LEADER OF CHORUS: Euripides was right! There is no beast so shameless as a woman !
Aristophanes - 411 B. C. LysistrataThe world Phastillan, July 1, 2485
It could have been a human planet; its sun was yellow and its lush vegetation was earthlike green. Trees in its temperate rainforests were kin to earthly redwoods, and upland woods hosted maples with winged spinners, oaks with recognizable acorns. But the sun was not Earth's Sun, and the trees were not Earth's trees - not exactly.
Animals browsed and rooted, grunting like razorback hogs, hooting like the gorillas long extinct in earthly wilds. A glimpse of those shy foragers confirmed their terrestrial origin; their grimy skin had sparse hair except on their round, snoutless heads, where it grew in rank tangles; forward-facing, stereo- scopic eyes and five-digit, flat-nailed hands proclaimed their ancestry, but they were not human - not exactly. Humans don't root in forest mold for fat, sweet grubs, grunting wordlessly, meandering aimlessly, without even an untanned hide to protect breasts and genitals. Humans dig with sticks or shovels, not fingernails, and cut tough fruit-stems with knives.
Bathed, trimmed, and dressed in jumpsuits and boots, those creatures could have walked any Earth street, any colony path - until someone looked closely; no intelligence looked out from blue, hazel or brown eyes. No words formed on mobile, human lips or facile human tongues. Hooo! the masqueraders panted, with sociable interest. Haah! Ehhh.... they uttered. No, they were not human. Not any more.
Low sunlight filtered through artfully-woven vines, speckling a woman s face, making her brushed blonde hair dance like pale fire. Overhead, squirrel-like creatures (but not squirrels) chattered ever-more-softly as sunset neared. Outside, beyond a fence of mossy stone and thorn bushes, voices rose in a twilight chorus of sociable hoots and throaty warbles, a lunatic refrain.
Why did you chose that planet? the woman asked. There are likelier ones within a parsec.
The man ruffled his neat beard and gazed upward, homing in on the distant stars whose fate he weighed. What can I say? It s not revenge. I grew up there. I know Cannon s Orb. It s stubborn, conservative, and old-fashioned, and if I succeed there, the human-occupied galaxy will follow.
His companion gestured with a clean, short-nailed thumb. If it doesn t work, if the result is creatures like those... Quiet hooting punctuated her pause, contented nesting-cries, wordless coos. ...then how will you feel?
If humankind can t rise above its flaws, it has already failed; then cathedrals, symphonies and starships are temporary aberrations and those poor creatures are the real humans. If I fail to win that minor world and its obstinate colonists, I won t succeed anywhere.
CANNON S ORB, November 2, 2485
Estelle pulled the rough blanket over her bare skin. Ben put his clothes on. She wished she could disappear in the blanket, that he would take the aircar off autopilot - she could not get dressed with his attention on her. How do people do it? she wondered uncomfortably. How can they just be naked together after they ... make love?
The dreamy aftermath was gone. Estelle felt cool and rational. Too rational. Has it been the talk of Chaos, of the Orb s fate? Many people excused licentious behavior that way, alluding to re- sources running out, to the Orb starving or being overrun by the Phastillans and their alien symbiotes - but not her. She lived one day at a time, never buying trouble. Had it been the excitement of flying upside down in the majestic old Stollivant aircar, with wind rushing through her hair? Maybe the visit to her family s abandoned farm had depressed her more than she real- ized, and she just did not care what happened any more. Maybe it had been because Ben was not just any boy, but Ben Cannon, whose family practically owned the planet. She hoped that wasn t so, but it did not really matter. She could not go back and undo anything.
Ben finished dressing. He reached for her, but she drew back. He looked hurt, and she felt sorry. I have to go home, she whispered. My parents...
Yeah. I know. I ll turn around. Without looking at her, he slid into the pilot s seat. While his attention was on the con- trols, she wriggled awkwardly into her clothing, still under the blanket. Even when she was dressed, her hair straightened, he did not turn to look at her. At first she was content with that, but as the long flight wore on, she wished he would say something, would meet her eyes. Maybe if I stare at him, he ll feel it, and turn, she thought. She stared so hard her eyes ached.
A slight movement of his hands, a shift in repulsor tone, told her they were near home. Blue-gray native foliage was replaced with gray wood-shingled rooftops and dark asphalt paving. Where shall I set down? he asked. Is there a drop?
I never noticed, she replied. There s the baseball field - no one uses it now.
Uh huh. I know, he sighed. No one has time for fun any more.
The brief attempt at conversation petered out while they sought a landing site. The field was out of the question - the gates were boarded and the outfield was a tangle of rank growth.
I guess I ll land at the Crossing, Ben decided. I ll walk you from there. She protested that she could go alone, but he insisted. With the food riots, it could be dangerous.
He handed her down from the car as if she were a real lady - his distant air had led her to believe he was disgusted with her, since she had given in to him, but now she wondered. Maybe he just felt awkward too. Halfway down Magnussen Street, his hand bumped hers as if by accident, and before she could think, their fingers entwined. He s shy, she realized.
The streets were quiet, near sundown. Smells of cooking wafted from houses. We have to hurry, she said.
When will I see you? He quickened his pace to match hers. I can t get into town before next week.
How about the Crossing, like today? Same time? At the door she turned abruptly, and gave him a light, chaste kiss. Reaching behind herself for the door handle, she opened it and slipped quickly inside.
CANNON S ORB, January 22, 2486
The pirates flagship was not twenty years old, but it was worn and grimy. Too many hands had palmed handrails and light-switches; too many officers had sat in the bridge s seats. Grime, flakes of skin, and loose hair filled every crevice, and the stink of males too close for too long permeated the air in spite of scrubbers and precipitators.
The ship s captain - the admiral, he styled himself - knew he could not keep a lid on his men forever. They had not had fresh food in years, since long before they arrived at Cannon s Orb, out of fuel and unable to go further, unable even to challenge the planet s defenses. Open mutiny was only a bad-tem- pered moment away. Personally, he was willing to wait until the Orb ran out of fuel and power for its particle-beam emplacements, armed scoutcraft, and low-orbit scattergun satellites. Then all his ships could sweep down on at once and....
He abandoned his daydream to listen to the recording. He had gone over the conversation several times, trying to guess whom he had talked with. The message originated on Cannon s Orb. The computer-generated face could have been anyone.
You cannot conquer the Orb in the foreseeable future, it said. Barred Spiral brought enough fuel to keep our defenses running until the psatla aliens biorefineries start producing. You don t have fuel to leave the system for an easier target, and all-out attack on us is suicide. The screen image - a cleft-chinned holostar-type - smiled, and leaned back in an equally-unreal leather armchair. That s where I come in, he said. If you re wondering why a good Churchgoer would deal with pirates, consider my alternative: Jack Cannon agreed to let the wormbags - the psatla - establish colonies here, in return for their help with our shortages. No other Orbers were consulted. We don t feel bound by his treaty - and if you know psatla, you ll know how their pheromones affect people. Their alterations of human behavior may be acceptable on whorehouse Phastillan, but not Cannon s Orb. I d prefer extinction. Satisfied?
So what s my plan? Phase one: until psatla start producing biorefined heavy elements, I ll supply you. I can even shuttle up some whores, and a few other treats. Once the wormbags start producing, I ll send fuel too, so if Phastillan ships check up on their colony, they can be driven off - because regardless of Jack Cannon s intentions, the treaty is going to be broken. Psatla are going to be quarantined. They ll work for us, but they ll never own one square inch of the Orb.
Phase two: once you re fueled, you can get a missile through, just as a demonstration. Only you and I know how few you have. After that, your officers pick their estates and put garrisons in the towns. As for you and me - I m not going to tell you about Phase Three. I m sure you ll figure it out.
The admiral shut off the recording. He leaned back in his seat, his gaunt face unreadable. Phase Three, eh? You re right, Orber. I can figure it out. With fuel and a planetary base, we ll play Galactic Conquest. He grinned at his reflection in the now-black screen. I wonder who you are? Who will I be working with? A Contractor? A preacher? Maybe, in spite of what you say, you re old Jack Cannon himself.
The Orber had his own recording. His face, unsimulated, wrinkled in disgust as he played it back. The requirements of Faith - and Empire - made for strange bedfellows. His brow wrinkled over that metaphor - the pirate was effete, most likely a faggot. The Orber s own desires - though unusual and the source of frequent guilt and repentance - were at least heterosexual in nature.
The pirate had sensed his co-conspirator s scorn, but he was used to that, and it only made things easier for him. Contempt was the seed of laxity and incaution. Macho types always underestimated him - and they paid. Oh, yes, they paid. The pirate paid too, in different coin. He never admitted that those raised eyebrows and unsubtle sneers hurt, but at night, behind the high-security door to his cabin suite, he dreamed...
Arie? Come here, please. The dark, slender boy obediently approached the playground supervisor. Jedum Siller is absent, she said. I want you to play on the boy s team to even the numbers.
Arie s face stiffened. But Miss Ayres, I can t. It s not ... it s not...
Not what, Arie?
In most nightmares an insoluble dilemma - in a falling-dream, the moment of impact, naked-dreams, that instant when the crowd notices - caused the dreamer to awaken. Arie sometimes did so.
What made this dream a nightmare was not that he played less well than the other boys - on the girls team or the boys , he was among the quickest. But since the beginning of the year, when he was chosen by lot to even the team numbers, he had made discoveries about himself and his species.
First, the boys did not really play against the girls team; they played against each other for goals and glory, male against male. The girls were only mobile obstacles. Arie had suffered intense embarrassment the first day he had played against the other boys, but because he played well and scored goals he did not get teased much, and he began to notice such things. He liked playing on a real team, where players supported each other; girls, seeing another player placed to make a goal, would kick the ball to her - or to him; girls, recognizing Arie s skill, shifted their strategy to make use of it. Consequently, he scored most of the team s goals. The girls did not mind. The team scored, and that was what mattered. Arie liked that. He liked being part of a team.
