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 Mindworlds
an extract from the novel
by
Phyllis Gotlieb


Prologue

Fthel IV: Montador City    The Company

The restaurant's bubble-shaped tower rose on its thin stem a quarter-km above the roofs of the city but from inside at the table near the wall Tyloe was looking around at a panorama of endless marshes Mindworlds by Phyllis Gotliebhumped with pulpy succulent growths; among their twining branches were colonies of dreaming Lyhhrt who never woke. Somehow he knew this without seeing them.

But only at a glance. Tyloe was wide awake and sitting there to guard Brezant, not admire the scenery.

Brezant's teeth were on edge. "Lorrice! Stop that damned stupid whimpering!"

She was biting her knuckle. "I can't help it, I'm scared of them. They're lumps of slime inside machines, they know everything about you--"

Brezant's finger and thumb circled her wrist like an iron cuff and she shrank back, but could not pull away.

Tyloe, stationed at her other shoulder, might have raised a cautioning hand then, but there were other watchers, owned by Brezant, sitting at this and other tables. All wearing much the same muted cylon zip with silk, chosen by Lorrice. Brezant had bought the restaurant for this night, and he owned Tyloe as well.

Brezant said through his teeth, "We know that, Lorrice, but they aren't paying attention to you, they know nothing about you, they don't give a shit about you, you're none of their business, they--"

"Madame would choose a cordial?" The very sober waiter with the down-the-nose look might have been a robot, or a Lyhhrt, or a very experienced elderly man. He was clearing the table with thick-bodied grace.

Brezant let go of her wrist. Lorrice rubbed it and said, "Bourbon. No water."

The restaurant was one of a chain that specialized in exotic environments, and its decor was based on whatever the designer could convey of a Lyhhrt's "vision" of its home world. It suddenly struck Tyloe that the eyeless Lyhhrt species would never have known what their world looked like if aliens had not come to show them.

On the concave wall across from him the sun of Lyhhr rose in a double set of halos studded with parhelions and the sky turned mother-of-pearl...

Then a Lyhhrt rose from the lift in the center of the floor among the blue marble tables, and another followed: they were hominid forms, one in conservative dark bronze, the other more expansive in brass inlaid with arabesques of silver. Their heads tilted in courtesy-nods.

Brezant's impervious helmet was tattooed under his scalp. He wore an external one for show, its network plated with gold and studded with diamonds and emeralds at the cross points; neither of the two would deter the Lyhhrt from esping him, but he had nothing to hide from them, even Tyloe knew that. Lorrice wore no helmet at all. Brezant would not let her. The necklace with its tiny gold five-point star marked her as ESP-one, but only a Lyhhrt could reach the mind of another; Lorrice was there to esp not the Lyhhrt but Tyloe, and the lawyer Cranshawe, the secretary Istvan, and all the other suits and muscles that enfolded Brezant wherever he went.

The two Lyhhrt slid themselves into the green luxleather chairs. "Andres Brezant," Bronze said, "You come well recommended, citizen." His machined voice was warm and expressive as any Lyhhrt's, and his lingua unaccented.

"I make sure of that, Ambassador." Brezant did not ask his name, because Lyhhrt do not have them.

"You live on this world?"

"Sometimes. I come from Earth, in the Sol System."

Both Lyhhrt already knew all of this, but neither party had much small talk.

"Tell me what you can offer us then, citizen." It was no question.

"We will give you freedom from the shame of being enslaved and revenge for the neglect of Galactic Federation."

Brass-and-silver said, "We had that freedom one Cosmic Cycle ago before the Ix attacked our world and laid their eggs in our bodies. It did us very little good."

"And five years ago, when the Khagodi needed your help, you freely sacrificed yourselves and your ship to save their world from being destroyed by the Ix. No one thanked you for that. Not Khagodis, nor the Federation."

"And you believe it is thanks we need?"

"We can bring you reparations."

"Truly! And we are to sign a new Oath and be slaves to you now, instead of the Ix?"

"A business agreement. Lyhhr has withdrawn from trade pacts with three worlds in the last five years. If you kept on doing that your world would regress--I am willing to say boldly--to its primitive state, before the Federation pulled you from the swamps to make those workshells, before the Ix, before anyone knew you at all."

"We are very much aware of that, citizen. Some of us believe that state is--you would say--heavenly!"

Brezant did not bother to ask the Lyhhrt if he believed this. "Without skills and without the materials to practise them. Without any kind of protection or defense. But the Khagodi are still afraid of your anger, and especially so now that Lyhhr has stopped importing platinum and iridium from the Isthmuses District, when so much of their world's economy was based on that trade."

