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Brightness Falls from the Air
By James Tiptree Jr.
Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.Copyright © 1985 James Tiptree, Jr.
All rights reserved.
NOVA MINUS 20 HOURS: All Out at Damiem
Dawn is tenderly brightening to daylight over the beautiful small world called Damiem. The sun, called here Yrrei, is not yet up, and the pearl-colored zenith shows starless; Damiem is very far out on the Galactic Rim. Only two lights inhabit the sky. One is a great, complex, emerald splendor setting toward the west; that is the Murdered Star. The other is a fiery point, hurtling down from overhead.
The landing field in the foreground is lush with wildflowers and clearly not much used.
Waiting at the edge of the field, under the streamer-tree withes, is an open electric ground-jitney, hitched to a flat freight trailer. Three Humans, a woman and two men, are in the jitney's front seat.
Their eyes are fixed on the descending ship; they do not notice the small animal quietly approaching the freight trailer. It is a handsome, velvety-purple arachnoid about a half meter in diameter; the Dameii call it Avray, meaning doom or horror. It is very rare and shy. In another instant it has disappeared into or under the trailer, as the Humans begin to speak.
"They seem to be sending down the big shuttle," says Cory Estreèl. "I wonder how many extra we'll get?"
She stretches—an elegantly formed, happy-looking woman in the bloom of midlife, with a great smile and glossy brown hair. Cory is Federation Administrator and Guardian of the Dameii and also, when necessary, keeper of the small guest hostel. Public access to Damiem is severely restricted, for grave reason.
In the driver's seat beside her, Kipruget Korso—known to all as Kip—squints up at the descending fires. He is Deputy Administrator and Dameii Guardian-Liaison, as well as Cory's mate.
Cory's brown eyes slide sideways to him, and she smiles. Kip is the handsomest man she's ever seen, a fact of which he seems quite unaware.
He's a few years younger than she, with all the ingredients of the ideal Space Force recruiting ad—big, lean frame, a tanned, aquiline face with merry gray eyes of transparent sincerity, a warm, flashing grin, and a mop of black curls. She had mistaken him for some kind of showperson when they'd first met. That was over a decade back, during the last Demob. She'd been looking for Federation service on some unpeopled planet, and so, it turned out, was Kip. She was a bit disconcerted when this glorious specimen was assigned as her deputy, until other Spacers told her of his real war record.
And then it had turned out that they'd also both been looking for somebody like each other; they'd declared a Mateship in their first year on Damiem. The end of their second Mateship had come and gone a couple of years back, but out here, a hundred light-minim from the nearest FedBase, they'd simply gone on being mated.
Looking at Kip now, Cory's smile broadens. The prospect of visitors has inspired him to dig up fresh clothes; faded explorer's whites and a vermilion neckerchief. It'll be pure murder if there're any susceptible people coming, she thinks. But she can't comment, not while wearing the shorts that show off her own well-turned legs; she'd forbidden herself to wear them before, because of poor Bram.
Waiting there in Damiem's balmy, scented air, Cory's hand steals toward her mate's. But she pulls it back, remembering the man sitting miserably on her other side, who is holding himself so rigid that the jitney-bus trembles.
Doctor Balthasar Baramji ap Bye—Baram or Bram to friends—is Senior Xenopathologist and Medical Guardian of the Dameii. He's a lithe, bronzed man some years Cory's senior, with prematurely white hair and brilliant turquoise eyes. Now he is staring up at the descending shuttle with ferocious intensity.
"You sure it's the big one, Cor?" he inquires.
"Absolutely," she assures him warmly.
Kip grunts agreement. "They retrofired about a half minim early. And that reddish tinge in the exhaust is oversize ablation shielding. We only get old rocket drives out here. Burn everything. I just hope our Dameii don't decide to move away."
"Here, take the glasses, Bram." Cory thinks it will help if he can end the uncertainty fast.
Baramji isn't suffering from any illness but only from the needs that can bedevil any vigorous male living celibate with a happily mated pair. His own mate had been killed in space years back, and for a time Damiem had helped him. But he has mended his heart again, and the enforced austerity of his life really torments him now.
She'd seen the full measure of his misery one night when Kip was on a trip to the Far Dameii. Baram approached her, red-faced and sweating with shame.
"I'm breaking the Code, Cor, I know. I know. Can you forgive me? I'm pretty sure you've never meant—but sometimes I think, or I dream—I had to be sure. Oh Cor, Cory, lovely lady—if you only knew ..."
And he'd fallen silent with his heart in his glorious eyes and his fists in his armpits like a child reminding itself not to touch.
Every friendly feeling urged her to ease him; she loved Baram as dearly as a sister could. But she could foresee the complications what would follow, the inevitable repetitions, the falseness in their group.
And worse: In a man like Baram, relief could turn to real love with frightening speed and hurt them all. In fact, she and Kip both suspect that Bram's basic trouble is not in his loins but in his heart, which he's trying to fill with friendship and the Dameii.
