Floating Worlds

Floating Worlds

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by Cecelia Holland

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Two thousand years into the future, runaway pollution has made the earth uninhabitable except in giant biodomes. The society is an anarchy, with disputes mediated through the Machiavellian Committee for the Revolution. Mars, Venus, and the moon support flourishing colonies of various political stripes. On the fringes of the solar system, in the gas planets, a


Two thousand years into the future, runaway pollution has made the earth uninhabitable except in giant biodomes. The society is an anarchy, with disputes mediated through the Machiavellian Committee for the Revolution. Mars, Venus, and the moon support flourishing colonies of various political stripes. On the fringes of the solar system, in the gas planets, a strange, new, violent kind of human has evolved. In this unstable system, the anarchist Paula Mendoza, an agent of the Committee, works to make peace and ultimately protect her people in a catastrophic clash of worlds that destroys the order she knows. 

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though highly skeptical of her "anarchist" government, gutsy Paula Mendoza rises from the ranks of the unemployed Earthish to become its peace negotiator in the escalating war between the Middle Planets and the Gas Planets in this latest by Cecelia Holland (The Pillar of the Sky), whom the Chicago Tribune has compared to Arthur C. Clarke and Ursula Le Guin. Paula's methods (which include sleeping with the enemy) are innovative, to say the least, and they land her in troubled waters in the startling and epic Floating Worlds. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Open Road Integrated Media LLC
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Read an Excerpt

THE EARTH. January 1852--January 1853

"These people were giants," Tony said. He waved up at the towering ruin before them. "They built on such a scale, their ideas were so absolute and universal--"

Paula said, "They were Fascists."

"You can't have everything."

She scuffed her feet over the pavement, two thousand years old, seamed with moss. She had never been good at history. Down the wide, straight street, a man in a white hat leaned back to take a snapshot of the ruins. Paula went down the steps and turned to look up at the building. On the frieze above the doors stone masks hung, labeled. She tried to make out the lettering. BRA--

"Haven't you ever been here before?" Tony said. He came up behind her, his hands in his pants pockets.

"Once. When I was little. My mother brought me. We had ice creams afterward." Why was everything so large? She shaded her eyes to see the letters. MANTE. She would have to look it up.

"What was it used for?"

"A museum. A library. Something like that."

She looked around them. Both sides of the street were lined with ruins. Opposite, a wall still stood upright, the windows worn soft and round with age.

"I don't like it," she said. "It's arrogant."

"You're very provincial."

She grunted at him. They went along the street. Her footsteps rang noisily after her off the ruined walls. The pavement was hard and her legs hurt. Other people strolled around, their heads tilted back.

On the street corner a woman sat painting at an easel. Tony went straight toward her. Paula ambled after him. Opposite the museum, green vines swallowed the last remaining wall of another building. The yellow tongues ofsweet Mary reached out to the light. She veered across the pavement and picked one flower and sucked it for the trace of honey. She would have an ice cream on the way home. Voices here traveled far, perhaps the stone carried them; she could hear people talking in the next street. She went up beside Tony.

He stood next to the painter, his face pursed. Amused, she watched him put his head this way and that to see the picture from different angles. He was really a critic, not a writer at all; he knew every pose.

"The lighting presents an interesting problem," he said.

The woman wiggled her brush in a muddy cup of water. "The domelight changes from day to day. Almost from hour to hour."

Paula looked straight up overhead. The light was diffuse. It fell in pale sheets through the height of the dome, here blue and there definitely more yellow. It was hard to realize that the ocean covered them. Tony was discussing Art with the painter. He sounded knowledgeable but Paula did not understand anything he said. She went across the street. From here she could see through the broken walls to the next row of ruins, and through them to the next, all huge, the biggest buildings she had ever seen. The people who had built this city had dominated the Earth for three centuries, by money, by force, and by guile; they had colonized Mars, reached as far as Uranus, cracked atoms and made whole cities out of polymer, and Manhattan had been the heart of that empire.

"You know a lot about art," the woman said to Tony. "Do you paint?"

He smiled at her. "I'm a writer. My name's Tony Andrea."

"Oh, really." They shook hands. She had read his first book. Paula circled behind them to look at the water color. She did not like it. Cramped onto the square paper, the buildings looked small, like broken boxes. She put her hands in her jacket pockets, raising her eyes back to the ruins.

"Are you a writer too?" the painter said.

Paula shook her head. "I'm--"

"We haven't figured out yet what Paula is," Tony said.

They walked off down the street. A thick tarry slab of the concrete had buckled up the pavement in the middle. The street ran off straight to the shining wall of the dome in the distance, bordered on either side by raised strips of poured stone. Paula stepped up onto the border.

"Why is this part higher than the other?"

Tony walked along the lower level, beside her. She could see the balding crown of his head. Maybe when he was asleep she would draw an ivy wreath on it. He said, "They drove their cars on this part, and the people on foot walked up where you are. Out of the way, see?"

"They drove their cars on the ground?" No wonder the street was so broad. "Were they horse-drawn?"

"They were a little more advanced than that, kitch."

Ahead of them the angle of the light changed. They were coming to the wall of the dome. A jagged shell of a building rose up from the street, hundreds of feet high, catching the light. She put her hand up between her eyes and the dome. "It's glass." The domelight shone green as leaves along the edges of the walls. "That's a dumb thing to make a building out of."

Tony laughed. He swung her off the border and down to the street beside him. "You really are a narrow-minded little materialist."

"Did they live here? In glass buildings?" Some fable moved elusively at the edge of her memory.

"No. They lived somewhere else and came in here during the day."

"Now tell me the truth."

"I'm sorry, kitch, that is the truth."

She stood looking up at the glass. Maybe in those days glass had been more common than it was now. Waves of stain crossed it, traces of dry dust like tracks from the time when the ruins had been under water.


"That's a different place entirely," Tony said. "That's in Aegea."

They went on to the port. The covered boat waited in the brackish water of the dock, empty. Paula went down between the benches to the back, next to the steering box. Tony sat down beside her.

"The doctor says he won't do the operation unless you sign a paper saying you know I can get you pregnant."


"I know it's ridiculous, but he's an old bastard, he says he's tired of naturalizing the men and then six months later sucking out the women."

Paula leaned on the wall of the steering box, looking in at the controls. "It's not up to him." The long handle coming from the floor was probably the brake. She was surprised that having a baby would be so complicated. The boat rocked; people crowded on board.

"Are you having dinner with me tonight?" she asked.

"I have to work," Tony said. "I've been with you all day."

He was writing a metaphysical novel, of which she had already read three drafts. He was endlessly inventive without being especially creative, which made his books easy to read. He told her how he was changing Chapter Three, where the hero murdered his wife. She wondered if he had made up the doctor's demand. Maybe he did not want a baby after all. The painter was maneuvering her easel through the door into the boat. Behind her the boatman came in and pulled up the ramp. He got into the steering box beside Paula.

"Hang on, we may bump going through the locks."

