By Dolores J. Nurss
In the chaos of global collapse the secret of transfer-technology slipped out. By the 23rd century, the Age of Migration had reached full bloom.
I do know the timeframe in which I dreamed this one: sixth grade, probably 1966. I know because it drew on the day material of a mental game that I played in class when bored, wherein I would picture my teacher and fellow students in various outrageous costumes. Any dreamworker can easily see the message for my former bratty self, but this story holds more than passing importance to the larger canon of my Tales of the Tilián, on so many different levels at once. So much so that I find I cannot begin the novels without telling this longish short story first, even though I have excerpted most of it in one of the later novels–too late for the reader.
As for dream authenticity, all events subsequent to arrival in the classroom happened in the dream. I invented the dialogue only because it took years for my skill to reach the point where I could capture the things said in the English language (in the dream I just “knew” the gist, without remembering the wording.) Everything remains true to the spirit of the dream. To say I went about dazed the morning after this dream is an understatement.
The Mountainfolk/Irish child, Deirdre Evelynne Keller tried to brush her long black tangles as she ran to class, through the hodgepodge architecture of Til Institute, comprised of every form of architecture ever conceived of on Novatierre or on Earth that came before. Young students of illusionism, hard at work at their practice, did not simplify the campus-city, either, forms melting into forms around her, walls turning into hedges or cliffs or the flattened forms of sleeping giants, trees acquiring faces or the semblance of fountains or columns of smoke, the very walkway beneath her running feet changing at times to appear like water or ice or dragon-skin. Yet she had grown up used to all that, and hardly noticed.
The girl herself had the Inca/Sherpa blend of Mountainfolk features, her dainty, diamond-shaped face slanting in eye and cheekbone, yet although as brown in skin as cinnamon, her Irish mother had given her a cute little Celtic nose, round at the tip, and longer proportions which, at her age, made her look all made of skinny limbs connected by a patch of red cloth (a shift) flapping in the middle.
She found the ramp that led down to the beach, just like her instructions said. She tried to speed her progress by sliding down the bannisters, but their knobby, weathered wood did not cooperate, so she ran down the increasingly sandy zigzags, her feet so light she almost seemed to fly. Running got harder across the sand at the bottom, but she soon saw ahead the cave which held her math class for today.
The higher tides of a bygone day had carved the entrance to something as high as a cathedral-arch. At first the ocean echoed inside, when she entered, but a bend soon cut off that sound, though not the ocean scent nor a humidity that made it wisest not to leave anything of paper here longer than the duration of a class. Will-o-watts, however, gleamed on the walls along the way, and a whole cluster of lights illuminated the main chamber from the vault above, shining on the luster of sea-polished rock, and on the white resin chairs and desks with legs sunk into sand, most already occupied by students. A chalkboard occupied the cave’s far end, the place not suiting anything with circuitry.
Deirdre winced when she saw her teacher. Jonathan's done it again, she thought. Not that she saw anything peculiar about teachers wearing outlandish costumes--with so many retired agents among them, they had a whole world's eccentricities to choose from--but the culture that Jonathan most favored had such bad taste. Navy blue and black cloth, with here and there beads of scarlet and wine, made him look like he couldn't find anything that quite matched. She'd hoped to get a seat among the adult students, where she needn't hear her peers chuckle. But since she'd come late, she wound up far back in the huge, converted cave.
Why'd math have to be so necessary? She'd reached the point where practically every class she wanted right now required a higher level of math than she knew--and most of the classes that other people wanted, too, apparently. Intimate groups forced people to respect each other, but here the children counted on the anonymity of the crowd to excuse them for the Tilián's most frowned-up sin: intolerance.
She signed for a book at the chamber-entry. Then, at the last minute, she squeezed into a desk next to a middle-aged Naugrenite. The poor man blushed in his beard to study with children, but on home territory Til couldn't afford to cater to every prejudice on the planet.
The dark girl smiled in pity on him and remembered to tap one foot behind her twice in the Naugrenic curtsey before she sat down. Actually, as a female in public, his culture expected prostration from her, but she had her limits; in any case he looked too relieved to see any custom of his homeland to quibble.
