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Authors: Jack Vance

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The Blue World

BOOK: The Blue World
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THE BLUE WORLD
Jack Vance
Chapter 1

Among the people of the Floats caste distinctions were fast losing
their old-time importance. The Anarchists and Procurers had
disappeared altogether; intercaste marriages were by no means
uncommon, especially when they involved castes of approximately the
same social status. Society, of course, was not falling into chaos;
the Bezzlers and the Incendiaries still maintained their traditional
aloofness; the Advertisermen still could not evade a subtle but
nonetheless general disesteem, and where the castes were associated
with a craft or trade, they functioned with undiminished
effectiveness. The Swindlers comprised the vast majority of those who
fished from coracles, and though the once numerous Peculators had
dwindled to a handful, they still dominated the dye works on Fay
Float. Smugglers boiled varnish, Malpractors pulled teeth.
Blackguards constructed the sponge-arbors in every lagoon; the
Hoodwinks completely monopolized the field of hood-winking. This last
relationship always excited the curiosity of the young, who would
inquire, “Which first: the Hoodwinks or hood-winking?” To
which the elders customarily replied: “When the Ship of Space
discharged the Firsts upon these blessed floats, there were four
Hoodwinks among the Two Hundred. Later, when the towers were built
and the lamps established, there were hoods to wink, and it seemed
only appropriate that the Hoodwinks should occupy themselves at the
trade. It may well be that matters stood so in the Outer Wildness,
before the Escape. It seems likely. There were undoubtedly lamps to
be flashed and hoods to be winked. Of course there is much we do not
know, much concerning which the Memoria are either silent or
ambiguous.”

Whether or not the Hoodwinks had been drawn to the trade by virtue of
ancient use, it was now the rare hoodwink who did not in some measure
find his vocation upon the towers, either as a rigger, a lamp-tender,
or as a full-fledged hoodwink.

Another caste, the Larceners, constructed the towers, which
customarily stood sixty to ninety feet high at the center of the
float, directly above the primary stalk of the sea-plant. There were
usually four legs of woven or laminated withe, which passed through
holes in the pad to join a stout stalk twenty or thirty feet below
the surface. At the top of the tower was a cupola, with walls of
split withe, a roof of varnished and laminated pad-skin. Yardarms
extending to either side supported lattices, each carrying nine lamps
arranged in a square, together with the hoods and trip-mechanisms.
Within the cupola, windows afforded a view across the water to the
neighboring floats—a distance as much as the two miles
between Green Lamp and Adelvine, or as little as the quarter-mile
between Leumar and Populous Equity.

The Master Hoodwink sat at a panel. At his left hand were nine
tap-rods, cross-coupled to lamp-hoods on the lattice to his right.
Similarly the tap-rods at his right hand controlled the hoods to his
left. By this means the configurations he formed and those he
received, from his point of view, were of identical aspect and caused
him no confusion. During the daytime the lamps were not lit and white
targets served the same function. The hoodwink set his configuration
with quick strokes of right and left hands, kicked the release, which
there-upon flicked the hoods, or shutters, at the respective lamps or
targets. Each configuration signified a word; the mastery of a
lexicon and a sometimes remarkable dexterity were the Master
Hoodwink’s stock in trade. All could send at speeds almost that of
speech; all knew at least five thousand, and some six, seven, eight,
or even nine thousand configurations. The folk of the floats could in
varying degrees read the configurations, which were also employed in
the keeping of the archives (against the vehement protests of the
Scriveners), and in various other communications, public
announcements, and messages
[1]
.

On Tranque Float, at the extreme east of the group, the Master
Hoodwink was one Zander Rohan, a rigorous and exacting old man with a
mastery of over seven thousand configurations. His first assistant,
Sklar Hast, had well over five thousand configurations at his
disposal; precisely how many more he had never publicized. There were
two further assistants, as well as three apprentices, two riggers, a
lamp-tender, and a maintenance withe-weaver, this latter a Larcener.
Zander Rohan tended the tower from dusk until middle evening: the
busy hours during which gossip, announcements, news, and
notifications regarding King Kragen flickered up and down the
fifty-mile line of the floats.

