t e m p o r a l
d o o r w a y
She is suddenly awake in sunlight.The walls are patterned with subtle and angular patterns, and slashing shadows. She is warm, buried in a thick blanket. The bed reminds her of a hedge bed, but the motion is softer and more liquid. She stirs, and remembers...
It happens in utter silence.
The edge of her ship is enveloped in a blinding flash that quickly dies away into a vague fog of parts and gas as the vehicle tumbles away, shattered.
Air roars out of the hull, tearing at her suit. The force of the blast spins the ship, and she faints with G-shock as the blaze of the explosion envelops her. The energy vaporizes parts of the seat and the control panel. It washes across her back as she is thrown forward against the restraints.
She is sweating, and her mouth is wet with salty blood.
There is a little boy wrapped in a bright caftan, staring at her from the door.
At the sight of her eyes open, he runs, calling, "Kleeri, Kleeri, uncta oblan abratal! Kleeri..."
She falls asleep, even as she is trying to stir beneath a blanket that is heavier and heavier.
It is dark again when she wakes up, sore as if she has been beaten with a stick across the back. She shifts and the pain flies to her lips with a groan that explodes into a soft breath. Her muscles feel full of grating sand. She pushes the blanket away - then she is tangled in more fabric until she wants to scream - but doesn't. Gradually she extracts herself.
She sits on the edge of the bed, gasping, neck muscles barely able to support her head. The smells are foreign... unidentifiable. Slowly she can look around. The room is enormous, maybe three times the size of the bed. When her feet touch the floor, a gold light seeps from the bottom edges of the wall, as if the room knows she is here. The patterns seem to also take on a faint light.
Not all the fabric is part of the bed. Some of it is a thin shift that hangs from her shoulders and bunches in her lap making her feel old. She can see faint shadows on her legs that look like bruises.
The opening where the child stood is still across from the bed. Beyond it there is a brighter light from one side, and some faint melodic sounds. She manages to stand, but the strength it requires is almost too much and she lists slowly to one side before she regains her balance.
Just past the opening, there is a hallway with a violently fractal floor of inlaid woods that glisten with slightly different textures in a light from the next room - a room too bright for her to see. She can hear the music, a little louder. She almost doesn't hear it as music - the form is unfamiliar, the instruments strange, and it is very quiet.
She steps into the room, and at that moment, she realizes how dim the hallway had been, since for a moment, she cannot see, and she staggers against the the wall. In that moment, she sees several figures sitting, facing a blank wall. They turn to her, their eyes gleaming and reflective.
Then, suddenly, they are surrounding her, concerned, eyes fading to normal colors. A tall woman, older than Clu, with a narrow faintly lined face beneath steel hair. A taller man, pale, dark brown hair and vivid green eyes with a thin epicanthic fold. And the child. All confronting her across a small distance, silhoetted against the now quiet light of the room beyond.
"I'm sorry," she tells them.
They speak to her, but it is nothing she can understand. The woman touches her arm and leads her slowly into the room. She helps Clu sit on a soft but embracing couch. They stand looking at her and talking among themselves. The woman dispatches the boy who runs off out of the room. Finally, the woman leans forward.
"Are you all right?" she asks.
She can't help a sudden gasp at hearing her own language, though the accent is odd.
"Yes... I am. Thank you. Who are you? Where are we?"
"My name is Celine Bejounais, this is her husband Lucas, and her son Alex. I'm originally from South Cocteau. You're in Prometheus. I'm afraid they don't speak Franca, but we'll take care of that. The Recovery League thought we'd be a good match for your orientation."
"Orientation?" Clu wonders.
The boy hurries back into the room and joins us, with some equipment cradled in his hands. He gives it to his mother, who holds it out to her. "A translator set," she says. "Not the best, but it should do for now. These are for your ears, and this sticks to the side of the throat."
"I don't understand."
"May I?" she asks, cocking her head to one side. "It'll help you understand Luke and Alex."
She nod reluctantly. She is in the hands of people she doesn't know, and trust is hard, but necessary.
The woman reaches up and Clu flinches briefly as she feel hands at her ears, and then gently at her throat. The woman's perfume is a strong and strange for a moment.
Lucas smiles at her and speaks, "What do you think?" she hear, though his lips are moving to say something else.
She is stunned by the implications. These people have computing facilities sufficient for natural language translation that are small enough to fit in her ear. A wave of terror strikes her as she realizes how useless everything she know may be. But she smiles, wanly, perhaps, and replies: "It's great. Hi, Lucas."
"Call me Luke."
"Hey, lady, how about me?" Alex demands, grinning at her.
"Hi," she replies, taken aback.
"Alex," Celine cautions, "she's tired. Let's not make it harder for her."
"That's OK." Clu tries to bring her expression back to normal. "I am tired. But I don't think I can sleep any more. I've been sleeping too much. In fact," she remembers, "I was looking for a bathroom."
They laugh, and Celine helps her up. "Come on, we'll take care of that and then some clothes and some food."
Back in the room, the lights rise to meet us. Celine strides confidently to the blank wall, gestures, and suddenly a huge store of clothes are revealed as if the wall had never been there. But Clu is weak enough to sink onto the bed gratefully, breathing a little hard. Celine smiles at Clu over her shoulder, as if knowing how strange all this is to her, and trying to both reassure and impress her at once. Clu tries to smile back.
"What do you like?" Celine asks. "This?" She holds out a garish caftan, grinning impishly. She assesses Clu's expression. "No, probably not." She pushes it back and retrieves a soft shirt and pants with a subtle asymmetrical blazon on the shirt. It is conservative, and perfect, and she knows it. Just a step beyond the highest Cocteau fashion.
But Celine has to help Clu dress. And as soft as the brassiere band is, where it touches the remnants of burn and bruise, it leaves her clenching her teeth against the pain.
They step out onto a nighttime patio with discreet lighting and plants everywhere. It is a display of wealth that momentarily amazes Clu - but in a second her attention is seized by the view.
