Radiantby James A Gardner
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In the 25th century, under the leadership of the League of Peoples, war and crime are a thing of the past and life is held sacred. That is, as long as you're healthy and beautiful. But those who are deformed, flawed or misfit in any way are destined - or is "doomed" a better word? - to become Explorers, crews assigned to probe worlds so hostile, the chances of returning are somewhere between slim and none.
A qualified member of the expendable Explorer Corps due to her untreated facial blemish, Youn Suu sets out on a standard suicidal mission. Along with her partner, Tut, Youn is tasked with investigating a sudden infestation of the Balrog--a sentient red moss that can form parasitic, symbiotic relationship with its host--on the home world of the Cashlings.
The mission takes a turn for the worse when Suu is infected with the Balrog. But just before all is lost, Suu and Tut are rescued from the planet by legendary Expendable Admiral Festina Ramos. Aboard an Outward Fleet starship, they find that the Balrog is far more intelligent and sinister than they ever could have imagined. It is only then that the scope and danger of this nightmare is truly revealed.
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By James Alan Gardner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 James Alan Gardner
All rights reserved.
Anicca [Pali]: Impermanence. The principle that all things change over time and nothing lasts forever.
SEVEN days after I was born, my mother named me "Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl."
Such birth names were common on my homework!—a planet called Anicca, first colonized by Earthlings of Bamar extraction. Wisewomen swore if you gave your babies unpleasant names, demons would leave the children alone. In Bamar folktales, demons were always gullible; a name like "Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl" would fool them into thinking the baby was so flawed and worthless, there was no point hurting her. Why bother making her sick or nudging her in front of a speeding skimmer? She was already an Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl.
Years later, when I'd learned the proper chants to protect against demons, I was allowed to choose a new name. It happened during the spring festival: girls and boys, nine years old, giggled with their first taste of adulthood as they officially discarded their baby names. We wrote our awful old names on bright red pieces of paper, then threw the papers into a ceremonial fire.
Bye-bye, Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl. Unless, of course, the name stayed stuck in everyone's mind.
Most of the other nine-year-olds immediately announced what new names they were taking. Only a few of us couldn't decide. We tried a succession of different names, switching every few days: trying this, trying that, until we found one that made everyone forget we'd ever been called anything else.
Or until we realized we'd always be Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl, and it was time to stop pretending otherwise. Just pick a name at random and stick with it.
I picked the name Youn Suu. Simple, meaningless, easy to pronounce: like Yune Sue. But it was a label of convenience, nothing more. Like wearing a particular shirt, not because it was comfortable or good-looking, but because it didn't have obvious rips or stains. I didn't feel like a Youn Suu, but I didn't feel like anyone else either. Just a barefoot girl, anonymous.
Part of me still fantasized I'd find a good name—a name that was me—but I tried not to think such thoughts. The Buddha taught that wishful fixations were "unskillful." Wise people lived life as it was, rather than frittering away their energies on pointless daydreams. My actions counted; my name didn't.
So I became Youn Suu.
Until I left Anicca, people called me Ma Youn Suu ... "Ma" being die polite form of address for an undistinguished young female. Women of high prestige and venerable old grannies warranted a better tide: the honorific "Daw." But I was sure I'd never be Daw Youn Suu. I'd never win prestige, and I wouldn't live long enough to become venerable. I'd die young and unimportant, because by the age of nineteen my full name had become Explorer Third Class Ma Youn Suu of the Technocracy's Outward Fleet.
At least, that's what it said on the ID chip burned into the base of my spine. In my heart, I was still Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl.
My ugliness had a story. My life had no room for other stories—no "How I Won a Trophy" or "My First Real Kiss"—because all my potential for stories came down to "Youn Suu Was Ugly, and Nothing Else Mattered."
Like all stories, the tale of my ugliness had long roots. Longer than I'd been alive. The Bamar are a tropical people, originally from Old Earth's Southeast Asia. The British called our homeland "Burma," their version of our tribal name. Burma = the Bamar ... even though the same region held hundreds of non-Bamar cultures who raged at being left out of that equation.
But the story of Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl isn't about Old Earth history. It's about being beautiful.
Bamar skins are like burnished copper: red-brown protection against the sun. Even so, the searing brilliance of equatorial noon could still damage our exposed skin. Bamar women therefore developed a natural sunscreen from the bark of the thanaka tree—a paste that dried to yellow-white powder. It prevented sunburn and kept skin cool. Even men wore thanaka sometimes, slathering their faces and arms if they had to work in the fields on a blazing-hot day.