You're the first courteous child I've encountered since my stay here, he smiled. Abruptly Deirdre realized that she'd sat next to a telepath, which explained why a Naugrenite might sacrifice a little pride to learn from the Tilián--even a hill-Naugrenite who'd never bothered with his own land's cities. When she thought her reply in his direction, she felt the strangeness of having her words translated into a foreign language:
And what less than courtesy should I afford one who has mastered his jewel in so short a time? Few can telepathize in words--and from one tongue to another.
He fingered the magentine crystal hung around his neck in nicotine-ingrained fingers, the pendant devoid of any amplifying circuitry that she could see. The flash of his grin and his green eyes beneath the turban told her that she'd salved his pride. In my own land I could command respect, but here at Til Institute? Where they say that children learn human speech late in life, having no need of it? What honor do I deserve from you, Tilanita?
That's a myth. We've only a few born each decade too sensitive to speak.
You're not doing poorly, child.
She laughed and said out loud, "But I'm riding on your mental field!" He looked confused till he remembered to ignore her speech and concentrate on her thoughts. "By myself I can only manage an occasional empathic impression," she said.
Jonathan had left to get chalk, but now re-entered at the far end of the cave. The Naugrenite squinted at him. My Gift still fails me sometimes at a distance--like my eyes. Is that the teacher?
Jonathan Drury? Yes.
Drury? I thought his name Kaskin.
"Oh. Yeah--Kaskin's...um." Pardon me. Kaskin's his name in Naugren. I take it you're a co-religionist of his?
The man nodded. And we have met before, this Jonathan and I. Forgive me; I lost my spectacles in transit, so tell me, is he...he really is wearing that. Do you know him well, child?
He's my mentor, Deirdre thought with pride.
Why does he dress like a mushroom?
She'd never thought of it that way before, but Jonathan did look like a mushroom, with all his voluminous blousing tucked into close-fitting trousers. It didn't even have proper sleeves, just slits in the general billow which his hands poked through. She explained, He spent the happiest years of his life in the Charadoc, where their upper castes consider the sight of arms vulgar.
And does he?
Oh, nothing offends Jonathan. But the outfit brings back good memories.
Lines crinkled around the man's eyes as he squinted once more at the teacher. There, it comes back...I perceive him now. You're right. Just then Jonathan turned and met their eyes over the distance. He smiled, touched two fingers to his lips as he bowed--the Naugrenic equivalent of a wave. And I see where you learned your courtesy. But hush--his thoughts move towards mathematics.
The room quieted when Jonathan stepped towards his chalkboard. The human-altered acoustics of the cave carried his words clearly across the crowd, reverberating only slightly.
Deirdre tried to immerse herself into the trance of knowledge-absorption, but the tittering of nearby children broke her concentration. It seems that the blousing on Jonathan's arm erased the numbers as fast as he could chalk them up. A teenager kicked the noisiest kid's desk while trying to copy equations before they disappeared.
Jonathan glanced back at his work, chuckled nervously, pushed the cloth back from his arm and rewrote it. His arm looked so pale it didn't seem rightfully attached to his hand. Deirdre could've died of embarrassment for him.
Chalk smeared the darkness of his entire left side. It failed to enhance his appearance. He began to lecture on the conversion-tables that the equations led to, but Deirdre could think of nothing except, I don't know which worm spins Charadocian silk, but it sure looks greasy! The Naugrenite chuckled despite himself; Deirdre clapped her hands against her forehead, as if that would do any good.
They limped through the session, though Deirdre knew she'd have to schedule herself to take the class over with some stranger-teacher whose humiliation wouldn't matter to her. She only persisted through this session because Jonathan had wanted to talk to her afterwards.
She loved him, of course, as passionately as any home-raised girl ever loved a father. In the fostered insecurities of Til Institute, the mentor-child relationship inspired a drive for scholastic excellence, repaid with affection and approval. She never let herself wish for parents now that she had him.
