by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Progress to the periphery of the city
was slow, but gave them time to get a good look at it. Kithri recognized one
structure after another. She wondered what had happened to the vibrant colors
city, and then corrected her thinking. This was the original and the
other only a ghost transformed by some unimaginable process. If they were now
in the far past, Lennart=s
past, this planet might well be the point of divergence, the origin of both her
world and Brianna=s.
A disturbing thought snaked through her mind. Had the gastropoids had blown
themselves up and was her Stayman with its alkali pits and dust-filled Plain
She shivered in the warm air and
wondered what would happen to Raerquel=s
peace movement if it accepted its own annihilation as its inevitable
Will Eril tell them what their war will
do to this planet, in the hope of getting them to keep talking instead of
bombing? She was grateful the decision wasn=t
At the edge of the city lay parkland,
very much like the green stretch where she=d
first set 'Wacker
down. In the distance, a few gastropoids, their silvery hides gleaming in the
sunshine, herded a flock of long-bodied, rat-tailed creatures who lifted their
heads curiously and then returned to grazing. Kithri thought they might be
furred, but couldn=t
At the very edge of the pavement, a row
of flat, sideless vehicles hovered only a few inches above the milky-quartz
threshold. Several gastropoids were in the process of disembarking.
"Hai, Raerquel Hath=djan,
so those are your alien mammals!" boomed one of them. "You have
scientific proof they are truly sentient?"
"I am seeing you, Suppbril Ad=herim.
Any news from NewHome station?"
The other alien rippled enigmatically.
Kithri watched Raerquel in sympathy. How would I feel if I had a bunch of
intelligent aliens in my custody on the eve of Albion being blown into bits?
Would I care--would I show them the consideration Raerquel=s
The other gastropoids undulated away
towards the city. Raerquel slithered on to the platform, occupying most of the
front portion. The four humans followed and seated themselves in the center and
Kithri smoothed her hands over the
platform, wondering where the control mechanisms were. The surface felt
slightly yielding, not brittle like true glass. "This can=t
be the same stuff the city=s
made out of, even if it looks like it."
"Looks?" Raerquel asked.
"Ah, to your eyes all water is appearing the same.
Raerquel telescoped down the erect
portion of its body until it reached the platform with its lower appendages.
Then it stroked the clear surface like the Port Ludlow guitar player Kithri had
once seen coaxing a harmony from his battered instrument. In response, a series
of bulbous-tipped knobs rose above the surface. As Raerquel manipulated them,
the vehicle lifted slowly to a height of several feet and then began to glide
"You mean this material looks
different to you than the city buildings?" Eril asked.
"Functional optical molecular
qualities are quite distinctive," the alien replied, finishing its
stroking. "Underwater, these differences are enhanced. Here, in this dry
place, there is little true light."
"You were able to construct
buildings--like those--underwater?" asked Brianna.
Raerquel gestured with a delicate upper
tendril. "Once all this was part of the sea of life, before the land
changed. The mountains pushed upwards and Ocean-of-Home shrank. Much was lost
as we adapted to dry living. We built new cities here, on the banks of the old
seas, cities like the one we are now leaving, cities of working, dreaming,
"To return to the water?"
"Even now, we must. For eggs to
hatch and water-breathing trochophore younglings to grow. The
Flesh-Before-Naming. For the dying oldsters, for the sick in spirit. We adults
are able to utilize gaseous oxygen, and our integument is tolerant to the
dryness of land with the aid of the healing gel. Terrestrial adaptation,
although unpleasant, is possible."
"Just because a thing is possible,
good," said Lennart. Again, some bleak undertone in his voice stung
"Wise you are, my human friend.
These cities here," Raerquel gestured from the way they had come,
"cities of light, and cities of darkness in the mountains, they are not
enough for us. Who can say if our present desolation is beginning then, with
the loss of our water home, and not with our estranged offspring planets?"
