I had reached the station in the depth
of Left Speranza's night; I had not slept. Fogged in the confabulation
of the transit, I groped through crushing aeons to my favourite breakfast
kiosk: unsure if the soaring concourse outside Parliament was ceramic
and carbon or a metaphor; a cloudy internal warning-
now what was the message in the mirror? Something pitiless. Some blank-eyed,
slow-thinking, long-grinned crocodile-
It was my partner. "Don't do that," I moaned. The internal
crocodile shattered, the concourse lost its freight of hyper-determined
meaning, too suddenly for comfort. "Don't you know you should never
startle a sleepwalker?"
He grinned, he knew when I'd arrived, and the state I was likely to
I hadn't met Pelé Leonidas
Iza Quinatoa in the flesh before, but we'd worked together, we liked
each other. "Ayayay, so good you can't bear to lose it?"
"Of course not. Only innocent, beautiful souls have sweet dreams."
He touched my cheek: collecting a teardrop. I hadn't realised I was
crying. "You should use the dreamtime, Debra. There must be some
game you want to play."
"I've tried, it's worse. If I don't take my punishment I'm sick
The intimacy of his gesture (skin on skin) was an invitation and a promise;
it made me smile. We walked into the Parliament Building together, buoyant
in the knocked-down gravity; that I love although I know it's bad for
In the Foyer we met the rest of the
company, identified by the Diaspora Parliament's latest adventure in
biometrics, the aura tag. To our vision the KiAn Working Party was striated
orange/yellow, nice cheerful implications, nothing too deep. The pervasive
systems were seeing a lot more, but that didn't bother Pelé or
me, we had no secrets from Speranza.
The KiAn problem had been a matter of concern since their world had
been "discovered" by a Balas/Shet prospector, and joined the
miniscule roster of populated planets linked by instantaneous transit.
Questions had been raised then, over the grave social imbalance: the
tiny international ruling caste, the exploited masses. But neither the
Ki nor the An would accept arbitration (why the hell should they?).
The non-interference lobby is the weakest faction in the Chamber, quarantine-until-they're-civilised
was not considered an option. Inevitably, around thirty local years
after first contact, the Ki had risen against their overlords, as often
in the past. Inevitably, this time they had modern weapons. They had
not succeeded in wiping out the An, but they had pretty much rendered
the shared planet uninhabitable.
We were here to negotiate a rescue package. We'd done the damage, we
had to fix it, that was the DP's line. The Ki and the An no doubt had
their own ideas as to what was going on: they were new to the Interstellar
Diaspora, not to politics.
But they were here, at least; so that seemed hopeful.
The Ki Federation delegates were unremarkable.
There were five of them, they conformed to the "sentient biped"
bodyplan that unites the diaspora. Three were wearing Balas business
suits in shades of brown, two were in grey military uniform. The young
co-leaders of the An were better dressed, and one of the two, in particular,
was much better looking. Whatever you believe about the origins of the
"diaspora" (Strong theory, Weak theory, something between)
it's strange how many measures of beauty are common to us all. He was
tall, past two metres: he had large eyes, a mane of rich brown head-hair,
an open, strong-boned face, poreless bronze skin, and a glorious smile.
He would be my charge. His co-leader, the subordinate partner, slight
and small, almost as dowdy as the Ki, would be Pelé's.
They were codenamed Baal and Tiamaat, the names I will use in this account.
The designations Ki and An are also codenames.
We moved off to a briefing room. Joset
Moricherri, one of the Blue Permanent Secretaries, made introductory
remarks. A Green Belt Colonel, Shamaz Haa'agaan, gave a talk on station
security. A slightly less high-ranking DP administrator got down to
basics: standard time conventions, shopping allowances, access to the
elevators, restricted areas, housekeeping. . . Those who hadn't provided
their own breakfast raided the culturally neutral trolley. I sipped
my Mocha/Colombian, took my carbs in the form of a crisp cherry-jam
tartine; and let the day's agenda wash over me, as I reviewed what I
knew about Baal and Tiamaat's relationship.
They were not related by blood, except in the sense that the An gene
pool was very restricted, showing signs of other population crashes
in the past. They were not "married", either. The Ki and the
An seemed to be sexually dimorphic on the Blue model (thought they could
yet surprise us!); and they liked opposite sex partnerships. But they
did not marry. Tiamaat's family had been swift to embrace the changes,
she'd been educated on Balas/Shet. Baal had left KiAn for the first
time when war broke out. They'd lost family members, and they'd certainly
seen the horrific transmissions smuggled off KiAn before the end. Yet
here they were, with the genocidal Ki: thrown together, suddenly appointed
the rulers of their shattered nation, and bound to each other for life.
