To L. Warren Douglas's home pagePhyre

The Wells of Phyre

An Arbiter Tale

Prologue

Phyre was the harsh, only planet circling the star also named Phyre, the 271st inhabited solar system of the Xarafeille Stream.

The Xarafeille Stream, in turn, was a bright, sweeping banner of stars, ten thousand gold, five thousand red, and a scattering of blue, white, and intermediate shades. Those stars that had inhabited planets-and there were thousands of them-were all numbered; the Xarafeille Stream, where the seven races of Man commingled in a peace that was often uneasy, and where only the mysterious Arbiter with his great fleet and his poletzai legions kept the peace at all.

The origin of Man, or humans, was lost in the mists of antiquity, though perhaps the Arbiter, perusing the recorded wisdom of his predecessors, knew how they came to be. He was, after all John XXIII, and his late father was Rober VIII, and there had been a dozen Shems (or sometimes James) as well; thus there had been forty-three Arbiters, and each had reigned for most of a long lifetime, each had contributed his wisdom and his discoveries to the great Archive on Newhome, orbiting Xarafeille Prime; any man who read a tithe of those recorded memories would know more of human origins than any man before or since. But ordinary men cared little for truth, preferring comfortable legends and dignified lies.

Bors and ikuts were bulky, furry men, dark and white-furred, respectively, though some ikuts' fur was almost golden. Trogloditic bors believed they originated in mountain caves on some cool, forested, long-forgotten world. Ikuts told of Sea, a lost world where the words for all sixty-three kinds of ice originated (though only seventeen words were in current use, or had been identified on inhabited worlds of the Xarafeille Stream, all were memorized in ikut schools). There were no ikuts on Phyre, because even at the poles there was no ice, no cold.

Wends were slender, brown-furred, and sometimes had lighter tufts atop their mobile ears. They originated, so their myths claimed, on Forest, where their remote ancestors had chattered in treetops and subsisted on nuts and fruit-pits. There were also mantees, graceful water-men, on some worlds. Mantees claimed origin on a world variously named River, Everglade, Mooskeg, or simply Home. No living mantee claimed to have been there, though all believed themselves from there, at some remove. There were no mantees on hot, dry Phyre because except in the encapsulated spaceport towns, there was no pure, flowing water, only wells, seeps and solute-rich springs.

On Phyre were a few tarbek tribes, but mostly fards: golden-furred, white-bellied, swift and clever fards, desert-wise, hard, enduring fards who wrested livelihoods from the driest deserts, who sipped strong, dense, mineral-laden water from seeps and springs. Every seep, every spring, every damp spot in Phyre's habitable zones had a name, and was owned. The fards who owned them were harsh men, and they bred sons as hardy and as unrelenting as were they themselves.


To every rule, there is an exception, of course. Among the sons of Fladth Wrasselty, lord of the spring named Valbissag and the stone town that surrounded it, the exception was the child of Fladth's old age, who was called Slith. Slith Wrasselty was tan-pelted like most fards, with soft, white belly down and short creamy fur from digits to knees and elbows. His whiskers were long, black, and fardlike, projecting from the corners of his mouth and from his brows. He was quick of movement, and his pink, mobile nose was never still. His long-tufted ears, like hyperactive radar antennae, never ceased their scanning. Fards did not seem quick to other fards, of course. Among them, Slith seemed ordinary, or perhaps even a bit sluggish at times, but members of the other races of man would have deemed him jittery and abrupt-like all fards.

Mentally, Slith Wrasselty was quite un-fardlike, mainly because, unlike his brothers, he actually liked his aging father Fladth (which was quite strange) and he had no desire whatsoever to slay him (which was unnatural and almost unheard of, if not quite perverted.)

Slith's strange, un-fardlike attitudes had shaped his behavior in other ways, too. Because he had no wish to be a parricide-and because he made no secret of it-his two older brothers and two younger ones had no use for him at all. They did not even bother to plot his death, though all of them nursed glorious schemes by which they hoped to slay or emasculate their other siblings as soon as one of them succeeded in assassinating old Fladth. Though men of other races deemed such fardish preoccupations cruel and inhuman, the contest over succession and inheritance unquestionably bred quicker, smarter, and more ruthless fards, and the Wrasselty clan, longtime owners of Valbissag, stood high among those. Slith, should his brothers not change their minds and slay him as a matter of principle, a mere trimming of a loose end, would be an unusual Wrasselty indeed-a living brother of Valbissag's owner.

Of course it might not be much of a life. If he pledged fealty to whoever won the struggle, he might be so lucky as to be granted a seat by the spring, where he could breathe its life-giving vapors and ladle its flavorful water to his lips. He might even be allowed a patch of sand to sleep on in an outer courtyard within the palace walls. If his elder brother Gleph inherited, he would surely make Slith work all day, likely at some noisome task, for every privilege. If Thradz, the next oldest, won, Slith would be lucky to catch a single breath of Valbissag's steam, let alone a sip, unless he paid for it in solid coin. If either Thplet or Splath, his younger siblings, took claim of Valbissag, palace, and town, he might have an easier life of it, because both seemed to look on him with distant affection, but there was no guarantee of it. People changed when they became successful, and the nature and direction of such change were always unpredictable. It was not wise to count on anyone whose self-interest was unclear.


On other worlds, among other kinds of human folk, different adaptations prevailed. Mantees did not practice murder as an ordinary means of determining inheritance. Though mantees were otterlike (when born in certain environments) or more similar to dugongs or seals (when born in warmer or colder places), their breeding practices most resembled those of certain social insects, as only one female of an entire tribe, called a throng, became fertile and thus mother to an entire generation.

Bors females gave birth in pairs, one male and one female at a time, and inheritance was a kind of matrilineal primogeniture. Fathers were not slain, but they were of no importance to anyone except their own sisters' get, for which they were responsible. Male bors might share a sister's inheritance, even her rule, if she were of a dominant line, but it was mostly on sufferance, not graven in law.

Wends ... but there were few wends on Phyre, and those only in the large spaceport town of Thember, and there were no ikuts at all. There were tarbeks aplenty, but those strangest of all the human kinds inhabited only the lowest valleys where nasty volcanic fumes accumulated, and where springs trickled water so acid it would burn the fur off any other men's hands and the skin from their throats. Tarbeks, unless they wore filter veils, were unwelcome among other folk because their breath reeked of sulfides, carrion, and even more noxious things. No one knew, and few cared, what odd reproductive or successional strategies tarbeks employed.

Then there were old-humans, but only in the cities on Phyre, who practiced odd and ancient customs-though no one except perhaps the Arbiter himself, on the planet Newhome, orbiting the star known as Prime, or Xarafeille I, had access to the databases and the histories that described them.


"Daddy?" demanded Parissa, breaking into her father's reverie. "Daddy!"

"Yes, dear?" John Minder acknowledged his youngest child.

"I won't let Robby sassipate you! Not ever! I'll sassipate him first, if he tries it. I'll put stuff in his food, or..."

"What? I'm sorry dear, I don't understand."

"Sarabet says some rotty boys 'sassipate their daddies, and I won't ever let Robby 'sassipate you."

"Oh ... that's assassinate, Parissa. And only the fards on Phyre and a few other very conservative and old-fashioned places do that. We are old-humans, not fards. Robby will not have to slay me in order to inherit. In fact if he did so, he would inherit nothing at all."

Minder did not let his annoyance show Parissa was impressionable, imaginative, and intelligent-a dangerous combination in a child only just out of toddlerhood. Her fund of knowledge was limited, but her ability to extrapolate from the bits and fragments of truth she did acquire was considerable. The conclusions she drew, though-however logical they were-were often disastrously wrong. He would have to caution her older sister Sarabet-and her brother Rob too-to be careful about introducing Parissa to isolated facts without adequate context to understand them.

"Old-humans like your mother and me do not merely mate, dear. We marry, and as a rule we remain together all our lives, and just as we love and care for our children, they in turn care for us when we are old." Minder explained how old-human inheritance worked, in general terms, idealized ones, until he was sure Parissa was able to distinguish between her brother and the brothers of men like Slith Wrasselty. When her fidgeting indicated to him that she could absorb no more, he suggested that her neglected dolls were surely becoming lonely...


"When I began telling Slith Wrasselty's story," John Minder said sternly to his eldest children," I purposefully excluded Parissa because of her youth. I'm sorry you didn't see fit to keep my confidences."

"I'm sorry, Dad," began Sarabet.

"It's my fault," said Rober Minder, who might someday be Rober IX. "I started it. She makes me so mad, sometimes. I just wanted to scare her a little."

"And when she came to me, I guess I just made it worse," Sarabet concluded. "I tried to explain it so she wouldn't be so upset, but she just doesn't know enough to make sense of it all."

"I suppose now that she's exposed to the hard facts of the fardish codes, we should include her in future lessons," Minder said. "At least I'll be there to straighten out any misunderstandings, in future."

"Aw, Dad. Do you have to? She's always asking stupid questions, and every story takes twice as long for you to tell."

Minder shrugged. He did not remind Rob that he had brought it on himself. He did not have to. Rob was not stupid, though his father was sure he would consider himself so, for a while.




PART I: OROGENY


Granites, Lavas, and Basalt



Chapter 1

Where is the Arbiter? Here on Glaice, mantees are drowning baby ikuts, and ikuts have revived the ancient practice of dining on mantee flesh. On Vela, tarbeks and wends -- unlikely competitors -- have each declared a war of extermination, though battle has not yet been joined. On Stepwater, mantee territorial encroachments and bors reaction threaten to involve wends and fards as well.

Has John Minder XXIII even noticed? Where are his poletzai and his warships? Must war threaten to span the interstellar gulfs before the Arbiter deploys them? Are his much-vaunted peacekeeping forces merely tools to maintain his monopoly of interstellar trade -- the monopoly that finances them?

Ep Tetonak

Editorial in the Metok Light,

Metok, Glaice, Xarafeille 132


Slith Wrasselty shouldered his heavy knapsack. He did not turn around to look at Valbissag town's thick sandstone walls as he departed. He had little sentiment for his birthplace. He did not allow himself to admire its well-proportioned towers, its arched gateways, or its colorful crystal fenestrations, because he did not ever know, when he left, if he would be allowed to return-or if he were, under what imposed conditions. Thus he concentrated on his own project ahead: geological research in the deep desert, from which he hoped someday to earn a substantial livelihood.