Beyond the edge of the patio are the trees like towering lace and veins. Above them, for a moment she thinks she is seeing the stars, until something odd about the geometry strikes through her general astonishment. Then she realizes that she is not looking at a sky, but at a vastly curving plane of earth, softly crusted with millions of lights that align into fractal but almost euclidean systems as they climb up the curve of the sky, dimming with the vast distance, and then sharpening again as they rise higher and curve over like an endlessly breaking wave. A sudden dizziness strikes her, and she is terrified of falling into the sky, or of tripping over the edge of the patio and falling away over the trees into a distant city.
Luke's hand is on her shoulder, steadying her. "What's the matter?" he asks.
"Don't tell me you're used to it?" she asks, gesturing weakly. He looks puzzled... then relieved. He laughs. "Guess I am. I was born here, after all. Never lived on the outside of anything."
She holds onto the railing and carefully cranes her neck to look upward. Behind her, the night shades into day, and she can see the daylit landscape running down toward the house, only to disappear dimly into the night. There are clouds wrinkling the distant sky. "I wonder if it's a good idea to eat out here."
Celine is behind them at the table, laying out plates and trays. "Why?"
Luke speaks up for her, "She's having a bit of vertigo, I think." He helps Celine with the tableware, and the sound is calming, normal.
"That would be it," Clu whispers. She carefully make her way over to the table. There is a wonderful smell of chestaro and fried implica. "Oh, thank you," she says. Little Alex holds the chair for her as she sits down. She smiles at him in thanks.
A breeze stirs her hair, and she feels vividly alive for a moment.
"Go ahead - eat," Celine insists. "I hope you like it."
"... the Recovery League handles a lot of the immigrants. They're a charity set up, what... oh fifty years ago? Celine's on the Board, but they have a lot of members."
Celine smiles as she passes some warm rolled bread across the table. "Here, have some of these... They thought you'd do well with us, since I was originally from South Cocteau. There aren't many from Cocteau here."
"Where in South Cocteau? And how did you get here?" Clu asks, curious, between mouthfuls of what seems the richest food she had ever eaten.
"Oh, well," she laughs, "it was a long time ago. Are you sure you want to hear about it?"
"Of course," Clu insists.
Celine's face mobilizes with a spontaneous intensity that immediately embraces Clu. Her voice is soft and melodic, as she keeps within Franca, as if nostalgic for the sense of her original language.
"We lived up in the mountains during the revolution. I guess her parents thought it was just going to be a problem in the cities, and we could ignore it. I was a child, so I thought they were right."
"I know just what you mean," Clu whispers, feeling as if she has been struck.
... Sherril lashes out with his fists. Clu screams. The men struggle, shuffling in the dirt, falling, rolling all together, then falling again on Sherril. The gun spins across the pavement and skids into the dust. Clu jumps out of the wagon and snatches it up, running desperately for the house.
"But you see, we were fortunate. My father was an engineer who worked on space propulsion systems. He had been working with another engineer on a special project. When things began to fall apart, his friend approached him and suggested it might be a good idea to get out. What he meant, was to come here. I grew up here, not like Luke, who was born here, you know." She laughed, a little nervously. Clu wonders if Celine is nervous of her. "That's what you do, isn't it? Space systems?"
"Yes, that's right."
Air roars out of the hull, tearing at her suit. The force of the blast spins the ship, and she faints with G-shock as the blaze of the explosion envelops her. The energy vaporizes parts of the seat and the control panel. It washes across her back as she is thrown forward against the restraints.
"Actually," she continues, "the ship I was flying was my design."
Luke slides into the seat beside Celine. "Sorry to hear that." He shoots a mysterious glance at Celine. "I know Celine's dad was pretty attached to every machine he worked on." He pauses and passes over a new dish. "Try this. It's as native as anything here can be."
"Should I ask what it is?"
"Ah," she replies, as if that means something. But it does smell wonderful.
It isn't long after she starts to eat the "cheeseburger" that the exhaustion sweeps back up and nearly keels her across the cool-lit table. She grip the edge tightly. Luke notices and she feels him glance at Celine.
"C'mon, hon," Celine says, and Clu feels her hands on her shoulders. "Time to get back to rest. Plenty of time to catch up when the light rolls around." Clu tries to smile, but Celine has to help her up, and slowly they make their way back through the enormous house, to her enormous room and its vast, quiet bed. Where she sleeps.
Morning arrives and the light slants through a window in the right wall that Clu is sure hadn't been there yesterday. It is just hot enough to make her stir past the edges of the light, where her eyes come open to stare across it to the view of the trees and a vast rising curve of landscape beyond.
The edges of her body are still in pain, and she is weak enough to need to push the blankets aside slowly. She slides her legs into the sun, and perches on the edge of the bed, feeling the warmth merge slowly into her blood. Finally, she can stand, and she notices a new opening beside the bed, which leads into a room that lights as she turns toward it. A washroom, but one so large that it must be the size of the one at work.
It hits her, then. She is alone. Lan is not here. She will not be going to work today, or riding the ancient bus home. Lan will not look up from his work on the sequel to Stellar Interiors, smile at her, and accept her kiss. She looks down to see her hands rigid on her thighs - in the sun, but somehow cold - and, slowly, carefully, she relaxes them, one muscle at a time.
She realizes that she cannot fall into hysteria. She has to carefully consider her options and work toward her goal - to be reunited with Lan. To somehow be free.
And, for a moment, she laughs. She remembers two teenagers by the side of a pond in the evening. She remembers listening to stories of the mythical Prometheus space station. I'm on a myth, she thinks. For a moment, she remembers the cool moist grass on her back, and the stars. It makes the sun of Prometheus seem unbearably hot.
She throws water on her face and stares into the startlingly huge and perfect mirror. The face which stares back is puffy and bruised. But the cuts at the corners of her mouth, and the burns on her shoulder seem to be fading away already. She lets her black hair fall back over her neck and smiles. She steps back into the room, looking for clothing.
