Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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The Gulf of Eden

Part One

By McCamy Taylor


I. Issac

It was a day of firsts. Emerging from my spacecraft, I took my first step on a natural planet and felt the unaccustomed tug of gravity. When I looked up, I caught my first glimpse of a blue sky--- a real blue sky, not the artificial dome of the man made satellite New Jerusalem, where I was born and raised.

As the nearest star dipped towards the horizon, I experienced another first, accompanied by a moment of panic, for it seemed that this world had caught fire and would be engulfed in flames.

“Mie Scattering,” my tutor, Harum informed me. “Low angle scattering of electromagnetic waves off dust and ash particles.” My robotic guardian applied a tentacle to my neck. “Your pulse is elevated, Master Isaac. Do you require a sedative?”

I threw off Harum’s cool arm. I was going to see my father for the first time in three years. Who would not be nervous in a situation like that? Were my clothes appropriate for the occasion? Maybe fashions had changed. There was no way to know, for I had lived alone, except for my robotic servants, in a space quarantine station since the age of twelve. What little I knew about recent events came from holos which were selected for their educational value---and censored for content that might corrupt the son of one of the patriarchs.

The spaceport was under the control of the United Worlds. No one paid any attention to me and Harum as we left our ship and made our way to customs, a prefab chrysolo building decorated with the UW logo. The clerk behind the desk was another first, the first flesh and blood woman I had spoken to since the day I went into exile.

The young female’s attention was fixed on a portable game console, in which a holographic cat dressed in black navigated a 3D maze in search of stars and gems. As a child, I had coveted that game. I tried not to stare.

“Gimme a sec. I almost have this level. There, it’s done.” She switched off the game player. “Can I help you?” The clerk was a sleekly brown natural human with almond shaped eyes and a shaved head decorated with henna. Long crystal gems dangled from her earlobes. Her earrings reached almost to her shoulders, which were bare. I had never seen a woman wear so little clothing in public.

“I j-just arrived on planet,” I stuttered.

Her eyes flickered over the burn scars on the left side of my face and neck. My long sleeved tunic and gloves hid the worst of my injuries, however the scar tissue on my left cheek deformed my mouth, giving me a permanent grimace. I could not blame her for staring. Scars such as mine are unusual in this modern age. However, no surgeon among the Elect would touch me after the fire, except to administer the most basic life sustaining treatment, for fear of catching and spreading my contagion.

“You here for business or pleasure?” she asked, reaching across the counter for my travel documents. As the scanner read my passport, my holographic twin appeared on the desk before me, twenty centimeters tall with auburn hair and a pale complexion. Harum’s serial number appeared on the screen. The clerk waved a wand in the tutor’s general direction and a green light flashed.

“Pleasure.” At my father’s pleasure, to be exact. After three years of silence, he had suddenly decided to fetch me to Paradise, the name our people had chosen to give the planet Nerga 3, where the United Worlds had granted us a homeland in recognition for the many services the Elect had performed as the UW’s elite military force.

The clerk’s eyebrows would have risen had they not been shaved off along with her hair. “You’re a member of the Cult?”

I flushed. The clerk had probably never seen an Elect male over the age of twelve who was not equipped with at least thirty kilos of permanent body armor and enough implanted weaponry to make him illegal under the laws of most civilized planetary authorities.

I did not want to talk about myself and why, at fifteen, I was still a natural. “Is that official UW terminology?” I asked coldly. “‘The Cult’?”

“Sorry,” she snapped back, not sounding sorry at all. “The Elect.” She practically threw my passport back at me. “Have a nice stay on this hell hole.” As I was leaving customs I heard her mutter loudly behind me “Paradise! Humph!”

Harum was programmed to interpret tone of voice as well as speech content. Being a tutor, he felt obligated to correct the errors in the UW clerk’s education. “There are only eight planets in the explored universe where humans can survive for more than a few minutes without life support. Six are artificially constructed. Paradise is a miracle, a planet with roughly the gravity, atmosphere, mineral and water composition of Earth. There is even a DNA based natural flora and fauna. The planet could be said to prove the old wives tale that every living being has a twin somewhere in the universe—if one subscribes to old wives tales,” it added with a very human sounding chuckle.

The young woman stared at Harum wide eyed, mouth open. “Make him stop.”

“Harum, you’re being a pain.” I tugged at one of his tentacle arms. “Come on.”

The robotic tutor followed me outside. Everything it had said was true. The very existence of the planet , Nerga 3 was a miracle. That the Elect had been given Paradise—or at least the largest continent on the planet which was essentially an enormous ocean dotted with islands and archipelagos---was a sign that our years of wandering the stars were over.

As I paused outside the UW headquarters, surveying the tiny spaceport and the much larger settlement in the distance, I wondered if my own journey was finally over. Father would not have called me all the way here if he meant to send me back to space quarantine again. His scientists must have found a cure for my contagion, the virus whose antibodies made me reject the implanted robotic armor and weapons which are the mark of an Elect warrior.

It was our resourcefulness which set us apart from the animals, the priests told us. All creatures came into the world naked, but God made humans most naked of all to encourage us to clothe ourselves in better and brighter armor. He robbed us of our nails and fangs so that we would create weapons capable of mastering the stars---

Your weakness is your strength, Isaac, my mother’s voice whispered inside my head.

“Why are we standing here, Master Isaac?” Harum asked. My tutor began probing me with its cool, rubbery arms. “Are you having a reaction to the atmosphere? Is the gravity too strong? Do you need to rest?”

“No, no and no.” When I was twelve, frail from my injuries and emotionally scarred from the loss of my mother, Harum’s overprotective programming had been a comfort. Now, I found the robotic guardian smothering.

Harum’s featureless face never registered hurt or any other emotion, no matter how rudely I treated it. “I am relieved to hear it. You must not try to hide things from me. I am here to look after you…”

I tuned out the familiar lecture. There were other, more important things on my mind. I had been foolish to hope that my father would be here to greet me. He was a patriarch with responsibilities. However, I had expected some kind of welcome.

A knot of worry coiled in the pit of my stomach. Could the summons have been in error? Would I arrive in Paradise City only to be turned away and sent back to my prison in space?

“This way,” Harum prompted gently. “We should hurry to the city, before darkness falls.”

Darkness falls. What an ominous phrase. “I can see which way we have to go!” I hissed. Paradise City rose from the plains, white domes and spires tinted red, orange and pink by the aerial display of color which humans called simply “sunset” but which my instinct insisted was a sign of an impending fiery cataclysm.

There was probably ground transportation somewhere in the spaceport. However, I did not see any signs posted, and I did not want to ask the nasty young woman in the UW office. So, I decided to walk. Harum was capable of hauling several hundred kilos if necessary, so my light baggage was no burden for him. If worst came to worst, and the journey proved too tiring for me, he could always carry me, too---not that I intended to arrive in my new home in the arms of a robot.

The air was damp, as if the planet was a sauna or an enormous hydroponic greenhouse, and the ground beneath my feet had a slightly spongy feel. I recalled that water fell from the sky on worlds such as these. What a disturbing thought. “Harum, is this humidity going to hurt your hardware?”

“I have already taken precautions. Thank you for asking, Master Isaac.” Despite its chipper tone, my tutor was having some difficulty navigating the uneven, muddy road. Several times, it stumbled.

My own body adapted more easily. Soon, I was able to devote my attention to the flora, waist high blue-green grass which grew in thick clumps beside the road along with a few stunted trees that bore wicked looking thorns and leathery seed pods. Some type of large flying creature---in the dim light I could not tell whether it was insect, bird or some winged animal peculiar to this world---flew overhead, momentarily casting a shadow over me. In the distance, something growled. A chill went down my spine, and I felt my naked, weaponless state more acutely than I had at any time in the three years of my exile. I was suddenly very glad that Harum was a fully equipped guard droid in addition to being my tutor.

About three quarters of the way to the city, the sun settled behind the horizon, and Paradise’s two moons appeared in the sky along with a scattering of stars. The city, which had seemed small enough to cup in the palm of my hand upon first viewing, was now massive and menacing in its cloak of shadows. Was it always so dark at night in Paradise City? Could there have been a power failure?

I was wondering about these and other possibilities, when two Elect warriors appeared before us on the road.

