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Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
By Samuel R. Delany
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1984 Samuel R. Delany
All rights reserved.
From Nepiy to Free-Kantor
The first I heard of Rat Korga or the world Rhyonon? (Look. Listen.) Large and blue, a woman who tended to come apart into jellylike pieces only to flow together about the translator pole, my current employer1 said: "Thank you. Thank you, Industrial Diplomat Marq Dyeth, thank you for delivering these heteromer sheathing samples." Heteromers are very big, very broad, very flat, and in places very active molecules; but it had taken me the first three days of the journey with all my delivery ship's GI resources hard by to get even that far; they're also very difficult to put together from just a recipe, unless you actually have some of them against which to check off the million-odd atoms that comprise them. "Thank you for delivering them to this beleaguered geosector of this wide world, this world of Nepiy." She went from pale sky to indigo.
Within many-layered transparent gold gloves and something filmy that seemed like a parody of the alien bubbling about the pole, the other woman (this one human) stood off beneath the dripping roof-stones and looked on with intense approval.
My employer1 said: "May I ask, ask you a favor?"
"Please, Marq Dyeth. Please. Your shuttle flight does not leave for some time yet, not for a while. I want to explain, explain something to you; then I want you to explain something to me—"
"Well ..." Feeling uncomfortable, I smiled my most diplomatic smile, fairly sure what was coming. "You must understand that an industrial diplomat often finds herself—"
"I want to show you this, this most recent atrocity in this atrocious fugue." (I was right.) "Because you're not from around here, not from our world, not from our geosector, I merely thought you might take a certain understanding, a certain knowledge, certain information away with you ...?"
The assumption is that because you're not "from around here" on such a cosmic scale, you couldn't possibly know what "here" is like. Always true; but it means that after a while an ID has seen more of this sort of thing than anyone could care to.
"My friend will take you in the skimkar." She indicated the other (human) woman. "He's a careful driver and can answer any questions you might want to put." The "he" made me flex an imaginary lip bone—which, a human myself, I do not have. But I've known lots who did.
"Very well." I nodded, wondering what a nod meant on this world, at this spot on it.
The human stepped forward, and we started through damp veils, streaked pink and blotched brown, along the entrance, while my employer1 came apart and collected herself behind us.
As we came out under the loud, dark sky, she said: "He's quite something, isn't he?" (The second "he" made that imaginary lipbone of mine unflex.) "If you knew even a tenth of the work he's been putting into our emergency situation here, you'd be awed. We've had to go to the stars when we can't even get help from geosectors five or five-hundred kilometers away!"
"Oh, in just the day I've been here, I've been able to get a rough idea." (I think she looked questioningly at me on the word "day," but I'm not sure.) "Yes," I said, "she's quite a woman. And you've got quite a situation to deal with here, all of you."
The dark sky crackled with red lightning, and a moment later thunder, which had punctuated my stay almost every twenty minutes, trundled across the low, ragged peaks. "Is it always like this?" I asked, loudly.
Trailing gauzes around her, she glanced at me, her face glimmering as through washes of (human) blood. "Oh, we have whole fifty-and sixty-hour periods when the lightning is blue."
"I mean over all of Nepiy."
"Oh, no," she answered. "You only get lightning here in the western equatorial band. A thousand kilometers toward the poles in either direction, and you don't get any lightning at all. Just black."
We climbed into the kar.
Strung into the pilot's net, the woman pressed and pulled and pushed.
The kar broke through the power shield into the hot, dark, ululating silt.
"Do you have anything like this at home?" Now she wore lots of layers of lensing plastic over her face.
"No," I said, thinking of our southern hotwind season, which comes close. "Not really."
"There—" she said suddenly, pointing through the grillwork over the window plate. "Can you see it—?"
I couldn't, which is pretty usual in such situations.
"Over there ...?"
After a few minutes I thought I could. Which is also usual. General Information got me through, though: apparently those dark, fuzzy slashes were where kilometer after kilometer was acrawl with a rugged, rotting vine that decayed into polluting vapor, whipping about the strong wind in yellow blades—like my home world's -wrs gone wild. The vines had been intended as high-yield bean bushes that would bear seven distinct types of bean, each with a distinct and different flavor. But as the genetic designs had been shipped from world to world, star to star, somewhere along the way a few triplets had fallen into the DNA specifications that, in conjunction with a high-sodium environment, upped the possibility of viable mutation: and this particular bit of Nepiy desert had been all salt marsh sometime before its very superficial piano-forming. The triplets hadn't been detected, or rather hadn't been recognized for what they were. At about the fifth generation, the bushes had suddenly metamorphosed into this lethal and virulent sport.
