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The Paratwa are back. Wreaking wholesale slaughter and destroying everything in their path. But this is just the beginning, for the terrible truth confronting humanity is that the majority of the Paratwa were not killed, but fled man's vengeance into deep space and are now returning. And the human colonists' best hope may come from the most unlikely source. Martin's Press.
—from The Rigors, by Meridian
It was the time of our emergence. It was the time of the first coming, when the Earth was still vital and the Ash Ock were fresh as today's memory; in retrospect, a fragile era, but one where life itself seemed aglow with all manner of possibility, where we Paratwa felt destined to rule the Earth, to rule the stars. It was a time when each of us sizzled under the spell of our own unique simultaneities, relishing the genetic fates that had cast our souls into two bodies instead of one. It was a time when our binary spirits seemed molded by the essence of some primordial ubiquity, our bodies glazed to perfection, our minds burnished by the hands of an immortal poet.
It was a time of the Ash Ock, the Royal Caste—those five unique creations whose sphere of influence exploded outward from that secret jungle complex deep in the Brazilian rain forest, enveloping the world, uniting us, directing our disparate Paratwa breeds into a swarm of binary elegance that, for those brief fragile years, seemed unstoppable.
It was a time of innocence. It was a time that could not last.
Some of us began to perceive the underlying dynamics of Ash Ock power, to comprehend their subtle manipulations, to hear the distinctive growls of five exquisite motors beneath five exquisite hoods. The mirror that the Ash Ock had held before each of us, which had reflected only our virtues, splintered under the roar of those engines; our worship of their godlike prowess yielded to mere admiration, appreciative yet tempered by the knowledge that those of the Royal Caste remained mortal, despite their incredible magic. And that magic, partially swollen by our own need, and desires, gave birth to a child swaddled in the robes of scientific superiority. The poet departed, never to return.
It was a time of terrible betrayal.
As the Star-Edge fleet—under the clandestine guidance of Theophrastus—prepared to escape from an Earth drowning under the fury of the Apocalypse, some of us began to learn the real secrets of the Ash Ock. And that juncture marked the beginning of a cynicism that spread through our ranks with the swiftness of a biological plague. By the time the Star-Edge fleet had cleared the boundaries of the solar system, Sappho and Theophrastus were almost faced with open revolt, for many of the Paratwa had trouble adjusting to the indignity of these ultimate truths.
But Ash Ock patience helped all of us persevere. The crisis passed. An even greater vista of conceptualization was now open to us, and we were invited to perceive the universe from new and dizzying heights. Most of us lost our cynicism. Those few who did not kept their doubts to themselves.
Theophrastus proclaimed: "Never forget that you represent the vanguard of the second coming."
"And never forget that you serve the true Paratwa," Sappho added. "Your lives now intertwine with the destiny of the chosen."
History texts were subtly altered; the roles of the other three Ash Ock—Codrus, Aristotle, and Empedocles—were lessened to those of supporting players.
Codrus was really the first of the Royal Caste to fall from Ash Ock grace. His tways, like the tways of Empedocles, were of mixed sexes—male and female. Even in those early days, when we were still emerging from the landscape of humans, when Theophrastus had not yet infiltrated the Star-Edge project, bending it to his own designs, Sappho had begun to suggest—subtly—that dual-gendered Paratwa were inherently flawed. For a while, even I fell for her elegant craftiness, though eventually I came to see such illogic as a refraction of my own male/male prejudice.
Still, I understood some of Sappho's negativity toward the others of her breed. Codrus often displayed the most blatant weaknesses, misconstruing Ash Ock formulations for precise truths, falling into that intellectual trap of regarding the mind as the ruler of the body. Those facets of reality that Codrus failed to grasp became data to be processed, information that simply remained undigested by his networks. Eventually, Codrus's inability to fathom the depths led Sappho to regard him like the child of her royal family, his tways forever loyal and anxious to please, yet his monarchial consciousness incapable of reaching its destined maturity. He was ultimately precluded from all Ash Ock intricacies, and it was arranged that he be left behind when the Star-Edge fleet departed. Until his death at the hands of the Costeaus centuries later, Codrus remained blissfully ignorant, a true intellectual pauper.
Aristotle, for a time, also remained unaware of the greater concerns, although Aristotle's ignorance was not of his own making, for in many ways, he was the equal of Sappho: shrewd and cunning, with a natural aptitude for the intricate methodology of politics. Aristotle's male/male interlace seemed to know—instinctively—how to utilize others to amplify his own desires; he played the human race as a pre-Information Age grandmaster played chess.
In the earliest years of Ash Ock ascendancy, I was the servant of Aristotle, and I grew to admire and respect the sophistication of his agile mind. For a time, I actually came to like him, especially after he had introduced me to Empedocles, youngest of the five, male/female tways whose infectious lust for all manner of experience rivaled even my own. In truth, I loved those years that we spent training Empedocles, helping to mold our young warrior into an elegant bastion of Ash Ock authority, ready to assume his place in the sphere of the Royal Caste, to become the champion of all of Earth's Paratwa.