“Isaac of Ethan?” asked the taller of the two. His burnished gold armor weighed more than I did, and I could see little of the man behind the cybergear. He had a full helmet, neck and shoulder piece equipped with a confusing array of sensors. His right arm was encased in a weapon which resembled a lobster’s pincer. His back and spine were reinforced and ended in a tail that could serve as either a weapon or an ammunition storage unit or both. His legs had been augmented to give him extra speed and endurance. “I am Gilead. This is Lemuel.”

His companion saluted. Lemuel was young, maybe two or three years older than me, with the red hair and freckled complexion that were common among the Elect. His armor was modest compared to Gilead’s. On his face, he wore an implanted left monocle, but otherwise his head and neck were natural. His torso was armored to shield the vital organs, and the back of his left hand was fitted with a wrist cannon, a projectile weapon capable of firing multiple rounds without reloading. “Your father sent us to escort you into the city. Welcome, Isaac of Ethan.”

“Please call me Isaac.” I approached Lemuel with my hand outstretched. The warrior took two hasty steps backwards for each of my steps forward. My face flushed scarlet. He must have heard about my contagion.

“Take me to my father,” I said coldly, fighting back tears of anger and frustration. The words You can’t catch it from a handshake! were on the tip of my tongue, but I bit them off, knowing that he probably would not believe me.

We began marching in silence, Gilead leading the way, Lemuel bringing up the rear. I had to half run to keep up with them. When I stumbled in a pothole, Harum turned on his lights, which made the road around us seem as bright as day but threw the rest of the world into shadow, so it was impossible to judge our progress.

Out of the corner of my eye I studied Lemuel’s wrist cannon. It was the kind favored by most young recruits, since it left the function of the hand intact, but allowed the wearer to dispense miniature rockets, grapples, poison gas canisters and a variety of other missiles. Three of those cannons had been inserted on the back of my own left wrist between the ages of ten and twelve, and all them had been rejected by my body’s immune system. That was before the doctors realized the nature of my disease.

Your weakness is your strength, Isaac. I heard my mother’s voice again. Over the last three years, her final words had played through my head countless times, but I had come no closer to understanding their meaning. They seemed only to confirm the patriarchs’ judgment against her. She was a heretic, a danger to the survival of the Elect. Everyone knew that our implanted weaponry was what had saved us from poverty and near slavery in the mines of old earth. Because we had adapted ourselves for modern warfare, we had played a vital role in the conquest of space. If not for our military prowess, we would not be the masters of one of the two natural inhabitable planets in the galaxy.

I hated my mother for being a heretic and for dying in the awful way that she died, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not hate her for loving me. Was this why Ethan sent me away? The scars on my face, neck and arm marked me as the heretic’s child. A true son of the Elect would have stood by his father’s side and watched as the pyre burned. A true son would not have tried to save his mother from the fire.

Three years later, the memory was enough to freeze the blood in my veins and make me clutch my head, as I struggled to contain my grief. I could not break down, not in front of men who served my father.

“Sirs,” my tutor complained after several minutes of our near jogging pace. “Master Isaac is not accustomed to this planet’s gravity and atmosphere. Please decrease your rate of ambulation.”

Gilead grunted, but he slowed down. After a few minutes, he broke the silence. “Did the Patriarch tell you why he called you here?”

Had my father taken these men, commoners who went by a single name into his confidence but left me, his first born son and heir in the dark? Rather than admit my ignorance, I mumbled something unintelligible.

Gilead made a disapproving sound. “I guess no one has told you about the Others.”

“Others?”

“The Others. The scum who were squatting here when we arrived on Paradise. Descendents of space pirates, outlaws, free loaders---riff raff that have no business being here.”

“The UW says they’re indigenous people,” Lemuel explained. “But that’s bullshit. Indigenous people evolve on a planet.”

“Not necessarily,” Harum interjected. “According to the Berini-Lewis Accord, if a group can prove that its hegemony is dependent upon the ecology of---“

“Harum, shut up. Are there Others living in the city?” I asked.

At this, Gilead snorted, and Lemuel showed his disdain by aiming his projectile launcher at something that infrared sensors in his monocle must have showed him in the darkness. Either that or he got lucky. There was a yelp, followed by the smell of scorched fur and flesh.

Flashback to the fire in which my mother died, and I was burned. Sweat broke out across my brow. My heart felt like a weak, fluttering bird inside my chest. Breathing became an impossible labor—

It was one of my worst panic attacks in months. Luckily, Harum was there beside me. It slapped a tranquilizer patch on the side of my neck and cupped a tentacle over my nose and mouth so that I could breathe exhaled air. Gradually, the hyperventilation spell passed. The veil of darkness lifted from before my eyes.

Gilead and Lemuel were looking at me as if I were some kind of alien slime that had befouled the Holy Altar, but I didn’t care. I hate fire, with good reason. I started walking again, as fast as my legs would carry me, trying to put distance between myself and the stench of burning flesh. To distract myself, I said to the bigger man “Tell me about the Others.”

“Foul creatures. Treacherous. Unnatural.” As Gilead spoke, his giant clawed hand clenched and unclenched rhythmically, punctuating each word.

“Unnatural?” It was an odd choice of words, coming from someone who was more machine than man. “How so?”

“They don’t die like they’re supposed to!” Lemuel exclaimed. “And even when you kill the bastards, they don’t stay dead. I shot an explosive round right in one son of a bitch’s belly. His guts were hanging out. Crazy bastard stands up, gathers up his intestines, puts them back inside his belly and walks away as if nothing has happened.”

I could not believe he expected me to take this tale seriously. I was young but not a child. Since it would be rude to call him a liar to his face, I decided to humor him. “Maybe they use drugs to make themselves impervious to pain.”

“Impervious to pain, nothing. The Others are impervious to death. The bastard I disemboweled---he walked into the ocean. Should have died there. Couple of hours later, I saw him a kilometer down the beach, not a scratch on him. You can’t drown them. You can’t shoot them. You can’t poison them or starve them or freeze them. Take them out into space, and they just go into hibernation. About the only thing that will kill them is fire---lots of it for a long time. They don’t like the sun, though it doesn’t kill them. It just keeps them away. Most of the time.” Lemuel gave me a sidelong glance that made my skin crawl. “I’ve fought in six different UW military actions, and let me tell you, all of them were cake walks compared to skirmishes against the Others. Even if the UW gave us permission to eradicate the vermin, I don’t see how we could, short of evacuating the planet and nuking every living thing on this world out of existence. And even then, the Others might survive.” He shook his head. “Hell spawn, that’s what they are. And we have to live with them.”

I turned to Gilead, to see what he made of his partner’s crazy stories. His expression was impossible to read with the gold visor covering his face. “Do you agree with Lemuel?” I asked. “Are the Others Hell spawn?”

Gilead shrugged his big, armor plated shoulders. “The Others are the enemy. That’s all I need to know.”

After that, we walked in silence, except for the sounds of our feet crunching the gravel road and an occasional animal’s cry from the wilderness. My head began to feel fuzzy, and I realized I was still wearing the medicated patch which Harum had applied to my neck. The last thing I wanted was to act drunk in front of my father. I fell a couple of paces behind my tutor so that I could surreptitiously peel away the disc and toss it to the ground.

Fifty meters from the walled city, we passed a check point. The heavily armored guard looked like an oversized crab. When he saw Gilead and Lemuel, he waved us along. He must have sent a message to the guard at the city gate, because the supercarbonized steel panel slid open as we arrived.

“There’s a blackout in effect,” the gate keeper called from his elevated tower. “Tell your robot to turn off its lights.”

Harum complied immediately. I entered Paradise City half blind and slightly groggy from the sedative patch, which I had neglected to peal from my skin until most of the dose was already in my blood stream.

As my eyes adjusted, I saw whitewashed buildings bathed in moonlight with only the soft blue glow of the widely spaced emergency gutter lamps to provide illumination. It was the kind of light that created more shadows than it dispelled. My first close glimpse of the complex was a confusing jumble of geometric shapes, streets that seemed to lead nowhere, towers that rose all the way to the sky, arches that opened onto the stars and in the center of the settlement, a dome so big that my mind refused to accept what my eyes detected. Had I not seen the same rounded cathedral from a distance, I would have assumed that the massive white structure which towered over Paradise City was an unusual cloud bank or maybe the trail of a rocket launch.

