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"Barnes plans two more novels in the Thousand Cultures universe of this book. If they are as good as the first three, rejoice."-Booklist
"Engrossing!" -Orlando Sentinel
So I Rode This Way
On Söderblom, there is almost never a still puddle, however small, because waves form so easily in the low gravity. That, and the never-ceasing winds, make the sea restless beyond any other in human space.
The waves are big and slow. It makes some people ill to watch. Me, I thought the waves were soothing.
The bright light of two of Söderblom’s moons, both high overhead, and the scattered light from the warm sea, erased all but the brightest stars. I could have read by that light, easily. I could have sat there all night, comfortably—sand, air, and water were all at room temperature, and in low gravity, buttocks don’t tire from sitting in the sand. I could have undressed and walked into the sea for a swim, unashamedly. In Hedonia, nobody would have cared, or noticed. I could do almost anything here.
I sat on the low rise, looking across the silver-gray beach at the big black waves. They marched onto the shore like a slow procession of idiotic monsters.
Self-pity is an unattractive emotion that leads to unfortunate behavior. It can cause me to drink heavily, pick quarrels, go to bed with the first willing partner, or sit on a beach feeling sorry for myself.
It was the night after the afternoon of my divorce. Like most divorces, it had been overdue, and had involved betrayals of trust, not all of them by the married people. Shan—my friend, boss, nearly a second father—had not only known of Margaret’s affair; he had ordered her to continue it, because the Office of Special Projects had been gathering intelligence on her lover.
And it had all been for nothing. Despite dozens of OSP operations, Briand had been the first world ever totally lost to the rest of humanity. If anyone was still alive there, it would be decades before we could contact them.
Set against the total loss of a planet, Shan’s failure as a friend didn’t look so big.
Well. I wouldn’t be seeing Shan for a while, anyway. I was on a stanyear’s paid leave. Margaret and I had come to Hedonia, here on Söderblom in the Eta Cassiopeia system, to try to heal our marriage. We had struggled along for about forty unpleasant days, some promising, most not, until the day just past, when, still sullen and angry at breakfast, we had talked idly about what we might do that day, taken a walk on the beach, stopped for lunch … and at lunchtime, Margaret had said, emphatically, that she was now sure nothing could be worked out. “It’s just time, high time, so let’s get it over with, Giraut.”
We agreed that I would stay on in the house we were renting, and arranged a room in a hotel for Margaret. After tonight, she’d be springing back to Caledony to visit her family for a while.
We hired an adjudicator to divide the common property, which took him something like ten minutes—like any people who value convenience, Hedons take care of their bureaucrats and reward efficiency. The adjudicator’s settlement gave the common property to whoever bid the highest for it and the cross-compensations came out about even. We hooked up to a brain reader to prove we weren’t crazy or lying. Then we signed the papers and shook hands. One hour after lunch, it was all done.
If I didn’t go near Margaret’s hotel till sometime tomorrow afternoon, I could avoid running into her. It was cowardly, but at the moment I wasn’t worrying about fine points of gratz and enseingnamen.
With two nearly-full moons overhead, and the other one close to new, the tide was unusually high. Each wave seemed to lay up onto the beach, then drag itself down, in a swirl of rasping white noise.
This might be a good place to bring a woman for a long conversation about life and art and meaning, perhaps with a bottle of Hedon Gore, the local deep-red wine. I was slightly, distantly pleased that I was thinking of bringing a woman here. Perhaps my first sign of life?
I watched more waves. The two moons sailed farther down the slate night sky, toward the sea in the west, leaving a belt of blackness, jeweled by the few visible stars, along the tops of the trees that lined the eastern horizon behind me.
My com chimed. I pulled it out of my pocket. “Yes.”
“Giraut, this is Paxa Prytanis. Piranesi and I ran into Margaret, and she told us the news. We were wondering how you’re feeling and if you’d like to come by our place in the next few days for a Service of Consolation.”
The Service of Consolation is the Hedon tradition of marking the end of a relationship with a quiet evening in which the friends of the grieving person feed him a good meal and fuck him silly. I had heard that, normally, Hedons only did a Service of Consolation for a close friend, and we’d really only known each other since the Briand mission. But maybe because Piranesi Alcott and Paxa Prytanis were married OSP agents, they understood and wanted to help. Or maybe the Hedon definition of close friends was as elastic as their concept of marriage, which specifically disavowed monogamy.
I had been not-answering for a long time. “Uh, it’s just that it’s terribly soon for me to think about it, but it’s a very kind offer, and I’ll call you back in a day or two.”