The deck shuddered under Paula's feet. She heard the rumble of an engine. She turned to the window. The rubberized walls of the lock closed around the boat and slipped with a wet slick plop past the window. The interior lights came on, making everything white. The boat rose straight up. Outside the window the ocean was lit dark green from the dome wall they were passing. So close to New York, the sea was filthy. Flakes of garbage floated around the window. There was supposed to be an ancient dump here someplace, still leaking after hundreds of years. Tony was talking to the boatman about nautical design. The water outside the boat filled slowly with sunshine. She pressed her cheek against the clammy plastic of the window. Half a mile below, the Manhattan dome glowed like a moon in the ocean.

The boat surfaced. They flew across the choppy open water. Paula sat back. The other passengers talked in low voices. Tony sat absently licking the hairs of his mustache into his mouth and biting them off. Ahead, the southern end of the New York dome reflected the late sunlight back across the water in a coppery trail. In the western sky, rank with pollution, swirling with smoke, three images of the sun sank toward the horizon. Half the sky was brilliant ruddy orange. The boat yawed in the wind off the seacoast. They sank into the water again. The boatman steered them through the underwater lock and up to the surface of the terminal pond.

Tony helped her down the ramp, steering her by one hand on her arm. They went into the terminal building and took the crowded vertical car to the roof bus stop. Dark was falling. The winking white light of an air bus was coming above the trees. Tony stood beside her, rocking back and forth on his heels.

"Write something down I can show my doctor, so he can take the plug out."

"I think you ought to go to a doctor who minds his own."

The bus settled down onto the roof. She went up the steps beside the driver. She hadn't paid for a bus ride in days; she put a dollar into the box. Tony came after her, crowding her in. The bus was full, all the side benches taken. She went down the aisle to the back.

"Do you like the name Jennie?" Tony asked.

"I like Jennifer better."

"Jennifer Mendoza sounds terrible."

She looked up at him, drawn by his earnestness. His eyes were blue, unexpected against his chocolate dark skin. Their baby would not have blue eyes.

"Andrea is a girl's name." It was a fad to name babies for their fathers.

"I've been thinking about that," he said.

The bus slowed and settled down on a rooftop, and the lights blinked on and off. "Hobold Building," the driver called. "Change for crosstown. Next stop the university."

"What if it's a boy?" Paula said.

Tony shrugged. "I have no preference in boys' names."

The bus flew off in a giddy curve. She clutched the railing to keep from falling. Out the window, beyond the fat woman on the bench, the blue night domelight shone on the surface of the lake. The bus crossed a hilly stretch of trees and lowered again. She slid between Tony and a row of knees toward the back door.

She got off the bus near the turret of the Biochemistry Building. There was an arrow-shaped sign pasted to it: Celestial Mechanics Conference. She went across the campus. Most of the university was underground. On the silo of the Technology Building was another arrow-shaped sign. She liked the phrase, "celestial mechanics." Maybe she would name the baby that. She went through the park. It was dark under the trees and she stayed in the open. An owl hooted. She stopped and waited but heard nothing more.

The top three stories of her building were above ground. She went in the front door, past the crowds of bicycles, and up to the third floor. In the circular middle room of the commune a small knot of people already waited at the big table for the dinner rice. She stopped at the videone for her messages. There were no messages. She went to her room, in the back hall, threw her bag on the unmade bed, and went next door and knocked.

"Who's there?"

She opened the door and went into a tiny, crowded room. An Chu was standing at her drawing table sketching. Paula took off her jacket, dropped it on the bed, and stretched herself out on top of it and the other woman's stacked clean sheets and towels.

"We went to Manhattan. Have you ever been there? The undersea dome."

An Chu's beaked Aztec nose was an inch from the paper. "I can't stand being under water. The job list is there on the bed."

Like Paula, An Chu was out of work. Paula sat up. She piled the clean laundry up into a single stack against the wall and found the long sheet of paper advertising jobs. Outside in the hall, someone called, "The rice is out." An Chu took the bowl and went to get their dinner. Paula toed off her shoes. She got up to see the long sleeveless dress An Chu had been drawing. The walls of the little room were papered with sketches of clothes. An Chu brought the nutty fragrance of rice into the room.

"Here's one," Paula said, sitting down on the bed again. "Swamper for an all-night bar. Prefer non-drinker."

An Chu located her cutting board and a knife and began to chop vegetables. "You drink." A piece of celery sailed into Paula's lap and she ate it.

"I could quit. What's a bramante?"

"I think it's a place in Lisbon."

"I think it's a man. I'm glad I can't type." Rows and rows of uninteresting jobs required typing. She watched An Chu pile up the green and orange vegetables at the side of the chopping block. An Chu's skin was golden, her lips full, her long eyes like jet. She swept the vegetables into the pot, where they sizzled.

"I have to get up early tomorrow," Paula said. "Make sure I wake up, will you?"


"For the oral exam. For the Committee."

"Oh, lord. You aren't still doing that?"

"It's a job. They pay better than anything else except the Martians."

"If you ask me," An Chu said, stirring the vegetables, "there's no difference between the Committee and the Martians. They're all a power train."

Paula folded the job sheet and stuck it into a crack in the wall. She sat down on the floor, ready to eat. An Chu was right about the Committee. A worldwide company, it negotiated contracts and ran diplomatic errands for the rest of the Middle Planets. She had applied out of curiosity, and the tests had become a kind of joke; they asked for some training in interplanetary law, which she did not have, and gave aptitude tests in mathematics and science, which she knew she had flunked. It was amusing to answer tongue-in-cheek to all their solemn stupid questions. The other woman spooned up rice and vegetables into a bowl, and Paula reached for it, hungry.

* * * *

The Committee for the Revolution had its New York office in a gulley between the campus and the lake. The building was one story, with three or four air cars parked on the roof. When Paula got there, the waiting room was already full of people. She crossed through the crowd, conscious of the stares, and read down the schedule on the bulletin board. Her name was third on the list for the oral exam. She could not leave to get her breakfast as she had planned. There was no place to sit. She stood by the wall next to the desk.

She had seen most of the other people at the written examinations. Nearly all were younger than she was by five or six years. They bent over their notebooks studying, or stared into space, book plugs in their ears. They took it all terribly seriously. The room was warm. She could smell her own body. She wondered why she was scheduled so early. Her stomach fluttered. It was easy to be facetious and irreverent to a piece of paper.

The inner door opened, and a tall redheaded girl came out. Behind her was a man in a white cotton pullover with NEW YORK LIBRARY stenciled on it in green. That was Michalski, the Committee secretary. Everybody in the waiting room came to attention. He said, "Carlos Sahedi?" and a boy with pimples left the couch and went in. Michalski shut the door.

The redheaded girl let out her breath in a loud shoosh. "Well, I'm glad that's over."

"What did they ask you?" Half the people waiting began to call questions. Paula crossed her arms over her breasts. Someone brought the redheaded girl a paper slip of water.

The girl drank. "Don't bother studying, it's not like that, it's why-do-you-bite-your-fingernails?"

