The Gulf of Eden
By McCamy Taylor
It was a day of firsts. Emerging from
my spacecraft, I took
my first step on a natural planet
felt the unaccustomed tug of gravity. When I looked up, I caught my
glimpse of a blue sky--- a real blue sky, not the artificial dome of
made satellite New Jerusalem, where I was born and raised.
As the nearest star dipped towards
the horizon, I
experienced another first, accompanied by a moment of panic, for it
this world had caught fire and would be engulfed in flames.
my tutor, Harum informed
me. “Low angle scattering of electromagnetic waves off
dust and ash particles.” My robotic guardian applied a tentacle to my neck.
“Your pulse is elevated,
Master Isaac. Do you require a sedative?”
I threw off
cool arm. I was
going to see my father
for the first time in three years. Who would not be nervous in a
that? Were my clothes appropriate for the occasion? Maybe fashions had
There was no way to know, for I
lived alone, except for my robotic servants, in a space quarantine
since the age of twelve. What little I knew about recent events came
which were selected for their educational value---and censored for
might corrupt the son of one
The spaceport was under the control
of the United Worlds. No
one paid any attention to me and Harum as we left our
ship and made our way to customs, a
prefab chrysolo building
decorated with the UW logo. The clerk behind the desk was another
first flesh and blood woman I had spoken to since the day I went into
The young female’s
attention was fixed on a portable game
console, in which a holographic cat dressed in black navigated a 3D
search of stars and
gems. As a child, I
had coveted that game. I
tried not to
“Gimme a sec. I almost have
this level. There, it’s done.”
She switched off the game player. “Can I help you?”
The clerk was a sleekly
brown natural human with almond shaped eyes and a shaved head decorated
henna. Long crystal
gems dangled from
her earlobes. Her earrings reached almost to her shoulders, which were
had never seen a woman wear so little clothing in public.
“I j-just arrived on
planet,” I stuttered.
Her eyes flickered over the burn
scars on the left side of
my face and neck. My long sleeved tunic and gloves hid the worst of my
however the scar tissue on my left cheek deformed my mouth, giving me a
permanent grimace. I
could not blame her
for staring. Scars such as mine are unusual in this modern age.
However, no surgeon
among the Elect would touch me after the fire, except to administer the
basic life sustaining treatment, for fear of catching and spreading my
“You here for business or
pleasure?” she asked, reaching
across the counter for my travel documents. As the scanner read my
holographic twin appeared on the desk before me, twenty centimeters
auburn hair and a pale complexion. Harum’s serial number
appeared on the screen. The clerk waved a wand in the tutor’s
and a green light flashed.
“Pleasure.” At my
father’s pleasure, to be exact. After three years of silence,
he had suddenly
decided to fetch me to Paradise, the
name our people had chosen to give the planet
Nerga 3, where the United Worlds had granted us a homeland
recognition for the many services the Elect had performed as the
The clerk’s eyebrows would
have risen had they not been shaved
off along with her hair. “You’re a
member of the Cult?”
I flushed. The clerk had probably
never seen an Elect male
over the age of twelve who was not equipped with at least thirty kilos
permanent body armor and enough implanted weaponry to make him illegal
the laws of most civilized planetary authorities.
I did not want to talk about myself
and why, at fifteen, I
was still a natural. “Is that official UW
terminology?” I asked coldly. “‘The
snapped back, not sounding sorry at all. “The
She practically threw my passport back at me. “Have a nice
stay on this hell
hole.” As I was leaving customs I heard her mutter loudly
behind me “Paradise! Humph!”
Harum was programmed to interpret
tone of voice as well as
speech content. Being
a tutor, he felt
obligated to correct the errors in the UW clerk’s education. “There are only
eight planets in the
explored universe where humans can survive for more than a few minutes
life support. Six are artificially constructed. Paradise is a miracle,
with roughly the gravity, atmosphere, mineral and water composition of
There is even a DNA based natural flora and fauna. The planet could be said to prove the
old wives tale
that every living being has a twin somewhere in the
universe—if one subscribes
to old wives tales,” it added with a very human sounding
The young woman stared at Harum wide
eyed, mouth open. “Make
being a pain.” I tugged at one of his
tentacle arms. “Come on.”
The robotic tutor followed me
outside. Everything it had
said was true. The very existence of the planet , Nerga 3 was a
the Elect had been given Paradise—or at least the largest
continent on the
planet which was essentially an enormous ocean dotted with islands and
sign that our
years of wandering the stars were over.
As I paused outside the UW
headquarters, surveying the tiny
spaceport and the much larger settlement in the distance, I wondered if
journey was finally over. Father would not have called me all the way
he meant to send me back to space quarantine again. His scientists must
found a cure for my contagion, the virus whose antibodies made me
implanted robotic armor and weapons which are the mark of an Elect
It was our resourcefulness which set
us apart from the
animals, the priests told us. All creatures came into the world naked,
made humans most naked of all to encourage us to clothe ourselves in
brighter armor. He robbed us of our nails and fangs so that we would
weapons capable of mastering the stars---
weakness is your
strength, Isaac, my mother’s voice whispered inside
“Why are we standing here,
Master Isaac?” Harum asked. My
tutor began probing
me with its cool,
rubbery arms. “Are you having a reaction to the atmosphere?
Is the gravity too
strong? Do you need to rest?”
“No, no and no.”
When I was twelve, frail from my injuries
and emotionally scarred from the loss of my mother, Harum’s
programming had been a comfort. Now, I found the robotic guardian
Harum’s featureless face
never registered hurt or any other
emotion, no matter how rudely I treated it. “I am relieved to
hear it. You must
not try to hide things from me. I am here to look after
I tuned out the familiar lecture.
There were other, more important
things on my mind. I had been foolish to hope that my father would be
greet me. He was a patriarch with responsibilities. However, I had
kind of welcome.
A knot of worry coiled in the pit of
my stomach. Could the
summons have been in error? Would I arrive in Paradise City only to be
away and sent back to my prison in space?
“This way,” Harum
prompted gently. “We should hurry to the
city, before darkness falls.”
Darkness falls. What an ominous
phrase. “I can see which way
we have to go!” I hissed. Paradise City rose
from the plains, white domes and spires
tinted red, orange and pink by the aerial
display of color which humans called simply
“sunset” but which my instinct
insisted was a sign of an impending fiery cataclysm.
There was probably ground
transportation somewhere in the
spaceport. However, I did not see any signs posted, and I did not want
the nasty young woman in the UW office. So, I decided to walk. Harum
capable of hauling several hundred kilos if necessary, so my light
no burden for him. If worst came to worst, and the journey proved too
for me, he could always carry me, too---not that I intended to arrive
in my new
home in the arms of a robot.
air was damp, as if
the planet was a sauna or
an enormous hydroponic greenhouse, and the
ground beneath my feet had a slightly spongy feel. I recalled that
from the sky on worlds such as these. What a
disturbing thought. “Harum, is this humidity
going to hurt your
“I have already taken
precautions. Thank you for asking,
Master Isaac.” Despite its chipper tone, my tutor was having
navigating the uneven, muddy road. Several times, it stumbled.
My own body adapted more easily.
Soon, I was able to devote
my attention to the flora, waist high blue-green
grass which grew in thick clumps beside the road along with a few
that bore wicked looking thorns and leathery seed pods.
Some type of large flying creature---in the
dim light I could not tell whether it was insect, bird or some winged
peculiar to this world---flew overhead, momentarily casting a shadow
over me. In the
distance, something growled. A chill
went down my spine, and I felt my naked, weaponless state more acutely
had at any time in the three years of my exile. I was suddenly very
Harum was a fully equipped guard droid in addition to being my tutor.
About three quarters of the way to the city, the
sun settled behind the horizon, and
Paradise’s two moons appeared in the sky along with a
scattering of stars. The
city, which had seemed small enough to cup in the palm of my hand upon
viewing, was now massive and menacing in its cloak of shadows. Was it
dark at night in Paradise City? Could there have been a power failure?
I was wondering about these and other
possibilities, when two
Elect warriors appeared before us on the road.