After the class she jostled through a tide of departing people to win to his side, all the many voices making an undifferentiated roar around her. At the head of the class Jonathan stood alone, leaned on his fists against a desk, his eyes clenched tight. But at her touch all pain fled his face.
"Deirdre! You made it."
"You won't think so when I send you my homework. Jonathan...are you all right?"
"Just homesick, little one. Homesick..." She frowned; she knew him Institute-raised like herself. He forced a smile. "Does it surprise you, Deirdre? What do you think becomes of agents, anyway--the ones you never see again?"
She shrugged. "I guess they die in the line of duty. It's dangerous work."
"Dangerous. Yes. In ways you don't suspect." He draped an arm around her, lost somewhere in all the fabric. He led her out of the classroom-cave and onto the beach beyond. The sunlight hit as sharp as the salt-scrubbed air. "Yes, they die of old age in the line of duty. Sooner or later surviving agents leave Til Institute forever. They take permanent assignment among a people who need them on a long-term basis; they immerse themselves beyond return, they become one with that nation. I won't stay any longer than I have to, Deirdre."
She clutched at him; despite everything, it hadn't occurred to her that he could leave. "Why would you want to go? The whole world comes here. They, they study with us, they learn the wisdom that grows old yet never dies."
He winced as she quoted lines which she took for granted, perhaps even thought her own. "And then they go home, Deirdre. This isn't a home, it isn't even a culture. It's an institution." He grimaced at the sand beneath his feet. "I miss the comfort of a few tattered prejudices and superstitions, something to wrap around myself against the enormity of the world." He raised his eyes again, as if he could see, beyond the ocean, other horizons, more hospitable shores. "I want to belong, if only for awhile, to others who all think the same way, who assume that the whole wide world thinks thus. Years have passed since my Initiation and I would undo it if I could." They walked past the ramps that would lead back to the lawns and buildings of Til Institute proper and continued strolling down the beach. The Naugrenite followed a discreet distance behind.
"About Initiation..." she ventured.
"You guess your age, don't you?"
Suspicion raced in her blood. "You mean today's my birthday?"
He smiled. "Perhaps. Perhaps you turn seven today."
"Then I'm initiation-age!"
"Not necessarily. We gauge it on maturity, really. I can tell you this much, though; we tell many children that they're seven when they're older or younger, so that no one looks on another as "fast" or "slow".
"You mean I'm not really..."
"For all practical purposes you could be seven today--unless I decide otherwise." She stared up at him, but he wouldn't say more for a long time. They walked in the shadow of Til's red cliffs until a bend took them into the sun again. She shivered.
"Or," Jonathan said as if no time had passed, "the question might not matter. You needn't undergo Initiation at all." He nodded at the thought, as though it satisfied him, while Deirdre's heart shrank in her breast. "Many people don't, you know. We've built Novo Durango and all the other support-communities on Til-raised folk who just plain couldn't care less about the Tilián and Lovequest. And of those that do take the vow, fewer than twenty percent become agents."
"You're an agent," Deirdre said, her hand tiny in his. He looked tall beside her; she could see him taking entire nations by the hand and leading them into the sun.
"I was. For a time. I may become one again. That's no reason for you to decide on it, though. Mostly these days I teach, in between planning the missions of others."
"So what good's an agent that nobody trains and nobody sends? You're still a part of it."
"And I'll likely die a part of it, I fear--hopefully in the Charadoc once more."
"Besides," Deirdre said, trotting to keep up as his pace lengthened. "Agents are teachers--teachers of the world." She smiled at the very flavor of the thought, a delicious future that she could lick up like ice-cream. "I'd like that."
"Why?" The sudden sharpness of his tone shook her. "So you can feel superior to the ignorant?" She looked away, but he grabbed her shoulder and twisted her to face him. "Don't lie to yourself, Deirdre. Is that what you want?"
She stared up at him in disbelief. "I want to help people."
"That's not enough, girl."
"I want to serve them." He dropped his hand and they resumed their walk.
"So, you parrot the words that others spoke before you. I look a proper fool in this rig, don't I?"
"I didn't say anything about it..."