The main room is chaos. Each wall seems to carry different and complex messages as moving images and cryptic, unreadable writing. Voices speak too fast to be identified much less comprehended - and for a moment, she pulls back against the walls, watching Luke gesturing and speaking into the walls, while Celine stands beside a table, reaching across it, arranging strange blocks of color and and imagery into a three dimensional structure, as if there were nothing occurring. It is almost a terrifying onslaught.
Suddenly, everything is silent, and the two look at each other and grin. Then Luke spots Clu at the doorway, and glances warningly at Celine, and back to Clu, as if guiding her eyes. Celine looks over with concern and then grins. "Closure?" she asks. "Momentary," he responds. "Hold state," he says to the wall.
"I'm sorry," Clu says, embarrassed. "I'm interrupting."
"Not at all," Luke replies. He looks at Celine. "Check with Viking, and see if we can ship this afternoon. I'm going to go get some shopping done. Maybe you two can spend lunch, and talk things over."
Celine nods, seeming a little let-down from the activity of only moments before. Clu wonders if she has made Celine unhappy. "Really," she says, in a suddenly hoarse voice, "I can wait."
Celine squeezes her arm. "No, it's fine."
Her second trip outside is not as immediately threatening as the first. The sky is hazy blue clotted with bright cumulus. The vast wall of Prometheus shows through the gaps as irregular stripes of dark and light, faint with green and brown and blue with increasing distance. But now it is clearly part of a vast and awesome tunnel. She stands on a pale grey strip that runs from the house down past a soft tan sward, through a wall of crisply geometric olive hedges cut into a variety of polyhedral shapes. An odd looking object sits nearby on the strip - blue like the sky, and a shape like a water smoothed stone, not completely regular or symmetrical, bulged at the center with a gleaming dark material wrapping the dome.
"OK?" Celine asks.
Clu nods hesitantly. The strip is under her feet, and she can see it is not so different from the roads at home, except that it is fine in texture, and completely uniform.
"We're going for a ride. They still have autos on Cocteau?"
"Oh, not really. Autos are sort of like that, but we - or rather I - get to drive. You'll like it."
"Like a field car," she mutters. A wheeled vehicle.
The smooth side of the auto is like water. But it splits and there are sudden doors opening into a clean grey interior. Celine helps her in, and she is suddenly sitting with complete support and no metal in front of or above her - instead, she can see the house, trees and sky as if the skin of the object never existed. She looks to her left as Celine slips into the neighboring seat. The grey panel opens like an eyelid, revealing a complex set of colorful displays. The doors slip shut, and they are wrapped in the quietness of the auto. Almost immediately, it begins to move, and she clutches at the seat in shock as they slide backward away from the sharp-angled house in total silence. On the heels of the movement, a sound begins, rising swiftly to above the edge of hearing. It is a strange, rich, melodic sound, with a certain violence to its hammering but variable rhythm. It is hard to judge the unfamiliar sounds, but the clarity seems better than any performance she had ever heard. Celine glances over as the auto slips past the polygonal hedge onto a wider strip. "Music OK?"
"Sure," Clu replies unsteadily, as the auto suddenly turns and flashes into forward motion. The shadows of arching lace-like trees whip across the windows. Other autos of startling design and color fly toward them at equally impossible speeds, seeming to veer aside from collision at the last possible second. She flinches the first few times, until she realizes that the appearance is an illusion of perspective and speed.
"Where," Clu starts, humilated to hear her voice emerge as a strangled squeak. She seizes control over her voice and tries again. "Where are we going?" Her eyes are transfixed on the strip beyond the window and the dodging autos. They negotiate a series of sinous curves, slow, stop at an intersection and turn, all at fantastic speed, as Celine answers "We're going to Dominic's. He has the best Paisanic food in the neighborhood. Been at it for years. Hires Paisani immigrants for all his positions, and decorated the place like the refectory at the Hexadoric Resort. But, I've forgotten, you've never been there. Pais, I mean. Luke and I took a vacation to the HR back in forty-seven, after we made a great score for the Remec's linkvid of Bamia's Travail." Suddenly she realizes that Clu is simply looking at her without expression. "I'm sorry," Clu replies. "I didn't understand much of that. But I will, eventually." Celine smiles as her hand nods this way and that, apparently steering the vehicle. "Don't worry, you'll probably like the lunch anyway," Celine assures her. "I'd take you to one of the Cocteau restaurants, but I suspect they'd be almost as unfamiliar to you. From what I've heard, you've been on short rations there."
"That's true," Clu sighs. "I had a fairly good job, but I couldn't get much more than rice, shimas, and palenki any more. But Lan is the best cook in the family. He can make even that something unique." Her heart clamps with a sudden spasm of memory.
The vehicle pulls down a curved strip into a depression that is centered by a circular building with a shallow conic roof of white struts and greyish panels. Large low plants with grey venous trunks surround thirty foot glass walls, clustering into flame foliaged spikes beside the entrance. The doors of the auto pull open around them, and the seats shift to help them step out. Clu looks back, amazed, as the auto drives away. "It's just going to park itself," Celine tells her.
The room is awash with the sound of voices from tables scattered irregularly across the floor. Clu eyes the stream that runs beside the table, its flow muting the nearby conversations into the soft chaos of moving water. Her fingers move gently on the table glass, but somehow, no smudges appear. Her brows knit and then smooth as she looks across the table at Celine. "I'm not used to anything like this. I suppose when you're rich, you get used to it..."
Celine laughs. "Rich? Oh, no. I wish we were. Who knows - maybe someday?" She grasps Clu's hand. "We're a normal family, Clu. I know it might not seem that way. It's been too long since I've been on Cocteau for me to know what it's like there any more, I'm afraid. I know there isn't much left. Don't judge what used to be by what exists now. The capitalists of Cocteau attained fantastic weath for our world. But it doesn't take long for it all to disappear."