“Isaac of Ethan?”
asked the taller of the two. His burnished
gold armor weighed more than I did, and I could see little of the man
the cybergear. He had a full helmet, neck and shoulder piece equipped
confusing array of sensors. His right arm was encased in a weapon which
resembled a lobster’s pincer. His back
and spine were reinforced and ended in a tail that could serve as
either a weapon
or an ammunition storage unit or both. His
legs had been
augmented to give him
extra speed and endurance. “I am Gilead. This is
His companion saluted. Lemuel was
young, maybe two or three
years older than me, with the red hair and freckled complexion that
among the Elect. His armor was modest
compared to Gilead’s. On his face, he wore an implanted left
otherwise his head and neck were natural. His torso was armored to shield the vital organs,
and the back of his
left hand was fitted with a wrist
cannon, a projectile weapon capable of
firing multiple rounds without reloading. “Your
father sent us to escort you into the city. Welcome, Isaac
“Please call me
Isaac.” I approached Lemuel with my hand
warrior took two
hasty steps backwards for each of my steps forward. My face flushed
must have heard about my contagion.
“Take me to my
father,” I said coldly, fighting back tears
of anger and frustration. The words You
can’t catch it from a handshake!
were on the tip of my tongue, but I bit them off, knowing that he
would not believe me.
We began marching in silence, Gilead
leading the way, Lemuel
bringing up the rear. I had to half run to keep up with them. When I
in a pothole, Harum
turned on his lights,
which made the road around us seem as bright as day but threw the rest
world into shadow, so it was impossible to judge our progress.
Out of the corner of my eye I studied
Lemuel’s wrist cannon.
It was the kind favored by most young recruits, since it left the
the hand intact, but allowed the wearer to dispense miniature rockets,
grapples, poison gas canisters and a variety of other missiles. Three
of those cannons
had been inserted on the back of my own left wrist between the ages of ten and twelve, and all them had been
rejected by my body’s immune system. That
was before the doctors realized the nature of my disease.
weakness is your
strength, Isaac. I heard my mother’s voice again.
Over the last three years,
her final words had played through my head
countless times, but I had come no closer to understanding
meaning. They seemed only to confirm the patriarchs’ judgment
against her. She
was a heretic, a danger to the survival of the Elect. Everyone knew
implanted weaponry was what had saved us from poverty and near slavery
mines of old earth. Because we had adapted ourselves for modern
warfare, we had
played a vital role in the conquest of space. If not for our military prowess, we would not be
the masters of one
of the two natural inhabitable planets in the galaxy.
I hated my mother for being a heretic
and for dying in the
awful way that she died, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not
for loving me. Was this why Ethan
me away? The scars on my face, neck and arm marked me as the
heretic’s child. A
true son of the Elect would have stood by his father’s side
and watched as the
pyre burned. A true
son would not have
tried to save his mother from the fire.
Three years later, the memory was
enough to freeze the
blood in my veins and make me clutch my head, as I
struggled to contain
my grief. I could not break down, not in front of men who served my
“Sirs,” my tutor
complained after several minutes of our
near jogging pace. “Master Isaac is not accustomed to this
planet’s gravity and
atmosphere. Please decrease your rate of ambulation.”
Gilead grunted, but he slowed down.
After a few minutes, he
broke the silence. “Did the Patriarch tell you why he called
Had my father taken these men,
commoners who went by a
single name into his confidence but left me, his first born son and
heir in the
dark? Rather than admit my ignorance,
mumbled something unintelligible.
Gilead made a disapproving sound.
“I guess no one has told
you about the Others.”
“The Others. The scum who
were squatting here when we
arrived on Paradise. Descendents of space pirates, outlaws, free
raff that have no business being here.”
“The UW says
they’re indigenous people,” Lemuel explained.
“But that’s bullshit. Indigenous people evolve on a
necessarily,” Harum interjected. “According to the
Berini-Lewis Accord, if a group can prove that its hegemony is
the ecology of---“
“Harum, shut up. Are there
Others living in the city?” I
At this, Gilead snorted, and Lemuel
showed his disdain by
aiming his projectile launcher at something that infrared sensors in
must have showed him in the darkness. Either that or he got lucky.
There was a yelp,
followed by the smell of scorched
fur and flesh.
Flashback to the fire in which my
mother died, and I
was burned. Sweat
broke out across my brow. My heart felt like a weak, fluttering
bird inside my chest. Breathing became an impossible labor—
was one of my
worst panic attacks in months. Luckily, Harum was there beside me. It
tranquilizer patch on the side of my neck and
cupped a tentacle over my nose and mouth so that I could
air. Gradually, the hyperventilation spell passed. The veil of darkness
from before my eyes.
Gilead and Lemuel were looking at me
as if I were some kind
of alien slime that had befouled the Holy Altar, but I didn’t care. I hate
fire, with good reason. I started walking again, as fast as
my legs would carry me, trying to put distance between myself and the
burning flesh. To
distract myself, I
said to the bigger man “Tell
me about the Others.”
Treacherous. Unnatural.” As Gilead spoke,
his giant clawed hand clenched and unclenched rhythmically, punctuating
was an odd choice of words, coming from
someone who was more machine than man. “How so?”
“They don’t die
like they’re supposed to!” Lemuel exclaimed.
“And even when you kill the bastards, they don’t
stay dead. I shot an explosive
round right in one son of a bitch’s belly. His guts were
hanging out. Crazy
bastard stands up, gathers up his intestines, puts them back inside his
and walks away as if nothing has happened.”
I could not believe he expected me to
take this tale
seriously. I was young but not a child. Since it would be rude to call
liar to his face, I decided to humor him. “Maybe they use
drugs to make themselves
impervious to pain.”
“Impervious to pain,
nothing. The Others are impervious to
death. The bastard I disemboweled---he walked into the ocean. Should
there. Couple of hours later, I
a kilometer down the beach, not a scratch on him. You can’t
drown them. You
can’t shoot them. You can’t poison them or starve
them or freeze them. Take
them out into space, and they just go into hibernation. About the only thing that
will kill them is
fire---lots of it for a long time. They don’t like the sun,
though it doesn’t
kill them. It just keeps them away. Most of the time.” Lemuel gave me a sidelong
glance that made my
skin crawl. “I’ve fought in six different UW
military actions, and let me tell
you, all of them were cake walks compared to skirmishes against the
Even if the UW gave us
eradicate the vermin, I don’t see how we could, short of
evacuating the planet
and nuking every living thing on this world out of existence. And even
the Others might survive.” He shook his head. “Hell
spawn, that’s what they
are. And we have to live with them.”
I turned to Gilead, to see what he
made of his partner’s
crazy stories. His expression was impossible to read with the gold
covering his face. “Do you agree with Lemuel?” I
the Others Hell spawn?”
Gilead shrugged his big, armor plated
shoulders. “The Others
are the enemy. That’s all I need to know.”
After that, we walked in silence,
except for the sounds of
our feet crunching the gravel road and an occasional animal’s
cry from the
wilderness. My head
began to feel
fuzzy, and I realized I was still wearing the medicated patch which
applied to my neck. The
last thing I
wanted was to act drunk in front of my father. I fell a couple of paces
my tutor so that I could surreptitiously peel away the disc and toss it
to the ground.
the walled city, we passed a check point. The heavily armored guard
an oversized crab. When he saw Gilead and Lemuel, he waved us along. He
have sent a message to the guard at the city gate, because the
steel panel slid open
as we arrived.
blackout in effect,” the
gate keeper called from his elevated tower. “Tell your robot
to turn off its lights.”
Harum complied immediately. I entered
Paradise City half
blind and slightly groggy from the sedative patch, which I had
peal from my skin until most of the dose was already in my blood
As my eyes adjusted, I saw
whitewashed buildings bathed
in moonlight with only the soft blue
glow of the widely spaced emergency gutter lamps to provide
was the kind of light that created more shadows than it dispelled. My
close glimpse of the complex was a confusing jumble of
geometric shapes, streets that seemed to
lead nowhere, towers that rose all the way to the sky, arches that
the stars and in the center of the settlement, a dome so big that my
refused to accept what my eyes detected. Had I not seen the same
cathedral from a distance, I would have assumed that the massive white
structure which towered over Paradise City was an unusual cloud bank or
the trail of a rocket launch.
deserted except for a handful of Elect warriors on patrol, however the
not as dead as it first seemed. Peering through the chinks in drawn
brightly lit interiors
of buildings. In
one home, a mother was
nursing an infant. In another, a restaurant of some kind, a man in an
served food to customers from behind a counter.