The streets were deserted except for a handful of Elect warriors on patrol, however the city was not as dead as it first seemed. Peering through the chinks in drawn blinds, I glimpsed the brightly lit interiors of buildings. In one home, a mother was nursing an infant. In another, a restaurant of some kind, a man in an apron served food to customers from behind a counter.

My stomach growled loudly. I realized that I had not eaten in hours. Abruptly, I left the road and headed for the door of the restaurant, determined to have some of whatever they were serving.

Harum caught me by the upper arms and steered me back towards the street. “My apologies,” it said to my escorts. “Master Isaac’s medication makes him a little confused.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but I forgot what I was going to say and instead asked “Why’s it so dark?”

They’re here,” Gilead replied.

“They?”

“The Others.”

In my drugged state, this made perfect sense. The Others did not like light. If the Others were here, the lights would have to be dimmed. I yawned. “Are we almost there?”

“Do you want me to carry you, Master Isaac?” Harum asked. Its rubbery arms encircled me.

I shoved him away. “I can walk.” As I moved forward, the pavement shifted beneath my feet and then rushed up towards my face so quickly that I had no time to brace myself. I heard a loud crack as my head hit the sharp edge of the curb. Then all went dark.

...I dreamed that I was among the first of the Others to arrive on Paradise. But not an Other, for I had weapons implanted in my right arm and an infrared eye and augmented legs. I was an Elect. My landing module was primitive. A one way affair. I glimpsed my face in the shiny surface of the control panel. A tuft of auburn hair had escaped from my helmet. This me had no burn scars, but he had a small moustache. He must have used chemicals to grow it. My family does not possess the ability to grow facial hair. Why would a member of the Elect grow a moustache when many of my kind use surgery to permanently remove most of their body hair since it interferes with our implanted armor? The moustache marked me as a rogue. An Elect who was also Other.

The landing module opened. I took my first breath of the air of Paradise…

When I woke, I was lying on a hospital stretcher. Someone dressed from head to toe in green disposable medical garments was running a scanner over my scalp. Harum was beside me. Three of its eighteen tentacle arms were attached to me, monitoring my vital signs.

“Master Isaac is awake,” Harum announced.

“There doesn’t seem to be any intracranial injury,” said a woman’s voice from behind the green mask. “I’ve given you something to reverse the sedative along with an analgesic. When you feel well enough to stand and walk, your father’s waiting to see you.”

I sat up. My headache was not as bad as I expected, just a dull throb and a swelling at the site where I had bumped my head. With the tranquilizer out of my system, I could think clearly again. “How long was I unconscious?”

“One hour, sixteen minutes and nine point three seconds,” Harum replied.

I swung my legs over the edge of the stretcher. The bed was covered in sheets of the same flimsy green material that the doctor wore. No doubt the drapes, her garments and most of the equipment that had come in contact with me would be destroyed after I was gone.

“Doctor,” I called softly.

The green robed figure looked up from the computer terminal where she was dictating a note in medical jargon that might as well have been a foreign language for all the sense I could make of it.

“I was wondering….”

“Yes?”

“Have they found a cure for my infection?”

She blinked and averted her gaze. “I think they may have made some progress. However, I’m a field surgeon, not a research scientist. You should ask your father. He would know more about that than me.”

My instinct told me that she was hiding something. But if there was a cure, why would she conceal it from me? If there was no cure, why give me false hope?

Gilead and Lemuel were waiting for me outside the medical facility. After the bright lights of the exam room, the darkness of the city was disorienting. I followed them blindly. Luckily, we had only a short distance to go before we entered another building, with a sign reading simply “Council”.

“Patriarch Ethan is waiting for you here.”

This was not the homecoming I had imagined. Could it be that I was no longer welcome in my father’s house? Perhaps the decision was not his to make. He had another family now, by his second wife, a woman whom he had taken as a concubine when he and my mother separated. After my mother died, he had married the woman and formally adopted their three children. For all practical purposes, they were his real sons, not me, and she was his real wife. It would not be surprising if she refused to have me, another woman’s son carrying a terrible contagion, in her home.

I told myself that it did not matter if he brought me into his house or not. The important thing was that he had brought me home---

But why did he have to pick the Council of all places for our reunion? Surely he must know that I would have nothing but bitter memories of the Council. It was in the Council that my mother was denounced ---

“Master Isaac?” Harum nudged me forward.

I took a deep breath. As long as my tutor was here, I would be alright. I stepped across the threshold.

The Council building was modeled on the one back on New Jerusalem including the stained glass window decorated with the symbol representing the true name of God above the ornamental staircase in the main foyer. The window was placed so that the light of the Lord would shine down upon the faces of those who entered. Tonight, the glass and foyer were dark. After three years of exile, I was returning home, and yet I felt very far from grace.

The darkness reminded me of a question that I had been too drugged to think to ask before. “Why are the Others here, in Paradise City?”

“Ask your father,” Gilead said. He opened the door of the main Council Chamber.

The room was exactly as it was in New Jerusalem, so it was easy for me to find my father, for he always sat in the seat three to the right from the center of the long, semicircular table where Council met. Tonight, only a handful of the patriarchs were present, the ones who, like my father, wore the crimson over their gold armor, meaning that they were members of the hereditary families who ruled by virtue of their blood rather than election, military rank or appointment.

The lights were dim. It took me a moment to make out the visitors, the representatives of the United Worlds, dressed in their hodgepodge of ethnic gear from around the galaxy, so varied that they looked more like a circus troupe than a serious diplomatic mission.

There were other guests, who hugged the shadows, people whom I had trouble detecting at first, because they wore cloaks of dark material which covered their bodies from head to toe.

“Isaac of Ethan.” Patriarch Tobias called my name. He was a middle aged warrior with more armor than Gilead though his face was free of cybergear. He wore his crimson robes tossed back over his shoulders, to free up his powerful limbs. “You’re late. We have been waiting for you.”

I flushed.

“Don’t hide in the doorway, boy,” said another old man whose name escaped me. His gold armor was modest, a mere token breast plate and gauntlets. The man himself seemed to have shrunken since the armor and weapons were installed, probably in some distant time before my father was born.

Hesitantly, I stepped forward. I was embarrassed by my facial scars and my lack of armor. I knew that all eyes---at least all the eyes of the Elect were fixed on me, and that they were remembering how I got those scars and how and why my mother died and the nature of the contagion that flowed through my veins.

For my own part, I was acutely aware of my father’s presence, but I hesitated to address him, until he acknowledged me, something he seemed in no hurry to do. The years had been kind to him. I remembered him looking thinner and more harried. No doubt his second wife was a better homemaker than my mother, who preferred reading books to cooking and entertaining. Their three sons would be ten, seven and five now. The oldest would be wearing implanted armor and training as a warrior.

I blinked to clear my eyes of the water that filled them. I was tired, I told myself. Those were not tears. I looked over my shoulder. Where was Harum?

“Is this the boy?” asked one of the UW representatives, a pale skinned woman of extraordinary height who wore little more than some silver body jewelry and her UW insignia. Ordinarily, a woman in such a state of undress would not be allowed in the Council. She must be someone very important.

Finally, my father spoke. “Madam President, allow me to introduce my son, Isaac.” He stepped forward and laid his hand on my upper arm, steering me closer to the pale woman. “Isaac, this is the President of the United Worlds, Telia Sojona Velinka Hjajak IIb. She has agreed to mediate the treaty between our People and the other inhabitants of Paradise.”

It was my second close encounter with a scantily clad female that day. Though the UW President was middle aged and skinny by the standards of the Elect, she was still feminine enough to make the blood rush to my face. I found the curve of her waist as it flared to her hips especially alluring. She noticed me staring and laughed gently. One pale, cool hand cupped my chin. Though I am tall, she had to tip my face upward so that I could look her in the eye. I was acutely aware of my scars.

“I understand that you have been away from your family for several years.”

Was she being sarcastic? I struggled to control my temper. “Yes, ma’am,” I replied curtly.

Her eyes danced. She seemed to see right through me. “How old are you, Isaac?”

“Fifteen.”

“Almost sixteen?”

“Almost sixteen.”

She nodded. “Old enough to give informed consent.” She released me and turned to Patriarch Tobias. “If Isaac agrees, then I see no reason why we can not sign the treaty.”

