Laprada was fussing, lifting my tapi from each shoulder till it hung parallel to the floor, and tugging at the fastening. It made me nervous—as her instructor at hand-to-hand fighting, I knew how she loved chokeholds. “Oh, cheer up, you ancient monster of ego,” she said. “Something good could happen tonight. For example, maybe they’ll finally send a competent sniper. Then we won’t have to listen to you complain.”
“Then you won’t,” Raimbaut said. “I’d have him in my head. And after that, we’d both have to listen to him complain about being physically four years old.”
“No one has any respect for the dignity of the artist.” I checked myself in the mirror again. People wear their actual ages in only about thirty of the Thousand Cultures, so my mostly-gray hair surrounding my mostly-bald crown was an oddity, and the wrinkles and crow’s-feet odder still. But I looked good, for a freak—not unlike an actor in an Industrial-Age flatscreen movie. Since Laprada was on her second body, physically in her late teens, she might have been cast as my younger daughter, the one who was always running to her wise old dad with her boyfriend problems.
Unfortunately, during my earlier years I had presented myself to my niche market as “authentically Occitan,” declaring, on record and often, that aging naturally was integral to my performing persona. Fans have long memories for those sorts of things; I was trapped until someone killed me. Which, as Laprada had just pointed out, could well be tonight.
I returned my attention to smoothing my clothes. I could have substituted smart fabrics, but that too seemed like cheating. The clothes were real, and the body was real, and I sang, present in my real body, not lip-synched and not holo’d, at every concert.
Martial arts had kept me supple, fussy eating had held my paunch to a little roll under my navel, and important work had kept my glance sharp, focused, and interested. Giraut Leones, I thought, you are a good-looking fifty-year-old man.
Fully equivalent to being an orangutan with great hair.
Paxa Prytanis appeared in the mirror behind me as her hand lighted on my shoulder. “He’s admiring himself in the mirror again.”
“Caught,” I said. “I go to the mirror to see whether I look fit for my public, take one good look, and—deu sait, I don’t mean to—but I am at once caught up in contemplating fifty stanyears of absolute perfection—”
“Don’t hit him in the head,” Laprada said. “I just got his hair under control.”
“Well, if you don’t like my mirror-fascination now, think what I’ll be like admiring a smooth teenaged face, if you people let me get killed.”
“You’ll be even worse—if that’s possible—when you first get out of the psypyx,” an apparent eight-year-old boy said from the corner, where he had been quietly reading Ovid and making little pencil notes in the margins. “You were a very beautiful child and this time around you’d know it. Rebirth from the psypyx is a splendid experience but don’t hurry.”
“Dad,” I said, “I promise not to step in front of any bullets just to get a new body for free.”
Dad, Paxa, Laprada, and Raimbaut comprised the Office of Special Projects team that I commanded. At least the OSP thought I commanded them. Actually I filled out the paperwork and did the apologizing after the team accomplished a mission. As for giving orders and having them followed, I’d have had better luck trying to organize an all-ferret marching band.
We were five people of around ten ages. Raimbaut and I had been born in the same stanyear, so like me he was fifty on the clock, but he had spent thirteen stanyears in storage in the psypyx, so was only thirty-seven in experience, and since he had been grafted onto a new body only fourteen stanyears ago, physically he was about seventeen. Laprada, restarted from her psypyx at the same time, was forty in chronology and experience, seventeen in appearance. Dad was eighty-one in experience, eighty-three by the clock (he was Q-4, a rare mind-brain type, and so it had taken two stanyears for the placement agency to find a host), but physically an eight-year-old boy. Paxa was forty-three on the clock and in experience, but as a Hedon who believed in getting anti-aging treatments and keeping them up to date, she was physically about thirty.
At fifty—clock, experience, and body—today, I was thoroughly fifty, which was fitting because I was here for my birthday concert in Trois-Orléans, home of my most loyal and passionate audience.
“Two minutes till places,” Laprada said.
Paxa plucked her computer from her jacket pocket, shook it out, smoothed it onto a makeup counter, and re-re-checked every operative, movement of active known enemies, and weapons diagnostic—a lethal version of “did I leave the oven on?” Of course everything was fine. She folded her computer in a napkin-tuck and slipped it back into her right front pocket, one corner protruding.