Paula bit her fingernails. She closed her hands into fists.

"Who's on the panel?"

"Sybil Jefferson. Richard Bunker. Three or four others. I didn't recognize them all. Where did this water come from?"

The people around the water cooler moved away to let her reach the spigot. Paula sighed. She stared across the room at the split-sphere projection of the Earth on the far wall.

After a long while, Carlos Sahedi came out, Michalski behind him. "Paula Mendoza."

She went after him into the corridor. The cooler air brushed her sweating face and neck. Michalski said, "Are you thirsty? I can bring you some coffee."

"No, that's all right," she said. "Thanks." Her voice sounded scratchy. He nodded to a door on her right. Voices came through it.

"Go on in," Michalski said. He went down the corridor.

Paula stood still a moment, listening to the people inside the room argue. A woman's voice said, "Why hasn't anybody learned it?"

"Who could use it?" said a voice she thought she recognized. "They aren't exactly the likely people to have an anarchist revolution, are they?" Paula pushed the door in and entered the room.

Ranged behind a shiny table, the six members of the panel turned to face her. She shut the door and went straight up toward them, itching with nerves.

"I'm Paula Mendoza," she said.

The six faces stared blankly back at her. The fat woman in the middle was Sybil Jefferson, her cheeks powder-white. She flipped over a page in the loose-bound book before her.

"Your father was Akim Morgan, the behaviorist, wasn't he?"

"Yes," Paula said, startled.

"I met him once. He was very didactic."

"He was strong-minded," Paula said, angry. Her father was dead. "He wasn't didactic."

The slight dark man on Jefferson's right leaned forward over the table. "Why do you want to work for the Committee?"

That was Richard Bunker, and it was his voice she had recognized. "I'm not sure I do," she said.

"Sorry. I'll rephrase it. Why did you apply?"

She made herself stare straight at him. "Because the Committee has forgotten its purpose. It was formed for the sake of revolution. Now it's just a vestigial government. I wanted a chance to tell you you've failed."

The six faces did not change. Nobody seemed outraged. Bunker leaned back. He was as dark as Tony, slight and short. His hands on the table were thin-boned like a woman's. He said, "The general idea is that the Committee protects the condition of anarchy, and within the anarchy people have the freedom of their own lives. What do you think we should do--smuggle revolutionary propaganda to Mars and Venus? Form cadres? Blow up Crosby's Planet?"

"No. I--"

At the other end of the table a man called, "Under what circumstances would you advocate the use of force?"

"Be brief," someone else muttered. "Twenty-five hundred words or less."

"Force is inefficient," Paula said. A trickle of sweat ran down her side. She wished she had accepted Michalski's offer of coffee. "I'll reserve the remaining 2497 words."

"You didn't answer the question," Sybil Jefferson said. She smiled at Paula. Her eyes were china-blue.

"It's meaningless. If you'd rationalize force in one circumstance, you rationalize it all the time."

Bunker said, "I still want to know how you'd promote the revolution."

"Disband the Committee," she said. "Any time there's trouble, now, people just depend on you to negotiate it out. If you disbanded, people would have to find their own solutions."

Michalski came in with a tray. She smelled coffee. He transferred the pot to the table in front of Bunker and a plate of sugar-nuts to the table in front of Jefferson, put two stacks of cups between them, and started out. Paula said, "Michalski, could I have some too, please?"

"There's an extra cup."

The six Committee members were clustered around the coffee pot. Jefferson bit into a sugar-nut. When she talked she sprayed white frosting across the table. "The anarchy has to have some means to defend itself. The rest of the system isn't as advanced as you are."

"Nobody can take anybody else's freedom away," Paula said. The other people were going back to their chairs. She poured coffee into the remaining cup. "Not unless you give it up."

The broad breast of Jefferson's red tunic was snowy with frosting. "I suppose you know about that. You were in prison once, weren't you?"

"On Mars," Paula said. "For six months."

"What for?"

"For trying to take something out of Barsoom illegally." Barsoom was the capital of Mars.

"A camera," Jefferson said. "Did you forget about the export duty?"

"No. I didn't think the Martian government had any right to charge me for taking my own camera with me." She drank her coffee. They were watching her as if she were performing. She supposed she was. Bunker pushed his cup away across the table. He had a reputation for double-dealing; "Mitchell Wylie," Michalski had called him once, behind his back, the folk name for Machiavelli.

Someone else said, "I thought you had connections on Mars, Mendoza?"

She put the cup down on the table. They did know everything about her. "I worked for Cam Savenia, when she ran for election to the Martian Senate, but when I was arrested, she fired me."

"Cam Savenia." Bunker's head snapped up, wide-eyed. "Dr. Savenia? You worked in a Martian election?"

"I wanted to see what it was like."

"That's suspect."

"It wasn't my Planet."

"Well, well, well."

"What was it like?" asked the woman who had mentioned her connections.

"Hocus pocus," Paula said, and the other people laughed. She looked at Bunker. "Why is that a well-well-well?"

"Dr. Savenia and R.B. do not get along," Jefferson said. "You're twenty-nine, Mendoza? You've never had a full-time job before?"

"Just with Dr. Savenia, that time."

"But not on the Earth? How do you live?"

"I substitute with the university orchestra, I do a little pick-up work with the recording studios. That's all the money I need."

"What do you play?"


"Oh, really?" The old man at the end of the table tilted himself forward over his fisted hands. "Do you like Alfide? Why didn't you make a career out of that?"

"I'm not good enough. Alfide is my favorite composer. And Ibanov. And me."

"What do you know about the Styths?" Jefferson said.

She drank the rest of her coffee. Obviously they had even discovered that. "They're mutants. They live in artificial cities in the Gas Planets--Uranus and Saturn."

"We all know that much." The old woman pulled a sugar-nut apart with her hands. The edge of the table indented her fat stomach. "Don't you know anything else?"

"Well," she said, "I speak Styth."

They all moved slightly, inclining toward her, their eyes intent. Bunker said smoothly, "So we're told. You learned it in prison?"

"Yes. There were three Styths locked up in the men's unit. The warden needed somebody to teach them the Common Speech."

Jefferson ate the sugar-nut. "But instead you learned Styth. Why?"

"I couldn't very well pass up the chance. Styth is the only other language still being spoken." She stopped; that seemed enough, but they all stared at her as if they expected more. She said, "The warden was driving me crazy."

"You don't really expect us to hire you, do you?" Jefferson said.

"I'm not sure I want the job."

"Well," Bunker said, "we are offering you a job. The Interplanetary Council wants us to negotiate a truce between the Middle Planets and the Styth Empire. Unfortunately, none of us speaks any Styth."

"Oh," Paula said. "Well, get some tapes. It's not hard. Lots of little rules and things. Genders."

Jefferson was eating the last of the sugar-nuts. Paula saw why she was so fat. "Take the job, Mendoza. We don't have time to scour the system looking for an anarchist who speaks Styth."

"All right," she said. Meanwhile she would find something else.

* * * *

Tony said, "You're selling your soul."