"Which is why you just might reach your seventh birthday any minute now."
"But you said..."
"Nothing definite--not if your life or sanity depends on unsaying it. I have the clearance to decide whether you go through Initiation at all. Any time."
"Just because I upset you?" The child's pitch rose in anger. "Just because I think you look stupid?"
With surprising patience he replied, "I'm only a fool if you make me one. In the Charadoc I'm dressed fit to sit on their parliament."
"In the Charadoc, yes, but..."
"Can you imagine what would happen if we sent you there and you made every one of them a fool? Fools don't learn, Deirdre. And in a nation of fools agents don't teach."
She held his hand tightly. So much rode upon her discovering the right answer! "Then folly has no cure?" she asked.
"Indeed it does! Respect. If you can make a man a fool, you can also make a fool a man. You can make a ditz into a woman, a brat into a child. But you must accept their customs, make them your own."
He chuckled. "Even if they're naught but rags of superstition and prejudice? Do you think an agent ever changes a culture anywhere?"
Now she felt completely confused. "I thought the whole point was to..."
"...'direct human lives along their optimum individual and cultural routs for the betterment of the planetwide ecosystem, most particularly the human environment. To prevent the mortal errors of Earth, protecting alternate directions of societal development.' I know the rhetoric that they teach you in ethics-class. And the best way to smash that goal is to change a culture."
"Then why send agents out?" She felt almost frantic.
"To help a culture grow. To grow themselves. But their growth affects no people but their own--therefore..."
It dawned on her. "They must belong to the people they walk among."
"Belong. Absolutely. Without reservation. It makes all the difference in the world, as between painting a plant green and helping it burgeon into green health by feeding and watering it. Think you can do that, kidita?"
She frowned. "It can't be too hard, if so many manage it."
"Not so many. Twenty percent, remember? And not all well. Hard? More than that. Perhaps impossible to human nature. Without aid, that is."
"Human nature..." She stopped as the implications hit.
"Continue your thought, child; I'm no telepath."
"In the seas live the Aliens, who have no human nature." She considered them, aquatic castaways from another planet, gigantic rays with the brains to dream, owning tentacles tucked into discreet chest pouches with which to shape their dreams into tools, into art. They led their lives almost separate from humankind, sheltered from the air.
"Deirdre, they, too, find such openness to other viewpoints practically impossible--without help. Remember, they may have left their homes in part to help us survive the strife of Earth, but it made a good excuse to flee the chaos of their own world. They have no wisdom that we don't have."
"Then who helps who?"
"Each helps all. Surely you've heard rumors about your Initiation?"
"It involves the Aliens, doesn't it? Their scientists do something to you..."
"No, no, not their scientists! Their...bards.,..historians...memory-takers--it doesn't translate." He shook his head. "Maybe it really is only one person, maybe many who for one instant share an identity. Certainly some of the memory-trace bears a longing for 'foreign knowledge' that one could term scientific...but really we know so little--and after all this time, too." He gestured like he brushed away a clutter of words. "Never mind; you'll catch what I mean--if you can bear it."
She looked sidelong at him. "Will it hurt?"
"There's no physical effect."
"Will it hurt?" she persisted.
He frowned in silence for four long strides across the sand, while she listened to the ocean and the keen of gulls. "Yes," he said.
She bit her lip. "How long does it take?"
"Seven seconds--precisely. I'll time it on the shore, as one of theirs times it under water. Whatever happens, your first exposure mustn't exceed that." He left a lot of footprints in the sand before he said, "It's not as bad as it sounds. Marine biologists, off-shore miners, captains and fisherani, they all endure this thing regularly for as long as a half-hour at a stretch."
"It's some kind of telepathic contact," she said with certainty.
"That's precisely what it is."
Her hand wriggled in his. "I can't receive the information any other way?"
"Information? Who said anything about information?"
"Then I'm to learn nothing?"
"I didn't say that, either."
"You're taking me to Initiation now, aren't you?"
Jonathan hesitated. "Set my heart at ease, Deirdre. You know something of the ceremony afterwards, don't you? The vow upon the cannon and all that, should you choose to go through with this?"
