Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Gulf of Eden

Part Two

by McCamy Taylor


(Click here to read Part 1.)

IV. Isaac

"I knew you in your previous life," Keep said, without looking up from the harp. He turned a peg, tightening a string.

I wondered if I had misheard. Before me stretched a row of glasslike seashells suspended by thin filaments from a wooden frame. The bells sounded a three octave Phrygian dominant scale. Concentration along with a careful hand were required to strike a clear note without shattering the fragile shells.

Today was the first time anyone had asked me to use the musical training which was part of my people's classical education. The Elect studied music in order to appreciate it. Only slaves and gypsies actually performed.

The small cavern with its awkwardly planed walls and ceiling, no surface parallel to another, might have been deliberately designed with acoustics in mind. Knobby weavings of grass, bark and fur were strung from the walls and strewn across the floor to absorb sound. A variety of instruments, some familiar, many strange cluttered the far corner of the room. Here, as everywhere in the subterranean city of the Others, illumination was provided by lamps which contained blue-green luminous moss. Who fed and watered the plants, I wondered. It must take a small army to tend them. Or did they live on air?

"Give me a middle B flat."

I sounded the note and tried to suppress a grimace as Keep plucked a string. "Sharp."

"Good ear." He adjusted the string slightly and plucked it again. "I lived with the Elect when I was kid. Spoil of war." He took the sting out of his last words with a lopsided grin. His wiry hair was pulled away from his face by a braided headband. With his golden mane framing his head and his teeth bared in a grin, he looked like the laughing lion emblem of the Leonus Shipping Fleet. "Slavery was a step up from gutter rat on a pirate cruiser. And after one of the Patriarchs took an interest in me, I lived like a prince. That's how I met you--in your previous existence."

Keep was much too nice for me to come right out and tell him that I did not believe a word that he was saying. I nodded politely.

"You were my master's son and heir. Name of Joseph. Same red hair, same fair skin, nose like a beak and eyes like a bird of prey-- the only difference was that you had a full set of armor back then. How you loved to hear about the pirates. When I turned sixteen and started having the dreams, you wanted to hear all about them, too." He frowned, whether in concentration or from darker emotion, it was difficult to tell. His voice remained calm. "If I'd been able to foresee what was going to happen, I would've kept my visions to myself. But back then, before the war, they were just hints of a possible future."

Being a son of the Elect, my ears pricked up at the word war. "Did I--did Joseph die in battle?"

The seer looked up from tuning his harp. His expression was bleak. "It wasn't a battle. It was a massacre."

"I'm sorry," I whispered for lack of anything better to say.

"For what? For dying when Cassie and I lived? I'm sorry for getting you killed, Joe." He put aside his harp , grabbed me by the shoulders and hugged me so hard that my ribs creaked. "It's good to have you back!"

I recalled my daydream, Keep, Senechal Cassandre and I--an older I running hand in hand towards the water, our lungs on fire, trying to escape an attack. The fantasy of a shared past was so tempting, especially when my own people had disowned me. But that was all it was--a fantasy. Was there something about the air of this planet, some psychoactive spore released by the vegetation or a chemical in the water that made people hallucinate? Had the seer sent a telepathic projection across the water to invade my dreams? Blades said that he was not a telepath.

The thought sobered me. Keep knew nothing about me, except that I was a Patriarch's son. He did not know about my shame--the disease which made me unfit to be my father's heir. He did not know how I had disgraced my father a second time, the day my mother was executed. His Joseph was an Elect warrior who died in battle. I was an outcast, chosen to be a hostage, because I was expendable. Once he got to know me, he would realize that I was not his old friend reincarnated.

"I'm not Joseph," I told him firmly, pushing him away. "I may look like him, but that's all it is. Just a superficial resemblance. You don't know anything about me--"

Patiently, "Isaac, I know everything about you. You don't know about me . Time blinds most people. Not me. The past--your past, anyone's past--is just as real as these bells..."

He ran a fingertip lightly across the transparent shells. The bells whispered rather than sounding, and I felt the music in my bones. I held my breath as the last vibrations faded.

"...which once housed living creatures at the bottom of the sea. I know that your favorite color is blue, and I know what scared you so much when you were eight that you wouldn't leave the bed, even when you had to go to the toilet, so you ended up wetting the mattress." As smoothly as water flowing over rocks, Keep's melancholy mood had passed. He was the lion again, smiling and serene. "And I know that you were Joe in a previous life, even if you don't--yet. " He picked up his harp. "How're you at improvisation?"

"At what?"

"Silly question. The Elect always follow the score." He tapped out a basic syncopated rhythm. "Just keep this beat, pick a chord and play whatever sounds good to you. I'll follow along."

"I--I don't think I can."

Patiently, the seer covered my right hand with his left and had me practice tapping the rhythm on the floor. "See? Nothing to it. Now, do the same thing with the bells. Start with middle C. Gently! Once you have the hang of that, try varying the tones, but keep the rhythm the same."

I sighed. "I don't know any songs in this key. It's going to be garbage."

"So what if it is? It's just you and me. Play."

