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"What's that?" Praeis Shin T'Theria straightened up and twitched one sail-like ear.
Lynn Nussbaumer looked up at the tall Dedelphi, craning her neck as far as the helmet on her clean-suit permitted. Lynn, Praeis, and Praeis's two daughters, Resaime and Theiareth, were clustered around a worktable in Praeis's airy office at the Crater Town Planning Hall. Now, all three Dedelphi turned their ears toward the bank of opaqued windows set into the curving, white-plaster wall.
Lynn strained her own ears. A moment later, she heard a low, rumbling throb penetrating the windows, despite the sound filters.
"I've got no idea what that is." Lynn got to her feet. The rumble increased. "Room voice, open the windows."
"Opening," replied the building's genderless voice. The silvered windows cleared to reveal a street paved with every shade of red that Martian stone and sand offered. The sudden flood of daylight glinted off Lynn's helmet and the layer of transparent organic that covered her from neck to boots under her functional blouse and trousers.
Normally, the street outside the Planning Hall held three or four knots of Dedelphi pedestrians and a transport or two. Now, it was crammed with Dedelphi of every age and shade. The rumble pressing through the window glass was the sound of their collective voices, shouting, cheering, arguing, and weeping.
"Ancestors Mine," murmured Praeis. "What's happened?"
"I've got no idea." Lynn felt her brow wrinkle. "Room voice—"
"I've got it up already, Lynn," said Resaime behind her.
Lynn and Praeis turned in tandem. Resaime had the wall screen lit up. She and Theia stood hand in hand in front of it, attention riveted on its scene. Lynn stepped around Theia to get a better view. Praeis just stared between the tips of her daughter's ears.
The screen showed what looked like a theater. The gallery was crammed with Dedelphi: sail-like ears, leathery skin, round, multilidded eyes, all watching a gathering on a proscenium stage. More Dedelphi filled the stage, crowding around an oval table. Lynn recognized the Io Elath, the t'Therians' Queens-of-All, in their stark, black robes. Directly across from them stood the Tvkesh-I-Rchilthen, the Getesaph's Sisters-Chosen-to-Lead, resplendent in their silver-and-gold jackets.
Dominating the entire scene was a view screen hanging on the stage's back wall. Three soberly dressed Humans—two men and one woman, all magnified to at least three times life size—looked down on the crowd of Dedelphi. Behind the Humans shone the green triangle emblem of the Bioverse Incorporated enclave.
"By the Walking Buddha," breathed Lynn. "Do you suppose they did it?" There had been rumors on the info-web for months that Bioverse Inc. was negotiating a bioremediation deal with the entire Dedelphi homeworld, something completely unheard of in all the Dedelphi's long, war-torn history.
As if to answer her question, the tallest of the Sisters-Chosen-to-Lead lifted her pen from off the stiff, white treaty board. "It is done," she said in staccato Getesaph. A host of white-lettered subtitles flowed across the bottom of the screen.
On the screen above the stage, the trio of Humans beamed like proud parents.
Each of the Sisters-Chosen-to-Lead picked up a treaty board. Their jackets shimmered in the stark light as they walked around the signing table. The boards were symbols, Lynn knew. The real treaties would be tightly bound stacks of paper sealed into courier cases at the sides of aides and secretaries standing in the wings. These were just placards that said everyone had agreed to what was in those books.
The Sisters held the placards out to the Queens-of-All. With stiff, jerky motions, each of the three Queens took a copy of the treaty and bowed low over it, kissing the freshly dried ink.
Lynn sneaked a look at Praeis. She had gravitated silently toward her daughters, and now the three of them stood with their arms around one another. Lynn wondered what she could possibly be feeling. Praeis had been a general for those Queens, a Task- Mother, in t'Therian, and now she watched them receive treaties from their fiercest enemies.
The Sisters handed two more copies over to the Presidents of the Chosa ty Porath, and three to the Speakers for the Fil. Each of them took the placard and did nothing but stare at it, almost like they couldn't believe what was in their hands.
Behind the delegates of the major powers stood those who spoke for smaller nation-families, or Great Families, as the t'Therians called them. They were a broken rainbow of colors. Their skin was everything from the t'Therians' bluish grey to the Getesaph's greyish pink. Their clothing ranged from jeweled purple to unbroken, midnight black. They received no treaties. Probably, they had been ordered by their stronger neighbors to obey, and these grouped here had said they would. Each had presumably decided they had lost enough people to the plagues already.
The copies of the treaty boards distributed, the two Getesaph Sisters turned to the shifting audience.
"The Confederation is in place and will be enforced by all members. The delegates who have included their names and pledges on the treaty of agreement are all empowered to deal with the Humans. We here together will save these lands and islands that hold us all. Save them from this plague, save them from the poisons and pollutions that threaten to overwhelm them."