Sklar Hast winked hoods during the afternoon; then, when Zander Rohan
appeared in the cupola, he looked to maintenance and supervised the
apprentices. A relatively young man, Sklar Hast had achieved his
status by the simplest and most uncomplicated policy imaginable: With
great tenacity he strove for excellence and sought to instill the
same standards into the apprentices. He was a positive and direct
man, without any great affability, knowing nothing of malice or guile
and little of tact or patience. The apprentices resented his
brusqueness but respected him; Zander Rohan considered him
overpragmatic and deficient in reverence for his betters—which was to say, himself. Sklar Hast cared nothing one way or the
other. Zander Rohan must soon retire; in due course Sklar Hast would
become Master Hoodwink. He was in no hurry; on this placid, limpid,
changeless world, where time drifted rather than throbbed, there was
little to be gained by urgency.

Sklar Hast owned a small pad of which he was the sole occupant. The
pad, a heart-shaped wad of spongy tissue a hundred feet in diameter,
floated at the north of the lagoon. Sklar Hast’s hut was of standard
construction: withe bent and lashed, then sheathed with sheets of
pad-skin, the tough near-transparent membrane peeled from the bottom
of the sea-plant pad. All was then coated with well-aged varnish,
prepared by boiling sea-plant sap until the water was driven oil and
the resins amalgamated.

Other vegetation grew in the spongy tissue of the pad: shrubs, a
thicket of bamboolike rods
yielding good-quality withe, epiphytes hanging from the central spike
of the sea-plant. On other pads the plants might be ordered according
to aesthetic theory, but Sklar Hast had small taste in these matters,
and the center of his pad was little more than an untidy copse of
various stalks, fronds, tendrils, and leaves, in various shades of
black, green, and rusty orange. Sklar Hast knew himself for a
fortunate man. There was, unfortunately, an obverse to the picture,
for those qualities which had won him prestige, position, a private
float, were not those calculated to ease him through the careful
routines of float society. Only this afternoon he had become involved
in a dispute involving a whole complex of basic float principles.
Sitting now on the bench before his hut, sipping a cup of wine, Sklar
Hast watched lavender dusk settle over the ocean and brooded upon the
headstrong folly of Meril Rohan, daughter to Zander Rohan. A breeze
milled the water, moved the foliage; drawing a deep breath, Sklar
Hast felt his anger loosen and drain away. Meril Rohan could do as
she pleased; it was folly to exercise himself-either in connection
with her or Semm Voiderveg or anything else. Conditions were as they
were; if no one else objected, why should he? With this, Sklar Hast
smiled a faint, rather bitter, smile, knowing that he could not fully
subscribe to this doctrine …

But the evening was far too soft and soothing for contentiousness. In
due course events would right themselves, and looking away toward the
horizon, Sklar Hast, in a moment of clarity, thought to see the
future, as wide and lucid as the dreaming expanse of water and sky.
Presently he would espouse one of the girls whom he currently tested—and forever abandon privacy, he reflected wistfully. There
was no need for haste. In the case of Meril Rohan … But no. She
occupied his thoughts merely because of her perverse and headstrong
plans in regard to Semm Voiderveg—which did not bear thinking
about.

Sklar Hast drained his cup of wine. Folly to worry, folly to fret.
Life was good. In the lagoon hung arbors on which grew the succulent
spongelike organisms which, when cleaned, plucked and boiled, formed
the staple food of the Float folk. The lagoon teemed with edible
fish, separated from the predators of the ocean by an enormous net.
Much other food was available: spores from the sea-plant fruiting
organ, various tendrils and bulbs, as well as the prized flesh of the
gray-fish which the swindlers took from the ocean.

Sklar Hast poured himself a second cup of wine and, leaning back,
looked up to where the constellations already blazed. Halfway up the
southern sky hung a cluster of twenty-five bright stars, from which,
so tradition asserted, his ancestors had come, fleeing the
persecution of megalomaniac tyrants. Two hundred persons, of various
castes, managed to disembark before the Ship of Space foundered in
the ocean which spread unbroken around the world. Now, twelve
generations later, the two hundred were twenty thousand, scattered
along fifty miles of floating sea-plant. The castes, so jealously
differentiated during the first few generations, had gradually
accommodated themselves to one another and now were even
intermingling. There was little to disturb the easy flow of life,
nothing harsh or unpleasant—except, perhaps, King Kragen.

