the strongest of the lot, when I think about it.”

Poor Green. Hawker had a sudden recollection of that final image, of Green in his arms, begging not to be forgotten. I still remember you, David, Hawker thought. That’s one thing I won’t let them take away, no matter how long I live.

Whatever the Spardian woman had seen—or thought she’d seen—there was nothing on the street now. She and Hawker waited in their respective niches on opposite sides of the thoroughfare for half an hour, with no signs of further activity. Far away, on the other side of the city, they could hear the fireballs exploding and the buildings tumbling. But there was too much distance to make it sound real; from here, there were no sounds of gunfire, no screams of charging soldiers shouting obscenities at one another, no wailing, moaning, or smell of death. Hawker was beginning to think he’d lucked out this time.

Then it all came at once: a swarm of blue fireballs falling like hailstones. Hawker hardly had time to spot them before they were down. The first three hit in the street, jarring the ground like a powerful earthquake and biting huge holes in the paved surface. Hawker was knocked sideways against the wall, so hard it knocked the energy rifle out of his hands. He stooped to retrieve it and was jarred by a second explosion, even nearer. He scooped the weapon up blindly and raced out of the stairwell. That was no place to be when the walls came tumbling down.

 But the street was no better. Volley after volley of the fireballs came in, and there was no defense against them. Buildings on the other side of the street were already demolished; Hawker could see no sign of his partner. He was looking around for a place to run, a place to hide, when a fireball hit the building right beside him. The top stories exploded in a rain of dust, but the lower levels, jarred beyond endurance, began to collapse. Hawker dove back into his stairwell, just as the building tumbled down around him, burying him beneath a mountain of debris.

 

End of Sample

*]

 

At first he thought the object ahead might be a mirage. But it didn’t shimmer and it grew in appearance as his car approached, so it was definitely real.

It was a large two-story mansion of shiny white stone, with rows of windows on each story reflecting the early afternoon sun. The front porch was shaded by an overhang supported by a row of gleaming white marble pillars, and in front of the house was a rectangular patch of green lawn sharply delineated from the barren desert around it.

He’d driven this road before and didn’t remember seeing anything like this. That had been a few years ago, though, and anything could have happened in the meantime.

The highway ran past the front of the house, about a hundred feet away. The land all around was perfectly flat, devoid of anything of interest but occasional bits of scrub brush and a few lonely cacti scattered here and there. Even the mountains that were always present in California were just a blue smudge on the distant horizon.

He was too absorbed in his own misery to think of the mansion as much more than a curiosity. His depression was a black cloud overwhelming all other concerns, so he ignored the mansion and drove straight ahead.

Or tried to. Without warning his engine suddenly coughed and died, and the old Corolla coasted slowly to a stop almost directly in front of the mansion’s driveway. He at least managed to steer it off to the side of the road, so it wouldn’t get hit by any other car passing this way. Not that there was much likelihood of that.

The gas gauge showed the tank was half full. He tried the ignition a couple of times, but only got a dismal whirring noise. “Damn!” he screamed at the unheeding machine, pounding the steering wheel with both fists. “Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn! Why me? Why now? I knew I shouldn’t have trusted this piece of junk for a trip like this.”

He looked disgustedly at the stack of insurance forms on the passenger’s seat under the bag of clothes, then got out and slammed the door angrily behind him. He raised the hood to stare at the engine. It was an exercise in futility—he had no idea what to look for, let alone how to fix it.

He looked impatiently at his watch. Twelve thirty-five. The temperature was easily a hundred already, and would only get worse as the afternoon wore on. There wasn’t a breath of wind. He’d have to do something if he wanted to make it to the ranch before nightfall.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. That was no help, either—the display showed no signal here. After all, who would put a cell phone tower out here for the jackrabbits and coyotes? He threw the cell phone as far as he could into the desert. “Good riddance!” he shouted after it. “What good are you? What good is anything?” He kicked the car in frustration and shook with a barely suppressed sob. “What good is anything?”

What he wanted to do was get back in the car again. In the back seat. And curl up in a fetal ball, whimpering. Maybe even sucking his thumb. The whole universe could just pass him by. That would probably be better than what it had been doing lately.

He looked up and saw the house again. Well, at least he could ask to use their phone to call Triple-A. Of course, with his luck there wouldn’t be anyone home.

He looked down at himself. Despite having poured water all over, his clothes were already dry in this desert heat. He ran his fingers through his hair a couple of times in lieu of a comb. Then he started stomping up the asphalt driveway, glad it wasn’t a dark, stormy night; then he might be heading into the lair of Dracula or Frank N. Furter or someone ominous like that.

He was so wrapped up in his black cloud of thoughts that he’d gotten more than halfway up the driveway before he saw the snowman out on the lawn near the porch. It had to be one of those plastic Christmas ornaments, he mused. Someone had a weird sense of humor, leaving it out in July. Either that or they were really lazy about putting it away.

As he approached it, though, it looked more and more real. It was a standard three-snowball snowman with the base three feet in diameter, the middle two feet and the head one foot. Its eyes were black plums, its nose was a sweet gherkin pickle and its mouth was a dotted line of cherries curving in a smile. It wore a cheerful yellow and red scarf around where its neck would be. On its head, instead of the traditional top hat, it had an Oakland A’s baseball cap. Its arms were disproportionately skinny, just a couple of bare twigs sticking out of its shoulders.

He came up beside it and touched it experimentally. It was cold. It was made of snow. And it was standing out on this lawn in hundred-degree heat under the blazing desert sun in July.

He backed away from it slowly, not completely willing to take his eyes off it. The snowman just stood there and showed no intention of melting.

Finally, with a fast shake of his head, he tried to put it out of his mind. There were too many other problems of greater concern. He climbed the four steps onto the porch, walked up to the large door and pressed the bell.

A few seconds later the door opened and he found himself looking at the most beautiful young woman he’d ever met. She was short—he was only five-eight, and she barely came up to his nose—but that was about her only feature he might have called substandard. Her body was perfectly proportioned, neither too busty nor too boyish. Her dark brown hair, in a pixie cut, surrounded a perfect face with wide, sparkling brown eyes, a perky nose and a small but expressive mouth.

She was wearing a black one-piece satin pants-dress. The bottom half was pants with gently flaring legs; the top was a harness like two black kerchiefs rising up the front and tying behind her neck. She had ordinary low-heeled black pumps, and her back was bare. She wasn’t model-skinny, but there was certainly no fat there. Around her neck she wore a thin gold chain and a large medallion several inches across, with at least a dozen small lights that blinked on and off. She didn’t look much more than twenty years old.

“Yes?” she said.

He was so busy admiring the view that he almost forgot why he was here. “Uh, sorry to bother you, but my car broke down on the road over there. I was wondering—”

“Well, don’t just stand out there in the heat,” she said, beckoning. “Come on in to the air conditioning and get comfortable. Welcome to the Green House.”

“Thank you,” he said, stepping inside. She closed the door behind him, and he luxuriated in the feeling. He hadn’t felt cool for hours.

They were in a vestibule with a black and white marble tile floor and an enormous cut crystal chandelier suspended from the high ceiling. There was a long hallway leading to the back of the mansion, with several doors to different rooms at intervals along its length. A broad staircase with dark green carpeting led up to the next story.

“I hate to intrude like this—” he began, but she interrupted him again.

“Pish tosh. It’s no intrusion. You can’t help where your car breaks down, can you?”

“No,” he said with a deep sigh. “I was just hoping you’d let me use your phone a moment.”

“I would if I had one.”

“You live all the way out here in the middle of nowhere without a phone?”

“If I had a phone, people would just call me all the time,” she said. “Too many people keep trying to talk to me. I prefer being a little unreachable.”

“But what if you run into trouble?” he pressed her. “What if you needed to get in touch with someone?”

“I have no trouble getting in touch with anyone I want,” she said. “And there’s no trouble my staff and I can’t handle.”

“Oh, you have a staff. I guess that’s a little better.”

“Yup. In fact, I was going to suggest you let my chauffeur take a look at your car. He’ll probably know how to fix it.”

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble—”

“It’s no trouble for me. Fritz will do the work. That’s what he’s here for.” She grabbed her medallion and spoke into it. “Fritz, there’s a car out front that seems to have stopped working. Can you have a look at it and get it going again?”

Ja, meine fraulein,” came a voice out of the medallion. The accent was so Hollywood German that you could almost hear the clicking of his heels.

“Thank you so much,” he said.

She turned back to face him. “I’m Polly, by the way.”

“Oh, uh, hi. I’m Rod.”

She tilted her head to the left. “You don’t look like a ‘Rod,’” she said critically.

“What does a ‘Rod’ look like?”

“Oh, long, cylindrical and stiff.” She gave him a wicked grin. “Of course, I can understand if that’s a nickname.”

He found himself blushing furiously. “It’s, uh, for Herodotus,” he said quietly. At the same time, he wondered why he said it. He almost never told anyone that—certainly not a complete stranger.

“Oh, the Greek historian,” Polly squealed. “How neat.”

“You’ve heard of him?”

“Of course. I loved the ancient Greeks.”

“Yeah, so did my father. He was a professor of classical civilizations.”

“He must have really loved you to give you such an honored name.”

Herodotus snorted with scorn. “Herodotus Shapiro is a horrible name to give a Jewish boy.”

“I kinda like it. Mind if I call you ‘Hero’?”

“I really prefer Rod.”

“You can be my Hero,” she said, completely ignoring his complaint. “It’s better than ‘Her,’ ain’t it?”

“Whatever,” he said resignedly. He had much bigger problems in his life right now than what some silly rich girl called him. And right now, one of those problems was taking his eyes off the gorgeous body of that silly rich girl and avoiding drooling on the floor.

She slipped her arm under his and pulled him toward the room on his right. “Come on into the parlor and join the party.”

“Party?” He felt a sudden constriction in his chest. Parties meant people, usually happy people. Happy people were about the last things he needed in his life at the moment. “Uh, I didn’t mean to crash—”

“You couldn’t if you wanted to,” Polly told him firmly.

He was all too aware that he was sweaty and unkempt. “I’m not sure I’d fit in. I probably don’t know anyone—”

“Don’t worry. You’ll get along fine. They’re all good people. I don’t invite any other kind.”

 “But. Uh. I’m not really dressed for a party.”

“Don’t worry. All my parties are come-as-you-are. Very informal. I think people are more important than their clothes. Come on.”

She slid open the pocket doors and led him into a large parlor. The room beyond was filled with people. There was some upbeat instrumental music playing unobtrusively in the background, and people were talking in low, friendly tones. The sounds of laughter could be heard in spots.

The carpet was pale blue, covered by a pair of Persian rugs with royal blue open ground. The wallpaper was a tone-on-tone figured pastel blue with navy strips running horizontally around the top and the wainscoting. There was a long blue brocade Empire couch and five chairs in a lime green jacquard with small bunches of bluebells in a diamond trellis pattern, and a baby-blue grand piano in the far corner. Small mahogany tables set off the bowfront console under the large bevel-edged plate mirror. All the people were standing and talking; no one was sitting on the fancy furniture.

He looked over the large crowd, but couldn’t find any faces he recognized. “How did you get all these people to come all the way out here in the desert?”

“I invited them,” Polly said simply. “People like coming to my parties.”

She pressed a button on her medallion and a soft but insistent chiming rang out in the room. People stopped their conversations to look over at the door.

“Hi, everyone,” she called out. “I hope you’re all enjoying yourselves.”

Most people nodded, others made noises of approval. “Good,” Polly said. “If there’s any problem, just let me know. I want to introduce you all to my Hero. Actually, his name’s Herodotus Shapiro, but I think Hero suits him. Please make him feel welcome.” A small cheer went up from the crowd, which only made Herodotus feel more embarrassed.

Polly turned back to him. “You look like you could use a drink.”

“I’m not really a big drinker—”

“Just a glass of wine. Oh Fifi,” she called out.

A beautiful and perky young blonde in a black-and-white maid’s outfit came over to them, carrying a tray with some filled wine glasses. Her costume was very brief and left little to the imagination, especially the perfectly cantilevered evidence of her mammalian heritage. “Oui, Mademoiselle?” she asked.

Polly smoothly slipped a pair of glasses off the tray, giving one to Herodotus and keeping one for herself. “Fifi, I want you to make sure Hero has everything he wants.”

The maid looked up at Herodotus’s face and smiled. “I will do my best,” she promised, her voice suddenly husky. Her shoulders and hips swiveled in counterpoint, as though on separate servos.

Polly raised her glass to Herodotus. “To new friendships,” she said, clinking her glass against his.

Herodotus looked at the golden liquid in the glass and sipped it experimentally. It was delicious—sweet but not cloying, smooth on the palette, cooling to the throat, the finish crisp and fruity. He took a second, bigger sip.

She watched him with a smile on her face. “Like it?” she asked.

“It’s very good, yes.”

“It’s from my own vineyard,” she bragged. “It’s called Contentment, the wine from contented grapes. It grows right next to another of my vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored. I keep this particular wine for special occasions.”

“Look, Polly, I—”

“Sorry to desert you temporarily, but I do have to mingle. Hostess duties and all that. Talk to people, enjoy yourself. If you need anything, Fifi or James will be glad to help.”

“Who’s James?”

“My butler. I’ll be back very shortly and then we can talk.” She took a sip from her glass and stepped out onto the floor, getting smiles from everyone she met, until she disappeared in the crowd.

Herodotus felt very out of place and alone. The people looked friendly enough, but he was not in a very sociable mood—not today. He edged his way to the couch and sat down gingerly at one end, respecting the furniture’s obvious age, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.

A few minutes later, a man came and sat down beside him. He looked to be in his late 60s with a weathered, leathery face and a receding hair line topped with pure white hair. He had a thin body with a growing paunch, and his face was wrinkled, but in a nice way. There were many smile lines there.

“How long have you known her?” the man asked conversationally.

“Her? You mean Polly?”

“Is that what she goes by these days? Yeah, Polly.”

“I just met her a couple of minutes ago.”

The old man nodded. “Been five years for me. My wife and I were married forty-three years, and she was never sick a day in her life except a sniffle or two. Then Alice went into the hospital, and three weeks later she died of cancer. My whole world collapsed. I thought I might as well die and join her. Then this nurse came out to me in the visiting room and held my hand. I’m not a guy who goes around crying, but I was bawling like a baby on her shoulder, getting her uniform all damp. She didn’t seem to mind. I told her all about Alice. Geez, we must’ve sat there talking for hours. You know, I had some friends who tried to cheer me up by telling me Alice was going to a better place. Polly never gave me none of that crap. She was just there, and that was enough, and soon the rest of the world was there too—a little emptier without Alice, but not nearly as hopeless as I thought.”

He paused. “What’s your story?” he asked.

Herodotus flushed. After a tale like the old man’s, what could he say? “My car broke down outside her house,” he said, almost apologetically.

The old man looked at him for a while, the barest hints of a smile at the corners of his mouth. Finally he stood up. “Sure,” he said, reaching over and slapping Herodotus on the back. “Remember, like Polly says, things are never hopeless unless you lose all hope.” And he walked away.

Herodotus took another sip of wine and watched the partygoers. After another couple of minutes, a weasely little man in a gray suit with a starched white shirt and red bow tie came over to the couch. Instead of sitting on it, he walked around behind it and bent down to whisper into Herodotus’s ear. “Get out of here while you have a chance,” he said ominously.

“What?”

“You heard me. Get out before it’s too late.” Then he walked away without explaining further.

Herodotus wondered what sort of rabbit hole he’d fallen down as he watched the man go. But he had no choice about staying here unless he wanted to walk fifty or so miles through the desert’s summer heat.

Weaving its way casually through the crowd of people walked a large long-haired black cat with bright golden eyes. It came deliberately over to the couch, looked at Herodotus analytically, then jumped up onto his lap. Herodotus stroked its fur gingerly. The cat made no objection, and started purring, kneading his thigh with velvet paws.

And then Polly was back, now wearing a spangled leotard—red and white vertical stripes, with blue trim with white stars along the top and bottom. Her shoulders, arms and legs were bare, with ballet slippers on her feet.

“Ah, you’ve found Midnight,” Polly said with a smile.

“I think it’s more like he found me,” Herodotus said.

“I see you’re used to thinking of things from a catly perspective.”

“I’ve lived with a few in my life,” he admitted.

“Glad to hear it. Cats are living proof God was only joking when he said you should have no other gods before him.” She bent down and petted the cat too. It purred even louder.

Polly jumped onto the couch beside him, bounced a couple of times with all the decorum of a rambunctious ten-year-old, and ended up seated sideways, legs crossed, facing him. The cat didn’t even twitch. “Now, what shall we talk about?” she asked.

Herodotus shook his head. “I’m not really in a talking mood. I just want to get my car fixed and get out of your way.”

Polly’s voice sounded sympathetic. “Got some problems, huh?”

“I said, I don’t want to talk about it.” His tone came out sharper than he intended.

“Fine,” she said, still stroking the cat. “Then we can talk about my favorite subject—me. Ask me some questions. I know you’ve got some, I can see it in your eyes. Ask me anything. I’m feeling pretty good, so you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity some men would die for.”

She obviously was not going to leave him alone, so he might as well humor her. “Do you grow a lot of flowers here?”

She was actually stunned and bemused for several seconds. “I have to admit, that’s not one that comes up often. Usually it’s ‘what’s the meaning of life’ or ‘why did this happen to me’ type questions. Sure, I have a small garden patch out back, but no bigger than Versailles. Why do you ask?”

“Well, when I came in you said ‘Welcome to the greenhouse.’”

Polly laughed. It was a sound like tinkling chimes, a sound that made the whole room glow, a sound that was enjoyment boiled down to its purest essence. “Not ‘greenhouse’,” she said. “‘Green House.’ Because of its color.”

“Your house is white.”

“Yeah, but ‘White House’ is already taken, ain’t it?”

Herodotus closed his eyes. His brain felt it had suddenly entered a dense fog bank. “I’m not sure that makes any sense.”

“Sense? The contract ain’t got ‘sense’ in it anywhere. Or ‘fair,’ for that matter. Not even in the fine print. I read it all.”

Herodotus was getting the uncomfortable feeling that Polly had been living alone a little too long. He was about to stand up and say he’d be just fine waiting outside when the butler came over to the couch. He was a tall man in a tuxedo, hair slightly balding and gray along the side. He carried himself with a superior bearing, and he carried a silver tray of canapés in his right hand. He lowered the tray elegantly and said in an upper-class British accent, “Refreshments?”

“Thank you, James,” Polly said, taking an unusual-looking hors d’oeuvre from the tray and looking at Herodotus. “Care for something?”

He looked over the assortment. Most of the parties he went to had chips-and-dip, or cheese balls, or bowls of nuts or pretzels. There was nothing familiar-looking on the tray before him. “Uh, what do you recommend?”

“Oh, they’re all great,” Polly said. “I made ’em myself.”

Herodotus looked over the assortment and chose something that looked like a small red and brown flower on a cracker. He bit into it tentatively; it had a hint of sweet and a hint of salt. “This is good,” he said as he finished the rest of it.

“Well, you don’t have to sound so surprised,” Polly said.

“What is it?”

“After that underwhelming response, I don’t think I’ll tell you. That will do us for now, James.”

“As you will, Madam.” The butler straightened up and went about the parlor to serve the other guests.

Polly watched Herodotus finish chewing the canapé, then said. “Now, where were we?”

“I don’t think we were really anywhere.”

“Oh yes, you were asking me probing, insightful questions. Go on, I can’t wait for the next one.”

Herodotus finished the wine to give himself a moment to compose his thoughts. With a sigh, he decided to say what was puzzling him. Well, one of the things that was puzzling him. Polly didn’t seem offended by bluntness.

“Did you know,” he asked deliberately, “there’s a snowman standing in your front yard?”

“Oh, McCool? I thought he was out back. He must’ve wandered out front ’cause he likes watching the cars go by.”

That froze him. “You’re joking.”

She flashed him a big smile, a smile that lit up the room like an arc light. “Of course I am, silly,” she said, reaching out to put her hand comfortingly on his knee. “McCool can’t wander anywhere—he don’t got no legs. That always made me wonder about Frosty. How could he dance around when snowmen don’t got legs or feet? It’s a cute song, though.”

The touch of her hand on his knee sent a jolt of…something through him. It wasn’t warmth, though he was certainly warm despite the air conditioning. It wasn’t electricity, although he felt his entire body tingling. It wasn’t sexuality, although her leotard made him very aware of her nearby femininity. It was just something, and it was decidedly good.

He began to stammer, “But how—” when she cut him off.

“Q-and-A is over for now. Maybe more later, if you’re a good boy. Right now, I’m missing out on my exercise time, which I was about to begin when you showed up. That’s why I’m dressed like this. Come on up to the gym and keep me company.”

“What about your guests?”

“Oh, they’ll be okay on their own for a while. James and Fifi can take care of ’em.”

“I don’t do a lot of exercising,” Herodotus said, not bothering to add that in his opinion the only thing worse than exercising was watching someone else do it. “You go ahead. I’ll just sit here and pet your cat and wait for your chauffeur to fix my car.”

“Oh no you don’t,” she said, jumping up from the couch and grabbing his arm. Midnight took that as his cue to jump down from Herodotus’s lap and casually wander elsewhere. “I love showing off,” Polly continued, “and I can’t do that while you’re down here.” She pulled him up and tugged him along. “Think of it as repayment for my hospitality.”

Realizing she was as close to the Irresistible Force as he was ever going to meet, he let her lead him back out to the vestibule and down the central hallway to the back of the house. There were worse ways to spend his time, after all, than watching a beautiful girl get all sweaty.

They reached the end of the long hallway and found an elevator cab standing open for them. Polly pressed number three. Herodotus noticed the buttons went all the way up to thirteen, plus one that said “R.”

“I could have sworn your house was only two stories,” he said as the elevator doors closed. The cab shot upward faster than any sane elevator would have dared. Herodotus felt as though his knees were about to pass his chin and come out through the top of his head, and his stomach felt it had been left behind on the ground floor.

“Oh, you must’ve just seen it from the front,” Polly said offhandedly. “It’s much bigger around the back. Here we are.”

The elevator came to an abrupt stop that left Herodotus feeling like a pile of Jell-O on a wobbling spring. The doors opened to reveal what looked like a plush hotel hallway with doors on either side. There were no numbers on the doors, nor any indication of what might be behind them, except that one of the doors further down the corridor was painted bright green.

With a spring in her step, Polly walked briskly down the hallway. She didn’t have to pull Herodotus by the hand now; his nerves were still jangling from the elevator ride and he was afraid of lagging behind, of getting lost in this increasingly confusing mansion.

She paused beside the green door. “You can’t go in here,” she said.

“Why would I want to?”

“Because it’s forbidden,” she said darkly. “They always want to go in when I say it’s forbidden.” She continued on and stopped beside a door on her left about halfway down the hall. “This is the gym,” she said. “Come on in.”

It was a large room, as big as any high school gymnasium. It was not exactly what Herodotus had been expecting. No treadmill, no exerbike, no Nautilus, no Stairmaster—none of the modern appurtenances. Instead, there was a vaulting horse, parallel bars, a trapeze and an eight-foot-high tightrope. A lot of gray wrestling mats were spread about the floor.

“You’re an acrobat, then?” Herodotus hazarded.

“Onry phirosophicarry,” she said in a mock-Chinese accent.

Herodotus looked confused, and his face must have shown it.

“You have seen Tony Randall in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” Polly half-asked. When Herodotus shook his head, she continued, “Oh, you must! George Pal directed, Charles Beaumont script. It’s a film that deserves beatification.”

Then she returned to the matter at hand. “Acrobatics gives me a good workout and helps me keep the girlish figure you’ve been admiring when you thought I wasn’t looking.”

Herodotus blushed, but there was only pride in Polly’s tone as she said, “Watch this.”

There was a rope beside the trapeze, and Polly climbed a few feet up it until she could reach the bar, then transferred over. She started swinging back and forth, gathering momentum, until with one smooth motion she did a backflip that hooked her knees over the bar. She pulled herself first into a sitting position, then further up until she was standing legs apart on the bar. Herodotus started to clap, but she shushed him. “Oh, that’s nothing,” she said, the faintest touch of testiness to her voice. “Please hold your applause until the end of the act.”

Leaning forward, she started to fall while, at the same time, bending at the waist and gripping the trapeze bar with both hands. Her momentum carried her around the bar one full turn, at which point she spread her legs upward until she was doing a handstand on the bar. She posed there, rock steady, for a good fifteen seconds, then suddenly let go and dropped straight down until, at the last instant, she caught her ankles at the ends of the trapeze bar where the ropes held it up. Then she slowly moved her left leg to the side, so her entire body was dangling simply by her right ankle.

She maintained that pose for another few seconds, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, then effortlessly bent upward and grasped the bar with her hands again. She leaned forward and back, using her body as a counterweight to start the trapeze swinging. The pendulum swings increased back and forth, higher with each successive arc. Then, at the apex of one swing, she let go and flew through the air. Her body quickly curled in and she did two complete revolutions before straightening out again and landing without a wobble in the center of the nearby tightrope.

“No applause,” she reminded him, “but a small gasp of astonishment might be in order.”

She didn’t wait, though, but started walking back and forth along the length of the wire, moving as surely as though she were on solid ground. She moved to the center of the wire, bent her knees and did a backflip, then a second, then a third—each time landing confidently on her feet.

“Now comes the time for audience participation,” she said. “There’s a unicycle over there. Could you get it and hand it up to me, please?”

Herodotus went and got the unicycle, then handed it to her. She didn’t bother to thank him, just balanced the wheel on the wire and mounted it delicately, then cycled back and forth twice from one end of the wire to the other.

After pedaling back to the center of the wire, she remained balancing there and said, “Now bring me that stick and that plate over there.” Herodotus did so.

The stick was about three feet long and half an inch in diameter. She grabbed it about halfway up, put the plate on top of it and started the plate spinning. She pushed the rim with her hand, getting it going faster and faster. When she deemed it was at the proper speed, she grabbed the pole with both hands, leaned her head back, and carefully balanced the stick on her forehead. She took her hands away and held them out at both sides. Then she started cycling forward and back along the wire.

“This is where I impart to you the great secret of the universe,” she said, never taking her eyes from the plate. “All the wisdom of the ancients boiled down to a single word: Balance. Stay in balance and the world’s your oyster. Assuming you like oysters, that is, otherwise the whole metaphor’s worthless.”

She continued with the pole on her forehead for a full minute. Then she grasped the pole with her right hand, removed it from her forehead, and let it clatter to the ground. She caught the plate in her left hand, looked down at Herodotus and said, “Here, catch” as she tossed it to him. She, meanwhile, remained on the unicycle on the tightrope, pedaling back and forth for another minute with effortless ease.

Finally she dismounted the unicycle as easily as she’d gotten on and handed it back down to Herodotus. Then she bent down and gripped the wire, spun around and dropped her legs until she was dangling by her hands, then dropped lightly to the mat below, arms triumphantly over her head.

“Okay, you may applaud now,” she said.

 

End of Sample

*]

 

PROLOGUE: THE HOLY CITY

 

The tale is told of a time when all Parsina was shaken with war; when the oceans bubbled and the very sky caught fire; when a legion of demons fought the army of men; when the Peris took up arms and the King of the Winds bent himself to human purposes; when the earth split open and swallowed a city at a single greedy gulp; when strength and courage vied against treachery and corruption; when love battled hate and creation warred with destruction; when kings and princes fought for the honor of humanity against a swelling tide of demonkind; when the forces of Oromasd and Rimahn themselves contended for control of the world and the universe hung in the balance scale, half a feather’s weight from chaos.

Such a time there was, and if you’re patient you will hear of it.

But before that time, there was Ravan.

Ravan the Golden; Ravan the Beautiful; Ravan, the City of the Gilded Domes; Ravan, the Mother of Cities; Ravan, the Fountain of Goodness; Ravan, the Jewel of Mankind; Ravan, Bane of Djinni; Ravan, Blessed of Oromasd and Cursed of Rimahn; Ravan, City of a Hundred Temples; Ravan, Center of the World.

Ravan, City of a Thousand Names, City of a Thousand Thousand Blessings.

Ravan, the Holy City.

The builders of Ravan had sought to make it perfect, for no site more deserved perfection. In that crack of time between the Fourth and Fifth Cycles, between the Age of Heroes and the Age of Ravan, it was this spot that stood as fulcrum in the balance between good and evil. In the Kholaj Desert to the east the battle was waged, and heroes died so men might live free of Rimahn’s evil influence. In the heart of what came to be Ravan, King Shahriyan himself declared the victory of Oromasd and mankind over the forces of darkness and dissolution. Likewise in that spot did the wizard Ali Maimun, greatest mage of a wondrous age, shatter the Crystal of Oromasd in twain, and then in twain again, so no man could profane its holy powers.

No heroes of that stature were left; their Age had gone, and them with it. But their legacy of peace was enjoyed by men for so many generations that even the oldest villagers could not count them.

To celebrate and commemorate this triumph, King Shahriyan ordered built the finest city in the world. Tribute poured in from all lands, from Indi and Sinjin, from Tatarry and Sudarr, even from Norgeland and the far Islands of Fauk; no kingdom was so far it had not heard of the marvels, and none was so untouched that it would not contribute to the greatness.

Materials arrived in train after train, and the land around Ravan was so cluttered with caravans they could scarcely move for their crowding. Marble and alabaster, cedar and teak, turquoise and diamonds, rubies and emeralds, lapis and jade, silver and ivory, all arrived in quantities beyond reckoning. But most of all there was gold—gold in wicker baskets, gold in bricks, gold in jewelry, gold in dust, enough gold to burden ten thousand camels for a year and still have enough left over to please a sultan’s harem.

But it was not just materials that made the city. Each king, in grateful tribute, sent his finest artisans and craftsmen to aid the construction. From all corners of the world came architects, engineers and builders, stonemasons and carpenters, sculptors, plasterers, bricklayers, and woodcarvers, all vying to outdo one another and make Ravan the most beautiful city the world has ever known. An army of artisans, working day and night; an army, some say, that was larger even than the army King Shahriyan used in his triumphant battle. The sounds of their hammers and chisels and saws echoed through the surrounding countryside for many years as the city of Ravan rose from the plain of mankind’s most tremendous battlefield.