His dark-irised eyes swept the verdigris expanse of open plain and the gray, rounded line of the distant Vermous Hills, which were his destination and the font of his personal ambition. His hard, glassy nictitating membranes drooped, and their odd refractive properties brought the hills into sharp focus through half of each lens, while the uncovered portion of his pupil passed focused light from nearer objects. A small node on his optic nerve, which was large by non-fard standards, sorted and rationalized the dual images before they reached his brain for interpretation. That ability to look near and far at once had contributed to his race's success on Phyre, for all fards could examine the ground ahead for drumsand and krood burrows without ignoring the cimmerian shadows of nearby rock spires and tumbles where lurked fracts and nimbleteeth. At the same time, they never lost track of the vast scape from near-distance to far horizon, but were warned of even slight movements that might represent hostile fards (in Slith's present location, members of the nomadic Wrebek clan) or a plot of groundsnappers seething with hungry excitement brought on by even the slight vibration of a fard's dainty, hopping gait.

Outward bound, he encountered no Wrebeks, no groundsnapper plots, and only a single nimbletooth that he dodged easily. If he had owned a fine wooden staff with a fork on one end, he could have tried to catch it and milk its fever-glands for whatever valuable solutions had accumulated in them-but he had no staff, and he did not expect to find a suitable swarrow-root on this trip, the next, or the one thereafter. Wood, on Phyre, grew mostly underground. The tiny fruiting bodies of the swarrow and similar species were never obvious, and appeared in no determinable place or season.

By day's end, Slith neared the first slanting, stratified outcrops of the Vermous Dolomite that made up the hills. Such geological formations reminded him that once, perhaps a billion years past, Phyre had been wet enough for limy magnesian sediments to settle on the bottoms of shallow seas. Now, rock columns capped with desiccated limestones and dolomites stood proud of the surrounding sandstone plains because they weathered more slowly that the sandstones, which were weakened by even a touch of quick-frozen dew and abraded by grains driven by the winds.

Interspersed with the dolomites and intermittent sandstone beds of the Vermous formation were occasional thin strata of a rarer rock, a white, coarsely crystalline limestone, almost a marble, made up of the metamorphosed carapaces of microscopic sea-worms at least a billion years extinct. The Bright Limes, as geologists named them, appeared only as sinuous lines a few hands wide where they and their dolomite matrix outcropped. Though they represented a vanishingly small portion of the exposed surface of the region, the Bright Limes were of disproportionate interest to Slith Wrasselty because they furnished unusual soluble chemicals-quasi-organic fossil metabolites of the source microorganisms-to the waters that percolated through the porous sandstones around them, chemicals that eventually found their way to springs like Valbissag, to which they imparted much of each spring's characteristic flavor.

At nightfall, Slith made camp atop a relatively unfissured dolomitic crag uninhabited by small, hungry creatures. Nevertheless, he cautiously spread a tightly woven cloth over his chosen sleeping site, then laid a loop of finely braided cord around it, cord saturated with oil extracted from the fat of a krood's tail, which would deter most nocturnal things that crept and bit. Then he ritually sprinkled his hard bed with a pinch of sand drawn up from Valbissag's depths-sand that carried the scent of "home."

He sat within his safe precinct and readied his equipment for the morrow's research. First, he unrolled a cloth sewn with a hundred small pockets and assured himself that none of the glass vials in them had broken and that no precious reagents stained the fabric. Then, unrolling another cloth, he verified that none of his empty specimen vials, each one meticulously numbered, had been damaged. Finally, he examined his tools- his pointed hammer, his small sack of minerals of different hardnesses for scratch-testing specimens, his lenses, his tinted eye-loupes through which he could observe the color of droplets of dissolved minerals as he held them, in a platinum-wire loop, in the flame of his miniaturized lab-burner.

Satisfied that all was in order, he noted his position in a field book, then packed away book and compass. He slept sitting upright, with his eyes wide open but with his nictitating membranes covering them from stray wind-blown sand.


"Boring!" said Parissa, as Sarabet tucked her in bed. "Bo-ring! That story isn't any fun at all."

"It's your own fault," Sarabet responded, concealing her annoyance with difficulty. "You're the one who blabbed to Dad about Robby 'assassinating' him. Now you have to listen to the rest of Slith Wrasselty's story, and if you keep interrupting like you did tonight, Dad will never finish it."

"Daddy says I have to innerupt when I don't understand, or I never will. I have to, so it's not my fault."

"I suppose so," Sarabet grudgingly admitted. "Now go to sleep."

"Did you put the rope around my bed? The one with Mommy's perfume on it to keep the bitey-bugs away?"

"Don't you smell it? And there are no bugs in here at all. Now go to sleep."


Not far (as worlds are measured) from the spring Valbissag lay the province of Low Diverness, where Lord Gefke Jandissl ruled. Lord Jandissl was discontent. Just as the security of a tarbek lord's position was strictly contingent upon his status, his status in turn owed much to the number of females who, at any given time, were gravid with the product of his seed, and of late the females of his tribe were producing fewer small Jandissls than was usual.

Paternity, among the other races of man, was often highly conjectural unless an infant was born with some recognizable characteristic or defect that pinpointed the source of its originating seed, but among tarbeks certain chemical complexities borne on a gravid female's breath, and later on her infant's, made any tarbek male who breathed it aware if the fetus or infant was his own offspring as well.

Of late, however many females Lord Gefke Jandissl sniffed, few exuded that particular combination of sulfides and pheromones that enlarged his spirit and elevated his confidence in his dominance and in the stability of his rule over Low Diverness. He was uneasy about it, but was not-as yet-panicky. Though he had been able to find only seven pregnant females in the past month, at least none of them had been inseminated by another male's seed. Had any been so, he would have been forced to assume that the other male had issued challenge, and that bare-handed battle was imminent. Instead, he concluded that the females had discovered some way to avoid getting pregnant entirely.

If his semen was still strong, it would consume any foreign male's product deposited in the hot springs scattered about Low Diverness. Jandissl knew that any young males who visited the springs in his absence did so for the thrill of risk and adventure and for the amazingly pleasurable sensations of ejaculation-which in tarbek males was brought on not by penetration of a female (which would have been disgusting and twisted) but by total immersion in mineral-rich water heated to at least 97 degrees Celsius.

If Jandissl's semen had weakened, or had he failed to visit each spring in the province at least once a month, at least some of the pregnant females would have failed to engender in him the usual pleasurable and elevating sensations only a ruler and a parent could feel. But Lord Gefke kept a meticulous log of his visits to each spring, and he knew he had not neglected a single one within the distance a female could walk without dying of exposure, mineral deficiencies, and dry skin. He knew also that his seed was still carnivorous and strong, because he tested it fortnightly in his small laboratory, observing his cells' hungry gobbling of lesser men's seed through a huge, ancient binocular microscope made by offworld bors (who made the finest machinery) with optics cast and ground by patient wends (who were superior artisans in glass.)

Thus if a female had gotten pregnant by another man's seed, it had been a conscious effort on the other's part, not youthful pleasure-seeking. The challenger would have had first to poison the spring, killing Lord Gefke's superior seed, to have then neutralized the poison, and then finally to have immersed himself in the water and ejaculated therein. Any female whose compulsion to bathe (and thus to remain alive for more than a week or two) drew her to the challenger's deposit would have been impregnated not by her rightful lord, but by the upstart-and that had not happened.

Jandissl had read that certain springs' composition had been known to change with the geological processes that nurtured them, as their aquifers faulted or eroded, shifting the flow past new, unknown, soluble deposits. He had also read that on some worlds there were springs with contraceptive properties or spermicidal ones. He knew, from his frequent visits to his own springs and from the samples he carried back to his lab for testing, that no spring of his was spermicidal, but how could he test for the other, without knowing what exact chemical caused it? His books and datacubes gave no hints at all, but until he found out, he would not sleep well, and his dreams would continue to be of a lonely old age in exile far from the heat and pleasures of Low Diverness's wondrous pools.



Chapter 2

The seven human adaptations were designed in laboratories, then evolved far beyond their original conceptions on the diverse worlds of the Xarafeille Stream; yet evolution does not proceed at an even pace, or predictably. Fards' unique experiment, breeding ever-more-clever generations under great stress, has not given them specific advantage over less clever but more ferocious tarbeks -- except perhaps in the mixed environments of the cities.

My task, as I see it -- and it will be your task as well, in the centuries to come -- is not to prevent conflict between the races, which would require oppression like none the universe has witnessed. It is merely to keep one race from exploiting limited and situational evolutionary advantages at the expense of another, and to restrain conflicts within the limits of single solar systems. Less might well result in slaughter, in critical losses of genetic diversity all humanity may someday need out there in the vast galaxy beyond the Xarafeille Stream. More might result in a tedious blending of the races, a bland, unadaptive folk -- and in an equivalent loss.

John Minder (I)

Notes for the Next Generations


The metallic clinking of Slith's hammer echoed from the rocky walls of the small canyon. He worked fast, because only when the wind was from the west could he breathe the air there. South and east of him was the volcano Afkak and tarbek territory. Even a slight easterly breeze pushed heavy volcanic gasses into such low places as his canyon. Tarbeks could breathe the stuff, but not fards.

The eastern slopes of the Vermous highlands were thus a no-man's-land between Valbissag and Low Diverness, alternately habitable by fards or tarbeks, but shifting too often and too unpredictably for either race to contemplate settling there. From experience on past trips, Slith anticipated that late afternoon would bring a shift in the breeze that would force him to exit the canyon at its steep, narrow west end when its mouth filled with foul fumes.

He dropped small fragments of Bright Lime rock into a finger-sized vial, and covered them with acid from an eyedropper. The combination foamed and gave off pale yellow smoke. He viewed the gas through a number-five-tint glass, nodded in satisfaction with what he saw, and made small, neat notes in his book. They were written not in Standard or in fardic runes, but in symbols of his own devising, using the grammar and syntax of ancient Universal, a language he had taught himself from old books in his father's library.

