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Once upon a time—
But what time? Before or after the last events recorded in memory?
Always the same questions recurred in the same order and were answered in the same order. For this plaything of chance, that was almost the only stable fact of existence.
First: Who am I? (Or what. It amounted to exactly the same thing, and the answer never changed.)
Then: Where am I? (Subjective millennia of stored data supplied at least that much information.)
Finally: When am I?
And there was only ever one way to find that out ...
Like the shadow of a slowly closing door, night fell over Clayre, Trevithra's spaceport city by the Althark Sea. There was no twilight to speak of, for it lay athwart the equator. From the temples, shrines, parks, and palaces on Marnchunk Hill to the artisans' shacks by the waterfront, and farther yet, by way of the rickety platforms where dwelt combers and scavengers, to the frail smacks and yawls that served as homes for fisherfolk—rising now and snatching a scanty meal before their night's work—people glanced up by reflex, expecting to see reassuring green-metallic flashes, brilliant as the sheen on a waterwaif. They betokened an artificial aurora that killed spores drifting down from space.
It had, however, been switched off.
The citizens, accordingly, had a rare opportunity to glimpse the stellar glory beyond their sky, for the line of sight thus opened up happened to lie directly along the main axis of the Arm of Stars and back toward the parent galaxy. However, most were too nervous to enjoy the sight. There had been rumors for the past few days, though no hard news, and here was their confirmation.
Another starship was about to land. And who ever knew what one of those might bring?
Stripe heard the shouts while she was dickering with fat Dr. Bolus at Mid-City Market, trying to convince him that a palm-sized piece of muthrin shell from the flexibox she trailed was a fair exchange for another bottle of his anti-cheeching nostrum. Afraid of being overlooked between a kaftan seller on one side and racks of dried lampedusas on the other, he kept interrupting to call out in a wheedling tone to passersby, guessing at their ills and promising a cure. Even when he seemed to be paying attention he kept restlessly shifting and rattling surgical instruments on the counter before him. To make matters worse Stripe's younger brother Donzig, whom she dared not leave at home now Yin and Marla were so helpless, was ostentatiously bored and kept wandering off in search of strelligers and shadow shows or fruit and sweetmeats he could filch.
Next time I'll tie a cord around the little beast's leg!
Abruptly she registered what the shouting was about and broke off with a cock of her head. Yes, unmistakably:
"The green has gone! The sky is black!"
Under the awnings of the market, she hadn't noticed.
"That means there's a starship due!" she exclaimed.
"What's it to you?" returned the doctor with a shrug. "If you're afraid of it carrying alien organisms, I can let you have an all-purpose immunizer—twenty tablets to proof you against any known germ and most of the unknown ones—but that's going to cost more than a paltry scrap of shell. You'd find it cheaper to burn a prayer or two. I doubt it works, but it does cost less, and there are plenty who believe in it."
Stripe was no longer listening. Reaching a swift decision, she upended her flexibox on the counter. Out tumbled a welter of miscellanea salvaged from what rich families on Marnchunk Hill had thrown away deliberately or by mistake, including torcs, some scarcely damaged, toe rings, studded belts, even an eye gem. "Two flasks of anticheeching mixture!" she snapped. "And make sure they're brim-full!"
Bolus made to demur. She glared at him.
"I've no more time to waste! Come on!"
Astonished, he shrugged and complied, visibly wondering what had come over this girl who normally drove as hard a bargain as any of his customers. When he handed over the medicine and gathered up his takings, it was Donzig's turn to be surprised.
"Come here!" Stripe rasped, and when the child dawdled, closed the gap and seized him by the nearer earlobe, bending her face to his.
"Don't start grizzling or I'll give you something to grizzle about! Now listen, and do exactly as I say! Take this medicine and go straight home. Straight home, is that clear? Give Yin and Marla a cupful each. Use the white cup on the peg by the door."
"You're hurting me!" Donzig whined.
"I'll hurt you worse in a moment if you don't hold your tongue! What cup do you give the medicine in?"—pinching hard.
"Ow! The white one hanging on a peg!"
"By the door!"
"All right." She slackened her grip. "Now when you've done that, you're to take the bag hanging on the next peg, the yellow one. Handle it carefully! Take it to Mother Shaqqi at the Blue Shrine. Tell her to sell what's in the bag as amulets to protect people against skybugs and space germs. And warn her I know the contents by heart, so I'll want my cut later on."
"I don't like her!" Donzig whimpered. "She's ugly! I'm scared of her!"