I opened my mouth to ask “Agrees to what?” but before I could speak, I was interrupted by one of the cloaked figures.

“What kind of trick is this?” demanded a woman with a deep, oddly accented voice. She rolled her r’s, and some of her consonants had a strangely nasal quality. “We agreed to foster Patriarch Ethan’s eldest son.” The cloaked figure moved forward. I caught a glimpse of dark eyes that caught and reflected the light like those of a cat. The hand that snaked from the folds of the cloak to grab my wrist was as small and delicate appearing as that of a woman, but her nails were sharp and her grip was powerful like that of an Elect warrior. Her fingers dug through the fabric of my gloves into my flesh, causing me to grimace. “Who the hell are you?” she growled. She dropped the h in hell so that word came out “’ell”.

“P-patriarch Ethan’s eldest son,” I stuttered. “Why are you going to foster me?” I looked towards my father for answers.

It was Patriarch Tobias who spoke. “The war between our two peoples has gone on long enough. It’s time to call a truce.”

“If the Native People foster a son of one of the ten families, we believe that this will help open a dialogue between the two races,” the UW president explained patiently. “It will allow each side in the conflict to see that the other side is not all bad.”

“And by giving one of our own over to the care of the Oth---the Natives, we demonstrate that we’re willing to abide by the terms of the treaty,” Tobias added. “Since you were the one who suggested the arrangement, Senechal Cassandre, I don’t understand why you’re raising objections now.”

“The agreement was that we would foster one of Ethan’s boys. Not this---“ The gleaming dark eyes swept over me. Her contempt was almost palpable. “---stranger.” She circled me, moving lightly on her feet like an animal. She sniffed me. “He smells of off world. He hasn’t been on this planet more than a few hours, non? Not a single drop of this planet’s water flows in his veins. And you want me to believe that he is one of you?”

How could she know these things just from the way I smelled? It had to be a trick. She must have spies, either among the Elect or at the UW spaceport. They had seen me arrive and reported to her.

“You asked for my eldest son, and I have delivered him to you,” my father reminded her coldly. “Are you asking to renegotiate the treaty at this late stage?”

Cassandre flew across the room. Her cloak slipped back, revealing a small sleek head topped by thick curly black hair that cascaded down her back. Her skin was a smooth, deep brown. Her nose was long and slightly hooked at the end, but if not for that and her fierce expression, she would have been a beautiful woman. Though her head barely reached my father’s shoulder, somehow she seemed to overwhelm him. Maybe it was because he leaned backwards, to escape her touch as she jabbed her forefinger at his chest. “I ask nothing! I tell you what you will do! You will stop murdering my people! You will stop pouring your filth in our ocean! If you do not, you will be forced to leave this planet!”

Ordinarily, a woman who dared to speak to one of the patriarchs like this would be whipped in public. She might even have her tongue removed.

“Yes, yes,” Telia Sojona Velinka Hjajak IIb interjected. “The Elect have agreed to a cease fire and to pollution controls. There is no reason that your two races can not co-exist in harmony.” She laid her hands on my shoulders. “And this young man will be the key link in the chain that unites your two peoples.”

I wished that Telia Sojona Velinka Hjajak IIb had left me out of it. Cassandre’s dark gaze swept over me. Her upper lip curled in a snarl. “Where is your armor, boy? Where is your metal plate and rocket launcher?”

“I d—don’t have any of that,” I said stiffly.

Her eyes darted to the patriarchs who were gathered around the Council table. All of them wore implanted armor, even the frail old men. “You call yourself one of the Elect, standing there as vulnerable as the day your mother shat you out from between her legs? Don’t make me laugh. Admit it! You are an imposter!”

“I’m not! I have a disease! I can’t wear holy armor! But I’m still one of the Elect---“

“Isaac! That’s enough!” My father grabbed me by the upper arm and steered me out of the Council, towards a small private chamber where Harum was waiting for me. His expression was unusually fierce. “Remember who you are!” he whispered. “You are a son of one of the ten families. Comport yourself with dignity, even when you are confronted by savages.”

“Yes, sir.” I hung my head.

My father sighed. “I know this is hard for you.”

Tears sprang to my eyes. I lowered my head even further so that he would not see them and blinked furiously.

“This won’t be forever. You only have to live with the Others until we can get settled on this planet and find a way to deal with the vermin once and for all.” By deal I knew that he meant eradicate. The Elect were specialists when it came to eradicating unwanted populations.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, still staring at my feet. “It’s just when I got the message to come home, I thought it meant that there was a cure.”

“Oh, but there is a cure.” I looked up and found his eyes, so much like my own, studying me. We were so similar—the same auburn hair, hazel eyes and pale skin—that people sometimes thought me a clone rather than a natural son. Now, we were even the same height.

“A cure?” I echoed.

“What do you think we’ve been doing these last three years? The doctors believe they have found a cure, an anti-virus. Harum will administer a dose before you leave. By the time you return to us, your contagion should be gone. No, no questions. I have to get back to the Council.” He laid his hand on my shoulder. “God keep you, Isaac.” With that, he left.

I was in shock. One moment, I was told that I was being sent away to live with savages—monsters if Gilead and Lemuel were to be believed. And the next, I learned that there was now a cure for the disease which had made me a pariah. I did not know whether to cry or jump for joy. A cynical voice inside my head asked How long have they had the vaccine? Did they decide to give it to you now, because they needed you for this mission, and they didn’t want you running loose on Paradise with your contagion? Another part of me did not care why the cure was being administered, as long as I could become normal.

Harum crept up behind me. Its tentacles encircled me in an embrace that was kinder than my father’s had been, even though my tutor was a machine. “It is excellent news about the anti-virus, Master Isaac. I have it here. If you will allow me.” Without waiting for my reply, it rolled up my right sleeve and administered a painful injection. “They tell me you may experience some lymph node swelling followed by dizziness and fever in the next few days as the vaccine begins to take effect, but the symptoms are nothing to be alarmed about. I have included antipyretics, anti-emetics and sedatives along with other basic medications in the first aid kit which is packed in your bag. Certain items are not allowed by your hosts. These include advanced weapons, communications equipment, electronic entertainment systems. I have removed these and added extra clothing----“

“What do you mean ‘first aid kit’? You carry all my medications.”

“I am one of the items that is not allowed by your hosts. I will have to remain here in the city, Master Isaac.”

“No!”

“Please, try to stay calm, Master Isaac.”

I threw my arms around Harum’s metal waist and hugged it. “I won’t leave you here!”

It patted me on the back with several of its rubbery arms. “It isn’t up to you or me. You are a guest of this planet’s Native People, and as a guest, you must abide by their rules. They have lived without anything but the most basic technology for many years. It is understandable that they would be leery of an entity like me.”

I gave up fighting my tears. “Why do I have to go live with savages to end a war that I didn’t start?” I wailed. “Why do I have to leave you, behind? I don’t want to!”

“Master Isaac, I have faith in your father. I know that he would not send you on this mission unless it was of the utmost importance. And I have faith in you. You are no longer a child, Master Isaac.” As always, its voice was soothing. It held my hands in two of its pincer hands, while two more of its pincers smoothed my hair from my face. I relaxed. “I have prepared a meal for you.” A tray slid out from the compartment at its midsection. The food was standard fare, solid blocks of protein and carbohydrate supplements along with a pouch of my favorite vitamin fortified high calorie shake. “Remember that you must eat, even if the food they give you seems strange or unpalatable.”

It had been hours since I had last eaten, and I was ravenous. I wolfed down what was offered to me. “What do you mean?” I asked with my mouth full.

“On planet, people eat a variety of organic foodstuffs, some plant, some animal.”

“I’ve eaten meat before. Unless they want me to eat other people I don’t think it will be a problem.” A terrible thought occurred to me. “Are they cannibals?”

“Not for nutritional purposes, but----“

My stomach turned. I could not finish my last protein cube. “They eat people?”

“I am not absolutely sure. Much about the Native People is shrouded in mystery. I believe that they may cannibalize their dead. If so, you are under no obligation to participate in funeral ceremonies.”

“Oh god!”

Harum gave my hands a squeeze. “Think of it as an anthropologic expedition. I have enclosed a notebook in your travel bag. You should start keeping a journal. It will help you pass the time, and your notes will prove invaluable when your return to civilization.”