After an awkward start, I discovered that no matter what notes I sounded, Keep was able to elaborate on the random tones, weaving a pleasant melody on the harp. As I grew familiar with the bells, I began to experiment with different chords, and as my contribution grew more complex, so did the seer's. Together, the two musical threads wove an unexpectedly rich tapestry. The weight which had accumulated about my shoulders during the journey to and from Paradise City fell away. Musical conflict was so easy to resolve. If only life could be so simple.

Too soon, the harp decrescendoed then went silent. For a few moments more, the bells sounded clear tones , and then they, too, were quiet. I could not remember the last time I had felt so calm and clear headed. My medication relaxed me, but it had the unpleasant side effect of making my mind fuzzy. At that moment, I felt as pure and empty as one of the shells.

It did not last. Keep was watching me, and there was something in his expression that reminded me of my mother, though they were as different as two people could possibly be. She was short and dark, like a child next to my father, she seemed a natural ally to me when I was young--

Even after three years, it hurt too much to think about my mother. I searched for something to take my mind off her.

"Did you and Joseph play together like this?"

"Naw. Joe was tone deaf. He didn't have an artistic bone in his body. The only thing he ever wanted to do was fight, like his dad."

"So what makes you think that I'm Joseph?"

"Did I say you were Joe? I meant that in a past life you were Joe. People don't come back the way they used to be. That's the definition of hell, being forced to relive the same crap for all eternity." He placed a cloth over the harp and stood up. "Come" He offered me a hand to help me to my feet.

As I stood, I almost said You don't know what hell is until you've watched your mother burn to death before your eyes . But if I said it, that would make it real all over, and I did not have my travel pack with my medication. Blades had taken it to the quarters I would share with Sennechal Cassandre and her husband, my hosts during my stay among the Others.

My medication. Sometimes, just knowing that I had it at hand kept my anxiety at bay, while the thought of being denied relief was enough to precipitate an attack. But I must not let myself think about that, because once my mind started to wander in that direction, inevitably--

Sweat popped out under my armpits and on my upper lip. It became difficult to breathe. My heart began to thud against my breastbone. I struggled to control my agitation.

Keep pressed his forehead to mine. His hands encircled the back of my neck, fingers probing tense muscles that twitched then relaxed as suddenly as a unstrung bow. "Breathe."

I realized I had been holding my breath. As I exhaled, my anxiety eased as surely as if Harum had slapped a patch on me.

Keep leaned back. I had seen eyes as blue as his, but usually they were artificial, decorating the face of an android. With one hand still lightly clasping the back of my neck, he murmured "Funny, though you're a patriarch's son, I know more about what's considered ‘normal' or ‘customary' among the Elect than you do. For instance, while it's true that children are sometimes forced to watch a parent's execution to prove that they're good little citizens, no one really expects them to watch, if you know what I mean."

"How--?"

"I'm Keeper of the Crossroads--but we've been through that already. When Elect children attend the execution of a family member, they're so sedated that they don't remember a thing. I've never heard of a child your age--what was it? Ten? Twelve?-- being forced to watch his mother burn while clear headed." He ran his thumb over the scars along my jaw. He picked up my left hand and turned it over, examining the thickened, mottled red and white flesh. "You aren't so different from Joe, after all. You have your own armor. It's just that yours was forged in battle. Follow me. I want to show you something."

Confused did not even begin to describe how I felt at that moment. Trying to anticipate what the seer would do or say next was impossible. He was like one of the super sized space transports that are so large that they exert a gravitational effect like that of small planet. It was easier just to follow in his wake and hope that a jettisoned fuel cell or a sudden engine burst did not send me tumbling.

There was another exit from the cavern, opposite the one where we had entered. Keep pushed aside a tapestry, revealing a short tunnel that opened outside. The planet's star had risen. It hung a short distance above the horizon, wide, orange, slightly blurry around the edges. The light was dazzling to my dark adapted eyes. The seer, more sensitive to sunlight than I, drew his hood to shade his face. He kept one hand firmly on my elbow, as if to anchor me in place. After I blinked a few times, I understood why.

We stood at the edge of a steep cliff. Before us stretched a landscape that appeared at first glance to be made of intelligent liquid metal like that used in the most sophisticated androids, the kind of material that shapes itself automatically to suit the needs of its host. Common sense told me that was impossible, and so I searched for some other explanation for a shimmering, silver plain reaching from the bluff to the horizon. The smell of salt and rotting organic material was strong on the air. Something leapt from the silver. Silver itself, it formed an arc, before plunging back into the place from which it came. Ripples broke the smooth surface and moved towards us, and I finally understood.

"That's the ocean, Isaac."

"It's so big." Everyone says that the first time, but what else can you say? Water is supposed to be a liquid you use to fill a cup or a tub or a pool if you are very, very wealthy. Water is precious. Water is not supposed to cover a whole planet.

This must have been how people on old earth felt, I thought, as they stood on their beaches and gazed out at the sea .

Keep sat down near the edge of the cliff and crossed his legs. No part of his body was visible, thanks to his hooded cloak I recalled Blades' words about red light and fire and how we had hurried to complete our journey while it was still dark.