A few more ragged cheers rang around the gallery, overlaid by calls of "Do it!" "Save the daughters!" "Find immunity!" in different languages.
"So," breathed Praeis, visibly tightening her arms around her daughters. "The plague has accomplished for us what nothing else could."
At that moment, the door burst open. Four Dedelphi, all the t'Therian blue-grey, two with daughters clinging to their backs and squealing with delight, charged in and surrounded Praeis, Resaime, and Theiareth. The Dedelphi pounded one another's backs and clasped hands and babbled on top of one another until Lynn couldn't follow what was going on, but evidently they were happy about the treaties.
"You must speak, Mother Praeis." One of the t'Therians grabbed Praeis's hand and hauled her toward the door.
"All right, my Sisters! All right!" laughed Praeis. The hesitations Lynn had seen in the set of her ears and shoulders seemed to have vanished. They probably had, thought Lynn. They were whirled away by the enthusiasm of these members of her Great Family.
Praeis looked back at Lynn, her ears weaving in mock distress and real apology.
"Go. Go," Lynn said, laughing and waving her on. "Who else should be making speeches right now?"
A storm of approval issued from the t'Therians. They half pushed, half pulled Praeis out of the office with the willing and noisy help of both her daughters.
Chuckling to herself, Lynn crossed back to the windows and looked out at the crowded street.
The Dedelphi were a powerfully built species. Praeis Shin stood a half meter taller than a tall man, even when her flexible, sail-like ears pressed flat against her scalp. Her adolescent daughters were Lynn's height. Their leathery skin hung in folds that rippled gently or forcibly, depending on their mood. Perfectly circular, multi-lidded eyes were set high above the long vertical slits of their nostrils. Thick lines of muscle ran under the milky skin of their lips. Their bellies swelled gently where the pouch protected their mammary glands. The effect was heightened by the stiff belly guards a number of the cultures wore under their clothes.
And right now they were making riot in the street below. Sisters whirled each other around. Mothers tossed their daughters into the air. Cousins stood talking, gesticulating wildly with hands and ears. In a couple of places, sisters had squared off for what might become honor brawls. Several of the clean-suited Human security guards apparently thought so, too, and edged along their balcony and rooftop stations for closer looks at the potential trouble.
"Room voice," said Lynn. "Shut off the sound filters."
With the filters gone, the crowd's roar pushed at her like an ocean wave. There had to be upwards of two hundred voices out there, all letting loose at full volume, and the noise doubled when Praeis's escort pulled her out of the Planning Hall.
"Mother Praeis!" voices shouted. "Mother Praeis! Tell us the news! Mother Praeis! Let's hear your words! Mother Praeis!"
Praeis's escort shoved her up onto the edge of the public fountain and bundled her daughters up beside her. Lynn folded her arms and nodded approvingly. They made a pretty picture down there; Praeis in her sienna skirt and cream tunic flowing over her belly guard, flanked by her daughters in blue-and-gold saris. The sun was still above the crater wall, and it touched everything with gold.
Praeis dipped her ears in respect and agreement to the crowd, and for the first time, the noise level dropped to a murmur.
"My Sisters," began Praeis. "Sisters of my blood, my near family, my Great Family, and those who are sisters of strangers to me!"
Diplomatic, thought Lynn. The t'Therians had a lot of expressions for those who weren't in the Great Family. The most complimentary was Other.
"Today we learned of a great thing; our sisters at home have made a bargain that will end the plague that has killed so many of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters!" Reverent silence at that. "Today is the new beginning! Today we may hope for life, for the future, and for, greatest of all, a homecoming!"
Cheers, waving ears, raised hands. Lynn shook her head. Trust Praeis to know what not to say. Don't bring up the fact that many of the sisters out there fled from the continuous warfare as much as from the plagues that the warfare let loose. Let everyone who wanted to hope that the deal around that table meant an end to both.
Lynn watched Praeis step off the fountain's edge into the arms of her Dedelphi sisters, and the Others. Mother Praeis Shin the Townbuilder, said those who liked her. Praeis the Cold-Blooded, said those who couldn't understand why she didn't get furious at the drop of the hat in the normal Dedelphi fashion. Praeis, who, unlike the other inhabitants of Crater Town, was not a refugee. She was an exile. The ones who knew that had worse names for her, and some of them might have gone for blood. But—Lynn glanced again at the Human security guards on the roofs and highest balconies—Praeis's planning had made sure that Crater Town had law enforcement that was beyond the influence of the Dedelphi's fractious anger, as much for her family's sake as for the good of the colony.
