Five or six centuries ago, the Prespace philosopher Karl Marx said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Marx understood what it meant to be human…to be flawed.
Marx thought he also understood how to end an eternity of human suffering and injustice: Share whatever you could, keep only what you needed. He never understood why the rest of humanity couldn’t see the answer, when it was so obvious to him.
The truth was that they couldn’t even see the problem.
Marx also said that the only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain.
But he never said that time flies when you’re having fun.
I glanced at my databand, checking for the hundredth time to see whether an hour had passed yet. It hadn’t. This was the fifth time in less than an hour that I’d found myself standing at the Aerie’s high parabolic windows, looking out at a world called Refuge; escaping from the noise and pressure of the Tau reception going on behind me. Refuge from what? For who? The background data the team had been given access to didn’t say.
Not from Tau’s bureaucracy. Not for us. The research team I was a part of had arrived at Firstfall less than a day ago. We hadn’t even been onworld long enough to adjust to local planetary time. But almost before we’d dropped our bags here in Riverton, Tau Biotech’s liaison had arrived at our hotel and forced us to attend this reception, which seemed to be taking place in stasis.
I dug another camph out of the silk-smooth pocket of my bought-on-the-fly formal shirt, and stuck it into my mouth. It began to dissolve, numbing my tongue as I looked out again through the Aerie’s heartstopping arc of window toward the distant cloud-reefs. The sun was setting now behind the reefs, limning their karst topography of ragged peaks and steep-walled valleys. A strand of river cut a fiery path through the maze of canyons, the way it must have done for centuries, transforming the landscape into something as surreal as a dream.
Below me, the same river that had turned the distant reefs into fantastic sculpture fell silently, endlessly over a cliff. Protz, Tau’s liaison, had called this the Great Falls. Watching the sluggish, silt-heavy waterflow, I wondered whether that was a joke.
Someone called my name. I turned, glancing down as I did because some part of me was always afraid that the next time I looked down at myself I’d be naked.
I wasn’t naked. I was still wearing the neat, conservatively cut clothes I’d overpaid for in a hotel shop, so that I could pass for Human this evening. Human with a capital H. That was how they said it around here, not to confuse it with Hydran: Alien.
An entire city full of Hydrans lived just across the river. There were three of them here at this reception tonight. I’d watched them come in only minutes ago. They hadn’t teleported, materializing unnervingly in the middle of the crowd. They’d walked into the room, like any other guest. I wondered if they’d had any choice about that.
Their arrival had crashed every coherent thought in my mind. I’d been watching them without seeming to ever since, making sure they weren’t watching me or moving toward me. I’d watched them until I had to turn away to the windows just so that I could breathe.
Passing for human. That was what they were trying to do at this party, even though they’d always be aliens, their psionic Gift marking them as freaks. This had been their world, once, until humans had come and taken it away from them. Now they were the strangers, the outsiders; hated by the people who’d destroyed them, because it was human to hate the ones you’d injured.
The butt end of the camph I’d been sucking on dissolved into bitter pulp in my mouth without doing anything to ease my nerves. I swallowed it and took another one out of my pocket. I was already wearing trank patches; I’d already drunk too many of the drinks that seemed to appear every time I turned around. I couldn’t afford to keep doing that. Not while I was trying to pass for human, when my face would never really pass, any more than those alien faces across the room would.
“Cat!” Protz called my name again, giving it the querulous twist it always seemed to get from someone who didn’t believe they’d heard all there was to it.
I could tell by the look on his face that he was coming to herd me back into the action. I could see by the way he moved that he was beginning to resent how I kept sliding out of it. I took the camph out of my mouth and dropped it on the floor.
As he forced me back into the crowd’s eye I looked for somebody I knew, any member of the research team I’d arrived with. I thought I saw Pedrotty, our bitmapper, on the far side of the room; didn’t see anyone else I recognized. I moved on, muttering polite stupidities to one stranger after another.