The nightmare was going back to the boys team, being thrust unprepared into the maelstrom of young male hostility, playing the male game - hoarding the ball, guarding it as much against his teammates as against the other side; remembering not to show dismay when another boy blocked him, took the ball, tried for a glorious goal, and failed, losing advantage and goal, but displaying panache. It was easy to forget how to play the boys game. Once, seeing a teammate close by the goal, he kicked the ball to him, allowing him the score. The other s silent look was a melange of puzzlement and scorn. Arie hated that. It left him depressed, dark malaise verging on despair. He could not explain that, but he recognized it. That other boys singled him out for rough treatment, that he was denied goals his by right of position and tactical sense, added frustration to despair; that he walked off the field with more scrapes and bruises than any other player only confirmed it.
Ms. Ayres watched closely for boys unfairly using their strength and mass against the girls; she dealt harshly with boys who body-blocked or tripped, but unnecessary roughness did not apply to boys against boys. Boys need to get their aggressions out, on the field, she was fond of saying to other teachers. As long as they play fair with the girls... And besides, their cuts and bruises are badges of honor. She said that, but she did not understand it, not really. Neither did Arie.
That Arie, forced to play on the boys team, did not revel in his injuries never crossed her mind. He was a boy. He should be glad to be back among his friends, his peers. After all, she told herself, she only continued to put him on the girls team because he did not make a fuss about it, as others did.
Arie? she said, impatient now. It s not what? You haven t answered me.
The nightmare continued. Arie said nothing. It isn t fair, he wailed silently. It isn t fair to put me on the boys team. He never said that aloud. Ms. Ayres, had Arie expressed his feelings, would have drawn a wrong conclusion. She did, in fact, draw one, from his silent resistance. I think the boy is a bit ... queer, she said to Arie s classroom teacher. Keep an eye on him. He doesn t spend too much time in the bathroom, does he? With other boys? Her conclusion was false, of course. Arie hadn t discovered sex. He had no libido to speak of, and no interest in boys, even as friends. Arie had no friends, and wanted none.
Sometimes the nightmare stopped there. Sometimes it continued. The dreamer thrashed in his sleep, sweating until the bedclothes entangled him, restraining him just as the arms of the other boys had, after school. No physical fists hammered his face, his gut, his groin, but the dreamer felt them, nonetheless.
You re a girl. Arie, dream-voices echoed. Admit it, Arie - you really are a girl. Then and now, the dreamer admitted nothing. He endured blows until the others tired of tormenting him, until they left him, battered and silent. Even in the dream, he never cried. Girls cried. Crying would have been a concession, and Arie made no concessions to anyone.
LYSISTRATA: I didn t know we women were so beyond redemption. The tragic poets are right about us after all; all we re interested in is having our fun and then getting rid of the baby...
Aristophanes - 411 B. C. Lysistrata
A breeze rustled leaves, too slight for her skin to feel. Ahead, the river gleamed. It was a lovely day. The breeze streng- thened. She heard it, but still felt no cooling movement. Sudden- ly she stopped, abject terror on her face. Her skin shrank tight against thin arms and hair rose stiff at the base of her neck. The air wasn t moving - there was no breeze. Not daring to move, she watched the first small, furry creature nose out from the brush a few feet away.
On an Earthward world a girl or young woman might have seen such a small, endearing animal and exclaimed Oh, a bunny! On any other world, she would have been right. On Cannon s Orb there were no bunnies, only ... grabbits. Named for the earth-creature they resembled, with long floppy ears and white scuts, the differences had not gone unnoticed. Grabbit jaws were double- hinged, opening wide enough to envelop a creature of equal size. Grabbit mouths had two rows of razor-sharp teeth. From grabbit abdomens, long, bone-white seminopositors projected like sharp, ivory knives flecked with copper-blue fluid.
Don t move! The command was drilled into Orb children. Grabbits reacted to vibration; they could not see someone who remained still. Only Estelle s eyes moved. She heard rustling and saw more brown and brindle fur-balls emerge, hopping. She heard the faint plip-plop of others behind her. Ahead, the river beckoned. She had one chance, to run straight ahead, hoping she could move faster than grabbits could react to the vibration of her step. All around, except in front, red eyes gleamed dark as garnets, glittering. Small bodies twitched. Soft fur brushed her ankle.
She tensed, took slow, deep breaths, careful not to let her chest or tight belly move, forcing her knees not to knock together. She could feel the heat of furry bodies massing, mostly behind her. When she ran, they would react. She had to outrun the ones pursuing her and the ones her passage alerted, ahead.
Estelle launched forward. She stumbled, appalled by her clumsiness. Floppy ears swivelled, then flattened in grim in- stinctive determination. The plop and patter of small feet moved in a deadly wave. She ran. Her feet drummed the dirt path, sending waves ahead. Brush moved, she saw small heads, glittering eyes, and even the gleam of low-slung ivory knives - deadly little erections.
She ran, but the water seemed no nearer. She watched the path ahead fill with small bodies, and she realized her mistake; she was too slow; she was not the slim, athletic girl who had sped down just such forest paths, who could have darted lightly ahead, leaping clumps of fur and deadliness; she was pregnant, her belly a clumsy weight, her thighs not wire-hard muscle but soft, yield- ing, useless flesh. She ran, but it was no use.
She lashed with a foot at the first grabbits she passed, disrupting them, sending one flying. She felt the burn of it s sting, and heard snarls and whistles as others paused to attack it. She ran, and the path widened at the riverbank. She drove forward, thighs burning with unaccustomed effort, feeling another fiery touch on her ankle. She might survive. None had struck dense flesh or large blood vessels.
The path dropped, then rose onto the flood-levee, breaking her stride. She stumbled, and rolled the last few feet to the water s edge. Something fiery and cold pierced her shoulder. Agony spread from thigh and calf. Belly and back burned from stings and slashing teeth. Regaining her feet, she sank into river-edge mud, and swayed there. A furry beast clung to her wrist, spasming, pumping deadly fluid into her forearm. She beat it off, and with one last effort pulled her feet free, and plunged into the stream.
The shock of cold water kept her moving. Current dragged at her thighs. Ashore, humping, hopping bodies spread in a flat carpet over still water. Grabbit hopped over grabbit, and a growing bridge of wet, furry beasts, locked jaw to jaw, extended toward her. Waist deep already, Estelle could not swim across. Already, thigh and shoulder were paralyzed. The current pulled insistently.
Downstream, dark skeletal fingers of a washed-down tree beck- oned, groping toward shore. She waded toward it, the current pushing her. Her right leg was a dead stick, and she could not feel her foot. The grabbits were concentrated at one spot, she saw. They would have to shift their bridge to reach her. She thought of climbing out of their reach, but the dead tree was small, and bobbed beneath her weight. Upstream, clots and clusters of grabbits broke loose from the swarm and floated toward her. The tree rolled as she tried to climb on it. Only a few twigs dragged in the sand. The softest push would send it off with the current. Fifty or a hundred grabbits already drifted between her and deep water; soon it would be too late.
Deep inside, a small voice told her it was already too late. The stings had gone deep. Already, tiny grabbit-nymphs migrated with her blood, to lodge in her heart, liver and brain, to grow, to eat, to consume her. She would diminish; her thinking would deteriorate as they consumed soft gray matter; her heart would fail as nerves were severed. Only the fear of more stings, more pain, drove her to pull the tree through resistant sand until it swirled and turned in the current, free.
The shore receded. The irregular shape of her vessel caught deep currents and swung into fast water. She clung to muddy roots, using her last shreds of energy to entwine herself among them. Consciousness faded, and only the rigor of grabbit-venom kept her arms and fingers locked on the floating, twirling log.
The tree bore her downstream. Grabbits swirled near, then away. One furry back brushed her motionless thigh, but the beast did not attack. Each creature s gaping jaws were locked on others, each ivory knife pumped blue-tinged fluid into other grabbit-bodies. Attack and killing, mating and death - for grabbits, all were one. The less-injured would serve as hosts for their conspecifics deadly semen, for nymphs that would chew out to sunlight and air. A bluish scum bobbed around them, and stained Estelle s thighs and buttocks. Her pale human form now bore not one additional life, but hundreds. Those would eat, chewing through woman-flesh, fetus-flesh, and neither human would live to see the grabbits born.
Where Estelle had taken to the water, four men with beam- rifles examined scuffled mud. Her footprints were deep, and smaller footprints had not obliterated them or the splashes of cyan-colored fluid where microscopic nymphs thrashed out their last hours of life beneath the harsh glare of Mirasol, the sun.
The men read the signs, then squinted over the water, blinded by sunlight. They had read every detail of Estelle s headlong run, from the first grabbit she had kicked - now mangled, sticky with blue fluid - to her last, desperate lunge into the water. A broken, twisted grabbit pressed into her deep footprint showed she had not outrun her pursuers. She was dead already, they knew; if not, if somehow her heart still beat, she was dead anyway. The men said nothing. They did nothing, because there was nothing to be done except to climb back into the hovercraft and return downriver. It had been good for a while, the sex, and having a woman around their camp, but it was just as well - she might have talked, and there were still laws against slavery on Cannon s Orb.
Momentarily, the racket of heavy-laden hovercraft ricocheted from dense trees, and turbulent wakes sent tight-packed ripples shoreward to shatter and commingle among branches, stones and tangled brush. The same wakes rocked one particular washed-out tree, and small waves slapped against waxen flesh, but the men in the speeding craft did not see the faint colors of Estelle s muddy clothing. If they had, it would not have made any differ- ence.
The downed tree drifted, occasionally catching on a rock or spinning beneath overhanging trees, but it never lingered. It crept past Avery s Junction and bumped against the stone arch at Cassiol, and only slowed its phlegmatic journey as the stream widened near the delta. The jar of the Cassiol impact awakened Estelle briefly, but pain and chill river water drove her back into semiconsciousness. The log finally caught among reeds at the point of a small island, but not before the river had already branched twice, each time becoming narrower and slower.