My stomach growled loudly. I realized
that I had not eaten
in hours. Abruptly, I left the road and headed for the door of the
determined to have some of whatever they were serving.
Harum caught me by the upper arms and
steered me back towards
the street. “My apologies,” it said to my escorts.
“Master Isaac’s medication
makes him a little confused.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but I
forgot what I was going
to say and instead asked “Why’s it so
In my drugged state, this made
perfect sense. The Others did
not like light. If the Others were here, the lights would have to be
dimmed. I yawned.
“Are we almost there?”
“Do you want me to carry
you, Master Isaac?” Harum asked.
Its rubbery arms encircled me.
I shoved him away. “I can
walk.” As I moved forward, the
pavement shifted beneath my feet and then rushed up towards my face so
that I had no time
myself. I heard a
loud crack as my head
hit the sharp edge of the curb. Then all went dark.
was among the first of the Others to arrive on Paradise. But not an Other, for I
implanted in my right arm and an infrared eye and augmented legs. I was
Elect. My landing module was primitive. A one way affair. I glimpsed my
the shiny surface of the control panel. A tuft of auburn hair had
my helmet. This me
had no burn scars,
but he had a small moustache. He must have used chemicals to grow it.
does not possess the ability to grow facial hair. Why would a member of
Elect grow a moustache when many of my kind use surgery to permanently
most of their body hair since it interferes with our implanted armor?
moustache marked me as a rogue. An Elect who was also Other.
opened. I took my first breath of the
air of Paradise…
When I woke, I was lying on a
hospital stretcher. Someone
dressed from head to toe in green disposable
medical garments was running a scanner over my scalp.
Harum was beside me. Three of its eighteen tentacle arms
attached to me, monitoring my vital signs.
“Master Isaac is
awake,” Harum announced.
seem to be any intracranial injury,” said a
woman’s voice from behind the green mask.
“I’ve given you something to reverse
the sedative along with an analgesic. When you feel well enough to
walk, your father’s waiting to see you.”
I sat up. My headache was not as bad
as I expected, just a
dull throb and a swelling at the site where I had bumped my head. With
tranquilizer out of my system, I could think clearly again.
“How long was I
“One hour, sixteen minutes
and nine point three seconds,”
I swung my legs over the edge of the
stretcher. The bed was
covered in sheets of the same flimsy green material that the doctor
doubt the drapes, her garments and most of the equipment that had come
contact with me would be destroyed after I was gone.
The green robed figure looked up from
the computer terminal
where she was dictating a note in medical jargon that might as well
have been a
foreign language for all the sense I could make of it.
“Have they found a cure for
She blinked and averted her gaze.
“I think they may have
made some progress. However, I’m a field surgeon, not a
research scientist. You
should ask your father. He would know more about that than
My instinct told me that she was
hiding something. But if
there was a cure, why would she conceal it from me? If there was no
give me false hope?
Gilead and Lemuel were waiting for me
outside the medical
facility. After the bright lights of the exam room, the darkness of the
was disorienting. I
blindly. Luckily, we had only
distance to go before we entered another building,
with a sign reading simply “Council”.
“Patriarch Ethan is waiting
for you here.”
This was not the homecoming I had
imagined. Could it be that
I was no longer welcome in my father’s house? Perhaps the
decision was not his
to make. He had
another family now, by
his second wife, a woman whom he had taken
as a concubine when he and my mother separated. After my mother died,
married the woman and formally adopted their three children. For all
were his real sons, not me, and she was his
real wife. It would not be surprising if she refused to have me,
woman’s son carrying a terrible contagion, in her home.
I told myself that it did not matter
if he brought me into
his house or not. The important thing was that he had brought me home---
But why did he have to pick the
Council of all places for
our reunion? Surely he must know that I would have nothing but bitter
of the Council. It was in the Council that my mother was denounced ---
Harum nudged me forward.
I took a deep breath. As long as my
tutor was here, I would
be alright. I stepped across the threshold.
The Council building was modeled on
the one back on New Jerusalem
including the stained glass window decorated with the symbol
true name of God above the ornamental staircase in the main foyer. The
was placed so that
the light of the
Lord would shine down upon the faces of those who entered. Tonight, the glass and foyer were
dark. After three
years of exile, I was returning
home, and yet I felt very far from grace.
The darkness reminded me of a
question that I had been too
drugged to think to ask before. “Why are the Others here, in
father,” Gilead said. He opened the door of the
main Council Chamber.
The room was exactly as it was in New
Jerusalem, so it was
easy for me to find my father, for he always sat in the seat three to
from the center of the long, semicircular table where Council met.
only a handful of the patriarchs were present,
the ones who, like my father, wore the crimson over their
meaning that they were members of the hereditary families who ruled by
of their blood rather than election, military rank or appointment.
The lights were dim. It took me a
moment to make out the
visitors, the representatives of the United Worlds, dressed in their
of ethnic gear from around the galaxy, so varied that they looked more
circus troupe than a serious diplomatic mission.
There were other guests, who hugged
the shadows, people whom
I had trouble detecting at first, because they wore cloaks of dark
which covered their bodies from head to toe.
“Isaac of Ethan.”
Tobias called my name. He was a middle aged warrior with
more armor than
Gilead though his face was free
cybergear. He wore his crimson robes tossed back over his shoulders, to
his powerful limbs. “You’re
have been waiting for you.”
“Don’t hide in
the doorway, boy,” said another old man whose
name escaped me. His gold armor was modest, a mere token breast plate
gauntlets. The man himself seemed to have shrunken since the armor and
were installed, probably in some distant time before my father was born.
Hesitantly, I stepped forward. I was
embarrassed by my
facial scars and my lack of armor. I knew that all eyes---at least all
of the Elect were fixed on me, and that they were remembering how I got
scars and how and why my mother died and the nature of the contagion
flowed through my veins.
For my own part, I was acutely aware
of my father’s presence,
but I hesitated to address him, until he acknowledged me, something he
in no hurry to do. The years had been kind to him. I remembered him
thinner and more harried. No
second wife was a better homemaker than my mother, who preferred
reading books to
cooking and entertaining. Their three sons
would be ten, seven and five now. The oldest would be wearing implanted
and training as a warrior.
I blinked to clear my eyes of the
water that filled them. I
was tired, I told myself. Those were not tears. I looked over my
Where was Harum?
“Is this the
boy?” asked one of the UW representatives, a
pale skinned woman of extraordinary height who wore little more than
silver body jewelry and her UW insignia. Ordinarily, a woman in such a
undress would not be allowed in the Council. She must be someone very
Finally, my father spoke.
“Madam President, allow me to
introduce my son, Isaac.” He stepped forward and laid his
hand on my upper arm,
steering me closer to the pale woman.
“Isaac, this is the President of the United
Worlds, Telia Sojona Velinka
Hjajak IIb. She has agreed to mediate the treaty between our People and
other inhabitants of Paradise.”
It was my second close encounter with
a scantily clad female
that day. Though the UW President was middle aged and skinny by the
of the Elect, she
was still feminine
enough to make the blood rush to my face. I found the curve of her
waist as it
flared to her hips especially alluring.
She noticed me staring and laughed gently. One pale, cool
hand cupped my
chin. Though I am tall, she had to tip my face upward so that I could
in the eye. I was acutely aware of my scars.
“I understand that you have
been away from your family for
Was she being sarcastic? I struggled
to control my temper. “Yes,
ma’am,” I replied curtly.
Her eyes danced. She seemed to see
right through me. “How
old are you, Isaac?”
enough to give informed consent.” She released me and turned
Tobias. “If Isaac agrees, then I
see no reason why we can not sign the treaty.”
