Cosmonaut Keep: The Opening Novel in An Astonishing New Future History

Cosmonaut Keep: The Opening Novel in An Astonishing New Future History

by Ken MacLeod

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Ranging from a gritty near-future Earth to a distant alien world, Ken MacLeod's Cosmonaut Keep is contemporary science fiction at its highest level. A visionary epic filled with daring individuals seeking a place for themselves in a vast, complex, and enigmatic universe.

Matt Cairns is a 21st-century outlaw Programmer who takes on the shady jobs no one else will touch. Against his better judgment, he accepts an assignment to crack the Marshall Titov, a top-secret orbital station operated by the European Space Agency. But what Matt will discover there will propel him on an extraordinary and quite unexpected journey.

Gregor Cairns is an exobiology student and descendant of one of Terra Nova's first families. Hopelessly infatuated with a lovely young trader's daughter, he is unaware that his research partner, Elizabeth, has fallen in love with him. Together, Gregor and Elizabeth confront the great work his family began three centuries earlier-to rediscover the secret of interstellar travel.

Cosmonaut Keep is a 2002 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429977159
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Series: Engines of Light , #1
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 522,984
File size: 357 KB

About the Author

Ken MacLeod holds a degree in zoology and has worked in the fields of biomechanics and computer programming. Three of his novels, The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, and Learning the World each won the Prometheus Award; The Cassini Division was a finalist for the Nebula Award; and The Sky Road won the British Science Fiction Association Award and was a finalist for the Hugo Award, as were Cosmonaut Keep, Dark Light and Learning the World. Ken MacLeod lives near Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and children.
Ken MacLeod is the multiple award-winning author of many science fiction novels, including the Fall Revolution quartet, the Engines of Light trilogy (Cosmonaut Keep, Dark Light, and Engine City), and several stand-alone novels including Newton’s Wake, Learning the World, and The Restoration Game. Born on the Scottish isle of Skye, he lives in Edinburgh.