On the marshy island a grabbit humped onto a log and edged toward the grounded tree. Its nose twitched and it chuckled softly, smelling something alive, but unable to locate motionless prey. Among the reeds, heedless of grabbits, something else moved. Unlike the grabbit, it had located what it sensed: a cold, barely living human, and the grabbit, too. Pale tendrils the thickness of a child s fingers wound through damp sedge, twining, casting about. Sunlight glittered on copper-green and olive chitin-plates that shimmered like beetle wings. Other tendrils pushed from beneath them and tested the air, each snakelike appendage breathing through a single tiny orifice, seeing with a patch of light-sensitive, putty-colored skin.
Cautiously, writhing tendrils extended from the common mass, branching, sliding over each other like newly-hatched vipers, like a tangle of thick, rain-bleached earthworms. A lumpy mass emerged from the reeds, a moving thing with no more shape than a haystack or a dung-heap, comprised entirely of matted white worms. Near the top of the ungainly form three plates lifted to reveal round protuberances, like balls of oil-putty pierced once with a sharp pencil. The bulges were of different sizes and were irregularly placed, but they moved and shifted like eyes ... and they saw.
The strange, blank-looking orbs, with neither the shine of human eyes nor the jewelled facets of insect ones, aligned on the pale human shape entangled in tree-roots. A miasma of odors rose from shivering tendrils: cinnamon and swamp-gas, putrefaction, attar of violets, burnt popcorn and hot motor oil. Each odor chased the one before, lingering, then dissipating. Tendrils raced forth and caressed cold flesh, twining and seeking like gentle lover s fingers. Clothing fell away in damp tatters where those acid fingers touched. Tiny worm-mouths hissed and whistled, each to its own meter and tune; new scents, pleasant and foul, hovered like a cloud over Estelle s body.
The grabbit, having spotted the unfamiliar creature that claimed its own prey, hopped closer, put off by strange odors. Its ivory seminopositor extended from its sheath, and double- hinged jaw opened wide. It trembled with anticipation of feeding and breeding. From the clumped mass of pale snakes, a single tendril separated from its companions, rose and stiffened, pulsed like a salted leech, and drew itself to a point. It drew back, curved like a cobra s head and, faster than an eye could follow, it struck. The grabbit stiffened, impaled, then thrashed wildly. The tendril penetrating it swelled with bluish-lavender grabbit fluids, and the grabbit seemed to shrink. Momentarily, the tendril withdrew. The grabbit lay motionless.
Tendrils rose again, two, six, a dozen of them. Estelle s body jerked with their impact, but she did not awaken. Sharpened tendrils penetrated her flesh as they had the grabbit, pulsing, pinkening, then darkening to the deep red of her draining blood.
Where s Enesstheh? Jelna Brist yelled angrily. I m keeping these damn bugs for him, but they ve already eaten through one glass jar, and I think they want to eat me.
They ve got good taste, Tom Van Stadt called to her. Give me half a chance and I ll....
Dammit, Tom, go find him. I mean it.
Okay, Okay, I think he s chasing grabbits. He can t have gone far. Jelna heard Tom whistle down the path to the water. She stared at the deeply-etched jar. She could not see the sandeaters any more. They were nibbling through the glass, or dissolving it. How do they do it, she wondered. An electric discharge or acid or.... She put the medium-sized jar inside a large one, and sealed it. The bugs had completely consumed the little jar she had caught them in. Is there a creature on this whole planet that isn t nasty? she exclaimed. Estelle could have answered her with a single word: No.
Jelna set the jar on a wicker shelf, guessing she had hours before the insectoids would penetrate the thick, greenish glass. She went in search of the missing Enesstheh. If you want it done, she muttered, then do it your fucking self. Athena s the entomologist. Why isn t she here? I could be home on Phastillan.
Halfway down the trail, she heard Tom yell. She dashed to the edge of the hill and peered down to the river. Precautions were probably unnecessary, as they had not had trouble from Orbers, had not even seen any, but... She reached for her Hokkaidan binocs. The image-enhancing instrument scanned the bottomland in visual and IR frequencies, and picked up nothing she could not identify as ordinary and safe. There was Tom, with Enesstheh, and there ... was that a person? The IR trace was faint. What the hell.... As she watched, the shape warmed, into a clear IR- defined human form.
It only took a minute to stumble down to the water. Watch it, Tom called. There s grabbits all over. Don t get stung.
Damn things can watch out for themselves, she yelled back. Goddamn this hostile planet anyway. The guy who set up a colony here was out of his mind, blind and retarded.
Watch your tongue, Tom cautioned her as she came up, breath- less. His name s Jack Cannon and he s still around. Don t get used to saying things that might piss off the natives. Some of them are looking for an excuse to crush a few Phastillan heads.
We ve got a treaty, remember? We re saving their asses from starvation and pirates - they don t have to like us.
I know, but until Cannon s son Ben comes back from Phastillan, until psatla have trained him to take over from his old man, we ve got to be careful.
She ignored him. Who is it? she asked, nodding at Estelle. Enesstheh, she saw, had put most of her blood back. His ksta were almost white again.
How should I know? A local, and in bad shape. Enesstheh warmed her blood and gave her stimulants, but those are grabbit- stings. She s in for a bad time.
Jelna nodded. Yeah, her and the kid both.
Huh? What kid? He lifted his head to look around.
She s pregnant, y damn blind fool.
Oh, God - and if that s a grabbit-punch on her stomach...
Uh-huh. Let s bring her in. Now that the seriousness of Estelle s plight had sunk in, Tom dropped his bantering air. There was nothing to joke about. Jelna wished there was.
They got her up the trail to the rudimentary asaph, the collection of interconnected wood and wicker huts that was home. Enesstheh followed, his tentacle-like appendages unable to help. Put her on my bed, Jelna said. Good. Now get me some blankets and ... Enesstheh? Can you fetch Steketh? He s tasted grabbit-nymphs before, hasn t he?
Yesss. The affirmative, hardly a word, issued from a hundred tiny mouths at the ends of Enesstheh s white, wriggling tendrils, his ksta. The trouble with you bright-green type psatla, Jelna muttered, is that you can t sit still or you can t get moving. Well? Are you going to fetch Steketh?
Iss done, Jelna. Ssscent ssspeech. He comesss. Is far away
She had missed that. If Enesstheh had been upwind, she would have heard his call with her own nose - not that she could understand psatla scent-talk. Oh well, she thought, someday I ll have time to learn a few stinks.
It was not the first time Estelle had risen from unconscious- ness into pain. The suffused light was dim, and a bleary glance deluded her into thinking she was lodged in a tangle of brush, because the ceiling was woven of vines and sticks, some with still-living leaves. Her groping hand felt a mat of finer stuff under her, dried grass, but the blanket caressing her bare hip and shoulder was soft and warm. She did not stay awake to ponder it. When she slept again, it was genuine sleep, not uncon- sciousness. She dreamed of eerie wormlike things, pale, dry, and as warm as human hands, that crept and crawled over her, and inside her. They were not pleasant dreams.
Elsewhere on Cannon s Orb, white apparitions like those in Estelle s uneasy dream moved beneath the soft humus of river valleys, migrating, seeking mates. They did not find them; there were no male psatla worms in the soil of their new planet. Nonetheless, soil churned with their mindless imperatives, and a miasma of stinks suffused the air above them; mushroom and mildew blended with heady sweat of marriage bed and crowded brothel, odors of blood, overripe fruit and sun-warmed compost. Female eggs were laid, and white, satisfied ksta moved on. The soils of Cannon s Orb held no male ksta, yet they were fresh and unexplored, without competing life-forms to slow the creatures progress.
Later, eggs hatched and thin, young ksta writhed and stretched. They too were all female. The invasion of Cannon's Orb proceeded at the exact pace its psatla planners anticipated.
The Orb delegation straightened dressy collars and brushed imaginary dust from clothing. "They aren't formal, here," Rob had told him, "but it stiffens our spines a bit..." From Rob's guarded remarks, Ben had gathered that their first visit to Phastillan, and their negotiations, had proceeded less than smoothly, and that this trip had been no easier. Before, though Rob had never been close with Jack's contractors, he had been friendly with them. On this trip he had remained coldly aloof. Ben wondered what had changed. But then, they didn't have to stay together much longer. They were going home.
Even after two weeks on Phastillan, the planet's aromas were incredible! He savored the barrage of odors that swirled over him, making his head swim. Rank scents and sweet, flowery, sharp and soft; acid, milky-sour and peppery. Overwhelmed by sensations human chemosensors failed to interpret, Ben still `felt' their distinct individuality, not the sickly melange of esters that results from mixing incompatible substances. Each scent-impression danced in his nostrils and was gone. No afterimages clung to the filtering hairs in his nose. Psatla communicate among themselves with such odors, he remembered. Their spoken language is only a patois, a melange of alien tongues shaped by millennia of trade with other species, by travel on other sentients' ships.
The overweening redolence surpassed language. It was Phastillan, not just psatla. There were no psatla at the ship, only bearded humans helping the delegation load luggage on board Barred Spiral. The scent-song of Phastillan usurped Ben's attention and relegated visual details to an impression of multi-hued greens beneath a sky as blue as Earth's was supposed to be. His eyes only regained mastery of his brain as that brain consciously censored ... Phastillan.
Beyond the clearing and clustered block buildings of the port rose trees that matched the Orb's finest, trees with boles thick as houses, great, twisted forms shaped by a time when no forest shade forced them straight and tall, saplings planted by the first psatla to arrive on Phastillan when it was a place of rock, moss and bare dirt.
Ben's goodbyes to the Orb delegation were perfunctory. They seemed as worn and haggard as he felt. Had they labored to free him from his `sentence' on Phastillan, or did they feel guilty, leaving him here? Uncle Rob alone was unaffected by the gloom surrounding him. He took Ben aside. "You look like the log that broke the blade, boy, all knotty with your bark still on." That was Orb idiom. Before the economic chaos that had closed the trade lanes between the stars, the Orb's main industry had been exotic lumber. "Haven't you been sleeping? Don't they feed you?" His jocularity angered Ben. Why should he be cheery? Then again, why not? He's going home, and he won't have to sleep with bugs and wormbags. But I can't tell him how I really feel. It would get back to Dad. They have to believe I'm just fine.
"I'll get used to it," he lied. "It's all very strange to me still, that's all."