Tiamaat looked as if she was feeling the strain. She sat with her eyes
lowered, drawn in on herself, her body occupying the minimum of space.
Beside her, Baal devoured a culturally-neutral doughnut, elbows sprawled,
with a child's calm greed. I wondered how much my alien perception of
a timid young woman and a big bold young man was distorting my view.
I wondered how all that fine physicality translated into mind.
Who are you, Baal? How will it feel to know you?
From the meeting we proceeded to a DP reception and lunch, from thence
to a concert in the Nebula Immersion Chamber: a Blue Planet symphony
orchestra on virtual tour, the Diaspora Chorus in the flesh, singing
a famous masque; a solemn dance drama troupe bi-locating from Neuendan.
Pelé and I, humble Social Support officers, were in the background
for these events. But the An had grasped that we were their advocates:
as was proved when they pounced on us, eagerly, after the concert. They
wanted to meet "the nice quiet people with the pretty curly faces-"
They spoke English, language of diplomacy and displacement. They'd both
taken the express, neuro-tech route to fluency: but we had trouble pinning
this request down. It turned out they were asking to be introduced to
a bowl of orchids.
Appearences can be deceptive, these two young people were neither calm
nor cowed. They had been born in a mediaeval world, and swept away from
home as to the safety of a rich neighbour's house, all they knew of
the interstellar age was the inside of a transit lounge. The Ki problem
they knew only too well: Speranza was a thrilling bombardment. With
much laughter (they laughed like Blue teenagers, to cover embarrassment),
we explained that they would not be meeting any bizarre lifeforms. No
tentacles, no petals, no intelligent gas clouds here; not yet!
"You have to look after us!" cried Baal. He grabbed my arm,
softly but I felt the power. "Save us from making fools of ourselves,
dear Debra and Pelé!"
Tiamaat stood back a pace, hiding her giggles behind her hand.
The last event scheduled on that first
day was a live transmission walkabout from the Ki refugee camp, in the
Customised Shelter Sector. In the planning stages, some of us had expressed
doubts about this stunt. If anything went wrong it'd sour the whole
negotiation. But the Ki and the An leaders were both keen, and the historic
gesture was something the public back on the homeworlds would understand
-which in the end had decided the question. The Diaspora Parliament
had to struggle for planetside attention, we couldn't pass up an opportunity.
At the gates of the CSS, deep in Speranza's hollow heart, there was
a delay. The Customised Shelter Police wanted us in armoured glass-tops,
they felt that if we needed a walkabout we could fake it. . . . Pelé
chatted with Tiamaat, stooping from his lean black height to catch her
soft voice. Baal stared at the banners on two display screens. The KiAn
understood flags, we hadn't taught them that concept. Green and gold
quarters for the Ki, a centre section crosshatched with the emblems
of all the nations. Purple tracery on vivid bronze for the An.
Poor kid, I thought, it's not a magic gateway to your lost home. Don't
get your hopes up. That's the door to a cage in a conservation zoo.
He noticed my attention, and showed his white teeth. "Are there
other peoples living in exile on this floor?"
I nodded. "Yes. But mostly the people sheltered here are old spacers,
who can't return to full gravity. Or failed colonist communities, likewise:
people who've tried to settle on empty moons and and planets and been
defeated by the conditions. There are no other populated planet exiles.
It hasn't been, er, necessary."
"We are a first for you."
I wondered if that was ironic; if he was capable of irony.
A compromise was reached. We entered
on foot, with the glass-tops and CSP closed cars trailing behind. The
Ki domain wasn't bad, for a displaced persons camp wrapped in the bleak
embrace of a giant space station. Between the living-space capsule towers
the refugees could glimpse their own shade of sky and a facsimile of
their primary sun, with its partner, the blue-rayed daystar. They had
sanitation, hygiene, regular meals; leisure facilities, even employment.
We stopped at an adult retraining centre, we briefly inspected a hydroponic
farm. We visited a kindergarten, where the teaching staff told us (and
the flying cams!) how all the nations of the Ki were gathered here in
harmony, learning to be good Diaspora citizens.
The children stared at Baal and Tiamaat. They'd probably been born in
the camp, and never seen An in the flesh before. Baal fidgeted, seeming
indignant under their scrutiny. Tiamaat stared back with equal curiosity.
I saw her reach a tentative hand through the shielding, as if to touch
a Ki child: but she thought better of it.
After the classroom tour there was a reception, with speeches, dance
and choral singing. Ki community leaders and the An couple didn't literally
"shake hands"; but the gesture was accomplished. Here the
live trans. ended, and most of our party stayed behind. The An leaders
and the Ki delegates went on alone, with a police escort, for a private
visit to "Hopes and Dreams Park" -a facsimile of one of the
Sacred Groves (as near as the term translates), central to KiAn spirituality.