And for a time in those early years, I even doubted Sappho's wisdom in keeping Aristotle—and thus Empedocles—ignorant of the greater reality. In Codrus's case, I understood. But I felt that Aristotle and Empedocles should be given full access to Sappho's knowledge—the secret knowledge—which at that time she shared only with Theophrastus and a few trusted lieutenants: Gol-Gosonia, myself, a handful of others.
Eventually, however, I came to see that Sappho was correct in keeping Aristotle in the dark, for that monarch's plans within plans began rivaling the complexity of even her own intrigues. The simple fact was: Aristotle was too much like Sappho. There could be but one ruler, and Sappho—by virtue of birthright alone—would be sole proprietress of our destiny.
Nevertheless, the day when I betrayed Aristotle—and doomed Empedocles in the bargain—remains the most regretted day of my life.CHAPTER 2
Gillian felt eager for another fight. The darkness of Sirak-Brath seemed an ideal place for one.
He followed Buff and the smuggler through the alley separating a pair of low-tech industries—a nuke breeder and a manufacturer of organic soakdye—the dank passage cutting between the towering buildings like a thin wafer sliced from a monstrous loaf. From the wet floor of the alley, the dirty vacu-formed walls—slabs of reinforced plastic veneered in ancient brickface—soared over two hundred feet up into the night sky. Shadowy forms interconnected the two buildings: a plethora of structural support shafts, conduits, and soggy flexpipes. There were no windows.
A sliver of pale, yellowish gray light was exposed at the peaks of the artificial canyon, and that illuminated snippet should have revealed the distant slabs of the colony's cosmishield glass, and beyond, the darkness of space. But the thirty-eight-mile-long orbiting cylinder had managed, over the two and a half centuries of its existence, to acquire one of pre-Apocalyptic Earth's nastier habits: air pollution. During peak manufacturing periods, the smog became so dense that Sirak-Brath's atmospheric circulators could not remove it faster than it was being generated.
Buff turned to the smuggler. "How much farther?"
In the dim light of the alley, she was the shorter and thinner of the two figures. Weeks of hiding out with Gillian in a Costeau exercise cone had enabled Buff to shed nearly fifty pounds. She remained stocky, but there was little fat; upper arms bulged with muscle, and her legs now boasted a strength and agility that she had never known at her former weight.
The smuggler grunted. His name was Impleton, and he pointed ahead and whispered words that seemed to dissolve in the dense air, even as Gillian leaned forward, straining to hear. But Buff had understood; the black Costeau's firm nod provided assurance that Impleton's response gave no cause for alarm.
Gillian's last visit to Sirak-Brath had been over half a century ago, and tonight's smog seemed much worse than any he remembered from that first sojourn, in 2307. Back then, the periodic onslaughts of dirty air had not seemed so conspicuous, the haze so impenetrable. He would have expected that during his fifty-six years of stasis sleep, legitimate technical improvements would have contributed to making the air invisible again.
But despite the imminent threat of the returning Paratwa starships—a threat whose closing horizon lately had spawned bitter tensions throughout the populace of the Irryan Colonies—day-to-day scientific and technical advancements were still under the control of E-Tech, the powerful institution whose tenets essentially served to limit the degree of change. E-Tech's two-and-a-half-century old idea—to prevent wild permutations in the social structure, like those that had decimated the Earth during the Apocalypse of 2099—made it difficult for a colony to alter the status quo. Sirak-Brath's smog served to illustrate the downside of E-Tech's otherwise noble cause.
Sirak-Brath had other problems as well. It was popularly considered to be the black sheep of the Irryan Colonies—the cylinder which the denizens of the other two hundred and sixteen orbiting space islands could point to with disdain. No matter how bad your home colony might be in a particular respect, Sirak-Brath was probably worse. The industrial cylinder boasted the highest crime rates, the dirtiest streets, and the most consistently corruptible politicians. Many non-mainstreamed Costeaus, black marketers, and high-tech smugglers called it home.
The alley began to curve to the left, and a soft breeze brought an oppressive odor of untreated sludge. Gillian glanced over his shoulder, saw the pale remaining light from the side street nearly two blocks away slowly compress into nothingness, and the heavy barred gate, through which Impleton had led them into this service corridor, disappear. Now, only the smog-reflected light from above remained to guide their footsteps.
Gillian closed his eyes, listened to the night: the dull omnipresent hum of heavy machinery, distant sirens of local patroller or E-Tech Security vehicles en route to fresh crime sites, their own footsteps flapping across the wet pavement, an occasional echo of a human voice, amplified to prominence by the acoustic qualities of this artificial canyon. Sounds that were recognizable aspects of Sirak-Brath. Sounds that carried no threat of danger.
But there was still time.