Read an Excerpt


Ship Coming In

A god stood in the sky high above the sunset horizon, his long white hair streaming in the solar wind. Later, when the sky's color had shifted from green to black, the white glow would reach almost to the zenith, its light outshining the Foamy Wake, the broad band of the Galaxy. At least, it would if the squall-clouds scudding in off the land to the east had cleared by then. Gregor Cairns turned his back on the C. M. Yonge's own foamy wake, and looked past the masts and sheets at the sky ahead. The clouds were blacker and closer than they'd been the last time he'd looked, a few minutes earlier. Two of the lugger's five-man crew were already swinging the big sail around, preparing to tack into the freshening wind.
Much as he'd have liked to help, he knew from experience that he'd only get in the way. He turned his attention back to the tanks and nets in which the day's haul snapped, slapped, or writhed. Trilobites and ostracoderms, mostly, with a silvery smattering of teleostean fish, a slimy slither of sea-slugs, and crusty clusters of shelled molluscs and calcichordates. To Gregor this kind of assemblage was beginning to look incongruous and anachronistic; he grinned at the thought, reflecting that he now knew more about the marine life of Earth's oceans than he did of the planet whose first human settlers had long ago named Mingulay.
His wry smile was caught by his two colleagues, one of whom smiled back. Elizabeth Harkness was a big-boned, strong-featured young woman, about his own age and with a centimeter or two of advantage in height. Under a big leather hat her rough-cut black hair was blown forward over her ruddy cheeks. Like Gregor, she wore a heavy sweater, oilskins, rubber boots, and gauntlets. She squatted a couple of meters away on the laden afterdeck, probing tangles of holdfast with a rusty old knife, expertly slinging the separated molluscs, calcichordates, and float-wrack into their appropriate tanks.
"Come on," she said, "back to work."
"Aye," said Gregor, stooping to cautiously heave a tenkilogram trilobite, scrabbling and snapping, into a water-filled wooden trough. "The faster we get this lot sorted, the more time for drinks back at the port."
"Yeah, so don't stick with the easy stuff." She flung some surplus mussels to the seabats that screamed and wheeled around the boat.
"Huh." Gregor grunted and left the relatively rugged trilobites to fend for themselves in the netting and creels while he pitched in to deal with the small shelly fauna. The vessel rolled, slopping salt water from the troughs and tanks, and then freshwater from the sky hissed onto the deck as they met the squall. He and Elizabeth worked on through it, yelling and laughing as their sorting became less and less discriminatory in their haste.
"As long as they don't eat each other…."
The third student on the boat squatted opposite the two humans, knees on a level with his broad cheekbones, oblivious to the rain pelting his hairless head, and to the rivulets that trickled down his neck then over the seamless collar of his dull gray insulation-suit. The nictitating membranes of his large black eyes, and an occasional snort from his small nostrils or spit from his thin-lipped, inch-wide mouth were the only indications that the downpour affected him at all. His hands each had three long fingers and one long thumb; each digit came equipped with a claw that made a knife, for this task at least, quite unnecessary.
Gregor eyed him covertly, admiring the machinelike ease with which the long fingers sorted through the heaps; tangles ahead of them, neatly separated columns behind; the butchering strength and surgical skill and clinical gentleness of thumb and claw and palm. Then, answering some accurate intuition, the saur rocked back on his heels, washed his hands in the last of the rain, and stood up with his part of the task complete.
Elizabeth and Gregor looked at each other across a diminished area of decking on which nothing but stains and shreds of wrack remained. Elizabeth blinked wet lashes.
"Done," she said, standing up and shaking rain off her hat.
"Great." Gregor heaved himself upright and did likewise, joining the other two at the stern rail. They leaned on it, gazing out at the reddening sky in which the god glowed brighter. The highest clouds in the sky--far higher than the squall-clouds--shone with a peculiar mother-of-pearl rainbow effect, a rare phenomenon that had even the sailors murmuring in amazed appreciation.
Behind them the big sail came rattling down, and the engine coughed into life as the steersman took them in toward the harbor. The cliffs of a hundred-meter-high headland, crowned with a craggy castle, the Keep of Aird, rose on the port side; lower green hills and fields spread out to starboard. Ahead the lights were coming on in Kyohvic, the main port of the straggling seaboard republic known as the Heresiarchy of Tain.