King Shahriyan was an old man by the time the city was completed, and he had vowed never to set foot inside the walls until Ravan was finished. Now at last he came with his procession, an old warrior mounted on his white horse with the gold trappings. By all accounts there were tears in his eyes as he and his retinue marched through the Palace Gate and down the magnificent streets of Ravan; some say he was struck dumb by its beauty and grandeur, and could not speak again for upwards of a month. A few even say he never spoke again save in a whisper, so awed was he at the marvel he’d caused to be created.

This, then, was the Ravan of King Shahriyan: A city built on a mound more than two stories tall, a mound surrounded entirely by a deep ditch except in those places where the roads approached. To the west of the city flowed the Zaind River in its southerly course, far enough away so that even at its highest flood the waters would not threaten the city’s walls, close enough to allow the river commerce that brought wealth into the city. To the north, the Tirghiz Mountains rose as majestic backdrop to this jewel of all cities, their streams and creeks feeding the underground aqueducts that brought life to Ravan. To the south were the fertile plains of Leewahr, whose crops and whose livestock fed the hungry population of the Holy City. And to the east lay the burning sands of the Kholaj Desert, ever a reminder of the desolation Rimahn brought into the world.

Atop its peaceful mound, surveying its surroundings, was Ravan itself, a city built in a circle. The outer walls, four stories tall and built of massive stone blocks, enclosed the circular city with a diameter of more than a parasang. Inside the outer wall ran a second ditch and then the inner wall, five stories tall, of brick and plaster. Safe within these formidable defenses, the city of Ravan reposed.

Four gates only breached these walls in the time of King Shahriyan. To the north, the Palace Gate shone out its hues of burnished gold with bas relief birds and animals, real and mythical. To the west was the silver River Gate, inscribed with calligraphic motifs. To the east, the massive bronze Merchant’s Gate with floral designs welcomed travelers who’d journeyed across the desert from the far and mystical lands of the east. To the south was Peasant’s Gate, carved in geometric patterns from rare teak.

Four roads ran through the city from these gates, intersecting in a maidan at the very center, and along the roads were the major bazaars that served the city. The bazaar running north and south from Palace Gate to Peasant’s Gate was called the King’s Bazaar because it passed the palace. The bazaar was wide enough for four oxcarts to pass abreast. The entire length was enclosed with a vaulted arch of wood. In the northern half the wood had been gilded, but the southern half was scarcely less impressive, lacquered in floral designs of blues and reds and greens and golds; because of this design, the southern half was sometimes also known as the Flower Bazaar.

The road across the east and west sides of the city was narrower, just two oxcarts wide. From the central maidan to River Gate the bazaar was overhung with fabric of a hue that gave the street its name—the Saffron Bazaar; while the eastern half of the street was shaded by brocade canopies and thus named the Silk Bazaar.

In the maidan at the very center of town, on the precise spot where King Shahriyan declared his victory, stood a public fountain issuing forth its sweet water for all who needed it. From the center of the fountain rose a memorial obelisk on which was inscribed the story of King Shahriyan and his knights, and of Ali Maimun the wizard, and their triumph over the forces of Rimahn. Each year thousands of pilgrims journeyed to Ravan from all parts of the world to read the story for themselves and drink the water from the sacred fountain.

The palace Shahriyan had built for himself lay in the north of the city, against the inner wall and just to the west of the King’s Bazaar. Built of stone and marble and purest white alabaster, it was every bit as impressive as should befit the monarch who had saved the world. The domes of its roof were all gilded, and so numerous that any man who tried to count them rapidly lost track and gave up the task in hopeless frustration. There were fountains and shady gardens within the many palace courtyards, but the great wonder were the gardens that adjoined the palace on the south side. The royal gardens, so it was said, contained every flower and tree known to man, and were so extensive they required an army of gardeners to tend them. Lucky visitors to the gardens could wander for hours without repeating their path, and it was widely agreed that the royal gardens of Ravan were numbered among the wonders of the world.

But for all his worldly wisdom, for all the fact that he was a strong and noble monarch, King Shahriyan did not forget that the true victory belonged to Oromasd, and that he and his armies had merely been acting as the appointed instrument of Oromasd’s divine will. From his first commission, good King Shahriyan had insisted that the builders of Ravan make it a city devoted to Oromasd, a city of light and virtue—as much a city of spiritual good as of worldly goods. Ravan was to be a beacon to people everywhere, proclaiming the glory and power of Oromasd throughout the world.

True to their orders, the architects and builders of Ravan set out to make the new city the holiest spot on earth. In collaboration with the priests and the mages, they installed relics and talismans every few cubits within both the inner and outer walls around the city, so no forces of evil could ever breach those barricades. They designed and built shrines throughout the city, so Ravan acquired its name of the City of a Hundred Temples. Each was a work of art, each a tribute to the glorious creator of the universe. Theologians and priests came from all over Parsina to study in the madrasas of Ravan. While it was universally known that Oromasd saw all that transpired on earth, the citizens of Ravan contended with justifiable pride that he paid a little more attention to Ravan than elsewhere.

Jewel of all the temples was the Temple of the Faith, also called the Royal Temple because it abutted the southwest wall of the palace. This was a building to rival the palace itself, its gold dome the largest ever built by man. The minaret at the south side of the temple was the highest point within Ravan, and atop it burned the everlasting flame, symbol of Oromasd’s power. The flame could be seen from any point in Ravan and in the countryside for parasangs around, so the populace would know that the power of Oromasd never diminished in its sustenance of Ravan.

In addition to the palace and the temples, there were other buildings in Ravan as well. Spacious and comfortable caravanserais were spread among the bazaars for visiting merchants, pilgrims, or scholars. A myriad of flat-roofed houses bordered on the twisting lanes of each quarter. None of the houses was less than a mansion, and each had a central court with a sumptuous garden, a tribute to Oromasd’s blessings and the fecundity of the Holy City.

Such, then, was the Ravan built by King Shahriyan: a city of dreams, a metropolis unparalleled in the history of Parsina, a center of both worldly and spiritual wealth. It was a city without cares, where any man could enter and be happy and at peace.

King Shahriyan lived for only a year in the palace of Ravan, growing weaker and older with each passing day. It was as though, with the completion of the city, his appointed task on earth was done and he could look forward to nothing else life had to offer. The priests of the Royal Temple comforted him, and at last his soul slipped off to meet its destiny on the Bridge of Shinvar.

Other kings followed King Shahriyan to reign in Ravan. Some were as good as he, some were less good, some few even were bad. Some were loved by their subjects, others tolerated, and some were vilely hated. Some extended their influence throughout most of Parsina, while others were content merely to run the affairs of the city itself. Kings of other nations made war and sued for peace one with the other; armies invaded, armies defended, armies conquered. But Ravan remained untouched, a pearl inviolate in the bed of earth. War, dissension, famine, and even plague passed it by, as though unwilling to blemish Ravan’s sanctity. Whatever happened to the rest of the world, the people of the Blessed City remained secure in the knowledge that their place in the scheme of life was settled and stable.

Thus it was for generation after generation. Sons grew old and daughters got married, and life succeeded itself in its eternal revolution. Men and women came and went, and the wheels of Time would spin and grind.

The Holy City changed but slowly. After more than a thousand years a fifth gate was added in the southeastern portion of the wall, Beggar’s Gate, and the road leading northward from it to intersect the Silk Bazaar was called the Winding Bazaar because of its twisting route among the streets of Ravan. The shops here were poorer and there was no canopy to shade passersby from the heat of the sun. Some of the merchants put small awnings over the doors to their stalls, but many didn’t even bother.

Many grew rich in Ravan, and even more grew poor. The adage “Better a beggar in Ravan than a king in Kandestan” was of more consolation to the kings than the beggars. The rich merchants, the fat landlords, the snobbish moneylenders expanded and consolidated some of the original houses; a single household could incorporate three of the old buildings, and some of the elite mansions began to rival the palace itself. The nobility gathered in the northern half of the city; the closer the home was to the palace, the more honored and privileged the noble.

The southern half of the city was left mostly to the middle-class merchants, the pilgrims, and the poor. Houses here were often divided among many families. As the buildings grew older they were often razed instead of repaired and newer, meaner dwellings took their place. While poverty never took root as deeply as it did elsewhere, not even Ravan was immune from the decay of time. The city’s original luster wore thin, revealing the common clay beneath the glazed facade.

Still, life proceeded on its daily pace and the people accepted their lot with grace.

The Cycles turned, the universe revolved, and the threads of Fate were woven into their ever-new tapestry. The Age of Ravan, like some ancient clock, was winding down. The new Cycle, when it came, would depend not on the vagaries of heroes, but those, instead, of men.

CHAPTER 1: THE THIEF

 

The night was dark but clear, and the waning moon still had not showed its face above the horizon. In the shadows along Ironsmith’s Road in the northwest quarter of the city, a figure moved stealthily along the base of the wall. The figure was cloaked in black and shod in soft leather boots so his footsteps would make no sound as he slipped through the night like a ship through a tranquil sea.

Hakem Rafi was, both by nature and by choice, a fulltime thief and an occasional murderer. His fate had been sealed by his birth as the son of a whoring mother and an unknown father in the city of Yazed, some sixty parasangs southeast of Ravan. Sickly and weak as a child, often neglected and left to survive as he could, he lived by his wits and the quickness of his hands and feet. He envied those who had more than he did, which was everyone, and early in life swore a vow to reduce the rest of the world to his own level of moral bankruptcy. To this end he lied and cheated, gambled and whored; he stole when he needed money and he killed when he had to. He was not a cruel man, just conveniently callous. If Fate decreed him the life of a cockroach, then he would be a cockroach and defy the world to squash out his life.

Hakem Rafi had lived all his life in Yazed until three months ago, when the wali of police died of political causes. As the new wali was less corrupt and less amenable to persuasion, Hakem Rafi decided his fortune might better be made elsewhere. Having heard all his life about the riches of Ravan, he ventured to the Holy City in the hope of making a new, if similar, beginning.

Life in Ravan was difficult, however, for a man of his particular talents. Even the poorer merchants usually had one or two hulking servants guarding the merchandise in their shops, while the nobles and wealthy traders scarcely went anywhere without a full retinue of bodyguards. Hakem Rafi found easy pickings among the poor, the crippled, and the aged, but the rewards were seldom worth his efforts.

With his money spent and in vile circumstance, Hakem Rafi was desperate to change his situation—so desperate he was willing to risk confronting the guards by breaking into the house of a rich merchant. In the past he’d always preferred speed to stealth; it was far easier to cut the strings of a purse and run through the crowd, or to waylay an unsuspecting victim in a back alleyway, than it was to climb over a wall or break through the lattice of a window when the owner might be waiting with a large knife just on the other side. Still, if the one path was impossible, Hakem Rafi was prepared to take the other.

He’d chosen as his victim a wine merchant, a man old in years and infirm in body who was known to hoard great piles of coins in secret niches within his walls. The merchant would probably die soon anyway, and Hakem Rafi merely sought to simplify the division of his estate. In scouting the merchant’s house during the daytime, he had observed a break in the otherwise impassable wall at the northern edge of the house where the gardeners had carelessly knocked some bricks loose into the street; that would serve as his entryway.

As he now reached his chosen spot, Hakem Rafi paused once more to taste the air with his ears for any tang of danger. All was peaceful; not a soul stirred within the house or out on the street. With a final prayer to whatever daeva guided such endeavors, the thief gathered his strength and leaped for the top of the wall.

Hakem Rafi was a small man in body as well as soul, slim and wiry as a coiled spring. In most places the wall was twice his height but here, where the top had crumbled, it was just low enough for him to reach. His hand grabbed hold of the crumbly brick and he quickly pulled himself to the top. Surveying the ground beneath him for a safe spot, he jumped down again into the garden.

His troubles began immediately upon hitting the ground. His black cloak, swirling around him, caught on the upper branches of a pomegranate tree, and the weight of his body caused several small twigs to snap loudly as he awkwardly pulled himself free.

The merchant, as chance would have it, owned a dog. The beast was old and nearly as toothless as its master, but fiercely loyal and fearlessly aggressive. Hearing the twigs snap, small a sound as it was, woke the creature, and its old nose was still keen enough to catch the scent of a stranger. Stirring its aged bones and barking a loud cry, the dog bounded across the garden to attack the interloper.

Hakem Rafi was a nervous man, always edgy, his eyes constantly darting like a hummingbird on a spring afternoon. He heard the barking and saw the dark shape come leaping at him through the bushes, and his hand immediately reached for the khanjar he wore at his belt. The dog’s body knocked him over just as he pulled the curved blade from its sheath. A quick upward thrust and a downward pull were sufficient; the stink of ripped organs and fresh blood poured forth. The dog would protect its master no more.

But in its death the dog had performed its final duty. Even as he wiped the dog’s blood from his hands and knife onto the lawn, Hakem Rafi could see lights appearing in the windows of the house as its occupants lit candles and lamps to see what the commotion was about. It would be some minutes yet before they ventured into the garden, Hakem Rafi thought; the old man would probably be afraid an army of thieves had come to steal his hoard, and he and his servants would hesitate to rush out until they knew the truth of the matter.

Unfortunately for Hakem Rafi, the old merchant had a son in the prime of life, as fearless as the dog and far more capable. Without a moment’s hesitation the young man came racing out into the garden, not even stopping to arrange his turban, sword drawn and ready for a fight. Hakem Rafi, who preferred his fights less well matched, decided this would be a moment for retreat.

He pushed away the body of the dead dog, rose quickly and leaped for the breach in the wall. The ground of the garden, being softly turned earth, did not give him a solid base and his leap was short. His fingernails scraped at the top surface without catching hold and he fell back awkwardly into the garden.

He could hear the approach of the merchant’s son and, behind him, the servants and slaves who were more than willing to let their noble master precede them. With desperation lending strength to his legs, Hakem Rafi leaped again and this time his hands grabbed the crumbling brick. Pulling himself upward he scrambled to the top of the wall and dropped over the other side.

He landed beside the wall in the narrow ditch through which sewage was channeled to the khandaq. His boot slipped in the muck but he regained his balance without further incident and stepped onto the more secure footing of the street. Even as his mind considered the avenues of escape, Hakem Rafi was cursing his luck in this so-called Blessed City.

Behind the wall the entire household was now awake and, with the discovery that there’d been but a single intruder, the bravery of its staff was asserting itself. The cry of alarm was going up throughout the neighborhood, and it would not be long before every house along this street was alerted to the threat. Hakem Rafi saw the advantage of visiting some other quarter of the city as rapidly as possible.

Ironsmith’s Road ran east and west, branching off the King’s Bazaar in the northwest quarter of Ravan. Even as Hakem Rafi was contemplating his action, the servants of the wine merchant were pouring out the gate on the eastern side of the house, cutting off his escape back to the King’s Bazaar. Further west the road curved to the south and came to a dead end. Hakem Rafi saw, in the dim shadows of starlight, a small lane running to the north and quickly dodged into it, hoping to escape his pursuit.

At first the alley seemed another hopeless path, with no cross-streets into which he could turn. Hakem Rafi ran at his swiftest pace, while behind him the hue and cry of the indignant citizens roused the neighborhood to action. Then, just when he’d abandoned all thought of escape, the alley ended and Hakem Rafi found himself standing before the doors of the Temple of the Faith.

Throughout the centuries many men had turned to the Royal Temple for salvation, but few as desperately as Hakem Rafi the thief did now. The cry was up throughout the quarter, and escape along the streets would prove impossible for a while. The thief hoped he could dodge into the temple and find some dark corner to hide him until the crowds outside died away again and it was safe to leave.

The main gates to the temple were shut and barred at this late hour. Hakem Rafi raced frantically along the outer wall until he came to a smaller gate, less frequently used. This entrance, too, was closed, but because it was less important the priests had not given it too much attention; the iron bolt barely went across the frame, and Hakem Rafi’s panicked shaking jiggled it enough to slip it out of the latch. The portal opened for him and the grateful thief slipped inside. He remanded himself to the mercy of Oromasd as he shut the heavy door behind him again and barred it securely this time.

He found himself in the ziyada, the outer courtyard of the temple separating the building proper from the street. He started to relax, but then realized that if the hue and cry of his pursuers awakened any of the priests they’d be able to spot him easily here in the open. After regaining his breath, he moved silently and with greater deliberateness to the doors of the temple itself. These were unlocked; barring the outer doors had been deemed sufficient to keep out intruders. Hakem Rafi entered the Temple of the Faith so quietly that no one heard him. The few priests awake at this hour were absorbed in their own devotional duties.

He was now in the riwaq, the covered arcade with four rows of immense columns dividing the space into areas for teaching and prayers. Past the edges of the riwaq was the enormous open courtyard where the faithful could gather once a week to listen to sermons. The Royal Temple of Ravan was the largest ever built by man, and the courtyard was so vast that, in the darkness of night, Hakem Rafi could barely see all the way across to its far side.

The thief wandered slowly through the riwaq, his feet making no sound on the carefully swept ground. The portico was dimly illuminated by occasional perfumed oil lamps and candles kept burning around the clock as tributes to Oromasd. The floral richness almost disguised the stink of sweat and blood coming from the thief. As he walked, and as his eyes became accustomed to the feeble lighting, Hakem Rafi grew awed by his magnificent surroundings. It was not an overwhelming love of Oromasd that caused this feeling, nor yet an appreciation of the temple’s vast size or architectural brilliance. Rather, it was the fact that the Temple of the Faith was more lavishly embellished than any building the thief had ever seen before—and certainly was richer than Hakem Rafi thought any temple ought to be.

Some parts of the walls were mosaics of glazed tiles with calligraphic designs, but most were handpainted with scenes depicting famous battles and legends from the Age of Heroes. Here, the hero Argun battled the twelve lions of the Hajjani Pass; there, Shiratz beheaded Affiz the three-eyed giant; beyond that, the priestess Rida outwitted the demon who’d been sent to seduce her from the ways of righteousness. The paintings, once in vivid colors, had faded over the ages, but the gilded highlights showed as clearly as ever. More impressively to the mind of Hakem Rafi, every painted figure—be it bird, animal, human, or demon—had eyes that were set with jewels. Demons had eyes of rubies, cats had eyes of opal. Birds had eyes of sapphire, while other beasts had eyes variously of pearls and jet. Men had eyes of emeralds and women eyes of diamonds. The smallest of the stones would purchase a kingdom and a thousand warriors, while the largest were of values beyond even Hakem Rafi’s greediest reckonings.

Niches in the walls contained figurines of jade or ivory. Carved wooden screens were inlaid with ivory, turquoise, and mother-of-pearl. Even the sconces and the candelabra set in the walls were silver and gold.

Hakem Rafi marveled at the richness of the Royal Temple, and as he marveled his greedy thoughts bred like mosquitos in the swamps of Nikhrash.

Oromasd created the world and all its riches, thought Hakem Rafi. He created wealth beyond measure. Great was his power, and he could easily create more with but a single thought if he so chose. He would hardly miss a stone or two from the walls of this one temple.

The priests of Oromasd lived simple lives, thought Hakem Rafi. The temples provided them with food and shelter and all their worldly goods. They had no need for such riches. A stone here or there taken from its setting would not impoverish them nor diminish the greatness of Oromasd. There were so many gems here they would not even miss the loss for many years.

So thought Hakem Rafi, the thief. Having thus convinced himself his sacrilegious acts would hurt no one and benefit himself greatly, he set about to steal some of the Royal Temple’s treasure for his own gain.

The temple’s builders had been well aware of the temptation they were placing in people’s paths, and had designed the temple accordingly. The figures in the niches, the jewels in the walls, even the candelabra—all were placed well above the reach of even a tall man. Hakem Rafi looked for the lowest stone he could find and leaped as high as he could, but still the treasure remained tantalizingly out of his grasp.

Hakem Rafi leaped again and again, growing progressively more angry and progressively more winded. His robe left streaks of filth on the pristine walls, and his feet hit hard enough to echo across the courtyard. As he made his fifth leap and puffed from his exertion, one of the junior priests chanced to walk through the riwaq. Hearing the sounds of the thief’s labors, he stopped and called out, “Who’s there? Who disturbs the nighttime peace?”

Realizing his night had now been doubly cursed with discovery, Hakem Rafi turned to flee. In doing so he ran straight into a second priest who’d entered the riwaq at his fellow’s cries. The priest grabbed at his cloak as Hakem Rafi ran by, preventing the thief’s escape. Hakem Rafi reached quickly for his khanjar once again and stabbed the unfortunate priest up under the ribs. The man gasped hoarsely and fell to the ground, still clutching at the thief’s black cloak.

Hakem Rafi paused with annoyance to pull the fabric out of the dying man’s grasp. The first priest was continuing the alarm with cries of “Help! Murderer!” and he was too far away to silence. His cries were already causing a stir in the upper levels of the temple, and so Hakem Rafi realized that once again he’d have to flee without attaining his goals.

Pulling free of his victim, he raced without thinking to the nearest door, which happened to be at the front end of the temple. He yanked the door open and stepped inside the enclosed room—but when he saw where he was, his heart froze for an instant.

He had, without realizing it, entered the sanctuary where the flame of Oromasd burned continuously. This was no ordinary blaze, but the sacred Bahram fire that only the holiest of priests could oversee. An enormous brass basin filled with ash stood by the front wall, with a large jewelled crown hanging over it to proclaim it the king of fires. The regal flame burned like a beacon, and the stand on which the basin rested was plated with gold. In front of the flame was a rectangular marble altar on which the priests could place their sacrifices. A rich linen cloth bordered with embroidered lettering in gold thread currently covered the altar top. The walls of the room were tiled in geometric patterns of peacock blue, white, and claret. Except for himself, there was no one else here.

Such is the power of old habits that even an irreligious man like Hakem Rafi was struck with awe at a moment like this. The sanctuary was off limits to all but the noblest priests, who brought the prayers and sacrifices of the people in and offered them personally to Oromasd. Even Hakem Rafi, who professed to respect no one and nothing, felt he had violated some sacred privacy. Reverently he dropped to his knees and bowed his head to avoid looking at or breathing on the Bahram flame that symbolized the might and the majesty of Oromasd the Creator.

After a moment, though, his sense of self-preservation returned. The sounds of the priests gathering outside reminded him he had to be on his way. Hakem Rafi raised his head again preparing to rise—and in that instant, the world was changed.

There was a niche in the wall behind the basin of the Bahram flame. Sitting in the niche was a reliquary urn little more than half a cubit tall. The urn may have been made of gold, but it was so thickly encrusted with diamonds and emeralds it was hard to tell. There was some writing inscribed around the base of the urn, but Hakem Rafi was illiterate and cared nothing for such things.

The jewels glowed in the light of Oromasd’s flame, shining with a gleam that riveted the thief’s attention upon it. The beauty spoke to his soul, the gems to his greed. Hakem Rafi ached with all of his being to possess this small urn, to hold its treasure for himself. Not even the burning fire of Oromasd could draw his attention from the golden urn; its light merely enhanced the glory of the dazzling artifact.

The world lost all its perspective, time lost all meaning. The desperation of his plight, the sounds of the priests running in the outer corridors, all vanished from his thoughts. Like a mystic in a trance, Hakem Rafi rose slowly to his feet. The universe was empty save for him and the urn, as though kismet had prepared him all his life for this moment. The thief moved like a sleepwalker as he walked around the altar, past the dancing flame, and to a spot directly under the niche that held the urn.

This niche, too, was placed high on the wall, but Hakem Rafi never once doubted he could reach the desired treasure. He made one mighty leap, and Fate lent strength to his legs. His outstretched fingers brushed the urn, knocking it out of the position it had occupied since the Royal Temple was built. It began its long fall to the floor even as Hakem Rafi himself was on the downward course of his leap. For one brief instant it appeared the urn would smash upon the ground, but the thief’s quick hands grabbed it and preserved it from damage. As Hakem Rafi himself fell to the ground, he gathered the urn in towards his body, protecting it from harm. The touch of that mysterious object was electrifying, making him feel his destiny had finally arrived.

Hakem Rafi stood beside the flame of Oromasd and gazed into the jewels adorning the urn. Their beauty was so deep, their facets so exquisitely cut, a man could lose his soul staring into their glittery interiors. The thief’s craggy features and rough-hewn beard took on the beatific expression of a baby at rest as he contemplated the glowing universe within his hand.

Then the trance was shattered and reality returned with a crude rush. The priests were massing outside the door to the sanctuary. With one of their number already murdered they were not going to attack the intruder individually, but they hoped to make a collective charge that would overpower the thief before anyone else could be hurt. Having finally gained a treasure worthy of all his troubles, Hakem Rafi was more eager than ever to escape this trap successfully.

Nothing could be allowed to harm his beautiful urn. Looking quickly around, he grabbed the cloth off the marble altar and wrapped it hastily around the urn to protect it in case it fell from his grasp. Then he tucked the urn deep into the pocket of his kaftan and searched for another way out of the room.

He spied a small door off to one corner, and ran toward it just as an army of priests armed with ceremonial knives and other makeshift weapons burst in through the main entrance. Hakem Rafi dodged through a maze of narrow back hallways within the temple, becoming thoroughly lost in the process, while the priests chased at his heels like hunting dogs in full pursuit. He found a series of steps and climbed up two stories until he found a doorway out onto the roof of the riwaq.

The outer ziyada made escape impossible that way—but on the side of the temple where the sanctuary was, the building was separated from its neighbors by only a narrow alleyway. Running with the quick stride of the accomplished thief, Hakem Rafi raced to the edge and leaped onto the roof of the building across from the temple. Some of the priests followed him, but most were less daring and less desperate; they returned instead to spread the word of the temple’s violation to the Royal Guards.

For the next hour and a half, Hakem Rafi the black-souled, the accursed, led his pursuers a merry chase across the rooftops and down the back streets of Ravan. Where before he’d been spurred by fear and desperation, the acquisition of his precious urn had filled him with a glow of confidence. Though sometimes his pursuers came almost within reach, he never lost his faith in his ability to elude them. After dodging down one winding, narrow street he heard the growing horde of his pursuers—numbering many of the Royal Guards by this time—race off in a different direction, finally chasing a shadow that was not of his making.

Hakem Rafi leaned against the wall and wiped the sweat from his brow with the tattered sleeve of his cloak. Then suddenly he threw his head back and laughed. It was a high-pitched laugh, a harsh laugh, a laugh devoid of mirth or good humor, a laugh deriving from the cheating of the innocent and the misleading of the honest. Hakem Rafi was a man who laughed at cripples when their crutches cracked.

When he’d had his fill of laughter, Hakem Rafi took his prize from his pocket and looked at it by starlight in the early morning darkness. Even though dawn had not yet begun, the waning moon had risen and shed some light on the empty street. Unwrapping the urn, he let it glitter mysteriously under the moonlight, its jewels hypnotizing him once more with their unearthly beauty.

He looked for a moment at the altar cloth in his other hand. It was a fine piece of fabric and intrinsically valuable, but it would be far too recognizable for him to trade safely. There was bound to be a fuss about the thief who’d broken into the temple. The jewels in the urn could be pried loose from their settings and sold individually, and the golden urn itself could be melted down into a safer form. The altar cloth was too distinctive to sell.

Tossing away the cloth, Hakem Rafi tucked the urn once more in his pocket and walked jauntily back to the miserable room he rented in the caravanserai behind the Winding Bazaar.

A reliquary urn and a discarded altar cloth. With such slender threads, then, does kismet weave its intricate tapestry and change the fate both of worlds and of men.

CHAPTER 2: THE STORYTELLER

 

Morning came to Ravan with little outward sign to mark the passing of one era and the dawn of a new. Few citizens were aware of any change at all; even those who’d participated in the chase through the darkness thought of it as nothing more than a thief in the night—an annoyance, to be sure, but scarcely an interruption in the peaceful flow of events that made the calendar of Ravan such a remarkably boring document.

The thoughts of Jafar al-Sharif were not upon such weighty matters as the change of worldly Cycles and the fate of all Parsina. The thoughts of Jafar al-Sharif were centered more on the rumblings in his belly and the lightness of his purse, which he’d emptied yesterday of its last few copper fals so his daughter Selima could buy some food for the day. And the thoughts of Jafar al-Sharif were centered on how he could fill up both belly and purse while yet making an honest living.

Like Hakem Rafi the blackhearted, Jafar al-Sharif was but lately come to the Holy City of Ravan. Like Hakem Rafi, he was finding his new home less than rewarding to a man of his peculiar talents. But there the similarities ended. Where Hakem Rafi stole men’s money, Jafar al-Sharif stole only their attention; where Hakem Rafi killed people, Jafar al-Sharif killed naught but time. Jafar al-Sharif was, by both profession and inclination, a storyteller—and while some have argued that storytellers fulfill no useful purpose in life’s plan, the harm he did was likewise minimal.

In his native Durkhash, Jafar al-Sharif had been justly renowned as one of the premier artisans of his craft. His patrons included the noblest families of the city, and more than a few times he’d been called upon to entertain King Ashtor himself. The death of his beloved wife Amineh had so driven Jafar to distraction, though, that he had no choice but to seek his fortune elsewhere. He’d come to Ravan in hopes of improving his lot—yet the only work he’d found here was telling bawdy stories in taverns for meals and drinks, a particularly demeaning occupation. Still, in the daytime, he searched for higher employment with hope ever strong that his true talents would be recognized and rewarded.

Jafar al-Sharif stopped his morning walk before the carved wooden gate of a wealthy home in the northwest quarter of the city, and paused to gather his nerve. Knowing that outward appearance was a vital asset to a storyteller he’d taken great pains to look the part. He was a tall man with a suitably handsome face, old enough to have streaks of gray prominent now in his well-kept beard. He was wearing the best of the three outfits he currently owned: the white sirwaal pants with the gold sash, the white kaftan with the gold sequined sleeves, his good niaal, and the mantle so heavily embroidered with gold thread it was hard to see the color of the original fabric. Only a person looking very closely would see how badly frayed the embroidery around the hem and the cuffs really was.