“Don’t fret about it too much. Just accept. There’s no sense being primitive and feeling bad for one second more than you need to.”
“Primitive” is a dirty word to Hedons. They sometimes say it where I’d say “moral,” sometimes where I’d say “self-defeating.” To them, all three concepts are the same.
“Well, then, I accept. I think I might like it very much.”
“We’ll do our best to make sure you like it very much.” She didn’t purr it seductively, as a woman might anywhere else. Being Hedon, she used the same tone she’d have used to assure me that she had a good recipe for duck a l’orange, or that the guest room bed was comfortable.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, “really. And it made me feel much better that you called. We’ll get together for something or other within a few days. Que merce, que gratz.”
She laughed merrily. “I already invited you to a Service of Consolation,” she said. “You don’t need to seduce us with your sensual language. Though I suppose any Occitan is incorrigible, about his language and about seduction.”
“That’s what makes us Occitan,” I agreed. “Thank you, again, for calling.”
Then Piranesi got on the com, and I had much the same conversation with him that I’d had with his wife, perhaps with somewhat less sexual undertone. After I hung up I noticed I really was feeling better. I walked along the beach in the double moonlight—so bright I could see colors—casually looking for mimic-seals, the Hedon contribution to engineered wild species. They’re highly intelligent perpetual pups, bright as chimps, madly playful, and genetically wired to be very affectionate to people. I thought I might enjoy throwing a stick for one, but none turned up.
Not long before dawn, I climbed a dune and sat looking out over the deep-green salt marsh to the east, with the sea at my back, to watch Eta Cassiopeia rise.
If I wanted, I could stay in Hedonia forever, drifting from one meaningless amusement to another. I was a wealthy man, even for our wealthy age. In addition to the ordinary standard living allowance from my home culture, I had two ample pensions: I had put in something more than twelve stanyears’ service with the Council of Humanity, as an artistic affairs diplomatic specialist, which had been my normal cover, and exactly the same amount of time with the office of Special Projects, my covert job for Shan.
Since the Briand disaster, the existence of the OSP was now public, and there was talk of abolishing it, publishing its records, and perhaps inflicting various punishments on its past agents, but I doubted that I had done anything that would merit more than a few minutes of neuroduced pain or fifty standays in the dullhouse. Even if the Council repudiated all of the OSP’s former obligations, my Council pension alone would still be more than I could spend.
Aside from my three regular checks, I had royalties from my music. As part of my cover in artistic affairs, I had performed and composed all over the Thousand Cultures. My composing and performing careers were still reaping the benefits of all that free travel and publicity. Many recordings and songs were still earning very nice piles of money, and if I wanted to return to it, I could probably restart my musical career, get back to composing regularly, and—after enough practice—back to performing. Even though my last few releases had sold mainly to completists and eccentrics, every new release pulled the early, popular recordings back into vogue. I might pick up a concert booking or two, or even a small tour, on my own.
I could have a perfectly nice life drifting back and forth between Hedonia and Nou Occitan, composing and touring if I wanted to, or pursuing little affairs with Hedons (who had a wonderfully rational ability to know the difference between fun and love), or just getting drunk every night.
Or I could try to collect on the promise that I had extracted from Shan, and go back to work for Shan’s organization, one of six sections of the OSP. So far as I knew, the OSP did the only interesting work in all the Thousand Cultures: by whatever means available, they held humanity together, all 1228 cultures on thirty-three extrasolar planets, minus the 102 on Addams that had yet to build a springer.
Now also minus two cultures on Briand. Two cultures out of touch with humanity for decades to come. Given the precariousness of their artificial ecology, and the deadliness of the quarrel, probably no one was alive on Briand now, but we couldn’t know for thirty stanyears, till a starship carrying a springer could reach them.
Probably half of the OSP’s field personnel had been involved in that hideous mess, and the OSP had—not without justice—ended up holding the bag for it. So perhaps the OSP would not survive the Briand scandal, or if it did, it might not survive in at all the same form.
But surely, even if the OSP were abolished, its function would still be necessary. Though the Second Renaissance had begun seventy stanyears ago in the Inner Sphere, with the springer doing what gunpowder, the printing press, and celestial navigation had done before, those of us from the outer systems had learned of it barely twenty stanyears ago, and the adjustment was still bewildering.
Seven hundred stanyears of basic research, some of it not applied in five centuries and some of it never applied at all, was pouring out of the libraries and databases, and every sort of technology was being allowed, in a continuous uproar of change unlike anything since the Industrial Age. The number and variety of new things, and things done better, by machines, aintellects, geneware, and nanos, was exploding. Humans could have more of what they wanted for less effort than ever before.