Leave it to my tutor to find the bright side. I was not being given to the Others as a hostage. I was setting off on a grand adventure to learn about a culture that ate its own dead and used only primitive machines. Some people would have considered what I was about to do a great opportunity. Those same people would probably delight in being fed insects for supper and sleeping outdoors under the stars and recycling their own urine.

“I know that you are ill prepared for this type of mission, Master Isaac, but if you do well in the task which you have been assigned, then you will rise in your father’s estimation. Also consider that by the time you return, the anti-virus will have taken effect, and you will be cured of your contagion. You will be able to acquire implanted armor. There will be nothing to stop you from assuming your rightful place as your father’s heir.”

It was a tempting prospect, however I could not help wishing that I had been offered the option of taking the anti-virus and then staying in Paradise City, safe and snug in a cozy apartment with Harum and all the amenities of civilization.

As if it could read my thoughts, Harum said “With privilege comes responsibility and hardship, Master Isaac.”

“Seems to me I have had more than my share of hardship,” I replied tartly, rubbing the scars on the side of my neck.

Before my tutor could offer any more encouraging words, the door to the little room burst open. Senechal Cassandre flew in. Her dark eyes took in Harum and dismissed the robotic tutor as beneath her notice. “No more playing with your toy! Grab your things. We leave now!” She stamped her foot to emphasize the last word.

“I’ll miss you, Harum.” I pressed my forehead to my tutor’s smooth, cool side.

It stroked my hair. “I will miss you, too, Master Isaac. Please remember to eat and write each day in your journal. And check your temperature and vital signs every morning. If you get a fever, there is a medical manual in the first aid kit----“

“Is this your maman?” Cassandre demanded. “A great, big, shiny metal maman for a great big boy? If you get a fever, we have healers who can kiss you on the forehead and change your diapers. Come along!” She snatched the travel bag from the floor and tossed it to me. With the electronic equipment removed, it was much lighter than before. This was a good thing, since apparently I was going to have to carry it myself.

With a flutter of black fabric, Cassandre swept out of the room, and, after one last glance at Harum, I followed in her wake, out of the Council building and into the darkened streets of the city and from there to the nearest gated exit.

II. Isaac

Three Others joined us on the journey from Paradise City into the heart of the native reservation. Two were men, one a big boned ebony skinned giant with a shaved head. The other was short and wiry with milk white skin even paler than mine, his head also shaved smooth, except for a single white lock of hair that fell across his forehead. His eyes were pink, like those of a laboratory rat, and when they caught and reflected the moonlight, they glowed red. The two men kept up a running whispered conversation, sometimes lapsing into a language that I did not understand and which sounded like no human speech I had ever encountered before, being full of grunts and whinnies and occasional shrill cries like something out of an educational vid of a Terran jungle.

The fourth member of the party was a woman of Asiatic origin who was half a head taller than Cassandre. Her sleek black hair was cut short in a pageboy that made her seem doll like. However from the neck down there was nothing girlish about her, for she fairly bristled with weapons---knives, arrows, swords of various lengths were tucked into her belt, boots, backpack. She carried a Chinese repeating crossbow fastened to her belt and a long bow strapped to her back.

The two men went by the names of Pepper and Salt. If the woman with the blades had a name, no one bothered to share it with me, so I mentally dubbed her Blades.

Harum was not exaggerating when it said that the Others used no advanced technology. Except for the clothes on their backs, homespun shirts over baggy trousers topped by voluminous hooded dark cloaks, leather boots, archaic weapons and water canteens, my escort had brought nothing with them to Paradise City. Once outside the gates, I looked around in vain for their shuttle craft, land rover or other transport device.

“Did you drop something?” Blades asked in accented English. Though she was a tall woman, her high pitched, sing song voice made her sound as if she had grown up on earth in Greater Chin or in the space repackaging hub at New Bejing.

Before I could answer, Senechal Cassandre barked over her shoulder “Head out!” dropping the H the way she always did. She set off, jogging at a brisk pace that put Gilead and Lemuel to shame. The Others followed.

Clutching my travel bag in both hands, I ran to catch up with them before they disappeared around a bend in the road.

It soon became clear that I could not keep up with my new companions. Having spent all of my life in space, in artificial gravity, I lacked the strength and stamina of people who were born on planet. More importantly, I could not see well in the darkness. Though the Others’ eyes appeared natural, they had night vision as good as that as an Elite warrior wearing sonar goggles. We had gone only a short distance, before I fell flat on my face, tripped by a half buried rock in the road.

“If you give me a light or a torch….” I began.

One of the larger dark cloaked figures picked me up by the scruff of the neck and hauled me to my feet. It was Pepper.

“He can’t walk,” the big man said. His voice reverberated like a drum near my ear. “He’ll only slow us down.”

Hastily, I struggled to my feet. “I’m fine!” I insisted. “I just need a light---“

A whistle split the night air. The sound was so sudden and startling, that I dropped my pack and had to grope around in the darkness to find it. While I was down on the ground on my hands and knees, I heard the sounds of enormous wings beating the air. Hurriedly, I grabbed my bag and scrambled to my feet, instinctively seeking out my companions’ shadowy forms. The bird that was approaching sounded huge, but surely it would not try to attack something as large as our combined party.

To my horror, the beating wings grew closer and then hovered in the air above us. Gathering my courage, I glanced up. A shadow blocked one of the moons. I could make out an immense body with a long neck and two broad wings. The silhouette was easily as large as a small military fighter. I ducked my head and prayed that it would not notice us.

The whistle sounded again, loud and shrill, and this time I realized that it was Salt who had made the call. Was he trying to scare away the monster? If so, it did not seem to be working. To my horror, the flying creature swooped towards the ground. My heart skipped a beat. I knew that I should dive towards the high grass that flanked the road for cover, but I was paralyzed with fear. All I could do was cover my head with my arms and hope that the creature—whatever it was---chose one of my companions for its snack rather than me.

Time slowed to a crawl. The sound of my heart pounding in my ears competed with the loud whoosh, whoosh of the bird’s wings as they flapped overhead. And then the bird was still, and the only sound was my heart still racing---proof that I had survived. My muscles were so tight with fear that the act of lifting my head was agony, but I had to know…..

Rather than attacking, the creature had landed on the ground a few paces away from us. Since it had feathers and wings, I will call it a bird, however it was much larger than any ordinary bird, more like a cross between a swan and a dragon.. Its wings spanned over ten meters, and its body was roughly twice the size of a dairy cow. Its long, graceful neck was longer than its body. Its bulbous head ended in a spoon shaped beak. Three round, luminous eyes were spaced evenly around its skull so that it could see in all directions. Its legs were thick and powerful looking, with broad, webbed feet. Pale, silvery grey feathers gleamed in the moonlight.

Salt stood on tiptoe and whispered something to the creature. It tossed its head and made a honking sound so loud that the ground beneath my feet trembled, and my hair stood on end. I covered my ears with my hands.

“The jugaju says you can ride,” Pepper told me. “But if you pull his feathers, he will pull your hair out and use it to line his nest.”

“You w—want me to ride th—that?” I stuttered, backing away from the jugaju, which was watching me with an expression of something like amusement in two of its gleaming eyes.

Pepper picked my up by my collar and deposited me on the back of the giant bird. Surprisingly, it was very comfortable. However, I was sure that I would fall off and plunge to my death the moment the bird took to the air. I grabbed handfuls of feathers, to which the bird gave a warning squawk that sent chills through my entire body. Hurriedly, I let go.

“What if I fall?” I squeaked.

“You can get back on again,” Cassandre said mockingly. “The jugaju isn’t going to fly, silly boy. How can it fly carrying a weight like you on its back? Stop being such a baby.”

“What about my pack?”

“I’ll carry it,” Pepper said. “You concentrate on holding on.”

“Holding on to what?” I should have insisted upon borrowing one of Father’s transport planes, I thought, as I gazed into the rear eye of the jugaju which watched my every move, as if daring me to tug at its feathers. Machines never threatened their riders with bodily harm. They might break down, but they did not do it with malicious intent.

“Use your legs.” Salt advised. “As if you were riding a horse.”

I had seen horses in vids. I had seen people ride horses in vids. As far as I knew no one rode the things anymore except for recreation on old earth.