Straightening his lemon yellow turban, Jafar al-Sharif took a deep breath, stepped forward, and knocked authoritatively on the gate. After a few moments the door was opened by a crusty old man who, by his outfit, appeared to be one of the household domestics.

Jafar al-Sharif bowed and said in his deepest voice, “Salaam to thee, O worthy servant of a noble house. Please inform thy master that Jafar al-Sharif awaits his pleasure.”

The old man gave a slight nod of acknowledgment and closed the door again. Minutes passed interminably. The gate had been opened just enough to allow the aroma of breakfast to escape and tantalize the storyteller’s nostrils, and his nose reminded him how empty his belly was. Jafar al-Sharif stood and suffered until the door opened and the old man reappeared.

“My master says he knows no one named Jafar al-Sharif,” he said in a thick Chudish accent, and started to close the gate again.

The storyteller moved forward just far enough that his foot rested against the gate near its hinges, not allowing it to close. He waved his arms in broad gestures as he spoke. “Allow me then, O valued servant, to correct the oversight which I’m sure is due solely to my having come but so recently to Ravan. In my native Durkhash I am widely renowned as Jafar the golden-tongued, Jafar the spellbinder, Jafar the spinner of a thousand thousand tales, Jafar the fablemaster….”

“A storyteller,” the old man said with insight, and again would have closed the door had Jafar’s foot not prevented it.

“More than some mere street-chanter, I assure you,” said Jafar, striving still to keep the desperation out of his voice. “My repertoire is the most complete in all Parsina, suitable for any occasion. I have sagas of history and stories with morals to educate the young men of the household….”

“They already have teachers,” the old man interrupted.

“Stories of love to touch the heart, stories of adventure to chill the blood, stories of magic to astound the mind,” Jafar continued undaunted, his hands waving with serpentine grace to emphasize his words. “I have stories of manners to charm the ladies and stories of erotic delights to please the most jaded of men. My stories speak to the soul as well as to the ear, lifting it to soar through the air like a hawk on the desert currents….”

“We don’t need a storyteller.”

“Ah, you only believe that because you’ve never heard my talents for yourself. Your voice marks you as a native of illustrious Chudistan. Surely you were raised on tales of King Bhered and the Varanhi Knights. What Chudish boy doesn’t grow up dreaming of Khanseranno, the Jeweled City, and its beautiful warrior queen, Moranna? Announce me to your master, let me regale his table, and I’ll make those tales live again for you.”

“My master isn’t Chudish and those stories wouldn’t interest him,” the gatekeeper said stubbornly.

“Then I have others that will. What man does not need to forget the cares of his worldly day, to fly on wings of song and fable to another land beyond his own? What noble table is complete without the entertainment only a fablemaster can provide, to regale household and guests alike with tales of other times and other climes? I ask you, sir….”

“We’ve already got a poet,” the old servant said.

“A poet? A poet?” Jafar al-Sharif straightened his back and drew himself up even taller, towering over the shorter figure of the old man. “Surely a man of your intelligence, of your Chudish discernment, knows better than that. Consider, O illustrious doorkeeper, what is a poet? Merely a rhymer, a juggler of words in clever order. I do not mean to speak ill of poets, far from it; poets have been some of my dearest companions. I myself, from time to time, have been heard to say an occasional rhyme. A man whose table boasts both a storyteller and a poet is justly renowned as a learned man indeed, for all knowledge and all beauty are available at his command.

“But to retain a poet in place of a storyteller is rankest folly. That is the valuing of style above content, the frame more than the picture. Poetry supports and enhances a story; it does not substitute for it. A man who keeps just a poet would go through the world with one ear and one eye when he could easily have two at his disposal. A poet alone….”

The old servant had heard more than enough. He slammed the gate so hard that Jafar al-Sharif had to pull back his foot lest his ankle be shattered.

“May thy nose grow warts on the inside, O guzzler of camel’s piss.” Jafar spat the Chudish curse at the now-vanished gatekeeper—but not loudly enough, he hoped, to really be heard. He was in no position to alienate anyone in Ravan, no matter how rude or abrupt they were.

Instead he turned his feet northward along the Street of Jewelers and walked along, muttering to himself. “Thus is Jafar, confidant of kings, brought low. Forced to argue with menials about the worthiness of art, forced to justify my own existence to an ignorant Chudistani who knows nothing about talent and cares even less.”

He kicked at a clot of dirt in the road at his feet and, in a voice to mock the servant’s, repeated, “We’ve already got a poet. Now all thou needst is a brain, son of a monkey’s sputum.”

He tried again at other gates and other houses throughout the morning, but his reception was largely the same. Storytellers were not in vogue in Ravan these days. Poets, it seemed, were all the rage. Every rich merchant and noble household sponsored at least one, if not an entire stable of the creatures—yet no one was willing to spend a dirham for a storyteller of substance and art.

Jafar’s spirits sank lower with each rejection. To be unwanted is a bad thing, but to know one has a proven talent and to be outcast because it is unpopular is devastating. Jafar’s eyes were cast hopelessly downward as he at last gave up his attempts for the day and began making his way through the now-busy streets of Ravan to the caravanserai where he and Selima currently dwelled. Perhaps tonight he could find some other tavern where his stories were fresh and his welcome hadn’t been worn out.

With his gaze so low, he could not miss the glint of gold as it shone from the corner of a doorway. Thinking at first it might be a coin, he moved closer and saw that it was merely gold thread along the bottom of a long rectangular piece of good white linen. The gold was stitched in a design he recognized as lettering, but the words meant nothing to him. Reading was not among the talents of Jafar al-Sharif. He could hear any story once and know it forever in all its detail, but the mystery of the written word was still beyond his grasp. It was a trait he shared with most men of his time.

Jafar the storyteller bent over and picked up the discarded cloth. He knew enough of such matters to tell it was a valuable piece of fabric—too valuable to be simply lying about in the street. Since it had been lying near a doorway his first thought was that the owner of this building must have dropped it—but the building was a large warehouse, currently empty. The words sewn on the bottom of the cloth might be some blessing or invocation, but they would not reveal the name of the owner; no one sewed names onto cloth because a fine piece of fabric could be handed down from generation to generation, reworn and remade in a variety of guises. There simply was no clue to the original owner of the cloth, and so Jafar assumed it was his to find and keep and use as he would.

The cloth was finely done, but ironically enough it was of little use to him because there wasn’t enough of it to sell. There was real gold in the thread, but to pull the embroidery apart would devalue the entire piece.

“O great lord Oromasd, mysterious indeed are thy gifts,” Jafar mused. “If I had found food, or money with which to buy food, I would have been eternally grateful for thy bounty. Instead, thou givest me a cloth I can neither eat nor sell. I wonder, sometimes, at thy sense of perversity.”

He was about to discard the cloth once again when an unselfish thought struck him. True, the cloth was useless to him, but his daughter Selima might have some use for it. She’d been wearing her late mother’s dresses a year now, and even they were becoming threadbare. It had been so long since she’d had anything new of her own. Jafar had seen her eyeing with envy the beautifully dressed women of Ravan, but Selima had made no complaint, no protest of her lot in life. She deserved at least a token of his parental love for her patience and good spirits.

Jafar al-Sharif looked at the fabric again and smiled, picturing his beautiful Selima wearing it draped over her head and down her back. He could hear her laughter in the ears of his imagination, and he could picture her smile lighting up an entire room with its glow. This cloth would be a gift for Selima, then, courtesy of her father and the great lord Oromasd. Jafar might be in little demand as a storyteller and unable to earn even their daily food, but he vowed there was no one, king or peasant, on the face of this earth who would surpass him in parental affection.

With his love for his daughter warming his heart, Jafar al-Sharif tenderly folded the newfound fabric and held it to his chest as he walked slowly back home.

Near the central fountain in the maidan of Ravan, behind the King’s Bazaar, was the caravanserai where Jafar and his daughter currently made their home. This was a large two-story building with a wide courtyard and a central fountain of its own. Merchants and pilgrims from all corners of Parsina stayed here on their travels through Ravan; merchandise was stored in ground floor rooms around the courtyard while the travelers themselves slept in the upper floor rooms, alone or in dormitories depending on their situation. The landlord of the caravanserai appraised each new guest upon arrival according to the cut of his clothing, the weight of his purse, and the value of his merchandise, and was licensed by the throne to charge each according to his ability to pay. The fees from the richer patrons more than made up for the loss on the poorer ones.

As the poorest among the poor, Jafar al-Sharif and Selima occupied the worst room in the caravanserai, a small enclosure beneath the stairs next to the stables, a room where usually only saddles and horse trappings were stored. The caravanserai landlord, taking some measure of pity on this pair, allowed them to watch over the stables so they might occasionally receive payment from generous travelers to guard their mounts. This payment, small though it was, had enabled them to live for the past few months since arriving in Ravan; but now, with the coming of summer, there would be fewer visitors to the Holy City and fewer beasts in the caravanserai to care for.

As Jafar al-Sharif entered the caravanserai he could see Selima squatting beside the entrance to the stables, idly tracing pictures in the dust on the ground. She did not see him, and the storyteller stopped to look at the beautiful daughter he had raised while she was thus posed in fragile innocence.

Selima was a blossom entering her fifteenth summer. Though veiled and covered now in public, Jafar knew her long black hair flowed like a midnight river down her back and her black eyes glowed like jet, set off by a complexion as radiant as the moon on its fourteenth night. Her breasts were as ripe pomegranates and her slender hips swayed enticingly when she moved. Dressed as she was now, in one of her mother’s old gowns, she made Jafar’s heart ache anew at his loss. He recalled the first time he’d seen his lovely Amineh unveiled on their wedding day, when he realized his parents had arranged a marriage even better than he could have hoped for.

The thought of marriage brought a brief cloud over Jafar’s face as he realized Selima would soon be ripe for marriage herself. He frowned when he thought of his failure as a father to provide her with a suitable dowry. Beautiful though she was, no decent man would consider her without a good bride price, and Jafar was not going to allow just anyone to steal away the treasure of his life. There had to be a way, somehow, to assure Selima the future happiness his daughter deserved.

As he stood there lost in these dismal thoughts, Selima looked over and spotted him, and jumped up to run to his side. Only as she approached did she notice his drawn expression, and she realized his search today must have been as fruitless as it had been in the days and weeks before.

“Oh Father,” she said sadly. “Still no luck?”

“Poets!” Jafar exclaimed with disgust, waving his arms about. “All they want is poets. Imagine—Ravan, a city out of legend, denying its own heritage for poetry. It’s obscene, a travesty.”

Selima put her arms around her father’s waist and held herself tightly to him. “If they want poets, Father, why not be a poet? It can’t be too hard if so many others can do it. I’ve heard you recite poetry, you’re very good. I’ll bet you’d be the best and certainly the handsomest poet in all Ravan.”

Jafar shook his head. “When Oromasd gives you a specific talent, it’s prostitution to demean it. It’s bad enough I have to spin my tales for drunkards in taverns. I’d sooner spend my life guarding stables than twisting my talents into the wrong channels. Besides, I have serious doubts about any place that would scorn storytellers and revere poets.”

He disentangled himself from Selima and walked across the courtyard to their tiny room, where he sat down disconsolately on the trunk that contained the few worldly possessions they still hadn’t sold. Selima followed him, her eyes filled with sadness for the agonies of her poor father.

“I regret the day I ever let you convince me to leave Durkhash,” he said, burying his face momentarily in his hands. “I was known and respected there. I could have become shaykh of the storytellers if I’d stayed. Here I’m just a stablehand with unseemly pretensions.”

Selima knelt beside him, removed her milfa so her full face was showing, and put her slender arms around his shoulders. “You knew as well as I did that Durkhash was no longer for you. In the last year, since Mother died, you told no stories. You wandered the streets like one of those old men who sit near the fountains and babble to anyone who’ll listen.”

“I loved Amineh very much,” Jafar said quietly. “I miss her terribly.”

“I loved her too, and I miss her no less than you do,” Selima insisted strongly. “But Oromasd has seen fit to leave us both among the living, so living is what we must do. A month of mourning is fit and proper, but over a year borders on obsession. When I heard they were lacking storytellers in Ravan I knew it would be the place to rejuvenate you.”

“And instead it’s only made me feel more alone, more unwanted,” Jafar said. “Were it not for my love of you, I’d have ended my life long ago.”

“I’ll hear no more of such nonsense,” Selima said. Taking her father’s head in her hands, she turned it forcefully until his face stared directly into her own. “O my father, you are a wonderful man still in the prime of your years. I’ve seen women turn their heads to follow you when you walk through the streets. I’ve watched their eyes admire you even through the modesty of their milfas. If Ravan does not appreciate such a master storyteller, then Ravan is only the poorer for its ignorance. There are plenty of other cities, hundreds of places to go where a man of your talents will be justly appreciated.”

Jafar al-Sharif smiled wanly and returned his daughter’s hug. “How did an old liar like me raise such a practical, levelheaded daughter?”

“With your honest love and your gentle wisdom,” Selima replied affectionately.

Jafar smiled and, digging into his pocket, pulled out the piece of cloth. “I brought you a present.”

“Oh Father, we have no money for such things.”

“Not everything requires money, though that’s less true in Ravan than elsewhere. Oromasd sent this to me specifically for you to wear, to make you even more beautiful than you already are.” He unfolded the cloth to show it to her in its entirety.

Selima stared at the fabric, her expression a curious mixture of amazement and practicality. “It is very pretty,” she said cautiously.

“Stand up, let me try it on you.” Selima rose obediently and her father draped the cloth over the top of her head and down her back and shoulders.

“I thought you might use it for a head scarf of some kind.” Jafar stepped back to examine the effect more fully. In the dim light, with the whiteness of the fabric billowing around her, Selima looked even more like a ghostly reflection of his beloved Amineh.

Unaware of her father’s inspection, Selima was appraising the gift carefully. “It’s the wrong color for an abaaya, and it’s too long for a taraha, and the fabric really isn’t proper. It’s cut in a rectangle, which is awkward, and I can’t recut it without ruining the embroidery….”

She looked up to see her father’s face, crestfallen at her criticism of his present. Selima went over to him and hugged him yet again. “O Father, forgive a silly daughter. I didn’t mean to complain. The fabric is lovely, it truly is, and I’m not used to such richness. I only meant I’d have to study the cloth carefully if I want to use it properly. I didn’t want to ruin it by foolishly cutting it up or adapting it to some minor purpose. This gift is so beautiful it must be shown off in the best possible manner. I’ll have to give the matter great thought so I don’t waste the present you’ve brought me.”

Jafar laughed. Looking down into his daughter’s beautiful face he said, “Your mother taught you well how to humor an old man’s moods. The cloth cost me nothing but the effort to bend down and pick it up from the street. My only hope is that it gives you pleasure. If it does that, then I’m happy; if not, you can throw it back onto the street and we’re no worse off than we were before.”

“I will keep it, O my loving and generous father,” Selima insisted. “It is beautiful, it does please me, and I’ll find some use for it that does honor to you, the giver.” She took the cloth from her head, folded it with exaggerated reverence, and placed it atop the trunk that was their sole furnishing in the tiny room.

Turning back to her father, her face was bright with hope. “Oh Father, Abdoul the draper gave me ten fals this morning to watch his camels. We can eat again today!”

“Oromasd be praised,” Jafar said. “My stomach was complaining of its emptiness so loudly I could barely hear what you were saying. Have we any food left on hand?”

“None. I was waiting for you to come home so you could guard the stables while I went off to shop. Some rice and leeks, I think, and maybe enough left over for some fruit if we’re lucky.”

Jafar nodded glumly. He was becoming very tired of rice and leeks, but they could afford little else these days. “Don’t forget, go to the stall of One-Eyed Habib. The food’s of poor quality, but his prices are cheap and he won’t cheat you.”

Selima nodded as she once more donned her milfa. “My father’s wisdom guides me in all things,” she said—and then she was gone, her niaal flying across the bricks of the courtyard and out into the street beyond.

Jafar al-Sharif walked slowly from his room to the stable entrance, where he took up his familiar position on the stool by the doorway. The air here reeked of camels, horses, and asses, and all their dung, all their piss, all their sweat. Jafar thanked Oromasd he did not have to clean out the stalls. There were stablehands to do that; they were better paid than he was, but they earned it well. His task was merely to sit here and make sure no thieves absconded with the travelers’ beasts.

The stablehands were gone now, and Jafar was alone in the stable. “Poets,” he said again as he thought of the day’s humiliation. “No good can come of a city that ignores the meat and laps at the gravy. It’s decadence, that’s what it is. Mark my words, the Holy City of Ravan is on the decline if it casts out its storytellers. Nothing but doom and destruction can come from forgetting the past and bathing in the meaningless perfumes of idle rhymers.”

To his right, a camel snorted. Jafar al-Sharif looked over and nodded. “See, even the dumb beasts agree with me.” He turned his eyes heavenward. “O noble lord Oromasd, is it really too much to expect thee to give the people of thy Holy City as much good sense as thou gavest a camel?”

 

End of Sample

*]

 

He came at her, naked and erect. His body was small but solidly built, and his face was strangely hidden in shadow that obscured nothing else about him. The smell of his sweat mingled unpleasantly with the tang of her own fear. He moved with the dazzling quickness only another carc could achieve, yet his approach was strangely slowed, as though viewed from a projector run at half speed. Horrified though she was, she could not take her eyes from his body—and particularly from his large, thick penis with the blue veins in bas relief on the side.

Her first impulse was to run, her second to fight, but she could do neither. She couldn’t move. She knew intellectually she was just as fast and almost as strong as he was, but her body would not obey her. Her hands were held at her side by some invisible force, her feet were pinned in place. She stood helpless, struggling against her unseen bonds and gasping from the desperation of her efforts as he drew nearer.

Though his face was still in shadow, she could see his eyes quite clearly—darkly gleaming with both desire and triumph. His eyes took in the contours of her body, and she realized for the first time that she was naked, too, totally helpless before his lecherous advance.

At first all was darkness around her, the silent darkness of the grave. She screamed at him to stop, to leave her alone, but no sounds came from her throat—and despite the shadow over his face she could tell he was beaming a salacious grin. His thumbs were rubbing the tips of his fingers as his large, callused hands prepared to reach out and touch her helpless body.

Then the scene shifted and she was in the ingesterie, with its dim lighting and crowds of strange beings from dozens of worlds. The noise level rocked from stillness to the deafening drone of alien speech, hundreds of simultaneous conversations, but still her screams could not be heard. Most of the beings around her were strangers, but even so she saw many familiar faces.

There was Rix in his accustomed box behind the glass wall, his multiple arms controlling the environment for his varied patrons. There was little Bab-ankh and slimy Lorpet, and so many others who were just a flicker of recognition in the back of her mind. Colonel Stavros, who’d never been within a hundred parsecs of this place, sat placidly at a nearby table, fingering his mustache and looking pointedly away.

She tried to call out, but her voice couldn’t be heard above the din; she tried to reach out, but her arm would not move from its place. She could only stand there, naked and helpless, as the man with the shadowed face came toward her with lust in his eyes.

Then the man laughed, and all noise ceased. The ingesterie’s patrons stopped what they were doing and riveted their attention on her. But not even the other arbiters made a move to fight off her attacker. Most of the patrons sat or stood where they were, and some even came around behind the man, ready to help him. She looked down at her own body and saw that strange arms and tentacles were now holding her in place. There was no safety, not even here. They had all betrayed her. They had all turned against her. Her anger rose against them, almost—but not quite—covering the fear she felt at the man’s approach.

Her breathing was ragged and her heart was banging so heavily she thought it would surely burst through her chest. Her stomach was grinding away at itself until she wanted to throw up, and yet she couldn’t. Somehow that would be a victory for him, another bit of herself he controlled. She couldn’t allow that.

The patrons were cheering silently as the man came toward her, his penis long and stiff, looking oddly deformed and menacing. Though she whimpered and twisted, she could not escape the inevitable moment.

Then the ingesterie vanished and she was in the woods again. She lay naked on her back with her feet spread widely apart as he continued toward her. The ants bit at her back and buttocks, and she writhed on the damp ground but couldn’t escape. The man’s face was no longer in shadow as he knelt between her legs and reached up to grab her jaw with his strong right hand. It was a face she knew well, a face she’d cared for—once. Now it was twisted into a leering mask of sadistic lust, the lips swollen and red with passion, saliva drooling from the right corner.

His right hand gripped her throat tightly while that elbow leaned heavily on her left shoulder, pinning her to the ground. His left hand grabbed her right breast and squeezed it so hard she cried out even through his choking grip. Everywhere his hands touched her skin she felt a burn like strong alkali eating away her flesh. As his left hand roughly stroked the right side of her body it left a trail of slime as though an army of slugs had crawled over her. Her mind whispered it was only sweat, but her flesh screamed otherwise.

Now he leaned his face down toward hers, and the sour smell of his breath combined with the smell of his sweat and the stink of putrid sex. His lips forced themselves on hers, and the slimy touch made her stomach flip over. She wanted to vomit in his face, but her body was so paralyzed even that reflex was denied her. And still his hands were touching her, pawing her, burning her. His right elbow shifted and dug into her left breast even as he squeezed the right one again with his left hand.

Then his right hand pushed her head all the way back, so far she thought her neck might snap. She couldn’t see what was happening, now, but at least he’d stopped kissing her. Of all the perversions, that mockery of love seemed the most disgusting.

His penis jabbed at her, but the angle was wrong and it missed her vagina, poking hard instead against the upper edge and pressing her flesh against the pubic bone. Tears of pain came to her eyes and she tried to cry out, but he held her throat so tightly she couldn’t make a sound. Twice more he jabbed and missed, bringing so much pain that her body involuntarily arched to aid his entrance even as she hated herself for doing so.

His penis tore its way through her unlubricated labia, pulling her pubic hairs with it and seeming to yank some out from their roots. Her vagina was on fire as he plowed through the dry tissue that suddenly moistened with her own blood. The man looked down at the blood and smiled in triumph, and pumped some more as he pressed himself against her and kissed her and…and…and….

“Let me go, let me go!” Jade Darcy screamed as she opened her eyes and stared in horror at the gently lit ceiling panels overhead. Her screams reinforced her already heightened fear, producing an accelerating spiral that ended only when she ran out of breath. She struggled to sit up, but her arms and legs were restrained tightly at her sides and she couldn’t break them free.

“Please read the numbers on the screen,” said a gentle voice from the side of the room.

“Fuck you, Val! Let me go!” she shrieked.

“Swearing isn’t good enough; you can do that in your sleep. Please read the numbers on the screen.”

Jade turned her head desperately to the right and tried to make her eyes focus. The computer screen had a series of random numbers displayed on it. “Four, thirteen, twenty-eight, five,” she said hoarsely, gasping like an asthmatic for air to fill her empty lungs.

“Good morning, Jade,” the computer said as it released the restraints on her ankles and wrists.

“Motherfucking son-of-a-bitch computer,” Jade muttered as she pulled her limbs in quickly, before the computer could bind them again. Her body was quaking from the aftermath of the experience, and her stomach was a pit of fire and nausea. As soon as she could control her arm movements well enough, she reached for the plate beside her bed and grabbed some saltine crackers. She stuffed them into her mouth, nearly choking as she hurried to get them down to ease the burning in her gut.

Her body still felt slimy and dirty from the mauling by her phantom attacker. She remembered how bad the feeling was seven years ago when the nightmares first started, when she would stumble half blind from the bed, knocking over anything she hadn’t already broken in her sleep, to reach the shower and stand under the running water for hours trying to rinse off the disgusting feel of his skin on hers. At least things had minimally improved since then.

“Shower, Val,” she said when she finished her mouthful of crackers.

“Already running.”

Her body was starting to feel more like her own again. As soon as she could trust her legs to support her she swung them over the side of the bed and stood up, then staggered into her tiny bathroom. She peed and stood under the shower for fifteen minutes, letting the hot water wash away her sweat and purify her skin. She didn’t bother to lather just yet; she still had her morning exercises to do and some residual anger to relieve.

She walked naked into the second room of her two -room house, the special exercise room. For half an hour she performed the 108 movements of t’ai chi to center herself, to bring her back into herself, to reclaim her body from the possession of her dream attacker. She’d been taught to start from the center, the gut, then to place herself and her movement in harmony with this center. But it was this center that had been violated; it was the extremities that had been safely away, apart. These were all she owned after the nightmare. Starting from her fingertips, the exercises brought feeling in through her limbs and into her torso and feet, pushing out all unwanted intrusions and making her body and spirit whole again. Once she was back in control, she was ready for her real workout.

She did some quick stretches, then, walking to the set-in arsenal closet, she looked over her choices and finally selected a pair of long-bladed knives. She held one in each hand for a few moments, letting her fingers grow accustomed to their feel and weight. When she was ready, she closed the closet and said, “Fifteen minutes, Val, mode A.”

The lights dimmed to twilight level and the walls disappeared, replaced by an infinite plane of darkness. Jade Darcy forced herself to relax, running through the mild self-hypnotic tricks she’d learned years ago in Special Training. She put her conscious mind in the passenger seat, leaving the actual work to her subconscious, her training, and her computer-augmented reflexes. She’d watch and evaluate as a detached observer, not needing to participate unless an override was necessary.

From off to her left, barely visible in the corner of her eye, a faceless figure rushed toward her, and her body responded even before her mind registered the fact. Spinning on her left foot, she swung her left arm in a backhand slash that would have cut the attacker across his groin if he were a real person instead of a holographic image. The instant she delivered the disabling blow the image vanished, replaced by two more assailants coming from behind her.

Jade whirled and moved again, causing one of the attackers to charge past her. The second man came closer, only to receive her right-hand dagger up under where his ribs would have been. He promptly disappeared, leaving her to face the onslaught of his partner, coming around for a second pass. She didn’t even need her knives for him; the back of her left hand hit him hard in the windpipe even as her right foot lashed out to kick him in the crotch. This attacker vanished and two more appeared, coming at her from opposite directions.

By ones and twos, holographic images of attackers charged at her, all faceless, all unarmed. All of them were dispatched with effortless blows her well-trained body delivered before her brain even had a chance, in most cases, to register the threat. Her body did not seem anchored to the floor. She moved in space from her center, not her feet. There were no separate motions, but fluid cascades along four, five, or even six axes. This was routine exercise for a carc, as mindless as sit-ups were for ordinary people; Jade’s mind could revel in the sensation of her body behaving as it was supposed to, and the satisfaction of disemboweling and castrating the men who came charging toward her.

When she’d disabled the last adversary and no more came against her, the walls reappeared and the lighting came up gradually to normal level. “Fifteen minutes, as you requested,” the computer told her.

Jade Darcy stood naked and sweating in the middle of the floor. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before speaking. “Score, Val?”

“Ten dead, twenty-three incapacitated, three who might possibly have gotten up and caused further trouble.”

“Replay those three.”

Jade stepped off to one side as holographic images of her and her opponents materialized. She watched the movements carefully and saw she’d been a bit sloppy in a couple of her kicks. Viewed analytically, she realized she’d tried too hard to aim for the groin in cases where a lower kick to the kneecap would have been more effective. She knew it was still the aftermath of her nightmare—she wanted to kick men in the balls after that—but it disturbed her nonetheless. The spinal computer that augmented her reflexes was supposed to be dispassionate and separate from her mind and her emotions. If even it was affected by her nightmare, how deeply into her psyche had the rape been burned?

“Looks like I need some minor reprogramming,” she muttered. “Too bad there’s no one within five transfer stations who can do it.”

She sighed as she put the knives back in their place in her arsenal closet. Almost anyone, even a carc, would be satisfied with that score, considering she’d remained uninjured, but Jade Darcy was a perfectionist. Fighting was her life’s trade, the only thing that mattered to her anymore. “Pretty good” was not enough in the real world. There were only the perfect and the dead, and she was resolved to remain in the first category.

“Shower again, Val,” she said as she padded to the bathroom. This time she lathered up and washed herself thoroughly, and douched as well to remove the last psychological traces of impurity left over from the nightmare. Finally feeling cleansed, she stood under the dryer and let the moisture be evaporated from the surface of her body.

“Let’s have some breakfast, Val, while I’m deciding what to wear today. Just the usual.”

The computer’s programming could have synthesized eggs and toast, or cereal, or steak, or sashimi, or any of thousands of other combinations humans considered edible—but Jade Darcy’s diet was rigid. She always had a breakfast of her own concoction, a milkshakelike agglomeration of protein, vitamins, and all the nutritional necessities for human well-being. It was a meal devoid of taste or substance, but eating was a purely mechanical function, and Jade Darcy could see no reason to pamper herself by indulging in the decadence of pleasant sensation. A meal couldn’t be good for her if it tasted good.

The bed reshaped itself into a table and bench in the center of her front room, and a slot opened in the wall to reveal a large tumbler filled with Jade’s breakfast. Jade took the tumbler and sat down on the bench, staring at the computer screen in the wall. “I’m feeling purplish today, Val. Show me what you’ve got.”

She sipped slowly at her breakfast as the screen flashed a number of designs and patterns, most of them totally inappropriate for her. She’d never told the computer to eliminate the frillier, more feminine designs from its catalog; she liked to look at them even though she knew she could never wear them. Finally the computer reached the more acceptable range and she saw a design she liked. “I’ll have that one today, Val,” she said.

Putting the tumbler with her half-finished breakfast down on the table, she crossed the room to the closet. The computer had used raw materials, both fresh and recycled from other clothes, to create the outfit Jade requested. The scents of fresh dye and the polymer catalysts were still dissipating as Jade reached for them.

She decided to give the smells a moment to fade while she did her toilet. She brushed her teeth and flossed thoroughly, then gargled her mouthwash as well. Her hair merely required two minutes’ brushing with the special dryer attachment; the short cut Val gave her each month was designed for minimal care.