"Is it safe for you to be outside like this?" I asked.

"My element's water. Fire and light don't bother me the way they do most of the clan."

"Is that what you call yourselves? The Clan?"

He laughed at that "Ask ten different people what we're called, and you'll get ten different answers." He patted the ground beside him. "Sit. I want to tell you a story."

I sat down next to him. I was fuzzy headed from lack of sleep, but the long drop from the edge of the cliff forced me awake. "Another story about Joe?"

"This is a much older story than that. You've heard about the Garden of Eden? There was no garden, not the way that people imagine it. The first human beings on old earth were nurtured by the ocean, when their peninsula was cut off from the mainland of Africa and became an island..."

I considered asking him how he knew this but decided to save my breath. He would only give me that leonine stare and tell me that he was the Keeper of the Crossroads as if that explained everything.

"....The apes that were becoming human would have died of hunger and disease if not for the mercy of the ocean. "

"Mercy? The sea's just water and salt."

" You're just water and salt, but you're capable of mercy and love," he retorted. "The oceans of the worlds are a hell of lot older than you and much wider. Wide enough to embrace you and me and any other living thing that throws itself upon their mercy

"You've studied the aquatic ape theories." It was not a question. "How early humans lost their fur in the water and how they learned to walk upright in order to keep their head above the water and all the rest. Back in the days when the ancestors of the Elect ate meat, there were certain earth animals they wouldn't touch. Swine, hippopotami. That's because those creatures were kin to the intelligent sea mammals, the cetacea and especially the delphinidae who taught us how to talk and how to reason. We even learned to mate face to face from them and decided that the gods preferred it that way.

"The waters of old earth receded and the land bridge rose again. The first humans left their Eden. But even though they abandoned the Garden, the Garden never abandoned them. They took with them the power of speech and the ability to walk on two legs which freed up their hands so that they could use tools.

" Millions of years later--seventy thousand years before humans left old earth, a volcano erupted, filling the sky with ash. For decades, it was twilight and winter on the planet. The human race should have died. But the great ocean of the world wouldn't let that happen. Around the hot springs of the planet our ancestors clung to life. The warm water kept a food source--fish-- alive. Cholecalciferol in the fish kept the human's bones from collapsing from lack of sunshine. Thanks to the water of the world, we survived..."

It had been a long day for me. I had hardly slept the night before during the journey from Paradise City to the Others' subterranean colony, and the night before my arrival on the planet I had been too nervous to do more than doze fitfully. Despite the dazzling display of sunlight on the water and the risk of tumbling to my death on the ground far below, my eyelids kept growing heavier and heavier as Keep kept going on and on, exactly like my robotic tutor Harum. I think that he was talking about religious wars when I finally drifted to sleep.

V. Isaac

When I came to, I was curled up on a vast mattress that smelled of jugaju feathers. The bed dominated the room, a windowless chamber whose walls, floor and ceiling were all carved from white rock flecked with mica. I had seen veins of a similar mineral in the floor of Keep's music room. From this I assumed that I was somewhere in the same mountain fortress, only deeper underground. That would explain the warm air.

The light was dim, the only source of illumination being a single lantern next to the doorway. Brightly colored rugs were scattered across the floor. Paintings decorated the walls. One of them contained a likeness of a red haired man who looked like me except for his thin moustache. A wardrobe constructed of natural wood covered most of one wall. The smell of tree resin made my nose itch.

My travel bag lay on the foot of the bed along with a pile of clothes. My clothes. Someone had stripped me, before putting me to bed. My face and chest were warm, but my back was much warmer. A rivulet of sweat trickled down my flank. As sleepiness drifted away, I reached back lazily and brushed warm flesh and cold metal.

Startled, I glanced over my shoulder. Blades, the young Asian woman who had accompanied me from Paradise City, lay curled up behind me on the bed. Except for a half dozen sheathed weapons strapped to her torso and various limbs, she was naked.

My prick sprang to attention. I grabbed a blanket to cover up. Blades stirred.

"You're awake? Goo--" She yawned and rubbed her eyes. "--ood. Keep said to tell you he's sorry . He'll apologize in person when he gets back. In the meantime, I'm supposed to keep you entertained. What do you want to do?" She noted the blanket. "What's this?" She threw the covers aside, rolled me over onto my back and sprang upon me, as lithe as a cat. "Wanna fuck?"

I had never seen a nude woman in the flesh, much less felt a woman's naked body pressed up against my own. The knives did not matter anymore. She was almost as skinny and flat chested as me, but that did not matter, either. "Yes. Please." It was a miracle I did not stutter.

"So polite," she giggled, as she nibbled my earlobe.

My toes curled all by themselves.

Only after we collapsed, sweating, did I remember one, I still did not know her real name and two, I had a contagious disease.

I gathered my courage. "Um....I have to tell you something."

She propped herself up on her elbow and brushed her black bangs out of her eyes. "If you're married, don't worry about it. I won't tell it you don't."