“Silly,” Blades told him, as if she was reading my mind. “Not everyone was raised in a zoo. Hold on as if you are riding a two-wheeler.”

That made sense. I moved forward a little bit towards the narrower part of its torso, so that I could get a better grip of the jugaju between my legs. With my hands resting lightly on the bird’s neck, I was able to sit up.

We resumed our journey, the four Others jogging alongside the jugaju which carried me on its back while it walked. At first, it required all my concentration to keep from being tossed off the bird’s back whenever it would suddenly turn corners or change speed. After about an hour of this, I had an idea. I laid my head down and wrapped my arms around its neck and buried my face in the downy warmth of its feathers. The jugaju had a pleasant smell, that reminded me of a down filled comforter I used as a child. It was much easier to keep my place this way. I hardly had to pay attention at all. The rocking motion combined with the lateness of the hour began to lull me to sleep, and I had to fight to keep from dozing off, which would have been disastrous.

To stay awake, I began to craft my first journal entry in my head. I had no idea how an anthropologist was supposed to write, so I tried to sound like Harum, since the robotic tutor was the most scholarly person—or rather entity that I knew.

The Others have tamed one of the planet’s most remarkable beasts, the jugaju, a bird that looks like a swan with the wing span of a small sized deep space combat fighter. These birds literally have eyes in the back of their heads, and they are equipped to travel on the ground as well as the air, possessing powerful back legs like those of the ostrich. Though I expected a bumpy ride, I was pleasantly surprised at---

My stomach lurched as the bird abruptly unfurled its wings and ducked its head. Though we did not leave the ground, our speed increased dramatically. We raced ahead of our companions, the wind whipping my face. Bits of leaf and grass which the bird’s wings and feet tore in its wild passage went flying around me. At any second, I expected to be airborne, so I braced myself, wrapping my arms around the bird’s neck and my legs around its middle.

Abruptly, we came to a halt. It is a wonder I did not fly forward and land in the dirt. I have a cast iron stomach, but I felt the meal Harum had prepared for me rise in my throat. The jugaju craned its neck around to look at me. Two of its bright eyes were laughing.

How is that for a surprise?

Though we were no longer moving, I was so startled to hear the bird speak to me, that I let go and almost fell off its back. The jugaju grabbed me by the shoulder with its beak to keep me from tumbling to the ground. Seeing that we had left our companions behind, the jugaju folded its wings and waited until the Others caught up with us, then it resumed its journey at a more leisurely pace

“D—did you just sp—speak to me?” I stuttered after I got over my shock.

“I didn’t say anything,” Cassandre hissed from the shadows nearby. “You must have been dreaming. Go back to sleep, little boy.”

She can’t hear me, the jugaju confided. So whatever you do, don’t tell her that you can.

I was not planning to tell Senechal Cassandre or anyone else that I was having fantasies of talking beasts. I told myself that our conversation was a delusion brought on by lack of sleep or maybe the effects of the anti-virus. Did I have a fever? I checked my own forehead. It was hard to tell. Maybe I was getting dehydrated.

“Could I have some water, please?”

Pepper and Blades both offered me canteens. “Keep mine,” the oriental woman said. “I can borrow from one of the others. You need to drink this planet’s water. It will make you strong.”

The water in the canteen had a peculiar taste, slightly brackish but not unpleasantly so, with a faint sweet under taste as if the canteen had once been used to hold some flavored beverage, and the residue of that drink had never quite been washed away.

I had not realized how thirsty I was, until I downed half the contents of the leather canteen. Afterwards, I felt refreshed. I tucked the leather strap securely over my neck and shoulder and wedged the canteen under my vest, so that it would not fly around striking me or the bird as we raced through a maze of shallow gullies that scored the land. It rained often on Paradise during the spring. I knew this from my studies with Harum. Flash floods were a problem. I wondered if we would encounter rain tonight. The thought of witnessing an electric storm in the flesh both excited and terrified me. However, my reading had told me that precipitation came from clouds, and the sky remained clear.

We entered a deep ditch, too narrow for my jugaju to pass, and I had to get down and walk. I was sorry to see the bird go. When no one was looking, I pocketed a down feather which it had dropped in its wake. It was at fifteen centimeters long and ten centimeters wide, lustrous white and velvety soft except for the central quill, and its smell reminded me of the bird.

I was even more sorry about the loss of the jugaju when we started navigating the ditches which appeared to have been gouged out of the earth by some giant’s claws---I could picture a hundred meter tall Cassandre doing it in a fit of temper. Trying to make my way around the slippery, jagged rocks in the darkness was all but impossible. My requests for a light were answered with the same silence as before. It was as if I had asked for something outrageous, like a baby’s head on a platter.

Pepper and Blades helped me as best they could, however, the path continued to narrow until we had to walk single file. I fell behind. Cassandre kept telling me to hurry up. Finally, I became so flustered that I rushed forward blindly and ended up slipping and tearing my pants and cutting a gash on my shin on a particularly sharp boulder.

The whole time Pepper was dressing my wound, Senechal Cassandre kept up a monologue about how much time my blunder was costing them. My leg ached horribly, and I had no idea how I was going to keep up with then now, wounded as I was.

Finally, Blades told Cassandre “It isn’t as if he did it on purpose.” I could have kissed her.

“Here.” Pepper turned his back to me and knelt. “I’ll carry you.”

I was grateful for the darkness, so that Cassandre could not see my face flushed red with embarrassment. I had not ridden piggy-back since I was a small child. I wrapped my arms around the big man’s neck. “Tell me if I get too heavy,” I whispered.

“Pepper could carry two of you and not notice it,” Salt assured me. “He carries the sows when they’re ready to drop a litter, and they’re much heavier than you.” He leaned close and murmured “Don’t pay any attention to Her Majesty. She’s just jealous.”

Why would Cassandre be jealous of me? Maybe I had misheard him.

For all his height and strength, I knew that Pepper could not carry me far. I was tall and big boned for my age. I worried about what I would do when I had to start walking again. My leg throbbed horribly. I was relieved when Blades called out “Here’s the pirogue.”

The pirogue turned out to be a wide, flat bottomed boat which was anchored at the edge of a swamp studded with dark, deformed trees. We climbed into the water craft, and Blades took up a long pole which she used to push us off from the shore. She and Pepper manned the oars.

The air was warmer over the swamp and practically swimming with humidity. Tiny flies buzzed around my nose and mouth. The others tied strips of cloth across the lower halves of their faces. I pulled the collar of my shirt up over my mouth and nose to keep out the annoying gnats. With nothing to do but sit and allow myself to be ferried, I was able to pay attention to little details, like the way that the light of the twin moons reflected off the rippled water and the way the long, skinny branches of the trees drooped towards the swamp, creating a vertical lattice that was swarming with life. For a while, a small, brown furred creature with six arm-legs and a tail like a monkey visited us in the boat. I gathered from the way that Salt greeted the creature, chattering with it in its own language, that it was friendly. As we neared the last clump of trees, it jumped for a high branch and departed.

The center of the lake was dotted with exquisite waxy white flowers which gave off an intoxicating scent. Occasionally, one of the blooms would jerk closed, as if it had been zapped with an electric current. When we neared one of the plants, I saw the reason why. A small aquatic creature had leapt into the air and landed upon the lily pads. Instantly, the plant furled shut. The fish thrashed briefly, then it stilled and a thin stream of something shiny and dark trickled from the edge of the curled up flower.

“Trap lotus,” Salt explained. “Don’t touch. It has a nasty bite, and its poison can strip your finger to the bone if you don’t apply the anti-toxin.”

Mentally, I prepared another entry for my journal.

Soon after that, we came to a waterfall. Instead of steering clear of it, Blades and Pepper rowed the pirogue directly towards it. The Others raised their hoods. Salt opened his cloak and held it up so that it covered both his head and mine. The material turned out to be waterproof, and we made it through the fall without getting terribly wet.

On the other side of the waterfall was a natural cavern. The ceiling was high, studded with crystals and covered with some sort of algae or moss that was faintly luminous in the dark. Though the moons were hidden, there was actually more illumination here than there was outside, thanks to the glowing moss. In the water, I saw a wide variety of fish, some small, swimming in schools, some eel or snakelike, a few as large as dolphins. I recalled the trap lotus, and I wondered if any of these creatures were carnivores.