"I don't have a soul. And if I did, they're paying me a fortune for it. Eight hundred dollars a month." That was more than he made.

"You are an inveterate materialist." He picked up a black pebble. On the grid between them, broken lines of black and white stones faced each other, shaping the space of the game. Tony's hand hovered over the board. "You can always come here and live with me." He put the black pebble down, watching her face.

"It's educational."

"Working for the Committee? Being a cop?"

Most people played Go in silence. Tony had developed the tactic of distracting conversation to the point where he could not play without talking. On the grid between them, she could close two positions with a single crucial play. Tony had to keep forcing her to play elsewhere, which he was doing. She sat back, taking a deep breath. Tony put his head forward.

"Look at what the Committee does. They leech off the anarchy. It's in their best interests that people fail. Are you going to play or not?"

She played. "Aha," he said, and with a click put a stone down on the grid, rescuing his men. "You just don't have the stamina. I'm way ahead of you, you know."

"Is wanting to win so much that you pant, a sign of materialism?"

His apartment was on the ground floor of an old stone building near the edge of the wood. The five rooms were stacked with books and manuscripts: he taught Style. They made dinner in his kitchen, arguing about the Committee, and went to bed, where he also attempted to teach.

A crash woke her up. She sat straight, the hair on her neck standing on end, and nearly fell out of the bed. They were sleeping on the porch of his apartment, and the bed sloped. Tony scrambled across her, reaching for his trousers.

They went down the hall to the bedroom, where there was a convenient window. She heard no more loud noises, but voices rose in the stairwell of the building, and someone shouted outside. Wrapped in a robe of Tony's, she climbed after him out the bedroom window to the ground.

Between his building and the wood a meadow stretched flat and open in the domelight. Several people were running across it toward the trees. By the time she and Tony reached the wood, a small crowd had gathered. The night bus was parked on the flat ground at the edge of the trees and its few passengers were standing around outside it. A little two-seated car had crashed into the top of a tree and turned over. It rested like a strange hat in the branches. Paula went forward to see and Tony caught her arm.

"It might fall."

The people around her milled about. One man was walking up and down saying, "I don't even have insurance." She looked up at the car. It was wrecked. A big branch had run through the side window and come out the top, and the front end was pushed in.

"Was anybody hurt?"

"That one doesn't look too good to me. He was the passenger."

She looked where these people were looking. A man sat under a tree, his head in his arms, a coat thrown over him, or a blanket. Paula wondered if she could do anything to help. Her feet were cold and she picked them one at a time off the ground.

"Watch out!"

Two men were pulling the air car down by ropes. The bigger man wore a jacket with NIGHT BUS SERVICE on the back in white script. The wreck slithered down out of the tree, breaking branches and scattering leaves onto the people below. Paula jumped back away from it. The car hit the ground with a crunch. Tony appeared beside her.

"The car ran into the bus's air buffer," he said. "The driver must have been drunk or something."

The car's driver was bent over the wreckage, moaning that he had no insurance. Tony and a woman bystander got into an argument about how fast the car had been going. Paula looked around for the car's passenger. He was still sitting under the tree. Someone was offering him a drink from a half-liter bottle of whiskey. He ignored it, and when the other person pushed it at him, he raised his head and shouted, "Go away!"

The busman tramped around the car, coiling a rope. "Somebody ought to come down tomorrow and prune the tree." He walked up face to face with the car driver. "Is he hurt?" He gestured toward the passenger.

"I don't know." The driver had half a papercase in his hand. He looked at it and threw it back into the wreck.

"What are you going to do?" the busman asked. "I have to leave. I have my run to finish."

Tony called, "Take him to the hospital. Take him in the bus."

The driver made a little gesture with one hand, his gaze on his passenger. "I don't have any insurance."

"I can run you by the Asclepius," the busman said. He and the driver went to the hurt man under the tree and helped him to his feet.

"Hey--that's my coat." A tall woman trotted out of the crowd and retrieved the coat wrapped around the hurt man. He walked stiffly between the other two men toward the bus. The reflector strips on the sleeves of the busman's jacket gleamed red and white. None of the other people moved to get back on the bus. The inside lights came on, shining across the grass. Through the big windows, Paula could see the lines of empty benches, the driver of the wrecked car and his passenger slumped together on the last seat. The horn tooted sharply three times. No one in the crowd paid any attention. The bus's engines hummed and the long machine rose into the air and sailed away.

On Paula's left, the tall woman folded her coat over her arm. With the rest of the crowd she moved down toward the wreck. A man climbed over the smashed front end.

"Here's a radio--I'll share it with anybody who helps me get it out."

Paula and Tony went back across the grass toward his place. She turned to look back. There was a whoop of triumph from the crowd clustered around the car. Two men dragged a seat out of the ruin.

"Vultures," Tony said.

Paula hurried on her cold feet toward the light of his hall. "What's wrong with salvage?"

"That's a euphemism. The word is theft."

"If nobody took anything, the dome would be littered with junk." She pushed the window in and slung one leg across the sill. By morning every relic of the car would be gone, even the plastic, which brought 1.5 cents a pound at the recycling plant. She and Tony went onto the porch.

* * * *

Her first meeting in the matter of the Styth Empire was in the same room where she had had her oral examination. When she let herself in, Jefferson sat at the table rummaging through a handbag like a satchel. "Mendoza," she said. "Richard is late, as you can see. How do you like your office?"

"It's terrible. The window looks right out on the gulley bank." She pulled out a chair and sat across the table from the fat old woman. "I have a terrific view of roots and yellow clay." That was not entirely true, since a spindling tree grew between the window and the bank. So far it had no leaves. She hoped it was dead. Jefferson was peeling the wrap off a roll of mint candy.

"What did you do for Dr. Savenia?"

"Speechwriting. She had two kinds of speeches, personal attacks and issues. I wrote the attacks."

Jefferson chortled. Her face was papery white and looked soft, like dough. "Were you good? And here comes Richard."

A flat papercase under one arm, Richard Bunker walked in the open door and shut it behind him. He put the case on the table. "Hello, Mendoza. Sybil." He had a windbreaker over his shoulder and he hung it on the back of the chair beside Paula. He clicked up the lid of the papercase.

"Where have you been?" Jefferson said. "You know, I do have other things to do now and then besides wait for you."

"I've been in the copying room trying to get the film transcriber to work." He dropped a thick file onto the table in front of Paula. It was more than an inch thick, held together with plastic clips. She picked it up while Bunker and Jefferson traded jibes on the state of the machines and people of the Committee.

"You can read that later," Jefferson said to her. "Dick, give her a brief, so we can get on with it."

He sat down in the chair beside Paula's, and she shut the file. Bunker said, "In the past thirty-six months there have been twenty-one reported shooting incidents between ships of the Styth Empire and ships from either the Council Fleet or the Martian Army. All these shootings have been below the asteroid Vesta. Eight have been below Mars. The Council wants us--" his voice rose to a singsong, "to negotiate a truce and any other permanent or semi-permanent arrangements necessary to maintain the peace." He was slumped down in the chair, his head against the back. "The Council never asks us to do anything possible."

