Authors: Gwyneth Jones
Tags: #Human-Alien Encounters—Fiction, #Reincarnation—Fiction, #Feminist Science Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Gender War--Fiction, #scifi, #sf
G W Y N E T H J O N E S
This is a work of fiction. The city, characters, and events to be found in these pages are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual places or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Print copyright © 1994 by Gwyneth Jones
Digital copyright © 2011 by Gwyneth Jones
All rights reserved.
Digital ISBN: 978-1-933500-69-0
First published by Victor Gollancz, London UK, 1994
First published in the USA by Tor (Tom Doherty Associates) New York, 1996
Background image of the Himalayas for book cover created by Russell Symonds
Website: ScienceofWholeness.org (or WholeJoy.com)
“I admit that I am one of those who would gladly break their neck for a wager, and that no schoolboy could be prouder of his pluck and agility than I am. That’s because I’m undersized, and because all undersized men always want to do everything big men do…”
George Sand, Lettres D’Un Voyager,
tr Sacha Rabinovitch andPatricia Thomson
North West Frontier
The doctor had been telling a story about his first stay on earth. His last words were spoken aloud and in English, disturbing the golden, resin-scented silence. The Aleutian sightseers started and looked at him accusingly. Bokr quickly reverted to informal speech.
Perhaps there was no need to be nervous. Aleutians had come out from the Post to visit these relics often. There had never been any trouble before, though sometimes they’d been aware of curious watchers keeping out of sight. But the Trading Post was on the northern frontier of Aleutian presence. An hour’s journey away by jeep a war was raging.
There had been war on the giant planet—the same war, breaking out in one place as it subsided in another—for most of the period since the Aleutian shipworld arrived and settled in orbit around earth. Some people had longed to interfere, convinced they could teach the benighted locals to abandon their superstitions and live in peace. Others had reminded the rest that they had no reason to feel superior. There was no armed conflict on the shipworld because they were a single nation. War was a normal feature of international affairs at Home.
At least the locals had no proliferating weapons. They couldn’t do each other any lasting damage, with their limited armory.
The traders had retreated from trouble spots, consolidated where they were welcome, discreetly refused to take sides: all had been well. But suddenly, for reasons no one could understand, the Expedition was in trouble. The “Government of the World,” the local body the traders had always dealt with, professed itself no longer able to protect them.
The staff at Expedition Headquarters at Uji, in Karen state, north of Thailand, claimed that there was no cause for concern. Naturally, it was a matter of pride to remain equally calm on the frontier. But this was not the time for making provocative formal speeches about the burden of quarantine. It was known that the locals could be eavesdropping, even in a spot like this. The Aleutians waited, half afraid of a lightning strike out of the blue sky.
Nothing happened. They relaxed, laughing at themselves.
Goodlooking laid his hand on a slab of worked stone. The scale of this relic astonished him. A massive grey-golden wall rose far above his head, webbed by a network of dark lines so regular and so harmonious that the effect was completely lifelike. But these dead stones had been cut and set mechanically by the hands of local people; or by non-living machines. He stretched his fingers, so the quarantine film, which looked soft but was very tough, glittered in the sunlight.
The film covered him entirely, over his clothes and every scrap of exposed skin. It shimmered in front of his eyes. He breathed through it: when he opened and closed his mouth it stretched and shrank.
he told himself.
Life is separate. Every being is separate. They do not grow their machines or their buildings, from stuff impregnated with their own life. The animals and plants I see around me are separate, whether they are wild or tame. They are not designed by the secretions of farmers or gardeners. They are not escapes that have survived and gone their own way, from food-making changes that primitive people started long ago. Our wanderers, (that they call ‘mobile semi-sentient cell colonies’) are passing information between us all the time. The locals don’t have that means of contact. They are afraid of our cloud of presence.
The spaces between us are filled with a mist of common self. They are each alone, and it seems natural to them. How strange and wonderful!
The Aleutians wandered in the circle of turf enclosed by the giant walls: Bokr, the post’s physician, and Panisad the trader, who were Signifiers like Goodlooking; plus eight of the ordinary staff. These were artisans, technicians and domestics who, like the majority of Aleutians, never used spoken language.
Goodlooking found a fallen block and knelt down, using it as an armrest. His disability made any physical effort exhausting. At home or in the shipworld no one would have dreamed that he could join in an outing like this: out of doors! An unlikely recruit for the Expedition, he was here because Lord Maitri, the head of his household, was the chief trading officer at the frontier post: and because Maitri was also, for this life, Goodlooking’s beloved and indulgent parent.
The Self moves in mysterious ways. The last child Maitri had nurtured in his body had been a technician. The child before that had been the great Clavel, one of the original captains of the Expedition to Earth. Clavel the Pure One: who was so little like a trader, but whose influence was so important to them… This time Maitri’s offspring had turned out to be his own dim, disabled librarian. But Maitri loved all his children equally. He was the kindest of lords. Lives ago, he had practically invented the post of ‘librarian’ for his invalid dependent. He’d known his ward longed to visit the giant planet: therefore he had arranged it.
So here was Goodlooking; equipped with a double set of underwear against the rigors of the climate, and the novelty of a formal name. In Aleutia your identity was never in doubt, it filled the air around you. Only important people had personal names, descriptive tags that might change from life to life or mood to mood. On Earth everyone had a fixed title, local style: it was an Expedition tradition. They had dug out Maitri’s baby-name for “Goodlooking,” since he had no other.