As we sailed deeper into the cavern, the underground river came to branch point where it split in three. We took the left most path. The ceiling was lower and the luminous moss was even brighter here. I could have read an old fashioned book comfortably. Recalling the Others’ aversion to light, I expected my companions to draw their hoods, but the soft blue-green glow did not seem to bother them. When I asked about it, Blades answered “Blue light is fine. Red light hurts the eyes.”

“You mean sunlight?”

“And fire. Fire is the worst.”

Gilead and Lemuel had said as much. “Guess you like your food raw,” I joked.

“Fresh meat is the best,” Blades agreed seriously.

In the three years I had spent alone in space quarantine, I had developed a fertile imagination. It was the only way to pass the time. I found myself imagining a banquet in which I, the guest of honor, was served a steaming platter of freshly carved raw flesh hacked from the carcass of some animal slaughtered before my eyes, a feast which I could not reject without offending my hosts---

At that moment, I would have given anything to turn back. This was all a mistake. I was not the one the Others wanted. They were expecting one of my half brothers, a pliable child who could be nurtured in their ways---

Or maybe they wanted a hostage, a beloved eldest son whose safety would be so important that the Elect would honor their agreement. Father had tricked them. He had taken advantage of a technicality and substituted the eldest son they did not know about, an unwanted child, an embarrassment to his family, the son of a heretic, a boy cursed with a terrible affliction---

Well, maybe not cursed. Father did give me the anti-virus, after all---

But only so that he could send me away into an even worse sort of exile. After living with the Others, the Elect would never accept me as one of them. I was my mother’s son and would always bear the stigma of her sin, whether or not my blood was tainted. My father was probably glad of this opportunity to get rid of me, now that he had a family worthy of him---

I knew that I was in the middle of a panic attack. The problem was that the knowledge only made it worse If Harum had been there, he would have given me a sedative and spoken soothing words until I calmed down. But Harum was in Paradise City, and my medication was somewhere in my bag. Even if I knew where to look for it, my hands were shaking so badly---

“Are you sick?” Pepper asked. “It helps to look at something in the distance.”

“I have ginger root,” Salt offered. “If you’re feeling queasy, it will settle your stomach.”

Blades laid her hand on my forehead. “You’re as cold as ice!” She stripped off her cloak and draped it over my shoulders. “Here. This will warm you up.”

So severe was this attack, that it took me a moment to realize that my companions mistook my anxiety for motion sickness. I was embarrassed---and touched. Besides Harum, no one had showed as much concern for me as Salt, Pepper and Blades since my mother died. Cassandra was an evil bitch, but maybe she was the exception, not the rule. For the first time, I considered the possibility that Gilead and Lemuel were wrong, and the Others were not Hell spawn. Maybe they were decent people who did not want to be dealt with by professional exterminators like my father.

“Your leg will heal faster if you put it in the water,” Blades suggested.

My stomach turned over. On the other hand, maybe Gilead and Lemuel were right. I recalled the trap lotus and the man sized fishes, and my over active imagination presented me with very clear images of what either one could do to my leg. Panic stricken, I scurried to the center of the pirogue, as far from the water as I could get. It was a miracle I did not upset the boat.

Cassandra snorted. “He’s afraid we’re going to use him as bait.”

“There are no predators in the tunnels,” Salt assured me.

“Yes, well he doesn’t know that,” Pepper pointed out. “It’s very sensible of him to be worried about sticking his leg in the water, especially after what you told him about the trap lotus.”

“I wasn’t trying to scare him, just protect him.”

“Hush, I know.” The big man smiled fondly at his little friend.

“This will help.” Blades unwrapped the bandage on my shin. She used her hands to scoop water from the river, trickling the moisture over my wound. The water stung at first. The river was growing increasingly brackish, so much so that I could smell the salt and other minerals. No doubt they had antiseptic properties and would cut down the risk of infection. Just to be safe, I made a mental note to check the medical guide Harum had included in my pack and take a dose of the appropriate antibiotic once we reached our destination.

As the stinging eased, sleepiness overwhelmed me. I had been awake for almost twenty-four hours. The gentle rocking of the boat combined with forced inactivity and fatigue made it hard for me to keep my eyes open. My head started to nod.

Blades moved over in the pirogue to make room for me to lay my head down. “Rest. We still have hours to go.”

Cassandre made a snide remark, but I ignored her. The bottom of the boat was hard, and it curved at an awkward angle, but I was so tired it did not matter. My head had barely hit my travel pack, which I used as an improvised pillow, before I was unconscious. I slept and dreamed.

… a missile strike had taken out the bunker on the beach where I was hiding with Cassandre and another man, short, not stocky but with knotty muscles over fine bones. His face was almost as familiar to me as my own, his eyes pale blue-grey and slightly protuberant, his brow high, his hair a wild tangle of gold around a face burned brown by the sun.

We tried to speak, but our lungs were seared by whatever poison the missile had delivered to our hiding place. We had only the oxygen that remained in our blood to keep us alive, and already that was beginning to thin.

I should have felt panic or despair, but instead, I gave the other two a thumbs up and a knowing grin. We locked hands, the woman in the middle, and as one we burst from the bunker and darted towards the ocean, running a zig-zag pattern to keep the snipers off as we headed towards the waves where sanctuary awaited us. Though my lungs were on fire and my vision was growing dark, the sea would heal our wounds…

Blades shook me by the shoulders.

“Wake up, Isaac. We’re almost there.”

I sat up and rubbed my eyes. The dream faded. The tunnel looked the same as it had when I fell asleep, the low ceiling covered with glowing moss, the dark water shot here and there with reflected light. However, in the distance up ahead I made out shadows that gradually took on the form of other boats, some small, other much larger than our own. The tunnel widened abruptly, and we were in a underground cavern. The ceiling was much too high for me to make out, except for rock formations that created huge columns and here and there a dangling rock projection that did not quite reach the water. These stalactites were moss covered, and they glowed like beacons.

I could not begin to guess how wide the cavern was. Some of the glowing columns seemed to be kilometers away, but it was hard to judge things like size and distance in the gloom. Had it not been for the hanging rocks and the absence of the twin moons, I might have thought that we were outdoors. The lake or sea or whatever it was that we sailed upon was vast. Blades had said that we were “almost there”, but by that she meant only that our pirogue was about to meet up with a larger ship, a wooden galley bristling with oars. We boarded this new vessel by means of a rope ladder. I was halfway up the side of the ship before I realized that my injured leg was no longer paining me.

“Don’t stand there gawking!” Senechal Cassandre shouted from below me. Sometimes she acted like an ancient, cantankerous grandmother, though she could not have been more than five years older than me.

I scrambled onto the deck. Blades followed me. “Your leg okay?”

“It feels a lot better.”

“Here’s your stuff.” She handed me my pack. “You should stay out of the way of the crew. Once they start rowing, things can get pretty hectic.” She lead me to a partially enclosed area near the back of the boat. “You should be safe here. And sit down. You don’t want to fall overboard. ”

Once our party had boarded the larger ship, its crew began to man the oars. Blades, Pepper and Salt pitched right in. Cassandre consulted with a woman who barked orders from time to time, so I guessed that she was the captain. A few of the crew members gave me curious glances, and one boy about my own age said loudly “He don’t look like a crusty” before someone cuffed him.

I spent the next few minutes trying to figure out what a “crusty” was. Since there was an empty spot on the bench next to Blades, I joined her and asked “What’s a crusty?”

She gave me a guarded look. “Crusty is short for crustacean. It’s because your guys wear so much plate armor they look like crabs and lobsters.” The look on her face told me that she was waiting for me to get mad.

I recalled Gilead, with his full face plate, his lobster pincer and his tail. I could see why someone might mistake him for a crustacean. I do not smile much. The scar tissue from my burns makes it painful. However, I gave Blades a little grin to show that I was not offended.

She smiled back. “You’re not like the other Elect.” She meant it in a nice way. “That must be why Keep sent for you.”

“Keep?”

“Cassandre’s husband. Keeper of the Crossroads. We all call him Keep for short. He can see things other people can’t see. He had one of his visions. Said we should foster Patriarch Tobias’s eldest son. That’s why you’re here. You’ll like him. Everyone does.” She dropped her voice. “Just don’t try to lie to him.”