The one thing a machine couldn’t do better than a human being was to reconcile differences between human beings and bring them together—not that people were good at it, but we could sometimes do it. In promoting human unity behind the scenes, the OSP negotiated, cajoled, bribed, and threatened, as needed—defusing centuries-old ethnic hatreds, removing trade frictions, teaching tolerance through dozens of artistic and religious front groups. When we needed to, we overthrew a local tyranny, launched an artistic movement, fomented a new religion, crippled a popular movement with a scandal, or introduced a new trade good to disrupt markets, all supposedly to promote tolerance, flexibility, and xenophilia. Often we won; sometimes, we lost. On Briand, we’d had our first total loss.
Forty years of success on the average, though, was not a bad record, considering our inexhaustible, always-in-motion, and relentlessly inventive opponent: the mixture of affluence with simple human bloody-mindedness. In the twenty-ninth century, most humans had far more capability than judgement or ideas. The OSP tried to make sure that they didn’t hit on war, glorinatalism, totalitarianism, jihad, discommodi , genocide, neopredation, or any of the other social evils that make life impossible to keep it from being boring.
No question, I did love being in the OSP. But after that betrayal of Shan’s, it might never be the same. Assuming Shan wriggled off the hook of blame for the Briand catastrophe, did I want to work for him again? And could my decision even be rational at all? By the end of a stanyear of doing nothing—an experience I had never had as an adult—I might be too bored to stay out.
M’es vis, all things in time. There were still 331 standays until that promise came due, if he kept it, if he were in any position to keep it. The only thing I was sure of was that sometime in the next few days I would com Piranesi and Paxa, who were both physically gorgeous, and accept the offer of a Service of Consolation.
Meanwhile, I only wanted to sit and look east into the salt marsh in front of me. Eta Cassiopeia, refracted and smeared by Söderblom’s dense air into a dim, friendly blur, was about to come up. Maybe, after watching the dawn, I’d walk somewhere and have a quiet breakfast. Then I might spring to somewhere to wander around for the day. Söderblom had fourteen cultures scattered through its temperate zones, but so far I’d stayed entirely in Hedonia. Maybe I’d skip over to Texaustralia for some whooping, brawling, and excessive drinking—an approach to a broken heart very like my own Occitan tradition. Or perhaps I’d spend a few days in Hubbard City and let them try to clear me, or sit on the rocks among the Dine, sharing my story if anyone asked, listening to anyone who came by. There was Freiporto, the next most famous place on Söderblom after Hedonia, but the combination of crassness and wildness there offended me esthetically even if the freedom was remarkable.
Really, I had nothing but options.
Something moved in the corner of my eye. A man was coming up the beach toward me. He wore a baggy black jumpsuit, and he walked like he was in a hurry to get somewhere, which was un-Hedon-like. Maybe another tourist?
He was tall and thin, older, but not old. His vigorous stride hitched slightly, suggesting some chronic pain in a leg or hip. His head was up and alert, with a practiced way of looking for a threat. That was a habit he couldn’t have gotten here—the western shores of Hedonia are safe as a nursery. And the neighboring cultures along the coast—Thetanshaven to the north and Bremen Beyond the Sky to the south—were both about as peaceful and safe as you could hope for.
He pulled off his black watch cap and used it to wipe his face. A shock of white hair emerged, crosslit by the rising Eta Cassiopeia and the last sinking moon. I knew him.
“Shan, I told you to give me a stanyear.”
Shan stopped as if I’d pointed out a poisonous snake at his feet. No matter where you go, everyone in the Thousand Cultures seems to think that we Occitans are flighty and violent. Ver, Senher Deu, it makes me feel like breaking heads.
“I would give you a stanyear if I had a stanyear to give you,” he said, quietly, his face expressionless as it so often was. “If you like, though it wastes time, I shall begin with as many apologies as you feel you deserve.”
“There’s not enough time till the end of the universe.”
“True. No doubt. I will rely on your curiosity about what would cause me to come here on this fool’s errand and annoy you.”
“I’m not going to ask but I’ll listen if you tell me.”
He held still for exactly three big slow whooshes of the waves down by the shore. The precision suggested to me that he was timing himself by the waves—a trick to make himself wait longer than he thought I could be comfortable. I suppose it must have worked on many people in the past. Me, I just stood there, hated him, listened to the waves, and thought about how typical it all was: with a big favor to ask, first he had to play games.
At last, on the trough of the third wave, he spoke. “I have a job for you if you want it. Possibly vital to human unity, and it has to do with the survival of all the smaller, more isolated cultures out in the outer parts of human space.”