Just as he was about to put a droplet of the solution he had just made to the flame test, a clatter of falling rock made him drop everything. His fur stood on end, making him seem twice his real bulk. His nose twitched like a leaf in a gale, and his eyes darted. He had no weapon but his fingernails and his teeth, if the Wrebeks had found him.

"Wherp?" he heard something say. "Whezz frak madstap." The words were fardish, but the intonation and pronunciation were odd. He peered through the sifting dust of the rockfall, then breathed a sigh of relief. There was no danger there that would kill him.

"Whar nekit?" he asked. "Who are you? What tribe? And that's mabstap, not madstap." A fardling. It could not have been more than a few years old, and its speech was infantile. Yet that was no excuse. Words and gestures only functioned when they were precisely used, when two communicants used them the same way. Why think what might have happened had a younger Slith himself raised his left eyebrow at his father without the expected accompanying hand gesture! That was a deadly insult. Zip! Slash ... and no more Slith. Evolution in action. No infant who could not tell left eyebrow from right should live to breed more of his defective kind. Madstap, indeed! "I am dying of 'yellow,'" she had said, not "I am starving."

"Hungry, indeed!" he snapped when the creature did not respond to his questions. Surely, it was a Wrebek infant. His fingers flickered in a gesture of prektep, which signified a triviality dismissed. "Go away now," he commanded it. "The wind will shift in mid-afternoon, and you will die here. Go! Back where you came from." Already, as the trickling breeze brought the creature's scent to him, it carried also slight traces of monoxide, odorless to many humans but distinguishable to a fard's superior chemosensors. Both odors discomfited him. "Be gone!" he squalled in his most ferocious voice, and he hefted a rock fragment as if to throw it, an uncodified gesture none the less clear for that.

Slith's mind and body were the site of a ferocious internal debate. He did not want companionship, and he had only enough food for himself. He did not care if the fardling lived or died, but he fervently wished it would do so elsewhere. The pheromones it emitted made his head feel thick and generated uncomfortable sensations elsewhere. When the fardling did not move away, he threw the rock. The creature yelped piteously and skittered out of sight behind a boulder. He threw another, arcing it over the barrier between them, and was rewarded by a thump, an even more plaintive cry, and the faint sound of departing fardling footsteps. "Now stay away!" he called after it. The canyon wall was a vertical face near the top, and only someone who knew the few handholds could climb out-and there were none in the direction the fardling had run. Ah, well, at least it was far enough away so he could not smell it.

Keeping eyes and ears alert for its inevitable sneaking return, Slith picked up his fallen tools. The specimen-vial had shattered, and he had to start over. He hissed angrily, ' chipped loose another fragment of Bright Lime, and remade his solution. He viewed the flame colors a droplet of it made as it boiled away within his platinum-wire loop, and grunted in satisfaction, then noted his findings in his field book. Because he was sure he had found something significant, he made the extra effort to unpack and assemble his small spectroscope, which he set up on a low, flat boulder.

He heard a slight sound. "Go away!" he snarled, and threw several rocks. The fardling darted silently back out of range. The skin on his chest itched, and his tiny nipples stood up from the white down that surrounded them. He picked up more rocks, and strode stiff-legged toward the small being, throwing one rock after another as he advanced. One found its mark. He did not want to get close enough to verify whether the small, inert fardling was truly dead, so he returned to work. He mounted lens tubes at an angle to each other and placed a stubby glass prism between them at the proper skew. He placed his burner at one end of the assembly and a pad of gridded paper at the other. He draped himself and his apparatus with his sleeping-sheet to block the bright rays of Phyre, the sun.

When he held a drop of solution in the burner's flame, the first tube focused the light on the prism, which split it into many colors. The second tube's lenses projected it onto the gridded paper. Slith fiddled with the focus of the tubes until the projected spectrum was clearly defined. Satisfied, he made marks with a pencil corresponding to certain bright lines in the colored swath, and made further notes in ancient Universal in his book.

Periodically, grudgingly, he tossed off his sleeping sheet. His eyes readjusted to the glare almost instantaneously, Twice, he had to chase the fardling off again. Twice, he did not. Once, it had crept up so close that he had actually felt its presence internally even before he divested himself of his covering. That angered him. Did the creature not understand at all? He could not be bothered with a nursling. He had ambition, and much important work to do.

He reversed the spectroscopic process by focusing a thin beam of sunlight via two mirrors and a filter that passed only a standard "white light" beam through the combustion gasses of a solution drop, and was rewarded with a subtly different display. Instead of bright lines, there were dark ones at several places on the spectrum. Elements, when energized by heat, give off light of a particular color-the bright lines he had recorded earlier-but when calibrated light is shined through unheated elements, they absorb certain specific frequencies as well, creating dark lines of no-light in the spectral projection. Although Slith could not determine what exact molecules those elements made up in a particular sample, from long experience he was able to guess what he might find when he made more exhaustive tests in his father's laboratory at Valbissag-provided, of course, that no brother had succeeded in eliminating old Fladth while Slith was away.

He packed up all his gear except his specimen roll and his hammer, then collected samples from the Bright Lime outcrop over an area several acres in extent, though nowhere was the canyon more than twenty meters wide at the bottom. His meanderings took him downward toward the canyon mouth, where the late afternoon breezes, true to his expectations, were already pushing noxious fumes uphill. That exit from the narrow declivity was already completely blocked. In the other direction, he gathered samples toward the head of the canyon until it petered out in a ten-meter deep cleft. There, the Bright Lime outcrop disappeared, plunging beneath the earth.

Finished, he shouldered his burden, heavier now by the weight of his samples. Then he had a bright idea: he had not spotted the fardling in the last hour, but it was surely lurking somewhere below in the late afternoon shadows; it could no longer walk out of the valley, so it would have to follow him up through the narrow cleft. But... If he used his hammer to knock off the few protruding hand- and footholds...

As he climbed, he reached down between his legs, or far out to one side or the other, and chipped away each possible point of purchase, leaving only useless nubs. The next time, he would have to bring a rope and grappling gear if he wished to depart the canyon in mid-afternoon or later, but that was a small price to pay for being forever rid of his importunate visitor.

At the top, he peered back whence he had come. He saw no fardling, no movement in the lengthening shadows. Had the stupid thing already succumbed to the encroaching gas? Soon, at any rate, it would do so, and when he returned, he would find nothing but a few small, scattered, well-gnawed bones. Satisfied, he hiked away, stepping lightly in spite of his burden, and set up camp on the same high pinnacle as the night before.

Prior to settling in for sleep, Slith made notes on his day's work. Perhaps once his conclusions had been carefully edited to safeguard details of knowledge that might result in future profit, he could publish a paper on the interactions of solutes in the Vermous groundwaters. Slith loved seeing his name on the "Contents" pages of scholarly journals, and he submitted articles on diverse subjects: geomorphology, hydrology, and even a few brief anthropological essays based on his visits among the less-hostile of the local desert tribes-after excising any references to particulars he wished personally to exploit.

After all, he sometimes thought, a copyright was a little like a patent, giving him certain controls over what he knew, controls that did not exist unless he wrote it down. The writing and publishing thus satisfied a small part of a strong fardish urge to possess and control as much of the universe as was possible.


Below, and not a great distance from his comfortable camp, small, mewling sounds could have been heard -- if anyone had been near enough to hear them.

"Far mebbil mabstap," the tiny voice said. "I do not wish to starve." Her small fingers scrabbled desperately at the broken handholds in the steep bank. Around her feet swirled yet-invisible tendrils of harsh, toxic gasses.

The fardling was too young to further articulate her desperate condition. She knew no word for "toxic," for "orphan" or "abandoned" or even "motherless." She felt no anger toward the strange fard who had played with bits of rocks. Had she been old enough to develop a philosophical perspective, she might have reflected that Slith Wrasselty's avoidance of a burden like her was as much a part of the evolutionary dance, of genes striving for advantage, as was her own struggle to ascend the rock face. But then again, she might not have -- she might instead have railed against the cruelty of those genes, against the desperation and cruelty that were part and parcel of the fard female's lifelong condition -- with death at the end of any wrong turn for all but the cleverest, the most determined.

"Eft nakrat mabstap!" she cried out loudly enough to cause distant Slith to roll over uncomfortably in his sleep. "I will not starve!" Actually, she meant "I will not die," but she was a fardling of limited vocabulary, and as the level of the poisonous air rose higher -- reaching her waist, now -- her words seemed more bravado. She would not have been the first fardling to utter such single-minded and determined words only moments before dying.


"Daddy? What's a fardling?" asked Parissa in a voice much more subdued than was usual for her. "It's a baby fard," Robby said. "It was bothering Slith, so he got rid of it." His implication-not really serious, from his point of view, but terrifying from Parissa's-was that fards like Slith really knew how to handle obstreperous, annoying children.

"Remember that fards are not old-humans like us," John Minder said. "Old-human mommies do not abandon little girls as soon as they can walk." He sighed. This was terribly hard on the child, who saw the world and its examples mostly in terms of herself. Any child, fard or old-human, could be herself. Any frightening event could be happening as well to her as to a nameless fardling. But then, this was not some fantasy created solely to thrill and frighten; it was reality. Fard behaviors were set in their very genes-as were old-human ones-by generations of natural selection. In the fards' case, they were determined also by the efforts of ancient scientists who had combined genes of man with analogues of earthly kangaroo rats, jerboas, jackals and other desert creatures. The mix of genes did not always produce what the scientists had hoped for, specialized bors slaves who could cope with the frozen mine pits of one corporate-owned world, tarbek workers to endure the poisoned waters of another, mantees for the swamps, ikuts the ice, fards the deserts of others still, but the actions of natural selection upon them produced something that could, and did, survive.

Parissa would have to learn to understand-and thus to forgive-the fards, and others, for the way they were. The universe was full of diversity, of life-adaptations that seemed cruel and disgusting. The long-gone corporations of ancient Earth who had created fards, bors, wends, ikuts, mantees, and tarbeks to exploit the differing conditions of early extra-solar colony worlds had contributed to that diversity; and diversity was strength. Man, in one form or another, now inhabited thousands of worlds like Phyre where original old-humans could thrive only in protective domes or air-conditioned underground caverns.