"You have educated yourself well," Bronze said. "I believed only Lyhhr and Khagodis knew that. I voted against those actions when I served on my world's Council. But I and those who agreed with me were voted down--some considered us suspect because we had left our colonies to work on other worlds and were felt to have become over-individualized, heretical. Even contaminated. So much for rewarding our services. But I still serve as well as I can."

Brezant nodded toward Brass-and-silver. "May I ask if that's your companion's feeling?"

Brass focused his diamond eyes on Brezant. "If it was not I would not be here."

"And on your world there are still others who feel as you do..." It was a half-question.

"There are enough, citizen."

Bronze said, "The Khagodi must find new markets for their ores, and that serves them right, but because of our foolhardy Council's votes and our broken trade pacts we can't build our ships or the instruments that run them."

"I'll make my offer then. You can sue Khagodis for reparations. If they refuse I can bring a force of up to ten thousand troops with small arms and hypersledges to make sure you get them--"

"Get what, citizen?"

"Control of the their Isthmus Territories, twenty-five to thirty-five of their richest mines. We will ship the ores anywhere you choose, as long as we get one-half of the profits. Khagodi are heavy and slow. Their culture is low-tech and their aircraft are flown mainly by the Kylkladi. They have produced a few clumsy gladiators, but seldom warriors, and never mercenaries." Or we need not bother with chatter about reparations and simply raid them.

A moment of silence. The thought resonated so strongly that even Tyloe could sense it...but no one else in the room so much as flickered an eye. Tyloe for an instant wondered if he had been suddenly gifted with telepathy and in the same instant realized that Lorrice had opened Brezant's mind to him. By way of the Lyhhrt. It closed with a snap.

They're so sure of themselves they don't care who reads them. And she wants something from me...what?

I'll find out later. He doubted he would escape finding out.

Brezant's flash of greed did not seem to disturb the Lyhhrt. Bronze said, "Any sudden attack would be very unwise, citizen. We have not dealt much with Galactic Federation lately, but they would take us before we had dug much ore from the pits. Then we might all end up digging in the Urgha Mines, where there are coals and not platinum. And Lyhhrt never do such things without warnings. Wounded we may be but we are not yet devolved."

Brezant was easy. "If you agree with my proposal--"

"Not quite so quickly! You want more from us than an excuse to make a raid on Khagodis's mines..."

"Your skills. Do what you like with your half of the profits but design and build our electronics, our satellites, our ships--"

"For your world--and its colonies?"

"For us, and our enterprises. This Company."

"And your weapons? Those we would never build."

"We'll put that aside. With Lyhhrt skills and precious metals from the Isthmuses we would be very satisfied."

"It's an intriguing proposal. You understand that we cannot answer at this moment."

"How long do you need?"

"We may need three or four of your thirtydays to gather a consensus."

Brezant's nails danced on the table. "I thought you came here ready to deal!"

"You may have your forces here, Citizen Brezant, but most of ours are on Lyhhr. We cannot bend all of the laws of reality to quicken communication."

"I can't keep all my people on standby for very much longer." Brezant did not move to wipe the sweat from his face.

"Perhaps you have presumed too much," Brass said.

Tyloe was always conscious of a vibration, a trembling, coming off the surface of Lorrice's mind. It twinged like a tuning-fork up the back of his neck into the base of his skull now.

Brezant's knuckles hit the table-top four quick light raps. "Maybe I invited you here for an evening of entertainment! Maybe the fun is over and it's time to go home!" Darkness was beginning to climb the walls of the Lyhhrt world; its sky had many stars but no moon.

Both Lyhhrt were silent for a moment. "Citizen, we said nothing on purpose to offend you. Both parties have too much invested in this meeting to give up on it. Once we communicate with our base we can reach an unalterable decision in five of your minutes, but twenty thousand spacelights more than all the thousands we have broadcasting now couldn't relay our messages faster. We need a minimum of two thirtydays to bring you the answer."

Brezant nodded. "That's done then."

"But remember this, Andres Brezant. Whatever our decision is, it begins with a mission to Fthel Five and a complaint to Galactic Federation." Bronze and Brass-with-silver rose and flowed away down the lift.

Brezant waited a beat after the floor closed over them, then grabbed Lorrice's empty bourbon glass, flung and smashed it against the wall. Tyloe could have caught it but didn't dare.

Lorrice sat still. Her tuning-fork rose an octave.

Brezant made a gesture, and his guards and flunkies moved away from him to the wall. Tyloe got up, but Brezant waved him to his chair. He found a handkerchief and patted his face dry. "All right." He turned to Lorrice, his voice caught a roughness and he swallowed. "You're the ESP, what did you pick off from them?"

I don't think it's the Lyhhrt she's afraid of.