By the time my ancestors left Old Earth, science had created much better sunscreens; but that didn't mean the end of thanaka. Thanaka was a symbol of our birth culture—our birthworld. On an alien planet like Anicca, people clung to such symbols ferociously. Female Aniccans who didn't wear thanaka were thought to be rejecting their Bamar heritage. They might even be trying to look European ... which was enough to get little girls slapped and grown women labeled as whores. On Anicca, decent girls and women wore thanaka.
The makeup was brushed on in streaky patches thin enough that one's underlying skin showed through the brushstrokes. A specific pattern of strokes was deemed "correct Anicca style": a single swipe of the brush on each cheek, another swipe across the forehead, and a fine white line down the nose. Thicker coatings all over the face might have provided more protection than localized daubs, but that would have defeated thanaka's other purpose. Thanaka makeup, shiny yellow-white on dark copper skin, was excellent for catching the eyes of men.
Far be it from me to criticize my ancestors. But there's something askew in your priorities if you keep your sunblock thin, risking serious burns, because a light dusting sets off your complexion better than an effective full-face coat. On the other hand, women have done much more foolish things in the pursuit of beauty than diluting their sunscreen and dabbing it on in dainty patches. Foot binding. Neck extension. The surgical removal of ribs. Compared to our sisters in other places and times, women on Anicca were paragons of restraint.
Even so: if a few pats of tree-bark powder hadn't become an indispensable element of beauty on my homeworld, "Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl" would have been just a childhood nickname instead of a life sentence.
Here's why. My mother was allergic to thanaka. She could never wear the tiniest beauty spot without rashes and bloating. She tried a host of substitutes, but found fault with every one. My mother refused to be satisfied—nothing but real thanaka was good enough. (Another of those fixations the Buddha called "unskillful.")
So my mother went bare-faced and became a social outcast. Or so she told me years later. How can a daughter know if her mother is telling the truth? Was my mother really treated badly for being different? Or did she just blame the normal disappointments of life on the way she looked?
As a girl, I had no patience for Mother's tales of woe. She wearied everyone she knew, demanding sympathy for the way her peers had ostracized her. At the age of fifteen, I finally had a frothing hysterical fit, screaming, "People don't hate you because of your face. They hate the way you whine! Whine, whine, whine, whine, whine. I hate it more than anyone. And I hate you. As if you know anything about being ostracized!"
I was more emotional back then. Subject to outbursts.
Now I've got past the rage. I've changed. But I'll get to that. At the moment, I'm explaining about my mother.
She thought her lack of thanaka had ruined her life. And before I was born, or even conceived, she decided to create a corrected version of herself, a daughter who would be beloved and popular, never suffering social rejection.
My mother found a man reputed to be an expert gene-splicer ... even though human-engineering was illegal on my home planet and every other planet in the Technocracy. For a fistful of rubies (passed down as a sacred inheritance through ten generations and never touched until my mother spent them all), this DNA doctor promised to produce a perfect daughter who was smart, fit, and beautiful. Extremely beautiful. In particular, she would have vivid permanent thanaka-like beauty patches on her cheeks, forehead, and nose.
You can see where this is going, can't you? But my mother couldn't. For a woman who claimed to know suffering, she'd never learned much about the universe's love of irony.
It's no challenge to create a baby who's intelligent, robust, and exquisite. The technology is well established. Building better babies has always been the driving force behind bio-engineering, even if proponents pretend otherwise. Since the earliest days of gene-splicing, scientists have muttered about "improving agricultural stock" or "facilitating medical research," but those are just side issues. The primary target was and is the production of super-babies; any other result is a lucky offshoot. Never mind that manufacturing über-children has been banned for five hundred years. Laws or no laws, money continues to change hands to create gifted progeny who'll outshine their peers. DNA technicians have all the equipment and expertise needed to produce smart, athletic, attractive offspring ...
... provided one keeps to conventional notions of brainpower, fitness, and beauty. That's what the black market does well. If, on the other hand, you make a special order—such as yellow-white streaks in specific regions of a little girl's face—then the gene-engineers have to improvise.
They have to try untested genes and histones.
They have to wing it.
I was born adequately bright. In the ninety-ninth percentile of human intelligence.