"Good work, Salasso," Gregor said. The saur turned and nodded gravely, his nostrils and lips minutely twitching in his species' equivalent of a smile. Then the great black eyes--their sides easily visible in profile--returned to scanning the sea.
Salasso's long arm and long forefinger pointed.
"Teuthys," he hissed.
"Where?" Elizabeth cried, delighted. Gregor shaded his eyes and stared along the white wake and across the dark waves, so much of it there was, until he saw a darker silhouette rise, humping out of the water about a mile away. For a moment, so it remained, an islet in the deep.
"Could be just a whale--" he murmured.
"Teuthys," the saur insisted.
The hump sank back and then a vast shape shot out of the surface, rising in an apparently impossible arc on a brief white jet; a glimpse of splayed tentacles behind the black wedge of the thing, then a huge splash as it planed back into the water. It did it again, and this time it wasn't black--in its airborne second it glowed and flashed with flickering color. And it wasn't alone--another kraken had joined it. They leaped together, again and then again, twisting and sporting. With a final synchronized leap that lasted two seconds, and a multicolored flare that lit the water like fireworks, the display ended.
"Oh, gods above," Elizabeth breathed. The saur's mouth was a little black O, and his body trembled. Gregor stared at where the krakens had played, awed but wondering. That they were playing he was certain, without knowing why. There were theories that such gratuitous expenditures of energy by krakens were some kind of mating display, or even ritual, but like most biologists Gregor regarded such hypotheses as beneath consideration.
"Architeuthys extraterrestris sapiens," he said slowly. "Masters of the galaxy. Having fun."
The saur's black tongue flickered, then his lips once more became a thin line.
"We do not know," he said, his words perhaps weightier, to Gregor, than he intended. But the man chose to treat them lightly, leaning out and sharing an aching, helpless grin with the woman.
"We don't know," he agreed, "but one day we'll find out." He jerked his face upward at the flare of white spreading up the sky. "Even the gods play, I'm sure of that. Why else would they leave their…endless peace between the stars, and plunge between our worlds and swing around the sun?"
Salasso's neck seemed to contract a little; he averted his eyes from the sky, shivering again. Elizabeth laughed, not noticing or perhaps not reading the saur's subtle body-language. "Gods above, you can talk, man!" she said. "You think we'll ever know?"
"Aye, I do," said Gregor. "That's our play."
"Speak for yourself, Cairns, I know what mine is after a long hard day, and I'm"--she glanced over her shoulder-- "about ten minutes from starting it with a long hard drink!"
Gregor shrugged and smiled, and they all relaxed, gazing at the sea and chatting. Then, as the first houses of the harbor town slipped by, one of the crewmen startled them with a loud, ringing cry:
"Ship coming in!"
Everybody on the boat looked up at the sky.
* * *
James Cairns stood, huddled in a fur cloak, on the castle's ancient battlement and gazed at the ship as it slid across the sky from the east, a glowing zeppelin at least three hundred meters long. Down the dark miles of the long valley--lighting the flanks of the hill--and over the clustered houses of the town it came, its course as steady and constant as a monorail bus. As it passed almost directly overhead at a thousand meters, Cairns was briefly amused to see that among the patterns picked out in lights on its sides were the squiggly signature-scribble of Coca-Cola; the double-arched golden M; the brave checkered banner of Microsoft; the Stars and Stripes; and the thirteen stars-- twelve small yellow stars and one central red star on a blue field--of the European Union.
He presumed the display was supposed to provide some kind of reassurance. What it gave him--and, he did not doubt, scores of other observers--was a pang of pride and longing so acute that the shining shape blurred for a second. The old man blinked and sniffed, staring after the craft as its path sloped implacably seaward. When it was a kilometer or so out to sea, and a hundred meters above the water, a succession of silver lens-shaped objects scooted away from its sides, spinning clear and then heading back the way the ship had come. They came sailing in toward the port as the long ship's hull kissed the waves and settled, its flashing lights turning the black water to a rainbow kaleidoscope. Other lights, underwater and much smaller but hardly less bright, joined it in a colorful flurry.
Cairns turned his attention from the ship to its gravity skiffs; some swung down to land on the docks below, most skittered overhead and floated down, rocking like falling leaves, to the grassy ridge of the long hill that sloped down from the landward face of the castle. James strolled to the other side of the roof to watch. Somewhere beneath his feat, a relief generator hummed. Floodlights flared, lighting up the approach and glinting off the steely sides of the skiffs.