Her clothing was equally efficient. Breast bands built into the leotard were made of an elastic fabric designed to minimize both bruising in a fight and breakdown of tissues even during the most rigorous movement. The material of her tights allowed enough air circulation to prevent skin and other problems while still providing decent insulation from extreme temperatures. That these features also made the most of her sleek young figure was something Jade had told Val was an unimportant by-product. Over these basics she donned the clothes of a special breakaway design that couldn’t be used to restrain her in a fight. After five minutes, Jade stepped out into the room once more. “Mirror, Val,” she said.

The entire wall beside her became reflective, allowing her a full-length glimpse of herself. She looked her image over approvingly. Her hip-length long-sleeved silky shirt was lilac with subtle swirls of darker purples and had a deep wine collar that circled her neck softly, leaving plenty of room to breathe and turn her head quickly. The slacks were a deep purple verging into black, tucked into thigh-high boots of lavender leather.

The ensemble fit closely to her short, slender body without ever restricting her total freedom of movement. In her job, movement was everything. She didn’t bother with makeup. There weren’t any other humans around here to impress, and aliens didn’t care whether her features were artificially enhanced. She had her clothes impregnated with a neutral scent that soothed most pheromone-sensitive races, and that was sufficient as perfume.

Her jet-black hair was shoulder-length, curling inward just at her neck and framing the Oriental face she’d inherited from her Japanese mother. She had brown eyes, a straight, thin nose—the only feature she’d really gotten from her father—and a sensuous mouth. She’d once taken pride in her beauty, but she no longer thought in those terms. Hers was an efficient face, and that was good enough for her.

Deciding that she looked acceptable for the day, Jade sat back down at the table to finish her breakfast. “Any mail or messages, Val?” she asked as she took another sip from the tumbler.

There was one letter, all the way from Earth, and it bore the letterhead of Verdugo and Lance Detective Agency. Jade immediately sat up straight and read it carefully, but it was simply their monthly report on the activities of Mastersergeant Jeffrey B. Barker. The subject had spent his month entirely at the training base in Java with a corps of carc trainees. There had been no unusual activities. Along with the report was their monthly bill for 250 eus.

Jade snorted. “Motherfuckers are bleeding me dry, and all they send me is garbage. What’s my credit balance, Val?”

“Fifteen thousand, three hundred seventeen energy units.”

And rent was coming up next week, too, which meant another two hundred eus shot. This two-room detached house, with its gravity generator and distance from its neighbors, was the minimum she felt she could get away with—she needed the exercise room and the higher gravity to keep herself in shape—but she still felt guilty about the extravagance. She was tempted to write Verdugo and Lance and tell them to fuck off, but she knew she didn’t dare. She had to keep tabs on Barker. She couldn’t let him get away. In his position, he could disappear at any moment, and she might never be able to find him again. She couldn’t let that happen.

“Pay their fucking bill, Val,” she sighed, knowing that and the rent would bring her well below fifteen thousand. She couldn’t hire the kind of talent she’d need with that little money. No matter how hard she worked and how tightly she saved, the money mounted up so slowly. She’d never get what she needed working for Rix. What she needed was a few more jobs, a couple of big ones. But she couldn’t go around creating them; they had to come to her, and she had to wait for them. It was very frustrating.

“There’s also a message from the K’luune, Lorpet,” Val said.

“Maybe the slimy bastard has a job for me. His last few tips paid off. Play it, Val, while I try to hold down my breakfast.”

Lorpet’s features appeared on the screen, looking like a mass of bubbling white jelly with a row of dark spots for eyes and sharp mandibles that clicked together to produce his speech. The computer translated his clicks for her.

“Greetings, worthy Jade Darcy. The humble Lorpet abases himself before your noble presence and begs your forgiveness for his intrusion into your privacy. Information has reached the attention of this unworthy one regarding the presence on Cablans of another member of your estimable race, just arrived today. Knowing this would be of interest to you, poor pitiful Lorpet hastens to contact you at your convenience to share his minuscule knowledge, and humbly awaits your decision to make an appointment. Once more, he entreats your forgiveness for presenting himself uninvited upon your notice.” Lorpet’s eyes blinked in a ritual pattern of farewell and the message faded from her screen.

Jade Darcy sat frozen in place, staring at the blank screen. Another Terran on Cablans! An animal panic, kin to her nightmare fear, paralyzed her as no physical opponent could have. She’d come all this way, to the farthest transfer station she could find, specifically to avoid other humans. For five years she’d remained alone of her kind—and now suddenly another one had shown up. What could this mean?

Shards of her nightmare flashed through her mind, and her hand twitched so badly she put her tumbler down to avoid spilling her breakfast. Closing her eyes, she performed the t’ai chi breathing discipline to restore her body and spirit to calmness. There’s no evidence this person came for you, she told herself sternly. It could be a coincidence. You’re not the center of everyone else’s universe. Other people can come here for unrelated reasons. This litany helped her stop the fight-or-flight reaction, but did little toward releasing the knot her stomach was tied in.

She looked at the small computer screen implanted in the back of her left hand and asked, “Time?” The screen showed she had little more than an hour before she was due to start her shift at the ingesterie—not enough time to meet and deal with Lorpet. She’d have to set something up for after work. This was top priority.

“Send a message to Lorpet, Val, as follows: The unworthy Jade Darcy gratefully acknowledges the enlightening message of the most honorable and exalted Lorpet, and while she is too lowly to aspire to his level of wisdom, she begs his condescension to enlighten her further. She excuses the fact that her dreary…no, her dismal existence requires her presence at the ingesterie of Rix Kaf-Amur until 1700 hours, but she would be most honored to grovel before him at a place of his convenience at any time thereafter. End of message.” False humility was a power game to the K’luune. If she could outgrovel “poor, pitiful Lorpet”—one of the shrewdest data brokers on Cablans—perhaps she could knock his price down to something reasonable.

She went to her dresser and pulled out the accessories she’d need for the day. First was the u-trans, a small cylinder attached to a custom-molded earpiece. The curved cylinder fit around the back of her ear, making it nearly invisible. Without the u-trans she couldn’t hope to make sense of the babel that surrounded her on Cablans. She rolled up her sleeves and strapped on her other accessories—two spring-loaded knife holders, one on the inside of each forearm. She tested them to make sure they were working, then rolled her sleeves down over them and tested them again. The proper muscle contractions in her arm would send the blade into her hand, ready for action; but in the meantime the knives were out of the way and unobtrusive.

That was all the weaponry she carried. If trouble arose that she couldn’t handle with her training, her computer-augmented reflexes, and two knives, it would be such a big problem that she’d have to call for assistance anyway. There was no sense overarming herself.

She looked at herself in the mirror one more time, straightened her hair, and made sure the knives didn’t show. Jade Darcy was ready for work.

“Maintenance configuration, Val,” she said as she strode to the door, which opened obediently for her.

Standing in the doorway was a frizzlic, a small four-legged animal less than half a meter long and standing as tall as the middle of her calf. Its brown fur, streaked and spotted with patches of gray, was short and bristly. It had a small face with a long pointed snout, a white triangular marking on its forehead, and small black eyes that seemed to be all pupil. Jade had never seen a hedgehog face to face, but she could easily imagine that the frizzlic was an alien cousin to the hedgehog.

“You again,” she chided the frizzlic. “How many times have I told you not to come around here?”

The frizzlic merely made chirping sounds and rubbed its long snout against the door frame.

“You’re supposed to be feral,” Jade continued. “It says so right in my computer. I know some people make pets out of you, but you’re supposed to take care of yourself in the wild. Why don’t you do that instead of coming around here looking for handouts? It’s not good to be domesticated. You get too dependent on other people, and then when they betray you, you die.”

She looked at the screen on the back of her left hand and realized she had just enough time to get to work for the shift briefing. Her tumbler still had some of her breakfast left in the bottom—but her stomach was too queasy after Lorpet’s message to digest anything more. It would be a shame to let the stuff go to waste.

“Get me a bowl, Val,” she said. She placed the frizzlic on the ground away from the doorsill, then walked back inside and over to the wall slot, where Val had revealed a small bowl. The frizzlic followed her inside, adjusting to the higher gravity Jade kept inside her house, and trying to rub its eagerly wiggling snout against her boots. Pouring the remainder of her breakfast into the bowl, Jade strode back to the door and placed the bowl down outside, under the bushes that lined the walkway.

With a short, high-pitched squeal, the frizzlic stuck its head into the bowl, getting some of the liquid up its snout. It snorted and shook its head, then began lapping at the liquid with its little green tongue.

Jade watched it with a scornful expression. “Just don’t expect to make a habit of this, frizzlic. This is not going to be a regular relationship. The last thing in the universe I need is a fucking pet.”

She walked back into the apartment and tossed the empty tumbler into the recycle slot. Shaking her head at the silly sounds the frizzlic was making, she strode off to work. Had she realized she was humming, and a lullaby at that, she would have been very annoyed with herself.

 

End of Sample

*]

 

Such was the strength of her reputation that Tyla deVrie’s presence brought a quiet tension to Hunt Hall hours before she even entered the building. Women preened self–consciously, knowing that no matter how resplendent they looked, she would look better. Men fidgeted self–consciously—former lovers wondering what they’d done to lose her favor, and hopefuls wondering whether they were flashy enough to attract her attention.

When the android chargé d’affaires finally announced her arrival, no one was gauche enough to stop and stare. Scattered people here and there turned their heads discreetly toward the door, then returned nonchalantly to previous business. Only a few at a time, but before Mistress deVrie had reached the third of the three broad steps leading from the doorway down to the mezzanine overlooking the ballroom floor, everyone had taken full inventory of her latest outrageous array. While her face bore the approved expression of pleasant boredom, her outfit was far enough from boring to set off the next interstellar fad.

Thin phosphorescent streaks swirled electrically across her face like red and green electrons around a nucleus. Her hair was swept upward and plaited, with thick braids of green and red skillfully interwoven, giving it a candy cane appearance and adding twenty centimeters to her height. Starting from her shoulders, two wide strips of plastiglo, one red and one green, arched down the front of her body, covering her breasts and making an X right at the crotch, then twining around the smooth contours of her legs and finally wrapping themselves around her feet as sandals. From there the bands wound back up her legs, crossed once again at the buttocks, and continued up to her shoulders to complete the cycle. Around her left ankle was a narrow silken band, from which nonchalantly dangled her single piece of jewelry—a cherry–sized piece of heartstone cut from the heart of a silicon creature on the planet Ootyoce. On anyone else the outfit would have been outré; on her, it was heartstopping.

Tyla deVrie had strolled the gamut of media reporters outside the hall, all of them armed with questions about the fantastic deVrie heritage in the Scavenger Hunt. Now she stood at the balustrade, looking out across the vast domed hall. While there were close to a thousand people on the floor, it appeared less than half full. Crowding, after all, would be déclassé.

An orchestra played at the north end of the hall. This was no mere collection of synthesists and mixers, but eighty flesh–and–blood people playing actual phonic instruments, masters of their craft gathered from planets throughout the galaxy. The music they played was soft, suitable for Society’s statelier dances. Some people were, in fact, dancing, though most were content to sit at the tables around the edges of the floor or stand and talk. The orchestra had little amplification—just enough to drown out neighboring conversations, but not enough to interfere with your own.

Tyla stood like a monarch surveying her domain; then, deigning to move, she walked in long, catlike strides to the transparent gravtube. She could have been posing for a statue as the gravitic field floated her gently to the floor of the hall; her gaze remained level and her expression never altered. There was only the slightest of bumps to inform her she’d reached floor level. She stepped out of the tube and began to mingle.

She only seemed to move at random through the crowd, accepting a drink from one android servant’s tray, tasting an hors d’oeuvre from another. The Brownian movements of society might cause her destination to change a dozen times in a minute, but she always knew precisely where she was going. Like a skilled politician flipping through his Farley file, her mind was a computer index with precise information about the people she encountered.

[_ _]

Kontorr, Occla: Late 80s, though she pretends to 70. Three ex-husbands (including Tonas!), currently divorced. Family is Old Society, but have fallen behind the trends. Cosponsor of the Jumpdown. Casual acquaintance—treat with cordial nod, word of greeting.

[_ _]

alMassan, Ranso: 120 or so. Loves to complain about malfunctions in his articial arm. Married to Robidia for 30 years—out of the running. Old family friend—treat with warm smile, exchange of pleasantries.

[_ _]

Tens, Arrira: 30(???). Married up into Society (Vond, no less!), then stayed after divorce. Delusions of self-worth. On the prowl for social advancement. Made play for Billin before I was through with him. Not speaking to her this year—treat with frown of cool disdain.

[_ _]

Corbright, Wilfern: 62, harsh, braying laughter for no good reason. Thoroughly Nouveau. C–list (definitely). Never formally introduced—treat with polite diffidence.

[_ _]

Danovich, Necor: 68. Former lover, about two years back. Kind eyes, mediocre performance—treat with friendly smile, stop for small–talk chat.

 

There were a great many entries like that last. Tyla deVrie was notorious for the swath she’d cut through the ranks of Society’s eligible men, dropping them just as suddenly as she’d acquired them without ever giving a reason. Her bedhopping was a source of constant gossip among ladies of lesser reputation and glamour, a source of eternal frustration for the lovers she’d abandoned—and a continual source of hope for the men she had yet to become involved with, each of whom fancied he was the one who’d finally tame her. At the age of only thirty–three, she was one of the people in the galaxy.

When she met one of her old lovers, she always asked whether he was entered in the Hunt. It was pro forma; the answer was invariably, “Of course.” Apart from routine flirtations, though, she paid scant attention to the eligible men who hadn’t yet been her lovers. This was not a night for starting new affairs. Tyla had her own agenda.

The effete droning of the crowd whose only credo seemed to be loquo, ergo sum, the genteel politeness and hypocritical smiles—this was the world she had conquered with calculated precision. She wrapped the conversational buzz around her like a warm, familiar coat. Her world, her Society. But she felt a faint touch of Alexander fever tonight—there had to be another world, somewhere, to conquer.

Better savor this, girl, she warned herself sternly. This may be your last party for quite some time.

While she was chatting with Doz Linn, a former lover, they inadvertently crossed the social orbit of the Barb. Barbanté Leonyn, a tall, gorgeous brunette, was Tyla’s former sister–in–law. Her gown, revealing ample cleavage front and back, parodied a spacer uniform, including gloves and boots. The right side was bright red with sapphire bells dangling from it; the left side was blue with ruby bells.

The Barb was a natural force that swept everything before her. Surrounded by a cluster of admiring men, she brushed them aside to concentrate on Tyla. “Tyla, my dear, you look positively ravishing, and I’m sure at least half the men here have that precise thought on their minds. Where do you keep coming up with those outfits? I’d turn positively green with envy, except then I’d clash with my own gown, so of course I won’t, but it’s no surprise to see you in the company of one of our handsomer men. I’d steal him from you, darling, but I can’t, can I, because you’ve already let him go, so what would be the point?”

She finished her drink and handed her glass to one of her admirers, taking a new glass from another of the men who’d been about to drink from it himself. Scarcely pausing to draw a breath, she continued, “Space, what appalling music! All this tinkle–tinkle is enough to drive me positively premenstrual. You’d think they could afford to hire an orchestra that knows the difference between real music and the sound of urination in a tin chamber pot. How is Bred, by the way? And don’t tell me he isn’t here, my love, because I saw the Honey B out on the spaceport just this afternoon. I don’t suppose he’s bothered to come to the Ball. No, of course not, you couldn’t expect any behavior that sociable from him. Why I married him is beyond me. I’ve had three husbands since then, and every one of them has been more than willing to be seen on my arm at parties. No, don’t ask me what their names were, darling, I’m not an almanac, and there’s ladies here who could recite the whole list backward and forward. Come to think of it, some of them preferred backward to forward. Ah, but no matter. Doz, would you be a dear and refill my glass, please?”

“It’s not empty,” Doz Linn had the ill-grace to observe.

The Barb looked at her glass, then at Doz Linn. Then she looked back at her glass. Then she calmly poured its contents on his shoes. “Now it is,” she said.

As Doz stood with his mouth open, the Barb handed him the glass, took Tyla by the arm and led her past the suddenly retreating circle of male followers. Tyla wasn’t sure why she tolerated this invasion of her empire, except that she knew the Barb would say things no one else dared to voice.

“I have missed you, Tyla, truly I have. I’ve missed our little sisterly talks. Even though you were Bred’s sister, not mine, I always felt there was some mystic bond between us. And truly, no matter how much I complain, I do miss Bred, too. We were as mismated as two left shoes, my little muffin and me, but he was the only man whose name I could remember the next morning without writing it on the pillowcase ahead of time. Life is never easy for we queens of Society, is it?”

Tyla didn’t bother to respond. The Barb did not ask questions to receive answers.

“What do you think of the great android scandal? Personally I think it’s all a silly wopple, making such a big thing out of so little. It isn’t as though it had a chance to win or anything, not with just a scrap metal ship and a robot crew. And even if it did have a chance, who really cares except a bunch of puffed up peacocks with IQs half their penile size? If they think they’re better than an andie, all they have to do is beat it in the Scavenger Hunt, right?

“Oh and speaking of that, Arrira tells me there’s a couple of establishments on Hellfire that none of our men can beat. It’s almost enough to make one want to visit Hellfire. She swears she doesn’t know this from personal experience, of course; leave it to her to deny the one thing that would raise her to the level of subhuman in my estimation. They genetically tailor those andies for their specific job, you know, which is more than I can say for any of the men I’ve had lately. It’s enough to make you give up all faith in Darwin, I can tell you.”

The Barb could always be counted on for a diversion, but a little of that went a very long way indeed. Tyla looked casually around for a way to extricate herself and saw Nillia Rathering chatting to a group of other women just a few meters away. Nillia was not much of a step up, but at least she played the social game by the same rules Tyla did.

Tyla called out her name. Nillia looked up and saw Tyla, then beamed with the warm radiance of a superannuated cherub and waved for Tyla to join her. Tyla immediately began regretting her action. Had she been too quick to leap from one cannibal’s pot to the next?

Her maneuver did have its desired effect, however. The Barb took one look at Gentlelady Rathering and decided her time could better be spent elsewhere. “Well, Tyla my love, it’s been positively exorbitant being your sister again for these last few hours, but I came to the Ball on a quest of my own, you know. I simply must find a man worth seducing, hard a task as that may be. Looking around, I truly fear you and I will be forced to lower our standards to achieve a truly satisfactory heterosexual life, though I suppose I may be putting a few too many adjectives in my qualifications. Happy hunting.” And just like that, the Barb was off to bedazzle another sector of the Hall.

Tyla, meanwhile, was left with Nillia Rathering. “It’s nice to see you again, Nillia.” Tyla could lie socially with the pleasantest of smiles.

“Yes, my child, it’s been far too long,” Nillia said. “Do come over here and let me see that stunning outfit.”

Tyla obliged grudgingly. Nillia Rathering was harmless, but such a dreadful bore. And, Tyla noticed with distaste as she approached, Nillia had gained yet a few more kilos since their last meeting. Some women just seemed to lose all pride in their appearance once they’d reached a hundred and fifty. I’ll never let that happen to me, Tyla decided silently.

Nillia examined the dress closely, oohing and ahing with delight. “Oh, to be a hundred years younger. I could really show you a thing or two, my dear.”

“I’m sure you still can,” Tyla said, landing the compliment Nillia had been fishing for.

“Oh, no, no, dear, you flatter me too much. My days of glory are all behind me, I’m afraid.” Since Tyla knew Nillia didn’t believe it, the truth came out sounding like a polite social lie.

“And what about you, Tyla?” Nillia prattled on. “You’ve been something of a hermit these past few months, haven’t you? I’ve missed your lovely face at all the parties. I haven’t seen you since…since the Maze, wasn’t it, on New Crete?”

“Personal affairs became a little too pressing, I’m afraid,” Tyla answered, ignoring the obvious curiosity.

“And speaking of personal affairs, dear,” Nillia said, lowering her voice to a just–between–us–girls level, “have you heard about Randa and Mendasan?”

“I heard their marriage broke up, but I hadn’t heard why.” This conversation might be of some value, after all. Information was everything in Society.

“She caught him in bed with one of her lovers. And they hadn’t even had the grace to invite her. It was all the talk of the Blue Star Ball. Of course, that was before Fendon showed up with an alien.”

“What sort of alien?”

“Goodness knows, I can’t keep them all straight. Of course, he claimed it was part of a business meeting, but the alien was wearing Dorin’s platinum pendant and Dorin was conspicuously absent. Neither of them was at the Delder 400, and you know how regularly they used to attend.

“And there’s rumors of a duel to be fought before the Hesperion Ball. Certain unnamed parties took exception to other unnamed parties calling them ‘an ineffectual whiner and a blue–nosed hypocrite,’ so they went home to Gavilon to practice their marksmanship. Why do men have to have such fragile egos?

“But there is some good news. Cathalia Ling is getting married.”

“I hadn’t received an invitation.” It was unthinkable that anyone of any worth would get married without inviting Tyla.

“Well, of course, they haven’t announced it yet, but Walsa assures me he drew up the contract himself.”

“Who’s she marrying?”

“That hasn’t been decided yet. One of the two younger Untermann boys, almost certainly. That will make quite an alliance, don’t you think?”

Nillia’s voice dropped to even more conspiratorial tones as she continued, “And speaking of that sort of thing, dear, I know it’s none of my business, but have you gotten married yet?”

You know I haven’t, you old busybody. Nothing in the galaxy happens without your finding out about it. “Now don’t be silly. You know I wouldn’t do anything like that without inviting you to the wedding. You shouldn’t worry about it so.”

“I know, dear, but I can’t help it. I did promise your mother I’d look after you, you know.”

There it was, the old promise Nillia dragged out of mothballs at every social occasion, like some ancient soldier emerging from the attic wearing a uniform threatening to burst at the seams. Maybe it gives her some kind of thrill to think she’s responsible for me, Tyla thought. Just once I’d like to get all the way through a party without it.

“You must admit it’s not normal for someone your age not to have been married at least once,” Nillia continued, blithely unaware of the younger woman’s annoyance. “You’re completely wasting your best years. Youth is the time for experimentation, you know.”

“I thought I’d been doing quite a bit of experimentation, myself.”

Nillia dismissed that with a wave of her hand. “Those are affairs, dear, not marriages. All shallow. You need something deeper, a lasting relationship, something more than just a week or two.”

“I’ve yet to find a man I’d even want a lasting relationship with.” Tyla had used Nillia to escape from the Barb, and now she was looking around for someone to rescue her from Nillia. The orchestra had stopped playing momentarily. Over Nillia’s shoulder she caught sight of Tendric Parto. If she could manage to catch his eye….

“It wouldn’t have to be forever, you know,” Nillia persisted. “A year or two would be fine. I can think of several young men who’d make an excellent first husband for you. You just haven’t been looking hard enough, that’s all. Even your brother was married once, and goodness knows he’s….” She caught herself in the faux pas and let her voice drift off awkwardly.

“‘Odd’?” Tyla supplied, enjoying for a moment the feeling of putting her inquisitor on the defensive.

“No, of course not, dear, I was going to say ‘eccentric.’ But if even he and the Barb could survive a marriage, there’s certainly no reason why you can’t. Look around the hall tonight. Every eligible, desirable man in the galaxy is here. And in that outfit of yours, you’ll certainly have no trouble attracting the man you want.”

Tyla looked around. Tendric Parto had been pulled aside by some woman, probably his new wife—Tyla had missed the wedding and hadn’t had a chance to meet her yet. But there had to be someone she could use as a ruse for leaving Nillia. Her eyes roamed over the tables set around the perimeter of the dance floor. Every face was familiar from previous parties except….

“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing at a good–looking young man sitting alone and dejected at one table.

Nillia’s expression dropped, and her voice became a whisper. “Oh. Believe me, dear, you wouldn’t want anything to do with that. It’s the android.”

The Barb had mentioned something about a ‘great android scandal’ but, true to form, she’d been long on opinion and short on detail. “What’s it doing here?” she asked.

“You mean you hadn’t heard about the scandal? My dear, you have been out of touch, haven’t you? That creature has enrolled in the Hunt.”

Tyla was genuinely shocked. “I didn’t know they’d let one in.”

“Devon didn’t want to, I assure you. But the Rules were quite explicit—any male sentient being who can pay the entrance fee can enroll. There were social niceties, and the Committee of course didn’t want to look as though they were excluding aliens. But who would ever have believed an android could come up with enough money to enter?”

“Where did it get the money?”

“Apparently all the androids in the galaxy contributed to pay its fee and buy it a ship. It’s like a cause or something with them—some nonsense about trying to prove their equality with human beings.”

Tyla’s eyes narrowed. “Do you think it stands much of a chance?”

“No one I’ve talked to thinks so. But just the thought of its being in our Hunt is disgraceful. I can assure you the Rules will be changed by the next time.”

Tyla nodded. The android’s entry into the Hunt could tarnish the contest slightly, but the Hunt’s tradition was so glorious that the damage would be minimal. A year after it was over, all anyone would remember was the winner. She wasn’t worried about the android as competition, either—not if, as the Barb had said, it only had a battered old ship and robots as a crew.

Most of the regular entrants competed solely because a failure to do so would have meant loss of status. They’d pursue the Hunt lackadaisically, perhaps gather a few of the objects on their list and lose gracefully, later telling exciting anecdotes about how they might have won if it had not been for thus–and–such unfortunate accident. There was only one person she was really worried about. One person who took the Hunt as more than just a game.

“Hello, Tyla,” said a voice from behind her, and she recognized the sound of the enemy.

“Hello, Master Jusser,” she said, turning around. “I was just thinking about you.”

Ambic Jusser looked the part he played—a broad–shouldered, sophisticated ladykiller. He stood a full two meters tall and had a handsome, craggy face with a deeply space–tanned complexion. His mustache and goatee were sprinkled with silver–colored dust; the shaved strip front to back down the center of his skull was three centimeters wide and lavishly tattooed by the famous Corinarr himself.

Jusser’s shirt was smooth, semitransparent plastisilk, swirling in blues and reds and yellows. The design at first glance seemed haphazard, but it was planned to direct the eye around his magnificent frame and then downward toward the waist. His knee–britches were rainbow velvet, shining in all colors at once, and so tight they might have been painted on. His codpiece was grossly padded, and he wore soft leather boots that glided noiselessly along the smooth ballroom floor. His hands were neatly gloved, the right in red and the left in yellow.

Jewelry flashed excitingly all about him. A string of diamonds circled his head, tied at the back of the neck with two tassels. A ruby earring dangled from each ear, and tight bracelets of canary diamonds circled his wrists. His belt was a row of emeralds, while his garters were mosaics of rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds. There was a platinum spur on his right boot with a large star sapphire instead of a rowel. And around his neck was a clear plastic tube filled with hundreds of small, living firebeetles that glowed and sparkled—alive and warm, yet ever–changing in hue and pattern. The firebeetles were hideously expensive, even by Society’s standards, and could live for only a few hours inside that tube.

Tyla hated Jusser with a passion so intense it was a fire in her gut.

Jusser’s smile was the one he always wore: the sportsman, the magnanimous winner, the charitable superior. God on the seventh day. “I hope they were nice thoughts,” he said.

“They were about you,” Tyla reiterated.

“You look exquisite this evening, my dear,” Jusser continued. “But then, you always do.”

“And you’re the same as ever,” Tyla said sweetly.

Nillia Rathering could sense the upswelling of unpleasantness and decided that her attentions were wanted elsewhere. With a graceful apology she glided casually to a less intense corner of the hall. Other people around Tyla and Jusser also drifted toward safer areas.

“It’s certainly wonderful to see you again,” Jusser said. He took her arm so smoothly that she had no alternative but to let him. “I’ve missed you, you know.”

“You seem to have managed well enough while I was away.”

“Of course I managed. I’m a winner, aren’t I?”

“That depends,” Tyla said carefully, “on the games you play.”

Jusser shrugged. “The only thing I’ve wanted that I’ve never had is you, my dear, and now that I’ve made up my mind on that, it’s only a matter of time. Why waste your energy fighting me?”

As they talked, he had been leading her towards the center of the hall. Just as they reached it, the orchestra began playing again. “Would you care to join me in the Zolthen?” Jusser asked before Tyla could frame a reply to his previous question.

Tyla hesitated for just a fraction of a second, and that was her undoing. Jusser took her silence as consent and swept her up into his arms in time to the music. It had been a smooth ambush, and timed perfectly.

“I suppose you’re here to watch the start of the Scavenger Hunt,” Jusser said as he whirled her gently around him.

“In a manner of speaking, yes.” She took her cue from the music, backed one step away from him while holding his left hand in her right and ducked under his arm to come up behind him.

“I’ll expect you to be down at the Hermes to see me off.” He let go of her hand with his left, took her other hand with his right and spun once more to face her.

“I’m afraid that will be somewhat difficult,” she said, stepping up close to him and slipping her free arm loosely around his waist. Together they moved three steps to Jusser’s right. “I’ll be aboard the Honey B at the time.”

“Bred’s ship? Is he in the Hunt?” Jusser pushed her gently away from him and she did a slow pirouette.

“Yes, he was a last minute entry.” She waited the required beat, then leaped into the air and came down on one foot. Her partner took her free leg, knelt, and slipped it over his shoulder. Then, grabbing an outstretched hand, he lifted her into the air.

“Wouldn’t you prefer to be with a winner?”

“I intend to be.”

He spun her around once, then set her down again. “You don’t really expect that flying bawdyhouse of his to be a serious contender, do you?” He turned halfway around, so that the two of them now stood back to back.

“I certainly do,” she said, taking five steps backward as he took an equal number forward so their backs stayed together. “Because I am going to run the Hunt for him.”

“Oho, now it becomes clear. I was wondering why Bred would come down from his cloud and join the rest of us.” They took three steps to his right, two to his left, then turned so they were once more face to face. “It’s his sister pulling the strings.”

“Since women can’t enter by themselves, I asked Bred to enroll in the Hunt as a favor to me. He agreed, as long as I do the actual work.” They grabbed each other’s wrists and did two long, shuffling sidesteps. “He’s given me temporary command of his ship.”

“And why are you so interested, all of a sudden? You’ve always preferred the parties to the games.”