So she refused him, almost weeping, too. Afterward he tried to thank her.
And now they're waiting for what promises to be quite a crowd of tourists. A free woman for Baram must be up there behind those growing fires! The last time a tour came to see the Star pass, Bram hadn't been so desperate. This time, Cory guesses, a female reptile would have charm.
Gazing upward, Cory's eyes go involuntarily to the enormous green swirl of the Murdered Star, at which she always tries not to look. It isn't really a star, but the last explosion-shell around the void where the Star had been. It's still called the Star, because for decades it had showed as a starlike point of green fire, blazing almost alone in the emptiest quadrant of Damiem's Rim sky.
But it is in fact a nova-front approaching Damiem at enormous speed, enlarging as it comes. Over the past years it has swelled from a point to a jewel to this great complex of light whose fringes touch half the sky. Two other, outer nova-shells have already expanded and passed over Damiem, generating awesome auroral displays but little danger. This is the last, the innermost shell. When it rises tonight, the peak zone will be upon them—and in another night the last remnants will be past them and forever gone.
Only from Damiem can this sight be seen. By the time the shells have expanded to pass other worlds, they will be too attenuated to be detected by eye.
"Hey," says Kip, following Cor's gaze, "it's really growing fast. And it's different from last time, too. We may have a real show yet."
"I hope so," Cory says abstractedly. "So embarrassing, all those people coming so far to see a nova-shell pass—and then nothing but pretty lights."
"And a time-flurry," says Baram unexpectedly, "which I never got to experience."
"Right, you were under cover."
"With fifteen pregnant Dameii."
"Yes." She chuckles. "But they're nothing really, Bram. I told you—one merely feels sort of gluey for like a minim or two. But it's not in real time."
"What's coming now is the heart. The core," says Kip hopefully. "There has to be something."
As Cory looks up her lips tighten. That cursed illusion again. It consists of four hairline cracks racing up from the four quarters of the horizon, converging on the Star to make a very thin black cross against the sky. She is the only one who ever sees this; it does not make her happy. She blinks hard, and the illusion goes. Tomorrow it will be gone for good.
Sound is coming from the shuttle now—a growing wail punctuated by far sonic booms. It will be down in minim.
Just as Kip is about to start the motors, they see above them a small, pale, finely shaped face peering down from the high withes of the tree. Behind the head can be glimpsed enormous, half-transparent wings.
"Hello, Quiyst," Cory says gently in the liquid Damei tongue. The head nods and looks at Kip, with whom the Dameii have more rapport.
"Tell your people not to be afraid," Kip says. "These visitors are only coming for a few days to look at the Star. Like the last ones. And did you warn everyone to get under cover when it grows very bright? This is the last time it will pass, and it may drop bad stuff on us all."
"Ye-es." The exquisite child-man continues to stare dubiously from Kip to the oncoming shuttle, which is starting to suck up a roil of dust. Quiyst is old; his clear, nacreous skin is faintly lined, and the mane that merges into his wings is white. But his form and motion still breathe beauty.
"Don't worry, Quiyst," Kip tells him through the uproar. "Nobody will ever harm you again. When we go, others will come to guard you, and others after them. You know there is a big ship out there to make sure. When these new people leave, would you like to visit it?"
Quiyst looks at him enigmatically. Kip isn't sure how much Quiyst has heard or believed. The Damei withdraws his head and turns to get away from the horror of the oncoming fires and the noise that must be hurting his ears. Quiyst is brave, staying so close to a landing. Burning wings is the worst terror-symbol of the Dameii.
"Don't forget, hide your people from the sky-light!" Kip calls after him. "And tell Feanya!" But Quiyst is gone, invisibly as he'd come.
Kip kicks up the motors and they start for the field. The Moom, the huge, taciturn, pachydermatous race who run most Federation lines, are famous for arriving and departing precisely on schedule, regardless of who or what is under them. It isn't clear that they distinguish passengers from freight, save that freight doesn't need cold-sleep. Their ground operations go very fast.
With a great splash of flame and dust the shuttle settles and a ring of fire crackles out through the flowery brush. Kip drives the jitney in as fast as he dares. The flames have barely sunk to coals when the freight chute comes down, followed by the passenger-way, which ends on soil almost too hot to touch.
"Someday they're going to fry some passengers," Kip says. "I just hope our tires stand up for one more cooking."
"The Moom don't care," says Cory. "Give them that Life-Game thing and let them run the ships."
"There's more live coals. I've got to stop here or the tires will blow for sure."
Doctor Baramji's glasses have stayed on the ship through every lurch and jolt. As they stop, the passenger port swings open above the gangway, propelled by a giant gray arm. The arm withdraws, and out bounces a totally bald, red-suited man loaded with holocam gear, who races down the ramp and turns to face it. The heat of the ground disconcerts him; he backs away, making quick, complex adjustments to his cameras, while mooing hoots come from within.