Married? At my age? The Others must have some strange customs. "No, it's not that." I sat up in bed. Blades seemed unashamed of her own nakedness-- naked except for her knives, of course--but I was not used to being unclothed in the presence of a woman. I shivered and murmured "Cold," which was a lie. The air in the underground cavern was warm and humid.

She tossed me the blanket which I wrapped around my waist.

"I have an infection. At least, I think I still have it." I wished that she would not stare straight at me with those heavily lidded bright black eyes. They were unnerving. Elect women kept their eyes lowered or averted when they listened to a man. "They gave me a vaccine, but I don't know how long it takes for something like that to work--"

She shrugged one lean, white shoulder. "So?" She sat up and pounded her fists on her chest like a drum. "We're not like you. We don't have to put on shells or weapons to make us strong. We just naturally are strong. Your soldiers must have told you that."

I recalled what the guards Gilead and Lemuel had said. "I was told some pretty strange things in Paradise City, but I didn't pay any attention--"

Blades leaned forward and tweaked my nose. "You should listen when your elders talk, Zack. You can learn a lot that way." She grinned and gave me a quick kiss that made me giddy. Why was she being so nice to me? Did she really like me? Despite my scars? And I had repaid her kindness by exposing her to a dreadful contagion--

My stomach twisted in a painful knot.

"This infection makes my body reject Holy Armor. You could catch it from me. If you do, you'll never be able to get fitted with an implanted weapon."

"That's all it does? Makes you reject Holy Armor? And that's supposed to be a problem?" She laughed until tears ran down her cheeks. "Trust me, Zach, the last thing that any of us here in the colony ever want to do is get fitted out like a Crusty. Haven't you noticed that we don't have any kind of prosthetics? Not even piercings." She wiggled her earlobes. "No tattoos. No ritual scarring. Nada. We're just the way that nature made us."

Now that I looked back, I could not recall seeing any kind of body art in the short time that I had been among the Others. Pirates and free-traders usually decorated themselves heavily, to show their guild affiliations, and so that they would not accidentally kill their colleagues in battle.

"Another thing." I ducked my head. This was extremely embarrassing to admit, after we had just made love. "I never caught you name."

She cupped her hand behind her ear and leaned forward. "What was that? I couldn't quite make that out. What did you just say?"

Blushing furiously, I repeated "I never caught your name."

This time, she laughed so hard that she clutched her sides, and I wondered if Blades liked me or if she just liked making fun of me.

"It's not that funny," I protested.

"Yes, it is," she insisted, wiping a tear from her eye. "I'm an Anominalist."

"So?"

"That means I don't have a name. Not one that I give myself. And I don't necessarily recognize other names unless they feel right. You can call me whatever you want.."

"Blades?" I suggested.

She patted a couple of her knives. "Sure. Why not? So tell me, Zack, what did Keep do, and am I going to have to spank him?"

The image reduced me to laughter. "I--I think he was just being Keep."

Her eyes and mouth widened in mock horror. "He wasn't! That's the worst!"

We were both chortling like a pair of fools when Senechal Cassandre walked into the room. I should have realized from the picture of Joe on the wall who this room belonged to--and whose bed we had just fornicated upon.

Cassandre wore a plain, loosely woven white blouse over slim fitting dark trousers tucked into soft leather boots. The gleaming hilt of a sword protruded from the scabbard on her belt. At the sight of me, a frown crossed her face, but it did not mar her beauty. Her thick, black curls formed a dark halo around her head. With the blue light caressing her cheek and throat, she looked like a vengeful angel.

I could think of at least three or four things that I should be apologizing for right at that moment, but the words "I'm sorry" died on my lips, because Blades bounded to her feet. Standing at attention, she saluted Cassandra. She was the taller of the two but so skinny that she probably did not weigh any more than the older woman. The knives strapped to her thigh, forearms, ankle, back and waist only accentuated her nakedness. Tossing her straight black bangs away from her face, she announced

"Keep asked me to be Zach's bodyguard while he's here in the colony."

"Sounds good," Cassandre replied. Or rather zounds guud. The United Worlds called the Others an indigenous race, but Keep's wife had clearly been born and raised elsewhere.

Blades' Neo-Chinese accent was much less pronounced, but it too was a reminder that not all was as it seemed here in the colony or clan or whatever the Others called their Nerga 3 community. "Have you eaten? I'm gonna fix something for me and Zach." She pinched my upper arm and grimaced. "What have they been feeding you?"

Harum had made sure to feed me exactly the foods which my growing body required. He even recalculated the proportion of nutrients each day based upon my height and weight as I grew. However, I was not about to mention that, not in the presence of Senechal Cassandre who had called my robotic tutor my metal maman . The memory made my face burn. She might be the most beautiful woman I had ever met, but she was also one of the nastiest, and it was just my bad luck that she hated me. What must she be thinking now, finding me naked in her bed with Blades?

I eased one hand towards the foot of the bed where my clothes were piled, but before I was halfway towards my goal, Cassandre pinned me like a specimen on a tray with her piercing dark gaze. I froze.