Lynn went back to the worktable. Obviously, no more work was getting done today. The crowd in the streets would be cheering and debating for hours, and Praeis would be in the thick of it. Lynn touched the keys on the table's edge to save the city map they'd been working with. She subvocalized the record command to her camera implant and stored an additional working copy, in case she had any brilliant ideas on the way home.
Three waves of the plague had hit Crater Town. The sickness had been brought in by refugee ships, and despite steadily tightened quarantine controls, transmitted through families. Now, between thirty and forty percent of the colony's housing stood empty. The Building Committee had decided to raze the empty buildings as potential health hazards. Lynn and Praeis had met that morning to try to come up with plans for how to use the empty spaces the demolition would create.
Thirty percent. Lynn closed her eyes against the memories of the mass funerals, the dead and dying in their isolation beds, the wailing of the sisters left behind. Hundreds of Human doctors, armed with the best defenses years of research and biotech could devise, had volunteered themselves to help the fight, but they'd only made a small dent in the death tolls. Praeis had lost two sisters and four daughters, and Lynn had been there to watch.
Lynn's fingers hurt. She opened her eyes and looked down. Her gloved hands clenched the edge of the worktable like they were trying to break it off. Feeling moderately foolish, she let go and finished storing the maps.
Praeis liked to try to give Lynn credit for the success of the Crater Town colony, but Lynn would just shake her head. "I just helped out with the gardening," she said. "You're the one who got people to actually live here."
When the original Dedelphi refugees had shown up, they weren't fleeing plague, they were fleeing war. They arrived in the ships of Human mercenary pilots. They stood torn between fear and pride at the customs stations of enclaves, space stations, colonies, and city-ships—anybody who'd let them land and would agree to give them a berth of some variety in return for work or good publicity.
Then came Praeis and her sisters, Jos and Shorie. They saw the scattered, meek Dedelphi population in the Solar system, and they got to work. They found a crater that the Martian enclaves hadn't bothered to foliate. They convinced twelve separate boards and committees that it would be an incredible act of public charity to give it to the Dedelphi so the Dedelphi could have a home where they could be safe from the Human poison that was a constant danger to themselves, their sisters, their daughters.
Praeis and her sisters tramped all over the system gathering donations, equipment, and skilled help. The refugee Dedelphi responded tentatively at first, but then with growing enthusiasm, especially since many of them had daughters who had never been out of their clean-suits.
Lynn's family, famous for their re-creation of Earth's Florida peninsula, were recruited to foliate the crater in a style that would be comfortable for the Dedelphi. It was the work of a number of years. Lynn, her portable screen still warm from receiving her doctorate, had fallen in love with the job, and fallen into friendship with Praeis Shin. When the rest of her family left, Lynn stayed behind. The foliation wasn't complete, she said at the time. There wasn't nearly enough variety in the fields and gardens. They didn't have a trained maintenance force yet.
Her family had nodded sagely at each other, hugged her, and let her stay. Everybody knew what was going on, and approved. Back in Florida, Lynn would be tweaking work that had been completed fifty or seventy-five years ago. Here, she had her own projects, and they were worthwhile ones. Not one relative said one word to protest her basing herself on an entirely different planet.
Her decision had won her the gratitude of the Dedelphi, a number of awards from assorted enclaves, and a handful of really bad nightmares from the plagues. But it was real, and important, and she loved it.
And now ... And now what comes next? Lynn wondered toward the windows. What if they all do go home? What am I going to do?
She shook her head and laughed quietly. Nussbaumer, you selfish little so-and-so.
As it turned out, it was three hours before the crowds in the street shifted enough for Lynn to get through to the monorail that would take her out of the crater and across the rust-and-green landscape to the Ares 12 Human colony. On the way, in her private cabin with its opaqued window, she shucked out of her clean-suit and helmet and stuffed them into her duffel bag. The suits were awkward, but absolutely necessary. Direct contact with Humans caused massive anaphylactic reactions among the Dedelphi. The touch of a Human hand could raise welts on Dedelphi skin. Human dander sent the Dedelphi respiratory system into massive shock. The first encounter between Dedelphi and Humans had lasted three days before five of the Dedelphi died of heart and respiratory failure. There had been confusion and bloodshed on all sides before it was understood what had happened.
Lynn brushed down her shoulder-length auburn hair. Since she didn't actually live with the Dedelphi, she'd been spared the necessity of depilating herself to keep her dander to a minimum.
Excerpted from The Sarah Zettel Collection by Sarah Zettel. Copyright © 2000 Sarah Zettel. 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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Posted February 11, 2014
I love Sarah Zettel's science fiction novels. The Quiet Invasion is probably my favorite. Have read all of these books and they are all good. I think she writes other genres now. Haven't seen a new science fiction book from her for years and years, which is a shame for us science fiction fans.
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