I opened my mouth to ask
“Agrees to what?” but before I
could speak, I was interrupted by one of the cloaked figures.
“What kind of trick is
this?” demanded a woman with a deep,
oddly accented voice. She rolled her r’s, and some of her
consonants had a
strangely nasal quality. “We agreed to
Ethan’s eldest son.” The
cloaked figure moved forward. I caught a glimpse of
dark eyes that caught and reflected the light like those of a cat. The hand that
snaked from the folds
of the cloak to grab my wrist was as small and delicate appearing as
that of a
woman, but her nails were sharp and her grip was powerful like that of
warrior. Her fingers dug through the fabric of my gloves into my flesh, causing me to
grimace. “Who the hell
are you?” she growled. She dropped the h in hell so that word
came out “’ell”.
Ethan’s eldest son,” I stuttered. “Why
going to foster me?” I looked towards my father for answers.
It was Patriarch Tobias who spoke.
“The war between our two
peoples has gone on long enough. It’s
time to call a truce.”
“If the Native People
foster a son of one of the ten
families, we believe that this will help open a dialogue between the
the UW president explained patiently.
“It will allow each side in the conflict to see
that the other side is
not all bad.”
“And by giving one of our
own over to the care of the
Oth---the Natives, we demonstrate that we’re willing to abide
by the terms of
the treaty,” Tobias added. “Since you were the one
who suggested the arrangement,
Senechal Cassandre, I don’t understand why you’re
raising objections now.”
“The agreement was that we
would foster one of Ethan’s boys.
Not this---“ The gleaming dark eyes swept over me. Her
contempt was almost
palpable. “---stranger.” She circled me, moving
lightly on her feet like an animal.
She sniffed me. “He smells of off world. He hasn’t
been on this planet more
than a few hours, non? Not a single drop of this planet’s
water flows in his
veins. And you want me to believe that he is one of you?”
How could she know these things just
from the way I smelled?
It had to be a trick. She must have spies, either among the Elect or at
spaceport. They had seen me arrive and reported to her.
“You asked for my eldest
son, and I have delivered him to
you,” my father reminded her coldly. “Are you
asking to renegotiate the treaty
at this late stage?”
Cassandre flew across the room. Her
cloak slipped back,
revealing a small sleek head topped by thick curly black hair that
down her back. Her skin was a smooth, deep brown. Her nose was long and
slightly hooked at the end, but if not for that and her fierce
would have been a beautiful woman.
her head barely reached my father’s
shoulder, somehow she seemed to overwhelm him. Maybe it was because he
backwards, to escape her touch as she jabbed her forefinger at his
ask nothing! I tell you what you will do! You will stop murdering my
You will stop pouring your filth in our ocean! If you do not, you will
forced to leave this planet!”
Ordinarily, a woman who dared to
speak to one of the
patriarchs like this would be whipped in public. She might even have
“Yes, yes,” Telia
Sojona Velinka Hjajak IIb interjected.
“The Elect have agreed to a
cease fire and to pollution controls. There is no reason that your two
can not co-exist in harmony.” She laid her hands on my
shoulders. “And this
young man will be the key link in the chain that unites your two
I wished that
Sojona Velinka Hjajak IIb had
out of it. Cassandre’s dark gaze swept over me. Her upper lip
curled in a
snarl. “Where is your armor, boy? Where is your metal plate
d—don’t have any of that,” I said stiffly.
Her eyes darted to the patriarchs who
were gathered around
the Council table. All of them wore implanted armor, even the frail old
“You call yourself one of the Elect, standing there as
vulnerable as the day
your mother shat you out from between her legs? Don’t make me
laugh. Admit it!
You are an imposter!”
“I’m not! I have
a disease! I can’t wear holy armor! But I’m
still one of the Elect---“
enough!” My father grabbed me by the upper
arm and steered me out of the Council, towards a small private chamber
Harum was waiting for me. His expression was unusually fierce.
you are!” he whispered.
“You are a son
of one of the ten families. Comport yourself with dignity, even when
confronted by savages.”
“Yes, sir.” I hung
My father sighed. “I know
this is hard for you.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. I lowered my
head even further so
that he would not see them and blinked furiously.
“This won’t be
forever. You only have to live with the
Others until we can get settled on this planet and find a way to deal
vermin once and for all.” By deal
knew that he meant eradicate. The Elect were specialists when it came
eradicating unwanted populations.
sorry,” I mumbled, still staring at my feet.
when I got the message to come home, I thought it meant that there was
but there is a
cure.” I looked up and found his eyes, so much like my own,
studying me. We
were so similar—the same auburn hair, hazel eyes and pale
sometimes thought me a clone rather than a natural son. Now, we were
“A cure?” I
“What do you think
we’ve been doing these last three years? The
doctors believe they have found a cure, an anti-virus. Harum will
dose before you leave. By the time you return to us, your contagion
gone. No, no questions. I have to get back to the Council.”
He laid his hand on
my shoulder. “God keep you, Isaac.” With that, he
I was in shock.
moment, I was told that I was being sent away to live with
Gilead and Lemuel were to be believed. And the next, I learned that
now a cure for the disease which had made me a pariah. I did not know
to cry or jump for joy. A cynical voice inside my head asked How long have they had the vaccine? Did they
decide to give it to you now, because they needed you for this mission,
didn’t want you running loose on Paradise with your
contagion? Another part
of me did not care why the cure was being administered, as long as I
behind me. Its tentacles encircled me in an embrace that was kinder
father’s had been, even though my tutor was a machine.
“It is excellent news
about the anti-virus, Master Isaac. I have it here. If you will allow
waiting for my reply, it rolled up
my right sleeve and administered a painful injection. “They
tell me you may
experience some lymph
followed by dizziness and fever in the next few days as the vaccine
take effect, but the symptoms are nothing to be alarmed about. I have
antipyretics, anti-emetics and sedatives along with other basic
the first aid kit which is packed in your bag. Certain items are not
your hosts. These include advanced weapons, communications equipment,
have removed these and added extra clothing----“
“What do you mean
‘first aid kit’? You carry all my
“I am one of the items that
is not allowed by your hosts. I
will have to remain here in the city, Master Isaac.”
“Please, try to stay calm,
I threw my arms around
Harum’s metal waist and hugged it. “I
won’t leave you here!”
It patted me on the back with several
of its rubbery arms.
“It isn’t up to you or me. You are a guest of this
planet’s Native People, and
as a guest, you must abide by their rules. They have lived without
the most basic technology for many years. It is understandable that
be leery of an entity like me.”
I gave up fighting my tears.
“Why do I have to go live with
savages to end a war that I didn’t start?” I
wailed. “Why do I have to leave
you, behind? I don’t want to!”
“Master Isaac, I have faith
in your father. I know that he
would not send you on this mission unless it was of the utmost
I have faith in you. You are no longer a child, Master
always, its voice was soothing. It
held my hands in two of its pincer hands,
while two more of its pincers smoothed my hair from my face. I relaxed. “I have
prepared a meal for you.”
A tray slid out from the compartment at its midsection. The food was
fare, solid blocks of protein and carbohydrate supplements along with a
of my favorite
vitamin fortified high
calorie shake. “Remember
that you must
eat, even if the food they give you
seems strange or unpalatable.”
It had been hours since I had last
eaten, and I was
ravenous. I wolfed down what was offered to me. “What do you
mean?” I asked with
my mouth full.
“On planet, people eat a
variety of organic foodstuffs, some
plant, some animal.”
“I’ve eaten meat
before. Unless they want me to eat other
people I don’t think it will be a problem.” A
terrible thought occurred to me.
“Are they cannibals?”
“Not for nutritional
My stomach turned. I could not finish
my last protein
“I am not absolutely sure.
Much about the Native People is
shrouded in mystery. I believe that they may cannibalize their dead. If
are under no obligation to participate in funeral ceremonies.”
Harum gave my hands a squeeze.
“Think of it as an
anthropologic expedition. I have enclosed a notebook in your travel
should start keeping a journal. It will help you pass the time, and
will prove invaluable when your return to civilization.”
