Catherine Asaro: Aurora in Four VoicesFirst appeared in Analog Science Fictionand Fact, December 1998. Nominated forBest Novella.
------------------------------------------ From Analog
Aurora in Four Voices, by Catherine Asaro Part I: The Dreamers of Nightingale
He missed the sun.
The planet Ansatz boasts one city,Nightingale, a gem that graces eternalnight. Just as a diamond sparkles because light that ventures into its heart is captured, bouncing from face to face, so Jato Stormson was trapped in Nightingale.Unlike the light inside a faceted diamond, however, he could never escape.
After a few years, his memories of homefaded. He could no longer picture thesun-parched farm on the planet Sandstormwhere he had spent his boyhood. It wasalways dark in Nightingale.
The Dreamers–the artistic geniuses whocreated Nightingale–were also mathematicalprodigies. That was why they named their planet Ansatz. It referred to a method of solving differential equations. Guess an answer, an ansatz, and see if it solved the equation. If it didn’t, make anotherguess. Another ansatz. Jato felt as if hewere trapped on a guess of a world. One night he went to the EigenDome, anestablishment for dancing. He sat at a table and waited for the drink server, butthe server never came to his table. Thatwas why he rarely visited the Dome. Theartist who had designed the placeconsidered it aesthetic to have humansserve the drinks and the humans in Nightingale ignored him. But that night hewas lonelier than usual and even the icyDreamers were better than no company atall. Made from synthetic diamond, the Domeresembled a truncated soccer ball. Jatohad looked up its history in the citylibrary and found a treatise on how theDome’s shape mimicked the moleculebuckyball. Its holographic lighting evokedthe quantum eigenfunctions that describeda buckyball. He didn’t understand the physics, but he appreciated the beauty itproduced.
Tonight Dreamers were everywhere, dancing, talking, humming. Centuries of playingwith their genes and living in perpetual night had bleached their skin almost to translucence. Their hair floated aroundtheir bodies like silver smoke. Light fromlamps outside the Dome refracted throughthe diamond walls, gracing the interiorwith rainbows that collected on theDreamers in pools of color. They glistenedlike quantum ghosts.
Across the Dome, the doors opened. Aspacer stood in the doorway, her bodyhaloed by the rainbow luminance. This wasno Dreamer. She looked solid. Sun-touched.She must have come in on one of the rareships that visited Nightingale; rare,because the Dreamers allowed noimmigration and most sun-dwellers found acity of unrelieved night depressinganyway. The only reason people usuallycame to Ansatz was to trade for a Dream.
Ah, yes. The Trade.
Dreamers make a simple offer; give one apleasant dream and in return the Dreamerwill give you a work of art. They allowyou ten days to try. After that, you mustleave Nightingale, trade or no trade.Considering the prices Dreamer art claimsthroughout the Imperialate, that tradeseems astoundingly one-sided, the offer ofgreat treasure for no more than a nicedream.
Jato had let the lure of that promise foolhim. He spent years saving for the ticketto Ansatz. But how do you give a dream? Itwas harder than it sounded, particularlygiven how sun-dwelling humans revolted theDreamers. The same husky build and ruggedlooks that had won him such admirationback home repelled the Dreamers.Considering their disdain for ugliness, hefeared they wouldn’t even let him stay theten days.
They never let him go.
So now he sat by himself and watched thespacer walk to a table across in the Dome.She wore dark pants tucked into boots anda white sweater with gold rings decoratingthe upper arms. Her clothing lookedfamiliar, but Jato couldn’t place why. Shehad no jacket; Nightingale’s weathermachines aided the planet’s naturalconvection to keep the climate pleasant,free from the fierce winds the tore at therest of Ansatz. Her hair was a cloud ofblack curls with gold tips, and darklashes framed her eyes–green eyes, thecolor of a leaf in the forest. Her skinhad a dusky hue, full of rosy bloominghealth. None of the Dreamers spared her asecond look, but Jato thought she waslovely.
She sat down–and the server showed up totake her order. Irked, Jato got up andheaded for the laser bar, intending toinsist they serve him. Reaching it,however, was no simple feat. The Dome’sfloor consisted of nested rings, eachslowly rotating in one direction or theother. The text he had found in thelibrary described some business about"mapping coefficients in quantumsuperpositions onto ring velocities." Allhe knew was that it took a computer tocoordinate the motion so patrons couldstep from one ring to another withoutfalling. Dreamers carried it off withgrace, but he had never mastered it.
He managed to reach the dance floor, alanguid disk turning in the Dome’s center.Dancers drifted away from him, slim andwillowy, silver-eyed works of art. On theother side, he ventured into the ringsagain and was soon being carried this wayand that. Each time he neared a hovertableoccupied by Dreamers, it floated away oncushions of air. He wished just oncesomeone would look up, admit his presence,give a greeting. Anything.
Meanwhile, the server brought the spacerher drink, which was a LaserDrop in awide-mouthed bottle. Tiny lasers in theglass suffused the drink with color:helium-neon red, zinc-selenium blue,sodium yellow. Drink in hand, she settledback to watch the dancers.
Jato quit pretending it was the bar hewanted and headed for the spacer. Butwhenever he neared the ring with herhovertable, people and tables that hadbeen drifting away suddenly blocked hispath. The spacer meanwhile finished herdrink, slid a payment chip into the tableslot, and headed for the door. He startedafter her–and the drink server appeared,blocking the way, his back to Jato, histray of laser-hued drinks held high.
Jato scowled. He had always been long onpatience and short on words. But even themost stoic man could only take so much. Heput his hand against the server’s back andpushed, not hard, just enough to make thefellow move. The server stumbled and histray jumped, rum splashing out of the jarsin plump drops. Even then, no one lookedat Jato, not even the server.
He made it to the door without pushinganyone else. Outside, lamps lit the areafor a few meters, but beyond theirradiance, night reigned under a sky richwith stars. Jato strode away from theDome, his fists clenched. He didn’t wantto give them the satisfaction of seeingtheir treatment provoke him.
The Dome was on the city outskirts, nearthe edge of a large plateau where theDreamers had built Nightingale. TheGiant’s Skeleton Mountains surrounded theplateau, falling away from it on threesides and rising in sheer cliffs on thefourth, here in the north. The northernpeaks piled up higher and higher in thedistance, until they become a jagged lineagainst the star-dazzled sky.
The Dreamers claimed they builtNightingale as a challenge: can you createbeauty in so forbidding a place? This wasthe reason they gave. Jato had heardothers put forth, but the Dreamers deniedthem.
Although his past attempts at convincingspacers to smuggle him offplanet hadfailed, he never gave up. In the distantshadows, he saw the spacer climbing theSquareCase, a set of stairs carved into acliff. The first step was one centimeterhigh, the second four, the third nine, andso on, their heights increasing as thesquare of integers. The first twenty ranparallel to the cliff, but then theyturned at a right angle and stepped intothe mountains, rising taller and taller,until they became cliffs themselves, toohigh, too dark, and too distant todistinguish.
By the time he reached the first step ofthe SquareCase, the spacer was climbingthe tenth, about the height of her waist.She sat on it, half hidden in the darkwhile she watched him. He approachedslowly and stopped on the ninth step.
"Can I do something for you?" she asked.
"I wondered if you wanted a guide to thecity." It sounded unconvincing, but it wasthe best introduction he could think of.
"Thank you," she said. "But I’m fine." Theconversation screeched to a halt.
He tried again. "I don’t often get achance to talk to anyone from offplanet."
Her posture eased. "I noticed my ship wasthe only one in port."
"Did you come to trade for a Dream?"
"No. Just some minor repairs. I’ll beleaving as soon they’re done."
Behind her, Jato caught sight of a globesparkling with lights in a fractalpattern. As it floated forward, itresolved into a robot drone over a meterin diameter, its surface patterned bydelicate curls of the Mandelbrot set,swirls fringed by swirls fringed by swirlsin an unending pattern of ever more minutelace.
Following his gaze, the woman glancedback. "What is that?"
"A robot. It watches this staircase."
She turned back to him. "Why does thatmake you angry?"
"Angry?" How had she known? "I’m notangry."
"What does it do?" she asked.
"I’ll show you." Jato strode forward andhauled his bulk onto the tenth step.Although he towered over the spacer, sheseemed unperturbed, simply scooting overto let him pass. That self-confidenceimpressed him as much as her beauty.
As he approached the eleventh step, theglobe whirred into his face. When he triedto push it away, it rammed his shoulder sohard he fell to one knee.
"Hey!" The woman jumped up and grabbed forhim, as if she actually thought she couldstop someone his size from falling overthe edge. "Why did it do that?"
He stood up, brushing rock dust off histrousers. "As a warning."
That’s when she did it. She smiled."Whatever for?"
Jato hardly heard her. All he saw was hersmile. It dazzled.
But after a moment, her smile faded. "Areyou all right?" she asked.
He refocused his thoughts. "What?"
"You’re just staring at me."
"Sorry." He motioned at the globe. "It waswarning me not to go past the city border,which crosses the cliff here." Having thedrones watch him up here was almost funny.As if he could actually escape Nightingaleby climbing a staircase that grewgeometrically.
"Why can’t you leave the city?" she asked.
He discovered he couldn’t make himselftell her, at least not yet. Why should shebelieve his story? Eight years ago, theDreamers had showed up at his room in theWhisper Inn and locked his wrists behindhis back with cuffs made from sterlingsilver Möbius strips. He had no idea whatwas happening until he found himself ontrial. They convicted him of a murder thatnever happened and sentenced him to lifein prison.
Supposedly, years of treatment had "cured"him, and he no longer posed a danger tosociety. So the Dreamers let him out ofhis cell, which had never been a cellanyway, but an apartment under the city.For a giddy span of hours he had thoughtthey meant to send him home; if he was nolonger dangerous, after all, why keep himunder sentence?
He soon found out otherwise.
For the Dreamers who believed in hisguilt, which was most of them, it wouldtake a lifetime for him to atone. One oftheir most renowned artists, CrankenshaftGranite, had argued–with truth–that toJato it would be almost as much apunishment to spend his life confined toNightingale as to his apartment. But bymaking the city his jail, they showedtheir compassion for a criminal who hadturned away from his violent nature. Jatosaw why that logic appealed to theDreamers, who for some reason had adriving need to see themselves as kind,yet who in truth considered allsun-dwellers flawed, deserving neitherfreedom nor friendship.
But he knew the truth. Crankenshaft’smotives had nothing to do with compassion.The only reason Jato had a modicum morefreedom now was because it madeCrankenshaft’s life easier.
Jato didn’t want to see that wary lookappear on this woman’s face, the onespacers always wore when they learned hisstory. Not yet. He wanted to have thesefew minutes without the weight of hisconviction pressing on them.