Did I look like someone who told lies? “I would never---“

“Everyone tells lie. Especially when they’re your age.” Her smile was conspiratorial. “It’s just that it won’t do you any good with Keep. His mother was riding in a space transport that went through a patch of dark matter when she was four months pregnant. You know what that means?”

It could mean a lot of things. Almost as soon as man had perfected faster than light travel, he discovered that there are things in space that have strange effects on the developing embryo. The strangest of all is dark matter. A four month fetus exposed to the stuff usually died in the womb. If it didn’t die, chances were that the child would be born autistic or insane. If it did not develop either of these illnesses, then the child often had special gifts, precognition, telepathy, stuff life that. One of the ten families had risen to power because its daughters tended to give birth to “gifted” children. Women of that clan were routinely sent into space during their first pregnancy. If the child survived the exposure to dark matter, the woman was called a breeder and rather than marrying, she stayed within the family, where she was bred like a farm animal and exposed to dark matter during her fourth month of confinement. In this way, the family managed to produce two or three seers each generation. Of course, this was a carefully guarded secret, known only to other members of the ten families. The public at large knew only that Patriarch Emmanuel came from a bloodline of seers.

So Keep was a telepath. Or, at the very least, an empath. The thought frightened me more than anything I had witnessed today. My secrets were the last thing I had left.

Blades giggled. “He doesn’t read minds, silly. He reads the future. And the past.”

That was a relief. But how did she---?

Before I could ask, someone started to beat a drum.

“You should move,” she told me. “Rowing is about to start.”

I clamped my hands on the oars, in imitation of the others. “I’m going to help.”

It was hard work, but the salt water spray in my face cooled me down when I started feeling flushed. Then I saw Senechal Cassandre looking at me with an expression that was not the kind that is usually reserved for noxious insects, and that gave me a second wind.

Nearby, the navigator was teaching a young man how to use the glowing pillars as guideposts. “Them’s the twins,” she said indicating two columns that stood side by side in the distance. “There’s a shallows to the north of them, sunken freighter run aground eighty years ago. It’s lying there waiting to catch another unwary vessel, so always steer to the south. And over there, see the hanging rock with the bit ‘o moss what looks like a heart at the tip? The eye says it’s far away, but it’s really skinny and really close and it reaches almost to the water. Whatever you do, steer clear of it.”

The Captain nodded. “They should knock that piece of rock down. It’s a hazard.”

“You try talking some sense into the hoodoos,” the navigator said in disgust “All I ever hear is ‘This mountain is a living thing. We must respect it.’” She mimicked a sugary sweet voice, all the while looking at Senechal Cassandre out of the corner of her eye as if she expected her to take offense.

If her words were supposed to be bait, Cassandre was not rising to it. The dark woman sat down beside me and Blades. “Move over.” She grabbed the oar and began rowing. She was strong. Our work was cut in half.

At first, it unnerved me, having a woman who obviously despised me sitting beside me. I felt her leg brushing up against mine, where we braced our feet against the deck. As she worked up a sweat, I could smell her. Under ordinary circumstances there was nothing that I hated more than the scent of someone I disliked, but Senechal Cassandre’s perspiration had a warm, musky aroma, like an expensive perfume. She had thrown off her dark cloak. Her black curls streamed back in the wind, and her eyes were half shut, making her look like a woman who was waiting to be kissed---

Her eyes opened and met mine. From the way her upper lip curled, I knew that my emotions were written all over my face. I though she would slap me. Or mock me. Or call me a little boy. I was young enough and naïve enough not to realize that women, even women like Cassandre, like to be admired and desired.

“Maybe we will make a man of you,” she said in her oddly accented English. The word “man” sounded like “mon.” “Or maybe we will eat you up.”

Blades made an impatient sound. I tore my gaze away from Cassandre and found the oriental woman rolling her eyes. I hoped the two women were not going to get into a fight with me in the middle.

To my relief, at that moment, the navigator called out “Land to starboard!”

I pretended to be more excited than I was about reaching land. Better to act like a kid and have them laugh at me than have the two women fight. As we clambered onto the docks, Cassandre wrapped herself in her cloak and assumed her usual air of frosty dignity.

“Come!” she barked in my general direction.

I grabbed my bag and hurried after her.

The pier was almost deserted, except for a single figure at the far end, shrouded in blue cloth almost the same shade as the light cast by the moss which grew in carefully tended clumps spaced evenly along the quay. The cloaked stranger blended so well with the dim light and the surrounding shadows that it could have been a ghost. Was that why I hesitated?

“Don’t be afraid,” Blades whispered in my ear.

The blue shrouded figure moved forward. The cloth fell away, revealing sunburnt skin, tangled golden hair, pale blue-grey eyes---familiar to me, because I had dreamt them just a few hours ago. One tanned arm slipped around Senechal Cassandre’s waist. She nuzzled his neck. The other arm, he held forward, beckoning me. His eyes were fixed on my face. His smile was warm, his voice deep and rich----and familiar.

“Welcome, Isaac of Ethan. I’ve been expecting you.”


III. Keep

The child is all the things I expected him to be, the very image of Joe, except without the armor and the pencil thin moustache. No, not Joe. As he comes closer, I see the scars on his face and hand, and I enter the time slip which is like changing gears in a vehicle with a combustion engine, that moment between second and third, when you’re in no man’s land and your stomach does a little flip before you are somewhere again. That’s what it’s like to go from the here and now to the there and then . Sorry I can’t describe it better.

(The child was even younger, smaller, all eyes and dark red hair, face deathly pale as he stared between the legs of the tall, imposing men in their crimson robes and shiny, gold armor. A woman sat on a metal chair in the center in the room. Her arms and legs were fastened down with metal restraints. Her expression was sleepy. She blinked and squinted as if trying to focus. She caught the child’s eye. A smile lifted the right corner of her mouth.

“….may God have mercy upon your soul,” one of the old men intoned.

Flames erupted from slots in the floor beneath the chair. The fire quickly rose around the prisoner. She seemed oblivious to her peril and to the heat. Drugged. Her head nodded forward, but she roused and began to cough as her clothes caught fire. The smell quickly filled the room.

The child uttered a sharp cry and darted forward. A half dozen hands reached for him, but he was too slippery, too quick. He reached for the woman---his mother---but the flames stood between them. His sleeve caught fire. A crimson-gold line raced up his left arm and licked his face. Throwing back his head, he screamed “Mama!”)

And I am back out again before the child even realizes that I’m gone. I don’t know what the others have told him, but it’s better for now if he doesn’t know that I know so much about him.

Pardon me. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m the Keeper of the Crossroads. Time is my playground. Some claim it is because my mother traveled through an area of space rich in dark matter while I was still inside her womb. Others call it a gift of this planet. It could have something to do with my family. My dad used to say that all his kin were sighted. I think it is because it is.

Please call me Keep. Everyone does.

The child takes my hand. Not a child, a young man. He is scared to death, but he gives me the Elect handshake, as if he is trying to break every bone in my hand just to prove he can. So much like my old friend. When I grab him by the shoulders and pull my down to my level to kiss him on each cheek, his face turns as red as his hair. The burn scars on his left cheek stand out white and rigid against the flushed skin. Instead of wearing Holy Armor, the child-man has forged his own armor made of scarred flesh cast in the fire that killed his mother.

“Sir…” he begins.

“Call me Keep.”

The timbre and pitch of my words startle him. I have the voice of a much larger man.

“I bring greetings from my father.’ He stutters just a little as he delivers this message. “And from the other Patriarchs.” His eyes dart back and forth to the faces of those who are gathering on the pier to watch. I do not need telepathy to know what he is thinking. He wishes that he was anywhere but here.

He may be free of Holy Armor, but there is one hell of a stick lodged up his ass, and he will never take it out with all these people watching. I throw my arm around his shoulder and steer him away from the docks. The crowds part before us.

“You got here just in time, Isaac. There is something I want you to help me with.”

To Be Continued...


© 2008 McCamy Taylor

McCamy Taylor was Assistant Short Story Editor for Aphelion and a frequ ent contributor of short stories until health problems sidelined her. But she's ba-a-ack, as the new Serials/Novellas Editor and author of (among many other thi ngs) Magic and the Heart, a four-part serial that appeared in the August t hrough November 2007 Aphelion.

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