"Shooting incidents," Paula said. She had heard nothing about any shootings. "Is it serious?"

They both laughed, humorless, and she heard how stupid she had sounded. Jefferson put a candy into her mouth. "More serious is that we can't seem to reach the Styths."

"They keep to themselves," Paula said. Most of the mutant race lived in Uranus, billions of miles away.

"Not any more," Bunker said. "Do you have any idea why they might be coming here now?"

She shook her head. The Styths had always seemed in a different Universe from the Middle Planets, living in their floating cities far from the Sun. Bunker said, "Do you know what an Akellar is?"

"The chief officer of a Styth city. They have a central council called the rAkellaron. That's just the plural of Akellar."

"Yes. We've been trying to make contact with the Prima Akellar, a man named Machou."

"Machou," she said. "The Vribulo Akellar."

"You've heard of him."

"One of my teachers was from Vribulo. Machou's city. If it's the same Machou." She frowned, trying to remember everything the three Styth prisoners had said. "Has anybody been killed?"

Jefferson fingered the roll of candy. "Yes, about twenty Martians that they're admitting. We don't know about Styths. We don't even know if all this action constitutes a systematic policy by the Styths or just random piracy. You said one of your Styths was from Vribulo. What about the others?"

"They were both from Saturn-Keda. The chief city of Saturn." Saturn-Keda was usually the closest Styth city to the Middle Planets. She reached for the thick file and thumbed down the pages. "What's in this? What do you know about them?"

"Nothing immediately useful," Bunker said. "Nothing at all."

"The Saturn Akellar was the Prima Akellar before Machou," Paula said. "Apparently a very ... a great man. He built six or seven new cities and reformed the fleet. Cleaned up the laws. Outlawed infant marriage, that kind of thing. Kind of a liberal. For a Styth."

"Infant marriage," Bunker said, in a titillated voice.

"Don't you know who the rAkellaron are?"

Jefferson shrugged. "A few names. Did you keep notes from your prison meetings?"

"The warden took all my notebooks. Maybe there are some Styths still in the joint."

Jefferson fed herself another candy. Her cheeks sucked in around it. "I checked when we found out about your episode. The Martians very efficiently executed them all. What was the name of this paragon?"

"The Saturn Akellar? Melleno. I don't know if he's still in the rAkellaron."

"Can we reach him?" Bunker said.

"I'll try," Paula said.

* * * *

Her new office was a bare white box with a desk and chair, another chair, and a file. The window let in no direct sunlight because of the high wall of the gulch just outside. She had already decided not to put anything on the walls since she was keeping this job only until she found other work. She sat down beside the desk and opened the file on the Styths, but before she had read more than a paragraph, two men came into the office.

"We have a case for you," the shorter of the two said.

Paula shut the file. She looked from one man to the other. "Yes, what?" Immediately she disliked them: they were smiling. She opened the deep drawer in her desk and stuffed the file in on top of a pile of multicolored forms.

The shorter man sat down. He wore a brown sweater with the initial R in red on the right breast. "We live in a building in the south dome that's owned by a Mister Roches, and we want something done about it."

"We've been writing him letters of complaint for a year," the other man said. "Without even the grace of a reply."

The man in the chair crossed one leg over the other. Carefully he straightened his trousers. "We aren't the only ones who are complaining. The place is infested with mice, it smells of mildew, the verticals are usually broken, none of our flats has been painted or refloored in more than two years, and the old fellow is a dreadful gossip. The piping is absolutely antique, you can't get an air filter installed--"

She put her elbows on the desk. "What do you want me to do?"

Their faces slid down out of their smiles. Intense, she leaned forward, looking from one to the other. "Why the hell do you come in here with something like this? You're supposed to be anarchists. You're supposed to take care of yourselves. If you don't like it, move. If nobody likes it, get everybody to move, open the gas cocks and throw in a match. Get away from me."

The shorter man popped up out of his chair. "You're supposed to be here to help people."

"If you need help for something like that, go someplace where there's a government. Like Mars." She yanked the drawer open and put the Styth file on the desk in front of her.

"No wonder everybody hates the Committee." The taller man rushed to the desk. She ignored him, pretending to read. He and his friend strode out of the office.

She leaned back in her chair, pleased. Outside the window the sunlight was at last reaching the ground, where a green sprinkling of grass grew near the tree. In places the claybank was yellow as lemons, in places orange. She sat thinking of the Styths in the Martian prison. The man from Vribulo had been waiting to be gassed for murder. Lonely and angry and homesick and frightened, he had shouted at her and tried to attack her and talked, when she had finally begun to understand him, talked in a desperate flood. That had been five years ago. She had not thought of him in a long while. She had liked him and his death had hurt; she had made herself go to witness it. She turned over the first page of the file.

* * * *

Overwood's Import Shop was in the Old Town of Los Angeles, between an optometrist's and an astrologer's. When Paula went in, a bell rang in the back of the store. It was so dark she ran into an air fern hanging from the ceiling in a bucket. The air smelled of marijuana. At the back of the shop a little man in an apron leaned on a counter.

"Help you?"

"Are you Thomas Overwood?"

"That's right, honey. Call me Tom."

She went up to the counter. "I understand you deal in crystal."

His round face settled. "Call me Mr. Overwood."

"I'm from the Committee."

"Oh." He reached his hand out to her, smiling again. "Whyn't you say so? Sure, I traffic in crystal. But it'll cost you."

"Where does it come from?"

"Uranus. Farmed in the White Side." Overwood ducked down behind the counter and brought up a stack of black and white holographs. "One thousand dollars the ounce."

She lifted off the top photograph. Against the black background the crystal polyhedron looked like a jewel. Overwood tapped the photograph.

"That's Relleno. There are five grades, all I deal in are the premier grades, Relleno and Ebelos. Sixteen O-Z's of Ebelos would power the whole California dome for six months."

Paula leafed through the photographs. "I don't believe you."

Overwood muttered something.

"How do you get it?" she said.

"Oh, now--"

She put the holographs down. "We have a message for someone in the Styth Empire. Can you arrange to deliver it?"

His wide eyebrows rose. "I see. That will cost you, too."

"Can you guarantee?"

"Who do you want to reach?"

"Melleno. The Saturn Akellar."

Overwood leaned his forearm on the counter. "Maybe."

"For a maybe, you'd better not ask much."

He gathered up the photographs and put them away under the counter. Even here on the Earth, where there were no laws and no police, he was cautious. She wondered who his enemies were. Maybe other smugglers. He said, "My connection can get into Saturn-Keda."

The doorbell jangled. She turned to watch a woman with a white dog cross the dark shop. Overwood went from behind the counter.

"Help you?"

"I'm looking at your splendid glassware."

Paula strolled around the display cases along the wall. They showed rows of incense jars, plates, figures of animals. Amulets and books on Zen. She admired an old ivory and ebony chess set. On the wall above it was a corkboard, with bits of paper pinned to it.