"All right, kids!" he calls. "Watch it—the ground's hot."
Baramji gasps audibly. Out through the port steps a silver-blonde dream of a young girl, revealingly clad in some designer's idea of what explorers wear. One hand goes to her throat and her huge eyes widen more as she hesitantly descends the ramp.
A minim later Baramji lets out an involuntary croak. A male figure follows the girl—a handsome blue-black youngster, clad in the same idiotic suiting. He solicitously escorts her to cooler ground.
Next instant the scenario repeats itself, led this time by a slim, tan-blond boy. He moves with a curious slope-shouldered undulation and turns back to beckon imperiously. A beautiful black-haired girl, with eyes that glow violet even at this distance, hurries to him and submissively allows him to guide her rather roughly down to where the others stand. Seen closer, the boy's face has a look of sleepy, slant-eyed malevolence. The new couple is clad like the first.
"Those shoes will scorch through," Kip mutters. He raises his voice. "Here! Bring your bags over here! Come and get in!"
Baramji is sighing mournfully. "How many did you say there are, Cory?"
"Ten—Oh, wait, my audio's picking something up ... There may be more. Well, hello!"
On the gangway appears a quite young Human boy, impeccably dressed in a mini version of a man's business tunic. His head is topped by an oddly folded garrison cap sporting three gold plumes. Hearing Kip's calls, he hops off the ramp—his boots, they see, are serviceable, if ornate—and, lugging his bag, he trots over and climbs nimbly into the jitney, giving them a nod and a smile. He has an attractive smile and a manner remarkably composed for one who can't be over twelve. As soon as he settles, his head turns and he begins watching the four who disembarked before him with a look of worried concern.
Two older men are coming down now. The first is tall, heavily built, with ruddy-gray skin. Behind him limps a small tufty gray-haired gnome, clad in old-fashioned cloak and panters. They seem not to know each other. Both stare about until they locate first the Star and second the baggage chute, before they heed Kip's call.
More hootings from the port—and then another gasp from Doctor Baramji.
A heavily gilded, curtained rollbed, complete with suspended flasks, batteries, bottles, pumps, and other life-support equipment, appears on the ramp, reluctantly guided by a young Moom ship boy. Pacing beside it comes a cloud of tawny gold-sparked veiling, which reveals rather than hides a woman.
And such a woman! Small, with flawless, creamy skin, glowing black eyes that speak of antique harems, luxuriant dark curls teased into what Cory suspects is the style beyond the style, a bursting bosom above a hand-span waist, and ripe oval haunches. Her hands are tiny and heavily jeweled, and her equally tiny toes are velvet-clad. Cory judges her to be just beyond first youth. One of her small hands keeps possessive hold on the rollbed, though she is in obvious distress on the gangplank. Her sweet voice can be heard thanking the Moom; there is, of course, no reply.
Baramji's binoculars fall to the jitney floor with a thud. "There's a patient in there!" he exclaims hoarsely, vaulting out, and heads for the vision's side at a dead run.
"Woo-ee," says Kip. "I'd like to know which gods Bram prayed to."
Baram's arrival on the gangplank is greeted by a brilliant smile so compounded of relief, admiration, and seduction that they can see him all but melting into the rollbed for support. Both Korsos chuckle benignly.
"I gather the patient is no threat," Kip says. "Listen, okay with you if I risk the tires one more time to get the freight trailer closer to that rollbed? The Moom will never help us, we can't roll it through this stuff, and I have a hunch it weighs a ton."
"Green, go. Oh, look. Something's still going on," Cory says as they plow through the ring of half-live ashes. The port stays open above them, emitting sounds of Moom and Human discord.
Just as they draw up by the rollbed, a disheveled and angry-looking young blond fellow emerges onto the gangway. Behind him comes a tall, dark, narrow-shouldered man who looks to be in his thirties and is wearing a long, severe dark cloak.
Halfway down, the blond wheels around and shakes his fist at the port. "I'll sue you!" he yells. "I'll sue the line! You've ruined my life work—putting me off on some pissass planet I never heard of, when all my vouchers say Grunions Rising!" He brandishes a fistful of travel slips and jerks at his modish sports tabard, which is on crooked. "The University will sue you for this!"
There is no response from inside.
Meanwhile the cloaked man steps around the vociferator and continues on down the ramp. Though he makes no outcry, his thin lips are very compressed, and there's a glare in his close-set dark eyes. The high collar of his cloak is ornamented with parallel silver zigzags, and his boots have the same emblem on their cuffs, giving his outfit the look of an unknown uniform.
Ignoring Kip, he heads straight to the freight chute. The blond, after a confused look around, shouts, "Make sure my luggage comes off!" and goes to the chute, too.
Excerpted from Brightness Falls from the Air by James Tiptree Jr.. Copyright © 1985 James Tiptree, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Open Road Integrated Media, Inc..
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