Pelé and I went with them.
The enclave of woodland was artfully designed. The "trees"
were like self-supporting kelp, leathery succulents -lignin is only
native to the Blue Planet- but they were tall, and planted close enough
to block all sight of the packed towers. Their sheets of foliage made
a honeyed shade, we seemed alone in a gently managed wilderness. The
Ki and the An kept their distance from each other now that the cams
weren't in sight. The police moved outward to maintain a cordon around
the group, and I began to feel uneasy. I should have been paying attention
instead of savouring my breakfast, I had not grasped that "Hope
and Dreams Park" would be like this. I kept hearing voices, seeing
flitting shadows, although the park area was supposed to have been cleared.
I'd mentioned the weak shielding, I hoped it had been fixed-
"Are religious ceremonies held here?" I asked Tiamaat.
She drew back her head, the gesture for no. "Most KiAn have not
followed religion for a long time. It's just a place sacred to ourselves,
"But it's fine for the Shelter Police, and Pelé and I, to
be with you?"
"You are advocates."
We entered a clearing dotted with thickets. At our feet smaller plants
had the character of woodland turf, starred with bronze and purple flowers.
Above us the primary sun dipped towards its false horizon, lighting
the blood red veins in the foliage. The blue daystar had set. Baal and
Tiamaat were walking together: I heard him whisper, in the An language,
now it's our time.
"And these are the lucky ones," muttered one of the Ki delegates
to me, her "English" mediated by a throat-mike processor that
gave her a teddy-bear growl. "Anyone who reached Speranza had contacts,
money. Many millions of our people are trying to survive on a flayed,
And whose fault is that?
I nodded, vaguely. It was NOT my place take sides-
Something flew by me, big and solid. Astonished, I realised it had been
Baal. He had moved so fast, it was so totally unexpected. He had plunged
right through the cordon of armed police, through the shield. He was
gone, vanished. I leapt in pursuit at once, yelling: "Hold your
fire!" I was flung back, thrown down into zinging stars and blackness.
The shield had been strengthened, but not enough.
Shelter Police bending over me, cried:
what happened, Ma'am, are you hit?
My conviction that we had company in here fused into certainty-
"Oh, God! Get after him. After him!"
I ran with the police, Pelé stayed with Tiamaat and the Ki: on
our shared frequency I heard him alerting Colonel Shamaz. We cast to
and fro through the twilight wood, held together by the invisible strands
and globules of our shield, taunted by rustles of movement, the CSP
muttering to each other about refugee assassins, homemade weapons. But
the young leader of the An was unharmed when we found him, having followed
the sounds of a scuffle and a terrified cry. He crouched, in his sleek
tailoring, over his prey. Dark blood trickled from the victim's nostrils,
high-placed in a narrow face. Dark eyes were open, fixed and wide.
I remembered the children in that school, staring up in disbelief at
Baal rose, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "What are
you looking at?," he inquired, haughtily, in his neighbours' language.
The rest of our party had caught up: he was speaking to the Ki. "What
did you expect? You know who I am."
Tiamaat fell to her knees, with a wail of despair, pressing her hands
to either side of her head. "He has a right! Ki territory is An
territory, he has a right to behave as if we were at home. And the Others
knew it, don't you see? They knew!"
The CSP officer yelled something inexcusable and lunged at the killer.
Pelé grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him back, talking
urgent sense. The Ki said nothing, but I thought Tiamaat was right.
They'd known what the Diaspora's pet monster would do in here; and he
hadn't let them down.
Perfectly unconcerned, Baal stood guard over the body until Colonel
Haa'agaan arrived with the closed cars. Then he picked it up and slung
it over his shoulder. I travelled with him and his booty, and the protection
of four Green Belts, to the elevator. Another blacked-out car waited
for us on Parliament level. What a nightmare journey! We delivered him
to the service entrance of his suite in the Sensitive Visitors Facility,
and saw him drop the body insouciantly into the arms of one of his aides
-a domestic, lesser specimen of those rare and dangerous animals, the
The soldiers look at each other, looked at me. "You'd better stay,"
I said. "And get yourselves reinforced, there might be reprisals
Baal's tawny eyes in my mind: challenging me, trusting me-
The debriefing was in closed session;
although there would be a transcript on record. It took a painful long
time, but we managed to exonerate everyone, including Baal. Mistakes
had been made, signals had been misread. We knew the facts of the KiAn
problem, we had only the most rudimentary grasp of the cultures involved.
Baal and Tiamaat, who were not present, had made no further comment.
The Ki (who were not present either) had offered a swift deposition.