"Within thirty kilometers there are three urban complexes that are on the border of starvation, with a combined population of twelve million women—of both races," my driver said glumly.
"I see." Outside the window, the fields were dark and dim. "Still, I find it a little hard to understand how three whole cities are dependent on a single product, to the point that its failure threatens them with starvation ...?"
She glanced at me through many lenses. "It's more complicated than that, of course. But you have to leave in a ... day. Do you have time to hear the last fifty years' history of this geosector, or the last eighty years' history of the Quintian Geosector Grouping, of which our sector, here, is the smallest, or of the two hundred twelve years' history of Nepiy's whole colonization ...?"
"Given the time we have, I probably wouldn't be able to follow it." History is one area that General Info is notoriously poor in imparting, I reflected, while I made a mental request from GI for any special usage information about the word "day" in this particular area of Nepiy. "And I wouldn't be likely to remember it for very long once I left."
"Then you'd better just accept the simplified version. The beans don't grow; the cities starve."
Day, GI informed me, while still part of most equatorial Nepiyans' vocabulary, has become largely a literary word, due to the overlying cloud layer, and is seldom used in ordinary conversation. [Cf. The Silent Polar Fields, whose famous opening line, "Alone here, she turns under day ..." is frequently quoted over almost the entire world.] The more usual reference to time units is in periods of hours, their number usually divisible by ten, with twenty, thirty, and sixty the most frequently mentioned ... There was a little mental bleep, which meant that the last GI program I'd summoned up hadn't been completed yet.
I acknowledged mentally, and learned that the original genetic designs for the bean bushes had been prepared on the north of a world called Velm—which happens to be my home, though I come from the southern reaches and have spent almost no time in the north. Diplomatically enough, I suppose, I didn't say anything.
My driver looked uncomfortable, but, knowing its codes, its historical complexities, she could see more on her world than I could. "I heard there was some similar problem about three thousand kilometers to the north, with the genetic designs for some mineral pulverizing viruses that didn't work. I wonder if they're connected—although those designs were put together right here on Nepiy."
"It's possible," I said. "They could both be similar manifestations of a worldwide informational warp. Though it would take a lot of work to find out—and the fact is, it's not likely. But I'll make a note to report it to the Web, and they'll at least have it on file. If they don't already."
"A few days ago my friend was up on the moon where he heard a perfectly horrible story about—" My driver stopped, as though it really were too horrible to go on with. She grunted. "By Okk, what a world this is ..."
We looked out the glass at our little patch of what, GI informed me, was a good hundred eighty thousand square kilometers of this one; and I smiled to hear that most familiar exclamation in this most alien environment.
The skimkar skimmed.
The clouds hovered.
(Listen. Look ...)CHAPTER 2
"if you're hungry," my employer1 said, "I'd be highly complimented if you'd eat some of me. Indeed, if there's any of you you can spare: body hair, nail parings, excrement, dried skin ...? Really, our two chemistries are very similar, notoriously complementary. One speculates that it's the basis for the stable peace that endures between our races throughout the lowlands of this world."
I'd accepted such an offer when I'd first come; I would accept it again before I left—as GI prompted. But now I was told to ignore it as a phatic exchange that required no more than a nod to avoid offense. (Oh.) I nodded.
And after a moment of blue self-collection, she went on. "What I would now appreciate, what you could really do for me, what I so deeply desire—" Blue bubbles broke in my employer1 around the vibrating translator pole—" is for you to explain this spreading horror, this war with no sides, this disastrous ruination of the quality of life that brings pain and desperation to all women—"
"—the fugue," the human who'd driven me said. "That's what he wants to know about." Gathering up her veils in her gilded gloves, she reached up to rub her upper lip with gold fingertips. "We all want to know."
"I can tell you this." I took a breath. "Though it may seem to have aspects of Cultural Fugue to you, it's not the big C."
They both waited, breathing, bubbling.
"You have a catastrophe here, a real, desperate, and life-destroying catastrophe. But it's not Cultural Fugue. If it's fugue at all, it's fugue with a very small f." I wondered what the translator pole did with that one since this was a world where—as GI had reminded me already on several occasions—writing was only a tertiary method of text production.
"How do you know?" my employer1 asked. "Can you tell, just from the feel of the sky above you, from the lowest frequencies in the thunders' rumble?"