Rob nodded, obviously wanting to believe that. "You'll do fine," he agreed. "That fellow ... Reis? Is that his name? ... seems like a reasonable sort. I ... you can trust him, I think."
Trust Reis? Oh, yes, I can trust him to serve his masters' interests. You want to believe that, Rob, I won't dissolution you. I agreed to come here, to learn psatla ways. I'll follow through and survive somehow, but I'm not a fool. "I suppose so," he agreed, struggling to keep his tone neutral. "He's human, anyway."
Rob seemed tongue-tied. Ben cut the goodbye short. Barred Spiral's hatch yawned wide, beckoning, and if he kept thinking about it, he would be tempted to run up the roll-away stairs, his resolve forgotten. The crew would not deny his right go home.... "Bye Rob," he said, hugging him. He turned quickly, stumbling, and hurried around the corner of the nearest shed. He did not stay to watch the ship lift free of Phastillan.
Days passed, and weeks, merging as if no light and darkness separated them. On Phastillan, within the confines of Asaph Swadethan, no one counted days. No one but Ben. He paid little attention to the other humans - and none attempted to become more than a passing face. He ate in his room, defecated in the woods (as did everyone in Asaph Swadethan) and he thought about things. He did a lot of thinking, because there wasn't anything else to do. Others had access to an extensive computer library, but he could not fathom the antique keyboards or guess the opcodes.
Other humans enjoyed the 'seminars' that filled their days - gatherings of humans and psatla where things were discussed that Ben did not even want to understand. He could not tolerate being trapped in a tiny room with reeking psatla. Reeking? Oh, yes! Just because psatla spoke aloud did not stop them from elaborating their vocalizations with scent-speech. Being around garrulous psatla was like diving into a garbage heap. You never knew if you'd smell melons, old dry roses, damp rags and moldy potatoes, or some melange of esters that made your stomach heave.
One humid night, Ben tossed off his blanket. A glance at the other `bed' confirmed that his roommate was gone, as he should have been. The psatla had learned that, at least - Ben did not like Asephth. The psatla had quickly become aware of the human's feelings, and had arranged its own schedule so it was safely `asleep' when Ben returned at night, and gone when he awakened. That suited Ben just fine.
The memory of his first night on Phastillan was never far from mind: walking up the overgrown path, pushing aside lush vegetation that threatened to overwhelm it, he had been surprised that he wasn't afraid of the chirping, prattling living things that seemed to lurk under every leaf, in every shadow. On the Orb, he would have been, but Phastillan was designed to be safe - no grabbits, no stinging bugs.
Barefoot on a path that was only a disturbance in moist ferns, he approached Asaph Swadethan alone. Reis had departed. "They're expecting you," he had said. "Just walk right in." Fine. Walk right in where? The structure did not have a front door, or a back one. It rambled among huge trees as if it had grown there. Intricate shingle-work diverted dripping water from recent rain. The irregular walls of woven vines were alive, in full leaf, and though they provided separation from the forest, they looked just like it. Some chambers had no roofs; some roofed ones had no walls. Ben rested his bag on an odd, scaly stump, and pondered. No one's here to greet me. Should I explore?
"Greetingssss, Bennn Cannnnonnn ... iss it your wisssh that I carry your sssack?"
Ben spun around, seeking the source of the odd, sibilant voice. He turned full circle, looking for a box, a speaker grille, anything.
"Thisss danssse is greeting, I think?" the voice hissed. The 'stump' where his bag rested bloomed, or perhaps unfolded. Slender white filaments sprung like bean-sprouts from gaps in its scaly bark - its chitin - and entwined his bag. Three bulging eyes scanned him: brown-skinned chameleon-eyes, with black pits for pupils; they moved independently, stacked top to bottom on the "head" of the psatla who greeted him - the "head" where he had casually placed his luggage.
"I do not sspeeek clearly?" the erstwhile stump said. "You do not ressspond." Ben, speechless, observed that the words were a chorus of blurred sound issuing from gaps in its chitin. He backed away on rubbery legs. Conditioning warred with rationality. Surprise sent adrenaline coursing, and his Orb training shouted "Kill it, kill it!" with grabbit-inspired enthusiasm. "Worms! Eeyuck!" a childhood voice added. White, writhing worms, indeed. Ksta, he told himself. Those are just ksta. It's a psatla.
"I ... I'm Ben Cannon," he grated. "I understand you. I didn't know ... I didn't see you. You startled me."
"Sssorry. I wait. I wait more time. Then you give me sssack. I will show you room, okaaay?" The pidgin speech discomfited him.
"Uh ... sure. Show me ... my room." The psatla spun around. There were more ksta, Ben saw, suppressing his atavistic shudder. Dozens of wet-looking, milky-white appendages extruded beneath low chitin-plates and oozed forward, pulling the lumpy, shapeless creature in a smooth, coordinated glide. Ben followed, content to examine and not be seen staring. A bristly pine cone, he thought. A rotted, moldy-green, wormy pine-cone. Are those tendrils poisonous? He saw that its chitin, mistaken for mossy bark, was actually smooth, dark gray-green mottled with brown, dry and fungus-white at the trailing edges of individual laminations. He stared fixedly at the ugly thing ... at the ugly colony of things ... until he realized its topmost eye had swivelled around, and had been staring equally intently at him, all the while. He shuddered. After that, he looked around himself instead.
The `building' consisted of rooms and roofless courtyards, he observed, avoiding the psatla's blank, pinhole stare. There were no hallways, no indications of direction. With a sick twist in his stomach, Ben realized he was lost. It was getting dark. Overhead, when they passed through roofless `rooms', the sky was velvet-gray, tinged with mauve in what might have been the west. He looked for signs of occupation - psatla or human. "Is anyone else here?" he asked softly, almost hoping his guide would not answer in its hissing voice, with its mangled words.
"Ahhh ... yesss," the psatla whispered. "Othersss work, ssstudy. And eat. Dinnertime isss now." Its smooth progress faltered, and Ben almost stumbled over it. Are all psatla so squat? It only comes up to my waist. "Dinnertime. You hungry? Weee go eat?"
"Uh ... no. No! I'm not hungry." Visions of a room crowded with wormy pine-cones doing disgusting, unspeakable things made his heart thump and his bowels cramp. Oh, shit. Bathrooms. Do they have... His sphincter tightened at the thought of squatting in a corner and ... perhaps later, when he was alone, he could sneak outside and ... toilet paper? What will I do for....
None too soon, the psatla glided to a stop before a vine-wrapped doorway. "Heeere," it said. Ben glimpsed white beneath its chitinous `waist', the worm-things with tiny black mouths from which its voices came - a hundred tiny worm-mouths speaking all at once. Bleached, hissing snakes. He dodged into the room, unable to tolerate his guide's presence any longer.
It was dark, but the walls glowed dully with bio-luminescent, fungoid light. Ben backed into a corner and leaned against a wall. At least it has corners to hide in, he thought. It isn't round. He sighed, trying to relax. At last, he could be alone to put his thoughts in order. Once he calmed down, psatla would not seem so repulsive or his surroundings so alien. Cool, spicy air crossed his face, and he saw a dark, rectangular doorway on his right. Beyond, in waning dusk without stars or moons, were dark boles of massive trees. A room with a view, he joked silently, as claustrophobia and disorientation vanished. Of four walls, three had doorways - one with a wicker screen, one looking outside, and the third the one he had entered through. The fourth wall had pigeonholes at eye level and below. With a sigh of relief, he saw white, paper-wrapped rolls of conventional toilet paper. One niche held a neatly-folded brown blanket and a soft-looking white towel. Another held a glass oil lamp with a woven wick and a Hilden portaphone, complete with belt-clip - normal human artifacts. At least somebody wants me to feel at home, he thought. I wish they'd met me instead of that bundle of snakes.
Two lumps of vegetation were beds. A perfectly ordinary blanket and phone, and they give me a pile of sticks to sleep on... I suppose I can use the floor. But two beds... Ben realized his worm-ridden guide had not left. It had ensconced itself on a brush-pile and was settling into the springy mass noisily, hissing and whistling. Before it made itself too much at home, Ben said "I'm all right. You can leave. I'll just get settled in and...."
"Leave? I not leave. Where I go? Where I sssleeeep?" The psatla whistled as if amused. "You not underssstand? I am Asephth. I live here. You are roommate."
"Oh my God," Ben moaned, reaching for the first excuse he could find to get out of the room, away from the creature. With the crinkly roll of toilet paper in hand, he asked "Where's the bathroom?"
"Bath? You dirty? That wrong stuff - take water-wiping cloth, there." It extended a chitinous extremity and pointed its white pseudo-fingers toward the folded towel. "Ahh! You mean shit! Yesss. Outside. Put shit on ground, ksta eat it. Ssstt ... all gone."
Ben stumbled outside. It figures. Worms. Shit-eating, stupid worms. What have I gotten into? I can't stand this. He cautiously dropped his pants, and relieved himself with his back against a rough-barked tree, feeling terribly exposed even with the bulk of the bole between him and the asaph. He kicked loose humus over his deposit, half-burying crumpled white paper and wrapper. Then, spotting a tree-bole with great, raised roots, he settled against it gingerly, wishing it were a rock, a crate, anything that wasn't alive - but since he had stepped out of the Stollivant, he had hardly seen a single thing that wasn't alive, except rocks. He checked his rooty nest carefully, assuring himself it wasn't a psatla in disguise, or worse. He would spend the night outside and deal with his roommate in the morning.
He almost made it. He was emotionally and physically exhausted, and the chattering, screeching night-creatures seemed to avoid his territory as if he smelled bad. He was sleepy enough to ignore them, but he could not ignore the creature that landed in his lap in mid-leap, or its speedy pursuer who whooshed by his face. Again fully awake, he felt something wet crawl up his chest. He clawed beneath his shirt, dislodging a cold slug that left a trail of slippery mucus. Miserably, he stumbled toward the dark entrance to his room. Roommate or not, at least he had not seen anything slithering around in there. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed movement near his impromptu latrine. White, wriggling movement. He kept his eyes straight ahead, and refused to think about that.