Laprada and Raimbaut stretched together, pulling each other’s arms, stroking each other’s necks, rubbing backs and muscles, preparing for jobs that could quickly become athletic. Besides, they enjoyed rubbing each other.
Since unknown people had started trying to kill me three stanyears before, all the attempts had happened at heavily publicized concerts. Hoping to get some useful clue, the OSP had kept me out on tour and watched me as a cat watches a mousehole. I just hoped the mouse wouldn’t come out right after the cat got bored and wandered off for a nap.
Even if my would-be assassins stood me up, this could be the night that the Lost Legion, who had been sending delicate little feelers for more than a stanyear, would finally make real contact. (Assuming they were not the people who were trying to kill me; they might be.)
Or maybe tonight the Ixists would do something other than attend in great numbers, listening intently and breathing quietly in meditative unison, as if they were in a worship service (something their faith didn’t officially have).
Or something might come out of nowhere.
So here I was: bait for the malevolent, magnet for the odd, connection to the poorly understood, the only physically old man most of these people had ever seen. Just a day in the life of your average lutist-composer, if the lutist-composer happens to publicly work for a covert ops organization. It was a strange job, but somebody had to do it, so I suppose it might as well be somebody strange.
The door opened behind me; I heard a sigh. “Happy birthday, you overgrown teenager,” Margaret said.
She was grinning; so was I. “My god, you’re still beautiful,” she said. “In a grandfatherly sort of way.”
Careless of my costume, I embraced my ex-wife.
I had met Margaret and fallen in love with her on my first mission, almost thirty years before. We had been married just over twelve years, ending in a divorce I hadn’t wanted, just before the fates had entertained themselves by promoting her to chief of my section of the OSP. (She always shrugged and said that I was a lousy husband and a good spy, so she would no more let me transfer out of her section than she would keep me in her house.)
I held her close, then took a half step back. I had seen her only on com screens for the past couple of stanyears. Margaret was still wearing her born body, but a genetic heritage with too much Euro had been kinder to her than to me. Margaret’s age showed more in her attitude than in her skin or her body, still firm in my arms.
At my expectant look, she laughed. “No, there’s no last-minute special mission, my desperately romantic tostemz-toszet. I bought a ticket. I’m going to be out in the seats, enjoying the show. So—happy birthday, Giraut, and I’ll see you after. Be brilliant.” Then she looked around the rest of the room and said, “You can all be brilliant too.”
How fine a team did I have? Even while busy preparing to guard my life, they still remembered to laugh at my boss’s jokes.
Laprada placed her hand between my shoulder blades and firmly shoved me into the light. The traditional disembodied voice said, “Ladies and gentlemen” (Terstad, nearly everyone’s first language)
“Mesdames et messieurs—” (French, the culture language for Trois-Orléans)
“Donzhelas e donzi e midons—” (Occitan, my own culture language)
“We are pleased to present, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, Giraut Leones!”
I always loathed that first long walk from the wings to my stool, and this was an extra-long walk, across the stage of the largest of all the Fareman Halls in human space. The lights were so bright (did they change something after light check?), the stool was farther away than I thought (did they move it?), and I couldn’t feel the songs in my fingers, the way I could just a moment ago (changes? did I make them?).
Was this my lute? How did we all forget I don’t play the lute? Where was my banjo?
Why was I not laughing internally at my own jokes, as I normally did?
Could people tell I did that?
If they could tell, would it spoil the show for them?
Do they all hate me?
I always take each step toward that too-distant stool with an awkward heavy thud. How can a lifetime martial artist walk so off-balance? Surely they see that I walk like the Frankenstein monster? Don’t trip and stumble—deu here comes the stool—how do people get their buttocks onto these things? I don’t remember! Deu deu deu please don’t let me fall down in front of all these people! Is my tapi straight? Oh, gratz’deu, I’m here.
Solid applause from the sold-out house. I bowed, sat, brought my lute into position, and played.
Now I was in the joyous void in which I did my best work, letting each song take me, not thinking of anything but giving them the best I could, letting the energy of the eager listener flow toward the great songs, and the energy of the song back into the listener, back and forth through me, the madly whirling vortex or the sharply focused lens or whatever metaphor you want for the thing in the middle that lives by what flows through it, and is best when it most completely erases itself.