I was born an adequate physical specimen. Small but strong. Thin but not scrawny. By my teen years, I excelled at five forms of solo dance. I even performed, to great acclaim ... at least in Anicca's yein pwe dances, where all the dancers wore masks.
I had to wear a mask because I was not born adequately beautiful. My hair was black and lustrous, my skin resembled feather-soft silk, and my body had tastefully generous curves. But I was still an Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl.
Sometime before birth, the yellow-white pigments intended to adorn my face congealed into a single palm-sized blob glaring from my left cheek. A leprous puckered livid spongelike weeping mass of tissue.
Mostly, it wept a thin, oily ooze. If I told gawking strangers the fluid was just sweat, they said they believed me. But it wasn't sweat. I obsessively studied biochemistry till I could determine the fluid's exact chemical composition ... then obsessively fell into the habit of listing those chemicals under my breath, reciting their names like a chant that could drive away demons. (I'd recite them for you now, but I've given up being neurotic.)
The fluid from my cheek stank of gangrenous pus. At least it did to me. Others assured me they couldn't smell a thing, so perhaps I just imagined the stench. A psychosomatic olfactory delusion. It's possible.
It's also possible people were lying when they said there was no putrid reek of necrosis. I accused them of that many times, shrieking, "Admit it, admit it, admit it!"
As I've said, I was more emotional back then. Subject to outbursts.
Occasionally, when I was under stress or drank too much caffeine, my cheek wept blood. I still told people the fluid was sweat; then I glared, daring anyone to contradict me.
Inevitably, my face drew the attention of the Explorer Corps. Explorers are "brave volunteers"—draftees—whom the navy sends into unknown situations. Or into known situations that are too damned dangerous for unblemished personnel.
Explorers are expendable. If someone has to die, let it be an Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl. Otherwise, there might be repercussions. Measurable drops in morale and productivity.
In Explorer Academy, we were forced to read studies that showed just how badly navy personnel reacted to the death of normal or attractive-looking crew members. Performance ratings plummeted; clinical depression became rampant; people on duty made serious mistakes from shock and grief. Why? Because modern society resembles a character from Bamar sacred stories ... a young prince named Gotama. The prince was brought up by his royal father in a luxurious pleasure palace where he was kept unaware of old age, disease, and death. He grew up knowing only the joys of his harem, and parties and feasts and games. But the gods refused to let Gotama waste his life in superficialities. Through trickery, they showed him the ugly truths his father had concealed. When Gotama finally learned that the world had a dark side, he was devastated—affected so deeply that the experience set him on the road to enlightenment. Prince Gotama became a Buddha: our Buddha, the most recent in a long line of Awakened teachers who've pointed the way to wisdom.
But normal Technocracy citizens aren't ready for Buddhahood. They're not emotionally equipped to leave the pleasure palace. When confronted with anything that suggests their own mortality, they don't get stronger—they crumple.
They've never learned to live with untimely death. How could they? Old age has been alleviated by YouthBoost treatments. Disease can almost always be cured. As for fatal accidents, they're virtually nonexistent thanks to the League of Peoples. The League, headed by aliens billions of years more advanced than Homo sapiens, regards willful negligence as equivalent to deliberate homicide; and the League never hesitates to punish those responsible. If, for example, a corporate executive approves the design for a vehicle, or a body implant, or a nanopesticide that hasn't been sufficiently tested for safety—sufficient to satisfy the League, not just human inspectors—the negligent executive will be exterminated the next time he or she enters interstellar space. It doesn't matter if the product is safe; failing to test it thoroughly shows callous indifference toward the lives of others. Therefore, the League considers the culprit a "dangerous nonsentient creature" ... and the League instantly kills any dangerous nonsentients attempting to leave their home star systems. There's no escape, no appeal, and no sentence but summary execution.
One has to admit it's an elegant way to keep lesser beings in check. The League doesn't directly govern humankind or the other alien species at our level of development. The League has no courts, no bureaucracies; it doesn't tell us what we should or shouldn't do. It simply kills anyone who isn't sufficiently considerate of sentient life. The onus falls on us to intuit what the League will accept. We receive no hints or guidelines—we just get killed when we don't do our best.
Which means every commercial product in the Technocracy is as safe as imperfect humans can make it. Also that human communities are built with the finest possible protections against fires, floods, etc. And that police forces are provided with all the facilities they need in order to apprehend criminals who might otherwise jeopardize innocent victims.