So instead of telling her, he pointed athis feet and made a joke. "This is where Ilive. These are my coordinates."
So much for scintillating wit, he thought."Coordinates. This staircase is the plotof a non-linear step function."
She laughed, like the sweet ringing of abell. "Why would anyone go to all thiswork just to make a big plot?"
"It’s art." He wished she would laughagain. It was a glorious sound.
"This is some art," she said. "But youhaven’t told me why your people won’t letyou leave."
His people? She thought he was a Dreamer?It wasn’t only that he bore no resemblanceto them. Dreamers were gifted at both artand mathematics, neither of which he hadtalent for. Yet this beautiful womanthought he was both. He grinned. "Theylike me. They don’t want me to go."
She stared at him, her mouth opening.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
She closed her mouth. "What?"
"You’re just staring at me."
"I–your smile–" She flushed. "Myapologies. I’m afraid I’m rather tired."She gave him a formal nod. "My pleasure atyour company." Then she turned and headeddown the stairs.
He almost went after her, stunned by herabrupt leave-taking. But he managed tokeep from making a fool of himself.Instead, he stood in the shadows andwatched her descend the SquareCase.
When Jato turned into the undergroundcorridor that dead-ended at his apartment,he saw a Mandelbrot globe waiting at thedoor. Given that he lived nowhere nearNightingale’s perimeter, only one reasonexisted for its presence. Crankenshaft hadsent it. With Jato no longer confined tohis apartment, Crankenshaft could have himbrought wherever he wanted instead of theDreamer having to come down here.
Jato spun around and ran, his bootsclanging on the metal floor. If he couldfind a side passage too narrow for theglobe to follow, he might evade capture.It was a stupid game Crankenshaft played;if Jato escaped the drones, Crankenshaftlet him have the day off.
A whirring sound came from behind him. Thedrone hit his side and he stumbled intothe wall, bringing up his arms to protecthis face. An aperture opened on the robotand an air syringe slid out, accompaniedby the hiss of its firing.
His view of the hall wavered, darkened,faded. . . .
Jato opened his eyes. A face floated abovehim, an aged Dreamer with eyes like ice.Gusts of wind fluttered her silver hairaround her cheeks. He knew that gauntface. It belonged to Silicate Glacier.Crankenshaft’s wife.
Crankenshaft was standing behind her. Tallfor a Dreamer, he had a well-kept physiquethat belied his one-hundred and six yearsof age. Black hair covered his head inbristles. He had two-tone eyes, greybordered by red, like old ice in rubyrings.
Jato spoke in a hoarse voice. "How long?"
"You have slept several hours,"Crankenshaft said.
"I meant, how long do you need me for?"
"I don’t know. We will see."
As Jato pulled himself into a sittingposition, Silicate stepped back, avoidingcontact with him. He swung his legs overthe stone ledge where he had been lyingand looked around. Crankenshaft had chosenthe big studio. The ledge jutted out ofthe west wall, an otherwise blank plane ofgrey stone. On the left, the south wallwas a window looking over Nightingale,which lay far below. The east and north"walls" were holoscreens, sheets ofthermoplastic that hung from the ceiling.Holos rippled in front of them, swaths ofcolor that trembled as breezes shook thescreens.
It always disoriented Jato, that wind.Moving air didn’t belong inside a house.For that matter, neither did Mandelbrotglobes. But two floated here, one hoveringbehind Crankenshaft and another prowlingthe studio.
The major feature in the room was a roundpool. A glossy white cone about two meterstall rose out of the water. A second conestood next to it, its top cut flat in acircular cross-section. The three othercones in the pool were cut at angles,giving them elliptical, parabolic, andhyperbolic cross-sections.
"Circle today," Crankenshaft said. Then heheaded across the drafty studio to aconsole in the corner where the twoholo-walls met.
Jato looked at Silicate and she lookedback, as cool and as smooth as stone. Thenshe too walked away, leaving the studiovia a slit in a thermoplastic wall.
A gust rumpled Jato’s hair and heshivered, wrapping his arms around hisbody. "Do you have a jacket?" he asked.
Crankenshaft didn’t answer, he juststooped over his console and went to work.So Jato waited, trying to clear out thehaze left in his mind by the sedative.
A globe nudged his shoulder. When hestayed put, it pushed harder. "Flame off,"he muttered.
A syringe extended out of the globe.
Still intent on his console, Crankenshaftsaid, "It shoots a heat stimulant. Astrong specimen such as yourself mighttolerate it for ten minutes before goinginto shock."
Jato scowled. Where did Crankenshaft comeup with this sick stuff? He looked at theglobe, at Crankenshaft, at the globeagain. With Crankenshaft he used care inchoosing his battles. This one wasn’tworth it.
He took off his boots and went to thepool. The knee-deep water was cool today,but at least no ice crusted the surface.He waded to the truncated cone and climbedup onto it, then sat cross-legged, hugginghis arms to his chest for warmth.
"Move ten centimeters to the north,"Crankenshaft said.
Jato moved over. "Can you warm it up inhere?"
Crankenshaft sat down at his console,concentrating on whatever he was doing. SoJato moved to the south side of the cone.
Crankenshaft looked around. "Move to theother side."
"Turn on the heat," Jato said.
"After you turn on the heat."
Reaching back to the console, Crankenshafttouched a panel. A globe whirred behindJato and he heard a syringe hiss. Heatflared in his biceps, spreading fast, uphis shoulder and down his arm.
"Hot enough?" Crankenshaft asked.
It was excruciating, but Jato had nointention of letting on how much itbothered him. He simply shrugged. "Whatwill you do? Put your model into shockbecause he objects to freezing?"
A muscle under Crankenshaft eye twitched.He went back to work, ignoring Jato again.However, the room warmed and the burningin Jato’s muscles cooled. EitherCrankenshaft had lied or else the dronehad delivered an antidote with the poison,probably in a bio-sheath that dissolvedafter a few minutes in the blood.
Over the next few hours the wind driedJato’s clothes. Silicate came in once tobring Crankenshaft a meal on a stoneplatter. Jato wondered about her, alwaysattentive, always silent. Did she createher own art? Most Dreamers did, even thosewho worked other jobs. Silicate’s onlyoccupation seemed to be waiting onCrankenshaft. But then, Jato doubtedCrankenshaft would tolerate artisticcompetition in his own household.
Finally Crankenshaft stood up, rolling hisshoulders to ease the muscles. "You cango," he said, and left the studio.
Just like that. You can go. Get out of myhouse. Clenching his teeth, Jato slid offthe cone and limped across the pool, sorefrom sitting so long. After coaxing hisboots on under his wet trousers, he wentto a door in the corner of the studiowhere the window-wall met one of thethermoplastic walls.
Icy wind greeted him outside. He stood atthe top of a staircase that spiraled downthe cliff Crankenshaft owned. The cityglimmered far below, and beyond it raggedmountains stretched into the darkness.Millennia ago a marauding asteroid hadstruck the planet, distorting it into ablunt teardrop that lay on its side, itsaxis pointed at Quatrefoil, the star itorbited. Although Ansatz was almosttidally locked with Quatrefoil, it wobbledenough so most of its surface received atleast a little sunlight. Night reignedsupreme only here in this small regionaround the pole.
Crankenshaft’s estate was high enough totouch the transition zone between thehuman-made pocket of calm aroundNightingale and the violent winds thatswept Ansatz. Yet despite the long drop tothe plateau, the staircase had noprotection, not even a rail. Another ofCrankenshaft’s "quirks." After all, henever used these stairs.
Jato grimaced. When he came willingly,Crankenshaft always had a flycar waitingto take him home. Today he would have togo back inside and ask for a ride, aprospect he found as appealing as eatingrocks.
So he went down the stairs, stepping withcare, always aware of the chasm of air.Around and around the spiral he went,never looking around too much, lest itthrow off his balance. He wondered how hewould appear to someone down in the city.Perhaps like a mote descending a stone DNAhelix on the face of a massive cliff.
The helix image caught his mind. It wouldmake an intriguing sculpture. He could goto the library and find a text on DNA. Itwould have to be a holobook, though,rather than anything on the computer.
Before Jato had come to Ansatz, hiscomputer illiteracy hadn’t mattered. Asthe oldest son of a water-tube farmer onSandstorm, he hadn’t been able to affordweb access, let alone a console. Althougheveryone here in Nightingale had access tothe city web, it did him little good.However, he had figured out how to tell aconsole in the library to print books.
He doubted he would try the helixsculpture, though. Reading could only giveinformation, not talent. One thing he hadto say for Crankenshaft: the man wasbrilliant. Jato could never imagine himgiving away his stratospherically-pricedwork for a Dream. Besides, what Dreamwould he find pleasant? Pulling wings offbugs, maybe.
Jato scowled. A few Dreamers high inNightingale’s city government knewCrankenshaft had set him up. They framedhim for a crime so brutal it would havemeant execution or personalityreconfiguration anywhere else. Imperialatelaw was harsh: an escaped convict fleeinginto a new jurisdiction could beresentenced there for his crime. Thatoften-denounced law was intended to easethe morass of extradition problems thatarose as more and more planets came underImperial rule. But it let Crankenshaftblackmail him; if Jato escapedNightingale, he was subject to death or abrain wipe.
Crankenshaft’s work was known across athousand star systems. He was a geniusamong geniuses, and on Ansatz thattranslated into power. Whatever he wantedfor his art, he was given.
Part II: Dream Debt
Jato lay in bed, unable to sleep. He haddimmed the lights until only faint imagesof sand-swept fields softened the walls,holoart he had created himself, memoriesof his home.
Even after eight years, he still foundthis room remarkable. He had grown up in atwo-room dustshack his family shared withtwo other families. Here he had, all tohimself, a bed with a quilt, a circularbureau, a mirror, a bathroom, and softrugs for the floor. The Dreamers chargedno rent and gave him a living stipend. Hismedical care was free, including the lightpanels and vitamin supplements hissun-starved body craved.
Tonight the room felt emptier than usual.He gave up trying to sleep and went to thebureau, a round piece of furniture thatrotated. He removed his statue from thetop drawer. He had come to Ansatz hopingfor a miracle, to trade for a fabuloustreasure. He had his own dreams then, oneshe hoped to achieve by selling such amasterpiece: a farm of his own, abusiness, a better home for his family,well-deserved retirement for his parents,a wife and children for himself. A life.
He had never intended to make art. Still,living in Nightingale, how could a persondeny the pull to create? The statue hadtaken years to finish and he kept ithidden now, knowing how lacking theDreamers would find his attempts. He likedit, though.
To get the stone he wanted, he had climbeddown windscoured cliffs below Nightingale,into crevices lost in the night-darkshadows. There he cut a chunk of blackmarble no human hand had ever beforetouched. Back in his rooms, he fashionedit into a bird with its wings spread wide,taloned feet beneath its body, supportedby a stand carved from the same stone.Next he made clay copies of it. He spentseveral years cutting facets into thecopies, redoing them until he wassatisfied. Then he carved the facets intothe statue and inlaid them withcrystalline glitter.