Leave it to my tutor to find the
bright side. I was not
being given to the Others as a hostage. I was setting off on a grand
to learn about a
culture that ate its
own dead and used only primitive machines. Some people would have
what I was about to do a great opportunity. Those same people would
delight in being fed insects for supper and sleeping outdoors under the
and recycling their own urine.
“I know that you are ill
prepared for this type of mission,
Master Isaac, but if you do well in the
task which you have been assigned, then you will rise in
estimation. Also consider that by the time you return, the anti-virus
taken effect, and you will be cured of your contagion. You will be able
acquire implanted armor. There will be nothing to stop you from
rightful place as your father’s heir.”
It was a tempting prospect, however I
could not help wishing
that I had been offered the option of taking the anti-virus and then
Paradise City, safe and snug in a cozy apartment with Harum and all the
amenities of civilization.
As if it could read my thoughts,
Harum said “With privilege
comes responsibility and hardship, Master Isaac.”
“Seems to me I have had
more than my share of hardship,” I
replied tartly, rubbing the scars on the side of my neck.
Before my tutor could offer any more
encouraging words, the
door to the little room burst open. Senechal Cassandre flew in. Her
took in Harum and dismissed the robotic tutor as beneath her notice.
playing with your toy! Grab your things. We leave now!” She
stamped her foot to
emphasize the last word.
“I’ll miss you,
I pressed my forehead to my tutor’s smooth, cool
It stroked my hair.
“I will miss you, too, Master
Isaac. Please remember to eat and write each day in your journal. And
your temperature and vital signs every morning. If you get a fever,
there is a
medical manual in the first aid kit----“
“Is this your maman?”
Cassandre demanded. “A great, big, shiny metal maman
for a great big boy? If you get a fever, we have healers who
can kiss you on the forehead and change your diapers. Come
along!” She snatched
the travel bag from the floor and tossed it to me. With the electronic
equipment removed, it was much lighter than before. This was a good
since apparently I was going to have to carry it myself.
With a flutter of black fabric,
Cassandre swept out of the
room, and, after one last glance at Harum, I followed in her wake, out
Council building and into the darkened streets of the city and from
the nearest gated exit.
Three Others joined us on the journey
from Paradise City into
the heart of the native reservation. Two were men, one a big boned
skinned giant with
a shaved head. The
other was short and
wiry with milk white
skin even paler than mine, his head also shaved smooth, except for a
white lock of hair that fell across his forehead. His eyes were pink,
those of a laboratory rat, and when they caught and reflected the
they glowed red. The two men kept
running whispered conversation, sometimes lapsing into a language that
not understand and which sounded like no human speech I had ever
before, being full of grunts and whinnies and
occasional shrill cries like something out of an educational vid of a
fourth member of
the party was a woman of Asiatic origin who was half a head taller than
Her sleek black hair was cut short in a pageboy that made her seem doll
from the neck down there was nothing girlish about her, for she fairly
with weapons---knives, arrows, swords
of various lengths were tucked into her belt, boots, backpack. She carried a Chinese repeating crossbow
fastened to her belt and
a long bow strapped to her back.
The two men went by the names of
Pepper and Salt. If the
woman with the blades had a name, no one bothered to share it with me,
so I mentally
dubbed her Blades.
Harum was not exaggerating when it
said that the Others used
no advanced technology. Except
clothes on their backs, homespun shirts
over baggy trousers topped by voluminous hooded dark cloaks, leather
boots, archaic weapons
and water canteens, my escort had
brought nothing with them to Paradise City. Once outside the gates, I
around in vain for their shuttle craft, land rover or other transport
“Did you drop
something?” Blades asked in accented English.
Though she was a tall woman, her high
pitched, sing song voice made her sound as if she had grown up on earth
Chin or in the space repackaging hub at New Bejing.
Before I could answer, Senechal
Cassandre barked over her
shoulder “Head out!” dropping the H the way she
always did. She set
off, jogging at a brisk pace that put
Gilead and Lemuel to shame. The Others followed.
Clutching my travel bag in both
hands, I ran to catch up
with them before they disappeared around a bend in the road.
that I could not keep up with my new companions. Having spent all of my
space, in artificial gravity, I lacked the strength and stamina of
were born on planet. More importantly, I could not see well in the
the Others’ eyes appeared natural,
had night vision as good as that as an Elite warrior wearing sonar
goggles. We had
gone only a short distance, before I
fell flat on my face, tripped by a half buried rock in the road.
“If you give me a light or
a torch….” I began.
One of the larger dark cloaked
figures picked me up by the
scruff of the neck and hauled me to my feet. It was Pepper.
walk,” the big man said. His voice reverberated
like a drum near my ear. “He’ll only slow us
Hastily, I struggled to my feet.
“I’m fine!” I insisted. “I
just need a light---“
A whistle split the night air. The
sound was so sudden and
startling, that I dropped my pack
had to grope around in the darkness to find it. While I was down on the
on my hands and knees, I heard the sounds of enormous wings beating the
Hurriedly, I grabbed my bag and scrambled to my feet, instinctively
my companions’ shadowy forms. The bird that was approaching
sounded huge, but
surely it would not try to attack something as large as our combined
To my horror,
beating wings grew closer and then hovered in the air above us.
courage, I glanced up. A shadow blocked one of the moons. I could make
immense body with a long neck and two broad wings. The silhouette was
large as a small military fighter. I
ducked my head and prayed that it would
not notice us.
The whistle sounded again, loud and
shrill, and this time I
realized that it was Salt who had made the call. Was he trying to scare
the monster? If so, it did not seem to be working.
To my horror, the flying creature swooped towards the
heart skipped a beat. I knew that I should dive towards the high grass
flanked the road for cover, but I was paralyzed with fear. All I could do was cover my
head with my arms
and hope that the creature—whatever it was---chose one of my
companions for its
snack rather than me.
Time slowed to a crawl. The sound of
my heart pounding in my
ears competed with the loud whoosh,
the bird’s wings as they
flapped overhead. And then the bird was still, and the only sound was
still racing---proof that I had survived. My muscles were so tight with
that the act of lifting my head was agony, but I had to
Rather than attacking, the creature
had landed on the ground
a few paces away from us. Since it had feathers and wings, I will call
bird, however it was much larger than any ordinary bird, more like a cross between
a swan and a dragon..
Its wings spanned over
meters, and its body
was roughly twice the size of a dairy cow. Its long, graceful neck was longer than its body. Its
bulbous head ended
in a spoon shaped beak. Three round,
luminous eyes were spaced evenly around its skull so that it could see
directions. Its legs were thick and powerful looking, with broad,
webbed feet. Pale,
silvery grey feathers gleamed in the moonlight.
Salt stood on tiptoe and whispered
something to the creature.
It tossed its head and made a honking sound so loud that the ground
feet trembled, and my hair stood on end. I covered my ears with my
“The jugaju says you can
ride,” Pepper told me. “But
if you pull his feathers, he will pull your
hair out and use it to line his nest.”
“You w—want me to
ride th—that?” I stuttered, backing away
from the jugaju, which was watching me with an expression of something
amusement in two of its gleaming eyes.
Pepper picked my up by my collar and
deposited me on the back
of the giant bird. Surprisingly, it was very comfortable. However, I
that I would fall off and plunge to my death the moment the bird took
air. I grabbed
handfuls of feathers,
to which the bird gave a warning
squawk that sent chills through my entire body. Hurriedly, I let go.
“What if I fall?”
“You can get back on
again,” Cassandre said mockingly. “The
jugaju isn’t going to fly, silly boy. How can it fly carrying
a weight like you
on its back? Stop being such a baby.”
“What about my
it,” Pepper said. “You concentrate on holding
“Holding on to
what?” I should have insisted upon borrowing
one of Father’s transport planes, I thought, as I gazed into
the rear eye of the
jugaju which watched my every
move, as if daring me to tug
feathers. Machines never threatened their riders with bodily harm. They
break down, but they did not do it with malicious intent.
“Use your legs.”
Salt advised. “As if you were riding a
I had seen horses in vids. I had seen
people ride horses in
vids. As far as I knew no one rode the things anymore except for recreation on old
told him, as if she was reading my mind.