Commune share 25/mo. Drugs check, one kid check.

Overwood sprayed foam around a dish of Venusian glass. While the casing dried, he took the woman's money and gave her change. She tucked her white dog under one arm and the foam case under the other. The bell rang her out.

"Cost you fifteen hundred dollars to send a message to Saturn-Keda," Overwood said. "In advance."

Paula glanced at him over her shoulder. "For a maybe?"

"For certain. He'll deliver."

"One thousand. When we know it's delivered."

"No chance. My connection is a busy man."

"I don't doubt it. Where does he go? Does he go to Uranus?"

"Vribulo. Matuko. Flying around in a Gas Planet isn't something I'd do, for instance. These spacemen are crazy." Overwood took a tray out of the counter. "Direct from Saturn." With a little flourish he turned back the lid. "Genuine reproductions."

There were five big medals inside the box. Paula lifted one out by the chain. "What are they?"

"When a Styth warrior goes into military orders, you see, he wears a medal with his sign, here." He pointed at the design cut into the medal's face. "That's the Fish. They're very superstitious people."

She reached for another. "What's this one mean?"


"Twelve hundred. Seven in advance, five when we know it's delivered."

"Now, my connection is a busy man."

"So are we."

He pursed his lips. "For the Committee." He offered his wide hand, and Paula shook it.

* * * *

The SoCal dome reached out to the deep water. The surf was too dirty to swim in. She walked along the beach, watching the waves break sluggishly over, brown with dirt. Garbage encrusted the sand. The filth lowered her mood, or maybe she had come here because her mood was already low and needed celebration.

The poet Fuldah had thought that all societies contained a finite number of persona, and the people left over from this cast could only wander around outside making trouble. She felt herself being forced into a role. Her life was closing in on her. She hated the Committee job, even the Styth case bored her, but it paid well and she kept putting off quitting because she liked the money. Tony would make her pregnant which would determine the next eighteen or twenty years while she raised her child. She felt as if her life were over.

The beach was studded with black rocks. Ahead, the brown cliffs rose, cut with gulleys. The edge of the water was strewn with purple and white jellyfish. A sea carrot, alive with flies, lay rotting along the high-tide line. She swerved away from its stink toward the cliffs, took her clothes off, and sat on a warm rock.

In spite of her restlessness she could not think of anything to do. Free as a bird, her father would have said. Free to do what every other bird did. She picked at the white scale on the rock. Out past the surf, the dome wall shone in the sunlight. It was not solid: ionized gas, held by a magnetic field, because of the earthquakes. Two boys came down the beach looking for rocks. She waved; they waved. After a while she put her clothes on and went back to the rooming house to eat.

Bunker was coming in on the underground train; at ten in the evening she went to meet him. He came across the platform toward her, putting on his sweater. "I thought it never got cold here." Paula turned to walk beside him. They climbed the stairs to the ground level. She handed him an envelope.

"That's the message to Melleno."

They went out of the tube station and the cold wind struck her in the face. The paper flapped in Bunker's hands. He turned to shelter it. Although the night had fallen long since, the domelight was bright enough to read by. Paula looked up at the hills. The wind was roaring out of the canyon behind them. The SoCal dome was huge; they were proud of their winds.

Bunker nodded. "I hope he can read it." He gave her back the paper and they walked along the flat desert, their backs to the wind. The tall palm trees that marked the path milled their broad leaves like arms. "Do you suppose anybody there speaks the Common Speech?"

Paula shrugged. "Overwood does business with them. Overwood thinks crystal is some kind of super-battery."

"I take it from your tone of voice that that shows his ignorance."

"It's not a battery. A transformer, sort of. Maybe."

The path took them in toward the flank of the steep hills, where the houses clustered like a colony of barnacles above the bare dusty desert floor. A bike was wheeling toward her and she moved out of the way. They went up a steep path into the Old Town. The wind had blown weeds and leaves up against Overwood's door. It was locked and the shop was dark. Paula stood looking in the window. Bunker turned.

"He must live around here somewhere."

"I called him," Paula said. "He said if he wasn't at the shop, he'd be in the bar." She pointed down the street. Two men were just going in a bright doorway. "I'll bet that's it."

As they went through the doorway a bell clanged. There were three tiltball machines against the far wall, half-hidden behind a crowd of players. The room smelled of beer. Overwood was sitting in a booth in the back, behind a potted jacaranda tree, his hands laced over his little round stomach. Paula went up to him.

"Hello, there," he said. "Have a seat. I'll sit you a drink."

Bunker shook his hand. "My name's Richard Butler."

"Whatever you say. Thomas Overwood here."

Another chorus of bells rang out behind her. She slid between the jacaranda and the wall into the booth across from Overwood and held out the envelope to him. "For the Saturn Akellar."

"Seven hundred dollars," Overwood said.

Bunker pulled a chair around to the end of the table between them. He took a wallet out of his hip pocket and sat down. A waiter brought them a pitcher of beer and glasses. Bunker counted out money into a stack before him: fourteen fifty-dollar bills. The fifteenth he gave to her. "Sign that."

It was an expense chit. She signed it.

"How long will this take?" Bunker said.

"Maybe four months." Overwood put the money in one pocket and the message in another. "Maybe less. That's a long way away, that." The waiter poured the bright beer. "What's the Committee's interest in Styth?"

Paula reached for a glass. "Who supplies you with crystal?"

Overwood smiled at her. "Now, now."

Bunker pushed the money over to him. "We want information. The Committee's favorite food. We need good sources of information, first-generation, on the politics of the rAkellaron."

"That's funny." Overwood laughed; his bushy eyebrows went up and down. The laughter rumbled on steadily, like a motor. "That's very funny. I've been told they'll buy information about the Earth."

Paula put her elbows on the table. "I'll send you a price list."

"What have you told them?" Bunker asked.

"All they're interested in is military stuff."

"They don't know much about the Earth," Paula said.

"Our interests are a little broader," Bunker said.

"I can't help you." Overwood nodded at her. "I don't know anything about Styths. Ask her, she stepped on me twice today, trying to fake it. Venusian glass, maybe, or chess, or smuggling, but Styths--" He spread his hands.

"Do you buy the crystal directly from them?" Bunker said.

Overwood shrugged elaborately, smiling, his eyebrows arched. "I can't talk about that."

"We'll pay."


Paula watched Bunker's face. There were deep creases marking the corners of his mouth, but otherwise he looked bored. She lifted her glass. The tiltballs bells rang like a carousel. Lights flashed.

"If I hear anything," Overwood said, "I'll let you know."

"Call me." Paula wrote down her name and extension number for him. With Bunker she left the bar.

They went to the end of the street, where the ground pitched off sheer to the desert below, and stood in the shadows of the trees. From this height she could see the even furrows of the cropfields on the desert below. Two circles of lights burned on the dark flat land. Bunker was looking back down the street toward Overwood's shop.

"Come on." He went at a swinging walk across the street. Paula followed.