There was a further aspect of John Minder's callous exposure of his daughter's tender mind: she-or her sister Sarabet or her brother Rober-would someday inherit Minder's own wealth, his position, and his unique burden. He had not yet decided which one of them would be his heir, for they were all still young and incompletely solidified in what would become their adult selves.

Right then-that week, that month-Minder favored Sarabet, because the continuous contention between Parissa, the youngest, and Rob, the eldest, grated on him. No female of his line had ever inherited his particular position, but there was no rule or law to prevent it. Might the next Arbiter of the Xarafeille Stream be not Rober the Ninth, but Sarabet the First? Or might even small Parissa-someday grown tall, wise, and tolerant of the myriad ways of the diverse peoples whose millennial peace she strove to keep-attain the title of Arbiter?

Minder swelled with pride when he considered his children and their future role. Then, as quickly as it had come, his elation vanished. Unless he could solve his very pressing problems, and quickly, there would be no Arbiter's mantle for them to inherit. Unless he could solve them, the interstellar peace that had endured for twelve millennia would collapse, and he might well be the last Arbiter, presiding over the end-times of civilization.

There were really only three possible outcomes. The first, of course, was that he would succeed at what he was attempting to do. Then mankind would go on, continuing to grow, develop, and adapt at the slow, not-quite random pace of evolution. The second was that the growing tensions, the planetary wars -- brushfire wars, if one took into account the sheer number of human-settled star systems -- would escalate beyond all control. At some point, despite his every effort, those wars could spread beyond single planets, beyond the planets of isolated systems; there would be, for the first time, interstellar wars.

John Minder could not presently stop the former, the brushfire wars, at least not by direct intervention. He could, however, prevent the latter -- but at what a great cost! He could, if he decided to do it, stop all interstellar travel for he, and he alone, knew the secret of ... the stardrive.


On Glaice, Xarafeille 132, a dispute between migratory ikut banks and mantee throngs had been brought into his consul's courtroom, where it now precariously remained, but at any moment it could again erupt into the streets of the towns and across the vast, cold planet.

On Stepwater, Xarafeille 578, a mantee-built dam threatened to inundate a bors principality, and the bors contemplated building weapons-systems long forbidden. That conflict was not likely to erupt into general, planet-wide war -- but less likely things had happened.

On Veld, Xarafeille 1029, the very bors engineers whose meddling had started a limited conflict were now selling weapons and logistics support to both combating parties.

On Thald, Xarafeille 1907, wends fought bors over tracts of forest land and strip-mining rights, and on Carabanderai ...

"Ah, Rob, Sarabet, Parissa,"Minder murmured, "may you never again be required to live through 'interesting' times."



Chapter 3

URGENT * EYES ONLY

TO: ARBITER

FROM: OBSERVER, CODENAME "WRATH"

TEXT: The instablity on vela (x-1029) accelerates at an unprecedented rate. Revise estimated time-to-crisis from 10 yrs to 4 yrs +18 standard months. Revise intervention class from 5 (diplomatic/economic) to 3 (show of force, war fleet in orbit).

APPEND: John, this one is out of control! The bors core-tap stabilized Vela's orogeny at the expense of tarbek habitat. Tarbeks are currently moving on traditionally wendish lands. I forsee major interracial war.


A year or two before young Johnny Minder assumed the title of Arbiter, his elder brother Shems-or James-had borrowed a collection of seven ancient data modules from his father's shelves, and had taken them to a far world where he could have them translated, because he could find no computer in the Arbiter's palace that could read them. Then, when Rober VIII died unexpectedly, Shems had made himself unavailable to assume his proper position as Arbiter, and that burden fell upon the younger, unprepared Johnny, who later suffered greatly for the lack of those very crystals the ignorant Shems had removed.

Shems's actions were irresponsible, but in light of historical circumstances and the nature of the Arbiters and their families, if was forgivable. The first Arbiter, John Minder (later called John I) had been a physicist, and had discovered the principle of the "FTL" space drive. Of course it did not really propel matter faster than light, but when a ship employing it made a round-trip journey between star systems, its passengers, goods, and mechanisms seemed to experience duration and, upon returning home, voyagers perceived themselves to have aged no more or less than had friends and relatives who had not travelled, and their clocks and watches still kept matching times.

John I, testing his stardrive, visited the six corporate colony planets, and was appalled by the conditions he found. Workers who were no more than indentured serfs had been genetically modified to suit the conditions that prevailed: on icy EE4, white-furred quasi-human slaves herded icebergs containing rare minerals scraped from the surface of a glaciated continent, and they had already coined nineteen separate words for different kinds of ice; on TC3, dugongs and manatees with human hands, faces, and brains combed the weed-choked waterways of a mountainless world for rare plants of pharmaceutical value; elsewhere, broad, stocky men with black fur labored in northern-hemisphere mines through the short summer while their southern counterparts hibernated in unheated caves, costing the corporations nothing for their upkeep through the long, long winter.

None of those modified workers or their children could ever return to Earth, to normalcy. None cherished even slight hope that their descendants' lots would be better than theirs; they were slaves, trapped light years from human-rights organizations, international laws, indignant citizens, and from even the S. P. C. A. and the Humane Society.

John Minder engineered and led a revolution. It was not violent, and was virtually weaponless. The corporations had weapons, of course, but they had no FTL spaceships to bring weapons to bear on an enemy who stole their workers and transported them to far worlds their slow ramscoop vessels could not reach in a hundred lifetimes-to places beyond the dark dust clouds of the galaxy's Orion Arm, where lay a brilliant, sparkling river of stars the escapees named the Xarafeille Stream.

Among the refugees were unmodified humans also, corporate folk who did not wish to remain and take the blame for empty workhouses and warehouses when all the workers were gone. Old-humans, they came to be called, and though generations of mantees, bors, and others forgot the nature of their creators and their laboratory origins-and invented new, more palatable legends of independent, convergent evolution to explain themselves-the taint of being old-human remained. Most became interstellar equivalents of ancient Gypsies or Jews, useful and used, but separate, and never wholly trusted or integrated into the societies that evolved.

John Minder felt responsible for the old-humans, and being the sole owner of the stardrive's principles, was able to make a deal with the leaders of the variant human groups: he and his descendants would both protect the old-humans and would assure that they never again attained advantage or primacy over the other six races. There was more to the deal: never must bors turn against mantee, tarbek or fard against wend or ikut. One man, one family, would oversee all, and would not allow the inevitable differences between men of different fur, different scents, different racial ambitions, to become general war.

One man, one family, would keep the secret of the stardrive, would maintain a fleet of warships and a body of soldiers called poletzai to enforce the peace of the Xarafeille Stream. And thus arose the seed of Shems Minder's defection: John Minder I volunteered to have his own genes modified. His descendants would not be ordinary old-humans, though they would not have fur, flippers, or other obvious differences. They would, however, be very curious, quite dispassionate (as adults, at least), and singularly lacking in all but purely intellectual ambition. Thus Shems's decision to disappear, to become an anonymous archaeologist on an unknown planet far from the demands of the Arbitorial offices on Newhome, was entirely in character. Many a potential Arbiter had to be dragged to office protesting and refusing; the best rulers were invariably those least content to shoulder the burdens of rule, and the least impressed with the perquisites of office. Shems was unique only in his successful elusion of the searchers sent to find him-and in his choice of "souvenirs" removed from Newhome when he left.

On the seven data-crystals-between them, but not entirely on any one-were the coded location of the Arbiter's war fleet, the formulae and specifications for the stardrive, and the coordinates of the primitive planet where the warlike old-human poletzai dwelt in isolation from the greater polity of the Xarafeille Stream. Without those crystals-which could be read only by an ancient computer locked in the palace's Vault of Worlds, where Shems had never gone-the new Arbiter, John XXIII, was only one man, and powerless. Most Arbiters never needed to use the war fleet or the poletzai that manned the ships, but the implied power of both fleet and poletzai was inherently behind all their decisions and decrees, and the presence of white warships in orbit did much to inspire disputants to seek the conference table for solutions to their problems. But John XXIII had no fleet.


"But I saw the crystals on Daddy's shelf!" Parissa stated emphatically.

"You saw some crystals," Sarabet clarified. "Did you count them?" Parissa, she knew, had a unique way of counting from one to twenty: "One, two, free, leben, twenny." There were crystals in some of the padded niches-but not seven of them. And who knew which ones were "real?" One crystal had been placed there only recently. Perhaps, Sarabet speculated, it was only the first or second real one. Perhaps that very crystal had some bearing on the story Dad was telling them, Slith Wrasselty's tale. Or perhaps not. It was too early to tell where Slith's story would lead, and Dad had so many stories...

"Doesn't Daddy have any poleetsies?" Parissa asked.

"Not yet. So far, he has been very lucky. He has been able to resolve disputes without them-but that can't go on forever. Already, people on many worlds are asking questions."

"What questions?"

"'Where are the Arbiter's white ships?' is one. Obviously, no one has seen any of them since Dad became Arbiter."

"How come?"

"Jeez, P'riss! Because he doesn't have the crystals!"

"Oh."


Slith Wrasselty awakened more slowly than an alert fard should. He awoke with a strange, luxurious, languorous feeling in his very bones. That was quite odd, because his bed was the same hard rock it had been the night before, his last meal had been the same dry, unfilling biscuits, his drink the same dull water-with Valbissag's famous tang and flavor gone all flat. He should have awakened alert and mobile, ready to fight or flee, but instead, he looked around himself with vastly disinterested dispassion and irrational contentment.

Even when he realized that he was not alone in his rude bed, he did not jump up or exhibit a single sign of distress. There, in the crook of his arm, was the fardling. There, between his arms, cushioning the small furry creature's head, were his own two enlarged breasts. One, the left, was heavier than the other, which the fardling had nursed on while he slept. A fine trickle of pale milk trickled from his swollen left nipple. Slith Wrasselty moaned then, but it was not an angry sound. The infant's pheromones, working while he slept, had done more than stimulate his mammary glands. Now that he was nursing an infant, he no longer wanted things to be otherwise: he felt too good. For a fard male, no sense of well-being surpassed that of having a well-fed infant in his arms; the languor that followed a rich, generous meal was frantic, by comparison. Slith's engorged left breast ached and prickled inside. He instinctively knew to tickle the sleeping fardling's cheek to make it turn its head and lock its lips onto his left nipple. The sucking sensation made him tingle from head to feet, a sensual thrill said to surpass mere sexual release.