"Ben? Are you awake?" The voice of a cheery human male penetrated the thin wicker door with ease.
"Paul?" Ben asked "Just a moment."
"May I come in?" After a brief hesitation, Paul added "I'm alone."
"Oh ... sure. I'm sorry," Ben stumbled. "I didn't mean to...."
"It's all right," the other young man interrupted him. "I know you don't like Ftalessth, and since I'm supposed to show you Com/Con, he was glad to find something else to do. Psatla hate mechanical and electronic smells, you know?"
"I don't hate Ftalessth," Ben protested, "I just can't get used to psatla." He shook his head angrily. "I wish I could explain what it's like, being raised on the Orb - all these living things, everywhere."
"That's why you've got Asephth - and why we're each paired with a psatla. Xenophobia seems natural to our species. That's why we log our reactions, for others to study." He glanced at Ben, recognizing blank incomprehension. "Haven't you been told? No? Asephth should have explained it." He shrugged. "But he's not very ... connected ... if you know what I mean." He grinned nervously, as if afraid Ben might take offense.
"Do I!" Ben exclaimed, contrary to Paul's expectation. "He can't talk right, he stinks, he makes noises all night long, and he forgets things. Is Ftalessth like that?" Ben stopped his diatribe before it got out of hand. "But what's this 'logging' business?"
"We're supposed to keep a - diary, I suppose - for future study. Symbiosis between sapient species is as new to psatla as to us, and you can never tell what may be important - so we log everything. I'm upset you weren't told - first reactions, you know. Ah, well," he said, "You can recap what you remember. But I'm supposed to show you the Computer center today - are you ready?"
Com/Com was the communication nexus for the entire planet; to Ben it was like home. Concrete block, fluorescent-lit chambers, human-manufactured machinery - including an antique, molecular-optic computer like a two-story pile of clear plastic brick. When it was active, lightning-streaks of micro-laser light shot through its glassy transparency; at other times it glowed dimly, engaged in low-level self-maintenance and data-distribution to terminals across Phastillan. It was the heart of the psatla/human effort to 'terraform' what had been a barren planet only centuries before.
Psatla determination impressed him. Individually, the ugly creatures were repugnant, but he respected their effort and their dream. He respected it the more for their shortcomings; psatla mechanical ability extended no further than weaving vines and roots or cutting elaborate mortise-and-tenon joinery with enzyme-laden ksta. They could 'pump' water with hydraulic-lines grown from tree-roots, but a simple cylinder pump was inconceivable. Aircars, computers - those were human artifacts made by Phastillan's humans or left over from pre-Chaos days when Phastillan had been a junkyard for cast-off human goods and for the human castoffs who kept that junk running.
Staring into shifting veins of light within the computer, Ben reflected on psatla history. Travelling in hired ships, they had colonized worlds strung in a line from their mythical homeworld. Phastillan was far out on that string, a last-ditch landing for psatla running out of air, water and time. It was not a good world, but there had been no choice.
Psatla ability to synthesize viruses and bacteria, to create pharmaceuticals for the human trade, kept them going. They traded drugs for hardware and workers to run it; they traded vaccines for nuclear explosives to open channels to the warm currents that make equatorial Phastillan liveable. The job wasn't finished yet.
Interstellar politico-economic disorder, Chaos, had seemed like Phastillan's doom. Only later did it become their ally when an innovative human proposed using psatla biological expertise to extract heavy elements that transReef worlds were literally dying for. When he sold that proposal to psatla, Phastillan prospered. It opened its arms to refugees from pirate-raped marginal colonies and incorporated them into psatla infrastructure, attempting the unthinkable: symbiosis of species as different as fire and water. It wasn't a trading relationship, as Ben learned first hand: humans and psatla lived with each other as he was expected to do, not always roommates, but in the same asapht, engaged in the same endeavors. Their mutuality was a point of pride, but for Ben, it was a nightmare. He would never adapt to wormbags - he never called them that aloud; Phastillan's humans were sensitive about 'specism'.
At least there were other humans. The sound of their voices jarred him from his reflection: girls. Ben blushed. Bare arms and legs were hard to get used to. It was hard not to think of them as loose, the way they pranced around wearing next to nothing. Ben liked tanned female skin, but he felt naked in the shorts and sandals everyone wore.
"Hi Paul," a pretty brunette, tallest of the three, said. She glanced at Ben.
"Anneka," Paul greeted her, smiling. "This is Ben Cannon. He's new."
She nodded. "Hi Ben." The others echoed her faintly. "Paul, I can't find that endocrinology paper," Anneka said, as if Ben had faded away. "I searched the whole bio section."
"It's in the data-dump from the Fargone ship that put in last week. Query the input buffer under 'History of Science.' It's a twenty-first century paper."
"No wonder!" Anneka exclaimed. "How do you ever find all those odd things? I'd never have thought to...."
Ben was frustrated. None of them noticed he was still there. It wasn't the first time. On the Orb, when young men and women met, there was underlying tension, excitement born of expectation and potential. Even now, he felt it. Whenever there had been a new girl at school, boys nudged each other, curious speculative, and girls responded with snide looks or condescending. New people were objects of interest, interest in no small part sexual.
Here, at Asaph Swadethan, "Phastillan U," there was no excitement. Old endocrinology studies were more interesting. Ben slipped away. No one noticed him leave.
"COMMISSARY," the sign read. It was an ordinary resin utility door, ajar. He nudged it with a sandalled foot, and overhead light flickered on. He saw shelves stacked with manufactured goods, an irregular assortment of jumpsuits, shorts and sleeveless tops like Ben wore. "LEAVE THIS PLACE NEATER THAN YOU FOUND IT," a hand-printed sign commanded. "REMEMBER TO ENTER YOUR WITHDRAWALS BY CODE NUMBER BEFORE YOU LEAVE," another one said. The screen of an antique data-com glowed blue, lighting its battered keyboard.
His eyes brightened. One bank of shelves was laden with ship's rations - dry, irradiated packets. No one except Ben ate 'factory food' out of preference. The others ate in the psatla refectory, dipping wooden ladles in the common pots, reaching among casting ksta which busily absorbed nutrients from the stews and broths. Ben had taken one look his first day, and had gone hungry the next. The idea of dipping into dark pots, nudging snaking tendrils aside in quest of unidentified morsels, made him queasy.
After living with his growling stomach for twenty-seven hours, he had snarled at Asephth. "Isn't there any food here except in there?"
"Food-in-pods!" the psatla wheezed after Ben re-phrased the question different ways, and it slid out of the room, returning with shrink-wrapped parcels clutched in random, yellowed tendrils. Since then Ben dined exclusively on "Beef and Cheese Meal-Pak, with mixed fruit bar." When his supply ran low, he sent Asephth for more, though he was heartily sick of Beef and Cheese, and mixed fruit bars, too.
Here, now, right in front of him was a bank of shelves stacked tightly with ration packs. The shelf labelled "Chicken Stew and vanilla pudding " was full:. There were no open spaces on the shelf where packets of "Spicy Vegetables and Chocolate DelightMFB: " lay undisturbed. There were a dozen varieties, and then, there was the shelf labelled "Beef & Cheese." It was almost empty.
Ben wished Asephth was there. He wanted to kick him and hear mold-colored chitin crunch. He wanted to stuff the psatla with every remaining packet of BC/MFB - except he couldn't kick anything with sandals, and psatla had no mouths to stuff. BC/MFB for breakfast, lunch and supper he had doggedly eaten Beef and Cheese, and mixed fruit bars, meals without variation in taste, consistency, color or smell. And here were seventeen varieties. Seventeen wonderful, different flavors, textures and smells, of which Asephth had given him one - the kind nearest the door, on the shelf at Asephth's eye-level. Ben really wanted to kick him. He wanted to kick himself, too. If only it wasn't so hard to make his stupid roommate understand things. If only he'd thought to ask if there were other kinds.
It wasn't lunch time yet. His breakfast, Beef and Cheese, still lay in his stomach. It did not matter. He tore open a packet, CS/VP, and ate it before its Chem-o-Warm had a chance to work. Like the first real taste of food when a head-cold dissipated, it was delicious - cold lumps of vegetable, protein-fiber 'chicken' and flat, sweet, pudding. Ben's anger faded as he ate. So did his initial delight. By the time his forefinger squeegeed the last smears of yellow pudding from its square recess, he was uncomfortably full, and his finger tasted like yellow, sweetened clay.
"Oh, here you are," Paul said as Ben emerged from the storeroom. "Sorry I got involved back there."
"I was exploring," Ben said flatly, coldly.
"Hey - I said I'm sorry."
"It's not that," Ben replied, softening. "I'm just not used to being treated like furniture."
"Oh, you mean Anneka." He grinned, man-to-man. "Give it time. Remember the orientation - even 'magic' takes a while, you know?"
"What orientation?" Ben did not understand. "Magic? Is that what it takes? Am I poison or something?"
"You know - the orientation lessons. The 'psatla effect.'"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Paul stared. "You really don't know, do you? You haven't been briefed."
"That's what I said, didn't I?" Ben shot back, hot anger supplanting cold rage. "I don't know anything, including why half the humans in this god-forsaken hole won't say a word to me except when an instructor tells them to explain something."
"Damn! No wonder you're upset. The 'psatla effect' - does that mean anything to you?"
"How about 'isolation syndrome?'"
"What is this, a quiz? An isolation syndrome is a xenopathology, when a human lives among aliens, away from his own kind."
"And what else?" Paul eyed him intensely.
"He absorbs alien hormones - pheromones - to replace ones he's not getting from his own species... Are you saying it's me that's screwed up? With biochemicals?" Ben was afraid. He could tolerate psatla, their ever-changing reeks, their sibilant mutters, their open chitin-plates and twitching, twisting tendrils. He had come to terms with Phastillan's clicking, scooting, humming, chattering, and slithering life-forms, but this new fear struck at the core of his being. Were the repulsive creatures invading his glands, his brain, and his very thoughts?
Paul saw that Ben's skin was whiter than a month in a spacegoing tin can could account for. "That's not it," he ventured. "It's us - I mean the 'psatla effect' is ... look, it's all in the orientation program."