Protz, my keeper, was a midlevel bureaucrat of Tau Biotech. His name could have been anything, he could have been any of the other combine vips I’d met. They came in both sexes and any color you wanted, but they all seemed to be the same person. Protz wore his regulation night-blue suit and silver drape, Tau’s colors, like he’d been born to them.
Probably he had. In this universe you didn’t just work for a combine, you lived for it. Keiretsu, they called it: the corporate family. It was a Prespace term that had followed the multinationals as they became multiplanetary and finally interstellar. It would survive as long as the combines did, because it so perfectly described how they stole your soul.
The combine that employed you wasn’t just your career, it was your heritage, your motherland, existing through both space and time. When you were born into a combine you became a cell in the nervous system of a megabeing. If you were lucky and kept your nose clean, you stayed a part of it until you died. Maybe longer.
I looked down. The fingers of my right hand were covering the databand I wore on my left wrist—proving my reality, again. Without a databand you didn’t exist, in this universe. Until a few years ago, I hadn’t had one.
For seventeen years the only ID I’d worn had been scars. Scars from beatings, scars from blades. I’d had a crooked, half-useless thumb for years, because it had healed untreated after I’d picked the wrong mark’s pocket one night. The databand I wore now covered the scar on my wrist where a contract laborer’s bond tag had been fused to my flesh. I had a lot of scars. The worst ones didn’t show.
After a lifetime on the streets of a human refuse dump called Oldcity, my luck had finally changed. And one of the hard truths I’d learned since then was that not being invisible anymore meant that everybody got to see you naked.
“You’ve met Gentleman Kensoe, who heads our Board…”Protz nodded at Kensoe, the ultimate boss of Tau, the top of its food chain. He looked like he’d never missed a meal, or a chance to spit into an outstretched hand. “And this is Lady Gyotis Binta, representing the Ruling Board of Draco.” Protz pushed me into someone else’s personal space. “She’s interested in your work—”
I felt my mind go blank again. Draco existed on a whole separate level of influence and power. They owned Tau. They controlled the resource rights to this entire planet and parts of a hundred others. They were the ultimate keiretsu: Tau Biotech was just one more client state of the Draco cartel, one of a hundred exploiting fingers Draco had stuck into a hundred separate profit pies. The Draco Family, they liked to call it. Cartel members traded goods and services with each other, provided support against hostile takeover attempts, looked out for each other’s interests—like family. Keiretsu also meant “trust”…And right now Draco didn’t trust Tau.
Tau’s Ruling Board had drawn the unwanted attention of the Federation Trade Authority. Cartels were autonomous entities, but most of them used indentured workers from the FTA’s Contract Labor pool to do the scut work their own citizens wouldn’t touch.
Technically, the Feds only interceded when they had evidence that the universal rights of their laborers were being violated. The FTA controlled interstellar shipping, and no combine really wanted to face FTA sanctions. But I knew from personal experience that the way bondies were treated wasn’t the real issue for the Feds. The real issue was power.
The FTA was always looking for new leverage in its endless balance-game with the combines. Politics was war; the weapons were just better concealed.
I didn’t know who had reported Tau to the Feds; maybe some corporate rival. I did know the xenoarchaeology research team that I’d joined was one of Tau’s reform showpieces, intended to demonstrate Tau’s enlightened governmental process. We’d come here at Tau’s expense to study a living artifact called the cloud-whales and the reefs of bizarre detritus they had deposited planetwide. The Tau Board was sparing no expense to show the Feds they weren’t dirty, or at least were cleaning up their act. Which was a joke, from what I knew about combine politics, but not a funny one.
It was just as obvious that Protz wanted—expected—everyone on the team to help Tau prove its point. Say something, his eyes begged me, the way I knew his mind would have been begging me if I could have read his thoughts.
I looked away, searching the crowd for Hydrans. I didn’t find any. I looked back. “Good to meet you,” I muttered, and forced myself to remember that I’d met Board members before. I’d been bodyguard to a Lady; knew, if I knew anything, that the only real difference between a combine vip and an Oldcity street punk was what kind of people believed the lies they told.