A male of another species might have raged when fate dealt him an unfair blow. He might have abandoned an infant, even one he had sired, if it was inconvenient to nurture it. Yet a fard, who could, without much thought, slay a male infant of his own siring, did not-indeed, could not-refuse the biochemical and genetic imperative that a nurseling engendered in him.

The fardling sucked sleepily-but no less vigorously for that-and Slith Wrasselty contemplated the new situations that faced him. No longer could he venture on two-week expeditions, for his lactating body would demand food enough for two. He would be limited to seven- or eight-day ventures, and his travelling distance would be much shortened unless he could earn cash money to buy a second-hand sand rover and fuel for it. That meant he would have to sell some of whatever he discovered instead of hoarding the knowledge of it for the service of his future plans.

Deep within himself, perhaps, the old Slith Wrasselty may have lingered, howling and spitting mad at the new limitations, but there was not-and there would not be-any outward evidence of it. The new, changed Slith was now the possessor of a more or less permanent companion and a future mate, whose insidious pheromones and other bodily exudations made him feel gloriously happy about it. And that was that.

Besides his chemically induced and genetically programmed happiness, there were other compensations for his new burden. For one, even the slight risk of his being assassinated by his brothers was now a thing of the past. Gleph, Thradz, Splath, or Thplet could no more slay him, a nurse, than they could successfully amputate their own heads, because not only had the nursling's chemistry affected Slith's, but his own exudations would now form an impregnable shield; other male fards would be unable even to think violent thoughts in his presence.

For another compensation, when the fardling stopped nursing at about four years of age (and Slith estimated it was almost one, at present) it would be sexually mature as well, and would then offer him the lesser pleasure of sexual coupling with it whenever and wherever he wished, in exchange for the greater joy of nursing it, which he would never again experience.

"What's your name?" he cooed at his small charge.

"Smack," she replied without removing her greedy mouth from his nipple. "Bd'eth."

"Biddeth? Is that it?"

"No. Bleth," she said more clearly. "Bleth. I used to be Bleth Wrebeltee, but... What's your name?"

"Slith Wrasselty."

"Then I am Bleth Wrasselty, now," she said with firm conviction and full understanding of what their relationship had become. She returned to her sucking. Slith observed that she had, as if along with his milk, imbibed a certain command of the Wrasselty way of speaking, which was far superior to the way her blood-kin had taught her to talk. He noticed also that his left breast was now flaccid, but already the right one had begun to fill. He revised downward his earlier estimate of how long he could stay in the field. If tiny Bleth continued to nurse so fiercely, he would be lucky to carry four day's enhanced rations. But then, how long had she been alone and without nutriment since her mother-and likely her male siblings as well-had chased her out of the Wrebek camp with snarls, hisses, and clawed fingernails? Perhaps once she was sated, her demands would lessen somewhat.

That train of thought reminded him that he would have to return to Valbissag immediately, and not only because of the acute pangs of hunger he was even then experiencing-though even before Bleth's lips fell open in sleep he had planned a much larger breakfast than he usually ate. He would, he suspected, have to drink almost all his limited supply of water just to replenish what he had already given her.

Carefully, without disturbing her sleep, he rose. She no longer had cause to awaken anxiously whenever he moved. She, as well as he, knew their new mutual status. He wondered how had he ever considered her ugly. In his eyes she was now a lovely child, though her fur was clumpy and bedraggled as if she had been dipped in oil and rolled in the dust of the desert. That observation triggered another new, unfamiliar urge. His hunger forgotten, Slith hunkered down on knees and elbows and began licking her. He licked her legs, her arms, all those parts of her body that were uppermost, and then he turned her over. She did not awaken, but she squeaked softly. Her tiny voice was sweet and musical. How had he ever considered it shrill?

Her fur, where he licked it, became soft and glossy. His own fur stood on end, and his skin tingled with ecstatic, not-quite-erotic sensations. When he finished giving Bleth her bath, he sniffed her all over, discovered several small, intimate places he had missed before, and remedied the omissions with intense enthusiasm. Only then did his own hunger pangs return.


Slith shouldered his pack only to discover that the straps interfered painfully with his sore breasts. He fiddled with the straps, adjusting and positioning them, and finally decided he could not carry the pack at all without severe discomfort. Little Bleth scampered around his knees, chatting engagingly. He could not bring himself to feel frustrated with her, or with his problem. Instead, entirely philosophically, he wrapped all but his specimen roll and his notebook in the sleeping sheet, and buried them next to the pinnacle where he could find them again when he returned there.

Without a backward look he abandoned the precious equipment, carrying the specimen roll beneath one arm, the book in that hand, and offering his free hand to his tiny companion, who grasped it possessively. Slith again experienced the visceral thrill of contact. He was not, however, so entirely lost in the joys of nursedom that he was not grateful that young fards possess great stamina. He would not have to carry her on his shoulders, at least for the first hour or two. With light and happy steps Slith and Bleth Wrasselty set off on the long day's walk home to Valbissag.


"I like Slith now," Parissa announced. "He's a nice fard."

"He's a stupid fard, if you ask me," grumbled Rober. "A stupid, perverted one. Nursing, eeyuck!"

"Why Robby!" exclaimed his mother, sounding quite offended, "You don't think of me like that, do you? Stupid? Perverted?"

Rober stammered an apology, then tried to explain. "You're my mother," he said. "You were supposed to nurse me. And Slith Wrasselty is the hero of the story, isn't he? Heroes don't have ... breasts."

"Oh?" Janna Minder queried archly. "Can't women be heroes, then? Or heroines, if you prefer?"

Rob had dug his verbal hole, and he found himself unable to climb out. "Aw, Mom," he said at last. "You know what I mean."

"I think I do, Robby. You wanted-no, you expected- Slith to be a Robby Minder, not a fard. Or, you wanted him to be a 'perverted' fard, an unnatural one whose instincts were all wrong for him, but were like your own."

"Well, I don't want to nurse anybody, ever," he grumbled, forcing himself to keep his baleful glare from falling on Parissa.

"Of course not. If you did, then by old-human standards, you would be 'perverted,' wouldn't you? As 'perverted' as Slith would have been if he had not nursed little Bleth. You see?"

Robby saw. He understood, but he did not like it. He did not have to like it. Parissa's words, repeated by Sarabet days earlier, returned to him then: "Boring! Bo-ring!" Now that he could no longer identify with Slith, the hero, who had turned out to be a nursing mother, or father, or whatever he was, he was sure that the rest of Slith's story was going to be a long, boring tale indeed. He would later, much later, admit just how wrong he was.



Chapter 4

Fard males are not the only ones who can nurse infants. Solitary wends, upon the death of a lactating mate, have been known to do so, as have old-human males, under the right conditions of privation and emotional stress. Fards are, however, the only humans among whom male lactation is an integral part of the adaptive behavioral complex, perhaps as a result of a selective "bottleneck" encountered in their initial settlement of hostile planets like Phyre. Consider that a surfeit of hungry males was an unaffordable luxury except for defense, and that a single male could impregnate many females. Thus fards' murderous inheritance struggles served the community by eliminating all but superior protectors-and their bloodlines. Yet those males who could-and did, or were compelled to-nurse young females contributed value as well, by relieving mothers of the burden of caring for them, and by their acquiring of future mates, thus guaranteeing the transmission of their own "altruistic" natures to future generations as well.

Polarities:

Studies in the Diverse Roles of the Male among Mankind

U. of Salith Press

Salith, Xarafeille 957

12,022 RL


"Ah, Slith," said old Fladth, eying his son's most recent acquisition. The old fard's nostrils flared a fractional amount, indicating threpth, which signified a pleasant sensory memory. Had his nostril movement been accompanied by other subtle movements of eye or pinna, by a tilt of the head or a flicker of fingers, it might have -would have-meant something else entirely. Yet Slith understood it, and was pleased. "You are a fard after my own fashion indeed. It was just so that I found your mother. She, too, was a Wrebek."

Fladth's chamber was a masterpiece of late colonial fardish architecture. Its double row of thin, flanking columns were of chemically-hardened azurite with ornate capitols of the ancient Karintian order, stylized dewspot petals enwrapping globes engraved with the continents of a fanciful homeworld. Curtained niches behind the columns could hide bodyguards in time of need. One entire wall was a sheet of creamy, translucent chalcedony, iron-streaked; when it was exposed from outside to the full sun of afternoon, it seemed to glow with an internal light. Fladth sat with his back to the chalcedony wall, across the room from the younger fard and the fardling-for in spite of his and Slith's mutual affection he was cautious and had, thus far, lived long enough for the short fur on his face to whiten, which was rare indeed among males. "Now, then. What else did you find?"

Slith grinned and lifted his left shoulder. "The outcrop has many patches of soluble organics. X-ray crystallography indicates that at least two of them are protein-like and have ... interesting ... affinities for human cells." Slith was purposefully vague; he knew the relationship between caution and success; there was no need for Fladth to know details.

He changed the subject. "You seem no worse for wear. Did my brothers sleep the whole time I was gone?"

Fladth snorted scornfully. His entire body shivered-or so it would have seemed to anyone not a fard. To Slith, it was not a single shiver, but a whole series of discrete signs and gestures that elaborated upon Fladth's simple, unequivocal expulsion of breath. "I found a broody female krood beneath my bed, but there was no burrow between the stones of my walls or floor. The krood did not crawl in through a window."

"Thradz, you think? Didn't Gleph already try that, once?"

"He did, and I gave the krood back to him-in his soup. It was either Thradz, or one of the young ones. As for Gleph, he plays with poisons of late, but I am immune to his efforts thus far." Again, he made a scornful noise. "I sometimes think I will die of exhaustion in my sleep, worn out by the sheer number of their attempts. Their skills grow slowly, if at all. They do not deserve much of an inheritance even if by accident they succeed in killing me."

The subject of the inheritor's reward was of interest to Slith. Fladth's assassination would not determine which brother acquired Valbissag and its assets; it would merely trigger the next phase of the successional struggle: only when one brother had slain the others or had personally accepted their fealty-glass jars containing their amputated and pickled generative organs-would he inherit not only palpable assets like the spring, the stones that were Valbissag town, and the ground which all occupied, but the investments kept in banks and brokerages in Thember, a spaceport city six days south by road.