“Not everyone was raised in a zoo. Hold on as if you are
riding a two-wheeler.”
That made sense. I moved forward a
little bit towards the
narrower part of its torso, so that I could get a better grip of the
between my legs. With my hands resting lightly on the bird’s neck,
I was able to sit up.
We resumed our journey, the four
Others jogging alongside
the jugaju which carried me on its back while it walked. At first, it required all
to keep from being tossed off the bird’s back whenever it
would suddenly turn
corners or change speed. After about an hour of this, I had an idea. I
head down and wrapped my arms around its neck and buried my face in the
warmth of its feathers. The
a pleasant smell, that reminded me of a down filled comforter I used as
was much easier to keep my place this way. I hardly had to
at all. The rocking motion combined with the lateness of the hour began
me to sleep, and I had to fight to keep from dozing off, which would
To stay awake, I began to craft my
first journal entry in my
head. I had no idea how an anthropologist was supposed to write, so I
sound like Harum, since the robotic tutor was the most scholarly
rather entity that I knew.
The Others have tamed one of
the planet’s most remarkable beasts, the jugaju,
a bird that looks like
a swan with the
wing span of a small
sized deep space combat fighter. These
birds literally have eyes in the back of their heads,
and they are equipped to travel on the ground as well as
possessing powerful back legs like those of the ostrich. Though I expected a bumpy
ride, I was
pleasantly surprised at---
My stomach lurched as the bird
abruptly unfurled its wings
and ducked its head. Though we did not leave the ground, our speed
dramatically. We raced ahead of our companions, the wind whipping my
of leaf and grass which the bird’s wings and feet tore in its
wild passage went
flying around me. At any second, I expected to be airborne, so I braced
wrapping my arms around the bird’s neck and my legs around
Abruptly, we came to a halt. It is a
wonder I did not fly
forward and land in the dirt. I have a cast iron stomach, but I felt
Harum had prepared for me rise in my throat. The jugaju craned its neck
to look at me. Two of its bright eyes were laughing.
How is that
Though we were no longer moving, I
was so startled to hear
the bird speak to me, that I let go and almost fell off its back. The
grabbed me by the shoulder with its beak to keep me from tumbling to
ground. Seeing that we had left our companions behind, the jugaju
wings and waited until
caught up with us, then it resumed its journey at a more leisurely pace
“D—did you just
sp—speak to me?” I stuttered after I got
over my shock.
“I didn’t say
anything,” Cassandre hissed from the shadows
nearby. “You must have been dreaming. Go back to sleep,
can’t hear me, the
jugaju confided. So whatever you do,
don’t tell her that you can.
I was not planning to tell Senechal
Cassandre or anyone else
that I was having fantasies of talking beasts. I told myself that our
conversation was a
delusion brought on
by lack of sleep or maybe the effects of the anti-virus. Did I have a
fever? I checked my
own forehead. It
was hard to tell. Maybe
I was getting
“Could I have some water,
Pepper and Blades both offered me
canteens. “Keep mine,” the
oriental woman said. “I can borrow from one of the others.
You need to drink
this planet’s water. It will make you
The water in the canteen had a
peculiar taste, slightly
brackish but not unpleasantly so, with a faint sweet under taste as if
canteen had once been used to hold some flavored beverage, and the
that drink had never quite been washed away.
I had not realized how thirsty I was,
until I downed half
the contents of the leather canteen.
Afterwards, I felt refreshed. I tucked the leather strap
my neck and shoulder and wedged the canteen
under my vest, so that it would not
fly around striking me or
bird as we raced through a maze of shallow gullies that scored the
rained often on Paradise during the spring. I knew this from my studies
Harum. Flash floods were a problem. I wondered if we would encounter
tonight. The thought of witnessing an electric storm in the flesh both
and terrified me. However, my reading had told me
came from clouds, and the sky remained clear.
We entered a deep ditch, too narrow
for my jugaju to pass,
and I had to get down and walk. I was sorry to see the bird go. When no
looking, I pocketed a down feather which it had dropped in its wake. It
was at fifteen
centimeters long and ten centimeters wide, lustrous white and velvety
except for the central quill, and its smell reminded me of the bird.
I was even more sorry about the loss
of the jugaju when we
started navigating the ditches which
appeared to have been gouged out of the earth by some
could picture a hundred meter tall Cassandre doing it in a fit of
to make my way around the slippery, jagged rocks in the darkness was
impossible. My requests for a light were answered with the same silence
before. It was as if I had asked for something outrageous, like a
on a platter.
Pepper and Blades helped me as best
they could, however, the
path continued to narrow
until we had
to walk single file. I
fell behind. Cassandre
kept telling me to hurry up.
Finally, I became
so flustered that I
rushed forward blindly and ended up slipping and tearing my pants and
gash on my shin on a particularly sharp boulder.
The whole time Pepper was dressing my
Cassandre kept up a monologue about how much time my blunder was
My leg ached horribly, and I had no idea how I was going to keep up
now, wounded as I was.
Finally, Blades told Cassandre
“It isn’t as if he did it on
purpose.” I could have kissed her.
turned his back to me and knelt. “I’ll carry
I was grateful for the darkness, so
that Cassandre could not
see my face flushed red with embarrassment. I had not ridden piggy-back
was a small child. I wrapped my arms around the big man’s
neck. “Tell me if I
get too heavy,” I whispered.
“Pepper could carry two of
you and not notice it,” Salt
assured me. “He carries the sows when they’re ready
to drop a litter, and
they’re much heavier than you.” He leaned close and
murmured “Don’t pay any
attention to Her Majesty. She’s just jealous.”
Why would Cassandre be jealous of me?
Maybe I had misheard
For all his height and strength, I
knew that Pepper could
not carry me far. I was tall and big boned for my age.
I worried about what I would do when I had
to start walking again. My leg throbbed horribly. I was relieved when
called out “Here’s the pirogue.”
The pirogue turned out to be a wide,
flat bottomed boat
which was anchored at the edge of a swamp studded with dark, deformed
climbed into the water craft, and Blades
took up a long pole which she used to push us off from the shore. She
Pepper manned the oars.
The air was warmer over the swamp and
with humidity. Tiny flies buzzed around my nose and mouth. The others tied strips of
cloth across the
lower halves of their faces. I pulled the collar of my shirt up over my
and nose to keep out the annoying gnats. With nothing to do but sit and
myself to be ferried, I was able to pay attention to little details,
way that the light of the twin moons
off the rippled water and the way the long, skinny branches of the
drooped towards the swamp, creating a vertical lattice that was
life. For a while, a small, brown furred creature with six arm-legs and
like a monkey visited us in the boat. I gathered from the way that Salt
the creature, chattering with it in its own language, that it was
friendly. As we
neared the last clump
of trees, it jumped
for a high branch
The center of the lake was dotted
with exquisite waxy white
flowers which gave
off an intoxicating
one of the blooms
would jerk closed, as if it had been zapped with an electric current.
neared one of the
plants, I saw the
reason why. A small aquatic creature had leapt into the air and landed
lily pads. Instantly, the plant furled shut. The fish thrashed briefly,
stilled and a thin stream of something shiny
and dark trickled from the edge of the curled up flower.
Salt explained. “Don’t touch. It has a nasty
bite, and its poison can strip your finger to the bone if you
don’t apply the
Mentally, I prepared another entry
for my journal.
Soon after that, we came to a
waterfall. Instead of steering
clear of it, Blades
and Pepper rowed
the pirogue directly towards
Others raised their hoods. Salt opened his cloak and held it up so that
covered both his head and mine. The material turned out to be
we made it through the fall without getting terribly wet.
On the other side of the waterfall
was a natural cavern. The
ceiling was high, studded with crystals and covered with some sort of
moss that was faintly luminous in the dark.
Though the moons were hidden, there was actually more
than there was outside, thanks to the glowing moss. In the water, I saw
variety of fish, some small, swimming in schools, some eel or snakelike, a few as large as dolphins.