:You think too much, Tyloe!: the mindvoice said.

"They weren't lying about wanting the deal. They believed what you said." Lorrice dug in her gold-skinned handbag, offered him a Zephyrelle, an expensive mixture of weed and dope, encased in purple and gold, put it in her mouth and lit it for him.

He accepted it, drew in deeply. "Yeh. What else?"

"Ah, this restaurant reminded them of a Lyhhrt decontamination chamber--"

"I don't give a shit if they think it's a pigsty. Go on."

"Nothing rea--"

"There's lots!" His head turned. "Isn't there, Tyloe? You looked as if you were hearing something."

What does he want from me? Tyloe, the newest member of the guard, wasn't eager to be an advisor. "Only what everyone else got. That they believed you, but they needed to consult."

"Yeh." The heavy stubbled head turned again, and then Tyloe's armpits sprang a sweat of relief. "All right, Lorrice, out with it!" Brezant bent toward her. The smoke fell from his nostrils in thin streams.

She was pale, and gauntness aged her face. Her hair glimmered faintly in the dying light. "They--they said themselves they weren't speaking for all of Lyhhr...but," stumbling, "they never once referred to themselves as 'I/we' or 'we/us' and--the three or four Lyhhrt I've known have always done that at least once every ten or fifteen minutes to show they're connected to others even if they're alone."

"So?"

"This is a group that's split off from their world, and, ah--"

Cranshawe, the lawyer, rescued her. "We can't tell how big that group is, and how much of Lyhhr they represent."

"They're enough for me." Brezant pushed himself away from the table and stood. "Let's get out of here." His shadowed men and women rose around him.

The lift ran down the stem of the bubble, a long way down, and Tyloe was crammed in beside Lorrice with her scent and Brezant with his smoke. Brezant's hand ran down Lorrice's hip and began plucking at her dress, rubbing a fold of black chiffon between thumb and finger, not quite pinching or touching, his pink hand a small animal gnawing the twist of fabric.

Lorrice's mind retreated to some area she had created for herself; Tyloe wanted to look the other way, but there was nowhere else.

The beggar with upturned hands who waited by the restaurant door in the stem's base was an O'e, a remnant of the old Zamos clone factories. At its peak the Zamos Corporation had created thousands of clone slaves for underwater mining, personal service and prostitution. The O'e had been left over as detritus when the Corporation fell. This one had the hominid shape and grayish skin of most of them, along with an eye eaten out by skegworm and the warped body of one who dug in garbage heaps for scraps of rotted food.

Brezant, coming out of the door into the hot night, found one of the beggar's crooked feet in his way, kicked it aside, dropped his burning Zephyrelle in the beggars' cupped hands and passed by heading for his landcar.

When he was out of sight the beggar pinched out the hot coal with his fingers, plucked a transparent envelope from his dirty rags and tipped the Zephyrelle into it. He crawled away, painfully slouching down the lanes and alleys that threaded the ancient palaces of a fallen civilization, until he reached the back-door garden of Galactic Federation's World Headquarters. The door was opened by a Lyhhrt in a gunmetal workshell who let him in and followed after.

He stumbled across the too-big rotunda, even bigger at night, to where Willson was working late in his closet of an office. The lamp was just bright enough to show the gloss of sweat on his face. Gunmetal moved to close the door, but Willson said, "Main power's out, cooler's gone, this is too bloody hot."

"I hadn't noticed," the beggar said.

"No, I guess you wouldn't."

"Here." Digging into the stinking rags he found the envelope and placed it on the desk between Willson's hands.

"Eh, this looks like something. Get some good genes off it. Wait'll Greisbach sees this!"

"I/we hope so." The beggar pulled off and flung aside his rags and skin, and became another Lyhhrt in a brushed silver casing.

"You think this yobbo is one of the leftovers of Zamos's little empire?"

Gunmetal said, "Do not make 'humor' about Zamos."

"Awright, awright! No offense meant."

"Whether this is a remnant or not, it's dangerous," Silver said, and we will find out what."

"It's sure lucky he had that cigarette."

"That was not luck. I made sure he wanted one."

"A risk, though. Watch you don't outsmart yourself--eh," calling through the open door, "Greisbach, is that you?"

"No, but I will do instead," the voice said. Both Lyhhrt saw through Willson's eyes the figure with the dark gleam of wrought iron striding the rotunda, heard the tzuk! of the bullet, felt Willson's life dissolve into nothingness, tzuk! again and again-- as Gunmetal exploded, Silver, who had been the beggar, fell crashing against the wall, the intruder's hurried footsteps echoed off the marble floor of the rotunda...