Then, in the middle of his visit, the locals had turned hostile. Whatever the people at Uji said, the situation was obviously deteriorating. It wasn’t his fault, but Goodlooking knew he’d become an embarrassment.
He smothered a rueful sigh. He would not have missed being Maitri’s ward, or coming to earth, for fifty other lives. The risk of sudden death didn’t bother him. One more shortened life was neither here nor there in his feeble career. It was the little things that marred this wonderful privilege. That woefully inappropriate formal name; which he detested. The feeling that he was a nuisance. The slight falseness of his position as Lord Maitri’s ward.
Every hour was full of tiny stings.
In the silence, he was acutely aware of his disability. All the staff of the post belonged to Maitri’s household, but Bokr was the only one of these people that he knew well. Their use of the Common Tongue, the silent language of their expression and gesture, was unfamiliar. He could follow the gist, but he did not have the key, the intimate knowledge of their past lives that would have made every phrase transparent. At home, which for lives had meant onboard the shipworld, it didn’t matter that he found communication difficult. He lived alone in his little closet, buried deep in the house, with Maitri’s private records; immersed in the moving images. Ironically, this meant he “knew” plenty of famous and important people: including some famous inhabitants of this giant planet. He could have read their every gesture, from what he knew of their recorded lives. But he was never likely to be on a picnic with them.
Dr. Bokr appeared at his side: materializing without warning, as people seemed to do even in plain sight, when they were wrapped in the quarantine film.
His kind, professional eyes told his real feelings:
Goodlooking tried not to recoil from the blast of concern.
He settled companionably by Goodlooking’s block, and spoke of the naked white radiance of the homeworld sun: the way it rained down on you in the wilderness when you were right away from any city; unfiltered by the presence of life. In the shipworld, light dispersed from the bluesun reactor faded from blue day into indigo night, never reaching full darkness, or the diamond blaze of noon. Earth’s sun was an improvement. But if you were an outdoor person…. If you had traveled in the mountains, as Bokr had done once, with the great Clavel, this brassy glow was no substitute.
When he spoke of his previous trip to earth, which had happened in his last life and was part of his most recent recorded memory, Bokr seemed to be describing the distant past. When he talked of the homeworld, which he had left—in earth terms—thousands of years ago, he spoke as if he’d been there yesterday and planned to return tomorrow. It was natural. On Earth,
had changed. The lost Home remained frozen in their minds in the state in which they’d left it. But it was no wonder earth people found the Aleutian concept of time confusing.
One life, thought Goodlooking, awed by such deprivation. To awake into consciousness, as a child wakes, but with no one to tell you who you are. No one to show you your possessions, no one to bring records of your past that will teach you how to be yourself. One life and then nothing: out of darkness into darkness!
Goodlooking felt uncomfortable, and smiled vaguely.
There was an aura of mystery around the librarian’s incarnation, this time round. It was because he was Maitri’s ward, and because Maitri made an unwarranted fuss of him (in some peoples’ opinion). A rumor had got about that he was not really the librarian, but the true child—the fated lover—of someone very important; who’d been given a false identity at birth to hide him from his lover’s enemies. One day, when he was old enough or when the danger had passed, his real status would be revealed.
To find “another self” was the Aleutian ideal of romance. Such a meeting was unlikely. There were millions of possible selves on record in the shipworld: and there was believed to be a ‘natural prohibition’ on the same person being born twice in the same generation. But young Aleutians secretly dreamt of finding their “trueparent,” while elders searched young faces for their “truechild.” If someone important (and romantically inclined) thought he’d found such a treasure, maybe he’d want to hide the baby. A person like that might well have artisans, medical technicians, who could fake anything.
The rumor was absurd, yet plausible enough to have earned a dim, disabled librarian some surprising attentions.
Goodlooking could have asked Maitri to deny the story. But his lord seemed not to notice the gossip and Goodlooking couldn’t bear to broach the subject:
Maitri, am I a prince in hiding?
He’d have felt so stupid. He’d decided to ignore the whispers, and pretend he didn’t understand the hints. However, he did not see why he should be grateful for flattering advances directed at the supposed secret celebrity.
“I was thinking about permanent death,” he said, in clear English. “Such a sad idea.”
The doctor stared. “Permanent death? Yes, horrible. Pure superstition. Their physiology may be odd, but essentially they must be the same as the rest of us. A person is a person.”
He answered the formal speech in the same mode, as politeness required: but his face was a study. He could hardly believe that he’d been snubbed, by the meekest of his patients. Shortly he got up and moved away, with a dignified shrug and headshake which cunningly managed to convey two messages: telling Goodlooking that he was grieved, that his kindness had been misinterpreted, while letting the rest of the company know he’d merely been making sure the invalid was not overtired.
It isn’t sensible, thought Goodlooking wryly. If they really believe I’m a disguised prince, with a fated lover in my future, why are they surprised when I turn them down?
The Aleutians strolled about, admiring the stonework and the plants and the scuttering, flitting scraps of wildlife. Goodlooking settled against his block, reveling in the sunlight that wasn’t good enough for Dr. Bokr, and catching fragments of conversation; the occasional quiet word of English from the Signifiers. It was the official formal language of the Expedition. It had been the most widespread local dialect when they arrived. It wasn’t so useful now, but the habit remained.
He was glad to be ignored for a while. To Maitri’s librarian the modest company at the Trading Post was a mad social whirl. It would have tired him if he’d felt quite at ease. As it was, he was only truly comfortable alone in his room: or chatting with the local interpreter, the “halfcaste” Sidney Carton.