Those investments were the product of Fladth's work, and his forefathers', resulting from the licensing or sale of chemical processes and of rare crystalline compounds grown in cleverly mixed solutions from Valbissag itself and from small subsidiary wells and seeps the Wrasselty clan laid claim to. Each well, depending on the mountain-country aquifer that supplied it, had a unique chemistry. Fards, long dependent on what other humans called "bad" water, had developed innate abilities to sense the pollutants and poisons in their water and to manipulate them through distillation, precipitation, mixing, and compounding. The wisest fards, like Fladth, obtained patents on their processes and their unique products.


In Thember, in the banking district, were three edifices built on the grand scale that only governments could afford: the Patent Office, the Fardic History Division and Archive, and the Registry. The Registry, which covered twenty acres to a height of fifteen stories, held all manner of deeds, contracts, treaties, leases, court proceedings and judgements, and more. The Archive housed copies of Registry documents of historic import, old diaries of Phyre's settlers, collections of anecdotes, tales, myths and folk songs, paintings, photographs, and holographs of Phyre as it once was. Some records were so ancient they were said to have been brought from the far side of the coal-black cloud of velvet dust that formed the display cloth upon which the jewels of the Zarafeille Stream were laid. The History Division and Archive covered thirty acres, but was only ten stories high. The Patent Office occupied forty acres and had twenty-two stories, and very little of its vast space held offices. Most of it held, of course, patents.

Fards' need to patent things perhaps sprang from the impact of water chemistry upon their survival. It extended through that to all things; it was said that a fard would patent his individual fingernail parings if there were no hard-nosed officials to dismiss his effort as frivolous and then to refund his filing fee.

The University was a lesser complex of offices and classrooms, none over four stories, separated by picturesque cobble paths and dust pools, by colorful lichen beds and low serpentine walls that often served as benches. Befitting its function of furnishing graduates to the three greater institutions-greater, if one judged by height, not acreage-and by its need to draw upon the resources of all of them, the University grounds were like the matrix of a limestone conglomerate, the Registry a granitic pebble within it, the Archive a quartz fragment, the Patent Office red jasper, and the University's own buildings a scattering of grains of course sand of no particular color or importance.

By far the greatest portion of the non-fard and non-tarbek population of Phyre lived in Thember, which possessed the single largest distillation and water-purification plant on the planet and a supply of ground water sufficient to supply such people with water in the vast quantities they ordinarily consumed. Too, in Thember were several places of employment whose positions were not automatically filled by fards or tarbeks. As fards were not by nature interested in history (though they understood the need for keeping track of such things, and understood the Arbiter's decree that they do so) they had early on hired wends as custodians of their racial history. Some highly-placed wends among the thousands who worked in the History Division traced their ancestries to those original employees a thousand and more years in the past. Wends, by their very natures, never lost track of their own histories and genealogies, even on minor planets like Phyre.

If fards had run the Patent Office, every fallen whisker and every desiccated scat that dropped upon the desert sand would have had a number and a data file. Traditionally, the Patent Office was run by bors. The stocky, black-furred bors were by nature trogloditic, were inventive, mechanically inclined, no-nonsense men and were ideal foils for the enthusiastic fards. They were methodical and slow moving (as all other folk seemed to the quick, graceful, and lissome fards) and they suffered no frivolous applications. They were sometimes known to refuse to return application fees if they grew sufficiently annoyed.

The Registry had fard employees, but also wends and bors, each working where his temperament and racial proclivities best suited him.


The Patent Office held what was of greatest interest to both Fladth and Slith. "A3207A expired yesterday," Fladth commented conversationally, "and YB-948C will expire at noon today."

"Ah," said Slith. "Has Gleph noticed?"

"Him?" Fladth chuckled. "He is too busy making new poisons to bother to go to Thember and patent his own inventions, let along to keep track of anything else. He collects his own formulae in a metal box which he buries nightly, always in a different place. He thinks-as do his brothers-that the wires those bors contractors trenched between here and the city carry only electricity to light his laboratory!" Fladth eyed a wall-niche covered with a hanging dust cover. Slith had seen the late-model terminal his father kept there. He had used it, on occasion, to check on patents filed in the Patent Office in Thember.

"So how many patents are left?" Slith asked.

"There are one hundred and eighty-seven still unexpired. The last of them will expire within the year. I will," he chuckled, "attempt to remain alive until then."

"And much longer, I hope," said Slith. "I enjoy our 'unnatural' relationship and do not wish it to end."

"I too," agreed his father, the fingernails of his left hand clenching momentarily, his prominent ears flattening just a trifle, "but the odds-four to one-are against me. Sooner or later one of them will get me."

"I sometimes think we fards are, as a subspecies, 'unnatural,' and that bors and wends have a better way."

"Ach, no!" said Fladth, shaking his head. "If sons did not kill fathers and slay or castrate their brothers, the world would be overrun with useless males who would gobble all the food and would drink our wells dry. Oh, don't get me wrong; as I said, I enjoy your company, but overall, your brothers are far better fards than either of us." Slith politely agreed, but privately, he had several reservations about that.

"I must move to Thember soon," he said, changing the subject.

"Ah," his father said. "For the fardling's sake?"

"If I am to sustain her, and to continue my research too, I will need revenue. In Thember, I can create pharmaceuticals for the offworld trade without having to trade my patent rights for food. Besides, I think Thradz is becoming suspicious of all the time I spend in your laboratory. I need one of my own-away from my brothers' eyes."

"You can't afford equipment like mine," stated Fladth.

"I won't need it. From this point on, I will need only growth tanks for crystals, some glassware, and a large retort. And for all I know now, the final seed-crystals of my masterpiece may have to be grown in microgravity-in orbit. It makes sense for me to be in Thember, near the spaceport."

"I suppose so," his father replied grudgingly, "though I would prefer things to be otherwise." Such circumlocution was required by the Fardic tongue, in which there was no way to say "I'll miss you." The closest approximation to that, between male relatives, was "I don't trust you out of my sight."


"What's that?" Rob Minder demanded, seeing the ugly, gnarled, and contorted stick in his father's hand.

"Swarrow root from Phyre," John Minder replied. "It is quite rare and is considered good luck to find. High fard and tarbek officials carry staffs made of it."

"It's ugly," Rob said.

"It doesn't have to remain so. Fard staffs are often ornately carved, and the wood takes a high russet sheen." Minder smiled ruefully. "Tarbek staffs, on the other hand... Mostly, they only remove the bark."

Rob brightened. "Can I carve it? I can use the new tools the bors delegate from Paramot brought me." He reached for the future "staff"-ugly and gnarled and bark-covered as it was. "I expect you to clean up after yourself," Rob's mother insisted. "It isn't fair to expect the maids to..."

"Aw, Mom! I won't make any messes." His mother's expression hinted that whe was reserving judgement on that. "Where's Sarabet?" Rob asked. "I want to show her."

"She is at a friend's for the day."

"Show me!" Parissa squealed. "Can I help you carve it?"

"Oh, no!" You aren't old enough to use sharp tools. And if you even watch, you'll talk all the time, and I'll cut myself."

"Rob!" his mother cautioned.

"Oh, all right. C'mon P'riss. Fled rackety nong!" said Robby Minder to his little sister, as he left the room. His fingers curled under, but Parissa did not notice that.

"What does that mean?" Parissa demanded, pulling on Robby's sleeve, and consequently being led away with him.

Their father's eyebrow lifted, but he said nothing.

"He'll grow out of it," Janna Minder assured her husband. "Both of them will." She, like all the family except Parissa, knew all the major languages of the human races, and several dialects of each. "I'll miss you," was what Robby had said, in Old High Fardic. His clumsy imitation of the fard hand-sign would have been recognized by a fard as an urge to scratch, suggesting the just-realized acquisition of a new strain of biting parasitic mite.


An Arbiter was many things to many people. Among the less educated masses he was often pictured as a nebulous being, not a man at all, except perhaps an all-knowing bogeyman. In some places "Only the Arbiter knows" was said in the same way other folks might say "God only knows," though if pressed, they would admit that they did not really think of him as a deity.

Those folks who lived on Newhome and had a chance to visit the Arbiter's hearing-rooms -- or offworlders who came seeking justice, who often found only arbitration, would forever envision him as a robed and hooded figure unseen except for the red glow of his all-seeing eyes. Of course that was all merely tradition, and showmanship. The "eyes" glow was merely a manifestation of the bio-sign scanners everyone of his many assistants wore in the courtrooms, to help them discern who was, or was not, being entirely truthful while under oath.

The Arbiter John Minder XXIII thought of himself as a rather ordinary man with a very difficult job -- that of quelling individual ambitions without quelling individuality, of balancing the trends toward a unity of all mankind against the needs for continued diversity, for the maintenance of the varied evolutionary options that it allowed, all the while struggling to prevent that very diversity from spinning out of control and destroying the polity he watched over.

It would have been easier to have been a god, John Minder sometimes grumbled.


Bleth -- now Bleth Wrasselty -- was quite happy to be alive, and to be full of milk,, but her happiness was tempered by the realization that her new nurse was not exactly as she might have wished him to be.

Many men, unable to inherit a town, a spring, or even a nomadic chieftainship, would have been glad to have a fardling, a future mate, a guarantee that their precious genetic heritage would not die when they died. Not so Slith Wrasselty. Though he had quickly and philosophically adapted to their new relationship, he did not seem to want progeny now or in the future. Bleth pictured herself being set aside at the very moment her need to nurse ended.

Ah well -- she would cling to him -- to the nourishment he provided -- for now. If their differences proved too great, she had one option that he did not. If a more suitable male presented himself to her, she could leave Slith.



Chapter 5

It is highly unlikely that the tarbek race shares a common genetic structure with the legendary frufly, the familiar of those ancient witches who created the races of man in dim antiquity. Yet it is said that the female frufly -- which is probably based upon some real creature -- would die if inseminated by more than a few males, an unhappy result of toxins in their semen, toxins evolved to destroy the sperm of other males.