My Other! Gunmetal's workshell lay in ruins, oozing with the thin pinkish ichor that was Lyhhrt blood.

The surprise of the attack had shattered Silver's control of the workshell, he had twisted helplessly in his attempt to dodge, and the explosive bullet, aimed at the midsection where his body nested, had missed and gouged the tip of his shoulder, showering the room with a thousand minuscule silver flakes.

Lyhhrt cannot run in hominid workshell that would batter them like shaken babies, and by the time Silver could begin to pull himself out of that black shock he saw Willson slumped dead with his forehead on the desk. No cigarette butt in an envelope. No telepathic traces, and the Lyhhrt did not know of any ESP more powerful at shielding than himself or another Lyhhrt. So one of the Lyhhrt delegation had twigged him and followed. Outsmarted.

One flash of thought: Willson, wife, children, hopes.-- and his livelong partner the Other, of the pair the Lyhhrt travel in to keep their sanity, an empty reverberation.

And another voice called, "Hullo? Hullo?" That was Greisbach, hurrying, she'd been diverted, probably, not killed at least, the enemy hadn't bothered with her, yet. The Lyhhrt wanted to be moving away quickly, and far, but not to make himself suspect by his absence. He had lost everything and he had nothing to tell her, except that Brezant and his brass and bronze Lyhhrt had made a tentative agreement. He did not even know where Brezant's ten thousand troops were stationed--some expert had locked that byte deep into Brezant's mind for him.

The Lyhhrt set his silver workshell on self-repair and pulled on his rotten beggar's rags, listening to Greisbach's heel-clicks on the marble. Knowing that when he left this uneasy moment death was waiting to follow.

Before Greisbach could begin to comprehend what he told her he had gathered the strange belongings that Lyhhrt carry with them and was pushing them down the cobbled streets in a beggar's barrow. His mind was blank.


One

Khagodis: In Burning Mountain Hasso Deconstructs An Archive

"...and as an my first example I offer you in all humility my own dissertation..."

Hasso son of Evarny leaned harder on the lectern to ease his wasted leg, and faced the hundred-odd other Khagodi men and women squatting on their circled places in the Hall of Learning. The Hall was a beautiful structure in the shape of a Kylkladi bower, and in fact had been erected by Kylkladi to house Galactic Federation's Interworld Court. But its heat in Khagodis's equatorial summer had been detested by so many other Interworld jurists that it was finally being given up.

The students, young and healthy as they were, did not worry about heat in this winter season when cooler winds hushed through the bower's leaves; they tilted their heads eagerly toward Hasso's lectern, the scales glistened over their massive bodies in colors that were bright and fresh, and their heavy tails were tightly wrapped around them.

Hasso hated public speaking, and in his law studies had carefully avoided any direction that led to open court. But he was determined to make his own young generation as passionate as he was about creating archives. Now he was proud to be standing in this historical setting and, bracing himself for a new and scholarly endeavor, he stood tall, gulped air three times--"but before I build the structure, I will show you the building materials,"--and launched himself into the great work of his life, speaking at times by swallowing air, at time by esp, sometimes with gestures, occasionally rubbing down his scales to keep them from rising in the heat of his passion and devotion:

On the world Sol Three that they call Earth the people are born one by one, and kept together in a jumble of sexes and ages crowded into only one single dwelling where they can barely breathe and whatever faults or flaws they have are intensified. Where there is goodness they beget wonders, and where there is evil they grow demons. I thank all of the Saints that I have dear friends among Earthers, but when I think of the Zamos family my head begins to steam! We grow bad eggs enough but we keep them carefully apart from the healthy.

Two hundred years ago Zamos and his clutch of families became a Corporation specializing in fraud, money-laundering, extortion and prostitution, and eventually bought a company called NeoGenics that created specialized human clones for serving on worlds with extreme conditions. They began a special branch of that company to manufacture clones for sexual exploitation and built hundreds of brothels--legal brothels--on seven worlds--and even on this world!

--a pause to settle the little stir of shame--

--and all who worked in them were slaves! And there were those of us! of us! who became slave masters.

For Zamos discovered gold in the waters of our Isthmuses and dropped down its cloned undersea workers to collect it. It was Chief Justice Skerow, then wife of my father Evarny, who first discovered this horror. At that time, the Saints preserve us, I suppose we were smug enough to think no such evil could touch us ...but we were slavers in the Isthmuses and brothel-masters even here in this city of Burning Mountain!

