Authors: Greg Bear
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Science fiction; American
Strength of Stones
by Greg Bear
Copyright (c)1981, 1988 by Greg Bear
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SONGS OF EARTH AND POWER
For my grandmother, Florence M. Bear,
provider of a home
for wandering adventurers.
>>11 "What is my strength, that I should
And what is mine end, that I
should be patient?
12 Is my strength the strength of stones?
Or is my flesh of brass?
13 Is it that I have no help in me,
And that sound wisdom is driven
quite from me?"<<
_JOB 6, the Masoretic Text_
_The final decade of Earth's twentieth century was cataclysmic. Moslem states fought horrible wars in 1995, 1996, and 1998, devastating much of Africa and the Middle East. In less than five years, the steady growth of Islam during the latter half of the century became a rout of terror and apostasy, one of the worst religious convulsions in human history._
_Christian splinter cults around the world engaged in every imaginable form of social disobedience to hasten the long-overdue Millennium, but there was no Second Coming. Their indiscretions rubbed off on all Christians._
_As for the Jews -- the world had never needed any reason to hate Jews._
_The far-flung children of Abraham had their decade of unbridled fervor, and they paid for it. Marginally united by a world turning to other religions and against them, Jews, Christians and Moslems ratified the Pact of God in 2020. They desperately harked back to ages past to find common ground. Having spoiled their holy lands, there was no place where they could unite geographically._
_In the last years of the twenty-first century, they looked outward. The Heaven Migration began in 2113. After decades more of persecution and ridicule, they pooled their resources to buy a world of their own. That world was renamed God-Does-Battle, tamed by the wealth of the heirs of Christ, Rome, Abraham and OPEC._
_They hired the greatest human architect to build their new cities for them. He tried to mediate between what they demanded, and what would work best for them._
THE city that had occupied Mesa Canaan was now marching across the plain. Jeshua watched with binoculars from the cover of the jungle. It had disassembled just before dawn, walking on elephantine legs, tractor treads and wheels, with living bulkheads upright, dismantled buttresses given new instructions to crawl instead of support; floors and ceilings, transports and smaller city parts, factories and resource centers, all unrecognizable now, like a slime mold soon to gather itself in its new country.
The city carried its plan deep within the living plasm of its fragmented body. Every piece knew its place, and within that scheme there was no room for Jeshua, or for any man.
The living cities had cast them out a thousand years before.
He lay with his back against a tree, binoculars in one hand and an orange in the other, sucking thoughtfully on a bitter piece of rind. No matter how far back he probed, the first thing he remembered was watching a city break into a tide of parts, migrating. He had been three years old, two by the seasons of God-Does-Battle, sitting on his father's shoulders as they came to the village of Bethel-Japhet to live. Jeshua -- ironically named, for he would always be chaste -- remembered nothing of importance before coming to Bethel-Japhet. Perhaps it had all been erased by the shock of falling into the campfire a month before reaching the village. His body still carried the marks: a circle of scars on his chest, black with the tiny remnants of cinders.
Jeshua was huge, seven feet tall flat on his feet. His arms were as thick as an ordinary man's legs, and when he inhaled, his chest swelled as big as a barrel. He was a smith in the village, a worker of iron and caster of bronze and silver. But his strong hands had also acquired delicate skills to craft ritual and family jewelry. For his trade he had been given the surname Tubal -- Jeshua Tubal Iben Daod, craftsman of all metals.
The city on the plain was marching toward the Arat range. It moved with faultless deliberation. Cities seldom migrated more than a hundred miles at a time or more than once in a hundred years, so the legends went; but they seemed more restless now.
He scratched his back against the trunk, then put his binoculars in a pants pocket. His feet slipped into the sandals he'd dropped on the mossy jungle floor, and he stood, stretching. He sensed someone behind him but did not turn to look, though his neck muscles knotted tight.
"Jeshua." It was the chief of the guard and the council of laws, Sam Daniel the Catholic. His father and Sam Daniel had been friends before his father disappeared. "Time for the Synedrium to convene."