Lady Gyotis was small and dark, with hair that had gone silver-white. I wondered how old she really was. Most vips on her level had the money to get their genetic clocks set back more than once. She wore a long, flower-brocaded robe that covered her from neck to foot. Nothing about her said combine vip except the subtle, expensive design of her necklace. Its scrolls were the logos of corporations; I recognized Tau’s somewhere midway up her shoulder.
I also recognized the pendant at the center, a stylized dragon wearing a collar of holographic fire. I had the same design tattooed on my butt. I must have been gorked when I’d done it, because I couldn’t even remember how it got there. I didn’t tell her that wearing Draco’s logo as body art was something we had in common.
Lady Gyotis smiled at me, meeting my stare as if she didn’t notice anything strange about my face, not even the cat-green eyes with their long slit pupils: Hydran eyes, in a face that was too human, and not human enough. “A pleasure,” she said. “We are so pleased to have you as a part of the study team. I’m sure your unique perceptions will add greatly to whatever discoveries are made.”
“Thank you,” I said, and swallowed the obedient “ma’am” that almost followed it out of my mouth, reminding myself that I didn’t work for her, any more than I belonged to Tau. This time I was part of an independent research group.
“We feel his being a part of the team will demonstrate our goodwill toward the”—Kensoe glanced at me—“local Hydran community.” He smiled.
“Let us hope so,” Lady Gyotis murmured. “You know, the inspection team from the FTA is here tonight.” I’d met the Feds; I didn’t envy Kensoe. But then, I didn’t feel sorry for him either.
“Yes, ma’am,” Kensoe said, glancing away like he expected assassins. “We’ll be ready for them. I think they’ll find the, uh, problems here have been grossly misrepresented.”
“Let us hope so,” Lady Gyotis said again. “Toshiro!” she called suddenly, lifting her hand.
Someone came through the crowd toward us. Kensoe stiffened; so did I. The stranger coming toward us wore the uniform of a combine’s Chief of Security. I checked the logo on the helmet he hadn’t taken off, even here. It was Draco’s. His business-cut uniform was deep green and copper, Draco’s combine colors. A lot of meaningless flash paraded across the drape he wore over it. His ID read SAND.
There was no way in hell a Corporate Security Chief would cross half the galaxy from the home office just to attend this party. I wondered exactly how much trouble Tau was in.
“Lady Gyotis.” Sand bowed slightly in her direction, smiling. He was still smiling as he followed her glance toward me.
I couldn’t tell what the smile meant. Couldn’t read him.…Stop it—I couldn’t force my own face into an expression that even resembled a smile. I’d met a lot of Corpses in my life. I’d never met one I liked.
Sand’s skin was smooth and golden; his cybered eyes, under epicanthic folds, were opaque and silver, like ball bearings. One glance from eyes like that could scan you right down to your entrails. The last CorpSec Chief I’d known had had eyes like that; they came with the job. The more power a combine vip had, the more augmentation came with it. Usually the most elaborate wire jobs didn’t show; most humans were too xenophobic to want the truth visible, about themselves, about each other. There was nothing I could see about Lady Gyotis that looked abnormal, even though she had to be hiding a lot of bioware. Draco’s subsidiaries made some of the best.
But in some occupations, looking strange was power. Sand’s was one of them.
“Mez Cat,” Lady Gyotis was saying, “may I introduce you to Toshiro Sand, Draco’s Chief of Security”—as if the evidence wasn’t obvious enough by itself. She didn’t introduce him to Protz or Kensoe. Protz and Kensoe looked like they wished they were anywhere else; maybe they’d already met him. “He was also most impressed by your interpretive work on the Monument.”
I grimaced and hoped he took it for a smile. He held out his hand. I looked at it for a few heartbeats before I realized what it meant. Finally I put out my own hand and let him shake it.
“Where are you from, Mez Cat?” Lady Gyotis asked me.