While all these evil things were happening two more worlds had come to haunt us, and these were Lyhhr and Iyax. The Lyhhrt we have known long and been uneasy with because their telepathic power is so much greater even than ours, and they are so frightened of being separated from their equals. The Ix nobody knew, nor wanted to when they did--

--everyone knew someone who had known someone who had seen an Ix and its specter rose up before them in chitinous black six-limbed horror, its sting-smell of hallucinatory pheromones and the spaceless black-flaming sparklings of their aura, and all shivered--

--because they were egglayers who had so fouled their home world that they could not produce the nourishment to incubate their young...and by exploration of other worlds they found this in the bodies of Lyhhrt.

Neither world belonged to Galactic Federation. The Ix had been unknown. The Lyhhrt were neutrals with some Federation ties, and they begged GalFed for help but no one would risk the money and the manpower.

Zamos came to their rescue.

In their laboratories they created an artificial egg-hatching medium, and from the Lyhhrt demanded their service to Zamos for one Cosmic Cycle, one hundred and twenty-nine of their years. The Lyhhrt had no choice, except to destroy themselves. Zamos gained the use of Lyhhrt robotics, surgical techniques and telepathy, and the Lyhhrt took away nothing but shame. Though Zamos's fall came as that Cycle was ending, the Lyhhrt had spent what seemed to them an eon of slavery helping Zamos create slaves and monsters to serve on ten score worlds...sacrificing their souls to save their lives...and when that reign was ended and they were freed they helped to save our world and got little thanks...

ANOTHER MYSTERIOUS STRANGER

Hasso thought there was no place on the world Khagodis, or in the whole universe for that matter, so pleasant as the rooftop of his house in the city of Burning Mountain. The white winter sun, faintly gilded with mist, hung between afternoon and evening; its light fell softly on the rainwashed pastel walls of the stuccoed houses and shops clustered on the slopes down to the river.

At the other corner of the sky two alabaster moons were launching themselves, and the brightest stars and worlds were flaming in the deep sky. The air was wonderfully warm, not the choking heat of summer, and several of his neighbors were out on their roofs enjoying it with him. Hasso could just hear the peaceful tink! of the goldbeater's hammer from the jewelsmith's across the way.

He was waiting for his stepmother Skerow who always came down from her home in the Northern Spines to celebrate the GreenWreath Festival with him on her way to the Raintree Island Poetry Conference. Both had been invited to attend the Consecration of the New Interworlds Court, a recently finished complex, now based deep in among the cold mesas of the Southern Diluvian Continent, that would replace the old bower, and house World Government as well. But Skerow, recently and gratefully retired from the lectern and from power, had declined.

"I do wish you would come and enjoy the occasion with me, goodmother."

"I am coming to your warm land to be with you, Hasso, and though I love my own cold desert I needn't go to another one." She was stubborn as always, and Hasso tilted his head and gave up.

The chimes rang at the entryway downstairs as he was brewing a pot of sprigwort tea for himself. He had bought a jug of white-thorn essence for Skerow, who liked something stronger; the grill was fired up, a good shank of crockbull waiting on its platter...

Skerow would never ring: this was a stranger. With a spit of annoyance Hasso set the teabowl down. His servant was gone for the day after lugging all the crockery up to the roof and helping him set up the grill, he'd left his impervious helmet below in his kitchen, and, weary from his stint propped on the lectern in the Hall of Learning, he did not want to crawl all the way down the stone stairs and up again for someone he didn't know.

He felt no telepathic emanation, and no ordinary citizen in the street goes about wearing a damned heavy scratchy helmet only to be fashionable. Stranger...

"Eh." Not good news. An alien perhaps. After the trials that brought the Zamos Corporation down at last, the ranks of jurists and packs of journalists had rapidly diminished offworld toward the newest sensation, leaving a few tourists, clusters of diplomats and the merchants supplying them to maintain the alien contingent.

Hasso sucked in a bellyful of air, said, "I will be with you in one tick of a stad!" and picked up his staff. He began limping his way toward the top step of the long downward passage.

"I will come up if you permit," the low resonant voice said boldly.

Having no better answer, Hasso said, "Come." The street was in shadow and no light came from the entrance below. He settled back on the broad base of his tail and waited as the dark shape rose.

Its edges were not quite clear. Khagodi, whose sight and hearing are slightly duller than those of non-ESPs, depend on each other to verify them. Now the neighboring roofs seemed to be empty, and the goldbeater's hammer had fallen silent.

The visitor was an outworlder, likely an Earther, Hasso thought, from his hominid form. No shorter than Hasso, he was wearing black clothing, with a dark wide-brimmed hat, and seemed to pull in light without illuminating himself.

Hasso did not have time to open his mouth before the stranger said: "You are Citizen Hasso known as Master of Archives for Sector 706.394 inclusive of systems Fthel and Darhei." He spoke very standard unaccented lingua.