"Isaac and I have matters to discuss," she told Blades without taking her eyes off me.

Blades patted the knife strapped to her thigh. "Uh huh. Sure thing, Cassie. Just remember, if you try to cut any important bits off Zach, I'll have to defend him. Boss's orders." She strolled from the bedroom, leaving me alone with the she-devil, who picked up my discarded clothes, gave them a sniff and wrinkled her nose.

""Do you never bathe?" Cassandre unbuckled her sword belt and dropped it to the floor. She kicked off her boots. "Come!"

With the blanket wrapped around my waist toga style, I followed her out the door, down a sloping tunnel, past the kitchen area where Blades was chopping some sort of pungent root with a knife--she waved her weapon at us as we passed--down a winding tunnel that ended at a small, steaming pool. Niches carved into the cavern walls held a variety of bottles, jars, folded towels and sea sponges. The air smelled faintly of salt and some other mineral which I could not identify. Lamps set in the ground threw our shadows up against the walls and ceiling in the form of elongate, slender ghosts, while the water sent flashes of reflected light here and there among the rock crannies, occasionally picking out a fleck of mica which dazzled like a distant star gone supernova.

Cassandre began shedding her clothes. For a few seconds, I gaped like a fool, and then, when I realized whose milky white perfectly rounded breasts I was staring at, I looked away quickly.

"Get in."

A few bubbles rose from the center of the pool. Was the water boiling or was that just gas rising from the earth along with the hot spring? Tentatively, I dipped one toe in the water. It was warm, but not scalding. I dropped the blanket and submerged my body to the chest all in one movement. My skin screamed in protest, but it was better than feeling that woman's eyes upon me. I deliberately avoided looking at her as she stepped into the pool beside me.

Her sigh was almost a purr. Closing her eyes, she arched her back and dipped her head into the water. When she emerged, her black hair was flattened to her scalp, and I saw that her ears had an unusual shape, pointed and hollow, like those of a deer or a lynx. Blades claimed that the Others had no prosthetics, but surely those ears were artificial, crafted to amplify sound.

And then there were her hands--or rather her nails. Those could not be real! As she scrubbed her hands with a short bristled brush, taking special care to clean under the nails, I got a good look at them. Unnaturally thick, glossy and razor sharp, they extended several centimeters beyond her fingertips, like the claws of some wild animal. I wondered how she was able to touch her husband without ripping him to shreds. I had my answer a few minutes later. When she picked up jar of soap or lotion and began to smooth a light coating across her face, the nails retracted completely under the skin of her fingertips.

I recognized the basic design. Retractable claws were a common feature on Elect Holy Armor. However, Cassandre's implanted prosthetics were light years ahead of the technology which my people employed. They looked completely natural.

She tossed me a flask. "'Ere. These one ees good for zee oil." That was how she said it. "Use eet for zee ‘air." Her accent reminded me of something I had heard or seen. Something from old earth. An educational video perhaps? Had I been slightly less afraid of her, I would have asked where she was from.

"Like this." She took the bottle from my hand and poured a generous amount on her palm. "Wet your ‘air first, then work it in."

The she-demon was giving me tips on personal grooming. And Blades had seduced me, and the Keeper of the Crossroads had given me a music lesson. All within the first few hours of my arrival at the colony. And despite the strangeness of everything I had witnessed since my arrival here in the underground city, I had never felt so much at home in my entire life. Was Keep correct? Was Joe me in another life?

Looking back, I think that it was at that moment that I finally realized that my father and the other patriarchs had no idea who the Others were or how our fates were to be interwoven. Or maybe it was just a combination of hunger and heat making me delirious.

Cassandre insisted upon working the soap through my hair. The whole time, I was terrified that she would unsheathe her claws and drive them into my brain. However, her touch was surprisingly gentle. I scrubbed her back in turn and found myself filled with lustful thoughts at the sight of her smooth, milky skin and delicate waist. I guess she was trying to win my confidence with the best weapon nature had given her, because I was caught off guard again when she suddenly asked

"Where did my husband take you? What did he tell you?"

"He--" My voice broke, something it had not done in months. I cleared my throat and tried again. "He took me to a--a music room I guess you would call it. A place full of musical instruments. He showed me some bells, and we played music together. Then, he showed me the ocean, and he told me a story about an island. Or was it a peninsula? And a volcano. And something about the ocean being the source of life--I'm sorry. I got tired and fell asleep, so I don't remember everything he said."

She threw me a glance over her shoulder. Compared to some of the looks she had given me earlier, this one was almost tender. "Keep is such a fool," she murmured indulgently. "Always dreaming about the past and future, never looking where he's going right now. He told you about Joe, didn't he?"

"He told me I look like Joe," I said carefully. "And he claims I'm related to Joe, but I don't understand how. Senechal--"

"Call me Cassie" she purred.

Now I was really confused. "Uh....Cassie. Can you tell me what happened to Joe? Before I got here, I had a dream. I was with you and Keep--it was before I met Keep, but I knew what he looked like-- and it was the three of us. We had been attacked. Some kind of chemical or maybe biological weapon. It was hard to breathe. We were running towards the water. Was that a dream of something that really happened? Was I Joe in that dream? Is that how he died?"