I glanced back. “Ardattee,” I said. “Quarro.”
She looked surprised. “The Hub?” she said. Quarro was the main city on Ardattee, and Ardattee had taken Earth’s place as the center of everything important. “But wherever did you get that charming accent? I’ve spent much time there, but yours is unfamiliar to me.”
“Oldcity,” Sand murmured. “It’s an Oldcity accent.”
I looked up to see her glance at him, surprised again. She’d probably never even seen Quarro’s Oldcity—the slums, the Contract Labor feeder tank. I’d tried to get the sound of it out of my voice, but I couldn’t, any more than I could get the place itself out of my memories.
Sand looked back at me. “Then I’m even more impressed by your accomplishments,” he said, to my frown.
I didn’t say anything.
“I expected you to be older, frankly. The concepts in your monograph suggested a real maturity of thought.”
“I don’t think I was ever young,” I said, and Lady Gyotis laughed, a little oddly.
“Mez Perrymeade told me the original interpretation was yours,” Sand went on, as if he hadn’t heard me. “That remarkable image about ‘the death of Death.’ What was it that gave you the key to your approach?”
I opened my mouth, shut it, swallowing words that tasted like bile. I didn’t believe that he meant anything he was saying, that they were really looking at me as if I was their equal. I wished I knew what they really wanted—
“Cat,” a voice said, behind me; one I recognized, this time. Kissindre Perrymeade was there at my back like the Rescue Service, ready to pick up the conversational ball I’d dropped. She’d been cleaning up my social messes ever since we arrived; her sense of timing was so good that she could have been the mind reader I wasn’t.
I nodded at her, grateful, not for the first time. And went on looking at her. I’d never seen her dressed like this, for a combine showplace instead of fieldwork. She’d never seen me dressed like this, either. I wondered how she liked it; if it made her feel the way I felt when I looked at her.
We’d been friends for most of the time I’d been getting through my university studies. Friends and nothing more. As long as I’d known her she’d had a habit named Ezra Ditreksen. He was a systems analyst, and from what everyone said, he was damn good at it. He was also a real prick. They argued more than most people talked; I never understood why she didn’t jettison him. But then, I was hardly an expert on long-term relationships.
Kissindre was the one who’d badgered me until I put into coherent form the ideas I’d had about an artifact called the Monument. Its vanished creators had left their distinctive bio-engineering signature scattered throughout this arm of the galactic spiral, encrypted in the DNA of a handful of other uncanny constructs, including Refuge’s cloud-whales.
Kissindre was with her uncle, Janos Perrymeade. He was a vip for Tau, like most of the warm bodies at this party. It had been his idea to bring a research team here; he’d gotten the permission and the funding for us to study the cloud-whales and the reefs. I looked at Kissindre and her uncle standing side by side, seeing the same clearwater blue eyes, the same shining brown hair. It made me want to like him, want to trust him, because they looked so much alike. So far he hadn’t done anything to make me change my mind.
Ezra Ditreksen materialized on the other side of her, at ease inside his formal clothes, the way everyone here seemed to be except me. His specialty wasn’t xenoarch; but the team needed a systems analyst, and the fact that he was sleeping with the crew leader made him the logical choice. When he saw me he frowned, something he did like breathing. Not seeing him frown would have worried me.
I let him claim my place in the conversation, not minding, for once. It didn’t matter to me that he’d never liked me, didn’t bother me that I didn’t know why. For a rich processing-patent heir from Ardattee, there must be more reasons than he had brain cells. Maybe it was enough that he’d seen Kissindre sketch my face once in the corner of her lightbox instead of making her usual painstaking hand drawing of some artifact. I took another drink off a passing tray. This time Protz frowned at me.
I looked away from him, reorienting on the conversation. Ditreksen was standing next to me, asking Perrymeade how he’d come to be Tau’s Alien Affairs Commissioner. It seemed to be an innocent question, but there was something in the way he asked it that made me look twice at him. I wasn’t certain until I saw a muscle twitch in Perrymeade’s cheek. Not my imagination.