They wanted the incident treated with utmost discretion: they did not
see it as a bar to negotiation. The Balas/Shet party argued that Baal's
kill had been unique, an "extraordinary ritual" that we had
to sanction. And we knew this was nonsense, but it was the best we could
One of our Green Belts, struck by the place in the report where Tiamaat
exclaims the Others knew it!, came up with the idea that the
young Ki had been a form of suicide bomber: sacrificing his life in
the hope of wrecking the peace talks. Investigation of the dead boy
and his contacts would now commence.
"Thank funx it didn't happen on the live transmission!," cried
Shamaz, the old soldier; getting his priorities right.
It was very late before Pelé and I got away. We spent the rest
of the night together, hiding in the tenderness of the Blue Planet,
where war is shameful and murder is an aberration; where kindness is
common currency, and in almost every language strangers are greeted
with love: dear, pet, darling; sister, brother, cousin, and nobody even
wonders why. What an unexpected distinction, we who thought we were
such ruthless villains, such fallen angels. "We're turning into
the care assistant caste for the whole funxing galaxy," moaned
Pelé. "Qué cacho!"
The Parliament session was well attended:
many tiers packed with bi-locators; more than the usual scatter of Members
present in the flesh, and damn the expense. I surveyed the Chamber with
distaste. They all wanted to make their speeches on the KiAn crisis.
But they knew nothing. The freedom of the press fades and dies at interstellar
distances, where everything has to be couriered and there's no such
thing as evading official censorship. They'd heard about the genocide,
the wicked but romantic An; the ruined world, the rescue plans. They
had no idea exactly what had driven the rebel Ki to such desperation,
and they weren't going to find out-
All the Diaspora Parliament knew was spin.
And the traditional Ki, the people we were dealing with, were collusive.
They didn't like being killed and eaten by their aristos, but for outsiders
to find out the truth would be a far worse evil: a disgusting, gross
exposure. After all, it was only the poor, the weak minded and the disadvantaged,
who ended up on a plate. . . Across from the Visitors' Gallery, level
with my eyes, hung the great Diaspora Banner. The populated worlds turned
sedately, beautifully scanned and insanely close together; like one
of those ancient distorted projections of the landmasses on the Blue.
The "real" distance between the Blue system and Neuendan (our
nearest neighbour) was twenty six thousand light years. Between the
Neuendan and the Balas/Shet lay fifteen hundred light years; the location
of the inscrutable Aleutians' homeworld was a mystery. How would you
represent our spatial relationship, in any realistic way?
"Why do they say it all aloud?" asked Baal, idly.
He was beside me, of course. He was glad to have me there, and kept
letting me know it: a confiding pressure against my shoulder, a warm
glance from those tawny eyes. He took my complete silence about the
incident in Hopes and Dreams Park for understanding. A DP Social Support
Officer never shows hostility.
"Isn't your i/t button working?"
The instantaneous translation in here had a mind of its own.
"It works well enough. But everything they say is just repeating
the documents on this desk. It was the same in the briefing yesterday,
I noticed that."
"You read English?"
"Oh yes." Reading and writing have to be learned, there is
no quick neuro-fix. Casually, with a glint of that startling irony,
he dismissed his skill. "I was taught, at home. But I don't bother.
I have people who understand all this for me."
"It's called oratory," I said. "And rhetoric. Modulated
speech is used to stir peoples' emotions, to cloud the facts and influence
Baal screwed up his handsome face in disapproval. "That's distasteful."
"Also it's tradition. It's just the way we do things."
I sighed, and sent a message to Pelé on our eye socket link.
D'you want to reassign?, came his swift response. He was worrying about
me, he wanted to protect me from the trauma of being with Baal, and
this was a needle under my skin. I liked Pelé very much, but
I preferred to treat the Diaspora Parliament as a no-ties singles bar.
No, I answered. Just for an hour, after this.
Getting close to Tiamaat was easy. After the session the four of us
went down to the Foyer, where Baal was quickly surrounded by a crowd
of high-powered admirers. They swept him off somewhere, with Pelé
in attendance. Tiamaat and I were left bobbing in the wake, ignored;
a little lost. "Shall we have coffee, Debra?" she suggested,
with dignity. "I love coffee. But not the kind that comes on those
I took her to "my" kiosk, and we found a table. I was impressed
by the way she handled the slights of her position. There goes Baal,
surrounded by the mighty, while his partner is reduced to having coffee
with a minder. . . It was a galling role to have to play in public.
I had intended to lead up to the topic on my mind: but she forestalled
me. "You must be horrified by what happened yesterday."
No hostility. "A little horrified, I admit." I affected to
hesitate"The Balas/Shet say that what Baal did was a ritual, confirming
his position as leader; and the Ki expected it. They may even have arranged
for the victim to be available. And it won't happen again. Are they
She sipped her cappuchino. "Baal doesn't believe he did anything
wrong," she answered, carefully; giving nothing away.