Jeshua tightened the straps on his sandals and followed.
Bethel-Japhet was a village of moderate size, with about two thousand people. Its houses and buildings laced through the jungle until no distinct borders remained. The stone roadway to the Synedrium Hall seemed too short to Jershua, and the crowd within the hearing chamber was far too large. His betrothed, Kisa, daughter of Jake, was not there, but his challenger, Renold Mosha Iben Yitshok, was.
The representative of the seventy judges, the Septuagint, called the gathering to order and asked that the details of the case be presented.
"Son of David," Renold said, "I have come to contest your betrothal to Kisa, daughter of Jake."
"I hear," Jeshua said, taking his seat in the defendant's docket.
"I have reasons for my challenge. Will you hear them?"
Jeshua didn't answer.
"Pardon my persistence. It is the law. I don't dislike you -- I remember our childhood, when we played together -- but now we are mature, and the time has come."
"Then speak." Jeshua fingered his thick dark beard. His flushed skin was the color of the fine sandy dirt on the riverbanks of the Hebron. He towered a good foot above Renold, who was slight and graceful.
"Jeshua Tubal Iben Daod, you were born like other men but did not grow as we have. You now look like a man, but the Synedrium has records of your development. You cannot consummate a marriage. You cannot give a child to Kisa. This annuls your childhood betrothal. By law and by my wish I am bound to replace you, to fulfil your obligation to her."
Kisa would never know. No one here would tell her. She would come in time to accept and love Renold, and to think of Jeshua as only another man in the Expolis Ibreem and its twelve villages, a man who stayed alone and unmarried. Her slender warm body with skin smooth as the finest cotton would soon dance beneath the man he saw before him. She would clutch Renold's back and dream of the time when humans would again be welcomed into the cities, when the skies would again be filled with ships and God-Does-Battle would be redeemed --
"I cannot answer, Renold Mosha Iben Yitshok."
"Then you will sign this." Renold held out a piece of paper and advanced.
"There was no need for a public witnessing," Jeshua said. "Why did the Synedrium decide my shame was to be public?" He looked around with tears in his eyes. Never before, even in the greatest physical pain, had he cried; not even, so his father said, when he had fallen into the fire.
He moaned. Renold stepped back and looked up in anguish. "I'm sorry, Jeshua. Please sign. If you love either Kisa or myself, or the expolis, sign."
Jeshua's huge chest forced out a scream. Renold turned and ran. Jeshua slammed his fist onto the railing, struck himself on the forehead and tore out the seams of his shirt. He had had too much. For nine years he had known of his inability to be a whole man, but he had hoped that would change, that his genitals would develop like some tardy flower just beyond normal season, and they had. But not enough. His testicles were fully developed, enough to give him a hairy body, broad shoulders, flat stomach, narrow hips, and all the desires of any young man -- but his penis was the small pink dangle of a child.
Now he exploded. He ran after Renold, out of the hall, bellowing incoherently and swinging his binoculars at the end of their leather strap. Renold ran into the village square and screeched a warning. Children and fowl scattered. Women grabbed their skirts and fled for the wood and brick homes.
Jeshua stopped. He flung his binoculars as high as he could above his head. They cleared the top of the tallest tree in the area and fell a hundred feet beyond. Still bellowing, he charged a house and put his hands against the wall. He braced his feet and heaved. He slammed his shoulder against it. It would not move. More furious still, he turned to a trough of fresh water, picked it up, and dumped it over his head. The cold did not slow him. He threw the trough against the wall and splintered it.
"Enough!" cried the chief of the guard. Jeshua stopped and blinked at Sam Daniel the Catholic. He wobbled, weak with exertion. Something in his stomach hurt.
"Enough, Jeshua," Sam Daniel said softly.
"The law is taking away my birthright. Is that just?"