"No, it doesn't."
"Still, that's more than enough of the past. I wanted to take you out to lunch so we could talk about the future."
"The future's simple.I go back to Cocteau and I get Lan back."
Celine sits back pursing her lips as if considering how to respond. But a man arrives beside their table - extremely tall, perhaps seven or seven and a half feet, black face partly veiled in a swath of bright patterned cloth that wraps up into an asymetrically winged hat. The figure bows. "I, Narateen, am at your service, patrons. May I sing the menu?"
Celine smiles. "Of course, Narateen."
The waiter begins a soft and odd song, which Clu cannot follow, but which is somehow a delightful relief. Celine nods at various points. The song ends. Clu claps delightedly. "That was pretty!" Narateen bows gracefully. "Unfortunately," she looks at Chrstie, "I didn't understand a word. I suppose you might order for me?" Celine nods, and rattles off a set of requests. Narateen ticks points on a handheld panel, then bows again. "I thank you for your order. The time required will be approximately ten; the price is thirty five and six." He withdraws, but Clu's eyes follow his stately progression until Celine's voice recalls her.
"Back to the question of your future."
"Yes, I'm sorry."
"Don't be, hon. Now look, I know you want to go back to Cocteau. I don't think anyone on Prometheus would disagree with your desire or your chance of eventually achieving it."
"As in "how to pay for it". Your grant from the Foundation and the League is sufficient for about two months of normal living in Prometheus. It gives you a chance to get oriented and find work, and qualify for provisional membership. But it isn't enough, hon, to buy a ship, or repair your own. It might be enough to support your lock fees on your ship. Now, the Foundation, while supporting missions to Cocteau, for observation, and exfiltration, isn't going to engage in anything except those kind of missions, or any sort of militant actions outside of self-defense. In short, they're not likely to fund your infiltration for the purpose of breaking your husband out of prison until or unless you can demonstrate a high chance of success, and a good chance of keeping our involvement quiet."
Clu pushes her hair back over her ear. Her eyes glint dangerously. "I see. So what can I do?"
Celine smiles. "I'm not heartless, kiddo. It's my job to help you find some work and get you independent. After that, well, I'm glad to help you get your ship fixed, or advise you on getting a new one. OK?"
"OK," Clu smiles with relief. "But what do I do?"
"Good question. What do you do?"
"I design civilian and military spacecraft."
"Hmm. I don't know that there's going to be much technology crossover. Nothing personal dear, but our technology here is about 200 years in advance of what we had on Cocteau before the revolution. The progress has been geometric. There are things we take for granted here that you don't even have words for."
"But you learned it."
"Yes, and you can, too. But you need to be making a living in the meantime."
"So who do we see? I mean, who does work assignment?"
Now it is Celine's turn to be puzzled. "Work assignment? You mean hiring?"
"No, I mean who tells me what sort of job I'm assigned to."
Celine laughs. "I don't think there's anyone. You have to decide what sort of work you want."
"But how can I choose?"
"We'll work together on that. You and I will take a little walk through the career web after lunch."
Narateen arrives at their table with a large tray. "Your meal, ladies." Carefully supporting the tray with one hand, he hands out the plates to each in turn. He then stands with the empty tray resting against his leg. "I hope you enjoy the meal."
Celine looks up at him and asks, "Narateen, can I ask you a question?"
"Narateen, if your wife were held prisoner on your homeworld, what would you do?"
The tall man reaches up and unfastens his veil, revealing a blunt face and a closely-trimmed beard. "Since you ask, ma'am," he touches a blunt piece of metal hanging from a tan, rectangular pouch under his other arm, "I am sure this would be an appropriate response to the situation, one I would make use of at the earliest opportunity. However, my wife and daughter remain on Pais, while I work here to raise the shipfare to bring them, and the home to welcome them. So the problem is merely hypothetical."
Clu watches in astonishment. "How long... How long have you waited?"
"Five years, ma'am. But next year I will have saved enough, and they will be on their way. Then, I will be completely happy." He pauses. Then, "Will there be anything else?"
"Thank you, Narateen," Celine bows her head slightly.
Clu stares after him. "There are stories everywhere."
"That's true, hon."
"But what was that under his arm? You have one too - I thought it was just a purse. What makes a purse a 'response'? Money?"
Celine laughs. "Oh, I keep forgetting how much there is to tell you, hon. No, it's not a purse. It's a weapon."
Clu leans across the table in shock. "You mean the waiter is walking around with a gun? What if he thought we were rude!"
Celine slaps her thigh, and her delighted laughter rings across the room, turning heads. "Goodness, Clu. The waiter would never shoot us. It would be bad for business. No, no I'm just kidding. Clu, guns are for defense. Almost everyone carries."
Clu's frown gets deeper, and draws her brows into a knot. "You, him, everyone? Is it that dangerous here?"
"No, Clu," Celine replies, patiently, "it's not dangerous. That's because we're dangerous. Besides, there are laws. Even self-defense has to be proven."
"Will I need one?"
"Eventually. Not now. Come on, let's eat."
The main room of the house seems empty, until Celine carefully dabs the contacts onto Clu's twitching eyes. Clu gasps, suddenly realizing that the walls are rich with imagery. "Do you... see this all the time?" she asks. Celine chuckles softly. "Yes."
Then Celine holds out her hand. "Do you see this?" she asks. A glowing control seems to form just beyond her fingertips.
"Yes..." Clu breathes.
"Watch the wall."
Clu looks, and the solidity seems to fall away, replaced by another room. The illusion is perfect, with the imagery avoiding the furniture. "I can't believe this. What's next?"
"You get tested."
It begins with one dimensional patterns of numbers and words. Once Celine has shown her how to indicate her choice, time begins to pass quickly. The wall produces a different room, and now the patterns are two dimensional, and harder. But shortly, the patterns become three dimensional and then they animate. She struggles and the time between answers lengthens. Suddenly the imagery snaps away.