"Where are you going?"

He led her down the alley between Overwood's shop and the astrologer's. When she came up beside him he was trying to open the back window.

"Do you have a knife?"

"No. I'll go keep Overwood busy." She went down the alley to the street again.

Even from here she heard the jangle of the tiltball bells in the bar. Two women walked unsteadily out of the bar and went off down the hill, their arms around each other. Paula strolled back to the doorway of the bar. The domelight drove her shadow to a puddle around her feet.

Overwood was standing up beside his booth, paying the waiter. She crossed the crowded room toward him. "Overwood."

He looked up, his hands full of money. She went around beside him. "I want to talk to you."

"Oh? Where's the other fellow?"

"That's what I want to talk to you about. Let me buy you a beer."

Overwood let her buy him a beer, two beers, and a third. She impressed him with the necessity of dealing with her and not Bunker, even though Bunker had the money, asked him if anybody in Saturn-Keda could read the Common Speech, and finally talked him into going out with her to show her the fastest way down the hillside. He took her to the end of the street, right past his shop, and pointed out three different trails, white as thread down the slope, among the aloes and manzanita.

"You'd better be careful. If you fall and hurt yourself, you could lie there all night." He beamed at her. "To say nothing of the coyotes."

"I like dogs." Over his shoulder she saw Bunker coming down the alley by his shop.

He let out a rumbling laugh. "You wouldn't like a coyote."

She was looking out across the vast dome. The bracelets of lights on the desert floor held her gaze. "What are they doing down there?" She pointed. Each of the circles seemed to be made of a dozen little fires.

"Trance circles," he said. "They sit around and chant and watch the fires and throw themselves into trances. Kids, bums, people like that."

"Why don't they just take drugs?"

"That's too easy."

"Well," she said, "maybe I'll try it. Thanks." She started down the nearest of the paths he had shown her.

The hill was steep. She was inching across a narrows, her clothes snagged on the brush, when Bunker caught up with her.

"What did you find?"

"Nothing," he said.

She glanced at him over her shoulder. He was watching his feet on the thin trail. The hillside was studded with spiky plants. Ahead the trail widened, tame.

"Nothing at all? I don't believe you."

"He's smart. Nothing's written down."

"I don't believe you."

"Frankly, junior, I don't give a damn."

"Why do you call me that?"

Beside her, his hands in his pockets, he smiled at her. "You don't like it, do you?"


"Junior," he said, "you have a lot to learn." He went off ahead of her down the trail. Burning, she stood still and let him walk up a good lead before she started off again.

* * * *

Paula took the midnight train to New York. Walking up the aisle of the car, she saw Bunker sitting next to the window on a forward bench. After a moment she put her bag on the rack over his head and sat down opposite him. He had a book plug in his ear; he ignored her. She stretched her legs out before her. The train was almost empty. The lights flashed on and off, and the bench under her jerked forward. She braced herself. The train bounded forward, stopped cold, and started up again. They rolled off into the dark.

The windowless walls of the car were covered with graffiti. Gaining speed, the train swayed from side to side. She rocked with it, sleepy. Los Angeles was two and a half hours from New York; it would be nearly dawn when she reached her home. On the bench across from her, Bunker sat with the tape purring in his ear. He was spare and lean, even his kinky hair close to his head. He could have been forty, or fifty, or her age. She knew he was older than she was.

"The Styths don't know much about us, either," she said.

"Not if they want to know about our military."

The train sailed wide around a curve. She flung her arm across the back of the seat. He was staring at the wall. Obviously he would say no more than he had to. She aimed her eyes at the figure-covered wall.

* * * *

Her flute was gone. She kept it under her bed. Nothing else in her disordered room had been touched, so she knew as if he had signed his name who had taken it. She went next door to An Chu's room.

"Shaky John has crooked my flute again."

An Chu looked up. "Are you sure it was him?"

"I will be." She tipped up the lid to the other woman's sewing box. An Chu kept her sequins and sparkles in little plastine bags. Paula shook one empty.

"You shouldn't accuse people when you aren't sure."

"Hunh." She took the little bag and went across the common room to the kitchen.

Three people stood at the sink, singing an obscene round and washing dishes. Water puddled the floor. She opened the cupboard over the stove and filled up the plastine bag with baking soda. The boisterous singing followed her out again. She went down the other hall to the third door on the left and knocked.

"Go away."

She tried the latch. The door was locked. John's plaintive voice called, "Go away." She felt in her pockets, found her pay envelope, slid the edge through the seam in the door and lifted the hook on the inside.


She went into a dark, stinking room. The floor was caked with rotting food. The mattress against the far wall smelled of piss and mildew. John sat huddled on it, his arms crooked up to his chest.

"Why you coming in here?"

"Why you stealing my flute? Where is it?"

He was trembling. He curled up on the mattress. "Let me alone."

Paula crouched before him. At her feet was an apple core fuzzy with mold. She kicked it away. She took the plastine bag out of her jacket pocket and waved it at him. He straightened slowly out of his curl. His face was broken out and his nose dripped. He scratched around in his crotch, his eyes on the bag.

"Where is it?" she said.

"Don't have it. You can look. Let me--" He reached for the bag. She drew back, holding it in the air above her head.

"Where is it?"

"Don't have it. Pi-please, Paula. I'm sick. Look how sick I am." He held his shaking hands out. "You can't be mad at me, Paula."

"Where's my flute?"

"Sold it. I sold it. Don't have it any more."

She clenched her teeth. "Who bought it?"

"I'm sick." His fingers dug into his armpits, his hair. His clothes stuck to him. "I'm real sick."

"John! Who bought my flute?"

"B-Barrian. Barrian."

"How much?"


She shook her head. He was playing sick, mostly; if he whined enough, people gave him money to score just to be rid of him. There were several running bets in the commune on how long it would take him to die. She said, "John, how much?"

"Forty dollars."

She muttered, "Forty dollars." Of course he had none left. She threw the plastine bag down on the stinking mattress. He lunged for it.

"John, if you do this to me once more, I'll make your life miserable. Even more miserable. You hear me?"

He was scrambling around, looking for his works. "Sure, Paula. You're a good girl." With his shaking hands he lit a candle to cook the soda he thought was morphion. She went out.

* * * *

Barrian's was a music store in the underground mall south of the campus. She stood looking at a violin in a glass case while the shopman talked to another customer. The violin's body was burnished to a chestnut glow. A small sign identified it by a Latin name and the date A.D. 1778. It was nearly four thousand years old. She went up to the counter.

"A loadie came in here over the weekend and sold you an ebony flute."

The shopman had white hairs growing out of his ears and nose. "That's right," he said. "And a beauty it is, too."

"It's mine."

"Not any more." He tapped the glass counter. She looked down. On the velvet-covered shelf, her flute lay in its open box. A small sign on it gave it a Latin name, an age of fifty years, and a price of six hundred dollars.

She said, "If you look under the lip with a magnifying glass, you'll find my name. Paula Mendoza."

"We bought it in good faith."

"For forty dollars."