Almost banally after such a bravura arrival, the dozen or so skiffs had extended and come to rest on spindly telescoped legs; in their undersides hatches opened and stair-ladders emerged, down which saurs and humans trooped as casually as passengers off an airship. Each skiff gave forth two or three saurs, twice or thrice that number of humans; about a hundred in all walked slowly up the slope and onto the smoother grass of the castle lawns, tramping across it to be greeted by, and to mingle with, the castle's occupants. The gray-suited saurs looked more spruce than the humans, most of whom were in sea-boots and oilskins, dripping wet. The humans toward the rear were hauling little wheeled carts behind them, laden with luggage.
He felt a warm arm slide through the side-slit of his cloak and clasp his waist.
"Aren't you going down?" Margaret asked.
Cairns turned and looked down at his wife's eyes, which shone within a crinkle of crow's-feet as she smiled, and laid his right arm, suddenly heavy, across her shoulders.
"In a minute," he said. He sighed. "You know, even after all this time, that's still the sight that leaves me most dizzy."
Margaret chuckled darkly. "Yeah, I know. It gets me that way too."
Cairns knew that if he dwelt on the strangeness of the sight, the feeling of unreality could make him physically nauseous; la nausée, Sartre's old existential insecurity-- Cairns wondered, not for the first time, how the philosopher would have coped with a situation as metaphysically disturbing as this.
L'enfer, c'est les autres.
He turned around resolutely, taking Margaret along with him, and together they set off down from the castle's heights to meet the bourgeois with a smile. Under his left elbow he held the furled and folded flag, the star-circled banner which he'd lowered, as was his custom, at sunset. Behind him the steel rope clanged on the mast, bare against the windy night.
They descended the spiral stair, down steps a meter and a half wide and about thirty centimeters high, each of whose treads had been worn down over millenia into a terrifyingly deep normal distribution curve, as though the stone itself were sagging. The iron handrail around the central well was only centuries old, and at the right height for human hands; the electric lighting, though dim, was tuned for human eyes.
James and Margaret kept close to the wall as they descended. Margaret went first, clattering and chatting merily; James followed, half listening, the rest of his attention devoted to the many fossils embedded in the stones of the wall's interior cladding, some of which generations of curious or reverent fingertips of successive species of the castle's occupants had polished to a mahogany sheen. He trailed his own fingers across the fragmentary remains of fish and dragons and sea-monsters and other organisms in a bizarrely Noachic, diluvial conglomerate whose ordering had little to do with their evolutionary succession, as always when he climbed up or down these steps, the line he'd used on his children and grandchildren came to mind: this castle had been built by giants, mined by dwarfs, stormed by goblins, and left to ghosts long before people on Earth had laid so much as one stone upon another.
Sounds and smells echoing or wafting from below intensified as the old couple descended. The arrival of the merchant ship might or might not have been expected, but the keep's staff planned routinely for such a contingency. For this first evening nothing much was expected but hot water, stagger off to afterward: merchants just off a ship were usually in no condition for formal negotiations or celebrations. The saurs would require even less.
The exits from the spiral stair went past, their numbers as fixed in Jame's mind as the numerals on a lift's display. He and Margaret stepped out on the ground floor--the stair still had many levels to go, down into the rock--and made their way around several zigzag turns of narrow defensive corridor. Antique space-suits stood in artfully placed ambuscade niches.
The corridor opened to the castle's main hall, a cavernous space hung with retrofitted electric lights, its fifteen-meter-high walls covered with carpets and tapestries, oil-paintings of members of the Cosmonaut Families, heads and hides of dinosaurs, and decoratively arranged displays of the light artillery with which these gigantic quarry had been sportingly slain.
The wide doors stood open; the hall's blazing fire and more practical electric radiators did little to repel the chill inward swirl of evening air. The merchants, their saur companions, and their servants were already mingled with the welcoming crowd that had gathered from all quarters of the castle. Mingled, but easily distinguishable: for this evening at least, the castle's occupants--Cosmonauts and stewards and seneschals and servants--outdid the merchants in the style and spectacle of their attire. In days to come, the most senior of the Cosmonauts and the riches merchants in Kyohvic would be easily outshone by their visitors youngest child or lowliest page; their present plebeian appearance, though partly dictated by the necessities of interstellar travel, was for all its apparent casualness part of a protocol--setting themselves conspicuously below their hosts-- whose invariance James Cairns had observed many times before.