"I can tell because the Web's report on Information Deployment for your world is open to me through GI: there's not one sign, but at least a hundred seventy-five, that would be visible if you were moving anywhere near a CF condition."
"The violence, the death, the anguish on our world, not only here, but many, many other places, have been immense," my employer1 said.
I said: "I know. And I don't blame you for asking. But you should know this, too: in the many, many worlds I've visited in my capacity as an Industrial Diplomat, where there was some problem that stretched from horizon to horizon, if you talk to anyone in the middle of it, among the first things they'll want to know is if their world has gone into Cultural Fugue." I smiled. "It's little consolation, I know. But horizon to horizon—which is hard to remember when you're standing on the surface—is still a very small part of a world. A whole world, that's a big place. For a world to go into Cultural Fugue—for the socioeconomic pressures to reach a point of technological recomplication and perturbation where the population completely destroys all life across the planetary surface—takes a lot of catastrophe. There are more than six thousand worlds in the Federation of Habitable Worlds. And Cultural Fugue is very rare."
"Forty-nine times in the last two hundred eighty years," the human said.
"And our years are a bit longer than Old Earth Standard," said the alien. "I was up on our moon only days ago," she went on, "when I heard that a world perhaps a third of the way around the galactic rim was just destroyed. There were hardly any survivors."
(Look. Listen. Did you catch it? I didn't. The reason, I suppose, is simply that I'd have thought someone in my profession1 would have known about that already had it really happened. But there, on alien Nepiy, I'm afraid I read it as something between a glitch in the translation and mere myth or misinformation to be expected in the general anxiety among women under such pressure.)
"Were they with the Family or the Sygn?" I asked; and I'm afraid I smiled when I asked.
"Or were they just unaligned in the Web?"
"They didn't say," said the alien.
"They didn't say," said the human.
Which only confirmed my suspicion. And I thought, as I had so often on my own world: when women of different species say the same things, you are most aware of their distinctions.
An hour later I was on my shuttle flight towards Free-Kantor, listening to the thrum of ion pulsers beyond green plastic walls.CHAPTER 3
Free-Kantor? in terms of light years, it's not so far from my home. But that doesn't make it notable, now.
"Free-Kantor is a world in itself," I've heard spiders say.
But it's not a world.
One of thirty information nodes built as free data-transfer points about the more heavily inhabited parts of the galaxy, Free-Kantor began as three ice-and-iron asteroids herded together and locked in place by force fields (so quaintly called), webbed between with numerous tubes, girders, and strutwork scaffolds. One is some nineteen kilometers in diameter, another twenty-six, and the third nine.
They circle a star with no planets to speak of, and though I've been through it a dozen times, I've never managed to find out its sun's name.
Coming into them on an ion shuttle, watching from the simulated view windows, I've often thought of a cluster of dyll nuts with their pitted hulls and feathery sheathing, hanging in the dark, sun-reddened on one side and webbed with sharp shadows, among which, now and again, some polished plate, catching the proper angle, flares with starlight.
We hung about in an invisible cloud of ships for almost four hours, waiting for a landing slot. When Kantor was built three hundred years ago, there were not yet a thousand inhabited worlds. One suspects that an odd and old argument had ... well, not raged here so much as it had been mumbled and muttered over most of that time: freighter ships were just not Kantor's first priority, so that if dispatch were needed, they could go someplace else ...
There are other free transfer points of course, but none of them were really any more efficient; so if I was going to wait, I might as well wait here. Myself, I've always suspected it was part of the general Web strategy to discourage interworld travel.
Three hours later, I was sitting on a bit of frozen foam under a transparent blister, shadowed with girder work, half the night blocked out by a mini-world hanging a few kilometers above me, pricked out with lights and blacknesses, waiting for connecting passage with my home world (which ship GI said was going to be nearly twenty hours late), my thoughts not so much ahead on home as behind on Nepiy.
I had been on Nepiy only a fraction more than a day ... that is, a thirty-hour period. Chances were I would never visit it again—as I would never revisit more than a fifth the worlds my job1 took me to. A geosector of Nepiy had been ravaged by its complex misfortune (that I only knew about in a simplified version): I couldn't have charged them full direct-line energy costs and full informationexchange rates, which was why I was returning home via Free-Kantor now; there are more expensive ways to travel from sun to sun, world to world, and an ID usually takes them. But after all, I'm a woman.
The romance of a free-data node and, I suppose, the reason why I finally consented to come this way, had to do with what was Kantor's first priority: information.
Excerpted from Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany. Copyright © 1984 Samuel R. Delany. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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