"What?" she wonders. Celine touches her hand, and the sensation is somehow distant.
"I think the test knows you need a break. You made it very far, Clu. Great job."
"Really? It seems so hard. What is it? An intelligence test?"
"Among other things. But it only tests general intelligence and spatio-temporal perceptual components. Don't worry, the factual, process, and meta testing is still to come."
Clu smiles wryly. "I suppose that would be reassuring if I thought I could manage it."
"It's not that kind of test, hon. Come on, let's go make some juice and a thack."
Celine helps her up. "The kitchen. I'll show you how to make one."
This is Clu's first time in the kitchen. Like the rest of the house, it is a room that seems as large as her apartment, and it is lined with objects and machines of unknown purpose blended into streamlined wood surfaces. Celine reaches up to some blank wood formations, touches them briefly, and they open to reveal various racks, boxes, and sacks, all emblazoned with bright patterns, colors and images. Celine shows her how to identify some of the packages, though she still can't read the printing on their surface. Suddenly, Celine seems to realize the problem. "Oh, I'm sorry, Clu," she exclaims. "Here, you have to do this. Hold your left hand up in this shape." She tries to follow the example, and suddenly there is a semi-transparent menu floating between them. "OK, now pick 'thing labels', just like picking in the test." She follows the instruction, and suddenly there are small constellations of Franca writing near each object in the visual field. The labels diminish in density as they approach the focus of attention - though small and unobtrusive, they are visible, and occupy apparently fixed locations in space. "I see them," Clu whispers. She turns her attention to the food, and now she can see what each one is. "This is great. How do I turn it off?" "Same gesture, then pick it again." Clu turns it off, then on again. "I see. Now what?"
"Now we make a thack. Here, take the shell, this is barala paste, spread it inside, then the thrum, curl it up, and now we heat it." She places it on some dark disks on a wood surface. Suddenly, the shells are warm and slightly softened, and a bit of the barala paste oozes from the shell. Clu touches the wood, but it is definitely the real product, and it continues seamlessly through the dark areas. It is not warm. She shakes her head, but helps Celine gather the food onto plates. They sit at a table on the edge of the kitchen, looking down from a height on the soft sward, the geometric hedge beyond, and, past that, the gathering clouds that seem to be shifting down the curve of the sky like an infinitely slow avalanche that gradually piles above them, softly hindering the light of the axis until it begins to rain.
As she folds into bed that evening, her heart rate is still elevated, and she stirrs restlessly. The tests were impressive and frightening. The conceptual technology the test implies is even more disturbing than the physical technology, which, she thinks frantically, is mostly concealed behind a facade of everyday life that is, in some ways, as alien as her own would be to a fish.
She knows what she is afraid of.
She throws herself on her back and worries. How will she ever get back to Lan? Her eyes are dry, and her throat tightens as she thinks of him. She knows he will not survive long in the regime of forced labor they have planned for him. And her own defection, even if the Leadership Council considers it a failure, may be used against him.
But if she has nothing of value to offer the Prometheans, she will never be able to return.
She can feel the minutes ticking away, taking part of her life and part of Lan's.
The next morning, no one is home, and the rooms of the house are empty. She wanders quietly, eventually arriving in the living room, taking time at the various shelves and display cases, which contain a variety of exquisite objects, many of which she cannot recognize, but which are beautiful despite that.
A soft tone sounds. She looks around, but fails to localize it. The tone sounds again. "Hello?" she asks.
"Call for Clu Sherril, please." replies a quiet androgynous voice directly into her ear.
A different voice then speaks - male, not too deep, still quiet. "Can I speak to Clu Sherril."
Where is this coming from?
"Hi, Charles Illin DeFries here. How are you today?"
She realizes - this is a "telephone" call.
"I'm fine," she replies, uncertainly. "Can I help you?"
"Actually, Clu, it's the other way around. I'm calling about your recent test with the Hermetic Agency. I realize you haven't decided about listing yet, but one of the test managers mentioned your qualifications to me when she realized what I was looking for. I work for Hermetic as a matcher? And I have a client who is looking for an entry level test pilot. It seems you may have the right combination of skills, and, well, frankly, I was an immigrant myself, and I wouldn't mind giving you a shot at the target if you're interested."
Clu carefully seats herself in a nearby chair.
"What's involved, Mr. DeFries?"
"Well, we don't get many of these kinds of positions... but then again, there aren't many candidates available either. Most pilots prefer the profit sharing and bonuses at the commercial lines. But the company we're talking about is offering a good salary, significant training and a good working atmosphere. I know the principal myself, and she's an excellent manager who will have some direct interaction with the test staff. Basically, if you're interested, I'll set up an audio interview, followed by a telepresence and then a face to face - if that's how they want to go. They may want you to take a few specialized tests, but I'm sure they'll pay for it. What do you think?"
For her, there is a long moment of silence in this enormous sunlit room. She realizes that she is terrified, and needs some guidance. "Charlie, I guess the best thing would be for me to think it over. Could you call me tomorrow?"
"Sure, Clu. Let me give you my contact info - " Suddenly, a notepad seems to float a few feet away, with a richly animated logo and a few lines of text, among which she recognizes his name. Then the page tears from the notepad and flies into a momentarily visible book blazoned "Access". "Uh, thanks," she responds. "I... appreciate your calling me."
"Right up. I'll talk to you tomorrow. Later." A brief tone seems to signal the end of the conversation. The notepad vanishes. Clu takes a deep breath and sighs with relief.
Celine comes through the door with a gaggle of glossy sacks crawling with animation. At the sight of Clu sitting pensively on the couch, she sets them down and hurries over. "What's the matter?" she asks. Close like this, she can see Clu's eyes are reddened, as if by tears.
"I.. got a call today."
Celine sighs, "I'm sorry, I didn't show you how to use the aud. Is that it?"
"No. I... think someone is offering me a job, or a chance at a job. Or something."