Right now the new arrivals had discarded their protective clothing in a careless heap in the doorway's broad vestibule, and were padding around in woollen socks and likewise warm gear, shaking or kissing hands with all and sundry, smiling and laughing and slapping shoulders. Children scampered and scooted, chased by their own servants., tactfully redirected from the big room's many exits by swiftly posted stewards. Through it all the saurs drifted, their domed heads bobbing in the throng like stray balloons.
Hal Driver, the Security Man, was in the center of the pressing crowd, already deep in hearty converse with a mature, burly man who had "merchant prince" written all over him, albeit he was dressed like a trawlerman. Red hair sprang in a great shock from his head; freckles spattered his broad-cheeked, flat-nosed face; his rich voice boomed above the babble, his asides to Driver now and again dropping to a confidential murmur.
Margaret nudged James with a confidential murmur of her own.
"Didn't take them long to figure out who's in charge here."
* * *
"Aren't you going up to the keep?" Elizabeth asked.
Gregor finished hosing the scales and slime off his oilskins and hung them in the locker. "Nah," he said, pulling his boots off. "Time enough for that when they have the big bash. Won't be for a day or two yet." He sat on the low fold-down bench, tugging off his thick socks and stuffing them in the boots, then carefully eased his feet into his leather shoes. "Fancy coming along yourself?"
Elizabeth reddened. "Oh, that's nice of you--thanks, but I just don't know if I can."
"Well, the invitation's open," Gregor said, oblivious to her momentary embarrassment, and turned to the saur. "How about you?"
The slow-swinging electric light's reflection made tiny arcs in Salasso's black eyes as the saur waited patiently in the converted hold's low narrow doorway. His clothing needed no cleaning or adjustment. Nor, Gregor suddenly realized with a blush of his own, would it need any possible expensive alternative for social occasions.
He ducked to lace up his shoes as Salasso said he would certainly come along.
"Don't worry about, uh, dressing up," he called after Elizabeth as she stepped up to the deck. "You know what the merchants are like, they wouldn't know what the fashion is here anyway."
"I'll think about it," she told him, not looking back.
Up on deck the three students thanked Renwick, the skipper, who was making the last check of the boat before leaving it for the night. The specimens, safe in their various containers, would keep until the morning, when they'd be hauled off to the Marine Biology Station.
"Pint at the Bailie's?" Elizabeth asked Renwick.
The skipper shook his head. "Nah, I'll have a short with the crew. Last seen heading for the Shipwright, I think. See you tomorrow, folks."
The harbor was so old it might have been natural, but it was merely pre-human. The quarter-mile-long mole was built of the same hard metamorphic rock as the castle's exterior walls, and was reckoned to have been blasted and lifted from the harbor basin in ancient times, either by the brute force and primitive ingenuity of multitudes, or by the laser lances and gravity sleds of visitors from outer space. It formed one curved arm of the harbor's embrace, the other being provided by the headland's cliffs, Beyond it, the rocky outcrops gave way to a long, white sandy beach, which broke up in the distance to tussocked dunes.
Gregor scrambled up the rusty of the ladder and out onto the mole. A few hundred meters across the water, on the harbor's central docks, a small knot of humans and saurs had gathered around the landed skiffs. Gregor glanced at them incuriously and turned to gazing again at the sky as he waited for the others to join him.
The rainbow clouds had dispersed. Gabriel, the evening and morning star, burned like a lamp in the west, its light outshone by the god standing higher in the sky, and by the auroral flicker of the starship floating on the sea beneath it. High them all hung the icy gleam of Rapheal and the tiny spark of Ariel, its moon; and--following the ecliptic around to the east--the bright sickle of the new moon, beyond which Gog and Magog, the ringed gas giants of the outer system, glowered like a monster's eyes.
Crossing the sky from north to south, alone in its polar orbit, deserted for two hundred years, went the old ship from home. To Gregor, tracking it with a rapidly blinking eye, the Birth star seemed a stranger and more evocative sight than all the familiar constellations--the Musketeer, the Squid, the Angel's Wing, and the rest--that straddled the sky on either side of the Foamy Wake.
And, ironically, more difficult for humans to reach.
