Twenty-six months before her second birthday, Maia learned the true difference between winter and summer.
It wasn't simply the weather, or the way hot-season lightning storms used to crackle amid the tall ships anchored in the harbor. Nor even the eye-tingling stab of Wengel — so distinct from other stars.
The real difference was much more personal.
"I can't play with you no more," her half-sister, Sylvina, taunted one day. "'Cause you had a father!"
"Did n-not!" Maia stammered, rocked by the slur, knowing that the word was vaguely nasty. Sylvie's rebuff stung, as if a bitter, glacier wind blew through the crèche.
"Did so! Had a father, dirty var!"
"Well... then you're a var, too!"
The other girl laughed harshly. "Ha! I'm pure Lamai, just like my sisters, mothers an' grandmas. But you're a summer kid. That makes you U-neek. Var!"
Dismayed, too choked to speak, Maia could only watch Sylvina toss her tawny locks and flounce away, joining a cluster of children varied in age but interchangeable in appearance. Some unspoken ritual of separation had taken place, dividing the room. In the better half, over near the glowing hearth, each girl was a miniature, perfect rendition of a Lamai mother. The same pale hair and strong jaw. The same trademark stance with chin defiantly upraised.
Here on this side, the two boys were being tutored in their corner as usual, unaware of any changes that would scarcely affect them, anyway. That left eight little girls like Maia, scattered near the icy panes. Some were light or dark, taller or thinner. One had freckles, another, curly hair. What they had in common were their differences.
Maia wondered. Was this what it meant to have a father? Everyone knew summer kids were rarer than winterlings, a fact which once made her proud, till it dawned on her that being "special" wasn't so lucky, after all.
She dimly recalled summertime's storms, the smell of static electricity and the drumbeat of heavy rain on Port Sanger's corbeled roofs. Whenever the clouds parted, shimmering sky-curtains used to dance like gauzy giants across distant tundra slopes, far beyond the locked city gates. Now, winter constellations replaced summer's gaudy show, glittering over a placid, frost-decked sea. Maia already knew these seasonal changes had to do with movements of Stratos round its sun. But she still hadn't figured out what that had to do with kids being born different, or the same.
Wait a minute!
Struck by a thought, Maia hurried to the cupboard where playthings were stacked. She grabbed a chipped hand mirror in both hands, and carried it to where another dark-haired girl her own age sat with several toy soldiers, arranging their swords and brushing their long hair. Maia held out the mirror, comparing her face to that of the other child.
"I look just like you!" she announced. Turning, she called to Sylvie. "I can't be a var! See? Leie looks like me!"
Triumph melted as the others laughed, not just the light-haired crowd, but all over the crèche. Maia frowned at Leie. "B-but you are like me. Look!"
Oblivious to chants of "Var! Var!" which made Maia's ears burn, Leie ignored the mirror and yanked Maia's arm, causing her to land hard nearby. Leie put one of the toy soldiers in Maia's lap, then leaned over and whispered. "Don't act so dumb! You an' me had the same father. We'll go on his boat, someday. We'll sail, an' see a whale, an' ride its tail. That's what summer kids do when they grow up."
With that surprising revelation, Leie returned contentedly to brushing a wooden warrior's flaxen hair.
Maia let the second doll lay in her open hand, the mirror in the other, pondering what she'd learned. Despite Leie's air of assurance, her story sounded easily as dumb as anything Maia herself had said. Yet, there was something appealing about the other girl's attitude... her way of making bad news sound good.
It seemed reason enough to become friends. Even better than the fact that they looked as alike as two stars in the sky.
Never understate the voyage we're embarked on, or what we knowingly forsake. Admit from the start, my sisters, that these partners cleaved to us by nature had their uses, their moments. Male strength and intensity have, on occasion, accomplished things both noble and fine.
Yet, even at best, wasn't that strength mostly spent defending us, and our children, against others of their kind? Are their better moments worth the cost?