"Is that a seminar?" Ben asked sarcastically. "I must have slept through it. I've only been to two - about planetforming and ecosystems."
"It's on the computer. You're supposed to view it when you log on."
"Log on what? Where?" Those were not questions, but defiant jabs. Lessons? Manipulation. More clearly than if he had been told, Ben understood that he was in the middle of such a "lesson." "I don't have anything to log on to. No one showed me."
Paul was dismayed. "No wonder you're upset," he repeated. "No orientation. No access code, I suppose?" Ben's glare answered him. "Well, I can fix that. Come on." He grabbed Ben's arm and tugged him down the echoing, bright-lit hallway.
"Hold it!" Ben dragged his feet. "Where are we going?"
"To get you an access code. So you can get straight what's happening to you." He shook his head. "I can't understand it. Everyone gets the orientation."
Paul guided him back to the main Com, to a terminal on a wooden table. By the flickering light of the ancient mainframe, he keyed in a sequence. "Put your hand on the pad," he said. Ben complied. The screen glowed, and row after row of ideograms filled it. "Psatla stuff," Paul said. Ben noticed that each key was divided with a diagonal slash separating conventional letters from glyphs. "You have to be in 'human' mode, " Paul explained. "This toggles it - the CAP LOCK. "Damn," he muttered under his breath. "I can't believe nobody set you up. No wonder you're rattled. Damn." He turned to Ben. "Here. You're set. Your code is your name - just 'Ben,' since there aren't any other Bens. Use the handprint pad for access. The menu system is good - you'll figure it out." He tensed, ready to rise.
"Wait a minute! What's this stuff?" Ben pointed at the screen: OPMODE: [K]EY, [V]OICE, [P]OINTER, OR [D]IRECT INTERFACE.
"Oh - good you asked. There is no voice or pointer support on these units. You're stuck with keyboard."
"What's 'D,' then? What's a 'direct interface?'"
Paul snorted. "That's a hat program. You know what a hat is?"
Ben paled. "A hat - on this antique? Or is it just a joke, like voice op?"
"No joke. It's there. There's a headset on the shelf - that gray box - if you're crazy enough to try it." He got up, eager to dump his awkward burden to the computer. "It's all yours. I'll be back in an hour, so if you have any questions..." He sidled away, grinning uncomfortably.
Ben sat. A hat. A direct interface - a brain-burner. One person in a billion could use a hat, and stay sane. The other nine hundred ninety-nine million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand ... either failed or went nuts entirely. It didn't make sense. Who would put a hat interface on this old junk? Who would use it? It was a trick, or a test. It had to be.
He glanced toward the shelf, the gray metal container. What would happen if I tried it? Before he had left the Orb, a letter from the psatla sfalek-ni, Swadeth, had assured him he would not be permanently damaged by anything on Phastillan. People who tried the hat once got away with no more than a week of nightmares; only ones who went too deep, who lost themselves in almost-infinite data-flow, went crazy. He shook his head. "I'm not that curious," he muttered. "Keyboard input is just fine."
The menu system was good. Ben made a mental note to ask why everything was so old-fashioned, without voice-activation. He went from INITIAL to SERVICES to PERSONAL ACCESS and was prompted for ACCESS CODE ??
"BEN", he typed. The screen said "WAIT", and scrolled to a new menu:
PERSONAL ACCESS * BEN CANNON
 OR [D] PERSONAL DATA AREA
 OR [L] PERSONAL LESSON SEQUENCE
 OR [U] UTILITIES, GENERAL PURPOSE PROGRAMS
 OR [C] COMMUNICATIONS ACCESS AND MESSAGES
TYPE [..] WITH [F1] DEPRESSED FOR HELP.
This stuff is ancient. I'll bet the software is two hundred years old. I'd think they could afford the latest stuff on Phastillan. He saw the " OR [C]
COMMUNICATIONS ACCESS AND MESSAGES" line blinking. A message? For him? Drawing a deep breath, he hit [C].
"1 MESSAGE LOGGED. [P]rint or [S]creen ??"
"[P]", he typed. Nothing happened. He tried again. "That figures," he muttered. "[S]", he typed, then let his breath out.
From: the Sfalek-ni Swadeth Date: July 20, 2486 Greetings, my young friend,
By now you have experienced, indirectly, Phastillan's effect upon your species. Because of my intervention in the orientation process, you understand it less than other visitors to my planet. But that will not last. In time, you will, you must, understand it better than they will need to. The 'psatla effect,' the influence of my species' 'words' - sometimes your pheromones - can be as subtle as the reaction of your conspecific females to you. Too, it can be painfully, blatantly embarrassing. That, you'll understand soon enough.
You were denied the orientation given visitors and immigrants. Your experience has been like that of Phastillan's first humans, but it isn't necessary for you to feel their full spectrum of suffering. You are intelligent, and can extrapolate from your feelings to what they felt, and to what your people, your Orbers, may also feel when psatla fully descend on their world. -STRIKE ANY KEY WHEN READY-Ben jabbed at the keyboard, breaking a fingernail. The new screen was split horizontally. A menu occupied the top half, and the text of Swadeth's letter continued below.
 LESSON 2 THE ISOLATION SYNDROME IN CLASSICAL XENO-
 LESSON 3
THE PSATLA EFFECT
 FURTHER REFERENCES
Lesson 1 is finished. Unlike those listed, it cannot be replayed. Remember your feelings. By all means log them. They will not be accessed without permission. You may need those memories someday, undistorted by time and familiarity . Should your feelings about Phastillan, psatla, my asaph and goals be more charitable in future than they are now, you may wish to donate those recorded recollections for others to learn from.
In the not-distant future, I hope to meet you. Until then, I wish you well. Now ... your lessons await. Sincerely, SwadethNo fancy "Swadeth-this-or-that", just "Swadeth". Like "Bill" or "Henry." Record my feelings? Not in a million years. "Donate" them? Make that a billion. Ben seethed. His hands poised over the keyboard like raptors, like red-tailed hawks, originally of Earth, that he had never seen until Phastillan. Gradually his breathing slowed. He pressed 
LESSON 2 'THE ISOLATION SYNDROME IN CLASSICAL XENOBIOLOGY'
A menu-bar told him he could [S]ave the article to his personal area or [P]rint it before e[X]iting. He decided to take a hard copy - it was stuff about airborne chemicals bypassing the blood/brain barrier via the unsheathed olfactory nerve, on synaptic receptor-sites depending on input from other humans and how, lacking human contact, they lock onto non-human pheromones, causing hormonal changes, imbalances, even psychoses. Old stories about first-contacts. Every kid knew them.
He skimmed the 'lesson.' It seemed irrelevant - he was not isolated from his fellow-humans, and he was not acting weird. Neither was Paul. Only the women were. He [P]rinted it for later. Maybe he had missed something.
Paul had not returned, and Ben was not sure he could find his way back to his room, so he tapped " LESSON 3
THE PSATLA EFFECT." This one was different. He sensed that halfway through the second paragraph, and started over.
-THE PSATLA EFFECT-
Originally considered an 'isolation syndrome', the effect of psatla pheromones on humans is more than replacement of human-generated molecules with inferior, non-human substitutes.
Psatla use 'odors,' volatile chemicals, to speak among themselves. On a more basic level, ksta, psatla component organisms, communicate chemically, not via the nerve networks that unite limbs, viscera and brain in human beings.
Psatla processes disturb human biochemical systems. Usually, pheromones are species-specific, and the chance of a 'fit' between non-human molecule and human receptor is slim. Psatla emissions, on the other hand, are physical expressions of their very thoughts. If a sugar molecule were the psatla word 'sweet,' then an additional atom at any bonding-site might create the more specific 'sweet food.' Another addition might further specify 'maple sugar.' Psatla speech is built of ever-more-complex molecular constructs.
Psatla evolved in response to chemical speech; as concepts became 'weighty,' molecules expressing them became complex, slower in transmission. A psatla's size, reflecting the number of component ksta, is limited by communication. A 'huge' psatla with a thousand ksta would have great intellect but dangerously slow reflexes. A small psatla with under a hundred ksta would conversely be agile and quick, but no mental heavyweight. Only anomalous 'lime green' psatla, discussed elsewhere, are both small and bright. Psatla behavior reflects these limitations. Simple concepts can be transmitted over great distance, because light molecules disseminate rapidly before they oxidize. The complexity of a concept two psatla can share is a function of distance between them.
Complicating matters further, many psatla words are what they represent. 'Orbital shuttle' is an exudation of combustion byproducts. Names for particular shuttlecraft differ only by differences in each craft's exhaust, and change as combustion chambers wear away and valves go out of adjustment.
But how does this relate to sexuality, the most obviously affected human behavior? Unlike a map, which is not the territory it represents, psatla words, or 'maps', are often exactly what they represent. Psatla discussing human behavior exude human pheromones appropriate to that behavior. Psatla can't talk about humans without influencing them.
The 'psatla effect' was observed almost three hundred years ago. Phastillan's human workers working away from the human settlement observed a marked drop in libido and improvement in problem-solving ability. (See also 'The Role of Serotonin-like Chemicals in Depression and Obsessive-compulsive Behavior,' Appendix B.) Reunion with humans caused behavioral change as body-chemistry 'normalized' in the presence of genuine human pheromones; compulsive sexual activity lasted for days. Traumatized individuals seldom stayed on Phastillan, so the permanent human population came to consist of those who enjoyed not only the periods of sexual abandon but the lucid, productive times as well.
A clear picture of the 'psatla effect' emerged when Phastillan's human population swelled with three thousand refugees in 2482. Not subject to the voluntary winnowing of previous immigrants, the refugees suffered intense social and psychological upheaval. (See 'The High Line Prince and the Cost of Rigidity,' Appendix A.) Subsequent dispersion of Phastillan's human population among the various asapht following the Compact of 2479...