Hasso would not have claimed so great a territory for himself; it included his sun's worlds and also those of Galactic Federation Headquarters. He forced himself not to step back from this aggressive speech and said, "Citizen Hasso, yes."

"I have been advised by the world Lyrrh to inform you that you will be called as a witness in an action being brought against your government for negligence in refusing to support and defend Lyhhrt action against the attack of the world Iyax in local year 7514."

Hasso drew a slow depth of air. "Who are you, citizen, and what is your authority?" Whoever he was he was not a guest, now, but an opponent. "There is no Lyhhrt ship in orbit, and Lyhhr no longer has a permanent embassy on this world. Show me identification."

"My genitors are Lyhhrt." The stranger's hand flashed the gold disk: the Cosmic symbols of Lyhhr swarmed on it. Hasso's scales rose, and for a moment he thought he was going to be hypnotized. But in a instant the emblem vanished somewhere in that body or its clothing, and Hasso knew that his visitor was truly a Lyhhrt. In anyone else's hand the disk would have turned ash-white and crumbled.

"I will presume you are satisfied that I am Lyhhrt?"

But Lyhhrt, those brain-sized lumps of protoplasm, walk the streets of alien worlds encased in brilliant workshells of beaten gold and bronze, not imitations of Earthers' flesh and cloth. "Yes, but not that you have authority."

"I live on this world with the permission of your government, and my people have made use of my citizenship to send you a message. They have certainly begun this action. They will arrive on Khagodis within three thirtydays to bring it to Interworld Court. The message is from them not me. I have had unofficial information that if Lyhhr is not satisfied there will be an actual attack. Although I am an exile from my world and I can find fault with it, I cannot believe it would ever bring any kind of army or armada to any world."

"Are you warning me, citizen? I have no personal authority. You ought to tell this to World Government, and I must tell you, it is well documented, that all of this world's council offered to sacrifice themselves to save the Lyhhrt. So why come to me?"

"You may have that dangerous frailty, a withered leg and only one heart," the Lyhhrt said calmly. "But I am the only Lyhhrt on Khagodis and I have no power or influence."

"But how do you exp--"

While Hasso was drawing in another of those deep and angry bellyfuls of air the chimes jangled a warning, and Skerow's telepathic voice said, :He doesn't mean to insult you, Hasso.:

"That is quite right," the Lyhhrt said abruptly, "I meant no harm. Lyhhrt rarely do." To emphasize the words he shrank his height, and his long coat pleated on the flooring.

While Hasso struggled to find sense in what the Lyhhrt was saying--Lyhhr attacking Khagodis!--Skerow was mounting the stairs with unusual speed. The Lyhhrt turned to meet her, rose in height and extended a hand to help her up the last step. "Sta'atha Amfa Skerow, the respected Justice and distinguished poet," he said.

"My fame precedes me ever." Skerow's tone was both gracious and wry. The breath was whistling harshly in and out of her gill-slits. She did not need to tell him that she was a retired Justice.

Nor did Hasso bother introducing her to the nameless Lyhhrt. "Citizen," to the Lyhhrt, "I hope you will be able to tell me more clearly what Lyhhr intends, and what I have to do with it." He said this much more civilly than he had intended.

"No, Archivist, I have spoken enough. You know all that is necessary for now." He turned in a swirl of cloth without any hurry and...flowed down the stairs, gone. The sky brightened, and Hasso saw that his rooftop neighbors were enjoying their meals.

"Eki, goodmother, what a strange one."

"Indeed so, Hasso--a full complement of Lyhhrtish tricks! But let us have our dinner before your tea turns sour and the sun cooks that delicious cut of meat."

"I must know of that Lyhhrt in some recorded source if he is a genuine citizen."

"You will remember eventually. But don't brood now, Hasso dear. I am delighted to be with you and ever so hungry."

And for a little while Hasso and Skerow did no more than share a dinner with pleasure and affection. Although there would always be a shadow standing between them, however faint: Evarny, who had been Skerow's husband for twenty years, until he divorced her for infertility when their young daughter died. The woman he then married to give him his Lineage had been able to bear only Hasso, and Evarny had died before knowing his wife and son would ever meet. Or that they would form a powerful bond.

Skerow dipped her tongue into the bowl for the last drop of the fiery essence. :You know that Lyrhht, Hasso. I am sure you know him.: Then, on taking thought, :Unless, perhaps, a robot...:

"No no! The Lyhhrt would never send a robot in the shape of an Earther on Khagodis! They are far too esthetic--and that awkward clothing was ridiculous--"

"That's true. He seemed to realize he was ridiculous...you know, Hasso, I believe that fellow was probably very frightened, and that clothing was meant to make him inconspicuous."