At a concert like this one, everyone wants nostalgia. For my first set I had chosen traditional Occitan material from my first recording, Cansos de Trobadors. Three of the songs from that collection had been unexpected hits, launching my performing career while I was off on my first diplomatic mission (it had been a pleasant surprise to discover that I had a large pile of money waiting for me when I returned from my first advanced training at the OSP facility in Manila, on Earth).
The first song from Cansos de Trobadors was “The Wild Robbers of Serras Verz.” I had learned it at the age of twelve, and had been performing that song for so long that the Serras Verz really were green mountains now—the trees that I had planted on volunteer service with my youth group were tall and flourishing. (They still had no wild robbers.)
Culture histories were like that: never the true past of a culture, but the bold, confident, and heroic past that the culture felt it ought to have had. In all of the Thousand Cultures’ made-up histories, not one culture chose to imagine that they were descended from unambitious muddlers-through, and only one—Hedonia, Paxa’s home culture—officially celebrated their actual ancestors: ninety-some human nannies fresh from suspended animation, a few million robots, a large electronic library, and a million frozen embryos.
The song took me. I boasted of the sharpness of my steel and my pitiless vengeance on the lackeys of the brutal king.
I had known several kings of Nou Occitan, mostly quiet professors or genial artists. Dad had worked for some of them, during his career as an economist in his born body, so I suppose he was a “lackey.” The only thing he had brutalized was data.
As I sang, the passions of my fictitious forebears, magicked by elves to the planet Wilson, blazed in my breast. Via my performance, their imagined spirit infected the sons and daughters of a just-as-fictionalized Second Empire, in which a spaceship built by de Lesseps, Poincaré, and Pierre Curie, and captained by Jules Verne, had brought the True Heir—a child descended from a marriage of a Bourbon to a Bonaparte—to the planet Roosevelt. (It was silent, as culture histories usually are, about the other ninety-one cultures on the planet. Presumably all other cultures on Roosevelt were immigrants on sufferance.)
Up on the stage, the son of Mad Guilhem recounted Guilhem’s final adventure, set upon by forty of the King’s Marshals and fighting on as he bled to death, while Bold Agnes escaped with Guilhem’s newborn son.
Out in the house, the daughters of Camille sighed and fluttered.
Wonderful fun, utterly bogus, and wonderful fun because it was utterly bogus.
I sang more cansos of love and battle, despair and devotion, merce and enseingnamen, fine spring days on the road and blizzard nights by the fire, the songs that defined a trobador, a few from Old Earth, most from our centuries in Nou Occitan. My own compositions were for later. I finished out the first set with a traditional burial song, “Canso de Fis de Jovent,” my first real hit. I had long since stopped trying to make it mean anything; I did my best to stay out of its way and let people enjoy an assemblage of pleasant sounds with finely tuned emotions through me, not from me. After every concert, fans wrote to tell me that they never grew tired of it, I suppose because they feared I might. My aintellect replied with a warm, friendly letter over my signature that said I never got tired of it, either.
I bowed with a flourish in the thunder of applause. In my dressing room, I drank a little tepid water, washed my face, did a brief First Lesser Kata of ki hara do to work the kinks out, and lay down for exactly twelve minutes of wonderful sleep.
A warm wet cloth dragged from my chin up over my eyes, rising like a curtain on Paxa Prytanis bending close. She smiled, kissed me with the light tenderness that says we are lovers but not now, and said, “Better than ever, Giraut.” She kissed me again and left, talking to her com, repositioning operatives, making sure security was tight for the second set.
I rose, gargled with warm saline, urinated, drank another cup of tepid water. Laprada came in silently, carrying my freshly-pressed tapi. She combed my hair, straightened my collar, made the soft folds of my breeches fall properly over my boot tops. She held up my tapi and I turned my back to her and fastened it around my neck again. I spent about a minute nervously tugging things into place. She squeezed my shoulder and whispered, “brilliant, you ancient monster of ego.”
The door closed behind Laprada. The clock showed four and a half minutes till the exactly two minutes late I intended. I refilled my water glass and drank slowly, reviewing in my own mind what it was that I needed to do and be on the stage in this next set.