Perhaps the total avoidance of physical contact between tarbek males and females is based in some similar chemical incompatibility resulting from convergent evolution. Yet even fruflys required coitus to reproduce their kind, and tarbeks have done away with that entirely.

Fruflys, Geniepigs, and other Mythical Beasts

Penteralimin Keteritifen, PhD.

New Age Press,

Faltera, Xarafeille 55, 12002 R.L.


The journey to Thember took eight days. Slith and Bleth walked the first sixty miles-or rather, Slith did. Bleth walked fifteen, then rode in a makeshift sling across his chest. Where the trail crossed a highway they caught a ride to Krat, an industrial town on the edge of a dusty playa, and then paid commercial fare (one and one-half persons) the rest of the way.

During their trip, twelve more Wrasselty patents expired unrenewed. That was Fladth's gift to his son; whoever succeeded Fladth would inherit only real estate, and when Slith attained his majority at twenty five, a year hence, he could patent all the expired formulae in his own name. Until then they would remain unowned, with the risk that someone else might independently discover a formula and quite innocently patent it. There was risk, also, that someone might actually discover that Wrasselty patents had lapsed. It was a chance Slith was willing to take, because he would otherwise inherit nothing at all.

In Thember, he leased a storefront with an apartment over it, on Colony Boulevard, a street that had perhaps been pleasantly respectable an eon or so in the past, when Thember was new. Now the fanciful gargoyles guarding the doorways were mere nubs, sand-worn, the windows were mostly frosted by blown sand, and the street was high-crowned with the compacted dust of crumbling buildings. Thember was an odd place, by the standards of the desert; it was odd by the standards of the great polity of the Xarafeille Stream as well; it was a place where electric carts were poor men's taxis, where carriages drawn by clawed beasts, thribbets, denoted wealth and status. Fine houses with intelligent computerized doors lined wide streets that resembled rock gardens, streets that were only a turn and a gateway from disheveled tenements where a single hydrant served a hundred families. Electric vapor lights illuminated the streets at night, brighter than the greasy candles within the houses of both rich and poor.

Slith bought laboratory glassware, a furnace, several crucibles, and a half-dozen salvaged glass-lined drums to use as crystal-growing vats. Bleth, uninterested in his new business, found a cool place in the cellar to play during the day, and a warm spot beside Slith to sleep at night. Her lowered activity level reduced her demand for sustenance, which meant that Slith did not have to work with one hand while carrying her with him in the lab.

His ordinary work entailed the formulation of sun salves, love potions, and mild narcotics for the lower-class wends and bors of Thember; those brought in enough cash for rent, food, supplies, and a small overage from which he bought toys and bright trinkets for Bleth. Her glee was all the reward he craved for his generosity. She was now an attractive, bright-eyed fardling with glossy fur, and she had learned to bathe herself-though Slith's driving instincts sometimes made him salivate when he saw that she had picked up a speck of dust, and a ritual bath was a nightly event.

Life, thought Slith Wrasselty, was good. He eagerly awaited his twenty-fifth birthday when, he anticipated, it would get better still; as a legal adult, he could acquire the expired Valbissag patents. Periodically, tiring of the city, he would place Bleth across his chest in a leather infant carrier, and they would travel by fast commercial rail to the end of the line, not far from Valbissag. The fare for such luxuriously fast travel was exorbitant, but Slith felt he had to visit certain sites in the hill country periodically, usually before the regular rains that fell only on the high ground. He gathered only a few samples on each trip, but he often scattered pellets of tracer-compounds that would indicate which low-country wells were fed by the particular aquifer he salted.

Slith ordered letterhead stationery, and commissioned a brochure extolling his products. The latter he sent to customers and to potential customers on a purchased mailing list. One such brochure arrived in the hands of Lord Gefke Jandissl, in Low Diverness, who was about to throw it away when a blue card fell out, attracting his attention. Tarbek brains and eyes have a hardwired affinity for a particular shade of the color blue, perhaps because it is the color of certain copper ores containing sulfur, and tarbeks crave sulfur in all its forms.


FERTILITY PROBLEMS?

It came to our attention last year that lava flows and landslides in North Adderlong have disrupted groundwater patterns along the Damplag Trench, which has changed the composition of wells, springs, and seeps as far away as West Diverness.

If you have been experiencing diminished fertility because of those changes, our Additive 3A can restore the potency of your wells and bathing holes. Additive 3A is specifically formulated to replace compounds found only in the Damplag Formation rocks of the Adderlong plateau which may no longer find there way via groundwater flow to your wells, due to the changed conditions at the source.

Please use our standard order form (page 5 of our brochure) and enclose a prepaid money order or certified check. Your purchase will be shipped to you in a plain brown wrapper.


Slith opened the envelope and gazed wide-eyed at the check, in the amount of twelve thousand standard creds. Lord Jandissl, he surmised, was quite desperate. He wished to purchase enough Additive 3A to restore his fertility, to boost it, and to maintain it at an unprecedented level. The population of Low Diverness, Slith guessed, was about to expand rapidly. What would Jandissl do with the excess population? It would mature rapidly and increase the stress of crowding.

Bleth, who had grown rapidly of late and could now see over the top of the lab bench, helped him pack eight kilos of Additive 3A for shipment to Low Diverness. If any other orders for it came in, Slith would have to buy the raw materials to make more of it in order to fill them.


Slith's small brother Thplet visited the apartment on Colony Boulevard on several occasions. Bleth thought Slith's cavalier treatment of him was unwarranted -- ignoring him for hours at a time while Slith puttered in his laboratory below. Bleth found herself entertaining Thplet until Slith was ready to see him. She did not at all mind that, because Thplet had a keen eye and mind, and an acerbic sense of humor -- while Slith seemed to lack humor entirely. Yet, she reflected, they are obviously brothers. That observation inspired her to study Thplet quite closely; after all, being full siblings, they shared a common heritage, one that her infants would inherit as well. By examining Thplet as well as Slith, she opened a larger window on the future that awaited her as mother of future Wrasseltys.

Thplet, for his part, also enjoyed those hours before Slith condescended to joint them. Bleth,despite her tender years, was good company -- an endless fount of questions, many of which seemed astute enough for an adult to have uttered, and all of which were flattering to Thplet, who allowed himself to ramble on endlessly, feeling quite wise, and enjoying the sound his own voice made, resonating within the large sinuses of his short fardish snout.

When Slith did arrive, there was no time for such pleasant pastimes. Slith was all business, wanting to know everything that went on at Valbissag. He quizzed Thplet harshly, so much so that Bleth wondered why Thplet continued to visit at all. Once Slith arrived, Thplet's conversation was limited to curt, precise answers to his brother's questions, and it seemed as though he became soon anxious to satisfy Slith and to depart.


With the windfall from Low Diverness, Slith and Bleth were able to move into larger quarters in Varamin Park, a stylish neighborhood mostly occupied by mid-level officials and offworld traders, and to afford carriage fare between the shop, now wholly a manufactory, the new house, and a new retail outlet in a fine, prestigious location.

The large single houses of Varamin Park presented only their ornate doorways and wrought-iron gates to the street. Each one enclosed an interior court with cool, shaded cobbles, columned arcades, and reflecting pools of water or mercury. The street was barred to vehicles and was planted with meandering rows of boxwood hedges and beds of flowering madge. Tradesmen and caterers used balcony-hung alleys behind and beside the houses.

Thplet only visited there once. Bleth, returning from an errand, found him sitting on the front steps. "Thplet!" she exclaimed. "Why are you sitting there?"

"Your new doorman, or butler, will not let me inside, and Slith is not here to identify me."

"Well, I can. You must come in!"

"I do not like wends, and they do not like me!" Thplet spat. "I will chat with you a while, then be on my way. And where is Slith?"

Bleth giggled. "Our wendish servants do not seem to like any of us. 'Just so they like the money we pay them, and strive hard to earn it,' Slith says. And Slith is out in the Dry Middens today. I do not know what he is doing there."

"Ah," said Thplet. "And what have you been up to?"

"I visited an orphanage for fardlings less lucky than me."

"Why did you do that?" asked Thplet, quite astounded.

"I donate part of the money Slith gives me for trinkets and household things. There but for the purest luck, I would also be -- if I would not have died on the way to the city."

"There but for your own cleverness, you mean. Slith had told me how you crept up on him in the night. He still wonders how you got out of that canyon alive."

"And he might continue to wonder," she said firmly. "I am not about to reveal my secrets to Slith. Is he angry with me still?" Bleth asked, sounding almost fearful.

"I think that deep inside, Slith still rages, not at being entrapped as much as at discovering that there exists someone cleverer than him -- someone who outsmarted him."

"I am afraid, then," said Bleth. "I do not wish to starve, or to drink the artificial milk those orphans are given. It tastes like white mud, and makes my stomach ache."

Thplet laughed indulgently. "Can a female Tarbek stay away from water?" he asked. "Can a bors grow feathers instead of fur? Do not concern yourself, small one. Slith is well and truly trapped by his own nature, and by the endorphins that now circulate in his blood. He will not abandon you. You are safe ... and that is more than I can say for myself."

"What is wrong," Bleth asked, now ashamed of her self-centeredness.

"I suspect that Fladth nears his end," Thplet said, "And that mine will be soon after."

"Oh, no, Thplet! You must not die. There are ways ..."

"Ways? You mean I should castrate myself and present my organs to the winner of the succession struggle in a jar?"

"Would that be worse than death?" asked Bleth. "Is anything worse than never again being able to strive"

"You are not male, "Thplet said, stating what was obvious. "You could not understand."

Bleth put a hand on the disconsolate fard's knee. "Surely there is a way," she said. "I have heard Slith say there are old-human shamans in the dry middens who can perform such tasks quite painlessly. ..."