"But that's great! You were only tested yesterday. I've never seen them process the tests so quickly..." Suddenly she pauses. "But, you didn't do the release, did you?"
"I don't know, but that's not the problem."
"Then I don't understand."
"No, that's my problem. I don't understand. What am I going to do? I've never had to look for a job. I never had to worry about whether a job was good or not. I just had to do it. I never had to worry if they'd want me, or if I'd want them. How am I going to decide, Celine?" Her eyes are wide, her face tight with worry.
"Clu, it's my job to help with that, remember? And the League will help, if we need it. But, relax. This is great, in fact, it's excellent, but you don't have to rush into anything. You still have plenty of time. C'mon, hon, let's contact the bank, so you can see what your resources are. Then we'll talk about this job."
That afternoon, Charlie called again. Clu told him that she was interested, but reminded him that she was still taking citizenship instruction, and wouldn't be accepted as a provisional member for another few weeks at least. He understood, and explained that the prospective employer was a spacecraft development company that was working on a new technology, in-atmosphere design, and they wanted a test-pilot who had a good understanding of the design process. Understanding specific technologies was less important than experience and adaptability. She thanked him, and then disconnected, turning back to a presentation on her contacts of how the interview process worked, and what her goals should be, feeling a quiet pride at how she was handling this foreign process. Later, she returns to her study of Promethean, the native language of the habitat, with Alex helping. He laughs occasionally at her accent. But she is progressing.
Celine drives her to her interview, which will be at a restaurant in the nearby city of Harriga, about ten miles away. They drive on an elevated road which provides a clear view for hundreds of miles in all directions. Clu studies the narrow contrails of high altitude aircraft, and worries. Occasionally she mutters a word which is a Promethean sound for freedom - practicing. She tries not to worry, though she had slept badly last night, dreaming again and again about wandering a forested snowscape looking for Lan. She sips her hot stimulant drink as they drive, and shoots occasional glances over at Celine, who, though appearing to be talking to herself, is actually engaged in a three way conference with Lucas and a prospective client. As always, the strangeness of this way of life keeps beating at her in ways both gross and subtle.
The edges of the city are upon them after only a few minutes, flinging metallic prisms and huge treelike organisms toward the sky with equal abandon - yet the chaotic clashing of the forms and colors of buildings far outweighs the natural variation of the plants. A sudden flock of dark flying organisms scatters from under the roadway and flies upward in a comma shaped wave that lashes again and again toward the road ahead before gathering itself to flee toward a distant building.
They descend into the twisting streets of the city, and Celine glances preiodically at the map projected on a plate between them. The shadows of trees sweep past. like lace, interspersed with the solid casts of the metallic buildings and their repetition of the glaring reflection of the suntube above. Suddenly the auto is enveloped in a spiral walled with masonry that has been perforated with organically venous gaps to admit light. Celine stops beside a curved set of transparent doors that open and close intermittently, only occasionally admitting or releasing a person or machine that hurries away down the pedestrian strips that line the spiral.
"Here you go," Celine smiles, putting the conference on hold with a gesture. "Remember, he'll be the tall blue one, with the red ear tattoos and the black follicle spikes. Don't ask about his family, and don't be afraid to tell him anything you want about Cocteau. And remember, your residency test is two weeks from now, and you are looking forward to starting as soon as possible. OK?"
Clu almost smiles - Celine can see the nervousness of the expression. And Clu can see that Celine is nervous also. Somehow that relaxes her. It must be OK to be afraid. She can feel her heart pounding. "I will," she replies.
The doors almost confound her, since they have no handles, and one must wait on the pleasure of a door to be admitted. Somehow everyone else seems to have an unerring knowledge, since they walk directly toward the one which is about to open. Perhaps they have a better network than hers, or perhaps they know some access she has not yet been taught. At any rate, she slips in behind a heavy-set harshly orange cone-shaped being which wears a clashing purple and black harness that seems to be playing some kind of music.
The ceiling is a stunning sweep of polished metal that seems to take on the shape of waves that miraculously hang in the air. Then she realizes that the waves are moving and changing slowly, seamlessly... she is afraid, wondering what will happen if whatever is holding it up gives way, but noticing the unconcern of the patrons, she forces herself to ignore it.
A tall man with skin the color of wicker and a garish shock of glistening bronze hair seems to be responsible for admitting patrons to the core of the restaurant. She joins the line, which is short and moves quickly. Her throat is dry, and she stumbles slightly pronouncing "K'lur Impetar", afraid she has done so wrongly. But the tall man is kind, and with an almost imperceptible gesture a mechanical humanoid steps up to lead her to the table.
As she crosses the floor behind it, she gradually gains a sense of their direction and sees at the end of their path the angular blue form of the being who will be conducting her interview. The red tattoos, the spiky black folliculars, all are as she had seen through her contacts. They pause at the table and the humanoid announces her. "Miss Clu Sherril", it states in a dry tone. K'lur rotates its body to face her, and makes a complex gesture with its snaky fingers. She finds herself slightly unnerved by the bright yellow eyes and their tricorn pupils, which seem to pulse, but she controls herself. "Sir," she nods, as she had been taught.
"Please sit," he replies, gesturing fluidly to a human chair near beside it. "Welcome."
She takes the chair nervously, scooping her skirt beneath her hips to preserve its line. "Thank you," she replies, in her best Promethean. The other blinks rapidly, and she tries desperately to remember if that is the sign of approval, or if it is flicking the eyes back and forth. No, it is the blinking. Too much to remember.
The metallic humanoid hands her a copper sheet with characters engraved on it. She cannot read a word - for that matter, she is unsure of what are the words. Surreptitiously she gestures below the line of the table, and her local processor blinks up the translation. Most of it is still meaningless, being simply names for foods she has never experienced. She looks up to the waiter. "Can you recommend something?"
"For humans, the most popular serving is the Blaked Yadalar, from Miscia on Canopus 3. It is served with a pile of Boer Noodles and a small glass of Hiral Tambul Rum."