The two humans and the saur walked briskly along the mole and into the waterfront streets of Kyohvic, turning right along a bright-lit, cobbled esplanade to the Bailie's Bar, its sign a jolly, pint-quaffing grandee in plumed hat and lace cravat. Inside, it was long, low-ceilinged, its plastered walls decorated with naive murals and shelves and brackets supporting harpoons and stuffed ichthyosaurs; its tables and bar counters half filled with men just off the boats and ships. It was that kind of place, at this time of the evening; later, the sawdust would be swept up, the tables wiped, and a cleaner crowd would pour in from the shows or the eating-houses; but for now it reeked of sweat and fish, yeast and baccy and hemp, its dim light glinting with the glitter of glasses and pots and the glazed, lidded gaze of men relaxing thoughtfully over their long pipes. The regulars recognized the students with a nod and a smile; others, seamen in from another port, frowned at the saur. As Gregor waved Elizabeth and Salasso to a seat and strode to the bar, he heard hissed mutterings about "snakes." He ignored it; the saur himself turned a black, blank glare in that direction; and, out of the corner of his eye, Gregor noticed the most vocal objector getting an urgent word in his ear from one of the barmaids.
Gregor ordered pints for himself and Elizabeth, and a tall billican of hot fish-stock for Salasso. As he waited for the stout to settle and the thin soup to be brought back to the boil, he found himself worrying again about the unerring aim that so often connected his foot with his mouth. The awkwardness, he was sure, came not from the difference between the sexes but from the perhaps greater communication gulf of class. Elizabeth Harkness was of predominantly local descent, albeit of good family, some of whose members were prominent in the Scoffer heresiarchy; his own ancestry, give or take a good deal of exogamy with the locals, came from the Bright Star's crew.
From the bar's mirror behind the bottles his own face scrutinized him: the same thin nose and grim mouth and long black hair swept back from a high hairline that he'd seen in generations of portraits. He felt their presence like a weight on his back.
"That'll be five shillings, Greg."
"Oh!" He blinked and shook his head; with that slight start recognizing the barmaid as Andrea Peden, one of the undergraduate students whose work he'd occasionally supervised. Her ripping auburn hair was loose on her shoulders rather than tied back, and he'd only ever seen her in a lab overall, but still. "Uh, thanks, Peden. And, let's see, an ounce of hemp as well, please." Alcohol was not a saur vice--it was a physiological difference; they assimilated it without intoxication--but hemp had definitely taken with the species, centuries ago.
"Another sixpence, then," the girl said. She glanced around. "And we're off-study, so first names, okay, Greg?"
"Ah, sure, Andrea, thanks."
He just knew that if he commented on her working here it would come across as yet another clumsy reminder of the difference between his economic status and that of most other students, so he forbore.
Back at the table he raised his glass soberly to Elizabeth as Salasso nodded almost imperceptibly at both of them and took from a thigh pocket a thin aluminum tube and a longstemmed bone pipe, its bowl elaborately carved. The saur sucked up fish-stock through the tube and began filling the pipe from the paper twist.
"Hah!" he sighed after a minute, his mouth opening, snakelike, surprisingly wide and showing little fangs. Gregor winced slightly at the momentary waft of carnivore breath. A thin brass rectangle appeared between Salasso's long fingers like a conjuring trick, and he applied its faint flame to the tamped hemp and puffed. "Hah! That's better!"
"Any idea where the ship's from?" Elizabeth asked, as though Gregor might know. But it was Salasso who answered.
"Nova Babylonia," he said, and inhaled on the pipe. His lashless eyelids made a rare blink, and his third eyelid-- the nictitating membrane--was flickering more rapidly than usual. "Of the fleet of the family Tenebre." His voice was reedy and harsh. He passed the pipe to Elizabeth.
"Recognize it, do you?" she asked, puffing for politeness' sake.
Gregor was a little disappointed by her seizing on this point. To hell with how the saur knew about it, the ships's origin was what mattered. Ships from Nova Babylonia were rare. From his twenty years, he could recall two such visits.
"Yesss," said Salasso, leaning his narrow shoulders against the seat's tall back. He drew on the metal straw again, hot colors briefly flowing in the gray-green skin of his cheeks. "I have seen that ship…many times."
Elizabeth gave Gregor a skeptical look as she handed over the pipe. Gregor returned her a warning glance and just nodded at Salasso, keeping his face carefully expressionless as he sucked the last vile embers of the hemp. He tapped them out on the floor and began refilling the pipe.
"So you might know some of the shore crew?" he asked.