“There’s always been a—” At this point, the dance called for a momentary exchange of partners. They confronted a nearby couple and did a few light whirls with others before coming together again. “—deVrie in the Scavenger Hunt,” Tyla continued easily. “And we’ve usually won, too.”

Jusser’s smile broadened. “But not the last time.”

Her anger at him doubled. “You needn’t be so ghoulish. If my parents hadn’t died, they would have won. You were lucky.” She was so mad she almost missed a step, but recovered in time and maintained her dignity by making her lapse appear to be an embellishment on the basic step.

“Luck had nothing to do with it, my dear.” They held each other’s hands loosely and walked around in a small circle. “I simply played that like I play everything else—to win. And I did.”

The rigid requirements of the Zolthen now called for an embrace. Tyla put her arms reservedly around her partner, but there was nothing reserved about Jusser’s clinch. “My agents have recently found some exotic new aphrodisiacs for me,” he whispered in her ear, “and I’d be delighted to share my first sampling of them with you.”

They broke from the clinch. The dance here called for each to make one spin on their right foot, then come together again. Jusser spun perfectly. Tyla simply walked away from him, deliberately leaving Jusser standing partnerless in the middle of the floor.

One did not leave one’s partner in the middle of a Zolthen. Such an act was a calculated insult, and Jusser was speechless. What was worse, though no sound had been made, the insult was instantly noticed by everyone in the hall, and the room was instantly abuzz. No one else, however, deviated from the dance.

Tyla’s temper was boiling, but even so a cool part of her mind weighed the alternatives. Deserting Jusser in the middle of the Zolthen was a major insult, but there had to be something more she could do. Walking out of the hall altogether would deprive her of the rest of the party, and wouldn’t be nearly demeaning enough. Tyla deVrie was a noted expert at slipping in the quiet dagger, and no ordinary insult would do.

She walked resolutely over to the lonely figure of the android sitting at a table by itself. It was so busy being dejected that it didn’t even notice her approach. “Would you care to finish this Zolthen with me?” she asked.

The android looked up, startled out of its reverie. “Huh, who, me?”

She repeated the question.

“But we…we haven’t even been introduced. Maybe you don’t know who I am.”

“Is that necessary?”

“Uh, no, no, I guess not. All right, fine, I’d love to.” It grinned boyishly and stood up.

The android looked surprisingly young. Androids came out of their processing plants fully grown and aged very slowly, so they were normally made to appear of a more ripened age—say, sixty or so. This one looked barely twenty years old, more a boy than a man. To fit in with Society it had bought some obviously expensive and well–tailored clothes—but the fashion was last year’s, and the android’s ignorance showed even worse. It had the fashionable shaved part in its hair, but it was barely a centimeter wide. The android was tall and thin, with an overexaggeration of the limbs—gawky, as though built to bring out motherly sympathies in women without alienating men. It looked hopelessly innocent and bewildered, but not without some redeeming boyish charm.

It’s an artificial entity, Tyla reminded herself, created in a test tube and grown in a vat to serve some specific function.

She took its hand and led it back to the dance floor, watching Ambic Jusser’s reaction out of the corner of her eye. It was as good as she’d anticipated. He was not very pleased. Nor were any of the other people at the Ball, who’d worked hard all evening to ignore the android. Now its presence had been acknowledged by one of Society’s most important people and its status had been raised by her invitation to dance.

Tyla could sense the anger and outrage radiating through the hall, disguised though it was by polite smiles and vacuous expressions. And she didn’t care. Her position was stable enough to weather any storm; the important thing was that her revenge on Jusser be as thorough as she could make it. He would not recover quickly from this blow.

As they started to dance it became painfully obvious that the android was as clumsy as it looked. Tyla pretended not to notice, and even did her best to cover up some of the creature’s more glaring missteps. She kept herself aloof and concentrated on the dancing, eyes focused blankly ahead.

“Well, I might as well introduce myself, at least,” the android said hesitantly. “My name is Johnathan R.”

“How very nice for you,” Tyla replied. Circumstances might compel her to dance with this creature, but she needn’t go so far as being polite to it.

The android flushed and missed two steps. “I know you’re Tyla deVrie, because I heard the android announce you at the door.”

“Clever.”

It missed some more steps, and Tyla winced. Did it have to be such a buffoon?

“Mistress deVrie, you are very beautiful and I’m sure you could have danced with any man at the Ball tonight. You obviously don’t like me. Why did you ask me to dance?”

“I’ve never danced with an andie before.”

It stopped completely. “Oh. Well, I’m sure you found it a novel and exciting experience. Now, if you will excuse me, Mistress deVrie, I have some important business to transact back at my table. Thank you very much for the dance.” And it left, turning its back on her and walking crisply to the table it had occupied all evening.

The orchestra stopped playing. Everyone stopped dancing. Conversations ceased. And all eyes focused rigidly on a single spot within the enormous hall.

Tyla could feel, in a remote way, the attention she was receiving, but it took even that much concentrated power to register anything in her brain. Her mind had gone numb. This couldn’t be happening to her, not to Tyla deVrie. How could an android dare to walk out on her—especially after she had condescended to dance with it? Its only repayment for her graciousness had been to belittle her in the eyes of everyone who mattered.

The smile was back on Ambic Jusser’s lips. He had avenged Tyla’s insult without even trying. He started to approach her again. From the far side of the hall, the Barb also started moving toward her, a strangely alien look of sympathy on her face.

But Tyla would not let that happen. At the worst—and as far as she was concerned, this was the worst—she would preserve her honor. With self–control born of years of social training, she lifted her head proudly and marched to the gravtube. The field congealed about her feet as she entered, lifting her gently upward until she reached the mezzanine. She stepped out of the tube and, with dignity, left the hall.

The reporters were still there, unaware of the social cataclysm that had just struck. Tyla deVrie walked regally past them to the call post and raised her left thumb gracefully to its scanner. Moments later her limo pulled up to the curb, its door sliding open to admit her. She stepped inside and the door slid shut again, concealing her from human eyes.

Only then did her emotional shield break down. “Spaceport,” she said in a barely audible voice, and her hands were shaking so badly she had to try three times before she could place her thumb chip over the scanner to verify her ID.

The limo glided off down the darkened street.

 

End of Sample

*]

 

The road, if such it could be called, was a simple track along which the local equivalent of horses—six-legged beasts called daryeks—could pull rickety wooden carts. The ruts worn by wagon wheels were several centimeters deep in water, while the rest of the road was mud. With no traffic at night, Ardeva Korrell had the trail entirely to herself. The planet Dascham had no moon and the overcast sky blocked out the stars, so her universe was a darkness broken only by the light of the small electric lantern she carried as she trudged along on foot.

“In the ideal world,” she mused to no one in particular, “a spaceship captain would not have to serve as her own shore patrol as well.” And she sighed. Dascham was about as far from the ideal world as she ever hoped to get. She might as well wish for a ship of her very own, a competent crew, and the respect due her rank and experience. They were all equally distant from reality.

The dark clouds overhead threatened rain—not unexpected, since it rained every night in the inhabited parts of this planet. A biting wind accompanied the clouds and chilled her spirit, despite the spacer uniform that insulated all but her head.

“I hope Dunnis and Zhurat are drunk,” she said. “It will give me such pleasure tomorrow to yell into their hung-over ears and give them penalty duty.” The thought warmed her for a moment then died as her religious training came to the fore. “‘Vengeance eases frustrations only in the insecure mind,’” she quoted. “‘Sanity does not require the evening of natural imbalances.’ I know, I know. But I sometimes think life would be a lot more fun if I were a little less sane.”

She thought of her warm, if cramped, cabin back aboard Foxfire, and about the books waiting for her there. This slogging through mud towards a shantytown to retrieve two drunken crewmen was not her idea of a pleasant way to spend a cold, damp night on an alien world. But it was necessary. She’d told them she wanted them back in four hours; when six had gone by without their return, she knew she’d have to take disciplinary action. Being a female captain put her in a precarious enough position without letting the crew take advantage of her.

At least she wouldn’t have to walk back. The Daschamese had generously provided the ship with a small cart for transportation to and from the village, but the two errant crewmembers had taken it with them into town. The only other transportation short of Shanks’ mare was Foxfire’s lifeboat, wasteful for a two-kilometer jaunt.

So she walked, with mud sucking at her boots as she lifted each foot, thinking alternately about her bed and books aboard ship and about what she could do to Dunnis and Zhurat if she were a less-sane, vengeance-seeking person.

 

*****

 

She came upon the town suddenly. One moment the glow of the lantern showed nothing around her but open fields and, in the next, crude hovels that served the Daschamese as houses surrounded her. The ground underfoot, no better for being within the village, had been churned up from the volume of traffic that crossed over it daily.

To Dev, the settlement looked haphazard, squalid, and depressingly medieval—in short, identical to the three others she’d seen since Foxfire arrived on Dascham a week ago. Huts, rather than houses had been built out of a reedy material resembling bamboo; large chinks in the walls were filled in with mud—hardly the warmest possible arrangement. Little wonder, then, that the Daschamese wore heavy, coarse clothing. Something had to be done to keep pneumonia from wiping out the race. The roofs, thatched with what appeared to be twigs, probably only kept out ninety percent of the water. Dev wondered whether the Daschamese would die if moved to a temperate climate; even their broad, flat feet seemed adapted to walking in mud.

Dev shook her head. It depressed her to see intelligent beings living in such physical poverty. Something was missing from their racial character, a sense of pride and accomplishment. Probably due to those gods they worshiped; the religious taboos were so strict they barely allowed the people a subsistence living. “Gods fit the minds of those who serve them,” Anthropos had once observed. It made her wonder about the health of the Daschamese intellect.

The village was dark and preternaturally quiet. Dev estimated the population at several thousand, yet after dark there was little indication the region was even inhabited. It was the gods again, naturally—strict taboos against being outside after dark, except under certain circumstances. To be sure, even the dismal Daschamese had their nightlife, but it was a pale pleasure compared to those of human civilization.

It was a rule of the universe that warm-blooded protoplasmic creatures could be affected by fermented beverages. It was also a rule that intelligent minds often sought relief from oppressive realities by indulging in some form of mind-alteration. The combination of those two rules meant there would be the equivalent of a bar on any world a human being could tolerate.

The Daschamese bars, built in the same architectural style—or lack thereof—as the houses, were only slightly bigger. They would be lit at night, in contrast to the darkened sleeping hovels, and they would also tend to be slightly noisier—though from what Dev had seen of the natives, she wagered the Daschamese were quiet drunks. The bars seemed to be the only places on the entire planet offering respite from the dreariness of Daschamese living—and it would be in one of these bars that she would most likely find Dunnis and Zhurat.

There were no streets in the village. Huts were built wherever the owner felt they were convenient, which meant a resident had to find his way about by instinct.

Dev slogged through the mire, searching the random town for her crewmen. It began to drizzle before she found even the first bar—a monotonous heavy mist that blurred the outlines of objects around her. Her close-cut brown hair got damp, plastering itself to her forehead and neck. But aside from the steaming of the rain as it hit the ground, there was no sound—no babies crying, no people talking, no pets yapping. It seemed as though the village crouched in fear from some nameless horror. Finally she spotted a larger hut with lights shining between the chinks—a bar. She increased her pace to just short of a run. She didn’t want to move too fast and fall in the mud; it would give those two clowns something more to laugh about if she went inside in such a disgraceful condition.

Entering the bar, she blinked at the mild lighting provided by candles in sconces around the walls. After being out in the pitch darkness of the Daschamese night, it took time for her eyes to adjust. Besides, there was a smoky quality to the atmosphere, which Dev guessed was produced by some local drug other than alcohol. The smoke burned her eyes and made her rub away the tears with the backs of her hands.

When she could see again, she surveyed the interior. Four small tables dotted the floor, each with four chairs around it. The proprietor stood behind a slightly longer table—more like a workbench than a bar. The floor was bare wood and the walls—except for the sconces and some blankets to cover the larger chinks—were devoid of decoration.

Several Daschames occupied the tables. Dev’s hundred and eighty centimeter height towered over the natives, who only averaged a hundred fifty-five. The Daschamese looked like nothing so much as animated teddy bears. Thick, matted fur in varying colors covered their bodies. They walked on broad, flat feet, and they wore heavy woolen clothes. Their short, stubby hands each contained three fingers and an opposable thumb. It was impossible for a human to read any expression in the ursine faces, but their eyes lacked the vibrant luster of the truly alive.

At the sight of her, the natives rose quickly to their feet—whether out of respect or fear, Dev couldn’t say. Probably a little of each, she supposed. After all, she was one of those strange beings from the sky. Many of the Daschamese may never have seen a human close up, since their planet was well outside the normal trading routes, and few ships ever ventured here. To the locals, with their primitive technology, humans must seem almost as powerful as their own gods.

Reaching up to her cheek, she switched on her translator. “Please don’t be startled,” she said into the mouthpiece, and heard her own voice coming out of it in the growly Daschamese tongue. “I am merely looking for two of my friends. Have any of you seen them?”

Silence for a moment then low growls, which the computer informed her were a chorus of ‘NOs’. She thanked the people and, with a sigh, ventured outside once more.

The drizzle had become a downpour in just the short time she’d been inside the bar. Dev wished she’d been able to bring her helmet with her, but she would have had to bring some oxygen tanks along in that case, and Foxfire’s stores could ill afford that expenditure. So her brown hair turned stringy, and water dripped down the back of her neck as she trudged wearily through the darkened village to find the next bar.

 

*****

 

It had been a drier, if more desperate, Captain Korrell that had walked up to the door of Elliptic Enterprises two months earlier in search of a job. The planet was New Crete and the situation was critical. Her landlord had eyed her intently as she left the apartment; she could almost hear him wondering how long it would take to fumigate the place and move in a new tenant—one who paid rent when it was due. Her meager savings had all but evaporated, and the prospects of a job for a ship’s captain who was both a woman and an Eoan were slim at best.

The door opened at her buzz, and she entered the outer office. The surroundings weren’t as bad as she’d expected. True, the office was located in the less fashionable part of town, but an effort had been made to preserve dignity and comfort. Carpeting covered the floors, and the walls were painted a restful, pleasing blue. Interesting bits of sculpture were tucked into the crannies and a pair of silver mobiles hung from the ceiling. The secretary’s desk looked to be real wood and its top surface was busy but uncluttered. Nothing in the room completely matched anything else, but at least some effort and pride had taken place to make it habitable. Dev had applied at some offices with bare floors and walls, and large insects crawling nonchalantly over the desktops. This was a distinct improvement.

The secretary—a pleasant, middle-aged woman—took her name, invited her to have a seat and went into the inner office to inform the boss of Dev’s arrival. Dev started looking through some magazines as she waited—at first just to keep down the jitters, but after only a minute she was absorbed in the subject. She considered it almost an intrusion when the secretary returned to tell her Master Larramac would see her now.

She followed the woman into the inner office, a tribute to eclecticism. Larramac was obviously a collector of knick-knacks, because the room was festooned with odd little gadgets: an old-time fire hydrant, an assortment of colorful rocks, a set of porcelain flowerpots and many little things her eye did not recognize immediately. Posters covered the walls: “Work is what you do so some day you won’t have to do it any more” and “I believe in getting into hot water—it keens me clean.”

Then Dev noticed the man behind the desk. He was very thin, and his body seemed composed entirely of acute angles. His clothes were of violent reds and blues, and his codpiece was just a trifle over-padded. His goatee was graying and his hair thinning a bit—though not quite enough to justify a transplant. The shaven part front to back along the center of his scalp—an affectation indicating he hoped someday to join Society—was tattooed with a design of numbers skillfully interwoven to form an intriguing pattern. His eyes never stood still, but darted around the room, as though fearful of missing some momentous event.

“You’re Ardeva Korrell?” he asked as they shook hands.

“That’s right.”

“There aren’t many female ship’s captains, are there?” His speech was as quick as it was blunt. Dev couldn’t decide whether that was a good or bad trait.

“There was one other beside myself in my graduating class of a hundred and ten,” she answered formally. “However, there are even fewer red-haired, left-handed midgets in the profession.”

“I suppose so. Where are you from?”

“Eos.”

Larramac raised an eyebrow but said nothing, a gesture that made it impossible for Dev to interpret his thoughts. “And you want to be a spaceship captain.”

“I am a captain. My credentials and licenses are all in order. What I’m looking for is a ship.”

Larramac nodded. “My problem is I’ve got a ship and, at the moment, no captain. Do you ask a lot of questions?”

“In what way?”

“Do you have to know every single thing that happens on board your ship?”

“It’s a captain’s duty to know everything that’s going on—”

“I fired my last captain for being too inquisitive.”

“—But there are some things that are not as important to know as others,” Dev temporized quickly. Personal preferences must sometimes bow before the winds of necessity, after all. “My primary job would be to get the ship safely from one port to another. Everything that touches on that is my responsibility, from maintenance through astrogation. Other matters may be peripheral to the running of the ship, and on those I can tread most delicately.”

Larramac ruminated for a moment, stroking his goatee. He reached into a pile of papers and took out a sheet Dev recognized as the application she had submitted the week before. “According to your resume, you’ve had a lot of different jobs. You haven’t stayed with any ship more than a year. Why is that?”

Dev sighed. Someone always asked this question, though the answer always seemed so obvious. “Prejudice. A lot of men don’t like serving under a female captain. Those who don’t mind that are uncomfortable about my being an Eoan. You’ll notice if you check my references that my employers usually give me the highest recommendation. I’m a good captain who’s been the victim of circumstance.”

“I don’t pay very much; I can’t afford to. Six hundred galacs a month, plus standard benefits.”

For a captain with her training and experience, that sum was laughable; unfortunately, her financial situation was not. “I should be earning easily twice that,” she said. “But business, I suppose, is tight.”

“I’m hardly in the same class with Lenning TransSpacial or deVrie Shipping,” Larramac admitted. “I go to the little planets they miss, the ones with the lower profit-to-cost ratios. I have to lick the bowl they hand me, so to speak. I get by, and I’ve been able to build. The company has grown over the last couple of years, and I don’t see any reason why that growth shouldn’t continue. I keep people on if they can do the work, and I’m pretty good about raises. If I like the way you make the first run, we can talk about a salary increase.”

Dev looked her prospective employer over. He seemed the honest sort; a bit over sincere, a bit given to enthusiasms and brashness, but far from the worst of bosses she’d served.

“I’ve taken the liberty,” Larramac went on, “of looking up your name on my chart.”

“Chart?”

“Yes, the patterns of letters all have meanings, whether you know it or not. You’ve got a good name; it blends in well with everything else.”

“I’m sure my parents would thank you; it was their choice,” she said dryly. She wondered briefly about the sanity of someone who would chart a person’s name before deciding whether to hire her. Oh well, anyone who runs Elliptic Enterprises must have a few eccentricities.

“There is one thing I would like to specify,” she continued. “I must have complete disciplinary authority over my crew.”

“Why is that?”

“For one thing, it’s traditional. But more than that, the crew must know you back me on all matters. As I’ve said, some men resent taking orders from a woman. Unless my word is law—enforceable law—I cannot guarantee the smooth running of the ship.”

“Sounds reasonable. Have we got a deal, then?”

Dev nodded. “Deal. When do you need me?”

Foxfire is due to leave in two weeks. I suppose you’ll want to come down and see her firsthand before then.”

Only two weeks to get to know a cargo ship from top to bottom? “Space, yes! I’d better start tomorrow getting the feel of her, learning her capabilities and idiosyncrasies.”

Larramac looked at her strangely. “I thought you Eoans didn’t swear by Space.”

“Popular misconception. We aren’t particularly awed by the mystic powers of the universe, it’s true; but when I’m speaking Galingua I have to make do with the phrases that express my thoughts, including the conversational clichés. Ideological purity is no substitute for comprehension.”

“You’re a strange woman, Captain Korrell.”

“I shall choose to accept that as a compliment, Master Larramac.” She smiled. “Anything that isn’t a direct insult is easier to accept as a compliment.”

“I insist on being called Roscil.”

“And personally, I prefer Dev for myself.”

“Then Dev it is. Would you care to have lunch with me?”

Dev hesitated. That, though she hadn’t mentioned it, was another of the reasons she had moved from job to job—overly amorous employers who thought a female captain’s duties were horizontal as well as vertical. She was neither a prude nor a virgin, but she’d learned, through bitter experience, that sex frequently fouled up business relationships. On the other hand, her financial situation was such she couldn’t afford to turn down a free meal. Larramac’s bluntness was refreshing, but it could become just as obnoxious as someone else’s fanny-patting. I suppose I’ll have to find out about him sometime, she thought. It might as well be sooner than later. “That sounds like a good idea,” she said.

 

*****

 

As she trudged through the Daschamese rain, Dev thought warmly of that lunch. Larramac’s brash exterior might intimidate most people, but she’d seen beyond it. Larramac, a lonely man inside, would rather reject than be rejected. He didn’t make a single pass at her that time, for which she had been grateful. He’d made one about a week later, which she had been able to fend off skillfully without hurting him. Ground rules thus established, he kept politely within them.

Of course, there were other things she could have strangled him for—such as his insistence on coming along on this first trip to “see how well you do.” Despite that, she was reasonably satisfied with him.

Lights from another Daschamese bar twinkled faintly in front of her, and she turned toward it. As she approached, she could see, standing beside the building, the cart the Daschamese had lent the ship—a pretty fair indication her wayward crewmen were there. She quickened her pace.

The two men were easy to spot the instant she entered the bar—they were the only splash of color in the place. Gros Dunnis, the engineer, was a hulking male, a full two meters tall and clad in a spacer uniform of dark green and silver. His red hair and full red beard were matched, at the moment, by an almost equally red face that signaled his intoxication. Dmitor Zhurat, the robot-wrangler, was a much shorter, squatter man—in fact, he was about the same size and shape as the natives. Still, his red and blue uniform stood out easily among the drab earth colors used in the Daschamese clothing.

Zhurat was the first to spot her. “Well, if it isn’t our pretty little cap’n comin’ down out of her tower to join us. Gros, we have a distinguished visitor. We musht show her dignity.”

Dunnis, a more pleasant drunk, beamed at her. “Hello, Captain, care to have a drink with us?”

“You both should have been back at the ship two and a half hours ago,” Dev said evenly. “I think you’d better come along with me.”

“We musht have forgotten the time,” Zhurat sneered. “But join us in a drink and then we’ll go.”

“You know I don’t drink.”

“That’sh right. You’re too good to drink with ush, aren’t you?”

“‘The sane mind needs no external stimuli to relax,’” Dev quoted.

“Are you calling me crazy?”

“I’m calling you drunk and disorderly. Your pay is going to be docked, and you’ll be given penalty duty. I’d advise you to come along peacefully, before there’s trouble.” She spread her feet slightly in a crouched stance, prepared for anything.

In the corner, the proprietor showed signs of agitation. He kept repeating something over and over. Without taking her eyes off Zhurat, Dev switched on her helmet translator once more. “…too many in here, there are too many in here,” the bartender was saying.

“My friends and I will be leaving in a second,” she told him.

The proprietor; though, was little comforted by her promise. He clapped his hands together several times in what Dev had come to understand was the Daschamese gesture of nervousness. “The gods will be offended, there are too many,” he said.

Dev ignored him and continued speaking to Zhurat. “I’ll tell you only one more time. Let’s go.”

“Damned shnotty Eoans,” Zhurat muttered. “Think they’re better’n anybody elsh…”

Dev moved smoothly across the room and clamped a hand on her subordinate’s shoulder. “Come on, Zhurat, it’s time to go. You’ll be a lot more comfortable back on the ship. We don’t want to offend these people’s gods, do we?”

“Let go of me!” Zhurat bellowed. He shrugged his shoulder to rid it of the captain’s hand, but the fingers clamped tightly, painfully, and would not leave. He stared up at Dev’s face and found it as stern as a marble statue. He looked back down quickly at his half-empty glass.

“You don’t want to make anyone angry,” Dev repeated in mild but firm tones, “the gods, or me.”

“Gods!” Zhurat snorted. He stood up and Dev removed her hand from his shoulder. “There are no gods.” He turned his own headset back to translate and repeated his remarks. “There are no gods!” he said loudly.

He staggered to the center of the room. “You’re sheep, all of you,” he said. Dev assumed the computer translated “sheep” into an appropriate local reference. “You have no guts, you have no fun, you have no lives. You live in these miserable little huts because you’re afraid to grab life for yourselves, and you make up these big, bad gods as an excuse so you don’t have to do anything. You’re frauds, all of you, and your gods are the biggest frauds of all.”

The atmosphere within the room had become deathly quiet. All eyes, human and Daschamese alike, were turned on Zhurat. The silence was like the one between the last tick on a time bomb and its detonation. Dev cleared her throat. “I think you may have hurt their feelings,” she said.

The remark only fed his fires, though. “I’ll show you,” he shouted. “I’ll show you all.” And he raced suddenly out of the bar.

“Come on,” Dev said to Dunnis. “Help me catch him before he hurts himself.”

The rain was coming down even harder as they went out after him, a cold, beating rain that dimmed the vision and pounded the head. The rhythm of the falling drops was almost enough to drown out her thoughts. Dev felt disoriented, and the glow of her lantern went only a few meters before the blanket of darkness absorbed it. Zhurat was nowhere in sight. She had no idea which way he had gone, but straight ahead seemed the best choice. She grabbed Dunnis’s hand and pulled him along behind her like a little child.

Twenty meters ahead, they saw Zhurat standing alone in a small cleared space between some huts. “Come on, you bastards,” he shouted. “Where are you? Let me see the power of the great gods of Dascham!”

Dev grew aware of eyes peeking through chinks in the huts, likely staring in disbelief at this strange being who challenged the gods. Was he brave, foolish, or a god himself that he could speak like this?

“I defy you!” Zhurat yelled. “I, Dmitor Zhurat, defy the gods!”

Forever after, that scene remained etched in Dev’s memory. Zhurat standing alone in the clearing, his arms raised to the sky, fists clenched and waving in the air. Then a deafening explosion, and a quick flash, blinding in intensity, caused Dev and Dunnis to close their eyes. Dev could have sworn she heard a crackling sound and…was that a scream over the driving rain? She could not say.

When Dev could open her eyes again, Zhurat had disappeared—only his smoldering uniform lay on the ground amid a pile of quickly dampening ashes.

 

End of Sample

INTO THE OUT

LETTER 1

Hi Bianca,

Bet you never thought you’d hear from me, huh? Well, it’s kind of a surprise to me, too. Not that I don’t like you or anything—you’re my only sister and all, well, my only sibling when it comes right down to that—but you’re just not around. Mom and Dad arranged it so I can’t forget you and I think of you sometimes, but probably not as much as I should. I probably wouldn’t have thought of you today, either, but—well, I’ll get to that.

Mr. North says I should make this report honest, thorough, detailed, and in order. I hope he’s, like, prepared for the consequences of that. It probably won’t be pretty—but if I’m going to be famous (as I will), I can’t afford to pussyfoot around. Only the truth to you, Bianca, I swear it.

You see, Mom and Dad moved to Califia Springs on short notice last week because the city hired Dad to make sure the new part of the town they’re building is, like, compatible with the older part. In case you’ve forgotten, Dad’s a civil engineer/city planner and we move around a lot. A real lot. Sure, I’m used to that, but it’s a bitch and a half when it happens three weeks before the end of term. If I had any friends to leave behind, it might have been painful. Fortunately I was spared that. The life of a destined-to-be-famous person is a noble but lonely one.

Dad and Mom signed me up at Califia Springs Charter School, which has the unquestioned best reputation in town. Sounds impressive, huh, till you realize there are just two high schools in Califia Springs, and Reagan High is a public school with a less than stellar rep. I mean, we have parents with some standards, right?

The other thing you should know is that CalSprings Charter is, like, oh-so-snooty about its supposed superiority. San Alonzo High, where I just came from, is looser on the extracurriculars. As long as you filled your academic slate (which I of course did, straight A’s), they didn’t much care. I had a pro-forma debate club on top, but all you had to do is show up and talk to get credit for it.

But for top honors at CalSprings, they insist on a passing credited extracurricular. “Good grades need good citizenship,” says one clause in their charter. Damn it, I earned good grades, but even with the last-minute transfer they won’t make allowance. Without a passing extracurricular, I couldn’t get more than a solid A- for my whole damn year of academics.

People have gotten famous with less, of course. But they didn’t have my standards. I’ve always been straight A. So I had to sign up for an extracurricular.

Trouble is, this late in the year, my choices were limited. Debate was full to bursting, as was Life Lessons. Lit Club had room, sort of, but they’ve already done their full year of reports and there isn’t time to catch up if I also want to sleep anytime in the next few weeks. Sci Club might have been a breeze, but its work was already done and it was closed to new entrants. StuGov had adjourned for the year, and Yearbook just went to bed. Chess Club, of course, would have me, even though they were mostly through their annual tournament, but of course they’re, like, the perennial Losers’ Society; I can’t imagine anything more boring than sitting and watching nerds battle it out for last place in the social hierarchy.

So that’s how I ended up in Mr. North’s classroom for Explorers Club. They still have one assignment left this year, an all-day excursion tomorrow. As long as I participate and don’t screw it up beyond redemption, I’ll pass. That means I get my A’s and save my academic record. Hooray!

I have to admit, I don’t consider myself in any way an explorer. Oh sure, explorers can become famous. Everybody knows Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, and Marco Polo. But guys like them become famous for what they discover, not for who they are. I want people to know the name Tamara Ruben for who I am, not for something I happen to find.

So anyway, back to the report. There I was in Mr. North’s classroom this afternoon—it’s Friday, May 24—at three-fifteen p.m. waiting to get started. I had my permission form all signed and ready to hand in, but Mr. North wasn’t there yet, so it gave me a chance to look over my fellow explorers.

There are ten kids in the club besides me, five girls and five boys, so I shift the balance onto the girls’ side. Since I was the new kid I was odd girl out and there was a sort of social distance. Finally, one girl came over to introduce herself. She was pretty and well-dressed and short, even for a girl, but bursting with self-confidence—some might call it arrogance. What some guys call “perky,” if you’re into that sort of thing.