Sklar Hast rose, walked to the edge of the float, where only two days
before King Kragen had plucked three of his arbors clean. King
Kragen’s appetite as well as his bulk grew by the year, and Sklar
Hast wondered how large King Kragen might eventually become. Was
there any limit? During his own lifetime King Kragen had grown
perceptibly and now measured perhaps sixty feet in length. Sklar Hast
scowled westward across the ocean, in the direction from which King
Kragen customarily appeared, moving with long strokes of his four
propulsive vanes in a manner to suggest some vast, grotesquely ugly
anthropoid swimming the breast-stroke. There, of course, the
resemblance to man ended. King Kragen’s body was tough black
cartilage, a long cylinder riding a heavy rectangle, from the corners
of which extended the vanes. The cylinder comprising King Kragen’s
main bulk opened forward in a maw fringed with four mandibles and
eight palps, aft in an anus. Atop this cylinder, somewhat to the
front, rose a turret from which the four eyes protruded: two peering
forward, two aft. King Kragen was a terrible force for destruction,
but luckily could be placated. King Kragen enjoyed copious quantities
of sponges, and when his appetite was appeased, he injured no one and
did no damage; indeed he kept the area clear of other marauding
kragen, which either he killed or sent flapping and skipping in a
panic across the ocean.

Sklar Hast returned to the bench, swung sidewise to where he could
watch the winks from Tranque Tower. Zander Rohan was at the hoods;
Sklar Hast well knew his touch. It was marked by a certain measured
crispness, which very gradually was becoming wooden. To the casual
eye Zander Rohan’s style was clean and deft; his precision and
flexibility were those of a Master Hoodwink. But almost insensibly
his speed was falling off, his sense of time was failing; there was a
brittle quality to his winking, rather than the supple rhythm of a
hoodwink at the height of his powers. Zander Rohan was growing old.
Sklar Hast knew that he could outwink Zander Rohan at any time,
should he choose to humiliate the old man. This, for all Sklar Hast’s
bluntness and lack of tact, was the last thing he wished to do. But
how long would the old man persist in fulfilling his duties? Even now
Zander Rohan had unreasonably delayed his retirement—from
jealousy and rancor, Sklar Hast suspected.

The antipathy derived from a whole set of circumstances: Sklar Hast’s
uncompromising manner, his self-confidence, his professional
competence; and then there was the matter of Meril, Zander Rohan’s
daughter. Five years before, when relations between the two men had
been easier, Rohan had extended a number of not too subtle hints that
Sklar Hast might well consider Meril as a possible spouse. By every
objective standpoint, the prospect should have aroused Sklar Hast’s
enthusiasm. Meril was of his own caste, the daughter of a
guild-master; Sklar Hast’s career could not help but be furthered.
They were of the same generation, both Elevenths, a matter of no
formal importance but which popularly was regarded as desirable and
advantageous. And, finally, Meril was by no means uncomely, though
somewhat leggy and boyishly abrupt of movement.

What had given Sklar Hast pause was
Meril Rohan’s unpredictability and perverse behavior. Like most folk
of the floats. she could read winks, but she also had learned the
cursive script of the Firsts. Sklar Hast, with eyes conditioned by
the precision and elegance of the hoodwink configurations, considered
the script crabbed, sinuous, and cryptic; he was annoyed by its, lack
of uniformity, even though he recognized and was a connoisseur of the
unique and individual style that distinguished each Master Hoodwink.
On one occasion he had inquired Meril Rohan’s motive for learning the
script. “Because I want to read the Memoria,” she told him.
“Because I wish to become a scrivener.”

Sklar Hast had no
fault to find with her ambition—he was quite willing that
everyone should pursue his own dream—but he was puzzled. “Why
go to such effort? The Analects are given in winks. They teach us the
substance of the Memoria and eliminate the absurdities.”

Meril Rohan
laughed in a manner Sklar Hast found somewhat strange. “But it
is exactly this that interests me! The absurdities, the
contradictions, the allusions—I wonder what they all mean!”

“They mean
that the Firsts were a confused and discouraged set of men and
women.”

BOOK: The Blue World
6.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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