"That will be fine," she replies, hoping it will.
K'lur emits a stream of names, whose descriptions are echoed in tiny print near the base of her visual field a moment later. She tries not to raise an eyebrow as they slowly fade. Surely it was a good thing she had not asked him to order for her, unless he knew human tastes well.
The waiter lapses into stillness. Clu wonders what will happen next.
"May we speak, then, as we wait?" K'lur asks.
"Sure." She tries to smile and look agreeable, but wonders how much of it is wasted.
"I understand you are an immigrant, an expatriate, actually."
"How do you like it here, so far?"
She spreads her hands. "It is... amazing. And sometimes confusing." She already finds herself falling back on the translator. "I apologize for my lack of fluency in Promethean. I'm still taking my residency course, and I have only been here a short time. It's a much different language from that of my homeworld, and I still need a translator for much beyond hello and goodbye."
His mouth parts slightly and emits a passable cackle across serrated teeth.
"I needed two years, myself. Still, sometimes I slip into translator during important conferences, even a decade later. Fear not, I understand completely. Maria would have sent a human, if she had someone of appropriate knowledge and experience to spare. I assume that would put you more at ease. But rest assured, I am very interested in your prospects, or we would not be here."
"Thank you," she replies gratefully.
The waiter comes to life and produces two containers from a neighboring tabouret. It places a glass on the table beside each of them. Clu picks hers up and takes a sip. Instantly, she realizes the drink contains alcohol, and she places it quickly back on the table. Enough of that for the rest of the interview, she decides.
The conversation ranges gently over her experiences here, and then, as the meal arrives turns more toward the knowledge she has of aeronautics and astronautics. K'lur discourse briefly on a subject of which she has little knowledge - gravity control - and explains that all of their new designs are intended to make use of recent advances in that technology. What does she think of that?
"I assume you mean for propulsion and control?" she asks.
"Yes. It is already a commonplace for large interstellar vehicles and is part of the fold system, but new gravitic engineering advances will allow us to consider these techniques for in-atmosphere vehicles for the first time. What procedures do you think you would use for flight testing such devices?"
She pauses to think, mind racing. "It depends on how far back you want me to go. I suppose that spaceframe stress and fatigue would be critical areas of interest, so I would have static tests of the spaceframe, with continuous overview polarization x-ray, and then periodic deep resolution scanning as part of any protocol - I believe that represents a pretty common set of methods even here, from what I've read. Once that is cleared, tethered tests would be in order, probably continuing the periodic scans to look for dynamic stress. Finally, some simulations would need to be written and modified based on the tethered tests so we could try to develop some flight experience before actualy having to commit to tether free. Is that what you mean?"
It continues in this vein for some time. K'lur eats daintily, and Clu somehow hardly finds the time. Her throat gets dry, but she resists the temptation to drink the rum or order something else, afraid to disrupt the flow.
Finally, K'lur holds up a whipcord hand. "Miss Sherril, I am afraid my time is up. I appreciate all of the time you have devoted to this discussion with me. Are their any questions I can answer for you?"
She tries to ask a couple of the questions she had carefully chosen with Celine's help. The answers are helpful, but she is glad that she is recording the event, since she finds it difficult to concentrate. She thanks him, and then, as she was taught, while they clasp hands (his tentacular fingers wrapped like soft, warm strings on her wrist), asks, "What's the next step, sir? I'm very interested in this opportunity." She hopes it does not seem as stilted to him as it does to her.
"The next step..." he muses. "Well, I will be discussing this with Marie after I return. I expect that she will want to see you soon. There may be some tests. We will be in touch." He withdraws his fingers.
"Thank you," she sighs, grateful for the ending. Then, as K'lur ambles away across the restaurant, she picks up the glass of Hiral Tambul Rum and downs it in a single swallow that leaves her gasping, but, somehow, relieved.
In the car, Clu is excited and, perhaps, a little intoxicated.
"It was incredible, Celine! I was talking to him like he was anyone else. But he wasn't a human. I can't believe I did it. He even touched me." Suddenly, she is embarrassed. "Well - you know - there isn't a single non-human on Cocteau. I mean, we read they were out there, but not much about them, and the Leadership Council, I think they want everyone scared of the possibility, you know?"
"So it went well, then?"
Clu is shocked, "I don't know! I mean, how can I tell? He asked me questions like what had I done, what did I like, what didn't I like, what did I want from a job... I've never was asked anything like that before. It was what you told me. I tried to answer. The technical stuff - I hope I did OK. There's so much I don't know yet, even with the studying. I'm not sure I can do the job if they give it to me."
"You didn't say that though," Celine responds, steering up onto the raiseway.
"No - no, I didn't. I was afraid all the time. But I did like you said, and I stuck to the questions. I told him I wanted the job. He said they would contact me."
"Typical manuvering, hon. Well, we'll see how it goes. But I guess we'd better spend some time talking about money and what it means. You'll have some negotiation to do."
"So what is this, the exception to prove the rule?" Clu gripes. She had slept poorly, dreaming of Lan screaming at her in anger because she wouldn't come help him with some nameless task. And she knew what it was - guilt.
"What's that?" Celine asked, tugging at Clu's hem to lengthen and reshape it.
"The exception. You know, Prometheans, the ultimate individualists, with a citizenship ceremony."
Celine laughed. "You talk like you haven't been studying as hard as I know you have."
"OK, I admit it. It's a contract. You guys love contracts. So you don't have citizenship - you have membership. I sign a contract, and I'm committed to living a certain way, and if I break it, the penalties are clear. Renewals are every decade after the two year provisional period, as long as I manage to stay away from contract breaking offenses." Her voice sinks into the cadences of memory.
"That sounds a little better. You might get past the judge if you can just remember it."
"How come it feels like I'm getting married?" Clu asks. But her voice chokes on the last word, and Celine looks up the long line of Clu's dress. "I'm sorry," Clu replies to the unspoken question.