Dreamers used elegant mathematicaltheories to design their creations. Jatoknew his was simple in comparison. Thegeometry of the facets specified a fuguein four voices, each voice an aspect ofhis life: loss, of his home and life onSandstorm; beauty, as in the stark gloryof Nightingale; loneliness, his onlycompanion here; and the dawn, which hewould never again see.
Holding the statue, he lay down in bed andfell asleep.
The bird sang a miraculous fugue, creatingall four voices at once. Jato held it ashe ran through Nightingale. The pursuingMandelbrot drone gained ground, untilfinally it whirred around in front of him.Fractals swirled off its surface andturned into braided steel coils. Theywrapped around his body, crushing hischest and arms, silencing the bird. Hereeled under the icy stars and fell acrossthe first step of the SquareCase.
He wrestled with the coils until he workedhis arms free, easing the pressure on thebird. It sang again and its voice rose tothe stars on wings of hope.
The fractal coils fell away from his body.As Jato stood up, the spacer appeared,walking out of the shadows that cloakedthe SquareCase. She toed aside the coilsand they melted, their infinitelyrepeating patterns blurred into pools ofglimmering silver. The bird continued tosing, its fugue curling around them in amist of notes.
The spacer stopped only a pace away. Hereyes were a deep green, dappled like aforest, huge and dark. She brushed herfingers across his lips. Jato put his handon her back, applying just enough topressure to make the decision hers; staywhere she was, or step forward and bringher body against his.
She stepped forward. . . .
The Whisper Inn was a round building,graceful in the night. Holding his bundle,Jato stood at its door, an arched portalbordered by glimmering metal tiles.
"Open," he said.
He tried again. "Open."
Swirling lines and speckles appeared onthe door and a holo formed, an amber rodhanging in front of the door. A curveappeared by the rod and rotated around it,sweeping out a shape. When it finished, avase hung in the air with the rod piercingits center. Soothing pastel patternsswirled on the image.
"Solid of revolution complete," the doorsaid. "Commence integration."
"What?" Jato asked. No door had ever askedhim to "commence integration" before.
"Shall I produce a different solid?" itasked.
"I want you to open."
Silver and black swirls suffused the vase."You must calculate the volume of thesolid."
"Set up integral. Choose limits.Integrate. Computer assistance will berequired."
"I have no idea how to do that."
"Then I cannot unlock."
Jato scratched his chin. "I know thevolume of a box."
The vase faded and a box appeared."Commence integration."
"Its volume is width times height timeslength."
Box and rod disappeared.
"Open," Jato said.
Still no response.
Jato wondered if the Innkeeper had hisdoor vex all visitors this way. Thenagain, Dreamers would probably enjoy thegame.
"Jato?" the door asked.
"Don’t you want to enter?"
He made an exasperated noise. "Why elsewould I say ‘Open’?"
Box and rod reappeared. "Commenceintegration."
"I already did that."
"I seem to be caught in a loop," the dooradmitted.
Jato smiled. "Are you running a newprogram?"
"Yes. Apparently it needs more work." Thedoor slid open. "Please enter."
Muted light from laser murals lit thelobby. As the floor registered his weight,soft bells chimed. Fragrances wafted inthe air, turning sharp and then sweet inperiodic waves.
The Innkeeper’s counter consisted of threeconcentric cylinders about waist height,all made from jade built atom-by-atom bymolecular assemblers, as were mostprecious minerals used in Nightingale’sconstruction. The Innkeeper sat at acircular table inside the cylinders,reading a book.
Jato went to the counter. "I’d like to seeone of your customers." He knew the spacerhad to be here; this inn was the onlyestablishment in Nightingale that wouldlodge sun-dwellers.
The Innkeeper continued to read.
"Hey," Jato said.
The Dreamer kept reading.
Jato scowled, then clambered over thecylinders. "The offworld woman. I need herroom number."
The Innkeeper rubbed an edge of his bookand the holos above it shifted to showdancers twirling to a Strauss waltz.
Jato pulled the book out of his hand."Come on."
The Innkeeper took back his book withouteven looking up. A whirring started upbehind Jato, and a Mandelbrot globe bumpedhis arm.
"I owe her," Jato said. "She gave me adream."
That caught the Dreamer’s attention. Helooked up, his translucent eyebrowsarching in his translucent face. "You comewith Dream payment?" He laughed. "You?"
Jato tried not to grit his teeth. "Youknow payment has to be offered."
"She is in Number Four," he said.
Jato hadn’t actually expected a reply.Apparently the unwritten laws of dreamdebt overrode even the Innkeeper’sdistaste for talking to large,non-translucent people.
Old-fashioned stairs led to the upperlevels. As Jato climbed, holoart came on,suffusing the walls with color. He glancedback to see the holos fade until onlysparks of light danced in the air,mimicking the traces left by particles inan ancient bubble chamber.
No one answered when he knocked at NumberFour. He tried again, but still no answer.
As he started to leave, a click soundedbehind him. He turned back to see thespacer in the doorway, light from behindher sparkling on the gold tips of hertousled hair. She wore grey knee-boots anda soft blue jumpsuit that accented hercurves. The only decorations on herjumpsuit were two gold rings around eachof her upper arms. A tube trimmed each ofher boots, running from the heel to thetop edge of the boot, an odd style, butattractive.
"Yes?" she asked.
Jato swallowed, wondering if he had justset himself up for a rebuff. He tried tothink of a clever opening that would puther at ease, perhaps intrigue or evencharm her. What he ended up with was thescintillating, "I came to see you."
Incredibly, she stepped aside. "Come in."
Her room was pleasant, with gold curtainson the windows and a pretty rumpled bedthat looked as if she had been sleeping init.
Jato hesitated. "Did I wake you? I cancome back later."
"No. Now is good." She motioned him to asmall table gleaming with metal accents.Its fluted pedestal supported two disks,the upper joined to the lower along a slitthat ran from its center to its rim, astyle common in Nightingale. The onlyexplanation Jato had ever extracted from aDreamer was, "Riemann sheets." He hadlooked it up at the library and found anopaque treatise on complex variable theorythat apparently described how the sheetsmade a multi-valued expression into amathematical function.
After they sat down, he set his bundle infront of her and spoke the formal phrases."You gave me a dream. I offer you my workin return."
She watched his face. "I don’tunderstand."
"A beautiful dream." He wondered if hesounded as awkward as he felt. "This iswhat I have to trade." Pulling away thewrapping, he showed her the bird. Givingit up was even harder than he hadexpected. But it was a matter of honor: hehad a debt and this was the only paymenthe had to give.
As she sat there staring at his life’screation, his face grew hot. He knew thewonders she had seen in Nightingale. Thebird was pitiful in comparison.
"It makes music," he said. "I mean, itdoesn’t make the music but it tells youhow to make it."
She looked up at him. "Jato, I can’taccept this." An odd expression crossedher face, come and gone too fast todecipher. If he hadn’t known better, hewould have thought it was awe. Then shesaid, "Regulations don’t allow me toaccept presents."
Through the sting of her refusal, herealized what she had said. "How did youknow my name is Jato?"
"After we talked, I looked up your Ansatzrecords."
He stared at her. Those records weresealed. That was the deal; as long as hedid what Crankenshaft wanted, his recordsremained secret and he had his relativefreedom on Ansatz.
Somehow he kept his voice even. "How?"
"I asked," she said. "The authorities hadto let me."
Like hell. They were supposed to say No.Had his presence become so offensive thatthey decided to get rid of him despiteCrankenshaft? Or maybe Crankenshaft nolonger needed him.
Then it hit Jato, what else she had said.Regulations didn’t allow her to acceptgifts. Regulations.
Of course. He should have recognized itearlier. The gold bands on her jumpsuitwere no decorations. They denoted rank.
"You’re an ISC soldier," he said.
She nodded. "An Imperial Messenger.Secondary Class."
Jato stared at her. Secondary wasequivalent in rank to colonel and"Messenger" was a euphemism forintelligence officer. He had almost askeda high-ranking spy-buster to smuggle himoff Ansatz.
ISC, or Imperial Space Command, was thesole defense in known space against theTraders, whose military made a practice of"inviting" the settled worlds to jointheir growing domain. All settled worlds.Whether they wanted to join or not. TheTraders based their economy on what theycalled "a benevolent exchange of workcontracts designed to benefit both workersand the governing fellowships that holdtheir labor contracts," one of the morecreative, albeit frightening, euphemismsJato had heard for slavery. TheImperialate had formed in response, anattempt by the free worlds to remain thatway. That was why so many colonies,including Ansatz, had joined theImperialate despite the loss of autonomythat came with ISC’s autocratic control.
He spoke with a calm he didn’t feel. "Areyou going to turn me over to ISC?"
"Well, no," she said. "I just wonderedabout you after you followed me up thosestrange stairs."
Relief swept over him, followed bydistrust, then resentment, thenembarrassment. One of his few comforts onAnsatz had been his pleasure in creatingthe bird. Now every time he looked at ithe would remember how she rejected it.
As he rose to his feet, an emotion leaptacross her face. Regret? It was mixed withother things, shyness maybe, even a fearof rejection. It went by too fast for himto be sure.
She stood up. "May I request an alternategift? Something that wouldn’t violateregulations?"
He had no alternate gifts. "What do youmean?"
"I’d like to see Nightingale." Shehesitated. "Perhaps you would show it tome?"
She wanted a guide? True, he was the bestcandidate; the Dreamers would never deignto offer such services. But most peoplewould prefer no guide at all to aconvicted murderer.
Of course his records said he was "cured."Besides, rumor claimed Messengers hadenhanced speed and strength. Perhaps shewas confident enough in her abilities thatshe didn’t see him as a threat.
"All right," he said.
"Well. Good." It came again, her beguilingflash of shyness. "Shall we, uh, go?"
He smiled. "It would help if I had a nameto call you."
"Oh. Yes. Of course." She actuallyreddened. "Soz."
"Soz." He gave her a bow from the waist."My pleasure at your acquaintance."
Her face softened into a smile. "And mineat yours."
They walked down to the lobby in awkwardsilence. Outside, they strolled throughthe Inn’s rock garden, where tall lampsmade shadows stretch out from human-sizedmineral formations. The arrangement ofrocks looked random, but it had anunderlying order calculated from chaostheory.
As they followed a path toward the cityproper, Jato tried to relax. Conversationhad always been his stumbling block. Inhis adolescence, he had discussed it withis father while they were weeding a field.
"About girls," he had said.
"What about them?" his father asked.
His father sat back on his heels. "Treather right and she’ll treat you right."