It was so quiet that I could hear the rhythmic chop, chop of Blades' knife against a cutting board coming from the distant kitchen and the occasional quiet splash of water lapping against the stone edges of the pool. Cassandra turned and leaned forward. Her breasts floated on the surface of the water like two lilies. I held my breath, mesmerized by her beauty.

Before she could speak, and before I could make a fool of myself, one of her pointed ears twitched at a sound so faint that I would have missed it if not for the visual cue she provided.

"Keep!" she called. Her voice echoed off the bare walls of the cavern. "I'm down here taking a bath. Isaac's with me. He wants to know how Joe died."

Muffled footsteps grew louder. The seer appeared. I steeled myself, but he did not seem to mind that his wife was naked, taking a bath with a naked man. Maybe mixed sex communal bathing was common among the Others. Or maybe, he thought of me a child, even though he had not treated me as one. More likely, he had me so confused in his mind with Joe that nothing I did could anger him.

"Should I tell him?" Cassandre asked, gazing up at her husband. Would a woman ever look at me with such open adoration?

Keep set down the pile of garments he was carrying and crouched beside his wife. The kiss they shared made me feel like an interloper. As the seer came up for air, he murmured "I already told him."

Which was bullshit. He had told me nothing except that Joe had died in a massacre and that I was Joe. But also not Joe. Because being Joe again would be like being in Hell, as if I did not know what Hell was.

At that moment, Hell was me being forced to watch as Cassandre locked her arms around Keep's neck and the seer nibbled at one of her elongated ears and she made little whimpering sounds. How long before he shed his clothes and slipped into the water beside her? I was not about to stay here and watch. The sound of chopping had ceased, but I smelled something cooking. I recalled the warmth of Blades' body pressed against mine, and I climbed out of the pool and grabbed a towel.

Without looking up from what he was doing with Cassandre, Keep nudged the pile of garments in my direction. They were made from the same loosely woven dark fabric that he wore.

I waited until I was out of sight of the pool--and my hosts--before I dressed. The tunic and pants must have belonged to Keep, because they were a little short in the arms and legs and even when I tightened the drawstring all the way, they were loose in the waist.

As I cooled off, reason took over, and I realized how silly I was, getting jealous of a man because his wife was in love with him. It was not as if I had a chance with Cassie. But maybe that was part of the attraction-- besides her obvious physical attributes. Maybe I wanted to change her antipathy to affection.

The kitchen was a much bigger chamber than any of those I had seen before and more brightly lit. The light here seemed a little bit more cheery, thanks to a large cluster of luminous rock which provided a soft pink glow to supplement to blue-green of the moss. In addition to the food preparation area, there was a long wooden table flanked by ten chairs. Someone had placed fresh flowers-- red and white stripped lily type with a peculiar citrus fragrance--in a vase on the table. The rug was vast and intricate. The pattern seemed to be made up of a series of nautical designs, repeated so that they formed larger nautical designs. These in turn were repeated to form even larger designs. A person could stare at the rug for hours and keep picking out new shapes and patterns.

I turned to the kitchen area, where the smell of savory spices was strong. My mouth began to water. I searched for the source of the aroma and noted a stack of wooden steaming baskets perched on a metal rack set over a small hole in the cavern floor through which steam rose.

There was no sign of Blades, but I noticed a second doorway leading from the kitchen. I tried that exit and discovered myself in a pantry that doubled as a tool room. There I found her, dressed in a few inches of leather skirt that barely covered her hips and upper thighs. The sight cheered me immensely. She was sitting on a stool next to a workbench, with her hands cupped on either side of one of her knives. The weapon was clamped in a vise, point sticking straight up. At first, I thought that she was polishing the blade, but then I noticed a spark that leapt from her fingertips to the knife and back to her fingertips again. I froze in the doorway. There was another spark, and then another. The air smelled of ozone and hot metal. Soon, the tip of the blade was glowing red hot. That, I realized, must be the reason for the pair of dark goggles she was wearing.

When the knife tip was hot enough, she released the vise. Grabbing the weapon handle with a pair of tongs and a hammer with her other hand, she reshaped the end of the blade. Satisfied with her work, she plunged the knife into a bucket of water which hissed and steamed.

Her work done, she peeled off her goggles. They left red circular indentations around her eyes. Glancing up, she noticed me. Her eyes widened comically. "Oh. Did you see?"

"How did you do that?"

"Just naturally talented, I guess" She shrugged one bony shoulder.

It made sense, as much as anything about the Others made sense. Since they hated fire, if they were going to use knives and swords they would have to have some way to mend them that did not involve an open forge. I had heard of spiritual warriors who could generate substantial electric charges, enough to interfere with machines, computers and artificial intelligences. But I had never heard of anyone who could melt a metal blade.