The transport platform floated above
the parkland and began to circle the city. As they came around, Kithri caught
her first glimpse of the spaceport in its living state, not deserted as it was
time. Row after row of teardrop-shaped ships filled the field. Some were slim
and tight like the needle-jets Eril flew late in the war. They seated one, maybe
be sure about the gastropoids. Other ships were clearly meant to carry more,
including one massive vessel that must surely be a freighter. The trading ships
known on Stayman were squat, space-scarred buckets, not smoothly rounded
crystal. She had a sudden vision of the ships lying broken on the cream-colored
field like bits of shattered glass.
Beside her, the two men sat silently
staring. The naked hunger in Lennart=s
eyes made Kithri flinch and look down. She felt something hot and wet on her
face, and scrubbed it away before the others could notice.
They angled along the vee-shaped pass
and cut through the last green-cloaked hills. Something flashed before them,
blinding in the sunlight. Kithri sat straighter, straining for a better view.
She blinked, expecting at first to see the vivid green forest of Brianna=s
world. Instead, as they started down the final slope, a vast shallow sea
stretched before them and into the blurred horizon.
Brianna murmured something unintelligible
and Lennart made a comment about this place being different, but Kithri ignored
them. How could you make jokes when there was so much water out there?
So big, and glassy calm beyond the narrow line of surf. The reflected light
filled the sky and caught in her throat.
The coast curved inward to a little
bay, with a cluster of sparkling buildings and a broad, low pier spun of
moonlight-frosted glass like something from a fairy tale. Gastropoids jammed
the strip of beach, spilling into the shallow water. A few swam out past the
surf line, dipping through the waves like elongated pearls. On the beach
itself, the bodies thronged together.
Raerquel lowered the platform until
waves splashed against the sides. It cantilevered its upper body over the water
until its delicate upper appendages skimmed the surface. Then it extended its
dripping tentacles, rigid and unmoving.
She had never seen Raerquel so still
before. The scientist=s
extremities were usually in constant motion. A faint light glimmered over its
skin as it slowly recurled its tentacles.
Kithri looked away, out across the sea,
and took a deep breath. The air here tasted different from anything she=d
known. She felt the moisture on her skin and inside her nose and throat.
Above them, a slender-winged flier
hovered and dove, emitting an abrasive whine. Kithri wondered what it was. The
shape seemed wrong for a bird, judging by Stayman=s desert-adapted scavengers.
"What was that?" Lennart
asked. "A giant dragonfly?"
make noises like that," Eril said.
Raerquel commented. Kithri thought that wasn=t what it actually said, but only the
best interpretation of Brianna=s
The platform sped on, leaving only a
shadow for a wake. Below them, the water was clear enough to reveal a sandy
bottom. The ocean floor slanted gradually deeper and deeper, darkening to blue.
Kithri squinted in the brightness of
the reflected glare. There was a mist ahead, low and close to the water. Its
sharp boundaries struck her as peculiar, but what did she know about water
vapor? She was a stranger to Stayman=s
single hypersaline sea and Albion had been a world of lakes and rivers, not
When they were about a mile offshore,
the mist resolved into detailed structures. Kithri stared open-mouthed at the
outskirts of a gigantic crystalline city that dominated the center of the
ocean. Much of it lay underwater, visible only as masses of glittering peaks
interspersed with darker areas of red-brown and muted green. Causeways and
platforms jutted skyward, spires and towers spaced by avenues, broad enough for
the free circulation of water. Gastropoids dove through the waves, sleek and
round, their heads emerging here and there to dot the surface like a
constellation of pearly beads.
"Tell me I=m
not seeing this," Lennart murmured.
"It=s so big," said Brianna in
a high, breathy voice. "How do they deal with tidal currents?"
Kithri=s heart seemed to have crawled into her
throat. She could barely breathe, let alone speak. Her longing for Albion=s
beauty seemed no more than a mistaken hunger, when before her lay a feast. It
was not her world, not her city, or even one that her kind might build. Yet
something stirred deep within her, a longing that had been buried all those
years beneath Stayman=s
wept at the vision of the crystalline ships smashed into dust. Now she could
not bear to think what might happen to this city.