"Don’t know what ‘treat her right’ means."
"The way you want to be treated."
Jato thought of having a girl treat himthe way he wanted to be treated. "What ifwe get into trouble?"
His father scowled. "Don’t."
He had figured that his father, who becamehis father only a few tendays after hemarried Jato’s pregnant mother, would havehad a more informative answer than that."What if it happens anyway?"
"You see that it doesn’t." He pointed histrowel at Jato. "You go planting crops,boy, you better be ready to takeresponsibility if they grow." Lowering hisarm, he looked across the field to whereJato’s mother was curing tubes by thewater shack, her long hair brushing herarms, Jato’s five younger siblings helpingher or playing in the dust. "Choose aplace you value." His voice softened. "Aplace you can love."
Jato watched him closely. "Did you?"
He turned back, his face gentle now. "ThatI did."
That was the extent of his father’s adviceon women, sex and love, but it had held upwell over the years. On Nightingale,however, he barely ever had the chance totalk to a woman, let alone go walking withone. So being with Soz felt odd.
Eventually the path became a boulevard.They ended up at a plaza in front ofSymphony Hall, near the tiled pool. A lampcame on, bathing the pool in rosy light,and a fountain shot out of the water in arounded arch. A gold lamp switched on,followed by a fountain with two arches,then a green lamp and three arches, and soon, each fountain adding smallerrefinements to the overall effect.Altogether, they combined to create a hugeblurred square. Sparkles of water flewaround Jato and Soz and mist blew in theirfaces.
"It’s lovely," Soz said.
Jato watched her, charmed by the way therainbow-tinged mist haloed her head,giving her pretty face an ethereal aspect.She looked like a watercolor painting inluminous colors. "It’s called theFourierFount," he said.
She smiled. "You mean like a Fourierseries?"
"That’s right." He restrained himself fromblurting out how much he liked her smile."The water arches can’t combine like truewave harmonics, but the overall effectworks pretty well."
"It’s unique." She glanced down at hishands. "Jato, look. Your bird."
He held up the statue and saw what shemeant. Light from the fountain wasreflecting off the glitter so that itsurrounded the statue with a nimbus ofrainbows.
She held out her hands. "May I?" He handedit to her, and she turned it this way andthat, watching the shimmer of light on itsfacets. "What did you mean, that it makesmusic?"
"The angle of each facet defines a note."He wondered if he even had the words toexplain. Before composing the fugue, hehad tried to learn music theory, but inthe end he just settled for what soundedright. He played no instruments, nor couldhe make notes in his mind without hearingthem first. He needed a computer to playhis creation. The Dreamers steadfastlyignored his requests for web training, sohe muddled through on his own, eventuallylearning enough to use one particularconsole in the library.
"Could I hear the music?" Soz asked.
Her request touched off an unexpectedspark of panic. What if she scorned whatshe heard, the musical self-portrait hehad so painstakingly crafted? "I can’tplay it," he said. "It needs fourspherical-harmonic harps."
"We can have a web console do it."
He almost said no. But he owed her for thedream and playing the fugue would pay hisdebt. Going on a walk through Nightingaledidn’t count; dream debt required a workof art created by the debtor.
Still he hesitated. "It’s a long way tothe console I use."
She motioned at Symphony Hall. "Thatbuilding must have public consoles."
He could imagine what she would think of agrown man who could barely log into theweb of a city where he had lived foryears. He paused for a long time before hefinally said, "Can’t use them."
"It has no console room?"
"It has one."
"Can’t you link to your personal consolefrom here?"
His shoulders were so tense, he felt hissweater pulled tight across them. "Nopersonal console."
She blinked. "You don’t have a personalconsole?"
"Where do you work?"
"We can probably link into the librarysystem from here." She watched his face asif trying to decipher his mood. "I can setit up for you."
So. He had run out of excuses. Afteranother of their awkward pauses, he said,"All right."
He took her to an alcove in Symphony Hall.Blue light filled the room and blue rugscarpeted the floor. The sculpted whiteshapes of the public consoles made apleasing design around the perimeter ofthe room.
Soz sat on a cushioned stool in front ofthe nearest console. "Open guest account."
When a wash of blue appeared the screen,Jato almost laughed. Only Dreamers wouldcolor-coordinate a room’s decor with itsweb console.
"Welcome to Nightingale," the consolesaid. "What can I do for you?"
"Library access," she said. "Establish aroot directory here, standard branchstructure and holographics, maximumallowed memory, full paths to availablepublic nodes, and all allowed anonymoustransferral options."
"Specify preferred nodes," the consolesaid.
"One to produce a music simulation, givena representation of the score and amapping algorithm."
A new voice spoke in mellow tones. "Treblehere. Please position score and definealgorithm."
Soz glanced at Jato. "You can take it fromhere."
He just looked at her. It had sounded likeshe was speaking another language. Hehadn’t even known the computers she spoketo existed. "Take it where?"
She stood up and moved aside. "Tell Treblehow to access your files."
"I don’t have an account."
"Everyone has an account."
He had to make a conscious effort to keepfrom gritting his teeth. "I guess I’m noone."
Soz winced. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean itthat way." She started to say more, thenstopped. Glancing around the alcove, shesaid, "This room must be easy to monitor."
"Probably." Did she think the Dreamerswere watching them? "The drones keep trackof me."
She nodded. Any questions or comments shehad intended to make about his lack ofcomputer accounts remained unsaid. Insteadshe indicated a horizontal screen on theconsole. "If you put the statue there andgive Treble the mapping for the fugue, itwill make a hologram of the bird, digitizeit, transform the map, and apply thetransform to the digitized data."
Jato wished he were somewhere else. Thiswas worse than the business with the doorat the Inn. At least then he had beenrevealing his ignorance to an inanimateobject. "I’ve no idea what you just said."
Incredibly, she flushed, as if she werethe one making an idiot out of herselfrather than him. "Jato, I’m terrible atthis. Ask me to calculate engineefficiency, plot a course, planstrategy–I’m a whiz, like you with yourart. Put me in front of a handsome man andI’m as clumsy with words as a pole in apot."
He stared at her. A whiz . . . like youwith your art. She thought he was a"whiz." A handsome whiz, at that.
Jato smiled. "You’re fine." He motioned atthe console. "So I put the statue there?"
Her face relaxed. "That’s right. Then tellTreble how to figure out the notes."
He set down the bird, and two laser beamsplayed over it, making the glittersparkle. When they stopped, he said,"Treble?"
"Attending," the console answered.
"The angle a facet makes with the base ofthe bird specifies a note. It varieslinearly: facets parallel to the base arethree octaves below middle C and thoseperpendicular are three octaves above." Hetouched the statue, his fingertips on itswings. "Each plane parallel to the basedefines a chord and each facet touchingthe plane is a note in that chord. To playthe fugue, start at the bottom and move tothe top."
"Is height a discrete or continuousvariable?"
"Continuous." Only a computer could do it.Human musicians would have to take planesat discrete heights. If the intervalsbetween the planes were small enough, thehuman version approached the computerversion. But the fugue only truly becamewhat he intended when the distance betweenplanes was so small that for all practicalpurposes it went to zero.
"Facets with one ridge are played by aspherical-harmonic baritone harp," hesaid. "Two ridges is tenor, three alto,and four soprano. Loudness is linear withglitter thickness, from pianissimo tofortissimo. Tempo is linear with thefrequency of the light corresponding tothe glitter color." He tapped a beat onthe console. "Red." He increased thetempo. "Violet."
"Data entered," Treble said. "Any otherspecifications?"
"No." Then, realizing he would have to seeSoz’s reaction to the music, Jato said,"Yes. Lower the room lights to fifteenpercent."
The lights dimmed, leaving them in duskyblue shadows. It was too dark to see Soz’sface clearly.
A deep note sounded, the rumbling of abaritone harp. After several measures ofbaritone playing alone, tenor joined inwith the same melody, mellow and smooth.Alto came next and soprano last, as sweetas the dawn.
Treble shaped the music far more tenderlythan the generic program he used in thelibrary. Yes, that was it, the minor keythere, that progression, that arpeggio.Treble had it right. At the bird’s archingneck, soprano soared into a shimmeringcoloratura. Notes flowed over them,radiant and painful, too bright to endurefor long. The other harps came in like anundertow, pulling soprano beneath theirdeeper melodies. At the head of the bird,soprano burst free again, a fountain ofsound.
Yes. Treble had it. Treble knew.
Gradually the music slowed, sliding overthe outstretched wings above the bird.Finally only baritone rumbled in theglimmering wake of soprano’s fading glory.The last notes vibrated in the alcove anddied.
Jato stood frozen, afraid to move lest itrouse Soz to reveal her reaction. Yet thesilence was also unbearable. What did shethink? That was him in that music, thevulnerable part, without barriers orprotections.
Her head was turned toward the console, sohe saw only her profile. A glimmer showedon her cheek. Something was sliding downher face.
He touched the tear. "Why are you crying?"
"It’s so beautiful." She looked up at him."So utterly sad and utterly beautiful."
Beautiful. She thought his music wasbeautiful. He tried to answer, make a jokeor something, but nothing came out. So hedrew her into his arms and laid his cheekon top her head.
She didn’t pull away. Instead she put herarms around his waist and held him. Thefresh scent of her newly washed hairwafted around him. Softly she said, "Whatplace do you like best in Nightingale?"
"Will you take me there?"
He swallowed. "Yes."
Part III: The Giant’s Rib
Bathed in starlight, the west edge of theplateau dropped into the jagged immensityof the Giant’s Skeleton Mountains. Itscrevices cut deep into the planet’s crust,the tormented remains of a planetoidimpact that had brutalized Ansatz in along-vanished eon. Spires jutted up likeskeletal fingers on walls between thechasms.
Natural bridge formations tried to spanthe kilometers-deep fissures, but mostspans were incomplete, their broken endshanging in the air.
The plateau itself claimed one of the fewunbroken bridges. The Promenade. It roseup from the plateau’s southern corner,spanned its length, and ended high in thenorthern cliffs. Two kilometers long andaveraging only two meters wide, the bridgecurved out from the plateau over a greatchasm. Spires on the chasm walls supportedit with columns of rock.
The Dreamers had tooled the Promenade’supper side into a path, giving itmeter-high retaining walls on both sides.They laid down a courtyard at its southernbase, with undulating lines enameled intothe geometric design of gilded tiles.
As Jato and Soz crossed the courtyard,wind grabbed his jacket and tossed hercurls around her face. She said something,but he couldn’t hear her over theblustering wind, so he leaned down. "Sayagain?"
Her breath tickled his ear. "It’sexhilarating."
"It’s even stronger on the Promenade."
"Beat you there!" She took off andsprinted up the bridge, leaning forwardagainst its steep cant. Laughing, he triedto catch her, but she ran like a rocket.