Perrymeade smiled an empty social smile, one that stopped at his eyes, and said, “I fell into it, really…An interest in xenology runs in the family.” He glanced at Kissindre; his smile was real as he looked at her. “I had some background in the field. The time came when Tau needed to fill the Alien Affairs position, and so they tapped me.”
“You’re the only agent?” I asked, wondering if there could actually be that few Hydrans left on Refuge.
He looked surprised. “No, certainly not. I am the one who has direct contact with the Hydran Council, however. The Council communicates with our agency on behalf of their people.”
I looked away, made restless by a feeling I couldn’t name. I searched the crowd for the three Hydrans; spotted them across the room, barely visible inside a forest of human bodies.
“I suppose the job must pay awfully well,” Ezra murmured, drawing out the words as if they were supposed to mean something more. “To make the…challenges of the work worthwhile.”
I turned back.
Perrymeade’s smile strained. “Well, yes, the job has its challenges—and its compensations. Although my family still won’t let me admit what I do for a living.” His mouth quirked, and Ditreksen laughed.
Perrymeade caught me looking at him; caught Kissindre looking at him too. His face flushed, the pale skin reddening the way I’d seen hers redden. “Of course, money isn’t the only compensation I get from my work—” He gave Ditreksen the kind of look you’d give to someone who’d intentionally tripped you in public. “The conflicts that arise when the needs of the Hydran population and Tau’s interests don’t intersect make my work…challenging, as you say. But getting to know more about the Hydran community has taught me a great deal…the unique differences between our two cultures, and the striking similarities…They are a remarkable, resilient people.” He looked back at me, as if he wanted to see the expression on my face change. Or maybe he didn’t want to see it change on Ezra’s. His gaze glanced off my stare like water off hot metal; he was looking at Kissindre again.
Her expression hung between emotions for a long second, before her lips formed something that only looked like a smile. She turned back to Sand, her silence saying it all.
I listened to her finish telling Sand how we’d reached the conclusions we had about the artifact/world called the Monument and about the ones who’d left it for us to find—the vanished race humans had named the Creators, because they couldn’t come up with something more creative.
The Creators had visited Refuge too, millennia ago, before they’d abandoned our universe entirely for some other plane of existence. The cloud-whales and their by-product, the reefs, were one more cosmic riddle the Creators had left for us to solve, or simply to wonder at. The reefs were also, not coincidentally, the main reason for Tau’s existence and Draco’s controlling interest in this world.
“But how did you come to such an insight about the Monument’s symbolism?” Sand asked—asking me again, I realized, because Kissindre had given me all the credit.
“I…it just came to me.” I looked down, seeing the Monument in my memory: an entire artificial world, created by a technology so far beyond ours that it still seemed like magic; a work of art constructed out of bits and pieces, the bones of dead planets.
At first I’d thought of it as a monument to death, to the failure of lost civilizations—a reminder to the ones who came after that the Creators had gone where we never could. But then I’d seen it again, and seen it differently—not as a cemetery marker, but as a road sign pointing the way toward the unimaginable future; a memorial to the death of Death…
“…because he has an unusual sensitivity to the subliminals embedded in the matrix of the Monument.” Kissindre was finishing my explanation again when I looked up.
“Yes, well, that is what he’s best at, that sort of instinctive, intuitive thing,” Ezra said, shrugging. “Considering his background…Kissindre and I put in long hours of search work and statistical analysis to come up with the data that supports his hypothesis. We constructed the actual study—”
I frowned, and Kissindre said, “Ezra…”
“I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve the credit—” Ditreksen said, catching her look. “Without him, we wouldn’t have had a starting point. It’s almost enough to make me wish I were half Hydran.…” He glanced at me, with a small twist of his mouth. He looked back at Sand, at the others, measuring their reactions.
There was a long silence. Still looking at Ditreksen, I said, “Sometimes I wish you were half human.”