When I was very small, my parents say, my favorite toy was an image globe. I haven’t had reason to shop for toys in years, so I don’t know if they still make them. An image globe was a viewing sphere, which, if you held it at its south pole, displayed a holo of tiny, shimmering dots that might be anything—galaxies or atoms or molecules. Drag your finger up toward the equator and the dots combined into strings and rings, shapes and cells, structures and pieces, until at the equator you were looking at any number of possible familiar objects—a tree, a dog, a house. Drag your finger north from the equator and the object shrank away in an aerial view, and then into a spaceborne view, and the individual star faded away into a white mist, until, again, at the north pole, the view was just what it had been at the south: scattered twinkling lights in the dark. It wasn’t meant to be representative; after all, atoms can’t be seen by visible light, and if they could they wouldn’t look like galaxy clusters. Much of the fun was in seeing what different pathways did; run your finger around the equator and the thousands of pictures morphed into each other so swiftly that it was a mere swirl of color; spiral from pole to pole and the universe was made of countless changes.
I had been tinkering with a song about my image globe. It felt as if that was my life. Start at any micropoint and somehow the bigger you got, the more it kept returning to the micropoint. Like the way that a verse within a canso, no matter whether it is part of the beginning, middle, or end, has its own beginning, middle, and end. And the beginning, middle, end of the canso reflects the beginning, middle, and end of the whole trobador tradition, which in turn is like a two-century microcosm of pre-spaceflight Western art, which in turn was like one small model of what had happened a thousand times over in the six hundred years of the Thousand Cultures . . . or going down the other way, each word and phrase and note of each verse has that structure.
Like nested dolls, like a camera pointed at its own monitor through a distorting mirror . . . my little square of existence fit into the bigger square of my performing and my team and my friends and family, and all of them into the bigger square of my life . . . nesting dolls, image globe, rescaling pictures, lines in verses in poems in collections in traditions in languages in families—
Or like the four-symbol blocks in the carvings that covered the walls that enclosed the squares that grouped in fours to make plazas that stood between four temples . . . on up till one saw the meaning in the four quarters of lost, vitrified Yaxkintulum. Or like the god-tales containing hero-tales containing digressive comedies containing jokes containing aphorisms that summarized the god-tales, in the stories of lost, vitrified New Tanajavur.
Strange that these songs—the collection titled Songs from Underneath, from which my second set tonight was drawn—always made me think of the two destroyed cultures of Briand. I had written them years before Margaret and I ever went there, and performed them on tour long before going to Briand, and never sung them on Briand because their message would have started ethnic rioting between Tamils and Maya and brought about genocidal war all the sooner. Yet Songs from Underneath, for me, had somehow become woven into events years after their composition, and I think most of my fans believed I must have written them on Briand, or just after the failed mission there.
I hated that phrase “failed mission,” which was what Margaret and the OSP in general called Briand, when they talked about it at all.
We had lost a whole planet. The antimatter cloud weapon had been loosed on human flesh for only the fourth time since the Slaughter itself. The Thousand Cultures had, before that, numbered 1228 cultures on twenty-six planets; now they numbered 1226 on twenty-five. It would still be some years before springships could even reach the Metallah system to see if anything was left, but given the frailty of Briand’s ecosystem, the answer was probably no; probably they would find two smears of black glass, hundreds of kilometers across, under an atmosphere as poisonous as it had been before terraforming.
To me, anyway, that was something more than a failed mission.
And yet, strangely, even to me, the cansos in Songs from Underneath sounded as if they had been written about Briand, as if I had dreamed a too-clear vision, which had come horribly true.
Songs from Underneath had developed in one of those complex mixes of art and propaganda that had been my life for almost three decades. I wrote and sang art songs; I was an OSP agent; if you are an OSP agent, everything you do is, or becomes, part of the OSP’s mission; therefore, I wrote and sang art songs that supported the OSP’s mission, which, shorn of all rhetoric, was to steer humanity down a narrow—possibly closed—channel between two grim canyon walls.
One canyon wall was the prospect of everyone’s going into the box. As soon as population density and automated production were high enough, as they had been on Earth for centuries, most people elected to go into the box—after their required seven years of public service work, they never left their apartments at all, and spent all but the barest minimum of their waking time in virtual reality. About a quarter of them had “gone Solipsist”—convinced themselves that aintellects created all of reality, including all the people they communicated with online, and that dull apartment they saw when they unplugged. Almost the whole population of Earth, and of its moon, Mars, Ganymede, Europa, Titan, and Triton, were in the box. In the six nearest star systems, with their nine inhabited planets—the Inner Sphere that held just under eight hundred of the Thousand Cultures—about a quarter of the population was in the box.