I remembered her cry of despair. "But what do you think-?"
"I can speak frankly?"
"You can say anything. We may seem to be in public, but nothing
you say to me, or that I say to you, can be heard by anyone else."
"Speranza is a very clever place!"
"Yes, it is. . . And as you know, though the system itself will
have a record, as your Social Support Officer I may not reveal anything
you ask me to keep to myself."
She gave me eye-contact then, very deliberately. I realised I'd never
seen her look anyone in the eye. The colour of her irises was a subtle,
"Before I left home, when I was a child, I ate meat. I hadn't killed
it, but I knew where it came from. But I have never killed, Debra. And
now I don't believe I ever will." She looked out at the passing
crowd, the surroundings that must be so punishingly strange to her.
"My mother said we should close ourselves off to the past, and
open ourselves to the future. So she sent me away, when I was six years'
old, to live on another world- "
"That sounds very young to me."
"I was young. I still had my milk teeth . . . I'm not like Baal,
because I have been brought up differently. If I were in his place things
would be better for the Others. I truly believe that." She meant
the Ki, the prey-nations. "But I know what has to be done for KiAn.
I want this rescue package to work. Baal is the one who will make it
happen, and I support him in every way."
She smiled, close-lipped, no flash of sharp white: I saw the poised
steel in her, hidden by ingrained self-suppression. And she changed
the subject, with composure. Unexpected boldness, unexpected finesse-
"Debra, is it true that Blue people have secret super-powers?"
I laughed and shook my head. "I'm afraid not. No talking flowers
Pelé tried to get the DP software
to change our codenames. He maintained that Baal and Tiamaat were not
even from the same mythology, and if we were going to invoke the gods
those two should be Aztecs: Huehueteotl, ripping the living heart from
his victims. . . The bots refused. They said they didn't care if they
were mixing their mysticisms. Codenames were a device to avoid accidental
offense until the system had assimilated a new user language. "Baal"
and "Tiamaat" were perfectly adequate, and the MesoAmerican
names had too many characters.
I had dinner with Baal, in the Sensitive
Visitor Facility. He was charming company: we ate vegetarian fusion
cuisine, and I tried not to think about the butchered meat in the kitchen
of his suite. On the other side of the room bull-shouldered Colonel
Haa'agaan ate alone; glancing at us covertly with small, sad eyes from
between the folds of his slaty head-hide. Shamaz had been hard hit by
what had happened in the Hopes and Dreams Park. But his orange and yellow
aura-tag was still bright and I knew mine was, too. By the ruthless
measures of interstellar diplomacy everything was still going well;
set for success.
If things had been different I might have joined Pelé again when
I was finally off duty. As it was I retired to my room, switched all
the décor, including ceiling and floor, to starry void, mixed
myself a kicking neurochemical cocktail and applied the popper to my
throat. Eyedrops are faster but I wanted the delay, I wanted to feel
myself coming apart. Surrounded by directionless immensity I sipped
chilled water, brooding. How can a people have World Government, space-flight
level industrialisation, numinal intelligence, and yet the ruling caste
are still killing and eating the peasants? How can they do that, when
practically everyone on KiAn admits they are a single species, differently
adapted: and they knew that before we told them. How can we be
back here, the Great Powers and their grisly parasites: making the same
moves, the same old mistakes, the same old hateful compromises, that
our Singularity was supposed to cure forever?
Why is moral development so difficult? Why are predators charismatic?
The knots in my frontal lobes were combed out by airy fingers, I fell
into the sea of possibilities, I went to the place of terror and joy
that no one understands unless they have been there. I asked my question
and I didn't get an answer, you never get an answer. Yet when I came
to the shallows again, when I laid myself, exhausted, on this dark and
confused shore, I knew what I was going to do: I had seen it.
I make my own decisions. I'd known
about Baal's views before I arrived. I'd known that he was likely to
hunt and kill "weakling" Ki, as was his traditional right,
if ever he got the chance, and not just once, he'd do it whenever the
opportunity arose; and I'd still been undecided. It was Tiamaat who
made the difference. I'd met her, skin on skin as we say. I knew what
the briefing had not been able to tell me. She was no cipher, superficially
"civilised" by her education, she was suppressed. I had heard
that cry of despair and anger, when she saw what Baal had done. I had
talked to her. I knew she had strength and cunning, as well as good
intentions. A latent dominance, the will and ability to be a leader.
I saw Baal's look of challenge and trust, even now-
But Tiamaat deserved saving, and I would save her.