So, like Prince Gotama, people of the Technocracy are shielded from life's cruel grind-wheel. The only exceptions are the few men and women whose duties take them outside the pleasure palace, to places that haven't been "sanitized."
Men and women who land on unexplored planets.
Men and women called Explorers.
The navy's Explorer Corps takes in freaks from every corner of the Technocracy. People who can die and not be missed. People whose messy demise won't paralyze ship operations, or make normal-looking personnel think, "Someday I too will suffer and die."
Because if the person who dies has a weeping reeking cheek, those inside the pleasure palace are less likely to identify with the victim. When an Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl gets killed, the death won't affect real people's performance. Why should it? She wasn't quite ... quite. And the news services won't report her decease to the world at large, because then they'd have to publish her picture.
Nothing hurts a newswire's circulation figures like pictures of Explorers.
At least that's what we were told in school. Even back then, I wondered if there might be more to it: if perhaps somebody in the back rooms of government or elsewhere recognized that the Technocracy's pleasure palace culture was a dead end. Prince Gotama couldn't achieve his potential until he walked away from his harem and feasts.
Excerpted from Radiant by James Alan Gardner. Copyright © 2004 James Alan Gardner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James A. Gardner is the author of seven science fiction novels and one collection of short stories. Gardner lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
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Once again The league of peoples universe! yay! loved the book.
Explorer Third Class Youn Sue is a member of the highly skilled and disposable Explorer Corps. Most know the Explorer people as ECMs, Expendable Crew Members. ECMs are trained to undertake hazardous missions so that the rest of humanity would not be upset by their (almost-certain) deaths. ECMs are the humans who have some sort of disability. Since they are not one of the beautiful people, their deaths do not seem to mean as much. .................................. Youn Sue's partner is Tut. Sane, he is not. They are sent to rescue a planet from the Balrog, an extremely dangerous sentient creature that looked like harmless, red spores. (Think red snow.) The Balrog, singular even though the spores look like several thousands, is an alien intelligence so advanced that it literally knows what you will do before you do. The Balrog has its own little plan and uses Youn Sue in such a way that she has no choice but to go along. .................................... They join forces with Admiral Festina Ramos (from the book 'Expendable'). They end up on what appears to be a beautiful planet. Problem is that all the people - everywhere - vanished ... all at once. The planet is not the paradise it seems. It is something far more deadly. ............................... **** This story is not as good, in my opinion, as the previous novel 'Expendable' is. (Action wise any way.) However, the author did not expect to ever write another book like the first. Fans and his publisher talked him into it. Yet even so, he did an excellent job in extending the plot line. In fact, if he so desires, the author could easily write another novel or more on the ECMs. If you enjoyed the first ECM book, I have no doubt that you will enjoy this one also. But you do not HAVE to read the first novel to understand this one. This time, Youn Sue is the main character. If you do/did read the first though, the Admiral will seem even more realistic to you. The character, Tut, is a wild card. You just never know what that man is going to do or say. He makes for some very interesting reading, needless-to-say. Very entertaining and recommended. ****
EXPENDABLE Explorer Third Class Youn Sue is trained to handle the most difficult, dangerous and deadly assignments as expected of a member of the Explorer Corps. She and her Explorer peers are disposables enabling a detached mankind to rationalize their deaths without any emotional attachment, remorse or guilt for who cares that an ¿Ugly Screaming Stink Girl¿ like Youn dies.---- The Pistachio space ship Captain Cohen sends Third Class Youn and her partner Second Class Tut to Zoonau on Cashling to save innocent lives from the highly intelligent (much more than humans) Balrog. The duo are assigned to work with legendary Admiral Festina Ramos as the Balrog has just begun a chess game in which this sentient knows the opponents¿ plans while other beings have started their own cat and mouse deadly diversions with genocide as a possibility unless the disposable trio finds away to stop two devastating threats.---- The latest expendable Explorer Corps tale is an exhilarating outer space thriller that takes off the moment Youn receives the assignment and never lets up until the final altercation. The action is faster than the speed of light, but the key characters make the story line more than just another adventure tale. Youn is a wonderful star as she is filled with psychological woes from her youth (this time you can blame the mom); Tut is a likable nut; finally the renowned admiral is real and different from the mythical legend. Even Balrog comes across as alien, but a complete ET. SF readers will appreciate this tale that shows one must honorably take responsibility (not just lip service) for one¿s actions.---- Harriet Klausner
in one hell of a ghost story.