Along with her came this guy, tall and well-built. She wore him as an accessory, like an expensive bracelet.

She held out her hand and we shook, and she said she was Linda Wu, junior class vice president. Her boyfriend, she said, without giving him a chance to speak for himself, was Burke Hastings, captain of the football team. Does that tell you all you need to know?

So I told her I’m Tamara Ruben, and I’d been sophomore president two schools ago, before I decided high school politics was kind of a useless game I didn’t need to play.

She flashed a smile that, so help me, looked sincere, and said, “Oh, I’m sure we’ll be friends. Can I call you Tammy?”

So okay, this is going to sound bitchy. I’m normally very polite, Bianca, really I am. I could win medals for my decorum, if they ever gave medals for that sort of crap. But I just don’t take insults well. Just five seconds ago I’d told this Linda Wu my name, and now she thinks she has the right to change it! So I stepped right up into her personal space and said, “My name is Tamara Ruben, maybe ‘Tamara’ if I ever allow you to be familiar, and someday you’ll brag that you heard it directly from my own lips. I am not, never have been, and never will be, a ‘Tammy.’”

I guess she’s sensitive or something, because she backed away like I’d taken a swing at her. I guess she’s not used to people talking to Linda Wu, junior class vice president, that way.

Then she turned and walked away until there were, like, three rows of chairs between us. Burke Hastings stared at me a sec, then followed after her like the proper adornment he was. I sat down at one of the student desks, still steaming.

I sat there a few seconds until I saw another kid sidling up. This one was black with badly cut hair, and glasses that looked two sizes too big for him. His clothes looked like brand-new hand-me-downs. His teeth were… unfortunate, like you’d be taking your life in your hands if you tried to kiss him.

He asked me what happened with Wu, so I told him the short story in all its details. “I am not a ‘Tammy,’” I repeated for him.

He looked at me earnestly and said, “I never thought you were.”

This mollified me a bit, so I asked him what his name was. “Warren Jefferson.”

I shook his hand. “Pleased to meet you.” Before we could do any more talking, Mr. North entered the room, and our attention went to the front.

Mr. North is a big black man, sort of reminds me of James Earl Jones except his voice is a little higher and squeakier. Still, despite that and his suit, which was a little frayed, he has a commanding presence—or he would, if he wasn’t so sick. Bad cold or flu would be my guess. His eyes were rheumy and his body was wracked with coughing fits every few minutes, but he kept soldiering on despite everything. He looked about as pale as I can imagine a black man looking.

The first thing he did was have me stand up and introduce myself to the rest of the club. Linda Wu, I noticed, was pointedly looking at her boyfriend while I did it, but like, what could you expect? There was one other girl who didn’t really look at me, either, but it wasn’t through animosity or anger or anything. She was just… well, she didn’t seem completely attached to this world. She had a white shirt and a gray skirt, with stringy black hair that didn’t look so much combed as sculpted. She had a notebook out on the desk in front of her and was scribbling in it—and, looking back on it, I hadn’t noticed her paying attention to anything since I came in. Her complexion was sort of pasty, and for some reason my mind decided to call her The Gray Girl. She wasn’t offensive, just not completely in the present. Eerie.

So anyway, after Mr. North introduced me and collected my permission form, he turned to club business. He told us, between coughing fits, that our expedition tomorrow will be to someplace called Stanyan Hill. This drew immediate groans from almost everyone, which led me to think they’d been there before. Maybe too many times before. Well, when you’re in a town out in the California desert, I don’t imagine there’s a wealth of places to go exploring.

When the groans died down, Mr. North held up his hands and said he knew they’d been to Stanyan Hill maybe a few too many times before, so he was going to shake things up a little this time. We were going to write contemporary reports—honest, thorough, detailed and in order—about our experiences there. Somebody, I didn’t see who, commented what sort of “experiences” could you have at a picnic ground, and that drew a couple of snickers, but Mr. North either didn’t hear it or, more likely I think, didn’t want to dignify it with a response.

Since I was the new kid, it fell to me to ask whether there was a specific form we had to follow, and he said no, we were free to tell our experiences the way we thought best—log, journal, whatever—as long as it was honest, detailed, thorough, and in order. Originality of expression was always welcome.

Before we broke up, he gave me a hand-out he’d given the rest of the club previously of suggested supplies to bring along:

 flashlight

 toothbrush/toothpaste

 aspirin/ibuprofen

 insect repellant

 sunscreen

 hat

 first aid kit/antibiotic/bandaging/snakebite kit

 canteen

 snack

 field glasses/binoculars

 pocket knife

 matches/lighter

 candle

 rope

 blanket

 handkerchief

 scissors

 gloves

 sturdy shoes or boots

 hand lotion & soap

 towel

 deodorant

 lip balm

 tissues/wet wipes

 nail clippers

 hair brush/comb

 dental floss

 necessary medicines

 feminine napkins/supplies

 mouthwash

 plastic or folding cup

 sun glasses

 sweater or wind breaker

 traveling utensils/chopsticks

 trash bags

 sewing kit

 bungee cord

 batteries

 compass

 measuring tape

 tongs

What was this, I wondered, an afternoon outing or an expedition into the Amazon rainforest? I could see the usefulness of everything on the list, but still—WTF?

When I got home and told Mom and Dad about the assignment, Dad got very thoughtful. He disappeared into his bedroom and I heard the sound of closet-rummaging. Then he came out with a scuffed old knapsack and a plastic box about one foot square and three inches thick. It looked so klunky it just had to be low tech.

Dad explained the knapsack was the one he’d hiked around Europe with during a summer break when he was in college, and he’s told me repeatedly it was the best time of his life. The box was a voice recorder prototype he was given some time ago. It doesn’t have any special apps, but it recharges in ordinary daylight and it records what you say. (It’s what I’m dictating this letter into right now, in fact, like a practice run.) An engineering friend who worked at the company that made it gave it to him to alpha test, but he never really did that and it just sat in his closet all this time. It’d be just right, he said, to record my impressions of what I see tomorrow.

I thought of a zillion possible objections. The thing is, like, really bulky; it’ll take up a ton of room in my/Dad’s knapsack. Seems pretty heavy, too. And I don’t need anything solar-rechargeable; I’ll only be gone one afternoon.

But I’ve learned from long experience that when parents want to help you, humoring them avoids a lot of problems. They mean well, and as long as it doesn’t actively get in my way I can smile and say sure and figure out some way to make it work.

Hence, this letter. I don’t think you’ll mind being used to further my academic career. It’s a worthy cause, after all. The battery on this thing had an almost nonexistent charge after being stored in a dark closet for years, but I’m dictating this with my desk lamp shining on it, and I’ll keep the lamp shining overnight. I’m used to sleeping with a light on. Dad gave me a basic orientation, and the machine seems pretty simple. Maybe a little too simple; I can’t seem to find any edit functions. But at least it records just fine. Meanwhile, Mom’s running around like crazy on a scavenger hunt through the house trying to find as many of the items on my list as possible.

So anyway, tomorrow I’ll write you the real report. I’ll fill you in on all the details of our thrilling trip to Stanyan Hill, wherever the hell that is. Honest, thorough, detailed, and in order, my new mantra. I only hope it’ll be, like, moderately fun, too. Right now, I’ve got to go pack all the stuff Mom’s finding into my backpack.

Talk to you tomorrow. Your sister,

Tamara

LETTER 2

 

Hi Bianca,

 

I think there’s a special hell designed specifically for kids: the school bus field trip. Claustrophobic, overheated (winter or summer), noisy, smelly, filled with people you either don’t know or don’t like—and worst of all, boring. You’re trapped in a rattling, bumpy contraption with no hope of escape. Little wonder we all love it so much.

So anyway, I showed up in front of the school promptly at 7:30, as requested. So did the other ten ExClub members. I guess, despite the general bitching about how boring Stanyan Hill is, nobody wanted to pass up a chance at all that fresh air and sunshine. Well, personally, I don’t give a shit about fresh air and sunshine. I just want the club credit. Silly me.

I’m wearing my blue and white blouse, the short-sleeved one with the open neck, plus casual-fit blue jeans, sturdy half boots, and Dad’s knapsack. I’ve got one of Dad’s old fishing caps on, too, to protect my scalp from sunburn. I packed myself a pair of PBJs for lunch, along with a fruit juice pack. Mom tossed in a bag of apple chips. Have to have something healthy, after all.

Dad’s a very efficient packer. I guess he learned it while hiking in Europe. Everything Mom was able to find from that list got packed into the knapsack, along with this recorder. Just my luck, huh?

Mr. North showed up shortly after the rest of us, looking even sicker than he did yesterday. I was torn. My motherly instincts, such as they are, felt so sorry for the poor man I wanted him to cancel this excursion and go home to bed. But on the other hand, I need the credit for this club, and the outing’s necessary to save my academic rating.

The school bus arrived a few minutes after Mr. North, and the whole club boarded. Mr. North stood at the front and took roll. He was coughing so bad I’m sure we’ll all end up with the plague. When everyone was aboard, he signaled the driver and off we excursed to Stanyan Hill.

We distributed ourselves throughout the bus more or less evenly. Linda Wu and her boyfriend sat together, along with another girl in the seat behind them who looked to be one of Wu’s cronies. I sat alone at first, but then Warren Jefferson came over and sat beside me. He’s wearing a pair of black jeans and a gray tee-shirt with red lettering that reads:

EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON

AND USUALLY THAT REASON IS PHYSICS

How could I diss anyone with a shirt like that, so I accepted his presence with a friendly grin. He nattered about the weather and his previous field trips. Harmless stuff, so I just let him talk and didn’t bother to interrupt.

I noticed The Gray Girl seated by herself two rows behind us at the very back of the bus. She had her notebook out and was jotting something down in it. That seemed to be taking Mr. North’s dictum about writing a contemporary report very seriously.

I asked Warren about her, and he said she’s always like that, absorbed in her notepads and little else. He said her name is Jennifer Penney, and the snottier kids call her “Jenny Penney.” That made me wince. I wondered who was crueler—the kids who gave her that nickname, or the parents who gave her a name so susceptible to perversion.

Warren wondered whether she might be autistic, but I told him no. I’d been around some autistic kids when I assisted in a Special Ed class at one school a couple years ago, and Jennifer Penney wasn’t at all like them. They couldn’t break out of their special world. I can see Jennifer’s aware of her surroundings, and just doesn’t care. She has her own personal universe in her notebooks, and she’s perfectly content. The rest of the world just isn’t important.

I wondered to myself why she chose to join ExClub. But that’s none of my business, so I let it go. I did ask Warren about the girl sitting with Wu and her boyfriend. He said that was Julia Layton, and she’s indeed one of Wu’s lackeys. Her father’s a retired naval commander, and she has impossibly snooty standards. Well, so do I, when it comes to that.

Warren’s kind of a gossip-girl, ’cause he gave me the rundown on our fellow explorers even though he admitted he didn’t know them all that well. One of the boys with a serious, brooding look, is Donny Nakamura. Kind of cute, I guess, if you’re not put off by clinical depression. He had ear buds and was listening to something on his phone.

The other two boys were sitting and talking together. Jim diCamillo is skinny with wire-frame glasses and light brown hair that falls down over his forehead. Warren thinks his dad’s some kind of salesman. The boy with him is Mike Vasconsuellos, with black hair and, well, not exactly fat but boxy-looking. His face is more pocked than most kids our age, but I’d rank him as both earnest and honest. I trusted him at first glance. His family runs a food truck, Warren tells me.

The other two girls on the bus were busy on their phones, either texting or talking to friends. Serena Swann is impossibly tall and lanky, a black supermodel in the making. She didn’t so much walk as flow from place to place, like a silky ghost. She’s so physically perfect I could hate her instantly, except I don’t hate people without provocation.

Warren’s voice took on a different tone when he talked about her. Methinks he has a crush on her. Hopeless, of course—but isn’t that what crushes are?

Compared to Serena, Kim Trudlow looks positively stocky, though taken on her own she had a perfectly normal figure and a lovely face. Spiky black hair, bushy eyebrows, and at first I thought she looked entirely too serious for her own good. Then her friend on the phone said something to make her laugh, and she was transformed. I decided I liked her, after all.

The bus ride was nearly two hours. Warren told me that the Indian name for Stanyan Hill translated as something like “Mountain of the Lesser Gods,” and after that we ran out of trivial things to say, so he suggested a game of chess. Before I could decline, he whipped out his phone and had a game set up.

I was trapped. Truth is, Bianca, I’m lousy at chess. I know how all the pieces move, of course, but plotting moves and strategies way in advance is just not one of my talents. I know, I know, all famous people are supposed to be, like, smokin’ chess geniuses, so this is a handicap I’ll just have to overcome. Sometime. But that’s something for the future.

After just a couple of moves it was obvious I’m a blithering idiot at the game, and I’m sure it was almost painful for Warren to watch. And yet, I could see he was dumbing down his game so he wouldn’t embarrass me too badly. As we played, it slipped out that he was a finalist in the Chess Club tournament, which didn’t surprise me in the least. He did manage to string things out so it took him almost half an hour to beat me—mostly because I took so long between moves, trying to figure what to do next. Then, before I could back out of it, he tricked me into a second game.

I contrived to lose that one even faster, then begged off any more by saying I needed to dictate some notes. He accepted that—a little disappointed, I think—and went off to give me some privacy.

So here I am, telling you about a stupid school bus trip. I’ll write more when I actually have something to say. We’re almost there, so I’ll put this dumb machine away.

Your sister,

Tamara the Explorer

LETTER 3

 

Shit! Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!

We are screwed. Totally, royally screwed. I might almost say “raped,” but rape might at least have some element of the personal about it. This is just cold, implacable fate.

We’re all going to die here, unknown and alone except for the eleven of us. And it’s all my fault. And these aren’t even the people I’d have chosen to die with.

Okay, Tamara, calm down. Breathe a little bit. Focus. This isn’t the time or the place to panic. Even though it truly is, like, the perfect time and the perfect place.

Damn. I just tried to edit that stuff out, and I can’t. What kind of crappy software did they put in this recorder, that doesn’t have, like, an edit function?

Yeah, I know, it was supposed to be an alpha test. Doesn’t make me feel any better about it. Maybe it does have an edit feature, but I sure as hell can’t find it.

Okay, so I’ll just sit here and dictate this letter into my recorder. If the Voices let me. It beats screaming, or tearing my hair out. Or crying. God knows, no crying. How would it look to posterity if I spend my last hours, or days, crying?

Posterity? What posterity? Posterity will never even know I existed. I’ll be just one of eleven high school kids who vanished on a field trip. Period. Not even a footnote to history.

Breathe some more, Tamara. Calm down. You might as well do this report the way you decided to write it, before everything went to shit. I may die, but I’ll die doing what I promised myself I would. Be true to yourself, girl.

 

Hi Bianca,

 

This morning began beautifully, sun shining brightly in a clear blue sky. Perfect weather for a catastrophe.

(Stop it, Tamara! In order. Keep things in order.)

So anyway, we reached Stanyan Hill. Lesser gods, indeed. Turns out to be, like, a big mound of dirt and scrub in the desert, surrounded by flatter land with even more dirt and scrub. Its base is maybe two hundred yards at its widest point, and I’d guess it’s two, maybe three hundred feet high, with a rounded, weathered top that makes it look almost ashamed of itself for sticking out of the ground so conspicuously. If it were much bigger, geologists might have explored it more thoroughly as some kind of desert anomaly, but as it is, I guess it’s mostly fit for high school kids to climb around on.

I spread some sun screen on my arms and face as I listened to Mr. North cough his way through a canned safety lecture on how to behave ourselves. Stay in groups, good ol’ buddy system. He was finally facing up to how sick he was, and he wouldn’t leave the bus to come along with us. He and the driver would stay back here while the rest of the club went out unsupervised to climb over the face of the hill on our own.

Warren asked if I’d be his buddy, and looking over the other prospects I figured he was as good a bet as any. Most of the other people seemed to already have grouped themselves in some arrangement or another, probably echoing patterns from previous trips. Without any formal discussion—or any discussion at all, really—Jennifer Penney tagged along after Warren and me. She was never exactly “with” us, but she moved in the same direction and was never out of our sight. Every so often she’d stop and scribble in her notebook, as though some monumental insight suddenly struck her. Then she’d finish her thought and catch up with where we were going.

As to that—Warren asked if there was any specific formation or site I wanted to see, and I just shrugged. I know nothing about this place other than lesser gods seem to claim it, so everywhere was just as new as everywhere else. He said there was one spot he liked from previous trips, sort of a ledge about halfway up the eastern side of the hill, and it had a beautiful view of the desert spread out in front of you. That worried me for a second, because “ledge” sort of implies a cliff face, which in turn implies rock climbing. I don’t do rock climbing. But Warren assured me it was a fairly gentle slope up, and this ledge was just a level place before the rise started again. I said why not, so he began leading me up the hill.

Okay, so the nursery rhyme about Jack and Jill went through my head, except the scansion doesn’t work at all when you substitute “Warren” and “Tamara.” I tried not to think about the part where Warren fell down and broke his crown and Tamara came tumbling after.

And Jennifer Penney came up right along with us.

Okay, so by now you’ve probably guessed I’m not the rugged outdoorswoman type. We passed scruffy-looking plants and bushes, but I have no idea what they were. We walked past boulders and outcroppings, and I had no idea what they were, either. We could have been passing untold mineral wealth, ours for the taking. If so, someone else would get rich off it, not me.

It did make me realize how pathetic this report was going to be. I’d have no specifics about what I was seeing. Maybe the good thing is it made me decide that, if I go on any further explorations, I’ll try to learn more about biology and geology, so I can comment more intelligently next time.

Yeah, next time. Right. Fat lot of next times there’s going to be.

 

So anyway, we made it up to Warren’s ledge. Maybe the slope of the hill was a little steeper than I estimated, because it took us over an hour. I keep myself in reasonably good shape—not a gymnast, maybe, but I bike a lot—but I was definitely winded when I got up there. I was also feeling a little weird in a way I couldn’t identify. Not headache-y, not dizzy, not nausea. I’d almost say it was like double vision, but things had a single distinct edge. Just eerie. I tried not to let anything show.

Warren waved at the panorama laid out before us. The desert did look nice, and we were around on the other side of the hill so we didn’t have the sight of the bright yellow school bus to remind us of mundane things. I saw why he liked this spot.

A couple minutes later, Jennifer Penney joined us on this lookout point. She wasn’t breathing hard at all. I hated her for that. She didn’t even spend much time looking over the landscape. She just sat down, cross-legged on the ground, took a notebook out of her backpack, and began scribbling in it without a word to us.

Whatever.

It had been a long time since breakfast and the climb made me hungry, so I twisted around to get one of the sandwiches out of my backpack. As my head moved, I thought I saw a movement in the wall of hill behind us. I’m afraid I made a little surprised squeak—very embarrassing for someone as sophisticated as I am—and called Warren’s attention to the area. At first he didn’t see anything, and I was starting to think my mind was playing tricks on me. Then he aid, “What the hell is that?” and took a step closer.

There was an opening in the hill, and as Warren and I both stepped closer to look at it, he said, “It’s a cave. I don’t remember that being there.” So it wasn’t just my imagination.

I don’t remember seeing any movement, but Jennifer Penney was there, too. Standing right beside us. She was looking at the cave, too, not saying a word, then raising her notebook and scribbling frantically into it.

Warren took out his phone and showed me pictures of the way the ledge looked last time he was here. No cave that I could see. Then he put his hands around his mouth and called out, “Hey, everybody, I think we found something.”

I was barely paying attention. The back of my neck itched. Only it wasn’t the neck itself, it was more like inside my skull. And I could remember seeing the cave open up, like a door sliding silently to the left, like someone said “Open sesame” or something. And now the itch. And Jennifer Penney was scribbling even more frantically.

A couple other ExClub members shouted back, wondering what we’d found, and Warren gave a brief description of the cave. Within minutes, everyone was headed our way. I guess this was the most exciting thing people could imagine on Stanyan Hill. Given how bored everybody sounded yesterday, they all reacted like we’d offered them free ice cream cones. Their choice of flavor.

To distract myself while we waited for people to show up, I had one of my PBJs and some sips of my juice pack. Warren took out his phone and snapped a picture of the opening, then unpacked a sandwich from his own pack—looked and smelled like chicken salad. Jennifer just scribbled.

I just finished my sandwich as the first kids arrived, and naturally it was Linda Wu, Burke Hastings, and Julia Layton. Behind them were other kids, too, and pretty soon the whole club was standing there, looking at the cave mouth and gobbling like turkeys at the sight. The ledge hadn’t seemed particularly small when I first got there, but it was getting pretty crowded now.

I hadn’t realized it, but one of the unwritten duties of junior class v.p. was being boss of the ExClub excursion. Or maybe it was being in charge of caves and other unexplained phenomena. Whatever, she was almost instantly leading the discussion.

Was Warren really sure the cave hadn’t been there before? He was, and he happily showed her the photos, before and now, to prove it.

Had the cave mouth previously been blocked by some kind of boulder that rolled away in, oh, maybe an earthquake or something? Well, there was no boulder on the ledge with us, and a quick look down the hill showed nothing in that direction, either, that could have covered the opening. Wu didn’t bother with the hypothesis that the boulder might have rolled up the hill.

I didn’t mention my suspicion that I’d seen the cave slide open. I was already the new kid, and Wu didn’t like me anyway. No point making myself out to be a raving loony this early in the excursion. After all, the day was still young.

Meanwhile, my neck was really starting to bother me. You know how a fly will suddenly go crazy and start buzzing hopelessly against a window pane? It was like that, except down the neck of my blouse. Except this was inside the back of my skull, and the fly, like, really, really wanted to get out.

I hadn’t even realized I’d moved close to the opening until Wu sharply told me to get away from there, and I saw that my feet were almost inside the cave mouth. I heard my own voice saying, “It’s silly for us to argue here when we can just go inside and see for ourselves.”

Did I really say that? I always thought I was more level-headed.

We argued a little, with the other kids just watching us. Then she tried the ultimate argument, resorting to a Higher Authority. She pulled out her phone and tried calling Mr. North. (Of course she had his number programmed in.) But there was no answer.

She was making all the arguments I should have been making. The arguments I would have been making if there wasn’t the buzzing in my skull. Some part of me knew she was right. Why wasn’t I listening to her? Was it just because she tried to change my name to a diminutive?

Instead, I took a step closer to the cave mouth.

She told me not to be stupid, that it was dark in that cave. In answer, I just shrugged one shoulder out of my backpack and moved it around in front of me, fumbled inside, and took out my flashlight. I held it up in triumph, then slipped the pack back around my shoulders and stepped forward into the darkness of the cave.

That one step nearly made me turn back. The cave suddenly felt very dark very fast. Some light filtered in from the cave mouth, but it seemed almost like I’d crossed into the nether world. The day was still warm, even in the cave’s antechamber, but I shivered.

Then Warren stepped in beside me. He had a flashlight, too… only he bothered to turn his on instead of just waving it around like a stick, the way I had.

So, belatedly, I turned my own flashlight on, too, and shone it around. I’ve been to Shenandoah Caverns on a family vacation back when I was a little kid (no Bianca, you weren’t there, you’d already left us before that), and though I don’t remember a lot about it, I know what the inside of a cave looks like. Rock walls, maybe some embedded minerals in the rock glowing back in the light. Stalactites and stalagmites, probably not close to the entrance, but a little further on. Of course, since this wasn’t a tourist attraction, it wouldn’t look as perfectly neat as the one in Virginia. Probably not as big, either.

This was, like, a room. A vestibule, to be a little more precise, an antechamber. I’ve heard of houses in wetter climates that have a mud room where you can wipe the muck off your shoes before coming into the actual house. This felt like that.

It seemed pretty square, maybe ten feet on a side and seven feet high. There was no furniture or other details, just plain white walls.

Warren’s eyes were wide. “Somebody built this!”

He may have intended his voice to be soft and filled with awe, but it carried quite well. Wu, still outside, asked what he was talking about, and he told her this was a regular room, built by regular people. Given that kind of teaser, she of course had to come in and see for herself. She had a flashlight too, naturally, and the three of us shone our lights around, proving pretty conclusively that this was an empty room.

“Who did this?” she wondered.

I had no more idea than she did, but I moved to the back wall, opposite the opening. I reached my hand out to touch it and, wonder of wonders, part of the wall—an inner door, I guess—slid open to reveal a greater dark emptiness beyond.

We all gasped. I’m not sure what I expected—I honestly don’t remember expecting anything—but it sure as hell wasn’t that. I shone my beam inside, but it didn’t hit anything. The light diffused in the air, but there was still mostly darkness beyond the door. Warren and Wu did the same, to no better result. Whatever was beyond the doorway, it was bigger than a simple flashlight beam could easily show.

I took another step forward, and Wu grabbed my arm. She told me in no uncertain terms that we were way beyond our depth here and we should wait for permission before going any further. Because this place was obviously artificial, we were probably trespassing. The school had gotten permission for us to explore Stanyan Hill, probably public land. A building inside that hill was another matter entirely.

Her voice was competing with that angrily buzzing fly inside my skull. And losing.

But Warren, nerd that he was, came to my rescue. We were the Explorers Club, he said. We were explorers. We should explore. There weren’t any “No Trespassing” signs posted, no “Danger, Do Not Touch.” Nothing had been locked, it all just opened to us. Even if we were trespassing, and somebody grabbed us and took us into court, we were just ignorant kids. What could they do to us? Send a nasty letter to our folks? Have a judge give us a stern talking to?

They could shoot us out of hand and settle the matter later, Wu pointed out. What if this was some top secret government installation, a new Area 51 even the Internet didn’t know about? Maybe they could make us disappear and no one would ever hear from us again.

Meanwhile, the other kids were coming in the door behind us, wondering what was happening. The room was getting pretty crowded, and I didn’t think we’d all fit. Flashes were going off as people took pictures of the anteroom.

I felt almost sorry for Wu. She was trying her damnedest to be the responsible one here, really she was. And normally I’d be doing the same. Famous people keep their heads in unusual situations, don’t they?

But she had the same Pandora gene most girls do. She wanted to know what was in here just as much as I did. And she didn’t have that damned buzzing fly in her skull.

After a minute, I took the step into the darkness. And all she ended up saying was, “Don’t touch anything.”

Warren came in right beside me, shining his light around. Behind us, by ones and twos, all the other kids stepped into the darkness, too. There were so many beams of light it looked like some miniature scene of an old-time movie premiere.

At first I thought we were in a tunnel. I could see walls to the left and right of us reflecting back our beams, but nothing in front as far as our lights could reach. Then I could see the white walls on either side, and I realized we were in a hallway. A pretty long hallway.

And I started coughing. I looked down and saw my feet were kicking up dust. So were everyone else’s. Lots and lots of dust. Whatever this place was, the cleaning crew hadn’t been here in, like, forever.

All the other kids were coughing right along with me. After a moment’s thought, I checked in my backpack and brought out a kerchief I tied over my nose and mouth like a bandit in an old Western. Seeing my example, a few other kids found similar protection, but Warren and Wu were both out of luck and had to settle for covering their faces with their hands—not nearly as effective.

I commented to Wu that if this was some secret government base, they’d let the maintenance contract lapse. Then I shone my light on the floor ahead of us, where we hadn’t stepped yet. There weren’t any footprints. Nobody’d been here for a very long time. She caught the implication, and nodded. We moved slowly on.

For twenty or thirty feet, the walls were bare white, and they were petty well covered with dust, too. There was no decoration, no pictures or writing or any type of identification. The only signs of life were spider webs. Plenty of them, so I assumed there were plenty of other little insects for the spiders to eat. I can just be full of these clever little insights when I set my mind to it.

Then we came to a door. It was closed. I and everyone else shone our lights on it and around it. It was shaped like a pointed archway, maybe eight feet tall and three wide. There was no sign on, above, or beside the doorway, nothing to indicate what the door led to. The door had no knob or button, no obvious way to open it. A couple of the boys tried pushing against it or sliding it aside, but it wouldn’t budge. We talked and speculated as a group. No one had any ideas we thought were at all useful. People flashed pictures on their phones. Eventually we moved further down the corridor.

Twenty or thirty feet down, we came to another arched doorway, again closed, again with no way to identify it, and again with no way to get it open. The people who built this place must’ve had good memories, someone suggested, so they’d know what each room was for without a sign. “That, or good maps,” Julia Layton suggested. “Or maybe the maps were stored in their phones or something.”

We came to a third door, then a fourth, and all were identical as far as we could tell. For something that started out as promising as a hidden cave, this was rapidly getting monotonous. Even Wu seemed bored by the whole thing.

But there was still that buzzing fly in the back of my head. I didn’t know what it meant or what it wanted, but it wasn’t done with me yet.

Finally we came to a circular ramp that spiraled down into the ground, wide enough for three of us to walk abreast. No steps, but it was pretty steep and there was a banister of sorts along both the inside and outside of the path. We stood around the upper edge and looked down. The ramp disappeared into darkness below, and even our flashlights weren’t enough to reveal what might be at the bottom.

We stopped and looked at one another. Several people, myself included, wanted to continue our exploration and find out what this place really was. Wu argued that we could leave right now, write our reports, and get full credit for a job well done. I countered that this place was long abandoned and presented no danger. Wu said there might be a good reason why the place was deserted. “What about radiation?” she said. “That would explain why a perfectly good and obviously expensive building was just abandoned in the middle of the desert for no reason we can see.”

I settled the argument definitively. I started down the ramp. Wu reached out to grab my arm again, but she was a second too late. Not wanting to be left behind, she reluctantly followed me.

Ramps are supposed to be easy. I mean, they make them for wheelchair patients, right? But this one was so steep I had to hold onto the railing to keep my balance. It made my knees hurt, too, because I had to take short steps and plant my feet just right to keep myself erect.

About fifteen feet down, we reached a landing. Off to the right was another corridor looking just like the one we’d just traveled. But below us, the spiral ramp continued down into further blackness.

Wu waved her arm to indicate the corridor on our right and said—snidely, I thought—“Do you want to explore that corridor too?”