The other canyon wall was war.
There was only one inhabited planet in the nine of the Inner Sphere where the majority of the population was not in the box—this one, Roosevelt. The ninety-two cultures here had fought a generation-long bloody war, barely reaching an uneasy peace less than forty stanyears ago. Since Dji had brokered that permanent truce, insurrections, border clashes, assassinations, threats of war, and riots had been endemic, but no wholesale mutual butchery, so this world was one of the OSP’s success stories. Twenty-two cultures—the entire continent of Hapundo—were still ruled directly by Council of Humanity proconsuls and policed by Council troops. Elsewhere on the planet, terrorist discommodi caused two to five thousand-or-more-fatality events every stanyear. The past stanyear had seen the Stadium Massacre and the assassination of Lopez, obviously but unprovably linked. In some of the cultures of this planet, children grew up learning to dodge snipers; in happier cultures like Trois-Orléans, no one got through a day without having to prove identity dozens of times, and the streets crawled with uniforms.
Less than three hundred kilometers from here, in Saladin City, a psypyx bank and the adjoining hospital had been blown up this afternoon, causing hundreds of deaths, thirteen of them permanent. New Rajasthan was suspected of involvement, and CSPs were standing guard all along the border tonight while Council diplomats banged heads together to prevent another outbreak.
But the good folk of Roosevelt had not gone into the box. Say what you like about hatred and killing, it gives people something to do.
There were two walls into which humanity seemed determined to slam: atrophy in the box, or war till all our planets were slick black glass like Briand.
The OSP’s job was to help humanity steer between those walls, right down a middle channel that we had to hope would be there, because it was clear that we would be coming around a bend, any day, and meeting the aliens whose ruins we had found all over human space. After decades of archaeology all over human space, an OSP secret expedition had found the ruins of a Predecessor provincial capital on Hammarskjöld, twenty light-years beyond our human settlement surface. While Earth was still locked in its last ice age, the Predecessors had held an empire of seventy-eight provinces—the hundred-light-year-across blob that was now human space took up no more than one-tenth of one Predecessor province.
And before the first hut stood at Jericho, something tougher than the Predecessors had come through and literally blasted the Predecessor civilization back to the Stone Age. Predecessor ruins were the inverse of human ruins: the oldest and most enduring were at technical levels that our science was struggling to grasp. More recently the Predecessors had recovered as a spacefaring people not dissimilar from us in technology; on some worlds there was a yet more recent Iron-Age layer that eschewed radio and electricity; and the newest Predecessor ruins of all were a pathetic handful of Neolithic farming villages on a few worlds.
Every Predecessor settlement at every technical level bore the marks of war, and of a genocide so complete that only a handful of Predecessor remains had ever been found. One hypothesis was that the few survivors, with their scant robots and software, had never been able to struggle all the way back up after each attack. I tended to buy the hypothesis that the Predecessors had tried to hide their rebuilding from whatever it was that killed them, first turning off springers, then radio, then desisting from large-scale construction, perhaps even giving up fire, but never hiding far enough.
Sooner or later the thing that had killed the Predecessors would return. Humanity could not afford to be either in the box, or at war with ourselves. The human race needed to be diverse enough to entertain each other and alike enough not to kill each other.
So the OSP tried to steer things that way . . .
So the OSP’s agents did things to support that mission . . .
Which in my case included writing and performing cansos from my own, Occitan cultural tradition . . .
Some of which, collected and publicized as Songs from Underneath, had become popular, as well as being successful propaganda . . .
And therefore I needed to give a good performance of them tonight . . .
Which meant watching the clock and taking care of myself.
From relations across thousands of years between at least three species . . . down to flexing my hands to make sure the fingers were warmed up.
Fifty stanyears and life was still an image globe.
One minute to go. Remember that “Don’t Forget I Live Here Too” should seek its dignity, resist its anger, and don’t crop that first eighth note too short! Relax your shoulders just before you sing. It starts on a G. Look at the audience and give them the shy smile, they always love that and it makes them remember the song more favorably. If they remember me being brilliant, I was, so give them a chance to remember me that way. First verse begins with “Ilh gen dit nien . . .”
One more sip of tepid water.
Time. I walked through the door.
Copyright © 2006 by John Barnes