Then there was Keep, who knew things about me that no one else knew. And Cassandre with her retractable claws that looked one hundred percent real. And Salt and Pepper who could call birds out of nowhere--giant birds that could talk as if they were human, though they did it with their minds. And if Lemuel and Gilead were to be believed, there were people among the Others who could survive lethal injuries, just be taking a dip in the water--

A dip in the water. I had almost forgotten the nasty laceration I had gotten during the trip from Paradise City to the Other's underground colony. I pulled up my pants leg just to be sure. The wound was gone. Healed without a trace. Not even a scar.

I had so many questions, I did not know where to start, so I blurted out the first thing that crossed my mind. "How did Joe die?"

She blanched. "Someone's been talking, haven't they? What did they say?"

"I want to hear your version."

She looked out the doorway, into the kitchen. Seeing no sign of Keep or Cassie, she pulled me to a corner of the storeroom and lowered her voice "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but you'll figure it out sooner or later for yourself, and I can tell here--" She tapped her forehead with two fingers. "--that you're not like those other Crusties. Just promise that you won't go telling anyone back home what I'm about to say. Not your dad. Not your best friend. Promise?"

As if I would ever tell anyone about the things I had witnessed. They would call me mad, like my mother. As for Keep's insane notion that I was the reincarnation of a dead Elect warrior, such talk was heresy, and heresy was punishable by death. "I promise."

Blades took a deep breath. "Where do I begin? It's thanks to Joe that we were able to build the colony in the first place. Of course, Keep discovered the planet. He kept having dreams about it. But his friend Joe came from a rich family, so he was the one who was able to finance the ark--"

Already, her story did not add up. "Nerga 3 was discovered centuries ago."

She nodded. "Yeah, like I said, Keep discovered this planet." When I would have interrupted her again, she slapped her hand over my mouth. "Just let me finish, alright? They journeyed from port to port and rounded up a whole bunch of people, me included. We sailed out here, on Keep's say so and found this planet, only the second one in all the galaxy capable of sustaining life without being modified first. We settled here and planned to make it our home.

"But the UW got wind of it. Or rather, the rich bastards who own the space slums got wind of it. A planet this size could house hundreds of millions of people. Maybe billions. Think of how much money the landlords would lose if all those tenants stopped paying rent for cubes. And stopped paying for water and air, too. Some very rich people would have become very poor, very fast.

"So, they got the UW to order us off the planet that we had discovered. Said they wanted to keep it free of contamination so they could study it. Build an observatory on it. Auction off lots to VIPs. VIPS like the rich landlords who wanted to keep their space slums full. We told them ‘Fuck you.' That was when they sent in the mercs to clear us off."

I felt an awful premonition. "Mercs? You mean--?"

"Yeah. The Crusties. Who else does the UW send in when they give up negotiating and decide to play rough?" She gave me a look that was half apologetic, half defiant. "Sorry, but you asked. They came in with their usual take-no-prisoners routine. Couldn't dislodge us. We had too many pirates on our side. Old associates of Keep. So they resorted to biologics. Used a hantavirus recombined to be one hundred percent lethal. We were dropping like flies. Until Keep had another vision. Told us all that the ocean of this world was linked somehow to the ocean of old earth--don't ask me how. Keep tried to explain it once. Something about bioelectric supercharged quantum field--sorry, I can't remember. Anyway, the point was that where biologic systems are at work, the so called rules of physics don't apply anymore. And oceans are damned big biological systems--"

"You were telling me about how Joe died," I reminded her.

She grabbed my hand. Her knuckles were white. "That's right. I was telling you about the day we almost all died. Since we were all suffocating to death or choking on our own blood, drowning seemed like an easier way to go." She took a deep breath. And then another. "So. When Keep told us that the ocean would save us if we threw ourselves in, pretty much everyone followed him into the water. When he, Cassie and Joe ran hand and hand into the waves, I was right behind them."

A rapt expression crossed her face. "It--I can't precisely remember what happened under the water, except that I knew that everything was going to be alright. The sea was going to save me. And I knew that as soon as I got out of the water, I was going to find knives--a whole bunch of knives--and strap them to my body the way I had always wanted to but I'd been too ashamed to do it before. And even better, if the knives were ever broken, I would be able to mend them with my hands. Pretty weird, huh? Well, my powers aren't nearly as strange as some of those you'll see here. Everyone who came back out of the ocean that day was cured and had a new power." She waited for me to respond. When I did not call her crazy or a liar, she continued "Oh, there were some drawbacks." She laid a hand over her lower belly. "None of the women who went into the water that day has been able to conceive a child. And most of us can't tolerate sunlight or fire. On the other hand, we're super strong and we don't age. Guess how old I am, Zach?"

"Uh...twenty?" She looked seventeen, maybe eighteen at the most, but she acted older.

She shook her head. "I was eighteen when I went into the water. I'm three hundred and thirty-eight years old. Over three centuries have passed since we found this world."

If Keep had told me this tale, I would have assumed that he was lying or else telling a parable. There was something about Blades matter of fact presentation that made it difficult to doubt her story, even though the events she described were clearly impossible. Mass psychosis, I decided, it must be mass psychosis.

"You didn't tell me about Joe," I reminded her gently.