“No,” I told her, “I want to go further down.”

“You’re crazy!” she said, staring at me disbelieving.

I think I must have been. What’s worse, I was stupid. I can look back on that and see it so clearly now. But right then, right there, all I knew was that I had to go further down the ramp.

I started further down. Wu seemed shocked out of her mind at my defiant lunacy. Before she could grab me—or, more likely, order her boyfriend or one of the other boys to grab me—Warren jumped ahead of her, following me down. He called back over his shoulder that she and the others should wait there for us, but I was his buddy, and he’d go with me to keep me from getting into trouble.

If only. But at least it kept Wu frozen in place long enough for me to continue on my way.

I went further down, clutching the railing, with Warren close at my heels. The steep slope of he ramp was as hard for him as it was for me, but he came on with fierce determination. I think he may have called for me to wait up, but I didn’t listen. If eyes can really be glazed, I think mine must have been. All I knew was I had to go down the ramp.

We reached another landing, and I stopped. To my right was another corridor. The ramp continued spiraling down ahead of me. I shined my flashlight both ways. Then I turned right into the hallway, following my own personal yellow brick road. Warren was right beside me. He was nattering cheerily about something but, to be honest, I don’t know what it was. The buzzing in my skull drowned him out.

We passed another closed door. I stopped beside it, looking at the blank wall, then reached out a finger and traced “Tamara Ruben” in the dust. I stared at it. But writing my name in the dust wasn’t going to make me famous. All it got me was a smile from Warren and a dirty finger, which I wiped off on my jeans. Then Warren stepped forward, drew a big-nosed figure peeking over a wall and wrote beneath it, “Kilroy was here.” I vaguely remember hearing something about that somewhere, but I don’t recall its importance.

We walked past three more closed doors without even stopping. Then there was a long interval on the wall before the next one. Only this door was open.

Warren and I both stopped and looked at one another. Then we looked into the darkness of the room beyond the doorway and shined our lights into it. There was nothing to see close to the entrance. For what seemed like hours we said nothing. Then I told him to run back and get the rest of our team while I waited there for them.

He double-checked that I’d wait right there, and I assured him I would. So off he went, at a fast trot. It wasn’t hard to backtrack, just follow the trail we’d made in the dust.

Gullible fool. I waited till I could no longer see the beam of his flashlight, then headed into the room beyond the open door.

Brave Tamara. Maybe they’ll put that on my headstone. If I ever get a headstone.

The room was big; I could tell that by shining my light across to the opposite wall. It was also empty. Nothing marred the pristine carpet of dust on the floor. I wondered vaguely how long it would take to accumulate a layer of dust that thick. I mean, this was way more than an inch. Without some special source, we were talking way more than weeks, or even years. Start thinking in terms of decades, centuries.

But no, that couldn’t be right. These walls looked and felt like some modern material. They didn’t have that a century or more ago. Not that I’m an expert on architecture or materials technology, but still. Damn, I wished Dad was there right then. He’s an engineer, he could pin this stuff down a lot better than I could.

But I think I’m temporizing, looking back from the point of now onto the point of then. Was I thinking cogently at that particular moment? Almost certainly not. I was moving, without much rational thought at all.

I know I entered the room with my back against the side of the left-hand wall. And I waved the beam of my flashlight back and forth, making sure I didn’t have any unexpected company. At least I wasn’t that irrational. Nothing was going to creep up from behind me.

As I said, the room was empty. No furniture, no people, no designs either on the opposite wall, on the floor or ceiling, or on the wall at my back. There was just me and my flashlight in a very big, very dark, very quiet room. No footprints in the dust to prove anyone had walked here in recent memory. I was unquestionably alone.

A thought chilled me. What if something flew in here? Maybe a flock of bats or something? Would that leave the dust on the ground undisturbed?

But my flashlights showed lots of spider webs, and they weren’t disturbed, either. Flying creatures would probably have disturbed them, somehow. Or eaten the spiders. No, I was alone in here. I was almost positive of that.

I reached the far wall and a door in one of the pointed archways slid silently open into a room beyond that. I jumped. I was pretty sure I’d seen the outer door of the cave slide open, but that was just from the corner of my eye. This was an outright invitation. I might have expected Lurch the butler to welcome me to my doom.

Then I forced myself to calm down. There wasn’t anybody here. I probably tripped an electric eye or a floor plate or something. I’d survived this far, might as well take the leap beyond this. I shined my light inside the doorway, expecting to see a bare floor beyond that as well.

Instead, there was a seat planted firmly in the floor, looking something like an acceleration couch in a jet cockpit. It faced the far wall, its back toward me, but as I craned my neck side to side I could see there was some kind of figure sitting in the couch. And there was a greenish glow coming from the creature. My flashlight almost drowned out that extra illumination, so I turned it off for a second to check.

The glow was weak, but there.

Never let it be said that Tamara Ruben demonstrates great powers of discretion at times of crisis. I left the wall and moved into the center of the room, right up to the couch.

I turned my flashlight back on and shined it about the room as I walked. Still plenty of dust on the floor, but no spider webs I could see. Had the place been sealed off so tightly even spiders had trouble getting in?

Question: How had this figure gotten onto the couch without disturbing the dust around it? Answer: It had gotten on before the dust accumulated on the floor. This person had been here for a really long time.

As I reached the couch, I examined the figure on it more carefully. It was a skeleton in a jumpsuit, a uniform. But not a human skeleton. I’d only seen a real one hanging from a stand in a bio lab, though of course I’d seen lots of pictures and movies. And of course, at Halloween, though those usually look fake. This was subtly but demonstrably different.

The uniform was mostly sea-foam green, with decorative patches of red or blue on the chest and sleeves. It was a one-piece jumpsuit, with boots on the feet and gloves on the hands. The only opening was at the neck, where the skull came out.

The creature was no taller than I am, maybe even a bit shorter; it’s hard to tell because it was lying on the couch. It had two arms and two legs, but they seemed a little shorter than a human’s would be, and it had a barrel chest that would have made it appear stocky. The limbs were joined funny, like they bent a little wrong. The skull was smaller than a human of that height might have, though it wasn’t exactly a pinhead. The eye sockets looked too small. There were no ears or nose, but human skulls don’t exactly have those, either. Cartilage rather than bone.

Then I did the one smart thing I did all day. I took my phone out of my pocket and snapped a picture of the skeleton in the jumpsuit. I don’t think it was a conscious decision. My eyes were focused on one specific detail—a globe about the size of a softball lying on the being’s lap. This globe, smooth and featureless, was the source of the greenish glow I’d noticed. My eyes focused so hard on this ball I could scarcely breathe.

I put my phone back in my pocket. Then I reached out to grab the glowing globe…

 

End of Sample

*]

 

PROLOG: SOMEWHERE IN THE QUASIVERSE

 

The light entering the snow globe mine was dimming as dusk darkened the amber sky. The mine’s owner peered out with growing apprehension. He was dressed in plain brown work clothes and heavy boots. His unevenly trimmed beard had just a few touches of gray. “This is what I was worried about. Jean-Claude Slipovitz has found us and we’re trapped in here. There’s only one way out. What are we going to do?”

The pale-skinned woman in the mine with him, seemingly in her late twenties, was stick-thin and in constant motion as she paced the confines of the tunnel like a hyperactive leopard on speed. Her clothes were brilliant hues of orange and blue, and even in the mine’s dim light they glowed with a phosphorescence of their own. Her bright red topknot resembled a fountain of hair shooting out the top of her head.

“I was in a similar situation once in Vermilion,” she said. “Trapped by myself in a butter mine with an army of fifty bad guys outside, screaming for blood.”

“What did you do?” the man asked her.

“Called in my posse of a hundred good guys to wipe them out.”

The miner sounded exasperated. “But we don’t have a posse.”

The woman brushed that objection aside with a broad wave of her hand. “Scarcely relevant. I don’t have a phone, either.”

“Look, I hired you to protect me and the mine from that claimjumper.”

“You and the mine are both still here,” the woman pointed out.

“Not for long, unless you do something.”

The woman considered. “We should take stock. The Handbook says that’s always a good thing to do.”

“What handbook?”

The Scout’s Handbook. All the Quasiverse scouts use it.”

“It give good advice?”

The woman only shrugged. “Not always. I wrote it.”

“What’s to take stock of, anyway? There’s you and me and some drilling equipment.”

“Maybe we could drill him.”

“We’d have to get him right at the drill point. He ain’t that stupid.”

“Well, how stupid is he, then?”

The miner sounded even more exasperated. “They told me you were the best, but all you’ve done so far is eat my food and drink my liquor. Now, when Jean-Claude shows up, you’re useless.”

“Speaking of liquor, have you got any stashed in here?” the woman asked.

“You drank the last of it three days ago.”

“What about drugs?” the woman with the erupting red topknot persisted. “I could really use some outers about now.”

“Useless,” the miner said, throwing up his hands. “Absolutely useless.”

“Which ‘they’ were you talking to about me? I know lots of ‘theys,’ and some of them aren’t as informed as others.”

“Come on out of there,” Jean-Claude Slipovitz called from outside. “No need for anyone to get hurt. I promise not to kill you if you surrender peaceably.”

“That’s one solution,” the woman said. “This isn’t a very good mine, anyway.”

The miner bristled. “Whaddaya mean?”

The woman stopped pacing and leaned against one wall of the mine tunnel. Her elbow rested on a snow globe of Santa’s Workshop. She pointed to a snow globe beside it showing the Hollywood sign. “Low quality product. Look at this spelling.”

“What’s wrong with it? It’s spelled right.”

“But the real sign doesn’t have a lower-case ‘d.’ And this elf in the workshop here has three legs.”

“Elves are mythical,” the miner snorted. “They can have as many legs as they want!”

“Plus, the globes lack verisimilitude.”

“Very what?”

“I don’t think it snows inside Santa’s Workshop. Bad for the toys. And I don’t think it snows much on the Hollywood sign, either.”

“I spent four years diggin’ this mine. I ain’t givin’ it up to no claimjumper,” the miner told her. “Besides, Slipovitz’ll kill us the instant we set foot outside.”

“He will?”

“Slipovitz never kept a promise in his life.”

The woman pondered. “Oh. Not an optimal solution, then.”

“That’s the first smart thing you’ve said.”

“Do you have any suggestions?” the woman asked.

“Yeah. Shoot ’im.”

“Well I would, if you could get him to hold still.”

“He’s standing perfectly still.”

“He is?” The woman peered outside the cave mouth into the evening gloom. “Oh. Maybe he is. Then I guess that proves the other hypothesis: It’s the Earth that’s moving.”

“You did bring a gun, didn’t you?”

“Of course.” The woman reached into a pocket and pulled out an object just three inches long.

“What kind of a gun is that?”

The woman stared analytically, turning the weapon over in her hand. “Looks like a popgun to me.”

The miner practically spat. “What the hell good is a popgun?”

“I’ll assume you’re not just asking rhetorically,” the woman said. “If you want something to pop, it’s perfect. Watch.”

She braced her right arm against the cave wall and held the arm steady with her left hand. She bent her head down and squinted along the three-inch barrel, taking aim at the figure of Jean-Claude Slipovitz. Her index finger moved only slightly as she squeezed the trigger.

“What happened?” the miner asked.

“I shot him.”

“No you didn’t. He’s still standing there.”

“Is he?” The woman peered out at the figure of the still-standing claimjumper.

“Your little popgun didn’t even make a sound.”

“Oh,” said the woman. Then, “Pop.”

“I expect a lot more for my money than you saying a little ‘pop.’”

“Okay,” said the woman. “BANG!”

“Look, that crook’s not going to fall over just because you say ‘pop’ or ‘bang.’”

“Of course not,” the woman agreed. “That would be silly. It’s a certifiable fact that the sound a weapon makes has no bearing on its efficaciousness. Or is that ‘efficacity’?” She began pacing around in the mine shaft some more, bouncing randomly from one direction to another. “You sure you don’t have any drugs in here?”

“I’d ask for my money back,” the miner grumbled, “but we’ll both be dead in a few minutes anyway, so what’s the point?”

Outside, a small red hole appeared on Jean-Claude Slipovitz’s shirt. He jerked backward and fell over, dead.

“Cosmic!” the woman exclaimed happily.

The miner’s jaw fell open. “I don’t believe it! What happened?”

“I told you. I shot him.”

The miner looked incredulously at the tiny weapon in his companion’s hand. “What kind of ammo does that thing shoot, anyway?”

The thin woman with the red topknot and colorful clothes looked at him triumphantly and said, “Slow bullets.”

CHAPTER 1: DEPARTURE

 

The Secretary of the Quasiverse Settlement Administration sat in his New York office, trying to project measured confidence. The surroundings radiated calm assurance: rich walnut wood-grained walls; a large, though not ostentatious, desk with inset monitor; a dignified pen set with totally unnecessary blotter. There was a picture of himself, all chummy with the president, hanging strategically on the wall behind him. People seeing this image were supposed to be reassured, and maybe a little intimidated. The Secretary was obviously an influential and important man.

The person at the other end of the line in Los Angeles, though, was not assuaged by these trappings. Daniel Rosenthal, an influential and important man himself, was pacing the room in a combination of fury and panic. The Secretary couldn’t see what was on the walls behind him; the camera tracked him, and never stayed still long enough. Rosenthal moved with such agitation the background was little more than a blur.

“She’s just a little girl, for Christ’s sake,” Rosenthal was saying, running his hand through his hair for perhaps the fifth time this conversation.

“She’s over eighteen, isn’t she?” the Secretary said, even though he knew calm, reasoned tones wouldn’t work on a distraught father.

“Twenty-four, and a college graduate,” Rosenthal said, waving the Secretary’s words away dismissively. “What’s that got to do with anything? She’s my little girl. You’ve got daughters. You know what it’s like.”

The Secretary breathed deeply and evenly, trying to set the tone of patient reason. Yes, and I had the good sense to steer them into sensible careers. Lainie’s a patent attorney, Julie’s a pediatrician, and both are thankfully married and settled down with kids. That was what he wanted to say, but he was too much of a diplomat to say it.

“How did all this happen, anyway?” is what he did say. “Last time we talked it sounded like everything was going smoothly. Didn’t you tell me Martia had a job at one of your companies?”

Rosenthal chuffed. “Yeah, second assistant general manager at my central offices. Not so high it looked like nepotism, but on a firm career path, engaged to a good-looking boy rising in the firm. Her job reviews were excellent. I had my security vet the boy, and they thought he looked good. Everything was perfect. Then bang! The boy skips back to Italy with a couple billion in company secrets, the engagement’s broken, Martia’s in tears, and the next thing I hear, she’s signed up for the goddamned Quasi Corps. Christ on a pogo stick, how’s a father supposed to keep up with a girl these days?”

The Secretary deliberately did not bridle at Rosenthal’s slighting reference to his agency. Rosenthal was too big a contributor to the president and the party to allow that. “Can I do anything to help?” he asked calmly.

“You can get her out of this damned thing, that’s what you can do.”

“Sorry, Dan, but no.” The Secretary spread his hands. “That’s one thing I can’t do. You know how bad it looks when a chief executive starts messing in petty personnel matters way below his station. Raises all sorts of hackles and red flags. Even something perfectly innocent starts to look sordid and tawdry.”

“Well, what about a job in your office?”

The Secretary almost winced. He was already staffed out the window with home office jobs filled by appointments for friends. There weren’t enough shoehorns in all of New York to squeeze in another, particularly for a young rich girl mooning over a broken love affair. “I’m well past quota there, Dan.”

“Well, what good are you, then?” Meaning, why did I donate all those millions?

“You haven‘t been able to talk her out of it?”

“She says her mind’s made up. I learned those code words years ago.”

“Well, she’s of age and supposedly knows her own mind. Yes, I know, what father thinks his daughter truly does? Still, that’s what the law says, and we have to abide by it. The QSA has trouble enough recruiting people as it is. We have to hold them to it when we get them, at least for the minimum three-year term.”

“Yeah,” Rosenthal said bitterly, “But how many ever come back?”

The Secretary felt on firm statistical footing here. “Don’t listen to the exaggerations in the press, Dan. Fully sixty-eight percent come home from their first tour, and twenty-seven percent more either re-enlist or stay in the Quasiverse in some other capacity. There’s a great settlement bonus, you know. It’s a successful program.”

Rosenthal snorted. “She doesn’t need the pennies you’d call a settlement bonus. And there’s a few percent unaccounted for, there.”

“Four point eight,” said the Secretary with a shrug. “Accidents and misadventures. They can happen anywhere, even New York or L.A.”

“If five percent of the people who went to New York died in accidents, they’d call it a calamity.”

“It’s a frontier, Dan. Give me a break. If only five percent of the Old West settlers died in their first three years, it’d be the most successful settlement in history.”

“So more than thirty percent of the people you send out never come back, and you call that a success. And that’s just your employees. What about settlers? How many of them come back?”

The Secretary hesitated. “Well, they intended to go out permanently, so—”

“Right. And of the sixty-eight percent who do come home, how many are the same as when they left? All body parts intact? More important, their minds?”

“It’s impossible to quantify statistics like that.”

“Jeez, you hear stories of nervous breakdowns, insanity, permanent psychoses—”

“You’re working yourself into a state over something neither of us can prevent. But there are some things we can do.”

Rosenthal stopped in mid-rant, blinking. “Huh? What?”

“There are two things that help someone survive out there. The same two things that help them survive anywhere, in fact—money and power. Martia has money of her own, right?”

“She got her grandmother’s trust when she turned eighteen, not to mention her shares in my companies. Last year she was ranked the thirty-fourth richest person under age twenty-five.”

“I thought it was something like that. Let me tell you what I can do. No, I can’t wrap her in cotton batting and keep all the bogeymen away, but I’ve got the next best thing. While we’ve been talking, I’ve been going through the agency’s records to find the perfect situation for her. We can send her to Burgundy.”

“France?”

“No, it’s a town in the Quasiverse. It’s made to order for you—probably the dullest place out there. Not a peep out of it since it was settled. The legate’s reports are all short and uneventful. He’s never requisitioned any extra help. Everything goes smoothly, never a hint of trouble.”

Rosenthal furrowed his brow. “Well—”

“And just to make sure nothing goes wrong I’ll appoint Martia the sub-legate. Second-in-command of a town where nothing ever happens. If anything drives her crazy, it’ll be boredom. She’ll be perfectly safe, it’s a quiet post. Trust me.”

[]

“I still don’t see why you have to go to that horrible place,” Elaine, Martia’s stepmother, said with a sniff. She did not, of course, bother to meet Martia’s eyes.

Martia Rosenthal sighed. She’d been doing that a lot in the past few months since Carlo’s betrayal. “I told you what Dr. Shigeta said.”

“Yes, yes, you’re depressed over that Italian boy and you have to get away. But it’s easier to get away to Paris, or Tahiti, or even the real Burgundy. At least there they have good vineyards and decent wine. Not like that place that tries to fool you by taking the name of somewhere real.”

That wasn’t all Dr. Shigeta had said. He’d suggested she make a clean break from her parents for a while as well, to snap her out of the depression. But Martia wasn’t about to tell her stepmother that.

Instead, she tried to deflect the conversation. “They’re not trying to fool people, Mother. The U.S. names all its Quasiverse colony towns after colors, so they won’t offend anyone.”

“I swear, for the fortune you pay that quack, I could have found you a much better therapist.”

Why do you think I chose him[_?_] Martia wanted to say. And as for the “fortune” she was spending, she could have paid Dr. Shigeta’s weekly fee for a thousand years without scratching the surface of the trust fund from her maternal grandmother. So she just shrugged and remained silent.

If she ever needed tangible proof she was depressed, she only had to look around her. She’d eaten here at the Garden Court of the Sheraton Palace Hotel many times when she visited San Francisco, and normally thought the place beautiful and refined. But today, the splendor of the arched skylight and the elegant golden chandeliers left her unmoved—and she’d barely glanced into the bar at the gorgeous Maxfield Parrish Pied Piper painting. Any therapist would have diagnosed that as depression.

Martia’s father decided to enter the conversation. “But you have to admit, Princess, there are all those stories about people coming back from the Quasiverse stark, raving crazy.”

Another shrug. “A few. People go crazy in L.A. too, Daddy. And in Paris, and in Tahiti. If it happens, Mother can send me to one of those real psychiatrists she just bragged about.” Elaine insisted on Martia calling her “Mother,” as though trying to erase Martia’s real mother from existence. Although, in truth, Martia’s real mother was doing a credible job of that on her own.

“And as for taking that silly stuffed monkey along—” Elaine began.

“Excuse me,” Martia said, standing. “I need to visit the restroom.”

Martia sat in the stall for long minutes after she finished peeing, leaning forward with her elbows on her thighs, her head in her hands. How many more minutes would she have to endure before she got away? Nobody could understand what she was going through, how stupid she felt about what happened. Not her family; her father kept telling her it wasn’t her fault, even his security team was fooled by Carlo, while Elaine kept going on about how European men were slimy and couldn’t be trusted. Not Ronnie, her best friend from college, who’d gotten married and popped out two babies in quick succession; she simply couldn’t get her head out of the nursery. And definitely not May, who thought the answer to all problems was a long orgy of fashion buying at the most expensive boutiques-du-jour.

Oddly enough, it was her mother who suggested the path she took. Not directly, of course; she hadn’t had personal contact with Mom in well over a year. But Shirley’s latest blog on ways to save the world had been titled “The Quasi Corps: Making Sense out of Nonsense, Order out of Chaos.” And suddenly, Martia knew what to do.

But sitting here wasn’t doing it. With a sigh, she finished up and left the restroom.

When she got back to the table, she was composed again. “I think we’d better be leaving now, Daddy,” she said. “I want to be sure we get to the station in plenty of time.”

Both her parents rose. “You know I’d love to go with you,” her stepmother said, “but I did promise to go shopping with Berta Feingold in Union Square today.”

“I’ll be fine, Mother,” Martia said. Elaine’s air kisses didn’t even come close to Martia’s cheeks.

[]

The sun shone brightly outside the Contra Costa County Quasiverse Tunnel Station, otherwise known as the Concord Quasiverse Tunnel Station, otherwise known as the Mt. Diablo Quasiverse Tunnel Station, otherwise known as the Herman C. Gutierrez Quasiverse Tunnel Station, otherwise known locally as the East Quasi Tunnel Station. For many, it was more than fitting it should be called so many things, given that it opened into an area of such high volatility.

This was the smaller of the two West Coast tunnels in North America. It accessed, at present, only thirteen active nodes—as opposed to the Mt. Tamalpais Quasiverse Tunnel Station, otherwise known as the Marin County Quasiverse Tunnel Station, otherwise known as the North Bay Quasiverse Tunnel Station, otherwise known as the James “Sunny” Corcoran Quasiverse Tunnel Station, otherwise known locally as the North Quasi Tunnel Station, which accessed no fewer than thirty-four nodes and seemed to be acquiring a new one a month.

If Martia had been in a jollier mood, she might have thought this was a very propitious day to begin her new life. The sky was blue and cloudless, the air was warm with but the light hint of a cooling breeze to keep it from being oppressive. The crowd at the station was busy, but not obnoxiously packed with people. The depot itself still had the new-building look of chrome and glass—lots of glass on three sides, with the fourth side abutting the mountain.

But Martia hadn’t been feeling jolly for over three months. All days were gloomy, regardless of the weather, which she took no notice of; she was from L.A., where all days were supposed to be sunny and temperate as a matter of course. All buildings worth visiting were new and shiny. And Mt. Diablo didn’t look like a real mountain anyway. Mountains were supposed to be tall and conical, whereas Mt. Diablo looked from a distance like some enormous Bactrian camel that had knelt to rest and then stubbornly refused to get up again.

Martia’s six large trunks—five packed with clinical precision by her stepmother and one, a little less precisely, by herself—had already been taken inside the train and stowed until she reached her destination. Her rolling suitcase—which she’d packed herself and had her day-to-day clothes for the journey—was by her side, handle in her hand. Her two-and-a-half-foot tall stuffed monkey—not furry, but blue and white gingham except for the red left arm that had been repaired years ago—clung to her left side with its long arms stretched around her right shoulder. As far as she was concerned, she was more than ready to be away.

“You’re sure I can’t talk you out of this?” her father said.

“Y-e-s-s,” Martia said with exaggerated slowness.

“Well, can I at least talk you out of taking that silly monkey with you? I agree with Elaine, it makes you look like a little girl.”

“Oh Daddy. I’m going to a new place. It’s not like I’ll be taking her out on the street or to the legation with me. She’ll just be a private, friendly face.”

Her father grimaced and looked about to launch into another of his litany of complaints about her choice. Martia looked up and decided now would be the perfect time to indulge her strategy. “Oh, look at that line for inspections. Do I have to wait in that with all those people?”

Mr. Rosenthal followed her gaze, and scowled. “You most certainly do not,” he said emphatically. “You’re the new sub-legate for Burgundy. You don’t have to stand around like riffraff.” He stalked off toward the gate where the security guards were screening the prospective passengers.

Martia watched him go, and a tight smile briefly curled at the corners of her mouth. She bent her head down close to the monkey’s ear and whispered, “I think it’s going to work.”

‘I hope so,” the monkey whispered back. “I don’t want to get left behind.”

“Shhh. We don’t want anyone to hear you. That’d screw everything up.”

The monkey went back to its silent clinging.

Mr. Rosenthal began talking to one of the security officers. Soon a second officer became involved. Then a third officer joined the discussion. Mr. Rosenthal never yelled; men like him never needed to yell at hired staff. But his body language became more animated. He waved his arms a couple of times. He showed the officers Martia’s paperwork. He pointed three times to specific wording. The third officer took the papers, scanned them closely, then nodded slowly. She handed the papers back to Mr. Rosenthal and pointed to a door in the right-hand wall. Mr. Rosenthal nodded appreciatively, turned and walked back to Martia.

“Well, Princess,” he said when he reached her, “they finally agreed that the sub-legate deserves diplomatic immunity and they have no right to search you. You’re to use the VIP boarding lounge over here, and no one’ll bother you.”

Fighting hard not to show the relief she felt, Martia dropped the handle of her suitcase, wrapped an arm up around her father’s neck and gave him a heartfelt kiss. “Thanks, Daddy. You’re terrific.”

Mr. Rosenthal blushed and smiled. He could almost forget how upset he was at his daughter’s decision to go away.

Martia picked up the wheeled suitcase’s handle with her left hand and gripped her father’s hand with her right, then walked with him to the door of the VIP lounge. They stopped there awkwardly, and Martia said, “I guess this is where we have to say goodbye.”

“I guess so,” he said, almost sheepishly.

She stood on tiptoe and kissed him again. “Don’t worry, Daddy. It’s only three years. I’ll be home before you know it. I’ll make you proud, I promise.”

Mr. Rosenthal gave a wan smile. “I know you will, Princess.”

Martia went up to the door and showed her papers to the officer there. The man’s brows knit. “You’re MAR-tee-uh?”

Martia gave the smallest of sighs. “Like ‘Martian,’” she said by rote, “without the ‘n,’”

She turned back and smiled confidently at her father. Then she went through the door and vanished from his sight.

[]

Apparently, not a lot of VIPs traveled from this station into the Quasiverse, because the lounge was pretty spartan. There were only three chairs—admittedly more luxurious than the institutional ones in the main depot—a large clock on the wall, a water fountain, and a door across the room from where she’d entered. So much for special accommodations. But at least she wouldn’t have her belongings searched, which was the point of this exercise.

Martia settled into the green leather chair closest to the exit door. The Imbecile’s Guide to the Quasiverse was zipped into the outside pocket of her suitcase, but she didn’t bother taking it out. She’d already skimmed it once and expected to read it a couple more times during the trip to Burgundy, but wasn’t in the mood right now. She let the false shine of optimism slide off her face, to be replaced by the sour look of depression that had lived there for months. She sat unmoving for over an hour, until a bright young man, maybe a couple years younger than she was, appeared in the doorway and told her it was time to board. Listlessly, she stood up and followed him through the door.

“Welcome aboard, Madame Sub-legate,” the young man said cheerily. “My name is Richard, and I’ll be one of the staff serving you on this journey to Burgundy. May I carry your bag for you today?”

“No, thanks. I can roll it on my own.”

“Very well. What a cute monkey you have. Have you ever visited the Quasiverse before?”

“No,” Martia said glumly.

“I thought you looked pretty young. Well, be prepared to have your mind blown. You’re in for a great adventure.”

“So everyone tells me.”

“I don’t get to see very much of it myself, these train runs keep me busy, but I hear plenty of stories.”

He led her down a pale green hall that ended at an open metal doorway. “Please watch your step over the gap. Make sure your suitcase wheels don’t get stuck. There we go. Your compartment is in Car Two, just a short trip up the passage here. Sorry it’s a bit narrow—they forgot the word ‘spacious’ when they designed this train. Still, it’s hard to get lost—everything’s either forward or back.

“Well, here we are. Compartment Two-A, your home for the next three days.” He took a keycard from his pocket and inserted it into the lock, then handed the card to Martia when the door light flashed green. He opened the door and stepped inside first, holding the door open for Martia to enter. “I’m sorry, I’m sure it’s not what you’re probably used to, but I assure you this is the finest compartment on the whole train. You even have your own bathroom and shower. No maid service, I’m afraid—”

“Not necessary,” Martia said. She was fishing through her purse. “I’ve got a lot of studying to do before we get to my new assignment, so I probably won’t be leaving the room. Can you please see that I remain undisturbed and have my meals served here?” She pulled out a fifty dollar bill and handed it to him.

Richard pocketed the bill with professional smoothness. “Yes, ma’am. And if it turns out you do need anything, I’m button four there on the wall panel. Press that and I’ll be here on the double.”

He showed her a notepad and pen on the dresser. “Fill out one of those slips and post it outside your door to order your next meal. I’ll provide room service for you and remove the dirty dishes when you’re done.”

With a professional nod, he left, and Martia was finally alone.