They arrived at an elaborate complex
built above the water, a pavilion of soaring buttresses and wide horizontal
panels of transparent lace. Here Raerquel brought their transport to a halt.
They climbed the ramp to the wide central stage, where a small group of
gastropoids waited. Others moved into position around the perimeter of the
platform, encircling them, while below the water teemed with silver bodies.
Sunlight filtered through the
crisscrossed filigree of the high arched dome and dappled the glassy floor
feet. A breeze whispered through the open walls, bringing her the tang of
Five massive gastropoids sat in a
semi-circle. Kithri recognized one from the laboratory examining committee, the
one on the far left with the iron-gray sheen to its head discs and the neck
slits in an inverted chevron pattern.
After cautioning the humans to remain
together and to speak only when requested, Raerquel pointed to each gastropoid
and named it. "There is Fillo-'hip,
leader-elect of the Council...Shuwash from the mountain cities,
Nadilith...Ru-elliven of the scientific committee...and Eatonne."
As Raerquel spoke, ripples of
brightness flowed over the latticework of the platform=s
walls. Kithri craned her neck to watch the patterns of light flare up and then
dim as Raerquel finished. The panels should be visible for miles on a day as
fair as this one.
Its introductions finished, Raerquel
undulated forward."Esteemed Council-of-Ocean and others," it gestured
with one constantly moving tentacle towards the gastropoids floating in the
waters outside. "I present to you a scientific marvel--intelligent
"Whether these creatures are a marvel
is remaining to be demonstrated," said the gastropoid Raerquel had named
overriding the murmured reaction from the crowd below. It was a massive
creature, easily the largest Kithri had yet seen. She found herself distrusting
it intensely. The arrangement of its neck slits resembled sand-hen scratchings,
and the motion of its lower appendages, so different from the flowing gestures
of Raerquel, made her think of writhing worms.
"We have studied your reports and
the evaluation of the scientific review committee," Fillo-'hip
continued. "In these, we find more questions than answers. We are here to
find those answers, not to stare like witless hatchlings at your prize
exhibits. What secrets have you been withholding from us, Raerquel? There must
be an extraterrestrial origin for these creatures, yet your findings indicate
the craft in which they were found is inadequate to the depths of space. Where
is the explanation for this matter?"
"The discovery of another
habitable world, one adaptable to our colonization, would be greatly altering
the balance of interplanetary power," added another gastropoid.
"Perhaps Scientist Raerquel has
failed in rigorous pursuing of this information for reasons having to do with
the political consequences."
sure which gastropoid had uttered this last statement. Some quality of the open
space played havoc with her sense of sound direction. She scanned the neck
sections of the Council before her, searching for any hint of motion.
"No conclusive proof of the
origins of these humans is yet available," Raerquel answered temperately.
"The artifacts accompanying their sudden appearance are currently
undergoing analysis. Ghembaya and others have speculated that, had
invertebrates not dominated the evolution of life here on Planet-of-Home, some
other group--perhaps vertebrate--perhaps mammalian--might have developed
intelligence. This is what makes these creatures so miraculous! Listen to them
and judge for yourselves if such an evolutionary development has not already
occurred, on a world that is separated from ours not by space but by
probability. A world in which the unfolding of life has taken this fascinating
Raerquel pointed one graceful tentacle
at Eril, who stepped forward. The Council came to a sudden halt, upper
tentacles extended like frozen feathers. Kithri, standing behind Eril, saw him
square his shoulders. A few of the Council members rumbled ominously. For a
moment, she feared he wouldn=t
be allowed to speak. Then they quieted, a semi-circle of fleshly gray
monoliths, their expressions utterly unreadable.
One of them said, "This is
irrelevant to the central point under discussion--the true motivations behind
"Let us at least hear this argument,"
replied another. "We would not have it said we gave Raerquel no
opportunity to present its...evidence."