"I thought we'd plan it together."
"We will--within a certain structure. But the vow stays the same. For my sake, Deirdre, tell me that vow--now--before you take it. Just so I know that you know it. You would swear..."
"...to serve the lovequest, with the sharpest edge of my mind, with the softest tenderness of my heart, with the holiest courage of my soul, and the last endurance of my flesh, with understanding, or if necessary, without."
"And it ends, Deirdre, with, 'If I cease to love the world, let me cease to love myself.' That's a terrifying vow, Deirdre. Do you know what it means?"
The little girl nodded. "I think so."
"You don't have to take it." They came to a crack in the sea-cliff. Jonathan halted them before it and rested both hands on her shoulders. "You don't have to," he repeated. "Truly. If you have any reservations about Initiation, any at all, please tell me now."
She thought about the sacrifices demanded of those who took the vow, the assumption that they could have no life separate from the needs of the world. She thought of the trouble in her mentor's face, the promise of pain, the fear. She thought of all the glories taught in all her classes, the splendor of immolating oneself to a cause. She stared up at him, mute.
"Please," he said. "Tell me you don't want to."
She shook her head. "Ah, but I do." The words kindled adrenalin in her, so much that the fear almost made her sick.
Jonathan's lips opened, sought words, then closed, silent. Roughly he hugged her, then pushed her through the crack in the cliff.
Alone, she followed the crevice, as she supposed she ought to, into total darkness, illuminated only by the sound of the cool sand's sighs beneath her feet, by the impossible sensitivity of her fingertips which found her path by the sea-smoothed stone around her. Air-currents and subliminal echoes gave authority to her being, established that she had a body, a place in this world.
Flickers, at first only imagined, broke and gave depth to the shadow that filled that place like a tangible pressure. Then real glimmers gave definition to the rocks around her, flashes reflected off of water far ahead.
Further, with more light, the tunnel became more real with every step, the sand firmer, then wet outright. The first lick of water caught her toes by surprise. She could see the opening now; she slipped on stones as she tried to get to it. She steadied herself against the rock by now as familiar-firm as Jonathan.
The corals and anemones, the bright-dark cave opening to sea and sky, water that sparkled cool up to her thighs already, reconfirmed in her a love for this place, this coast, this home, motherland--this here which she could never see herself parted from forever. She stopped to appreciate it. The motions of the tide pulled at her sight and skin; they triggered the first phase of tlomi-trance by their rhythms. It seemed a good idea to plunge the rest of the way in, perhaps advance the trance into the Seeking Mind state that she had learned that very month.
Before she achieved this, though, something achieved her. The world dropped out from under her--she fought! The world reasserted itself again to sparkle on waves, keen in gullsong. She gulped for air.
Return! Black! The world whipped away from her.
At Jonathan's side the Naugrenite telepath nodded his head. Jonathan clicked on the stopwatch.
Black. Absolute. Black of touch, sound, no smell of sea, no memory. A motion of strange senses sought to overtake her. She resisted. She would've wept if she'd remembered how, but tears belonged to the world of salt and sea. She starved in a cold so frigid that it had no bite, not even a pain to cling to.
Senses surged up to her, senses that didn't fit. But she starved; she sucked them into her, as queer as poison. They gave her no choice.
He/she gave her no choice. Magnificently sentient IT gave her no choice. She became IT and swam through the primary atmosphere, through the ripplings at nerve-endings that brought well-being and yearning as their message.
"One," Jonathan said aloud. In silence he cautioned the telepath once more not to go along before his time, just to monitor the blankness of Deirdre's own perceptions.
Beauty! Not beauty, but an indescribable AH! that approves and yearns, holds taut between the finding and the loss. To live, birth to death, touching no surfaces, every surface of one's own form touched, buoyed up to glide and swirl, never to sleep, never and always to dream. Light and dark take alien definitions, a twist to the colors, a glimmer of other light. Tasting the atmosphere defines reality by its ripples and its trails, its not-quite-audible concussions from the fourteen cardinal directions, no true sound at all--a different sense. Beauty. And loss.