Salasso's shoulders lifted. "It is very possible. If so, I'll find out when I go to the reception at the castle." His great eyes closed for a moment. "Of the family Tenebre, perhaps a few. The human generations pass."
Gregor struck a match on his boot and relit, the cannabis rush roaring in his ears like a burn in spate. He heard Elizabeth's light laugh.
"This I have to see!" she said. "For this, I would come to your party as I am, rags and holes and boots and all!"
"Yeah, you do that," he said warmly. "Come as a scientist."
"Oh, thanks," said Elizabeth indignantly, then giggled. Gregor returned the pipe to the saur, who smoked the rest of it but said no more, his body still, his mind gliding into a typically saurian trance. The two humans watched in silence for a couple of minutes, supping at their pints until the pipe clattered from Salasso's fingers onto the table.
Gregor leaned across and stroked the dry, warm skin of the saur's face. No response was forthcoming.
"He's offline," he remarked.
"Another print while we wait?" Elizabeth asked.
"Aye, thanks."
No time, or a long time, seemed to pass before she returned.
"Do you think he meant that literally?" she asked, as he settled in again. The saur's head, its great eyes still open, suddenly lolled sideways against her shoulder. She patted it. "Well, that's me here for the duration!"
"About twenty minutes, I reckon," Gregor said abstractedly. "Um, how could he not have meant it literally?"
Elizabeth leaned forward on one elbow, careful not to disturb Salasso, gazing with what seemed like half-stoned fixity into Gregor's eyes. "You know. Metaphorically. Might be that their families, or lines, or whatever, know each other from way back." She laughed. "Do you really think our friend here is that old? He doesn't act like it."
"We all know the saurs live a long time."
Gregor looked straight back at her, narrow-eyed. "The saurs say it, and I've no reason to doubt it."
Elizabeth nodded slowly. "Aye, well, sometimes I wonder if the saurs are…ancient people. That they are what people become, if they live long enough."
Gregor laughed. "It's a nice idea. But the saurs, they're obviously reptilian--or saurian, if you want to be exact!"
"And so? The reptilian genes could still be in us, and only expressed much later in life than people normally live."
"You might have a point there," Gregor conceded, not entertaining the idea for a second. "Nobody's ever seen a saur dissected, after all, or even a picture of a saur skeleton."
He shook the last of the crumbled leaf into Salasso's ornate pipe. That moment when saurs got well and truly whacked by the hemp was the only time they'd open up for a few seconds, and they'd let slip weird things then. But that might just be the drug talking.
"Has anyone ever asked for one?" Elizabeth wondered aloud.
Gregor shook his head. "And I'll lay good money Salasso won't answer any questions we ask him when he comes back to the land of the living."
"Hmm, I wouldn't even try. He'd be touchy about it."
"There you go."
This was an old subject. The saurs' individualism and prickly sense of privacy made humans look like some kind of garrulous, gossiping animal that hunted in packs. They might all look the same to a casual or hostile eye--though here, Gregor had found, familiarity made their distinctions apparent--but their personalities were unpredictably diverse. The few traits they shared included a ravenous thirst for knowledge and a great reluctance to divulge any. Their language, their sexuality, their social relationships, their politics and philosophies--if any--were as mysterious as they must have been to the first terrified savage they'd encountered, many millennia back in humanity's history.
"Well," Gregor said, lightning up, "the least we can do is smoke the last of his weed. He sure won't be needing it."
"Hmm." Elizabeth puffed quickly and returned the pipe. "No more for me, thanks. I want to keep my clear to writing up some notes."
Gods in orbit, his colleague was beginning to look attractive as her merry eyes stared with fathomless pupils into his mind, even though her face and frame were a little more…angular than he usually took to in a woman.…That girl Peden at the bar--now, she was quite something.…
Elizabeth laughed, and Gregor had a sudden suspicion, sobering as a cold wave over the deck, that he'd actually said what he'd just been thinking…but no, his dry lips were still stuck to the stem of the pipe.
He licked his lips, overcome by another effect of the weed: sudden hunger. "What?"
"The way you look, Gregor, I wouldn't advise you to bother writing any notes tonight. They won't make much sense in the morning."
Her voice, or the vibration of her laughter, made Salasso stir and sit abruptly upright, blinking hard and looking around. Elizabeth stroked his hand, lightly grasped Gregor's for a moment of what he took to be stoned affection, and rose.
"Good night, chaps," she said, and was gone before Gregor could ask her if she had any plans to eat.

Copyright © 2000 by ken MacLeod.

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