"Your right as a citizen, perhaps, but not your birthright. You weren't born here, Jeshua. But it is still no fault of yours. There is no telling why nature makes mistakes."
"No!" He ran around the house and took a side street into the market triangle. The stalls were busy with customers picking them over and carrying away baskets filled with purchases. He leaped into the triangle and began to scatter people and shops every which way. Sam Daniel and his men followed.
"He's gone berserk!" Renold shouted from the rear. "He tried to kill me!"
"I've always said he was too big to be safe," growled one of the guard. "Now look what he's doing."
"He'll face the council for it," Sam Daniel said.
"Nay, the Septuagint he'll face, as a criminal, if the damage gets any heavier!"
They followed him through the market.
Jeshua stopped at the base of a hill, near an old gate leading from the village proper. He gasped painfully, and his face was wine-red. Sweat gnarled his hair. In the thicket of his mind he searched for a way out, the only way out. His father had told him about it when he was thirteen or fourteen. "The cities were like doctors," his father had said. "They could alter, replace, or repair anything in the human body. That's what was lost when the cities grew disgusted and cast the people out."
No city would let any real man or woman enter. But Jeshua was different. Real people could sin. He could be a sinner not in fact, but only in thought. In his confusion the distinction seemed important.
Sam Daniel and his men found him at the outskirts of the jungle, walking away from Bethel-Japhet.
"Stop!" the chief of the guard ordered.
"I'm leaving," Jeshua said without turning.
"You can't go without a ruling!" "I am."
"We'll hunt you!"
"Then I'll hide, damn you!"
There was only one place to hide on the plain, and that was underground, in the places older than the living cities and known collectively as Sheol. Jeshua ran. He soon outdistanced them all.
Five miles ahead he saw the city that had left Mesa Canaan. It had reassembled itself below the mountains of Arat. It gleamed in the sun, as beautiful as anything ever denied mankind. The walls began to glow as the sky darkened, and in the evening silence the air hummed with the internal noises of the city's life. Jeshua slept in a gully, hidden by a lean-to woven out of reeds.
In the soft yellow light of dawn, he looked at the city more closely, lifting his head above the gully's muddy rim. The city began with a ring of rounded outward-leaning towers, like the petals of a monumental lotus. Inward was another ring, slightly taller, and another, rising to support a radiance of buttresses. The buttresses carried a platform with columns atop it, segmented and studded like the branches of a diatom. At the city's summit, a dome like the magnified eye of a fly gave off a corona of diffracted colors. Opal glints of blue and green sparkled in the outside walls.
With the help of the finest architect humanity had ever produced, Robert Kahn, Jeshua's ancestors had built the cities and made them as comfortable as possible. Huge laboratories had labored for decades to produce the right combination of animal, plant, and machine, and to fit them within the proper designs. It had been a proud day when the first cities were opened. The Christians, Jews, and Moslems of God-Does-Battle could boast of cities more spectacular than any that Kahn had built elsewhere, and the builder's works could be found on a hundred worlds.
Jeshua stopped a hundred yards from the glassy steps beneath the outer petals of the city. Broad, sharp spikes rose from the pavement and smooth garden walls. The plants within the garden shrank away at his approach. The entire circuit of paving around the city shattered into silicate thorns and bristled. There was no way to enter. Still, he walked closer.
He faced the tangle of sharp spines and reached to stroke one with a hand. It shuddered at his touch.
"I haven't sinned," he told it. "I've hurt no one, coveted only that which was mine by law." The nested spikes said nothing but grew taller as he watched, until they extended a hundred yards above his head.
He sat on a hummock of grass outside the perimeter and clasped his stomach with his hands to ease the hunger and pressure of his sadness. He looked up at the city's peak. A thin silvery tower rose from the midst of the columns and culminated in a multifaceted sphere. The sunlit side of the sphere formed a crescent of yellow brilliance. A cold wind rushed through his clothes and made him shiver. He stood and began to walk around the city, picking up speed when the wind carried sounds of people from the expolis.