Tactile coils extrude from my chest, brush the seaweed for the plankton, almost intolerably tiny, the most sensitive of tendrils search as two stronger tentacles bend away the stouter stalks. Life forms! Food. Fulfillment of survival, life taken into life, they burst with living, they transform their life to mine. Life! I pull in my tentacles, fan out my form, dip and soar into the openness. I am huge! Beyond and beyond all plankton. They live now only as I live, incorporate in me. I swell and surge with life! I am!
I am Deirdre!
I am, without sound-concept. I am, I bulk huge over other life. I soar and move through the fourteen cardinal directions. And, mightier than the plankton, I swell enormous with memories.
Old. Last of the Bubble Generation, fourteenth generation born between the stars. Our scientists changed the atmosphere of the Bubble year by year, changed the length of the years themselves to conform to the Planet of Other Thoughts. I watched them die, the old ones, unable to adapt. I endured the changes which the scientists wrought, the transformations in the currents of my blood, the changing flavor of the world. I felt...indescribable. What you call pain? Triumph? Terror? Or Resignation? Void? I am not what I was. I could no longer survive the oceans that the old ones yearned for. I yearned for a planet where I did not belong.
I am Deirdre, of the People of the Promise. I wasn't when it all began, but I have learned the memories that others have preserved. We needed, blindly, but all the more for being inarticulate. And in our need we sent a cry to space, to anybody, someone beyond ourselves to help what we couldn't heal alone.
We heard the cry and came. "Futile," some said--a word with all and no significance. We came too late, as if to prove the word correct, but I wouldn't join those who said we would have done better to have died in our own world than someone else's. Too late. We almost landed in the ruins of a planet, the seas clouded with the stench of death, poisonous, lamenting without consciousness. We searched for the people who had cried out to us, but we found only unlife that could feed no living thing, scattered in the secondary atmosphere amid the wreckage of the fruits of their thoughts. In places the poison burned so bright that not even land-plankton could feed--the dead ones lay unrotted, exactly as their thoughts had slain them, years too soon.
We died in so many ways, those of us who stayed behind. We feared you'd die, too, if ever you arrived, but we had no choice except to leave.
I tasted those waters--I alone. No scientist could ever prepare me to live in them. Long they labored just to save my life after I tasted them. I yearned, there at the destruction of all I longed for. I sent out probes and found the memories preserved in the Language of the Cry. I gave them to linguists, who followed where you fled...
...by the transfer machines, to this parallel Earth, this Novatierre. You must be so old! Five centuries ago the last of us transferred, and lost so much of ourselves save what the Tilián preserved. We alone knew you when you came to us.
We lost so much ourselves--devices we cannot repair, memories that no one passed on, visions untaught...so we had to forgive when the first human beings tried to kill us. It took little time to find the Tilián. It took longer to forgive them forgive ourselves...no. I needn't recount the sins of that voyage.
"Six." No! Jonathan's mind cried out just in time as the Naugrenite shuddered at the menace that he’d brushed against.
Hardships! Such hardships you went through to establish yourselves in these reefs. Loss! And yet Beauty, AH! the finding...
...and the loss. I yearn, human being; I yearn for the ship that is gone!
Before the timer registered seven Jonathan already raced through the tunnel, sloshed into the tidepools to the side of the swaying girl. He caught her in his arms as she fainted, then carried her back. For whole minutes Deirdre remained unconscious, stunned by the fraction of an extra second that the alien had stolen to throw in one last thought:
Futile, they said? When you have come, and you have listened?
The first thing Deirdre made out in the shadows of the cave were wet folds of Charadocian "silk" that half enveloped her, soggy against her cheek, tasting of salt as she licked her tears. Then she felt Jonathan's arms somewhere in it all. They stepped out to daylight, where a rather shaken Naugrenite tried to light a cigarette. His cultural oddities no longer offended her; nothing human would ever seem alien again.
"Oh, Jonathan!" she cried as he sat her down. "They hardly even know what arms are!"