The shopman smiled at her. "Of course, if you pay our price--"

"I'll give you back the forty dollars."


She drew in a deep breath. Paying out forty dollars would reduce her to eating rice for the next week, until she was paid again. Six hundred was impossible. She tapped her fingers on the counter.

"I want my flute."

"I can see that. The price is six hundred dollars."

"I work for the Committee."

"I'm very happy for you."

"Give it back, or I'll go through our files and find something on you."

"You'll be looking a long time, we're honest."

She went off around the shop. On the wall, in plastic clips, hung swatches of paper music. She could try to steal the flute, but the shop, being underground, was tight against thieves, and the glass case was probably locked. She could borrow the money. Save it over weeks. Maybe Tony would loan it to her. A fat boy with frizzy blond hair down to his waist came into the shop, a guitar over his shoulder.

"Wait." She intercepted him. "Please let me talk to you a minute."

The boy swung the ax down between them, "Sure."

"Please don't buy anything here. A junkie stole my flute and sold it to them for a ridiculous low price and they won't sell it back to me."

The boy's blue eyes looked past her. The shoulder of his shirt was ripped. He swayed the guitar gently against his knees. Finally, he said, "Check," and left.

The shopman came around the counter at top speed. "You can't do that."

She showed him her teeth. "Watch me."

"Get out."

She went out the door, into the dark subway walk, and loitered under the red sign marking the shop. A man in a plaid shirt started in; she talked to him, but he went in anyway. For half an hour she walked up and down before the door, until the shop closed.

The next day she called Michalski at the office and told him where she would be, and she sat down in front of Barrian's and told everybody who would listen that the shop was stealing her flute in collusion with a junkie. Most people ignored her. Some argued. A few turned away. Barrian's people tried to chase her off. An Chu brought her lunch. The day following, when she called the Committee, Michalski said she had been given a week's unpaid leave. She took a chair to Barrian's. A man from the hourlies came and interviewed her. Every half hour the shopman from Barrian's threw buckets of water on her. She talked to everybody who went into the store. Two out of three did business there anyway.

Tony was unsympathetic. "You shouldn't own something you can't afford to lose. You're a hostage to your possessions. Property is theft."

Shaky John was still angry with her for burning him, but she gave him five dollars, and he sat in front of Barrian's for a day and fired himself up, hour after hour, with morphion, aspirin, barbiturate, horse-downer, distilled water, plastic blood, and milk. Without even talking he turned more people away from Barrian's in one hour than she had in four days. That evening, the shop sold her back her flute for fifty dollars.

* * * *

The little tree outside her window put forth pink flowers. Michalski told her it was a dogwood. She spent hours in her office watching the progress of its bloom.

She had dinner with Tony and they went to a reading of Aeschylus at the university. Tony insisted on leaving at the intermission because the translation was so bad. They sat in a booth in the campus bar and he explained to her that the heart of Greek tragedy was ritual appeasement and no anarchist could ever fathom that because ritual was meaningless to anarchists.

"How can you say that?" she said. "You can understand something without committing yourself to it, can't you?"

"Only in the head, Paula. Not in the gut." He folded his napkin into quarters. He had already lined up the sauceboats, both their glasses, and the salt and pepper dishes and match-lighter. "You miss the whole absoluteness of the thing. The whole sense that there is nothing else. The self-punishing aspect of nonconformity."

Paula set her chin in her hand. She wondered if Tony ever enjoyed anything. It occurred to her that she had heard all this before from him, that he had already told her everything he would ever say to her. She got up and went through the dark barroom toward the door.

She cut across the park toward the round house of the Biochemistry Building. When he shouted at her, behind her, she stretched her stride. She thrust her hands deep into her jacket pockets. The domelight silvered the grass. Tony galloped up beside her.

"I'm sorry." His arm slid around her waist. "Maybe you're pregnant and that's why you're so sensitive lately."

"I'm not pregnant."

They walked down a slope through the birch trees. A deer bolted away from them. She heard low voices in the dark bushes ahead of them and swerved off to avoid the people there.

"Tony," she said. "Good-bye."


He stopped, and she turned to face him; she could not see him in the dark, but she knew how he looked, she knew him fa r too well. She said, "Good-bye, Tony," and went away through the trees.

* * * *

The open room of her commune was dark. She stepped across a man asleep on the floor to reach the videone and took a slip of paper out of her box. She stuffed it into her pocket and went down the hall to An Chu's room. The girl was a long still shape under her bedclothes.

Paula sank down on the narrow bed in the darkness. "Wake up." She shook her by the shoulder. "I just broke with Tony."

An Chu murmured, still half-asleep, wrapped in blankets, warm against Paula's hip. In the quiet Paula could hear water dripping in the bath across the hall. Tony would take her back, if she asked him. But she did not want him. She would end up like her mother and father, alone all her life.


"I'll talk to you in the morning." She went next door, to her room, turned on the light, and remembered the message.

"Paula Mendoza," it read. "Meeting room tomorrow at 10:30. Melleno has answered. RB."

* * * *

When she went into the Committee office, half a dozen people were packed around the videone in the corner. She stopped to see what they were looking at.

The screen was off; the newsband was on. "--Damage estimated in the millions. Thus far the reports list no dead and thirteen injured, with eighty-seven missing. Both attacking Styth ships escaped apparently without damage. Repeating the lead line: the Martian-ruled asteroid Vesta has sustained a space-to-surface attack by Styth ships. This is a--"

She went down the corridor to the meeting room in the L. She was early. Only Michalski was there, sorting mail into stacks. Rubbing her sweating palms together, she went around the book-covered room.

"What's the message?"

"Bunker has it. He was on night duty when it came in." Michalski shook the papers before him into neat piles. "I don't know anything, I just work here."

"Have you heard any jabber about the raid on Vesta?" She took off her jacket and dropped it across a chair. "There m

Meet the Author

Cecelia Holland was born in Henderson, Nevada, in 1943 and started writing at the age of twelve. Starting with The Firedrake in 1966, she has published twenty-one independent historical novels covering periods from the middle of the first millennium CE up through parts of the early twentieth century, and from Egypt, through Russia, central Europe, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Ireland to the West Coast of the United States. Most recently, she has completed a series of five novels set in the world of the Vikings, covering a period of about fifty years during the tenth century and following the adventures of Corban Loosestrife and his descendants. The hallmark of her style is a vivid re-creation of time, place, and character, all true to known facts. She is highly regarded for her attention to detail, her insight into the characters she has researched and portrayed, and her battle scenes, which are vividly rendered and powerfully described. Holland has also published two nonfiction historical/biographic works, two children’s novels, a contemporary novel, and a science fiction novel, as well as a number of historical essays.

 Holland has three daughters. She lives in Fortuna, California, and, once a week, teaches a class in creative writing at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California. Holland's personal website is www.thefiredrake.com.

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Floating Worlds 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 10 months ago
JOE AND I!!!!! You said 'me and joe.' Not okay. Sorry, my English teacher's really big on this. The story however was great!