Ben read on, sure that the dry prose concealed as much as it revealed. Phrases like "The 'psatla effect', as it is ordinarily defined," were clues. Did that mean there was another definition, one he was not supposed to know? A sinister one, perhaps, that only a psatla would understand? Was this written just for him? How many people had he met here? Twenty? Forty? With a sinking feeling, Ben realized they could all be dupes. How would he know? He had not made close friends to compare notes with. Paul was only guide-for-a-day, and half the population - the female half - had no interest in him at all. At least he understood that now.
That was explained in the last paragraphs of the "lesson:" through evolution, humans had rid themselves of the rigid oestrus cycle. For reasons footnoted in the text, pre-human survival required that sex be an open option instead of a programmed roller-coaster, but exposure to psatla pheromones put humans back on that narrow-gauge biological track. Oestrus: every fourth week, Phastillan's humans rut; for three, four, even seven days of twenty-eight, they are slaves of libido, and the rest of the time are work-obsessed drones. At least that's how Ben thought of it. No wonder he was odd man out. He had not absorbed the pseudo-pheromones that Phastillan's women would react to. When he had absorbed psatla essences, it would be different, frighteningly so: he was going to ... rut. There would be no fumbling, exploring foreplay, no slap-your-hand-if-you-touch-me-there hesitation, no coy smiles or suggestive glances. Just coitus. Heat. Uncontrolled animal rut.
Ben sweated, though the computer-room was cool and dry, unlike the humid asaph and forests. His hand shook so badly he could hardly guide his finger to [S]ave the lesson - he did not want a printout. He would as soon have carried a lewd magazine home for his mother to find. He was going to have to have sex. He was scared and angry, because he would have no choice at all.
Now he understood Swadeth's warning to Jake Van Elderen. regarding the treaty between Phastillan and Cannon's Orb: the utter destruction of your social order, your morality and religion ... of your entire culture to accommodate the presence of psatla in every aspect of your lives. Swadeth. Everything reeked of the unseen sfalek-ni's manipulation. Sfalek-ni or not, Orb dependency or not, he wanted to let Swadeth know how he felt, but he did not know where to find him, and was not sure he dared.
That evening, since he could not confront Swadeth, he took his frustration out on Asephth. There was something very wrong about the mottled, tatty creature anyway. No other psatla were as scruffy as Asephth, and they either spoke decent English or no human tongue at all. They did not mangle language like Asephth. The worst thing was his stink; Asephth's odor was a melange of mildew, rotten fruit and mushrooms; Ben hated it.
Ben lit the oil-lamp and got ready for bed. He could have let his eyes adjust, but was childishly satisfied when Asephth hissed like spit on a griddle and closed his chitin-plates. Ben rattled things, then cleared his throat noisily, and Asephth responded with clicks and twitches of annoyance. He purposefully misunderstood the psatla's halting requests for darkness, and pretended not to have learned any psatla words at all. Asephth ground chitin-plates raspingly, expressing sheer frustration. Ben whistled tunelessly through his teeth. For psatla that was a monotonous, senseless gobbling, a drooling cretin's conversation.
Estelle was cold. The light cover did not warm her because the iciness was deep inside. She was shivering, and her teeth rattled. "Shall I get more blankets?" a male voice said.
"I don't think that will help, Tom. Why don't you heat some of last night's soup - and give me a while to warm her up."
"Sure, but why don't you get the soup, and I'll..."
"She's been traumatized - and we don't really know what's been done to her. If she wakes up and finds you, a man..."
"Yeah, I know. Dumb of me."
"As usual?" Jelna said, affectionately. Moments later, she slipped out of shorts and shirt and slid under the blanket with Estelle, cuddling spoon-fashion. She was shocked by the girl's clamminess, but pulled herself close, to maximize contact. "You poor child," she murmured, "don't worry. You're in good hands, better than you can imagine, and you'll be warm soon..."
Estelle drifted asleep to Jelna's voice. She dreamed, of Ben Cannon, first, which was not unpleasant - but such dreams led inexorably into the consequences of her brief dalliance with the Orb heir. Pregnancy - Ben never knew about that; when Barred Spiral returned from the Orb's first mission to Phastillan, with the sfalek-ni Swadeth's demand that Ben go there, learn their ways, and return to oversee his planet's adherence to the Phastillan treaty, there had been no opportunity to tell him. She had not told her family, either, but her sister Lydia had guessed - they shared a room, and there were no secrets for long. Lydia told Mom, and Mom told ... Jeremiah Mason, her father. Jeremiah saw his daughter's pregnancy as his one chance at a better life - a Cannon life; the father of his grandchild-to-be was the key. Estelle, rejecting his machinations, had run away to the only place she felt safe: the farm.
Dream turned to nightmare - the farm... A toothless outbacker and his band had occupied the abandoned house. Manny's ugly, haggard face, eyes dulled by dietary deficiency and near-starvation, loomed large in Estelle's sleeping mind. Manny and Nell, his woman, herself crazed and stupified, and Lass, Estelle's age, her back and shoulders a mass of cancerous lesions from Mirasol's light. There had been others, too, others who died one by one. The "tribe," Estelle called them, collectively, ex-farmers who had not believed the government's announcements that there would be no more offworld fertilizers, that they could not subsist even on earth-bred crops, and that they had to move to the towns. For such suspicious and incredulous ones, there had been no hope. Holdouts. Wilders. For a while, there had been thousands, but they died in raids on each other's diminishing supplies, of malnutrition and lack of trace elements heavier than iron, which were lacking in the Orb's soils, plants, and wildlife; they died too of predation by grabbits whose population swelled as once-tilled fields grew over with native brush, and they died of the worst predation of all: men and women so debased that they hunted their fellow humans for the trace elements their bodies could supply, in ever-diminishing portion.
Estelle had been kept by Manny's band for some time, weeks, perhaps even months. Long after most of them had died and she escaped, she still smelled the too-sweet, too-delicious aroma of forbidden meat stewing in the great iron pot her mother had used for laundry...
She awoke to voices. Tom, was chuckling. "I came back twice, but you sleeping beauties never opened an eye. I added water to this soup or you'd have to chew it."
"I guess I needed a nap." Estelle felt Jelna's breath on her shoulder. Warm breasts pressed against her back, a slim, hard-muscled forearm pressed in the hollow of her hip, and she did not want to move - but the warm, spicy soup triggered sympathetic knotting of her empty stomach, in spite of the dream-smells it had evoked.
"Are you awake?" The warm voice stirred her hair. She nodded, embarrassed. "Tom, leave the bowl on the shelf. I'll find our new friend something to wear." Estelle heard him depart. "It's just us girls now," the other girl, Jelna, said. "Sit up, and I'll get you some soup."
Estelle's back was cool as Jelna slipped from the fibrous bed. Strong, wiry arms lifted her. She looked at Jelna for the first time as the girl wrapped her in a light blanket. The first thing she saw was a freckled breast, fuller than hers, as Jelna bent over. Her face was freckled, and the rest of her. Her hair was like polished copper, too bright to be pretty. Estelle thought her eyes were playing tricks, because Jelna's skin looked violet where sunlight from the doorway struck it. Estelle stared when she turned away to get the soup.
Jelna was not self-conscious of her nudity. "Can you hold this, or shall I?" she asked.
"I can. Thank you." The soup was warm, not hot, but salty and piquant, a strangely-spiced blend of familiar tastes.
"I saw you looking. I'll bet you're curious about my purple skin. Right?"
"I ... yes."
"I was startled too, the first time I saw myself. Psatla came up with it, for Cannon's Orb."
Psatla? What did aliens have to do with it?
Jelna noted her confusion. "You know about the treaty with Phastillan, don't you?" Estelle nodded, spooning more soup into her mouth. The first mouthful had satisfied her hunger, but even slight hunger was frightening. After leaving the tribe, she had almost died of starvation, before four surveyors had taken her in. She never wanted to be hungry again. While Estelle nodded or shook her head in reply, Jelna found out she had heard no news since the High Line Prince, the Phastillan ship, had arrived. She hadn't known there were now Phastillan settlements all over the Orb. "We've had three months to set up and start analysis of how to fix this planet," Jelna said. "When we realized how 'hard' the solar-radiation was, someone - Kelephth, I think - came up with a medication that protects against Mirasol's UV."
"We have a skin-cream..." Estelle began to say.
"Yeah, but that's just a sun-screen. This stuff is systemic. It absorbs UV, then spits it out at a lower frequency. The scatter is in the visible range, and that's what makes me look purple. Here, I'll show you." At the doorway, Jelna stood half in the sun, half out. In shadow, her skin was normal, but where sunlight struck, it glowed, the merest shade of lavender floating a millimeter from her skin. "Weird, huh?"
Estelle agreed wordlessly. The soup had settled, and she was sleepy again. "I'm sorry," Jelna exclaimed. "Here I am showing off and ... do you want to lie down? Will you be warm enough? I can get back in with you, if you want."
"Yes, please," Estelle said softly, emphatically, even though she was no longer cold.
"You were dreaming, before. I don't think they were nice dreams. Do you want to tell me about them?"
"Whenever you want."
She dozed as soon as Jelna wiggled against her and stopped moving. Estelle felt mindless contentment. In her sleep, she turned, and Jelna did too. Positions reversed, Estelle nestled her chin into the other girl's shoulder. Her arm was under Jelna's and in her sleep her fingers curled loosely over a breast. A part of her mind that never stopped analyzing wondered if her experiences had twisted her, if she had become a ... she did not have a nice word for it, only slang like "she-man" and "dyke" - one word crudely misleading, and the other's meaning lost in antiquity. Besides, weren't those preferences genetically determined? The ordinary part of her mind did not care. She was warm, fed and close to someone who smelled different from a man. Besides, not one man in her life had snuggled with her - not the awful Manny, not the surveyors who found her, half-starved, and kept her for their pleasure - not even Ben.
The tarpaulin rippled in the last breeze of evening. Estelle sat with the Phastillans - not Phastillians or Phastillanians, they emphatically stated - on split-log benches. During the day it was their "laboratory," Jelna said, and at night the center of their "social life," mostly shop-talk. By glowing oil-lamps, the Phastillans' skin looked ordinary, but the more Estelle listened to them, the less ordinary they seemed.