They raced the entire kilometer to theapex. At the top, Soz threw out her armsand spun around, her hair whipping abouther head. She spoke and the wind kidnappedher words. When Jato shook his head andpointed to his ears, she shouted, "How farto the bottom?" Then she leaned over thewall, staring into the void below.
"Three kilometers!" He pulled her back tosafety turning her around, his birdpressed against her back, his pulsebeating hard as the bridge vibrated in therushing gales. She looked up at him with aflushed face. The wind, the night, thedanger–it brought her alive. Withoutstopping to think, he pulled her into anembrace.
Sliding her arms around his neck, she drewhis head down into a kiss. He returned thefavor with pleasure, making up for eightyears of solitude. He couldn’t believethis, that she wanted him. Who would havethought it?
Jato paused. Why did she want him? Liftinghis head, he looked down at her. He wastrapped on Ansatz for life and they bothknew she would soon leave. What was this,take advantage of the love-starvedconvict, then go back to her life whereshe didn’t have to worry about him?
Soz watched his face, her eyes alternatelyvisible and hidden as the wind threwaround her hair. She touched his cheekwith fingers as gentle as the smile thatkept emerging and hiding behind thoseglorious curls. Jato decided the "why"didn’t matter. He wanted to tell herthings, how good she felt, how lovely shelooked, but he couldn’t think of anythingthat wouldn’t sound clumsy. So instead hekissed her again.
The bridge’s vibrations were increasing,making it pitch like the deck of asea-ship. It gave a particularly inspiredheave and knocked Soz and Jato apart,separating them as if it were theirchaperon. They stumbled back from eachother, both flailing their arms forbalance. Jato laughed and Soz spread herarms wide as if to address the Giant’sSkeleton itself with her protest.
Then something on the plateau caught herattention. She went back to the wall andpeered toward Nightingale. "What arethose?"
Looking out, Jato saw what she hadnoticed, the familiar statues, massive andtall, halfway between the plateau’s edgeand the city. Sometimes those giganticstone beasts were lit and other times theystood in the dark, like now, their mouthsforever open in silent roars.
"Wind Lions," Jato said. Coming to standbehind her, he put his arms around herwaist. "Wind machines. If they were everturned on, the cliffs would magnify theireffect."
"No wonder it’s so windy up here."
He bent his head and spoke against herear. "This is normal wind. The Lionsaren’t on."
When his breath wafted against her ear,she closed her eyes and sighed. With herback against his front, she raised herarms and slid them around his neck. Themotion pulled up her breasts, making hernipples point at the stars. He kissed herear, and she rubbed her head against hischeek like a cat. Then she murmured, asoft noise audible only with his head soclose to hers, one of those sounds he hadforgotten a woman made when she liked theway a man touched her. Maybe it was theeight years of solitude, but he couldn’tremember any woman on Sandstorm feelingthis fine. He wondered how it would be tomake love up here in the wild gales, threekilometers above the Giant’s chasm.
"Why not?" she asked.
He smiled. Why not indeed? "Why not what?"
She lowered her arms and turned in hisembrace. "Why aren’t the Lions ever on?"
He tilted his head toward the courtyard."Do you remember the design in the tilesback there? The curving lines?" When shenodded, he said, "It’s a plot of thevortices for a single-degree oscillatorwith an undamped torsional flutter." Hestroked her blowing curls back from herface. "Wind makes the Promenade twist. Ifit ever blew hard enough, the vortices inits wake around the bridge would drive aself-induced resonance until the Promenadetore itself apart."
"What would ever possess them to set it uplike that?"
Jato smiled. "Because they’re crazy." Ashe bent his head to kiss her, the bridgegave a violent shudder and threw them tothe side. They stumbled along the wall,lurching from side to side as theystruggled to regain their footing. Itdidn’t work; they finally toppled over andhit the walkway with a thud.
"Hey!" Soz laughed, struggling to wriggleout from under Jato’s bulk. "It’s mad atus."
"I’ve never seen it this windy." Jatomanaged to get up to his knees, but whenSoz tried to do the same, the agitatedbridge knocked her over again. She finallysucceeded by moving with an unnaturalspeed, as if she had toggled a switch thatactivated an enhanced mode of her body.They knelt there face to face, Jatoholding her shoulders, she with her handsbraced against his chest. The Promenadekept moving, more than he had ever felt itdo before, rippling almost. It moaned inthe assault of air as if the Giant werewaking from his mountainous grave.
Soz wasn’t smiling any more. "The Lionsare blowing."
He couldn’t believe it. "That’simpossible. The Dreamers consider thisart. They would never destroy it."
"The whole bridge is shaking. It doesn’tfeel stable."
They stared at each other. Then theyscrambled to their feet and took offrunning for the northern cliffs. Thecliffs were closer than the courtyard, buteven so they had nearly a kilometer to go.
Suddenly the bridge lurched like a stringshaken by a mammoth child. Flailing
Then it came: a great booming crack.Thunder roared as if a great mountainousrib was tearing away from the Giant’sskeleton. The bridge convulsed and theysprawled forward, slammed down onto thepath. Rolling onto his side, Jato grabbedSoz and they held on to each other whilethe universe convulsed around them.
Within seconds the frenzied gyrations ofthe bridge eased. They managed to sit up,hanging onto each other while they staredback along the way they had come.
Meters away, the broken end of thePromenade hung in the air.
For one endless instant they stared at thejagged remains of that break. Theshuddering edge shook off a chunk ofitself, and the boulder dropped into thevoid below, hurtling into the shadows.
Carefully, so very carefully, they got totheir feet and backed away, taking eachstep as if they were in a mine field. Onlywhen they were well away from the breakdid they turn.
And then they ran.
The Promenade groaned in the onslaught ofwind. They sped through a universe ofwailing gales and convulsing rock, racingtoward the shadowed bulk of a mountainthat seemed an eternity distant.
Finally, mercifully, they were almostthere. A few more steps–
A meter away from safety, the bridgepitched under their feet and slammed themagainst the wall. Stars wheeled pastJato’s vision as he flipped over thebarrier. He grabbed at the air, at therock, anything–
With a wrenching jolt, he yanked to astop. He had caught a projection and washanging from it, his body dangling againstthe outer side of the Promenade. Hescrabbled for a toehold, but the bridgewas shaking too much to let him getpurchase. Far below, the chasm waited.
His hands began to slip.
"Jato!" Soz’s voice was almost on top ofhim. She had fallen lengthwise on thewall, with one leg hanging over the edge.
"Below you!" he shouted. His hands slippedagain.
As she grabbed for him, he lost his grip.She caught one of his wrists–and the forceof his falling yanked her off the wall.They dropped, dropped, dropped–
And smashed into ground. Soz landed on topof him with an impact that nearly brokehis ribs. She rolled off and kept rolling,scrabbling for a handhold. He clutched herupper arm, but it jerked through hisgrasp, then her elbow, her lower arm, herwrist–and he locked hands with her,clutching in desperation while they sliddownhill. He struggled to stop theirplunge, but his fingers just scraped overstone.
Then he caught a jutting piece of rock andheld on hard, his body straining withSoz’s weight. A scratching came frombelow–and she let go of his hand.
"Soz, no!" He grabbed at the air. "Soz!"
"It’s all right." Her strained voice camefrom below him. "You slowed me down enoughso I could stop on a ledge. We’re on ashelf in the cliff, under the Promenade."
"How can you tell? It’s dark." Even thestarlight was muted below the bridge.
"Got enhanced optics in my eyes," shesaid. He heard more scrabbling, and thenshe was pulling herself up beside him.
So they went, climbing the cliffcentimeter by excruciating centimeter. Sozreached the landing at the end of thePromenade and stood up, her bodysilhouetted against the stars. He climbedup next to her, half expecting the groundto crumble. But they were solidly on themountain now, at the top of a staircasethat wound its way through the mountainsdown to the plateau.
They descended in silence. Gradually thewind eased, until it was no more than awhisper of its earlier violence.
Finally Soz said, "Someone knew we were upthere."
"The drones." Jato wondered ifCrankenshaft had set alarms in the citycomputer web to alert him when anyonelooked at records of the trial. Whoeverhad set the Wind Lions against them wouldbe desperate now, knowing they had tocomplete what they started lest Soz escapeand report back to ISC.
"I hadn’t intended to get involved here,"Soz said. "I was going to wait until I gotback to headquarters to recommend theysend an investigator."
Investigator? Jato stiffened. If ISC gotinto this, he could be retried in anImperial court. "Soz, why? I’m serving thesentence they gave me."
She spoke quietly. "To find out whysomeone went to so much trouble to trumpup that phony murder charge against you."
That threw him. Really threw him.Crankenshaft had been meticulous insetting up the evidence, specifically tofool people like Soz.
It was a moment before he found his voice."How did you know it was false?"
She snorted. "I saw the holos of that kidyou supposedly killed. He was hangingaround the port docks, watching a shipunload cargo."
"‘That kid’ was a computer creation. Henever existed."
She motioned toward the starport. "Inseveral holos you can see the ship he’swatching. It’s a Tailor Scout, Class IV.Eight years ago those Tailors were usingnon-standard flood lamps to light theirdocking bays. Kaegul lamps. Advertised as‘the next best thing to sunlight.’ Theyemitted ultraviolet light as well asvisible."
She shook her head. "Their UV componentwas too strong. It caused sunburns. Sothat model fell out of use fast. Only afew ships ever carried it."
Jato whistled. "Dreamers have less melaninin their skin than most people. It makesthem more susceptible to UV."
Quietly she said, "Any Dreamer who spentas long under those Kaeguls as theyclaimed that boy did would have beenbroiled raw. Those records are beautiful,near perfect. Probably 99.9 percent of thepeople seeing them would have been fooled.But they’re still fakes." Glancing at him,she added, "That’s not all."
"See enough of it and you get good atrecognizing the symptoms of shock." Shewatched his face. "You. In every holo. Youhardly said a word throughout that entiretrial."
The whole nightmare was a blur in hismind. "Nothing I said would have made anydifference."
"But why, Jato? Judging from how theDreamers treat you–forgive me for sayingit, but they act as if they don’t likehaving you around."
"They think I’m revolting."
"So why make you stay?"
His voice tightened. "Because of GraniteCrankenshaft."
"What is that?"
"Not what. Who. A Dreamer. He wanted me tobe his model. For life. To sit for himwith nothing in return but the ‘honor’ ofliving here. I told him no. I thought hewas crazy."
She stared at him. "He framed you formurder because you wouldn’t be his model?"
"I don’t know why. He finds me asrepulsive as everyone else here." Jatospread his hands. "He used blackmailbecause it’s more effective thanabduction. As long as I cooperate, hewon’t call in the Imperial authorities."
"All because he wants to paint yourpicture?"