The alley continued its steady curve to the left, on a sweeping tangent, until finally they were walking perpendicular to their original direction. Fresh bright light appeared up ahead; the canyon walls peeled back to reveal a cul de sac where nuke breeder joined organic soak-dye manufacturer, their common bulkhead a monolithic eruption of greasy pipes and spiraling twill tubes. It was power distribution machinery combined with an overworked pollution control grid. The entire conglomeration had been designed to serve both industries and probably others as well, whose sterns would be butting against the far side of the towering mech-wall.
Buff and Impleton became crisp silhouettes as they headed into the light, the fresh illumination provided by a series of globed lamps positioned ten feet above the dank floor. Buff's hairless pate, cosmetically scarred by a series of twisting blue and red lines—the deliberate handiwork of luminescent crayons—began to shine. In the daytime, the black Costeau often wore a hat, but when a colony's mirrors rotated into darkness, she exposed her shaved skull and the shiny photoluminescent streaks. Blue lines and red lines, crisscrossing the crown of her head, all freshly painted each morning, as important to Buff as any other aspect of her daily grooming. Blue lines and red lines, each bound by the faint perimeter of her natural hairline, each glowing, like a nest of wet snakes. Buff was of the clan of the Cerniglias, but the painted streaks remained universal Costeau symbols. Blue for mourning. Red for vengeance. With Costeaus, the two colors often went together.
Buff had painted herself every morning for nearly a month and vowed to continue the ritual until she found the Paratwa assassin—the one who had been terrorizing the Irryan Colonies for the past five months. The one whose tripartite self—three discrete physical bodies controlled by a solitary, telepathically interlaced consciousness—remained unique among known Paratwa breeds. The one whose brutal massacres, throughout the orbiting cylinders, had been linked to the imminent return of the Paratwa starships.
The one who had killed her friend Martha.
Impleton—fat, pale-skinned, wearing a knee-length pink corselet coat—craned his neck and muttered something to Buff. She paused at the entrance to the bottleneck, waited for Gillian to catch up.
"He says Faquod's not here yet."
Gillian went hyperalert. Senses, normally diluted by a wide range of environmental stimuli, focused; muscles prepped for instantaneous response. His tongue slithered along the tiny rubber pads attached to his bicuspids and molars—the activation circuitry for the hidden crescent-web hardware strapped around his waist. One snap of the jaw and the defensive field would ignite, form a near-invisible sheath along the front and rear contours of his six-foot frame, a barrier capable of deflecting projectile and energy weapons alike. And hidden in the sleeve covering his right forearm, gripped securely in a slip-wrist holster, lay a pale egg with a tiny needle protruding from one end.
His Cohe wand: a device infinitely rare and highly illegal, the original weapon of the Paratwa assassins from the days before the decimation of Earth, over two-and-a-half centuries ago. The Cohe was devilish to control, requiring years of training to become proficient in its more subtle capabilities. But once mastered, it was a weapon that bore no equal.
Impleton sucked in his gut and said loudly, "Faquod, he will be along shortly."
Two other figures were poised in the bottleneck. To Gillian's right, a well-groomed man with a sawed-off beard leaned against the wall, one hand tucked under his black coat. And across the alley, seated on a four-foot-high ledge, was a blond-haired muscle boy, grinning like a scuddie. The youth was stripped to the waist. Bulging pectorals bore tattoos of ancient motorized cycles and the cryptic phrase, I'm a Harley in Heat, was printed neatly above his navel.
Buff scowled. "You said he'd be waiting here for us."
The smuggler rolled his eyes. "Faquod, he does as he pleases."
The muscle boy laughed. Gillian approached the youth while casually scanning the mech-wall, already fairly certain of what he would find on it. He was not disappointed.
About twenty feet up, squeezed amid the filthy spirals of relay tubes and monstrous conduits, sat a hunched figure with a thruster rifle. It was a fairly good hiding place, though not good enough to escape Gillian's detection. Although he had met Impleton only yesterday, their brief encounter had provided enough raw data to establish a psych profile of the swarthy black marketer. Gillian had known that bold deceit would be Impleton's fashion; the presence of an armed backup, out of sight, fit the smuggler's profile like a glove.
Impleton licked his lips. "These high-tech playthings you desire ... Faquod, he says that they are not easy to come by. Faquod says they will not be cheap."
Gillian halted two paces away from the grinning muscle boy and leaned over the four-foot ledge that the tattooed smuggler sat upon. On the other side of the wall, a vertical drop plunged fifteen feet into a plodding river of sludge covered by a fine-meshed net. The harsh odor of untreated sewage, far more potent than it had been in the alley, assailed his nostrils. Gillian suspected that the open sewage channel was illegal.
"Very expensive," continued Impleton, his fat cheeks squirming as if his mouth were stuffed with unchewed food. "Faquod—he will want at least half the money in advance, I am sure."
"You told us that already," Buff replied calmly.
Excerpted from The Paratwa by Christopher Hinz. Copyright © 1990 Christopher Hinz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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