The talks went on. Morale was low on
the DP side, because the refugee camp incident had shown us where we
stood, but the Ki delegates were happy - insanely, infuriatingly. The
"traditional diet of the An" was something they refused to
discuss, and they were going to get their planet rebuilt anyway. The
young An leaders spent very little time at the conference table. Baal
was indifferent -he had people to understand these things for him-;
and Tiamaat could not be present without him. This caused a rift. Their
aides, the only other An around, were restricted to the SV Facility
suites (we care assistants may be crazy but we're not entirely stupid).
Pelé and I were fully occupied, making sure our separate charges
weren't left moping alone. Pelé took Tiamaat shopping and visiting
museums, (virtual and actual). I found that Baal loved to roam, just
as I do myself, and took him exploring the lesser-known sights.
We talked about his background. Allegedly, he'd given up a promising
career in the An Space Marines to take on the leadership. When I'd assured
myself that his pilot skills were real, he wasn't just a toy-soldier
aristo, I finally took him on the long float through the permanent umbilical,
to Right Speranza.
We had to suit up at the other end.
"What's this?" demanded Baal, grinning. "Are we going
"You'll see. It's an excursion I thought you'd enjoy."
The suits were programmable. I watched him set one up for his size and
bulk, and knew he was fine: but I put him through the routines, to make
sure. Then I took him into the vasty open cavern of the DP's missile
repository, which we crossed like flies in a cathedral, hooking our
tethers to the girders, drifting over the ranked silos of deep-space
interceptors, the giant housing of particle cannons.
All of it obsolete, like castle walls in the age of heavy artillery,
but it looks convincing on the manifest and who knows? "Modern"
armies have been destroyed by Zulu spears, it never pays to ignore the
"Is this a weapons bay?" the monster exclaimed; scandalised
on suit radio.
"Of course," said I. "Speranza can defend herself, if
she has to."
I let us into a smaller hangar, through
a lock on the cavern wall, and filled it with air and pressure; and
lights. We were completely alone. Left Speranza is a natural object,
a hollowed asteroid. Right is artificial, and it's a dangerous place
for sentient bipeds. The proximity of the torus can have unpredictable
and bizarre effects, not to mention the tissue-frying radiation that
washes through at random intervals. But we would be fine for a short
while. We fixed tethers, opened our faceplates and hunkered down, gecko-padded
bootsoles clinging to the arbitrary "floor".
"I thought you were angels," he remarked, shyly. "The
weapons, all of that, it seems beneath you. Doesn't your codename, "Debra"
mean an angel? Aren't you all messengers, come to us from the Mighty
'Mighty Void' was a Balas/Shet term meaning something like God.
"No. . . Deborah was a judge, in Israel. I'm just human Baal. I'm
a person with numinal intelligance, the same kind of being as you are;
like all the KiAn."
I could see that the harsh environment of Right Speranza moved him,
as it did me. There was a mysterious peace and truth in being here,
in the cold dark, breathing borrowed air. He was pondering: open and
"Debra. . .? Do you believe in the Diaspora?"
"I believe in the Weak Theory," I said. "I don't believe
we're all descended from the same Blue Planet hominid, the mysterious
original starfarers, precursors of homo sapiens. I think we're the same
because we grew under the same constraints: time, gravity, hydrogen
bonds; the nature of water, the nature of carbon-"
"But instantaneous transit was invented on the Blue Planet,"
he protested, unwilling to lose his romantic vision.
"Only the prototype. It took hundreds of years, and a lot of outside
help, before we had anything like viable interstellar travel-"
Baal had other people to understand the technology for him. He was building
castles in the air, dreaming of his future. "Does everyone on the
Blue speak English?"
"Not at all. They mostly speak a language called putonghua, which
means 'common speech'. . . as if they were the only people in the galaxy.
Blues are as insular as the KiAn, believe me, when they're at home.
When you work for the DP, you change your ideas. It happens to everyone.
I'm still an Englishwoman, and mi naño Pelé is still a
man of Ecuador-
"I know!," he broke in, eagerly, "I felt that. I like
that in you!"
"But we skip the middle term. The World Government of our single
planet doesn't mean the same as it did." I grinned at him. "Hey,
I didn't bring you here for a lecture. This is what I wanted to show
you. See the pods?"
He looked around us, slowly, with a connoisseur's eye. He could see
what the pods were. They were Aleutian-build, the revolutionary leap
forward: vehicles that could pass through the mind/matter barrier.
An end to those dreary transit lounges, true starflight, the whole grail:
and only the Aleutians knew how it was done.
"Like to take one out for a spin?"
"You're kidding!" cried Baal, his eyes alight.
"No I'm not. We'll take a two man pod. How about it?"
He saw that I was serious, which gave him pause. "How can we? The
systems won't allow it. This hangar has to be under military security."