"Not paint. Holosculpture. It’s on hisweb. I’ve never seen what he’s doing." Heexhaled. "The stakes are high, Soz. Hissculptures bring in millions. A few havegone for billions."
She drew him to a stop. "ThisCrankenshaft–does he have glitteringhair?"
"I don’t know. It’s too short to tell."
"How about his eyes?"
"Grey, with red rings."
"No. The irises have red in them."
She blew out a gust of air. "This ismaking more sense."
"The Traders established this colony."
It wasn’t her comment that surprised him,but how she said it, as an accepted factrather than a long-debated theory theDreamers vehemently denied. The Traderswere a genetically engineered racedistinguished by red eyes, and black hairwith a distinctive shimmering quality.Their creators had only been trying toengineer for a higher pain tolerance, butthe work produced an unplannedside-effect: Traders felt almost noemotional pain either–they had nocompassion.
A race with no compunction about hurtingpeople could do a lot of damage. Fast.When they began to spread the stain oftheir brutality across the stars, thecolonized worlds had two choices: submitto them or join the Imperialate. As far asJato knew, no one had ever willinglychosen the Traders.
There were those who claimed the Dreamersdescended from a group of Trader geniusesmorally opposed to their own brutalinstincts. They manipulated their genes torid themselves of those instincts andproduced their translucent coloring as anunexpected side-effect. It led them tosettle on Ansatz in the forgiving dark,where they traded the fruits of theirgenius for dreams, in penance for the sinsof their violent siblings.
"It’s possible Crankenshaft carriesthrowback genes," Jato said. "His wife,too. She’s like ice."
Soz considered him. "You realize thatexcept for your eyes and the relativedullness of your hair, you could pass fora Trader."
He stiffened. "Like hell. I can trace myfamily–"
"Jato." She laid her hand on his arm. "Noone would ever mistake you for a Trader.It’s the Dreamers’ problem, not yours.They evolved themselves into a mildpeople, rejecting their heritage. Yourlarge size, dark hair, and muscular buildmay stir memories they can’t deal with.It’s probably why your appearance bothersthem."
A strange thought, that. It would neverhave occurred to him that perhaps herepulsed the Dreamers because he remindedthem of themselves.
She peered down the stairs, though theywere too far up to see much except thelonely circle of light from a lamp at thebottom. "Who do you think activated theWind Lions?" She turned back to him. "Arewe up against the city government or thisCrankenshaft? Or both?"
He considered. "Most city officials don’tbelieve I was set up. Those few involvedwith the set up would be more subtle, usea scenario easier to pass off as anaccident. This is Crankenshaft’s style. Hewould go for drama and make it look like Iplanned it, some rape-murder-suicidething."
"Charming man," she muttered. "Stupid,though. ISC would never buy it. I haveaugmented strength and reflexes. You wouldmore likely end up dead than me."
"Even with the Promenade breaking?"
That made her think. "It would complicatethings," she admitted. She motioned at theplateau. "If he’s the one who turned onthe Lions, those drones down there must behis."
"Drones?" Jato swore and started back upthe steps.
Soz grabbed his arm. "There’s nowhere togo that way."
He stopped, seeing her point. Theycouldn’t go up, they couldn’t go down, andthe chasm waited beneath them. Now was thetime to find out what arsenal, if any,they had at their disposal. "What else canyou do besides see in the dark?"
"I’ve a computer node in my spine with alibrary of combat reflexes." She bent herarm at the elbow. "My skeleton and musclesare augmented by high-pressure hydraulicsand powered by a microfusion reactor thatdelivers a few kilowatts. It gives mereflexes and strength two to three timesgreater than normal, as much as my bodycan sustain without overheating."
"Can you stop the globes?"
"Three or four, I could handle. But thereare nine there." She looked down thestairs again. "They’re coming."
He saw it now too, the Mandelbrot sparkleof globes revving into active mode. Theirlights flowed upward in a fractal curve ofluminance.
"Jato," a voice said.
He nearly jumped. The voice came out ofempty air: cool, impersonal, commanding.
"Come down here," it said. "Bring thewoman."
As Jato’s adrenalin surge calmed, herealized it was only a globe transmittingthe voice. "Go to hell, Crankenshaft."
"You have twenty seconds to resumedescending," his tormentor said.
"Let her go and I’ll do what you want,"Jato said.
The globes continued up the stairs,whirring like a swarm of huge bugs. Tensteps away, five, two. A syringe hissed,and Soz feinted with a speed that blurred,kicking up her leg. Her heel smashed intoa globe, and it spun out from the cliff ina spiral of glittering lights.
A second globe rolled in to fill the gap,a third came from the side, a fourthwhirred behind Soz, and a fifth hung overthem, its syringe pointing down like thecannon on a miniature battlecruiser. Jatoand Soz kept moving; feint, dodge, feint,Soz using her augmented speed. Two globescollided in midair with the grating racketof ceramoplex crashing together.
It was only a matter of seconds before asyringe shot hit Jato in the chest. Thearea went numb almost instantly and thesensation spread fast. As his arms droppedlike stones to his sides, he lost hisbalance and tumbled down the stairs, starsand mountains careening past his vision.
He had one final glimpse of Soz lying onher back on the stairs, pinned down byglobes, before his head hit stone.
Part IV: Aurora
A high ceiling came into focus. After awhile a thought surfaced in Jato’s mind.He was alive.
He sat up, favoring his bruises. He wasalone in Crankenshaft’s studio. No, notalone. Soz lay on the other end of theledge, eyes closed, her torso rising andfalling with each breath. Relief rushedover him, followed by a Neanderthalimpulse to go over, stake out histerritory, and protect her fromCrankenshaft. It wasn’t the world’s mostlogical response given she was an ImperialMessenger, but he had it just the same.
He wondered why she was still unconscious.Even his body contained nanomeds designedto repair and maintain it. An ISC officerprobably carried molecule-sizedlaboratories.
As he got off the ledge, a clink sounded.Turning, he saw a chain with one endattached to a ring in the wall. Its otherend fastened to a manacle around hisankle.
He gritted his teeth, wishing he couldwrap the chain around Crankenshaft’s neck.At least the tether was long enough to lethim reach Soz. That almost made him backoff; he trusted nothing Crankenshaft did.But his instincts were still at work,conjuring up protect mate impulses, so hewent over to her.
Crankenshaft had no illusions about Sozneeding protection. Her wrists weremanacled behind her back and also to aring in the ledge. He had set her boots onthe floor and chained her ankles to theledge. For some inexplicable reason, healso put metal bands around her neck andwaist. Jato leaned over to lay his palm onher forehead–
Her hand clamped around his wrist so fasthe barely saw her move. He froze, staringas she sat up. It hadn’t been obvious fromthe way she had been lying, but the chainjoining her manacles was broken.
He found his voice. "How did you getfree?"
She dropped his hand, her face relaxing asshe recognized him. "Nano-chomps. I carrya few hundred species."
"You mean molecular disassemblers?"
"In my sweat."
He stepped back. He had no desire to havevoracious bugs in her sweat take him apartatom by atom.
"They can’t hurt you," Soz said. "Eachchomper disassembles a specific material.The ones I carry are rigidly particular,even down to factory lot numbers."
He motioned at her manacled feet. "Wronglot number?"
"Apparently so. Or else flaws in themolecular structure." Leaning over, sherubbed her wrist against the chainattached to his ankle.
"Hey." He jerked away his leg. "What areyou doing?"
"They might work on yours."
"You don’t think that’s dangerous,carrying bugs in your body that takethings apart?"
"They aren’t bugs. They’re just enzymes.And they’re no more dangerous than beingtrapped here."
He knew it was probably true, but even so,he was having second thoughts about hisamorous impulses. People sweated when theymade love. A lot.
"Jato, don’t look like that," she said."The chompers are produced by nodules inmy sweat glands that only activate when Igo into combat mode. Besides, they can’ttake apart people. Our composition is tooheterogeneous."
He sat on the ledge, near her but not tooclose, and motioned at his still-chainedankle. "Wrong lot, I guess."
"I guess so." She tugged the manacle onher wrist, managing to slide it up about acentimeter. The skin on her wrist was moreelastic than normal tissue, not a lot, butenough so she could drag it out from underthe manacle. He saw what she was after, asmall round socket in her wrist.
"You have a hole," he said.
"Six of them, actually. In my wrists,ankles, lower spine, and neck."
That explained the neck and waist bands."What do they do?"
"Pick up signals." She held up her arm sothe socket faced the console across theroom. "If I insert a plug from that nodeinto this socket, it links the computerweb inside my body to the console."
That didn’t sound like much help. "Theplug is there and you’re here."
"That’s why consoles transmit infraredsignals." Her face had a inwardly directedquality, as if she were running a cannedroutine to answer him while she focusedher attention elsewhere. "The sockets actas IR receivers and transmitters.Bio-optic threads in my body carry signalsto the computer node in my spine. Itprocesses the data and either responds orcontacts my brain. Bio-electrodes in myneurons translate its binary into thought:1 makes the neuron fire and 0 doesnothing. It works in reverse too, so I can‘talk’ to my spinal node."
He suspected Nightingale was probablyflooded with IR signals. "How can youstand so much noise hitting you all thetime?"
"It doesn’t. Only if I toggle Receive."Her full attention came back to him. "Thesignals do get noisy and it isn’t assecure as a physical link. But it’s enoughto let me interact with a node as close asthe one over there."
She made a frustrated noise. "This roomought to be bathed in public signals. ButI’m getting nothing at all."
He doubted Crankenshaft would cut himselfoff from the city. "Maybe he did somethingto you."
"My diagnostics register no softwareviruses or tampering." She paused. "Butyou know, my internal web is engineered inpart from my own DNA. Maybe he infected itwith a biological virus." Without anotherword, she lifted her wrist and spit intoits socket.
Dryly Jato said, "Insulting it won’thelp."
She smiled. "The nanomeds in my saliva maybe able to make antibodies if there’s avirus loose in my biomech web."
"Are you getting anything?"
"Nothing." Several moments later she said,"Yes. A notice about a ballet." Herconcentration had turned inward again. "Istill can’t link to the city system . . .but I think I can get into the node inthat console over there."
Jato stared at her. "Not a chance. That’sCrankenshaft’s private node. Everyoneknows his security is unbreakable."
A cold smile touched her lips. "Securityis my game."
A moment later she said, "I can call uphis holosculpture of you if you want."
Jato swallowed. She might as well have hithim with that ancient proverbial ton ofbricks. "Yes. I want."
She indicated the center of the studio."That’s it."
He turned–and almost gasped.