“Now you’re going to tell me that I’m the only person who could possibly do it,” I said, bitterly. I knew how Shan thought, and what he thought of me.
“I was,” Shan admitted. “Telling you that often works. The truth is there are about ten or twelve of the OSP’s agents who could also be helpful. I am contacting them too. But I do think your particular style of operations might be very helpful, and I will feel more optimistic with you involved than I would with you sitting here recovering.
“This new situation is related to Briand, and to the current political troubles of the OSP, only because our present weakness has made it possible for a truly stupid idea to gain momentum in the Council of Humanity. If this particular pack of fools is not thwarted, you can forget whatever most attracts you about Wilson, or Nansen, or Söderblom, or any of the other outer worlds except Addams or poor wrecked Briand. I’m not exaggerating at all.”
A big wave rolled in with a squashing sigh. Eta Cassiopeia had crept higher. Through the high, thick atmosphere, its amber light gave the whole beach a glow that would have been ridiculously sentimental if any lighting designer had done it.
Shan took a step closer to me, the way you might with a big dog you didn’t trust. “I will give the full details to you, and to several other agents who are temporarily on leave on Söderblom, tonight at hour ten, in the Crucified Whore, which is a tavern in Freiporto, on Walpurgisnacht Street. Go in and say you’re one of my friends and they’ll guide you to the right room.”
“What if I have other plans?”
“You don’t, or at least none that you’ve discussed on any communications link up till the last fifteen minutes or so. But if you come up with some, well, then don’t come, and there’s an end to it—I’ll see you when the stanyear is up. Otherwise, I trust your curiosity to bring you my way; that’s part of why I came to see you in person.”
“What’s the other part?”
“I thought you might need to express some anger before you could think about accepting the offer.”
I nodded; he knew me. “Then you know I’m apt to be there.”
“I do. And thank you.” He hesitated a moment, but clearly there was nothing more for either of us to say, so he merely reiterated, “Crucified Whore. Walpurgisnacht Street. The tenth hour. Ask for me. They’ll show you where. Try not to be late.”
He turned and walked away without bothering to say good-bye.
Too empty and sad, I had nothing to say, either. Once, I might have chased him down the beach trying for a hint about what the mission would be.
I still loathed boredom and uselessness and inactivity, but now my only hope of more interesting times was coming from the man that, out of the fifty billion or so alive, I most detested.
The irony was enough to make a scrap of a song start in my head. I willed myself to remember it.
Shan was a good hundred meters down the shoreline. The daylight had changed completely from dawn to early morning. I shouted after him, “I guess I’ll be there.”
He turned around and shouted back, “Don’t worry about meeting Margaret. She’s coming to the meeting in Utilitopia, two days from now.”
Not knowing what else to say, I shouted “Thank you,” but I don’t know if he heard it over the big, slow wave that hissed up the beach then. Whether he did or not, he waved before turning and walking away as briskly as he had arrived.
I watched until he disappeared around a tall rock pile, then pulled out my computer, unfolded it and smoothed out the creases in the piano keys, plugged in the earphones, and sat down and worked out the first two verses of “Never Again Till the Next Time.” Much later, it was going to make me even more ridiculously well off. At the time, though, it was a pleasant thing to think about on a sunny beach in early morning, a catchy melody with a lyric that seemed to come very naturally, in a paradise that I was already looking forward to leaving. Que seretz, seratz, as we used to say when I was a jovent back in Nou Occitan.
Copyright © 2001 by John Barnes
Posted December 9, 2008
Among the Thousand Cultures that make up the galaxy, earth already has a decadent reputation for misusing things. The latest movement on earth involves what most other worlds would say are the misuse of the recordings of the psypyx. Most of the worlds relish sharing their minds with the recordings of the deceased, but on earth the push is to place the recordings into games as virtual toys. The outrage among the Thousand Cultures and the earthlings¿ ignorance of this reaction could lead to war. <P>Girault Leones vowed never to work for the Office of Special Projects, especially with Shan, because their last disastrous collaboration led to the destruction of the planet Briand and his own divorce from Margaret. However, circumstances makes Girault realize never say never because he knows the galaxy needs him to influence the decisions on earth. He volunteers to try to keep the planet from taking actions that could lead to war. <P> The third Thousand Cultures tale, THE MERCHANTS OF SOULS, is an exciting science fiction tale that contains several intriguing premises especially the concept of sharing brain cells. The story line is overloaded so pivotal events are passively discussed between characters as having happened rather than actively described. Still, John Barnes shows why he is an award-winning author by making his futuristic realms seem authentic while fostering some novel ideas. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.