"I am military security, Baal. So is Pelé. What did you
think we were? Kindergarten teachers? Trust me, I have access, there'll
be no questions asked."
He laughed. He knew there was something strange going on, but he didn't
care: he trusted me. I glimpsed myself as a substitute for Tiamaat,
glimpsed the relationship he should have had with his partner. Not sexual,
but predation-based, a playful tussle, sparring partners. But Tiamaat
had not wanted to be his sidekick-
We took a pod. Once we were inside I sealed us off from Speranza, and
we lay side by side in the couches, two narrow beds in a torpedo shell:
an interstellar sports car, how right for this lordly boy. I checked
his hook-ups, and secured my own.
"Where are we going?"
"Oh, just around the block."
His vital signs were in my eyes, his whole being was quivering in excitement,
and I was glad. The lids closed, we were translated into code, we and
our pod were injected into the torus, in the form of a triple stream
of pure information, divided and shooting around the ring to meet itself,
I sat up, in a lucent gloom. The other
bed's seal opened, and Baal sat up beside me. We were both still suited,
with open faceplates. Our beds shaped themselves into pilot and co-pilot
couches, and we faced what seemed an unmediated view of the deep space
outside. Bulwarks and banks of glittering instruments carved the panorama:
I saw Baal's glance flash over the panels greedily, longing to be piloting
this little ship for real. Then he saw the yellow primary, a white hole
in black absence; and its brilliant, distant partner. He saw the pinpricks
of other formations that meant nothing much to me, and he knew where
I had brought him. We could not see the planet, it was entirely dark
from this view. But in our foreground the massive beams of space-to-space
lasers were playing: shepherding plasma particles into a shell that
would hold the recovering atmosphere in place.
To say that KiAn had been flayed alive was no metaphor. The people still
living on the surface were in some kind of hell. But it could be saved.
"None of the machinery is strictly material," I said, "in
any normal sense. It was couriered here, as information, in the living
minds of the people who are now on station. We can't see them, but they're
around, in pods like this one. It will all disintegrate when the repairs
are done. By then the skin of your world will be whole again, it won't
need to be held in place."
The KiAn don't cry, but I was so close to him, in the place where we
were, that I felt his tears. "Why are you doing this?" he
whispered. "You must be angels, or why are you saving us, what
have we done to deserve this?"
"The usual reasons," I said. "Market forces, political
leverage, power play."
"I don't believe you."
"Then I don't know what to tell you, Baal. Except that the Ki and
the An have numinal intelligence. You are like us, and we have so few
brothers and sisters. Once we'd found you, we couldn't bear to lose
I let him gaze, for a long moment without duration.
"I wanted you to see this."
I stepped out of my pilot's couch and stood braced: one hand gecko-padded
to the inner shell, while I used the instruments to set the pod to self-destruct.
The eject beacon started up, direct cortical warning that my mind read
as a screaming siren-
"Now I'm going back to Speranza. But you're not."
The fine young cannibal took a moment to react. The pupils in his tawny
eyes widened amazingly when found that he was paralysed; and his capsule
"Is this a dream?"
"Not quite. It's a confabulation. It's what happens when you stay
conscious in transit. The mind invents a stream of environments, events.
The restoration of KiAn is real, Baal. It will happen. We can see it
'now' because we're in non-duration, we're experiencing the simultanaeity.
In reality -if that makes any sense, language hates these situations-
we're still zipping around the torus. But when the confabulation breaks
up you'll still be in deep space and bound to die."
I did not need to tell him why I was doing this. He was no fool, he
knew why he had to go. But his mind was still working, fighting-
"Speranza is a four-space mapped environment. You can't do this
and go back alone. The system knows you were with me, every moment.
The record can't be changed, no way, without the tampering leaving a
"True. But I am one of those rare people who can change the information.
You've heard fairytales about us, the Blues who have super-powers? I'm
not an angel, Baal. Actually it's a capital crime to be what I am, where
I come from. But Speranza understands me. Speranza uses me."
"Ah!," he cried. "I knew it, I felt it. We are the same!"
When I recovered self-consciousness
I was in my room, alone. Earlier in the day Baal had claimed he needed
a nap. After a couple of hours I'd become suspicious, checked for his
signs and found him missing: gone from the SV Facility screen. I'd been
trying to trace him when Right Speranza had detected a pod, with the
An leader on board, firing up. The system had warned him to desist.
Baal had carried on, and paid high price for his attempted joyride.
The injection had failed, both Baal and one fabulous Aleutian-build
pod had been annihilated.
Remembering this much gave me an appalling headache -the same aching
awfulness I imagine shapeshifters (I know of one or two) feel in their
muscle and bone. I couldn't build the bridge at all: no notion how I'd
connected between this reality and the former version. I could have
stepped from the dying pod straight through the wall of this pleasant,
modest living space. But it didn't matter. I would find out, and Debra
would have been behaving like Debra.