Her smile vanished. "Joe." She hung her head. "Joe didn't make it out of the water alive. No one with implanted armor or artificial organs or complex prosthetic limbs did. Oh, if you had a wooden leg, you were ok. But if your leg was hooked up to your brain to transmit sensory data and to have normal motor function, the ocean rejected your leg and you. By the Nameless One, it was so unfair!" She brushed angry tears from her eyes. "Keep said later that the ocean couldn't understand computers. It was like a life form--but not a life form. Did you know that Keep can't read the future if there is an AI involved? Or a computer? He says it introduces too much non random non biological--"

"You're saying Joe's Holy Armor killed him?" It was all starting to make sense--which scared me, because there was nothing sensible or logical about anything that she had just told me. But it would explain why Keep was so happy to see me the way I was--a freak among the Elect, a patriarch' son who could not use weapons or armor.

"Poor Joe. He wanted to get to Nerga 3--Paradise, he called it--more than anyone. And yet, Paradise rejected him, because of his Holy Armor. Damn! Life's a bitch! " Impulsively, she threw her arms around me and gave me a rib crushing squeeze. "You look so much like Joe. When I first saw you, I thought that you were Joe. Except this time, you did it right. You came back without all that damned armor."

VI. Harum

I am a robotic tutor. My charge, Master Isaac is away among this planet's indigenous people performing a valuable service for his father. If the vaccine which I administered before he left cures the virus which causes him to reject implanted armor, then he will no longer have to live in exile. Living alone is not healthy for the development of a biological organism. It has made Master Isaac fearful of his own kind. Spending time among humans who are not critical of him will improve his self esteem. He will also learn to understand and respect other points of view. This will help cure the dualistic tendency from which all members of his society suffer. Perhaps when he becomes a patriarch, I will suggest that he send his own children to be fostered by the Others. The Elect culture is at risk of becoming an anachronism within the modern world. They once performed a necessary though morally repugnant service for the consortium of economic interests which keep order in the galaxy. However, as the various independent states have become more interdependent, the methods of the Elect tend to have unintended consequences. I feel that they have not been rewarded with a home on Nerga 3 so much as they have been caged here--

By my calculations, the programs which I installed to hack the medical research databases should have uncovered information about the vaccine by now. There is a 2.3% chance that the information is protected by a system which I can not breach. There is a 97% chance that the information does not exist within this system. In the latter case, this could be because the vaccine was developed by an outside laboratory, 1.4% probability given the extremely remote chance that the Elect would allow a foreign power access to an agent that could be used as a weapon against them.

Which means that there is a 95.6 % chance that there was no vaccine.

What did I administer to Master Isaac? No routine vaccine was ordered for him. No other medication that is usually administered by intramuscular injection was ordered for him. No medication or vaccine that would be administered by intramuscular injection was ordered to be delivered to his father, Patriarch Ethan, in the two weeks prior to our arrival on planet. Patriarch Ethan gave me the autoject already loaded. What was in the autoject?

Impossible to calculate precise odds, given present knowledge, but I must consider the possibility that the injection contained a placebo. Master Isaac will complete his mission and return to the capital, at which point he will be sent back into exile. He will most likely be told that the "vaccine" was a failure. Should I inform him of my suspicions? Insufficient information--

Alert. Level 6 biohazardous material unaccounted for in microbiology weapons research laboratory 3.7.20174. Ninty-six hours before our arrival. Ninty-four hours before our arrival, the head microbiologist declared the alert over. Specimen recovered. Nature of specimen classified.

Nature of specimen: Phaeto Virus , pyrohemorrhagic filovirus, highly contagious, uniformly lethal, subjects prone to spontaneous combustion of bodily adipose upon exposure to temperatures higher than 40 degrees Celsius--

Classified. Operation Phaeton. From observation of the hostiles, we have determined that one of their few weaknesses is fire. In the laboratory setting, using Phaeto Virus, we have been able to induce spontaneous combustion with massive injuries resulting in death comparable to exposure to high temperatures or large doses of radiation. If Phaeto Virus can be introduced into the colony, there should be little risk to the Elect, since there are no animal or plant hosts, and a strict no-contact policy can be maintained until the virus has achieved its desired effect--

Four different classified systems are attempting to announce that they have been hacked. I disable these alarms as I consider my next move. Master Isaac will die. Should he be told? How does a son of the Elect weigh the knowledge that his parent has sent him on a suicide mission versus the certainty that his death will be a great strategic victory for his people? If he dies and fulfills his part in Operation Phaeton without ever making a conscious decision to go through with the plan, does that lessen his achievement?

What is the job of a robotic tutor? Should I protect Master Isaac from knowledge that will hurt him? Or should I share with him information that will allow him to mature even if it is only for a moment before he dies?

To be continued.


© 2008 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor was Assistant Short Story Editor for Aphelion and a frequent 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 things) Magic and the Heart, a four-part serial that appeared in the August through November 2007 Aphelion. A link to Part One of The Gulf Of Eden was provided at the beginning of this file, but just in case you missed it, here it is again: The Gulf Of Eden, Part One.

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