“Let me introduce you to our Hydran guests,” Perrymeade said, catching me by the arm, trying to pull me away without seeming to. I remembered that he was responsible for overseeing Tau’s uncertain race relations. “They want to meet you.”
I realized suddenly that I was more than just another interchangeable team member, a node in an artificial construct created to impress the FTA. I was some kind of token, living proof that they weren’t genocidal exploiters—at least, not anymore.
Everyone and everything around me slipped out of focus, except for the three Hydrans looking at us expectantly from across the room. Suddenly I felt as if the drinks and the tranks and the camphs had all kicked in at once.
The Hydrans stood together, looking toward us. They’d stood that way the entire time, close to each other, as if there was strength in numbers. But I was alone; there was no one like me in this crowd, or in any other crowd I’d ever been a part of. Perrymeade led me to them, stopped me in front of them, as if I was a drone circulating with a platter of mind-benders.
The Hydrans wore clothing that would have looked perfectly appropriate on anyone else in the room—just as well cut, just as expensive, although they didn’t show any combine colors. But my eyes registered something missing, the thing I always checked for on another human: Databands. None of them had a databand. They were nonpersons. Hydrans didn’t exist to the Federation Net that affected every detail of a human citizen’s existence from birth to death.
Perrymeade made introductions. The part of my brain that I’d trained to remember any input recorded their names, but I didn’t hear a word he said.
There were two men and one woman. One of the men was older than the others, his face weathered by exposure, like he’d spent a lot of time outdoors. The younger man looked soft, as if he’d never made much of an effort at anything, or ever had to. The woman had a sharpness about her; I couldn’t tell if it was intelligence or hostility.
I stood studying them, the angles and planes of their faces. Everything was where it should be in a human face. The differences were subtle, more subtle than the differences between random faces plucked out of the human genepool. But they weren’t human differences.
These faces were still alien—the colors, the forms, the almost fragile bone structure. The eyes were entirely green, the color of emeralds, of grass…of mine. The Hydrans looked into my eyes—seeing only the irises as green as grass, but pupils that were long and slitted like a cat’s, like theirs. My face was too human to belong to one of them, but still subtly alien.…
I felt myself starting to sweat, knowing that they were passing judgment on me with more than just their eyes. There was a sixth sense they’d all been born with—that I’d been born with too. Only I’d lost it. It was gone, and any second now their eyes would turn cold; any second they’d turn away—
I was actually starting to tremble, standing there in my formal clothes; shaking like I was back on some Oldcity street corner, needing a fix. Perrymeade went on speaking as if he hadn’t noticed. I watched the Hydrans’ faces turn quizzical. They traded half frowns and curious looks, along with a silent mind-to-mind exchange that once I could have shared in. I thought I felt a whisper of mental contact touch my thoughts as softly as a kiss…felt the psionic Gift I’d been born with cower down in a darkness so complete that I couldn’t be sure I’d felt anything.
“Are you—?” the woman broke off, as if she was searching for a word. She touched her head with a nutmeg-colored hand. Disbelief filled her face, and I could guess what word she was looking for. I watched the expressions on the faces of the two men change, the younger one’s to what looked like disgust, the older one’s to something I didn’t even recognize.
Perrymeade broke off, went on speaking again, like someone refusing to acknowledge that we were all sinking into quicksand. He droned on about how my presence on the research team meant there would be someone “more sensitive to Hydran cultural interests—”
“And are you?” The older man looked directly at me. My eidetic memory coughed up his name: Hanjen. A member of the Hydran Council. Perrymeade had called him an “ombudsman,” which seemed to mean some kind of negotiator. Hanjen cocked his head, as if he was listening for the answer I couldn’t give—or for something else that I hadn’t given, could never give him.
“Then I suggest,” he murmured, as if I’d shaken my head—or maybe I had, “that you come and…talk to us about it.”
I turned away before anyone could say anything more or do anything to stop me. I pushed my way through the crowd and headed for the door.
Copyright © 1996, 2004 by Joan D. Vinge