The air above the pool was glowing with arainbow-hued mist. It drifted across theglistening white cones that stood in thewater, like shadows made on outcroppingsof rock by clouds obscuring a sun. This,from a man who had lived his entire lifein the night. Holos of Jato appeared onevery cone. On the tallest, the one withthe circular cross-section, he sat withknees to his chest, shivering, his clothesand hair dripping. He was younger, eightyears younger, only a husky teenager. Hisface cycled through emotions: rage,confusion, resentment.
An older Jato stood on the next cone, theone with its top cut off at a slant,giving it an elliptical cross-section. Heremembered when he had modelled for it,how he stood for hours on a narrow shelfprotruding from the surface. Crankenshafthad since removed the shelf and erased itin the image, so the Jato holo simplyfloated in the air, with red and blueclouds scudding across his face. He wasshouting, fists clenched at his sides. Nosound: just his mouth moving. With theplay of light, it was hard to make outwords, but he knew what they were. He hadbeen cursing Crankenshaft in his nativetongue.
The Jato by the parabolic cone wassitting, submerged to his hips in thepool. He trailed his hands back and forthin the water, a habit he had developed tocope with the boredom. He was kneeling bythe hyperbolic cone, up to his waist inwater. Crankenshaft had doctored the holoto make him look old. Ancient. His facewas a map of age untouched by thebiosculpting the rich used to sustainyouth during their prolonged lives. Gustsblew brittle white hair around his head.Stooped, gnarled, decrepit: it was aportrait of his mortality.
That tableau remained frozen for a fewseconds. Then all the Jatos stood up andbegan stepping from cone to cone, passingthrough each other while multi-coloredclouds flowed across their bodies. Someraged, others shivered, others moved likemachines.
Each figure split, becoming two Jatos, allcontinuing their strange march. They splitagain, the original of each quartetstepping from cone to cone while theothers kept pace in the air. New imagesappeared like shadows, all different byjust a small amount, creating a featheredeffect. A younger one was crying. Heremembered that day; he had toldCrankenshaft about his family, how heloved them, how they must think he haddied. Another Jato image was laughing.Laughing. Yet there were times he hadlaughed–even had civil conversations withCrankenshaft.
Holos of water augmented the pool,overlaid on the real water like multipleexposures: waves in impossibly sharppoints, or serrated like a saw, glowingphosphorescence in red, purple, green,blue-green, gold, and silver. Gusts in thestudio whipped the true water into peaksthat added random accents to the holos.
The Jatos split again, along with theirshadows. They all stopped and raised theirhands, the motion feathered among theimages, as if it portrayed multiplequantum universes, each projecting afuture that diverged from the original.The image of a rainbow-hued waterfallsprayed over the figures, making themshimmer. But no blurring could hide thefury on those faces.
"Saints almighty," Soz said. "It’sspectacular."
Jato tried not to grit his teeth. "That’swhy he’s so famous."
"I can see why he wanted you for hismodel."
She motioned at the holos. "You couldn’tget that purity of emotion–that fury–froma Dreamer. From most anyone. But from you,it’s perfect. Pure passion unadulteratedby civilization."
"Am I supposed to be flattered by that?"
Soz winced. "I didn’t mean–" She stopped,staring at the sculpture. "Jato, look atyour eyes."
"That would be a feat." But he knew whatshe meant. He studied the images–and whenhe saw it, he nearly choked. Crimson. Rubyhard and ruby cold. The eyes on each imagehad turned red. The hair was changing too,going from dark brown to crystallineblack. He couldn’t believe it.Crankenshaft was making him look like aTrader.
He stood up, his fists clenching at hissides. "I’ll kill him."
"It’s guilt," Soz said. "And catharsis."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It’s all there," she said. "The guilt theDreamers feel, knowing the brutality theirdisowned kin have inflicted on a thousandpeoples. And catharsis. Realizing themonster isn’t in them anymore. They’vefreed themselves, become Dreamers insteadof Traders."
"Then it’s a lie." Jato was so angry hecould barely get the words out. "For this‘catharsis,’ Crankenshaft made himselfinto the very thing this is supposed tofree him from. He’s made me look like whathe hates in himself, what he can never getrid–" Jato stopped cold. Then he sat downagain. "Oh, hell."
Soz was watching his face. "What?"
"His greatest work. Face his demons andexorcise them. I’m the substrate." It wassuddenly all too obvious. "Get rid of meand he loses his inner devils." Jatoswallowed. "He’s going to kill me as partof the sculpture. It’s what he’s alwaysintended."
She stared at him. "That’s sick."
Jato wished he had never pulled her intothis. "If we had died on the Promenade, hewould have worked with that footage. Nowyou’re onto him, so he has nothing to loseby bringing us here where he can tailorthe work to his needs."
"Actually," a voice said. "You’re the onewho is going to kill her."
He looked up with a jerk. Crankenshaft wasstanding across the studio, by the consolein the corner where the two holo-wallsmet. In one hand he held Jato’s birdsculpture; in the other, he had a lasercarbine.
"A tragedy," Crankenshaft continued, inthe voice he used when he wanted to baitJato, to drive his rage. "She came to thegreatest artist alive hoping to inspire adream. A beautiful woman, after all, hascertain advantages. Unfortunately shearrived while you were here." He sighed."I should never have left you two alone.But who would have thought an ImperialMessenger would be in danger? Besides,Jato, we thought we had cured you." Heshook his head. "She was overconfident. Anunguarded moment and you were able to bindher." Lifting the bird, he said, "A bluntinstrument you stole from me brought abouther death. I was forced to kill you inself-defense."
Jato stood up, an explosion working upinside of him. But before it let loose,Soz spoke in a mild voice. "You’re GraniteCrankenshaft."
Unease showed on their captor’s face. "Youshould have never pried into his records,Messenger."
"Why would you claim Jato stole that birdfrom you?" she asked. "He made it."
The tic under Crankenshaft’s eye gave aviolent twitch. He shifted the sculpture,his hand gripped around it as if he held aweapon. "No one would ever believe hecreated a work as stunning as this, withthat fugue. Only his exposure to meenabled him to do it. Me. He could neverhave done it by himself. So the creditbelongs to me."
Jato knew he should be infuriated thatCrankenshaft would claim credit for hiswork. But the implication in his captor’swords so staggered him that the arroganceof the statement rolled off his back. Hecould hardly believe it. The great GraniteCrankenshaft was threatened by his work.
Crankenshaft unhooked a cord from his beltand threw it at them. It landed at Jato’sfeet, a leather thong with ceramoplexballs on each end that could have beenanything from decorations tosuperconducting webs.
"Tie her hands behind her back,"Crankenshaft said.
Jato crossed his arms. "No."
Crankenshaft touched a panel on theconsole. A giant globe crept through aslit in the thermoplastic wall and floatedto the center of the studio.
"Non-linear dynamics and metapsychology,"he commented. "Do you know that withdetailed enough initial conditions, youcan model procreation? The correlationbetween the calculated results and anactual act that proceeded from thoseconditions is quite high."
Jato scowled. "What are you talkingabout?"
"Sex," he said. "Establish the initialscene well enough and you can model therest with amazing accuracy."
"Go to hell," Jato said.
"Tie her hands."
"Commence protocol," he said.
Three syringe guns slid out of the globe.Jato didn’t duck fast enough, but itdidn’t matter: none of the shots wereaimed at him. Soz moved in a blur, but shecouldn’t go anywhere with her ankleschained to the ledge. One shot missed her,but judged from her reaction, the othertwo hit home. She jerked as if she hadbeen struck and her entire body tensed.
"What are you doing?" Jato shouted atCrankenshaft.
"Jato, it’s all right," Soz said. "I’mfine."
"It’s a clockwork venom," Crankenshafttold her. "Even your meds can’t adaptenough to deal with it."
She said nothing, just focused herattention on him with an unsettlingintensity.
"What’s a clockwork venom?" Jato asked.
Soz glanced at him. "The name comes fromclock reactions." Although she soundedcool, sweat was beading at her temple."Combine certain chemicals under properconditions and they cycle through a seriesof reactions. In human blood, clockworkvenoms undergo a cycle, each stepproducing a differentpoison."
"Can your nanomeds fight it?" Jato asked.
Crankenshaft answered. "Even sophisticatedmeds have trouble with complicated cycles.This one has hundreds of steps, all withvarying duration lengths and sidereactions that change from cycle to cycle.It’s a brilliant work of chemistry." Hegave Jato an appraising look. "You’ve feltone poison in the cycle. Last time youwere here. Perhaps you recall?"
Jato remembered all right. It had burnedlike hell.
"The others have different effects,"Crankenshaft observed, as if Soz were alab experiment. "Nausea, muscle stiffness,dizziness, pain. She’ll start vomitingsoon. Eventually she will die."
Soz remained calm, but sweat was runningdown her temples. When she wiped at it,the motion looked mechanical, as if shehad let the hydraulics in her body takeover.
"As soon as her hands are bound,"Crankenshaft said, "I’ll give her theantidote."
"Jato." She spoke quietly. "Do what hesays. Please."
There was no mistaking the strain in hervoice. Jato grabbed the thong off thefloor and wrapped it around her wrists.The broken lock mechanism on her manaclesfelt warm, probably from the energyreleased when her chompers ate it. He tiedthe thong loosely around her wrists,making no attempt to knot it. But theceramoplex balls activated and yanked thecords tight, binding her wrists and thenlocking into each other.
"Leather," Crankenshaft said.
Jato straightened up. "What?"
"In molecular terms, it’s complex," hesaid. "More heterogeneous than, say,manacles. Not as strong, but a logicalbackup when dealing with disassemblers."
Jato gritted his teeth. How did Soz stayso cool? She just watched Crankenshaft,intent and quiet. Crankenshaft took a ringwith two mag-keys off his belt and threwit to them. As the keys hit the floor nearJato’s foot, a syringe on the globehissed. Soz moved like an automaton,trying to duck, but the shot hit heranyway.
"That had better be the antidotes," Jatosaid.
"The red key unlocks your ankles,"Crankenshaft said. "Gold unlocks hers."
After Jato freed their ankles, Soz movedstiffly, swinging her legs off the ledge.
"Go to the pool," Crankenshaft said. "Bothof you."
"No," Jato said.
"Don’t make it harder on her thannecessary," Crankenshaft said. "I cancalculate a lot of what I need, but I’llachieve better results with genuine imagesof the two of you to work from."
Jato stayed put. "I won’t rape her and Iwon’t kill her. You can doctor holos tomake me look like a Trader, but nothingcan make me act like one."
Crankenshaft’s voice hardened. "Go to thepool. Otherwise, I’ll pump her so full ofclockwork venom she’ll beg you to killher."
With no warning, Soz moved. Fast. Droppingto one knee by her boots, she whipped outher hands, shreds of leather flying awayfrom her wrists. She yanked the"decorative" tubes off her boots andbrought them up, one in each hand, liquidshooting out from both. One streamsplattered over the drone, creating cloudsof gas. The other hit Crankenshaft’scarbine and splashed into his face. Heshouted, dropping the laser as he coveredhis face with his hands. When the gun hitthe ground, it shattered like porcelain.