"Not at all, dear. I know what you're thinking. But at the rate things are going, you may well be able to head back long before you have anything to worry about."
"He could be dead already," Clu states coldly, staring at herself in the mirror, but clearly thinking of something else.
"He could be alive," Celine replies, a hint of desperation in her voice.
Clu sighs. "He could be alive," she admits.
"All right, hon, let's focus back on the here and now. You've got the most important event of your life ahead of you, and you'll want to save this memory forever."
Clu smooths her hands across the front of her dress and watches the gentle shudder of color that follows and spreads from the motion.
It is a quiet, echoic room at the edge of Prometheus, embedded miles below the shell of the world and on the edge of space. The stars are beyond windows that reflect a faint overlay of the interior. In the center of the room is an old wooden table, its stain and lacquer scarred pale from the hands and implements of generations past. Beside the glossy sheet of the computer, initials have been carved into the wood, and there are tiny scribed messages in unreadable scripts that may or may not be human. Clu touches the stylus to the sheet to check off another answer on the test.
When the test is complete, the sheet goes blank. The door behind her opens and admits a heavyset man, dressed in casual clothes who crosses the room to stand in front of her.
"You've passed the test," he says. "I'm Jessup Harkins, and I've been selected by what little there is of a Promethean government to welcome you, and to work through the contract with you."
"Chosen by random lot, I believe," Clu replies, proud of her knowledge.
He beams - a feat with such a large and heavy dark face. "So I was. As you might be sometime. That's our way. Do you have any questions?"
She shakes her head. "No."
"Say the oath."
She pauses and looks down at the table, then at Harkins, then past him at the stars.
"I came here by my will. I live here by the strength of my mind and what it produces. I give others the same freedom which is mine, so that we can live separately, together, and within the law. So long as this remains, so do I."
Harkins leans forward and presses his forefinger against the sheet and it changes to a simple text with a blank at the bottom. "Sign the membership contract."
She scrawls her mark with the stylus.
He grins, a huge smile of white teeth. He thrusts out a massive hand. "Welcome to Prometheus."
She clasps the hand strongly. "Thanks."
"All that's left is to ratify. Come on." He walks around the table and leads her through the door into the chamber beyond.
The dark wood and stone bowl is filled with people - people who she has never met and does not know. There are the professional witnesses, with their recorders, broadcasters, and vision pickups. There are Celine's neighbors. There are people picked by random lot. There are those who wanted to be here for reasons of their own to see a seldom occurring event.
Harkins stops at the balcony edge and looks out over the bowl. "Hi, folks!" he calls. The crowd stirs with sound. He holds up the sheet. "I have here a contract of provisional membership between Clu Sherril and the members of Prometheus. All that's left is for it to be ratified, and then she can go off to her party. Is there anyone here who disputes the contract?"
There is silence except for the rustle of movement. Clu feels her throat narrowed with an unaccountable tension.
But a woman's voice rises from the floor. "I do!" it calls.
Every face in the room turns toward that voice.
Harkins smile has become grim. "You have to have a specific reason to dispute the contract. Do you have a specific reason?"
"Yes! She's a murderer. She murdered my husband!"
Harkins turns to look at Clu, then back down at the woman on the floor. He looks into space and gestures briefly with his thick fingers. "I see no charges formally filed. Who are you?"
"I am Fiona Rannart. My husband is dead, and that woman is responsible," she cries.
He gestures again and stares hawklike into the information before him. Finally, "I say again, Fiona Rannart, there are no charges on file. Your husband's death is well accounted, as all can see. Your claim lacks proof and is set aside. Is there any other objection?"
On the floor, Rannart tries to speak again, but the crowd is angry, and she is silenced by their growl.
"Then, on behalf of the ability delegated to me by the members of Prometheus, I welcome Clu Sherril as a full member. From this moment on, no one cares where she came from, only what she'll do." He turns to her. "Welcome to Prometheus, Clu Sherril." The crowd below begins to speak again, and in moments, the volume of their speech fills the bowl. But Clu is still staring at the spot from which Fiona Rannart spoke.
Clu has never seen the main room so full. Yet she knows almost none of these people. Many are Celine's friends, but there are also a few professional witnesses, marked by the dark, double-receptor contacts that cover even the whites of their eyes. One of the neighbors, a bluish cone with whip-like tentacles, and its child, who Clu had once seen working on the Bejounais' polygonal hedge, introduce themselves with wild gestures that translate into a soft contralto voice in her ears. She tries to smile and respond, but her mind is elsewhere. Several of guests give her gifts - Celine gives her a special high-quality set of contacts and translators, and for a moment it brings Clu back to the room, long enough for her eyes to mist as she realizes how fitting this gift is. "It has a great on-board tutorial," Celine rattles on, seeking Clu's eyes. Clu smiles through the mist. "Thanks, Celine." Lucas gives her a small but exquisite object of complex, multilayered glass. "What is it?" she asks. He replies: "Just something pretty. When you have your own place, it will help make it a home."
Later, she stands at the edge of the deck, looking out over the yard. One of the witnesses approaches and leans beside her, sipping a drink. "Hi," he says. "Klaus Marchant, I'm a freelancer. Mind talking for the record with me a bit?" His face is narrow and lean, with a shade of beard under the skin of his jaw.
Clu shrugs. "What does that mean?"
"Well, there are a lot of folks in Prometheus who are interested in your story. You escaped Cocteau in a dramatic space battle, were wounded, were taken under the wing of one of the Board members of the Recovery League, and now there was just a bit of excitement at your ratification. Did you expect that?"
"I still don't know what was going on," she replies.
"Really?" He is surprised. "Then you don't know that Fiona Rannart is the wife of the man whose ship was destroyed by the Cocteau military while you were escaping?"
She is silent in the shock of knowing. "No," she says finally. "I didn't."
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Cashman (unless otherwise indicated), All Rights Reserved