Pelé came knocking. I let him in and we commiserated, both of
us in shock. We're advocates, not enforcers, there's very little we
can do if a Sensitive Visitor is determined to go AWOL. We'd done all
the right things, short of using undue force, and so had Speranza. When
we'd broken the privilege locks, Baal's room record had shown that he'd
been spying out how to get access to one of those Aleutian pods. It
was just too bad that he'd succeeded, and that he'd had enough skill
to get himself killed. Don't feel responsible, said Pelé. It's
not your fault. Nobody thinks that. Don't be so sad. Always so sad,
Debra: it's not good for the brain, you should take a break. Then he
started telling me that frankly, nobody would regret Baal. By An law
Tiamaat could now rule alone; and if she took a partner, we could trust
her not to choose another bloodthirsty atavist. . . I soon stopped him.
I huddled there in pain, my friend holding my hand: seeing only the
beautiful one, his tawny eyes at the last, his challenge and his trust;
mourning my victim.
I'm a melancholy assassin.
I did not sleep. In the grey calm of
Left Speranza's early hours, before the breakfast kiosks were awake,
I took the elevator to the Customised Shelter Sector, checked in with
the CSP and made my way, between the silent capsule towers, to Hopes
and Dreams Park. I was disappointed that there were no refugees about.
It would have been nice to see Ki children, playing fearlessly. Ki oldsters
picking herbs from their windowboxes, instead of being boiled down for
soup themselves. The gates of the Sacred Grove were open, so I just
walked in. There was a memorial service: strictly no outsiders, but
I'd had a personal message from Tiamaat saying I would be welcome. I
didn't particularly want to meet her again. I'm a superstitious assassin,
I felt that she would somehow know what I had done for her. I thought
I would keep to the back of whatever gathering I found, while I made
my own farewell.
The daystar's rays had cleared the false horizon, the sun was a rumour
of gold between the trees. I heard laughter, and a cry. I walked into
the clearing and saw Tiamaat. She'd just made the kill. I saw her toss
the small body down, drop to her haunches and take a ritual bite of
raw flesh; I saw the blood on her mouth. The Ki looked on, keeping their
distance in a solemn little cluster. Tiamaat transformed, splendid in
her power, proud of her deed, looked up; and straight at me. I don't
know what she expected. Did she think I would be glad for her? Did she
want me to know how I'd been fooled? Certainly she knew she had nothing
to fear. She was only doing the same as Baal had done, and the DP had
made no protest over his kill. I shouted, like an idiot: Hey, stop that!
, and the whole group scattered. They vanished into the foliage, taking
the body with them.
I said nothing to anyone. I had not,
in fact, forseen that Tiamaat would become a killer. I'd seen a talented
young woman, who would blossom if the unfairly favoured young man was
removed. I hadn't realised that a dominant An would behave like a dominant
An, irrespective of biological sex. Fish, reef fish of the Blue oceans
have the same approach to social gender. . . But I was sure my employers
had grasped the situation; and it didn't matter. The long gone, harsh
symbiosis between the An and the Ki, which they preserved in their rites
of kingship, was not the problem. It was the modern version,
the mass market in Ki meat, the intensive farms and the factories. Tiamaat
would help us to get rid of those. She would embrace the new in public,
whatever she believed in private.
And the fate of the Ki would change.
The news of Baal's death had been couriered
to KiAn and to the homeworlds by the time I took my transit back to
the Blue. We'd started getting reactions: all positive, so to speak.
Of course there would be persistent rumours that the Ki had somehow
arranged Baal's demise, but there was no harm in that. In certain situations,
assassination works -as long as it is secret, or at least misattributed.
It's a far more benign tool than most alternatives; and a lot faster.
I had signed off at the Social Support Office, I'd managed to avoid
goodbyes. Just before I went through to the lounge I realised I hadn't
had my aura tag taken off. I had to go back, and go through another
blessed gate; and Pelé caught me.
"Take the dreamtime," he insisted, holding me tight. "Play
some silly game, go skydiving from Angel Falls. Please, Debra. Don't
be conscious. You worry me."
I wondered if he suspected what I really did for a living.
Maybe so, but he couldn't possibly understand.
"I'll give it serious thought," I assured him, and kissed
I gave the idea of the soft option serious thought for ten paces: passed
into the lounge and found my narrow bed. I lay down there, beside my
fine young cannibal, the boy who had known me for what I was. His innocent
eyes. . . I lay down with them all, and with the searing terrors they
bring; all my dead remembered.
I needed to launder my soul.
first published in The New
Space Opera; ed. Gardner Dozois
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