The Mandelbrot globe hissed and a shotfrom its air-syringe hit Jato in the neck.In a bizarre blur of motion, Soz threw herboots. They hurtled through the air andsmashed into the globe, shattering itsouter shell where the liquid from hercylinder had doused it. The whole assemblycrashed to the floor, its innards breakingapart on the stone. Blinking and humming,the debris moved in twitches as it beganto reassemble itself.
"Smash the components!" Soz yelled,sprinting across the studio. She movedlike a puppet, her body under control ofhydraulics rather than muscles and bones.
As Jato strode over to crush the remainsof the drone, he saw Crankenshaft lowerhis hands, revealing a face covered withburns. In the same instant that he grabbedfor a gun on his belt, Soz reached him.She brought her hands up with eerie speedand hit him under the chin, snapping backhis head. He flew over backward, crashingto the ground. His head hit the floor andhe lay still, breathing but unconscious.
"Soz, no!" Jato raced forward when shejerked up her leg. He collided with her asher foot came down, and they staggered tothe side, enough to make her missCrankenshaft. Her foot hit the floor witha teeth-jarring impact that would havecrushed the Dreamer’s chest.
Jato gulped in a breath. "No killing."
She turned to him like a machine, noemotion on her face. It was hard tobelieve this was the same woman he hadkissed on the Promenade.
Then her expression became human again, asif she had reset herself. She exhaled."He’ll live." Grimly she added, "We mightnot. Are you all right?"
A familiar burning was spreading in hisneck and torso. "I took a shot of venom.Did he give you an antidote?"
"No. More venom." She went to retrieve herboots and their tubes. "My meds are tryingto synthesize an antidote, but it’s hardto do when their target keeps changing."
"We better hurry." He grabbed his bird offthe console. "His node must have alertedthe city and his other drones."
She pulled on her boots. "I put locks onhis system. It will take a few minutes forit to break them." Her voice soundedstrained. Labored.
As Jato turned toward the door across theroom, his gaze raked the pool–and hefroze.
The holosculpture was still evolving. Ithad spawned more and yet more Jatos, untilthey blended into a design of featheredmotion. A superimage had formed, afractal, its pattern repeating on a finerand finer scale. Superimposed on thefractal, a face was coming clear. A giantTrader face.
"No." He spun back to the console.
"Come on!" Soz called.
He stabbed at the console. "We have todestroy that sculpture."
"We have to go! We don’t have much time."
"He stole my life." Jato gave up on thecomputer and swung around to her. "Hecreated a mirror of himself, but he put iton me. It’s like–like–" He slammed hispalm against the console. "He’s a thief.Of my soul." He pointed at the sculpture."That’s me. No matter where I go or what Ido, as long as that exists he owns me."
Sweat was dripping down her face. "I can’tguarantee I’ll find all his backups."
"If anyone can, it’s you." He clenched hisfists. "He owes me. And for him, losinghis ‘masterpiece’ will be a punishmentworse than dying."
Soz strode to the console and went towork, making hieroglyphics ripple acrossits panels in garish displays. She didn’twaste time pulling out her wrist socket;instead, she hauled off her boot and sether foot on the console, showing no strainwith the contorted position as she pluggeda prong from the console into her anklesocket.
"Got it!" Soz jerked out the prong."Downloaded one copy into my internalmemory for you. Erased everything else."She yanked on her boot. "Now let’s go."
They ran across the studio to the cliffdoor. As they stepped outside, into theblasting wind, she stared down the stairs."No rail."
Jato struggled to keep his balance,fighting the gales and his venom-induceddizziness. "I’ll go first. If I fall, Iwon’t hit you. You’re light enough so ifyou fall you probably won’t knock me off."
"All right." Her voice sounded thick.
He had expected her to insist on goingfirst. His gut reaction ignored theobvious; she was part computer andmachines worked on logic rather thanheroics.
Clutching his statue, he started down thestairs. An abyss of air and rushing windsurrounded them, turbulent, violent. Step.Step again. He took it slow, halting whenwaves of dizziness hit.
Scrapes came from above and he jerked hishead up to see Soz lose her footing.Lunging for her, he lost his own balanceand stumbled on the step, teetering overthe void. Lurching back, he reeled to thestep’s inner edge, where he fell to oneknee and found himself staring down theshaft of air in the center of the spiral.
"Jato?" Soz rasped.
He took a breath, looking up to see herkneeling on the step above him.
"You all right?" he asked. She nodded andthey got up, then continued their descent.
The wind was probably cold, but with thefever burning in his body he couldn’ttell. He moved in a haze of nausea anddizziness.
No step. He looked down. They had reachedthe bottom.
Soz made a strangled sound and saggedagainst his back, grabbing him around thewaist with both arms to keep from falling.Turning, he put his arm around her forsupport.
They walked around Nightingale, far enoughoutside the city to let darkness cloakthem. His legs strained to run but he heldback, not only because his poisoned bodycouldn’t keep such a pace but also becauseit would draw attention. A couplestrolling arm-in-arm along a romantic pathwas one thing; two people running wasanother.
He motioned at the tubes on her boots."What’s in those things?"
"Liquid nitrogen." She sounded hoarse."With disassemblers to boost its effect.It freezes what it hits and the chomperseat it. They’re less specialized than theones in my body, which makes them moredangerous, but they dissolve afterexposure to air."
"How did you free your hands? Do thechompers in your sweat eat leather afterall?"
"No." She grimaced. "Mine are far toospecific. Anything general enough to takeapart a material as heterogenous as animalhide would probably take apart our hidestoo." She showed him the broken chain onher manacle. "Feel."
He ran his finger along the jagged edge."It’s sharp."
"So was the part on the ledge. I rubbedthe thong against it until it cut theleather."
"No tech that time," he said. "Justbrains."
She smiled wanly. Sweat soaked her collarand she walked stiffly, her legscontrolled by the hydraulics inside herbody.
The starport was so small it had noterminals, just a gate at the airfieldentrance. As they neared it, twoMandelbrot globes rolled out to interceptthem. Jato tried to dodge, but the oneheaded for him easily compensated for hisevasive actions. It slammed him in thechest and he stumbled backward, thenrecovered and sprinted to the side. As theglobe followed, he doubled back to runaround it. The ploy worked withCrankenshaft’s drones on days heprogrammed them for slower responses, tomake the chase "entertaining." Jatodoubted this one belonged to Crankenshaft,though; after what had happened, his wouldgo for the kill.
This globe caught him–and rammed his head.As he fell, patches of light punctuatedhis vision and loud noises buzzed in hisears. With his statue cradled against hischest, he hit the ground and groaned. Ashe rolled away from the whirring demon, hecaught a glimpse of the aircontrol tower.Lights were coming on inside it.
They had run out of time.
Then Soz said, "Eat it, fractal."
A stream of liquid arched into view,bathing the drone in a shower ofglistening drops. The globe reoriented onSoz like a giant ceramoplex balloon. As itwent after her, she tried to feint, butshe lost her balance and fell to herknees. When the globe swooped in on herhead, she jerked to the side. It hit hershoulder–and shattered, raining Mandelbrotinnards all over her body. In seconds, shewas kneeling in the midst of junk largeand small, from both globes, lightsblinking and components humming.
Soz and Jato stared at each other. Thenthey scrambled to their feet and sprintedfor the airfield. Alarms were blaring,coming from the distant airtower andspeakers along the field’s perimeter. Asthey ran through the gate, which was nomore than a few bars that swung to oneside, Jato saw a Jag starfighter out onthe tarmac. It gleamed like alabaster, asmuch a work of art as any sculpture.
When they reached the Jag, its hatchdilated like a high-speed holocam. As soonas they lunged through the opening, itsnapped closed. A membrane irised in thenose of the ship, revealing a cockpit. AsSoz squeezed into the pilot’s seat, itfolded an exoskeleton of controls aroundher like a silver-mesh glove. Jato stoodbehind her chair, hanging on to its backwhile his nausea surged.
"Neck and lower spinal nodes blocked," anandrogynous voice said.
"Ankles," Soz said, intent on hercontrols.
While her hands flew over her forwardcontrols, a robot claw pulled off herboots and a mesh enfolded her feet,plugging into her ankle sockets. Afterthat Jato heard nothing; the ship wascommunicating directly with her internalsystems.
Suddenly Soz spun around her chair andpulled down Jato’s head. He fell forward,grabbing the arms of her seat to catchhimself. She kissed him hard, pushing hertongue into his mouth.
He jerked away. "Are you craz–"
"I’m giving you the antidote. In mysaliva. My web figured it out and my medsmade it." She pulled him back into thekiss.
So he kissed her, while guns boomed fromthe port defenses and the ship shook.Although the Nightingale port claimed onlya small arsenal, it could still do damage.He just hoped the Jag could protect itselfwhile its pilot and her passenger tooktheir medicine.
Then Soz pulled away from him and smiled.The cockpit elongated and a second chairrose from the deck. "Co-pilot’s seat," shesaid. "You take."
He slid into the seat, and a slender probefrom it extended to his ear–in time forhim to hear a voice shout, "Skyhammer-36,acknowledge!"
He nearly jumped out of the chair. Then herealized he was hearing Soz’scommunications with the aircontrol tower.
"You are not cleared for take-off!" thevoice said. "I repeat, you are not clearedfor take-off."
"Tough," Soz said. Then she fired therockets.
Jato knew a stealth craft like the Jagcould come and go with barely a whisper–ifthat was what its pilot wanted. They tookoff in a thundering roar of rockets. Forher parting salute to Nightingale, Sozblasted the holy hell out of that tarmac.
As acceleration pushed them into theseats, a holomap came on, showingNightingale receding into the spectacularbones of the Giant’s Skeleton Mountains.The peaks withdrew until they were no morethan wrinkles in the vast panorama of theworld.
Gradually Jato’s mind absorbed thesituation. He was free. Free.
Or at least, he thought he was free. "Whathappens now?" he asked.
Soz glanced at him. "I’ll take you toheadquarters. You can clear your name."She hesitated, a blush on her cheeks. "Ican help out, if–if you would like."
Her uncertainty floored him. He had seenher face death by Promenade collapse,clockwork venom, and snuff-art, all withremarkable composure. Yet asking if hewanted her to stick around made hernervous.
He smiled. "Yes. I would like that."
Her face gentled. She glanced at thestatue he still held. "I felt what it tookfor you to offer your sculpture to me.Thank you."
"It’s not much."
"It’s spectacular, Jato. Both the bird andthe fugue."
He swallowed, at a loss how to tell herhow much her words meant. So instead hemotioned at her holo display. "Soz, look."
Together they watched the sun rise overthe rim of Ansatz.