I recalled the trap lotus, and I wondered if any of these creatures
As we sailed deeper into the cavern,
the underground river
came to branch point where it split in three. We took the left most
ceiling was lower and the luminous moss was even brighter here. I could
read an old fashioned book comfortably. Recalling the Others’
light, I expected my companions to draw their hoods, but the soft
glow did not seem to bother them. When I asked about it, Blades
light is fine. Red light hurts the eyes.”
“And fire. Fire is the
Gilead and Lemuel had said as much.
“Guess you like your
food raw,” I joked.
“Fresh meat is the
best,” Blades agreed seriously.
In the three years I had spent alone
in space quarantine, I
had developed a fertile imagination. It was the only way to pass the
found myself imagining a banquet in which I, the guest of honor, was
served a steaming
platter of freshly carved raw
flesh hacked from the carcass of some animal slaughtered before my eyes, a feast
which I could not
reject without offending my hosts---
At that moment, I would have given
anything to turn back.
This was all a mistake. I was not the one the Others wanted. They were
expecting one of my half brothers, a pliable child who could be
Or maybe they wanted a hostage, a
beloved eldest son whose
safety would be so important that the Elect would honor their
had tricked them. He had taken advantage of a technicality and
eldest son they did not know about, an unwanted child, an embarrassment to his family, the son of
a heretic, a boy
cursed with a terrible affliction---
Well, maybe not cursed. Father did give me the
anti-virus, after all---
But only so that he could send me
away into an even worse
sort of exile. After
living with the
Others, the Elect would never accept me as one of them. I was my
and would always bear the stigma of her sin, whether or not my blood was tainted. My
father was probably
glad of this opportunity to get rid of me, now that he had a family
I knew that I was in the middle of a
panic attack. The
problem was that the knowledge only made it worse If Harum had been
would have given me a sedative and spoken soothing words until I calmed
But Harum was in Paradise City, and my medication was somewhere in my
if I knew where to look for it, my hands were shaking so badly---
“Are you sick?”
Pepper asked. “It helps to look at something
in the distance.”
“I have ginger
root,” Salt offered. “If you’re feeling
queasy, it will settle your stomach.”
Blades laid her hand on my forehead.
“You’re as cold as ice!”
She stripped off her cloak and draped it over my shoulders.
“Here. This will
warm you up.”
So severe was this attack, that it
took me a moment to
realize that my companions mistook my anxiety for motion sickness. I
embarrassed---and touched. Besides Harum, no one had showed as much
me as Salt, Pepper and Blades since my mother died. Cassandra was an
bitch, but maybe she was the exception, not the rule. For the first
considered the possibility that Gilead and Lemuel were wrong, and the
were not Hell spawn. Maybe they were decent people who did not want to
be dealt with by professional
like my father.
“Your leg will heal faster
if you put it in the water,”
My stomach turned over. On the other
hand, maybe Gilead and
Lemuel were right. I recalled the trap lotus and the man sized fishes,
over active imagination presented me with very clear images of what
could do to my leg. Panic stricken, I scurried to the center of the
far from the water as I could get. It was a miracle I did not upset the
“He’s afraid we’re going to use him as
“There are no predators in
the tunnels,” Salt assured me.
“Yes, well he
doesn’t know that,” Pepper pointed out.
very sensible of him to be worried about sticking his leg in the water, especially after what
you told him
about the trap lotus.”
“I wasn’t trying
to scare him, just protect him.”
“Hush, I know.”
The big man smiled fondly at his little
“This will help.”
Blades unwrapped the bandage on my shin.
She used her hands to scoop water from the river, trickling the
my wound. The water stung at first. The river was growing increasingly
brackish, so much so that I could smell the salt and other minerals. No
they had antiseptic properties and would cut down the risk of
to be safe, I made a mental note to check the medical guide Harum had
in my pack and take a dose of the appropriate antibiotic once we
As the stinging eased, sleepiness
overwhelmed me. I had been
awake for almost twenty-four hours. The gentle rocking of the boat
with forced inactivity and fatigue
it hard for me to keep my eyes open. My head started to nod.
Blades moved over in the pirogue to
make room for me to lay
my head down. “Rest. We still have hours to go.”
Cassandre made a snide remark, but I
ignored her. The bottom
of the boat was hard, and it curved at an awkward angle, but I was so
did not matter. My head had barely hit my travel pack, which I used as
improvised pillow, before I was unconscious. I slept and dreamed.
a missile strike had
taken out the bunker on the beach where I was hiding with Cassandre and
man, short, not stocky but with
knotty muscles over fine bones. His face was almost as familiar to me
own, his eyes pale
slightly protuberant, his brow high,
his hair a wild tangle of gold around a face burned brown
by the sun.
We tried to
our lungs were seared by whatever poison the missile had delivered to
hiding place. We had only the oxygen that remained in our blood to keep us alive, and
already that was
beginning to thin.
panic or despair, but instead, I gave the other two a thumbs up and a
grin. We locked hands, the
woman in the
middle, and as one we burst from the bunker and darted
towards the ocean, running
a zig-zag pattern to keep the snipers off as we headed
towards the waves where sanctuary awaited us. Though my lungs were on
my vision was growing dark, the
would heal our wounds…
Blades shook me by the shoulders.
“Wake up, Isaac.
We’re almost there.”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. The
dream faded. The tunnel
looked the same as it had when I fell
asleep, the low ceiling covered with glowing moss, the dark water shot
there with reflected light. However, in the distance up ahead I made
shadows that gradually took on the form of other boats, some small,
larger than our own. The tunnel widened abruptly, and we were in a
cavern. The ceiling was much too high for me to make out, except for
formations that created huge columns and here and there a dangling rock
that did not quite reach the water. These stalactites were moss
they glowed like beacons.
I could not begin to guess how wide
the cavern was. Some of
the glowing columns seemed to be kilometers away, but it was hard to
things like size and distance in the gloom. Had it not been for the
rocks and the absence of the twin moons, I might have thought that we
outdoors. The lake or sea or whatever it was that we sailed upon was vast. Blades had said that we were
“almost there”, but
by that she meant
only that our pirogue was about to meet up with a larger ship, a wooden
bristling with oars. We boarded this new vessel by means of a rope
was halfway up the side of the ship before I realized that my injured
no longer paining me.
“Don’t stand there
gawking!” Senechal Cassandre shouted from below me. Sometimes she acted like an
ancient, cantankerous grandmother,
though she could not have been
more than five years older than me.
I scrambled onto the deck.
Blades followed me. “Your leg okay?”
feels a lot
stuff.” She handed me my pack.
“You should stay out of the way of the crew.
Once they start rowing,
things can get
pretty hectic.” She lead me to a partially enclosed area near
the back of the
boat. “You should be safe here. And sit down. You
don’t want to fall overboard.
Once our party had boarded the larger
ship, its crew began to
man the oars. Blades, Pepper and Salt
pitched right in.
Cassandre consulted with a woman who barked orders from time to time,
guessed that she was the captain. A few of the crew members gave me
glances, and one boy about my own age said loudly “He
don’t look like a crusty”
before someone cuffed him.
the next few
minutes trying to figure out what a “crusty” was. Since there was an empty
spot on the bench next to Blades, I
joined her and asked “What’s a crusty?”
me a guarded
look. “Crusty is short for crustacean. It’s because
your guys wear so much plate
armor they look like crabs and lobsters.” The look on her
face told me that she
was waiting for me to get mad.
I recalled Gilead, with his full face
plate, his lobster
pincer and his tail. I could see why someone might mistake him for a
crustacean. I do not smile much. The scar tissue from my burns makes it
painful. However, I gave Blades a little grin to show that I was not
She smiled back.
“You’re not like the other Elect.” She
meant it in a nice way. “That must be why Keep sent for
husband. Keeper of the Crossroads. We all call
him Keep for short. He can see things other people can’t see.
He had one of his
visions. Said we
should foster Patriarch Tobias’s eldest
son. That’s why you’re here. You’ll like
him. Everyone does.” She dropped her
voice. “Just don’t try to lie to him.”
Did I look like someone who told
lies? “I would never---“
“Everyone tells lie.
Especially when they’re your age.” Her
smile was conspiratorial. “It’s just that it
won’t do you any good with Keep.