The designers of this room spared no expense at looking cheap. The walls, once brightly polished aluminum, had been scratched into dullness by many uncaring occupants. The bed was either luxurious twin-sized or a double for a pair of heroin-chic fashion models. A video monitor with a postage-stamp sized screen was set in the wall facing the bed. There were curtains sewn shut where a window might be expected. The dresser was built into the wall, and the drawers didn’t pull all the way out. The accordion-door closet had no hangers, but she’d been prescient enough to pack her own. The carpet was just a shade too plush to serve as good sandpaper.

Martia could well believe this was the finest compartment in the whole train.

She waited a few seconds, went to the door and opened it. Richard had vanished down the hallway. She closed the door again and double-locked it.

She un-Velcroed the monkey’s arms from around her shoulder and sat it down on the dresser top. “Well, Lydia, I guess we made it.” Then she tossed the suitcase on the bed and unzipped it.

“I was sure you would,” the monkey replied.

Martia didn’t look at the stuffed toy, just took the already hangered clothes out of the case and shook them out, then hung them in the tiny closet. “I don’t know. That ‘no computers’ warning sounded pretty strict. But I guess Daddy is good for something.”

She paused. “But then, you’re not really that much of a computer.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Lydia. “I’m an EG-13 AI.”

“You’re an ereader with pretensions,” Martia insisted absently as she turned from the closet to grab underwear from her suitcase and stow it in the dresser. “You’ve got the intellect of a four-year-old with a giant vocabulary. You can hold up your end of a conversation, and that’s about it.”

The monkey gave a barely audible sniff.

Martia grabbed the figure and held it tightly to her chest. “But I love you anyway, you silly monkey.”

“I love you too, Martia,” the monkey said.

CHAPTER 2: ARRIVAL

 

On her own for the first time in days, Martia found it all too tempting to lie on the bed and stare at the ceiling—but then images of Carlo intruded on her thoughts. Carlo with his laughing brown eyes and dark, curly hair; with arms not overly muscular but strong enough to hold her tightly against his chest; with a tongue that insinuated itself sensuously past her parting lips and into her eager mouth; with those hands and their incredible fingers exploring and exciting her body; and that tongue again, doing things that made her gasp just to think about.

But her hands were wandering downward of their own accord, and she quickly rolled onto her stomach, stifling those thoughts. Carlo wasn’t a safe subject. That’s why she was here, to get away. Her beloved Carlo had betrayed her. Not with another woman—that she could have forgiven quickly enough—but by using her to reach a position of trust, to steal secrets from her father’s company, and then to dump her by running off to his homeland, leaving her to feel like all kinds of an idiot.

I should’ve known. I should’ve known. Why didn’t I know? All those trips to his “sick mother.” I’m not some lovesick fifteen-year-old. Sure, security cleared him, but I should’ve known.

That thought could not be borne. Better to run away from everything than live with the memory of Carlo’s treachery burning her mind. I was an idiot. I should’ve known!

She didn’t want to interact with other people, and there was a limited choice of things to do by herself aboard the train. The video library had a collection of nearly-new movies—but she’d have to settle for watching them on the tiny monitor in her cabin, and she’d already seen all the ones she’d wanted to see in first-run…and most of them with Carlo. She quickly shut down that line of thought. Watching videos was out.

That left reading. She pulled the thick green loose-leaf binder out of her suitcase, the official QSA Legation Manual she’d been provided with—all the instructions, rules, and regulations to administer a U.S. settlement town in the Quasiverse. She’d glanced through it once at home, but she was so busy packing and getting ready for her new life that she couldn’t concentrate on it then.

She hefted it thoughtfully. It was weighty, and promised to be as dry as the Sahara in summer. And, like her most boring college textbooks, it probably had some very useful and necessary facts, buried amid piles of senseless garbage designed to put the most eager young mind to sleep.

She reached down and placed the thick binder carefully on the floor beside her bed. There’d be plenty of time for that nonsense. She’d be stuck on this train for three days, plenty of time to wade through bureaucratic jargon. Today, she needed to relax.

Walking over to the dresser, she reached behind Lydia the monkey, un-Velcroed the secret pouch in its back and took out the treasure she’d worked so hard to smuggle aboard with her—the ereader that, in addition to the AI Lydia, contained her entire library to maintain her sanity over the next three years.

For some reason she couldn’t figure out, computing devices even as simple as handheld calculators were banned from the Quasiverse. Boarding instructions clearly said, in capital letters, to leave all computers and cell phones behind. Maybe there was an explanation buried somewhere deep in the loose-leaf binder, or even in The Imbecile’s Guide, but it was not obvious on her first casual inspection. And if the security personnel had discovered it when she checked through the gate, her entire library—and Lydia—would have been confiscated.

She was glad she had her library of romance novels as her guilty pleasure. If it was chocolate, she’d probably end up weighing three hundred pounds. But no one could expect her to be parted from these books for the full term of her service.

First and foremost in her collection, the prize jewel, was the full set of Lydia Chastaine’s romance novels, all 112 titles published so far. Lydia Chastaine was, in Martia’s opinion, the greatest romance writer who ever lived. Being bereft of those books would be an even worse blow than losing Carlo.

Next in importance was the “Lydia Chastaine Selects” line of romances by other writers, books personally selected and recommended by Ms. Chastaine herself. As of the day before Martia’s departure, this line numbered 527 titles.

Below those came all the books Martia could download from the five other major professionally published romance lines that she found acceptable. About a third of these were historical romances (which Martia wasn’t quite as fond of, but they did offer a diversion) and the rest were contemporaries. Not all the titles were currently in print, but Martia had managed to locate several thousand more of those, some of which she hadn’t even read before.

Finally, there were the indie titles, and those were in numbers beyond reckoning. Self-published by romance fans like herself, Martia knew that some of them would be quite good, some ordinary, and some positively wretched—but she hadn’t had time to weed through them before she had to leave. At least she’d have plenty of opportunity for discovery on her sojourn in the Quasiverse, and she could easily delete any books that failed to meet her personal standards.

All told, her book-buying binge had set her back an amount that would have made anyone who worried about budgets quiver, even including the ones that had been free online. Small price to pay, she thought, for books to keep her mind off her own problems—and especially off Carlo. This collection would give her plenty of other men to think about. Of course, most of those men caused problems for their heroines, but those were other women and other problems. Martia could deal with those with impunity.

Martia skimmed through the list of titles and finally decided on Hungry Heart, Book One of Ms. Chastaine’s wonderful “Heart” series. Martia had already read it twelve times and knew it was a great settler of jangled nerves. She lay back on the bed with the ereader in front of her face and let the familiar text flow by her.

[]

Day followed uneventful day as the train sped through the Quasiverse to their destination. Richard brought the meals she’d ordered and took the dirty dishes away, and other than that, Martia had no human contact. But she didn’t need any. She had her romance novels to enthrall her.

She fully intended to spend most of this time reading the official green binder, or even The Imbecile’s Guide, but after a few minutes with it, her mind would start spinning and she’d lose her concentration. Carlo’s voice would taunt her, his face appearing before her in a mocking grin, and she couldn’t take that. Lydia was, at best, a vapid conversationalist. That left her romance library—but fortunately, that didn’t fail her. She plowed through book after book of plucky heroines overcoming obstacles, and eventually finding love with the perfect men who could understand them and satisfy them in all sorts of ways. They reconciled her to the knowledge that heartbreak was just a step along the path to love and happiness, and that true fate was out there just waiting for her to discover it.

Just after breakfast on the fourth morning, the P.A. announced the train would be reaching Burgundy in a couple of hours, so all passengers should pack their belongings and make ready to depart. Martia, who hadn’t left her room the entire trip, had very little packing to do.

Her instructions had said the train would arrive late afternoon on Monday, and she was to report immediately to the legation. Accordingly, she was ready with clothing she hoped would make a good impression on the legation staff: a gray Imre designer pants suit, a white shirt, a small blue and red scarf, and a pair of gray Juan Lauran shoes with medium heels.

She examined herself critically in the small bathroom mirror. Just enough make-up to make it seem she wasn’t wearing any. The faintest spritz of expensively subtle perfume. Shoulder-length brown hair whose bangs obscured most of her wide forehead. Well, the more of that she covered, the better she felt. Wide-set brown eyes that looked way too soft and innocent, no matter what she did. Rounded apple cheeks instead of the sharp, stylish cheekbones she yearned for. Broad mouth that appeared to cover half her face. She almost never used much lipstick, afraid of accenting it still further. And just the hint of a double chin. I’m too young for a double chin, damn it! she thought with a mental grimace.

But most of all, the nose. So short, with just the tiniest uprising at the tip. Way, way too small for such a broad face. Martia knew most Jewish girls would kill for her nose, and those with any money at all spent small fortunes trying to acquire it. But when she looked at it, all she could think of was Daddy saying, “How did a Jewish girl ever end up with a nose like that? Shirley must have been screwing around.” She always meant to ask her mother, on those rare occasions when Mom flitted briefly through her life between missions to save the world, but somehow never got around to it.

But at least there was the Complexion. Martia tended to think of it with a capital C. It was her one unmistakable claim to perfection, the smooth, unblemished expanse of skin. Even Mother—actually her stepmother Elaine—complimented her on it. “Martia has such a beautiful complexion,” she’d say to her society friends, particularly those who might introduce Martia to eligible young men. It was as though, having said that, she was relieved of having to say anything else complimentary about her stepdaughter—or, often, of having to say anything at all. Martia usually felt wholly defined by her complexion.

When she’d repacked her suitcase, she sat on the bed with her back to the wall and read her ebook. When arrival was imminent, she sighed, bookmarked her position, and took the ereader over to the dresser where the monkey was waiting patiently. “Sorry, Lydia,” she said as she secreted the device in the hidden compartment. “I don’t know if they’ll do another inspection here, and I don’t want to have you confiscated. Let’s just attach your arms snugly around me while you go into silent mode. Just remember how important you are to me.”

“I’ll remember,” Lydia promised. “I love you.”

It was just a few minutes later that Richard knocked at her door to tell her they’d arrived, and ask her if she needed any help leaving the train. She let him escort her down the passageway as she wheeled her suitcase behind her.

They stepped off the train and, wonder of wonders, there was no inspection station to pass through. “Checked baggage retrieval is that way,” Richard said, pointing to the left. “Local time is 3:57 pm Monday afternoon. Have a pleasant stay in Burgundy.”

“Thank you for being so delightfully nonintrusive,” she replied, handing him another twenty. “Where can I get a cab?”

“There are no cabs in Burgundy. No cars of any kind, in fact. There are some private carriages, but nearly everybody walks here. Don’t worry, it’s a fairly small town.”

Martia frowned. No one had bothered to explain this before. Neither the official green binder nor The Imbecile’s Guide thought to mention it. The concept was almost alien. She’d traveled to other places and understood the concept, but she was born and raised in Los Angeles; no one walked on the streets of L.A. except to or from a parking lot. She was glad she’d used her exer-bike every day at home; at least her legs should be up to the challenge.

“Well, I’ll need some help with my trunks. I can’t carry them around by myself. Are there any porters or anything?”

“Oh, they’re always hanging around the baggage area when a train comes in. The way you tip, you’ll have no trouble finding help.” Richard nodded, gave a small salute, and went off to help other passengers.

Martia looked around with a slight frown. This depot was nowhere near as shiny and new as the one in Concord. It was basically a large concrete barn with a ceiling that arched two stories above her. A big hanging sign said, in faded blue letters, “THE QUASIVERSE SETTLEMENT ADMINISTRATION WELCOMES YOU TO BURGUNDY.” Other people were exiting the train talking to one another, filling the open space with boisterous echoes. There was lots of movement, sound, and chaos. The place felt grimy.

Well, she thought, if I’d wanted beautiful surroundings, I could have gone to Paris or Tahiti. I came here because there’ll be no Carlo to clutter up my life.

She turned and walked to the left as Richard had indicated, then suddenly stopped dead. There, ahead of her, were the first Quasi locals she’d ever seen in real life.

She should have been prepared for almost anything, because she knew almost anything could happen in the Quasiverse. And, in truth, these natives looked more commonplace than many she’d seen pictures of. They were hard to miss, being bright cherry red, and at first glance, seeing them through the crowd of detraining passengers, they appeared to be drawing carts the same color they were. Then the crowd parted a bit, and she could see these creatures were the carts. The front parts of their bodies had wheels like unicycles, while the back parts of their bodies had small flatbeds like pickup trucks. They had thick, brawny arms, no hair, and ugly flat faces with three eyes. They looked like nothing so much as bald, red, wheeled centaurs.

There were perhaps a dozen of the beings loitering around the baggage claim area. As Martia watched, one of her fellow passengers hailed a native, spoke to it for a moment, and handed it a large suitcase. The creature swung the bag around onto its back and took off following the man out the door.

Martia let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Well, the system looked simple enough. She might as well give it a try. She tried waving at the creatures, but none of them seemed to see her. She reached into her purse and, after a moment’s fishing, pulled out a bill.

She’d never quite realized before that the U.S. government printed twenty-dollar bills with ink pheromonally scented to attract Quasi natives, but the effect was nearly instantaneous. Within seconds, she was surrounded by a herd of the locals, all eyes fixed on her with rapt attention. She pointed at one of them who looked the biggest. “You,” she said. “I have some trunks that need to be carried. Can you help me?”

“Yes, Mister Boss,” the native said quickly.

“Miss,” Martia corrected him automatically.

“Miss-ter,” the native said.

Martia dismissed the correction. What difference did the gender misidentification make in the scheme of things? She looked at the cargo section of his back and saw it was only wide enough to accommodate two of her six trunks, let alone her suitcase. “Those trunks are mine,” she said, pointing and speaking louder. “We may need a couple of your friends to help us.”

The native’s gaze followed where she pointed. He rotated his head in a strange way, flexed his shoulders and, with the ease of a man growing taller by standing up and losing his lap, his back simply expanded outward until, in a matter of seconds, it was long enough to take in all her luggage. “I can take it. You want?”

Martia laughed a little nervously. “Yes, I, uh, I want.”

The native, his torso easily able to swivel around more than 180 degrees, reached out, grabbed the trunks one at a time, and stowed them easily on his back. His arms seemed as extendable as his back, so he could reach all the way to straighten out the cargo without any help. Martia handed up her suitcase, too, and the Quasi easily found an appropriate spot for it.

“Uh, you know the way to the QSA legation?” Martia asked belatedly.

“I know.”

“Good. Take my things there.” She handed him the twenty dollar bill. He looked at it without reaction. Then, while he seemed to have no clothes or pockets, the money disappeared somewhere and he started off at a slow enough pace for her to keep up easily They went through the broad doors of the depot and Martia confronted the town of Burgundy.

Although Richard had told her it was late afternoon, the sky was very dark, filled with heavy, ponderous clouds. It was pouring ferociously.

Born and bred in Los Angeles, Martia had never learned to plan for possible bad weather. To be sure, she owned some expensive rain gear. It was all packed securely in one of the trunks on her porter’s back.

She grabbed the creature’s shoulder to stop him. “How far is the legation?” she asked.

“Three blocks that way,” he pointed.

Well, three blocks shouldn’t be too bad, even in rain like this. Then a thought occurred to her. “Can I ride on your…er, back?” she asked.

The porter shook his head vigorously. “No. Only cargo allowed.” His voice was as flat as always, but something in his body language indicated he was deeply offended, as though she’d violated some religious taboo.

She sighed. She’d wanted to come to a strange land, now she’d have to live with it. “Okay, let’s go.”

There were no street lights here, and the town was almost completely dark. She remembered the phrase from The Imbecile’s Guide: “The wide, sunny Quasiverse streets…” She only had to go one step before she realized how wrong that was. She couldn’t offhand see any sidewalks, and the streets of Burgundy weren’t paved. They appeared to be hard-packed dirt—only, in this torrential rain, that dirt was already liquefying.

“Shit!” Martia exclaimed.

“Mud,” her porter helpfully corrected her.

Taking a deep breath and resigning herself to the total loss of her Imre pants suit and, in particular, her Juan Lauran shoes, Martia trudged onward alongside her porter/guide. Within seconds, her hair was a wet, stringy mass dripping streams of water down her face, and her clothes clung to her body in a fashion some non-discriminating men might call sexy. Her eyelashes collected fat drops of water she had to keep blinking away. Each step she took made a slorping sound. The only positive development was that she’d chosen to wear her contacts instead of her glasses, so she didn’t have water streaming down the lenses as well.

One thing she noticed was that her porter’s wheels didn’t seem much better adapted to the mud than her two-inch Juan Lauran heels. The creature slogged slowly beside her, uncomplaining. as they made their soggy way through the storm.

In the dim evening light, Martia couldn’t make out much of the town around her. The buildings all seemed to be low, dark shapes, indistinct shadows in the gloom. Some of them had lights in their windows, but their illumination made little improvement on the depressing surroundings.

She found herself counting eagerly. One block, two, three, four. She was beginning to doubt her guide. Either he didn’t really know where he was going, or how to count, or he was measuring distance “as the crow flies.” Five blocks….

“Legation,” the native announced.

Before them was a fifteen-foot-tall stone wall running a full city block wide from side to side except for a ten-foot-wide metal gate in the center. The bars were thick steel, reminding Martia more of a prison than of the gates in front of estates that she was used to seeing at home. Behind the wall was a yard separating it from the main building, which she could barely see through the downpour. A spotlight on the building shone down, illuminating the area in front of the gate and the yard between gate and building.

Martia gave the gate a tentative shake but, as she’d feared, it was locked. She peered around on the wall until she found an intercom button. She pressed it. Nothing happened. After a minute, she pressed it again. Nada. Again. Zilch. After the fourth try, a voice came from the speaker. “Go away. We’re closed.”

She did remember one thing from the big green binder. “The legation never closes.”

“We do.”

“It’s open ’round the clock.”

A pause. “We use square clocks.”

“Ha ha. I have business in there.”

“We open at nine tomorrow. Come back then.”

“I have orders to report immediately upon my arrival.”

“Come back at nine.”

“Who am I speaking to?”

There was a slight pause. “Corporal Fuckoff.”

“Yeah, you’re a fuckoff, all right. Listen, I need to get in. I’m soaking wet. It’s raining out here.”

“I know. That’s why I’m in here.”

“Listen, corporal, I can make things very rough for you.”

“Not before nine o’clock tomorrow, you can’t.”

He obviously didn’t know he was talking to a sub-legate. She thought of informing him, in no uncertain terms. Then she thought again. She didn’t want to come in here and start throwing her weight around first thing. It would make a bad first impression. Besides, that was what her father did. She didn’t want to be her father. Definitely not.

“I have nowhere else to go,” she said. There was a slight quaver in her voice that she hadn’t intended.

The corporal was quiet for a moment. “Try a hotel.”

“What hotel? Where?”

“Try the Burgundy Grand. It’s slightly better than the Burgundy Central.” Was there the slightest tone of sympathy in the voice?

“Thanks,” she said, but as far as she could tell she was talking to empty air. No more sounds came from the speaker.

She turned to her porter. “Can you take me to the Burgundy Grand Hotel?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s go then,” she sighed.

They slogged off through the gloomy rain. None of this was going the way she’d expected. She tried to empty her mind and not think about the gloom and the rain. They’d only make her feel cold and wet and mad. She tried to think of herself as the heroine in a romance novel. Plucky and high-spirited, that was her. Those heroines never let tiny disappointments like this get them down. They strove through obstacles, and were rewarded with a handsome guy for their efforts.

Be brave, she thought. Be plucky and high-spirited.

But she didn’t feel brave, or plucky, or high-spirited. She felt cold and wet and mad. And alone. Oh so terribly alone.

“Lydia, I feel miserable,” she said to her stuffed monkey, a soggy mass around her shoulders.

“Remember, I love you,” the monkey replied. Her voice could barely be heard above the noise of the falling rain.

Martia didn’t respond. She just lifted one heavy foot after another as she followed the guidance of her sullenly silent porter.

[]

After a depressingly long time, they reached the brightly lit entrance to the Burgundy Grand Hotel. Martia scraped her muddy shoes as best she could on the outer mat. She grabbed her rolling suitcase from the porter’s back. “Wait here for me,” she told the Quasi, since she didn’t see any immediate way to fit his width inside the door. The native gave a quiet nod. He didn’t seem to mind being told to wait outside, barely sheltered from the rain by the hotel’s awning.

Martia opened the hotel door and was immediately bathed in light and warmth and dryness. This was the way the world was supposed to be. She’d stayed in many hotels in her life. This was home.

The lobby looked like that of many small hotels, though not usually of the class Martia frequented. Half a dozen comfortable, though not luxurious, chairs were spread around the open area in pairs, with a conversation table between each pair. Each table held a large lamp, and there was indirect overhead lighting as well. A once-expensive but worn carpet covered the floor between the door and the registration desk. The lobby was empty except for a woman in a chair by a front window, and a bearded young man behind the registration desk.

Martia walked across the lobby with as much dignity as she could muster, only too aware that her hair was dripping onto her face, her clothes were dripping onto the carpet, her monkey was a sodden mass around her shoulders, and her Juan Lauran shoes, no matter how much she’d wiped them, were trailing mud across the floor—although she could see that other people had done the same earlier this evening. The wheels of the suitcase dragging behind her made a high-pitched squeaking she’d never heard from them before.

“Can I help you?” the clerk asked politely as Martia approached he desk.

“Yes. I’d like a room, please.”

The young man switched to his professionally apologetic face. “I’m sorry, ma’am, we’re all booked up for tonight.”

“Nothing?” Despite her best efforts, she could hear the desperation in her own voice, so she reached into her purse for further inducement.

The clerk’s eyes were not unkind. “I’m sorry, it always happens this way the day a train arrives. Every closet, every cranny booked solid. Would you like me to phone over to the Central and see if they’ve got anything?”

“Thank you, yes, that would be so kind.” She pulled out a twenty and placed it on the counter between them.

The clerk picked up an older model voice-only landline phone, turned away from her, and spoke in a low voice whose words she couldn’t make out. After a minute, he hung up and turned back to her. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but they don’t have anything, either.” She noticed he pocketed the twenty anyway.

“I see. Thank you.” Martia’s voice was tiny and shaky. She turned and walked uncertainly away, like Marie Antoinette walking to the guillotine in clown shoes. The world seemed suddenly far away; sounds were distant and faint. She suddenly didn’t know what to do.

“Hello,” called a voice.

Martia stopped. It sounded like someone was talking to her. It certainly wasn’t the desk clerk. She blinked a couple of times. Why would someone be talking to her? She didn’t know anyone here. She stood frozen in a dim haze.

There was a motion in the corner of her eye. The woman sitting in the chair across the lobby was waving at her.

“What…?” Martia said in confusion.

“Care to sit down with me?” the woman asked.

Martia felt frozen in place. “I…I….”

“Of course, if you’ve got someplace else you need to be, I’d understand.”

“No, I…I…that is, I….”

“Come on,” the woman beckoned.

Martia found herself turning in that direction and walking over to the woman. The suitcase rolled squeakily behind her.

As Martia approached, the woman stood up. “Angela Yee,” she said, extending her hand.

Martia self-consciously ran a hand through her hair, and winced as water flew off. “Martia Rosenthal. I’m, uh, afraid my hand’s a bit wet.” She tried to wipe it off on her blouse, which did no good at all.

“I’m used to worse,” Angela Yee said good-naturedly. She didn’t withdraw her hand.

Reluctantly, Martia grasped the other woman’s hand. Angela Yee’s handshake was firm and friendly.

“Have a seat,” the woman said, following her own advice.

Martia looked at the proffered chair, then down at her own sopping wet clothes, then back at the chair. “Uh….”

Angela Yee seemed to read her mind, and laughed. “The hotel won’t mind,” she said. “They’re used to worse, too.” She looked over to the registration desk. “Albert, could you at least find some towels for this poor woman?” The desk clerk scurried away.

“Thank you,” Martia muttered, and obligingly sat. She stared across at the other woman, appraising her for the first time. Angela Yee was a slender, beautiful woman, taller than Martia—well, who wasn’t?—wearing a one-piece yellow dress, not expensive but immaculate. And dry. She had one of those Oriental faces that didn’t reveal its age; she could have been anywhere between twenty and sixty. Her black eyes sparkled, and she had an attractive smile.

“You and your…uh, friend looked like you needed a moment to sit down and regroup.” She nodded at the sodden Lydia clinging pathetically to Martia’s shoulders.

“Lydia’s a monkey,” Martia said.

“I apologize, Lydia,” Angela Yee said somberly. The desk clerk came rushing over with a small stack of towels, and Martia began eagerly rubbing one through her hair.

“Martia,” Angela Yee continued, “you look like you could use a drink. That is, if you’re old enough.”

“Twenty-four. Need to see my license?”

“I’m the last person to card anyone. What’ll it be?”

“White wine.”

Angela Yee turned to the desk clerk. “Albert, two glasses of your finest maison blanc, s’il vous plait.”

Merci,” Martia said.

De nada.” She looked Martia up and down, then looked again. Her eyes went wide. “My God, is that an Imre suit? And…and Juan Lauran shoes?”

“They were,” Martia said dismally. “The only Juan Laurans I brought.”

“If that happened to me, I’d be suicidal.”

“What makes you think I’m not?”

The two women settled into silence until the clerk came back with their drinks. Martia started reaching for her purse, but Angela Yee waved her away. “This round’s mine. You get the next one. Albert, put it on my tab.”

“Thanks,” Martia said. She took a sip and made a face. “This is inordinately average.”

The other woman took a sip of her own. “Hm, yeah. Must’ve been a good month.”

“Why are you being so good to me, Angela?”

The woman rested her chin on her hand and stared, assessing Martia. “I was wondering who the new girl in town was,” she said honestly. “You’re not a factory hand or a settler. I wondered whether you might be potential competition.”

“Competition? What do you do?”

Angela Yee gave a long, loud laugh. “You’re no competition,” she said. “But why did you come to Burgundy?”

“I work for the Quasi Corps. Or at least, I’m supposed to. I went straight to the legation from the train, but they said they were closed. But they’re never supposed to close. I’m confused.”

“Welcome to Burgundy,” Angela Yee said with a snort. “Nothing’s ever quite what it looks like, or what it’s supposed to be. I’ve given up trying to figure anything out.”

“But I was told there’d be accommodations for me at the legation. If I can’t get in there, I have no place to stay. Are there any reputable boarding houses or places to rent until I can sort this mess out?”

Angela Yee looked thoughtfully out the window at Martia’s six trunks sitting on the back of the porter standing patiently in the rain. “If you travel that heavy, wearing Imre and Juan Lauran,” she mused aloud, “you’re obviously a young lady of some substance. No, nothing you’d call a ‘reputable’ boarding house. There are apartments to rent, I’m sure, but you couldn’t find them at this hour. You’d have to start in the morning.”

“Perhaps a house I could rent?” Martia persisted desperately.

Angela Yee shook her head. “There aren’t any single houses available in Burgundy. You’d have to settle for an apartment.”

“That’ll do, especially if I can find a place near the legation. I’d like to live near my work. I hate long commutes.”

“Same with me. That’s why I live here.”

“Oh, do you work for the hotel?”

“I freelance,” said Angela Yee.

“Do you think I could find a nice apartment near the legation?” Martia repeated.

“What’s your budget?”

“Oh, that’s no problem.”

“Lucky you,” said Angela Yee.

“Or at least, it won’t be, as soon as I can get to a bank. I brought traveling cash, but I’ll have to get to a bank to deposit my letter of credit. Do you know a good one?”

“I use Burgundy Fiduciary. They’re rock solid. Even honest.”

“Thanks. I’ll visit them first thing tomorrow.”

A man entered the lobby from the street. He wore a yellow raincoat and rain hat. He was bearded, of middle height, and very stocky. He didn’t seem to mind that his raincoat was dripping all over the hotel’s carpet.

He saw Angela Yee and pulled a small notebook from a pocket of his coat. He checked it, then headed in her direction. Angela Yee gave a small sigh.

“Hi, Angie,” the man said. “I see you ain’t paid your tax this month yet.”

Angela Yee reached into her delicate little purse and pulled out a couple of bills, handing them to him without comment. “Thank you,” the man said graciously. “It’s always a pleasure doing business with you. And speaking of that….”

“Now?” Angela Yee said.

“Nah, gotta do my rounds. You free tomorrow night?”

“I’ll look forward to it,” said Angela Yee.

The man looked over at Martia. “I ain’t seen you around before. You paid your taxes yet?”

Before Martia could reply, Angela Yee said, “She’s brand new. Just got in tonight. I’ll pay for her this time.” She took another couple of bills from her purse and paid the man. He thanked her and moved on to the hotel clerk.

“Is that how the QSA collects taxes here?” Martia asked, squinting at the back of the man in the raincoat.

“This is a more informal tax.”

“What’s it for?”

“The prospect of continued good health,” said Angela Yee. “Now, what were we talking about?”

“Oh. I was wondering whether I could find a nice apartment near the legation.”

“That’s about the classiest area of town. If you’ve got the cash, you’ll find a good place right away.”

“Wonderful. Now all I have to do is find someplace for tonight.”

Angela Yee looked out the window at the rain still pouring down from the gloomy clouds. She sighed. “Well, it’s obviously going to be a very slow night. Why don’t you stay with me? I’ve got a king-sized bed, plenty of room, and I wouldn’t mind hearing some news from the real world for a change.”

Martia’s eyes lit up. “Oh Angela, you mean that? Oh, that’s wonderful. You’ve been so kind to me, I hardly know what to say.”

Angela Yee waved the praise away with a dismissive gesture. “Don’t worry, honey. That’s just my heart of gold. We all gotta have one. Union regs.”

 

End of Sample

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The Universes of Stephen Goldin

Stephen Goldin is a science fiction and fanasy author whose professional career spans more than 50 years. This handy guide contains: * a very brief biographical sketch * a list of the series he;s written * a list of his non-series novels * a list of his short story collections * samples from some of his best books * a list of links to places where you can learn more about him If you're curious about Stephen Goldin and his writing, this guide will be a good place to start.

  • ISBN: 9781370913251
  • Author: Parsina Press
  • Published: 2017-04-12 20:20:28
  • Words: 59863
The Universes of Stephen Goldin The Universes of Stephen Goldin