"Yes, goodmother, only it didn't work very well! If he truly is the only Lyhhrt on Khagodis, most likely he--eh, I have got him now! You and I both know of the Galactic Federation agent who was present when he was born--helped him to be born! Eki, I suppose I should not expect to keep everything in the top of my brain. The agent was that Earther fellow Ned Gattes that you must remember."

"I certainly do. I know no more Earthers than I have fingers!"

Hasso's mood darkened even further; as the long and agonizing history still flickered in his mind as darkly as the Inland Sea of Pitch on whose shores he had spent his youth. At that troubled time five years ago when the orbiting Ix had demanded the subjugation of Khagodis, the two Lyhhrt who were on the world then had given their lives and their ship to destroy the vast and lowering Ixi vessel, the greatest one of its kind. But before they did so they had conjugated to produce one descendant who would tell their story.

"Yes, we know who this Lyhhrt is now." :But why come to me, and in an Earther-shaped workshell, why anyway is he a citizen of this world?:

"Perhaps he became too well known on his own," Skerow said. "An individual, and one who drew too much attention to himself."

"A heretic in the minds of others, then. He ought to have been honored on his world, and able to find all Others...no use thinking of that, I suppose. But why come to me?"

"No insult. Most likely he wanted to warn someone he respected, and whom he felt was as vulnerable as himself."

"You believe he was really trying to be friendly? I wish he would not have spoken in riddles! I cannot believe the Lyhhrt could want to stir up any kind of war. I must find out whether the Ministry knows of this."

"I'm sure he meant for you to tell them."

"He left me a heavy burden. I hope he finds himself lightened of it."

:Poor fellow, I hope so too.:

Crouching with joined minds in the last of the reddened sunlight as the shadows rose and the rising night wind sparked the fading coals in the firepot...

Fthel iv: Cinnabar keys    Crawlers

Around the time Hasso was giving his lecture on archive construction, Ned Gattes was just about to step off the train in a place he wasn't sure he wanted to be. Three days earlier a voice on his comm had told him to come to an arena in Lisboa today at fifteen hours, there was money in it.

Lisboa was a town on a local rail line about a hundred and fifty km from his home in Miramar, and he'd fought in the arena occasionally to earn a few cred. But he hadn't been there, or even fought seriously for years, just in exhibitions and giving lessons for not much money, and this call promised a good handful.

Since Zamos had collapsed there hadn't been much of it for a used-up pug with a wife and three kids. Galactic Federation had left him alone, and he wasn't calling them either. In the past he and Zella had made most of their living fighting in Zamos arenas on five worlds; Zamos's corruption-riddled empire had given work to millions upon millions, and with its disintegration the vast realms of gambling houses, arenas and brothels had shrunk and devolved into small businesses and private clubs.

Live pugs now fought down back alleys in smoky rooms where Ned and Zella did not want to go, and the gladiatorial school where they had been teaching young pugs their moves had gone out of business: now fights were mainly fought by robots--even the cock-fights were robotic. And most of the live fights had become criminally controlled and much bloodier.

He wouldn't let Zella go to those places, and ducked them himself. He had some hopes for this one.

The train let him off at the usual station; its clay tile roof was crumbling and the stucco walls were cracking. Ned tried not to see the shabbiness of the main street and its loungers, the rutted roads and dust-spewing landcars. On most blocks the walkways had stopped moving and the treads were buckled

It was mid-afternoon and the westering sun was fairly kind to the small shops and eateries he was passing. At the first street branching north he turned right and after the corner fruit market, there was a door, the same thick slab of wood-comp he remembered.

A big red-lit sign above it said: The CrawlSpace! That was new, and so was the slot for i.d. He paused. Private club ... . The back of his neck prickled and he rubbed at it.

But he'd spent more than an hour on the train and he'd be stuck here for two more hours. He slotted in his District Worker's Permit.

The door clicked and buzzed, slammed back in its socket, ricocheted once and slid back again slowly.

Beyond it was a square room with a high ceiling and skylight. All kinds of crests and shields hung on the walls, naming champions and associations that Ned had never heard of. The ring in the center was bedded with clean sand.

As he stepped inside Trax came forward with his old fighter's strut, grinning with new white teeth. He was otherwise exactly as Ned remembered him, with the same bald head and hairy arms and legs. "Come on in, Neddo, welcome to the CrawlSpace--we got some good times today!"

He came closer, where Ned could smell his sweat. "It's chebok, your specialty, innit?" And in a low voice through his teeth, "Today you lose."

Ned took one breath. "I don't fight to lose."

"You do if you wanna be paid."

Ned smelled bloodfight-- that often hinted threat he'd managed to dodge in Zamos arenas.