In the evenings when all Varamin Park was in shadow Slith walked hand in hand with the fast-growing Bleth, who grew too heavy to be carried with ease. They joined the other residents of Varamin and neighboring streets in sociable promenade. "Good evening, Sar Slith," said plump bors matrons, smiling, indulgently tweaking Bleth's soft ear-tufts while out of the corners of their eyes assuring themselves that their own black-furred progeny did not approach too closely. Young bors played rough-and-tumble, and their mothers did not wish to offend the daughter of such an up-and-coming young merchant. Slith did not disabuse them of their belief in his kinship with Bleth. He usually wore a silky duster that covered his now-much-reduced breasts; he was not sure how bors felt about fards' unique adaptation, though as a fard living among other races, Slith had learned how to accommodate to their slow reflexes and unobservant eyes. When he spoke with a bors, he consciously forced his body into uncommunicative stillness, his face into a rigid mold. He kept his nose from twitching-or tried to-and made his ears point only forward. He kept his eyes wide open as if he were an infant who had never stared into the desert's glare. It would have been hard for him to accept that for the bors-or wend or old-human-his efforts made him seem only slightly less twitchy than other fards; yet it was an invaluable edge in his social and commercial dealings.

"Ah, Wrasselty," said an elderly wend scholar from the History Division. "I've been meaning to stop by your new emporium. Hammady Wheln-you'll remember him, the documentarian from over on Flower Court-suggests I try your new memory-enhancing formula. But forgive me ... promenade is no time for business. Will you be in at your posted hour?"

Slith's new shop, with a fine green-and-gold sign identifying it as "Park Avenue Apothecary," was just off Port Street. Offworld traders and tourists seeking the renowned products of Phyre's wells and springs-substances extracted, distilled, and precipitated from the planet's unusual waters, then mixed with krood-skin oils, blackwort dust, and other exotic organics by smart-nosed fards, according to exacting formulae and procedures-would see advertisements for Slith's establishment the moment they left the spaceport. It was a busy and profitable operation, and Slith needed only keep limited hours there meeting with wealthy notables and bulk traders who refused to deal with his many clerks, assistants, and underlings.

The tarbek metabolite Additive 3A now accounted for only a small part of Slith's sales, though it had given him the initial wherewithal to leap for commercial success. Yet to give him his due, Slith was not lazy and was a clever and original researcher. He did not use formulae developed by his father and forefathers, the former Wrasselty patents, for fear that some clever analyst would duplicate them before he could legally claim both the process and the ingredients as his own. The products he sold were either original creations-which he thoroughly and diligently tested on indigent bors and wends before selling them-or standard products much in demand, made more cheaply according to Slith's streamlined processing than elsewhere, and thus sold for less than his competitors could afford to do.

Slith now spent more time than ever away from Thember, extending the area of his geological research radially. Bleth of course accompanied him. The sector where lay Valbissag and Low Diverness was only a thin sliver of his pie. He bought crystals, precipitates, and supersaturated hot spring solutions from tribes, clans, and principalities formerly only known as names on maps, and he explored the high country aquifers that charged springs and damps all the way to Phyre's dry equatorial seabeds. He mapped and he tested.

Upon his return to the city, or before leaving it, he occupied himself for extensive periods in the Registry and the Patent Office. In the Registry's Deeds Rooms were documents concerning the lands that interested him. Whenever Slith did field work, he did so with full knowledge of the land he surveyed-who held title to it? Had mineral rights been granted, or was it otherwise encumbered? Were there use or passage easements that would hinder or help him?

While Slith was so occupied, Bleth-who was with the exception of her nursing quite an independent fardling-explored the city on her own or visited with her friends, people she had met through Slith's business associations. Slith, always busy, was mostly incurious about her activities.

The Registry also kept well-drilling logs from which Slith could determine much of the underlying nature of the strata in his chosen research areas. By the time he actually walked an area, he was as fully informed as possible about what lay hundreds, even thousands of feet beneath him.

The registry did not keep paper copies of deeds, restrictions, or easements, of course, just as it did not physically store the actual stone drill cores from which its stratigraphic data was derived. All information was stored in multi-terabyte data crystals, which were locked in shelved cabinets. There were, or so Slith was told, many rooms lined with such cabinets, but Slith never saw those. From a terminal carrel in the outer rooms, he ordered what he wished to see, and particular crystals were brought forth by wendish data keepers. Often he ordered printouts which he was required to pay for before leaving the room. He resented that, for though he was becoming wealthy now, he retained the frugal habits of an impoverished youth. "I can print these myself at no cost but paper! Why must I pay you five creds to print them?"

"To do that, you would have to remove the crystal containing the data from this room-which is not permitted," a clerk responded. "Not The Valbissag himself can do that," he continued, referring to Slith's eminent father in the formal manner.

Bakh! Slith complained subvocally as he paid for his maps. I could simply throw the data module from one of those windows when the clerk's back was turned, recover it outside, and copy it at my leisure. Yet being essentially law-abiding, he did no re than contemplate that.

Security measures at the Patent Office were even more stringent. There, one was required to submit a list of patents one wished to view, and a clerk was sent to fetch them. There, a customer never even saw a data-crystal, only phosphors on a screen, or paper copies-which cost even more than those at the Registry. Yet some men walked into the Patent Office data-rooms as if they owned them! There! That tarbek lord with the twisted bitternut staff, for example. Or the finely-dressed wend carrying the elaborately-inlaid flute denoting his rank in the wendish community.

"The tarbek is Lord Mfabek Salicot, from the Barmin Dells," a clerk explained. "And the wend you describe was probably Chief Clerk Elemerimen, who would be allowed to peruse crystals at will because he is Adjudicator of the Westland District wend community-even if he were not also my superior in this very office."

"Ah! Then I am Slith Wrasselty of Valbissag, favored son of Fladth. Stand aside and let me pass."

"I cannot. If you were Fladth, The Valbissag, and carrying your staff, it would be a different matter."

Slith complained to his father about the restrictions upon him. Fladth then gave him a note designating him Agent Plenipotentiary for Valbissag-but that had no effect at all on the wendish clerk. "When you succeed to the seat of Valbissag itself you may pass within," he said, "but not before." As Slith had no intention of becoming The Valbissag, he resigned himself to enduring the more cumbersome and expensive procedures.

"Even when I was granted access to the crystal rooms," Fladth reflected during a subsequent visit, "I contemplated hiding a crystal in my document-case and printing its contents at my convenience. After all, the crystals I wanted held Valbissag patent information, and Valbissag itself is mine. It would not have been theft, not exactly."

"Why didn't you?" asked Slith.

"Have you noticed those little grilles by the doors to the outside, there?" Fladth inquired. Slith had not. "Behind them are sniffsnakes trained to react to the ozone given off by a data-crystal's charge. The constable at the door would have apprehended me immediately."

The next time Slith visited the Patent Office, he did see the inconspicuous grilles, though he could discern no sniffsnakes behind them. The constable at the door, noting that Slith's eyes lingered overlong on the grilles, took a step forward. He was alert to such things. Slith, not wishing to become an object of serious suspicion, hurried on inside.

In spite of officious clerks and suspicious constables, Slith's was a good life, and he could no longer contemplate it improving very much. He was rich without having use of the Wrasselty formulae. He had enough money that he could not out-spend his income unless he wished to purchase an in-system interplanetary spaceship (he dreaded the dark cold of space, which he thought of as being similar to a dark well, but never-ending) or a palace (but he was content in his house, which was always exactly cool enough, or warm enough, without mechanical augmentation). As his twenty-fifth birthday neared, he considered what he should do about the expired patents. Of course he would register them; his father's honor and effort on his behalf would not allow him to do otherwise. He was not sure whether he would manufacture some profitable substances, or license them to other, less original, fards.

One area where life would improve was that of Slith's personal serenity. Once everything-the Wrasselty patents and his own formulae-were properly registered, he would no longer have to keep the knowledge of them in a steel-doored vault beneath his shop or, as with the most valuable of them, in his head as well. The latter ones he reviewed often, refreshing his encyclopedic memory in the quiet hours of the night when both the ecstasy of Bleth's last nursing and the exigencies of daytime business had faded, when his mind was most clear.

Bleth -- when she herself did not fall immediately asleep --listened to Slith's almost-inaudible murmurs. Her feelings, at such times, were quite mixed. She felt a strong affection for her nurse, an affection that was surely not entirely biochemically engendered, but she was less than content with his single-minded obsession with wealth and control. Of course she understood the connection between patents and the licensing fees they generated, and the relationship between a healthy bank account and starvation -- even then, warm and sated, a small, sleepy mew escaped her throat, remembering -- but there were so many suffering people.

Just a day or so earlier she had spotted a fardling lurking in the thorn bushes outside the gate to Varamin Park. The gatekeeper would have chased her away, had he seen her -- it was not the kind of neighborhood where derelict criminals or fardlings were ignored. It was not Colony Boulevard.

"You must not stay here," she whispered to the youngling. "The guard will beat you."

"Mar stepak?" it replied. "Where can I go?" Bleth remembered the dingy orphanage. "What is an 'orphanage?'" the fardling had asked.

"It is a place where fardlings are fed artificial milk," she said.

Bleth tried to describe it to the child but, not having nursed, not having learned much speech, it displayed a blank uncomprehending stare. "Never mind. I will take you there." The fardling only made it part of the way. It had been too weak for even a moderate walk, and Bleth was too small herself to have carried it. She left the small body in the doorway of a fan maker's shop. Perhaps the child's small, flexible ribs and delicate sinews would outlast her frail flesh and would have some small utility, as parts of decorative fans, that they had not had during her short life.

Bleth did not, at that time, understand how the evolutionary process worked. She did not understand that pain was sometimes desirable -- it warned of danger to one's body, and created a powerful aversion to the practices that caused it. Depression, grief and anger functioned similarly, modifying the future behavior, enhancing the survival of those who experienced them. The subjective experiences, the discomfort of those who hurt, grieved and raged, was of no real account in that ongoing process; if an individual survived long enough to breed, to reproduce its genes in sufficient quantity, and if those offspring themselves survived, it was enough.

There was, Bleth might have thought then -- as she did much later in her life -- no countering evolutionary advantage to joy, to complacent satisfaction, or to happiness. The carrot -- had there been carrots on Phyre -- was a less effective motivation than the stick -- of which her planet had a few, mostly hard and knobby like swarrow, or thorny, or covered with dry, toxic bark.

Pain worked. Bleth was determined to avoid it. Sadness worked too. She grieved over the fardling's shrunken corpse -- but only momentarily, because she was determined to do everything in her power to prevent a similar fate from overtaking her. But there was not much that a nurseling could do ... was there?rspectrum
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