"You do exactly as you're told," Stripe whispered. "If when I get back I find you haven't, I—I'll put you in my flexibox and push you off Accadantan Pier!"
And added, relenting slightly, "Tell Mother Shaqqi to buy you a stick-a-sweet and a mug of chulgra. She can take it out of my share. Off with you!"
As she spoke, she was rolling up the flexibox. Clipping the ends together, she slung it baldric fashion across the short green kirtle that was her only garment. Some days she didn't even bother with that much, for she felt quite adequately clad in the red body pattern, winding across her torso and along her limbs, that had bestowed the nickname by which she was known now to everybody, even her parents. In the crowded market, though, nudity was inadvisable. Around any corner she might run into a gang of antis.
"How old is your brother?" Dr. Bolus inquired, following Donzig with one eye while keeping the other on Stripe.
"I thought you could judge ages at a glance, same as illnesses ... Fifteen."
"Your parents must be cheeching young. I'm sorry."
She was tempted to snap back that his medicine was supposed at least to slow the process even if there was no way of reversing it. But she knew, and he knew, the potion was little more than symbolic. Still, better a vain hope than none at all.
Gruffly: "Some people make it past sixty, some start at my age or younger. Yin and Marla are about average ... Why do I have to tell you of all people? I'll be back for more of the mixture when that lot's gone. Or maybe I'll try someone else."
"Or burn some prayers?"
"No. That's not cheap. It's expensive. Because you get nothing for it."
For the past minute or two chanting and the beating of gongs had been increasingly audible in the market area. Now its volume redoubled, and the source irrupted into view. Led by priests from one of the uphill temples, a procession was on its way to the spaceport to complain about the risk of opening the sky to alien organisms. A few of the stall holders were locking away their wares and hastening to join in, while others too greedy, skeptical, or stiff and old nonetheless voiced encouragement. Some tossed offerings into wide flat baskets borne by acolytes and novices, accepting in exchange prayers inscribed on fan-shaped leaves that they then touched to glowing fusees proffered for the purpose. As the leaves charred to ash much acrid smoke arose. Bystanders coughed and rubbed their eyes.
The procession would of course get no closer to the starship than the port perimeter, but at least the gods would notice and incline to mercy—or so the priests would claim if no harm followed ...
Time to make a move. Indeed, past time. Stripe took to her heels in search of a cross-bay highslider.
On the other side of Clayre Bay the huge elliptical reception grid began to thrum in the low subsonic range. Ship-believers claimed it was founded on the four hills that marked the site of the original settlement—only there were no traces left to serve as evidence, for they had been leveled at their tops and reinforced. That had been a condition of the temples' consenting to admit off-world visitors; the priests regarded it as tainted ground. The air became oppressive; people scowled and rubbed their foreheads or complained of vague abdominal discomfort. Some had to vanish to a necessary, since such frequencies encouraged peristalsis in the lower bowel. Those who had no such facilities—and they were many, for Trevithra was a poor world and this, its richest city, was still mainly a conglomeration of huts and hovels—found concealment behind a whip-bush or a scrambly tree, whose eager roots welcomed this access of nourishment.
Stripe, however, was not particularly impressed by the grid, although it was half an hour's fast walk from end to end. The colossal shape looming beside the bay had been a familiar sight throughout her life. Indeed, though she had no recollection of the fact, her parents had often told her that as a babe in arms she had watched it being delivered. Such a device could not possibly have been built on Trevithra, so it had to be assembled in orbit by foreign experts, and on the day of its arrival practically the entire population of Clayre turned out, whether to pray or to admire. Her father and mother brought the family—then, Stripe, who was not yet known by that name, and her twin older brothers—and everyone stood in awed silence as the monstrous mass, looking at first no larger or faster than a gullitch but growing by the second, swooped down under such precise control that it came to rest literally within a finger's breadth of its intended position. Before the week was out it had accepted its first starship, and by now scores had landed, maybe a hundred. The crowds that gathered to watch those early touchdowns had dwindled to a handful: beggars, guides, shills, peddlers, pitiable fools who dreamed of stowing away to another world ...
And, of course, protesters. Inevitably, protesters.