His mother was riding in a space transport that went
through a patch of dark matter when she was four months
pregnant. You know what that means?”
It could mean a lot of things. Almost
as soon as man had
perfected faster than light travel,
that there are things in space
that have strange effects on the developing embryo. The strangest of
dark matter. A four month fetus exposed to the stuff usually died in
If it didn’t die, chances were that the child would be born
autistic or insane.
If it did not
develop either of these
illnesses, then the
child often had
special gifts, precognition, telepathy, stuff life that. One of the ten
families had risen to power because its daughters tended to give birth
“gifted” children. Women of that clan were
routinely sent into space during
their first pregnancy. If the child survived the exposure to dark
woman was called a breeder and rather
than marrying, she stayed within the family, where she was bred like a
and exposed to dark matter during her fourth month of confinement. In
the family managed to produce two or three
seers each generation. Of course, this was a carefully
known only to other members of the ten families. The public at large
that Patriarch Emmanuel came from a bloodline of seers.
So Keep was a telepath. Or, at the
very least, an empath.
The thought frightened me more than anything I had witnessed today. My
were the last thing I had left.
Blades giggled. “He
doesn’t read minds, silly. He reads the
future. And the past.”
That was a relief. But how did
Before I could ask, someone
started to beat a drum.
move,” she told me. “Rowing is about to
I clamped my hands on the oars, in
imitation of the others.
“I’m going to help.”
It was hard work, but the salt water
spray in my face cooled
me down when I started feeling flushed. Then I saw Senechal Cassandre
at me with an expression that was not the kind that is usually reserved
noxious insects, and that gave me a second wind.
Nearby, the navigator was teaching a
young man how to use
the glowing pillars as guideposts. “Them’s the
twins,” she said indicating two
columns that stood side by side in the distance.
“There’s a shallows to the
north of them, sunken freighter run aground eighty years ago.
It’s lying there
waiting to catch another unwary vessel, so always steer to the south.
there, see the hanging rock
bit ‘o moss what looks like a heart at the tip? The eye says
it’s far away, but
it’s really skinny and really close and it reaches almost to
Whatever you do, steer clear of it.”
The Captain nodded. “They
should knock that piece of rock
down. It’s a hazard.”
“You try talking some sense
into the hoodoos,” the navigator
said in disgust “All I ever hear is ‘This mountain
is a living thing. We must
respect it.’” She mimicked a sugary sweet voice,
all the while looking at
Senechal Cassandre out of the corner of her eye as if she expected her
her words were
supposed to be bait, Cassandre was not rising to it. The dark woman sat
beside me and Blades. “Move over.” She grabbed the
oar and began rowing. She
was strong. Our work was cut in half.
At first, it unnerved me, having a
woman who obviously
despised me sitting beside me. I felt her leg brushing up against mine,
we braced our feet against the deck. As she worked up a sweat, I could
her. Under ordinary circumstances there was nothing that I hated more
scent of someone I disliked, but Senechal Cassandre’s
perspiration had a warm,
musky aroma, like an expensive perfume.
She had thrown off her dark cloak.
black curls streamed back in the wind, and her eyes were half shut,
look like a woman who was waiting to be kissed---
Her eyes opened and met mine. From
the way her upper lip
curled, I knew that my emotions were written
all over my face. I though she would slap me. Or mock me.
Or call me a little boy. I was
enough and naïve enough not to realize that women, even women
like to be admired and desired.
“Maybe we will make a man
of you,” she said in her
oddly accented English. The word “man”
sounded like “mon.” “Or
maybe we will
eat you up.”
Blades made an impatient sound. I
tore my gaze away from
Cassandre and found the oriental woman rolling her eyes. I hoped the
were not going to get into a fight with me in the middle.
To my relief, at that moment, the
navigator called out “Land
I pretended to be more excited than I
was about reaching
land. Better to act like a kid and have them laugh at me than have the
women fight. As we clambered onto the docks, Cassandre wrapped herself
cloak and assumed her usual air of frosty dignity.
barked in my general direction.
I grabbed my bag and hurried after
The pier was almost deserted, except
for a single figure at
the far end, shrouded in blue cloth almost the same shade as the light
the moss which grew in carefully tended clumps spaced evenly along the quay. The cloaked stranger
blended so well
with the dim light and the surrounding shadows that it could have been
Was that why I
afraid,” Blades whispered in my ear.
The blue shrouded figure moved
forward. The cloth fell away,
revealing sunburnt skin, tangled golden hair,
pale blue-grey eyes---familiar to me, because I had dreamt
them just a
few hours ago. One tanned arm slipped around Senechal
Cassandre’s waist. She
nuzzled his neck. The
other arm, he
held forward, beckoning me. His eyes were fixed on my face. His smile
his voice deep and rich----and familiar.
“Welcome, Isaac of Ethan.
I’ve been expecting you.”
The child is all the things I
expected him to be, the very
image of Joe, except without the armor and the pencil thin moustache.
Joe. As he comes
closer, I see the
scars on his face and hand, and I enter the time slip which is like
gears in a vehicle with a combustion engine, that moment between second
third, when you’re in no man’s land and your
stomach does a little flip before
you are somewhere again. That’s what it’s like to
go from the here and now to the there and then .
can’t describe it better.
(The child was even younger, smaller,
all eyes and dark red
hair, face deathly pale as he stared between the legs of the tall,
in their crimson robes and shiny, gold armor. A woman sat on a metal
the center in the room. Her arms and legs were fastened down with metal
expression was sleepy.
She blinked and
squinted as if trying
to focus. She caught the child’s eye. A smile lifted the
right corner of her
“….may God have
mercy upon your soul,” one of the old men
Flames erupted from slots in the
floor beneath the chair.
The fire quickly rose around the prisoner. She seemed oblivious to her
and to the heat. Drugged. Her head nodded forward, but she roused and
cough as her clothes caught fire. The smell quickly filled the room.
The child uttered a sharp cry and
darted forward. A half
dozen hands reached for him, but he was too slippery, too quick. He
the woman---his mother---but the flames stood between them. His sleeve
fire. A crimson-gold line raced up his left arm and licked his face.
back his head, he screamed “Mama!”)
And I am back out again before the
child even realizes that
I’m gone. I
don’t know what the others
have told him, but it’s better for now if he
doesn’t know that I know so much
Pardon me. I haven’t
introduced myself. I’m the Keeper of
the Crossroads. Time is my playground. Some claim it is because my
traveled through an area of space rich in dark matter
while I was still inside her womb. Others call it a gift
planet. It could
have something to do
with my family. My dad used to say that all his kin were sighted. I think it is because it
Please call me Keep. Everyone does.
The child takes my hand. Not a child,
a young man. He is
scared to death, but he gives me the Elect handshake, as if he is
break every bone in my hand just to prove he can. So much like my old
When I grab him by the shoulders and pull my down to my level to kiss
each cheek, his face turns as red as his hair. The burn scars on his
stand out white and rigid against the flushed skin. Instead of wearing
Armor, the child-man has forged his own armor made of scarred flesh
cast in the
fire that killed his mother.
“Call me Keep.”
The timbre and pitch of my words
startle him. I have the
voice of a much larger man.
“I bring greetings from my
father.’ He stutters just a
little as he delivers this message. “And from the other
Patriarchs.” His eyes
dart back and forth to the
those who are gathering on the pier to watch.
I do not need telepathy to know what he is thinking. He
wishes that he
was anywhere but here.
He may be free of Holy Armor, but
there is one hell of a
stick lodged up his ass, and he will never take it out with all these
watching. I throw my arm around his shoulder and steer him away from
The crowds part before us.
“You got here just in time,
Isaac. There is something I want
you to help me with.”
To Be Continued...
© 2008 McCamy Taylor
McCamy Taylor was Assistant Short Story Editor for Aphelion and a frequ ent contributor of short stories until health problems sidelined her. But she's ba-a-ack, as the new Serials/Novellas Editor and author of (among many other thi ngs) Magic and the Heart, a four-part serial that appeared in the August t hrough November 2007 Aphelion.
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