Behind Trax he could see in the white bloodless light that along one wall fifteen or twenty men, one Varvani, and one or two women were crouched on stools and folding chairs. The youngest were middle-aged with reddened faces and wrinkled foreheads; they wore snapcaps and leather pea jackets, half had thick gold chains and rings. There were curls of jhat smoke rising from their fingers and mouths. They did not speak but every once in a while one would lean over to give a pat on the head or shoulder to a much younger man in leather breeks who was sitting on the floor in front of them with legs crossed. The champion.

"Here he is!" Trax's face was all teeth. "Jammer, the winner of the silver Terra Cup, just waiting for you, Ned-boy!"

The youngling stood up, stretched, and did a little dance in place. He had dark curly hair and smooth skin, looked strong and graceful enough, and well-kept, rather like somebody's pet. Ned did not waste time wondering who the owner was. His mind was spinning.

He refused the offered refresher bottle, then shucked his jacket and top and dropped them in a corner, baring his years of scars. Nothing to show for them either. He accepted the chebok, a mailed fist with sharp steel spikes, very new and shiny. And the heavy leather buckler with metal studs that had never been scratched. Chebok fighting went with the trade, but Ned did not like it; he didn't mind a taste of blood and a touch of fear, but chebok meant too much of both.

Jammer danced forward snarling and feinted with his chebok to cover the lunge with his shield meant to drive Ned's own spikes into his flesh. He had frightened eyes, Ned thought; he blocked that and caught a couple of scratches on his jaw: first blood that fell in a spatter on his shoulder. There was a crackling hiss of breath from the audience.

Jammer followed hard with his chebok and Ned, dodging that, was caught off guard for a fraction of a second too late, and left himself open to a slam on shoulder and cheekbone from Jammer's shield. He lost balance and landed sprawled on his back. Winded and dizzy, he heard the hissing deepen to a low roar: Give it to him, Jammer!

Jammer leaped forward to kick at him, an illegal move, but Ned caught him hard on the leg with his own chebok. Dripping blood, Jammer hopped on one leg, screaming, "I'll kill you! I'll kill you!"

Silence. Somebody said, "Yes." Ned pulled himself to his feet, stood back, and waited. His head was still ringing and he had sparkles in his eyes. He shook them away.

Jammer stumbled forward frantically, eyes in a stare. Ned took pity on him, knocked the chebok out of Jammer's hand with his own and pushed him down with his buckler.

Empty hand, a legal end to the fight.

The audience rose and roared like a thousand. C'mon! Let's get'm! Ned stood watching them for a moment, while they shook their fists. He waited for them to step forward, but they did not, yet. Two or three of them gathered around Jammer, Get up, boy, you ain't hurt bad! There were no guns here, but throwing knives were common enough. Now, though, maybe the jhat had dulled their aims as it was slurring their speech.

He'd seen all these men and women, or others too much like them no matter what their species, standing in the doorways of their offices in casinos, brothels, arenas, waiting for the money to be counted. And now that the empire they had served was fallen, they had laid their money down on such small hopes he would have felt sorry for them if he could afford it.

He picked up the other 'bok so that he had two of them, and clashed them together, in case anyone had ideas. No one came near him. "Go kiss your boy where it hurts and send him back to the nursery," he said.

Trax was kneeling beside Jammer, bandaging his leg, He screamed at Ned, "You crazy bastard, you ain't getting paid for none of this!" His face was purple, and he was shaking.

"I guess not," Ned said. "I guess you won't be, either." He dropped the weapons, picked up his clothes and was out of there.

He went down the street quickly, wiping blood off his jaw with a cloth that had gone through many launderings, and eventually put his top and jacket back on. No one came after him, and he spent the rest of the time sitting on a hard bench in the station, reading the graffiti and watching local news on the sputtering screens.

He had a bad time of it with Zella when he got back, with that black eye and the slashes.

I can't believe you didn't know what you were in for!

She was crying, touching him, dabbing him with wet swabs and antiseptics.

I didn't, Zel! The pay sounded so good!

I'm going to be afraid to leave you alone...

As he would be left tomorrow. Zella and the children were leaving for Montador to wait at the deathbed of her mother, with whom she had never gotten along, but who had relocated here from her pioneers' world for an easier old age. Zella usually did this two or three times a year. Her mother specialized in deathbed scenes.

I'm a grown-up boy, I'll get along all right.

I don't care about the money! It's not going to happen again!

He agreed with that. They found a minder for the kids and went to Dusky Dell's for beers.

(...continues)


© Phyllis Gotlieb 2002.
Mindworlds by Phyllis Gotlieb
Mindworlds is published in the USA by Tor.
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