She had mentioned Jelna's sleeping with her. "So you see," Jelna was saying, "the psatla effect re-established the prehuman oestrus cycle among Phastillans. Even a lifelong lesbian couldn't feel more than warm affection for her lover, and when she was in "heat" - well, that's a pheromone-driven reaction, synergistic with male pheromones. Maybe if she wanted to do something with a woman, and they found a horny male to cooperate..." She giggled. Estelle blushed hotly. People never talked like that. Even the surveyors had been circumspect - in taciturn Orb fashion.
Tom grinned broadly. Without thinking, she gave him a half-smile and a shy, come-hither look beneath lowered eyelashes, a conditioned gesture little girls learned before they could walk without wobbling. It had always drawn indulgent response, but Tom did not react. He just grinned, paying equal attention to her and to Jelna, who was not flirting. Had psatla changed them that much?
"Before you get carried away in chauvinist fantasy," Jelna scolded him," remember that Estelle and I aren't lesbians, okay? If we were, you wouldn't be the center of attention, only a convenient chemical factory, a ... what are those things anyway?"
"Those fake penises we saw on that holoshow on the Prince."
"Something like that. That's all you'd be."
"Thanks, Jelna. It's nice to know you think so much of me."
"Don't mention it."
"Don't worry, I won't."
Banter. Estelle was familiar with sexual innuendo that passed for courtship, but here was a qualitative difference. They kidded like siblings - explicit, even crude, but their sexual banter was not exciting, it was flat.
Estelle was well educated. The Vassily James Cannon Memorial Institute of Societal Research had been the center of her existence, her passion, obsession and breakout from her family's three-generation rut. The School had been endowed the year before Ben was born, in 2464, after Ben's older brother Vassily - "Bass" - died in a swimming accident.
For Jack Cannon, Ben's father, VJC was as much a monument to future hope as to his dead son. Cannon had foreseen that the political and economic problems of transReef worlds would worsen, that only sweeping change would save his colony. The School's mission was to study societies in adaptation, to apply its collective knowledge to survival of Cannon's Orb. Anthropology, ethnology, even history were rare in colonial curricula, but on the Orb, as the interstellar situation worsened, they became almost a religious quest.
There had been resistance. Cannon's Orb was a one-Church colony, and devout churchgoers considered the school ungodly: sex was no subject for scholarly inquiry, nor was religion. Comparative religion? The First Dharmic Church of Christ Reincarnate had no peers. The doubters were right, in one sense: once bright students understood all the ways societies could be organized, and all the kinds of carrots and sticks religions offered, they scorned their own. Estelle was typical. Had they known, her parents would have taken her out of School and married her off. Girls did not need to know about animals and savages. But Estelle wanted to. Even before farms had been abandoned and migration to the cities began, she had not wanted to marry a farmer and make little farmhands. Later, she wanted more than a man on the dole, and little street-urchins.
She had studied the Phastillans' adaptation, the only known symbiosis of humans with aliens. She had learned a little about how the alien psatla's chemistry, their pheromones, affected humans. As she understood it, once a month Jelna would become oestral, and she and Tom would let their work go for two or three days while they made love, ate, dozed and made love some more, until they were entirely exhausted and drained. Then they became their "normal" asexual selves for another three or four weeks - the timing depended on how close they were in the meantime. "A male pheromone regulates menstruation," Jelna told Estelle, "so if I'm with Tom a lot, mine is on time. That goes for ovulation too, and estrus. If you stay with us for a while, you'll probably synchronize with me - after..." She had been going to say "After the baby," but that subject had not yet come up, and she was not sure how she would handle it when it did.
"If I sleep with Tom, you mean?" Estelle replied.
Jelna chuckled, relieved by the other woman's misunderstanding. "There's another pheromone that acts only between women - they synchronize cycles, man or no man."
"Of course!" Estelle said. "I wondered about that, with my sister. A pheromone?" These Phastillans knew so much about human behavior and physiology. But Estelle had something on her mind. "You too aren't alone here, are you. There's a psatla, too, isn't there? Enef ... Enesth..."
"Enesstheh. We can introduce you any time," Jelna said. "I had thought we'd wait until morning - psatla can be intimidating, especially in the dark."
"I won't be frightened. He saved my life, didn't he?"
"He did," Tom answered. "Those grabbit-nymphs..." He shuddered expressively.
Seeing Estelle grow pale, Jelna put an arm around Estelle's shoulder. "Don't listen to him. Tom took sensitivity lessons from a beteph." Estelle did not know what a beteph was, but she got the idea. "Enesstheh examined you when you were unconscious. If you're not too afraid of him, he should really check on you again. He didn't have time for a thorough examination before."
"It's the baby, isn't it?" Estelle blurted, tears welling up. "Something's wrong."
Jelna's face hardened. "If there is, Enesstheh will know. Do you want to wait until morning?"
"Now, please?" Her fear for that small life, so closely allied with her brief, sweet moments with Ben Cannon, overrode her xenophobia, her fear of silent, tendrilled dream-creatures that touched her, explored her... "I need to know."
"Tom?" Jelna looked at him, a silent order.
"I'll get him," Tom sighed. "Then I guess I'll turn in."
"Tom?" Estelle said. "Come back? Will you stay with me too?"
"Uh ... sure. I thought maybe you were, well, afraid of me."
"Not now. Come back."
"That was nice of you," Jelna whispered as Tom went to seek Enesstheh. "His feelings were hurt, even though he'd understand if you didn't want him close." Estelle was not that afraid of men in spite of Manny and the others. She was afraid of grabbits, and what they had done to her developing child.
Estelle heard Tom return through the brush. Enesstheh made no sound. The psatla glided. It's tangled tendrils - ksta, Estelle remembered - had no particular order, but Enesstheh moved as smoothly as on wheels. The psatla was taller than in her dreams, and seemed to have arms at its sides - bunches of ksta and chitin, but they looked like arms. Too, she saw only two eyes, both in the front of its "head." She realized the psatla had shaped itself to minimize its alienness. There was another eye, hidden now. In spite of suppressed horror at amorphous alienness - Enesstheh, she stressed, forcing herself to recognize it as an individual, with a name, not just a bundle of slithering snakes and leathery flaps - she acknowledged its consideration, its concern for her atavistic, unreasonable fear.
"Essstelle," Enesstheh hissed. "You feel sstronger now, I think?" She nodded, throat constricted. Nothing could really minimize that alienness, but she was not afraid of him. She was afraid of what he might tell her.
"I will ssee how you are insside," Enesstheh said, sliding closer. "I will look at your baby. Maybe you wissh to close your eyes? I do not want to frighten you." At least he knows how scary he is, Estelle thought. "No, I want to see," she said. "But thank you." She looked at Jelna, then at Tom. "Hold me? Both of you?" Then to Enesstheh: "Should I take off my clothes?"
"It would be besst," the psatla replied sibilantly. Jelna helped her out of the short-sleeved pullover and Estelle let her overlarge borrowed shorts fall. "Ssit, now," Enesstheh said, "and lean back. The others will keep you from falling." Estelle did. Jelna and Tom sat each with an arm around her. Tom squeezed her thigh with a calloused hand. Enesstheh sidled closer until hard, cool chitin brushed her parted knees. "I will look inside," he said. "Perhapss you will close your eyes?"
"I want to see," Estelle reaffirmed between clenched teeth. She watched between her breasts as a pale ksta extended toward her protruding belly, and felt its feathery touch. The ksta elongated and drew itself to a point. Estelle's eyes widened, but she forced herself to relax as the tendril depressed her skin, then slid through smoothly, parting cell from cell, pushing flesh aside in a thin, upraised white ring. She felt faint pressure as it slid through layers of abdominal muscle. Her head was heavy, and she felt herself slip sideways. Two pairs of arms held her as she slipped into unconsciousness.
"She is ... brave," Enesstheh hissed softly, "but ssome things are not good to remember. I put her to ssleep."
Miles to the north and west, Merle Garrisson hunted grabbits. His neighbors had given up their farms, had been herded into stinking dormitories, but not Merle. He had food for another year, and when the resource crisis passed - as he was sure it would, being only another plot to take people's land - the others would return, to find their farms annexed to the estates of big contractors. They would end up serfs on land once theirs. Not Merle. He would not let claim to his land lapse.
As long as there was wind for his generator, he would keep his laser rifle charged, and would keep killing the filthy grabbits that infested his overgrown fields in ever-greater numbers. He would have to burn off the northwest quarter-section, once dry weather arrived - the fire would be thought natural by satellite watchers.
He heard a slight noise in the brush, no more than a single grabbit would make. He froze, and only his thumb moved, releasing the safety on his gun. Where was it? He heard the rustle again, and shifted the weapon slightly to the right.
There! A flash of white. He fired, and steam rose where his beam encountered moist flesh. An ungodly, shrill hissing, like broken penny-whistles, shattered the stillness. That was no grabbit! Snakes! A whole basket of white snakes. Where did those come from? He had never seen such fat, wild, thrashing things. The hair on his neck stiffened. He fired again, and again... Snakes burrowed into the ground, getting away, so he kept shooting as fast as his laser recycled, until its charge was gone, until no long, white things were left. Had he gotten them all? He probed the ground with a stick - a long stick. He found nothing but a scattering of leathery green stuff, like thick, tough leaves or bug carapaces.
Too bad his radio did not work; if there was some new infestation from the deep outback, creatures not in the records... He shrugged. He couldn't find out without revealing that he was still out there, free. Anyway, they were gone now. If he saw any more, he would just shoot them, too.
Beneath his feet, unseen, the white forms that had survived his burning, the ksta that had recently comprised the psatla Teneffthe, went their new and separate ways. They were male ksta - as were the worm-components that made up most psatla. Not far away, in soft river-valley humus, they sensed females of their kind. Soon they would find them, and mate... Merle Garrisson had just changed the course of a world.
AVAILABILITY: This novel is listed as "OSI" - "out of stock indefinitely" by Random House, which means, basically "it's out of print, but if we admit it, we'll have to give the author his rights back, and we don't wanna." Check the online sellers.
Copyright 1999-2009, L. Warren Douglas Version 1.3, April 2009
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