Dropping from the highslider before it reached its official halt at the port perimeter, risking bruises or a sprained ankle but in too much of a hurry to care, Stripe caught sight of another group of antis, not religious like the priest-led procession but political. Twenty or so strong, they were assembling near the main entrance under the watchful surveillance of armed guards, removing their clothes to demonstrate how admirably human they were, even though not a few bore scars betraying surgery. As they shared out illuminated signs with such slogans as close the sky and keep us safe and no to foreign bugs and germs, one of them, who had either inherited an unusually loud voice or had his vocal cords modified, began to harangue the few passersby. It was a warm night; soon sweat was forming little bright drops on his black elbow tufts. Stripe's were red, the color of her body pattern.
She gave him and his companions a wide berth. She had more than once been ambushed and beaten up because skin like hers didn't fit such people's concept of humanity. But she had little difficulty in evading their attention. She had been sneaking in and out of the port for two years and knew every weak spot in the perimeter defenses.
She also knew that the port staff knew them too, and why they were allowed to remain.
Smartly garbed in brown and green, with black or white turbans on their heads, the duty personnel were strolling to their posts. Their work was essentially a sinecure, for everything that mattered was attended to by machines—imported, naturally—but to preserve a shred of dignity the Trevithran government insisted on keeping up a show of control over their visitors.
What would have happened if they had actually tried to exercise it was anybody's guess.
The grid and its gear might have been imported, but the rest of the port complex had been produced locally: in other words, grown as much as built. Some people said sourly that that was to prove to off-worlders just how backward a planet they were visiting, while others argued that it made admirable sense to let living organisms do half the work rather than waste time devising machines that needed fuel and maintenance. Stripe had no opinion in the matter, though she was glad she could steal all the way to the grid in the kind of surroundings she was accustomed to. Darting barefoot from shadow to shadow, she gained the fence without being spotted. Casting a final glance around to make sure no one was looking her way, she checked that her flexibox was secure and jumped to catch a drooping frond of supplex. Swarming up it ropewise, she reached a stiffex and walked along one of its branches, the rough pads on her soles affording excellent purchase, until at a gap between two boles she reached a curtain of reddery.
Ducking through, she entered a corridor unknown to the wealthy travelers, be they tourists or merchants or preachers or whatever else, who passed through here—and, more than likely, to the agents who represented them and claimed to ensure their security. Such hidden passages riddled the port complex like runways in a greewit hill.
Faint luminance oozed from the walls at every junction. Thus guided, Stripe attained her usual vantage point, where she could peer down into the brightly lighted main arrival hall and watch the passengers debarking and up at that section of the ship whence its kitchens would discharge stores unconsumed during the voyage. Against the minuscule risk that someone might chance by before her coconspirator, Rencho, she unfolded her flexibox, leaving it in soft mode, stepped into it, and drew it up to her armpits. When she lay down along a wide flat branch, its dun color made for almost perfect camouflage.
Now she had nothing to do but wait and brood. And, as a matter of routine, suffer. The grid would utter terrible shrieks and groans as it accepted its colossal load. She might well be half-deafened in an hour's time.
She didn't like to think about the other rumored risks of being so close to it at touchdown. At least, though, she wasn't showing any sign of early cheeching.
Or none, at any rate, that she had noticed.
Far above bloomed sheets of violet lightning. The ship was leaking some of its spatial charge. Either it was poorly maintained or it had come an exceptionally long way. That did nothing to sweeten people's tempers, because it implied there would shortly be a storm. Some complained on the grounds that it was unseasonable, or because weather ought to be the prerogative of the gods, or because it would drive shoals of fish back to deep water; others, mostly those who made a profit from dealings with off-worlders, because it meant the strangers would have a less than favorable first impression of Trevithra.
And some were simply annoyed at getting wet.
Stripe didn't care whether she got soaked or not. For her, the ship's arrival promised another few weeks free of hunger, free of the need to beg, free of the risk that she might be rounded up and assigned to some noble's work gang—or service of a more personal kind, if he or she were not repelled by her red-streaked body.
If that happened, what would become of her family? Now Yin and Marla were cheeching, she was their sole support, and Donzig's. Her older brothers hadn't heard the bad news yet; blessed with genes for the adult deep-diving reflex, they had been at sea this past half year, one as a seineman aboard a taggle-fish smack and the other working on timber rafts as an underwater roper. Their pay, admittedly, was good, but it wouldn't be in hand until they returned, and during their last furlough both had hinted about starting families of their own. In that case, since there was no cure for cheeching ...
Why do I bother with that horrid Bolus and his phony "remedies"? Oh, I suppose because if I didn't I'd forever blame myself after—after ...
Sighing, she wondered what life was like on other worlds and whether people there had to endure fates even worse.
Excerpted from A Maze Of Stars by John Brunner. Copyright © 1991 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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