Mother Nature works by a logic, a harsh code that served when we were beasts, but no more. Now we grasp her tools, her art, down to its warp and weft. And with skill comes a call for change. Women — some women — are demanding a better way.
Thus we comrades sought this world, far beyond the hampering moderation of Hominid Phylum. It is the challenge of this founding generation to improve the blueprint of humanity.
— from the Landing Day Address of Lysos
Sharply angled sunlight splashed across the table by Maia's bed, illuminating a meter-long braid of lustrous brown hair. Freshly cut. Draped across the rickety night-stand and tied off at both ends with blue ribbons.
Stellar-shell blue, color of departure. And next to the braid, a pair of gleaming scissors stood like a dancer balancing on toe, one point stabbed into the rough table top. Blinking past sleep muzziness, Maia stared at these objects — illumined by a trapezoid of slanting dawn light — struggling to separate such fey emblems from her recent dream.
At once, their meaning struck.
"Lysos," Maia gasped, throwing off the covers. "Leie really did it!"
Sudden shivers drew a second realization. Her sister had also left the window open! Zephyrs off Stern Glacier blew the tiny room's dun curtains, driving dust balls across the plank floor to fetch against her bulging duffel. Rushing to slam the shutters, Maia glimpsed ruddy sunrise coloring the slate roofs of Port Sanger's castlelike clan houses. The breeze carried warbling gull cries and scents of distant icebergs, but appreciating mornings was one vice she had never shared with her early-rising twin.
"Ugh." Maia put a hand to her head. "Was it really my idea to work last night?"
It had seemed logical at the time. "We'll want the latest news before heading out," Maia had urged, signing them both for one last stint waiting tables in the clan guest house. "We might overhear something useful, and an extra coin or two won't hurt."
The men of the timber ship, Gallant Tern, had been full of gossip all right, and sweet Lamatian wine. But the sailors had no eye for two adolescent summerlings — two variant brats — when there were plump winter-Lamais about, all attractively identical, well-dressed and mannered. Spoiling and flattering the officers, the young Lamais had snapped their fingers till past midnight, sending Maia and Leie to fetch more pitchers of heady ale.
The open window must have been Leie's way of getting even.
Oh, well, Maia thought, defensively. She's had her share of bad ideas, too. What mattered was that they had a plan, the two of them, worked out year after patient year in this attic room. All their lives, they had known this day would come. No telling how many dreary jobs we'll have to put our backs to, before we find our niche.
Just as Maia was thinking about slipping back between the covers, the North Tower bell clanged, rattling this shabby corner of the sprawling Lamai compound. In higher-class precincts, winter folk would not stir for another hour, but summer kids got used to rising in bitter cold — such was the irony of their name. Maia sighed, and began slipping into her new travelling clothes. Black tights of stretchy web-cloth, a white blouse and halter, plus boots and a jacket of strong, oiled leather. The outfit was more than many clans provided their departing var-daughters, as the mothers diligently pointed out. Maia tried hard to feel fortunate.
While dressing, she pondered the severed braid. It was longer than an outstretched arm, glossy, yet lacking those rich highlights each full-blooded Lamai wore as a birthright. It looked so out of place, Maia felt a brief chill, as if she were regarding Leie's detached hand, or head. She caught herself making a hand-sign to avert ill luck, and laughed nervously at the bad habit. Country superstitions would betray her as a bumpkin in the big cities of Landing Continent.
Leie hadn't even laced her braid very well, given the occasion. At this moment, in other rooms nearby, Mirri, Kirstin and the other summer fivers would be fixing their tresses for today's Parting Ceremony. The twins had argued over whether to attend, but now Leie had typically and impulsively acted on her own. Leie probably thinks this gives her seniority as an adult, even though Granny Modine says I was first out of our birth-momma's womb.
Fully dressed, Maia turned to encompass the attic room where they had grown up through five long Stratoin years — fifteen by the old calendar — summer children spinning dreams of winter glory, whispering a scheme so long forming, neither recalled who had thought it first. Now... today... the ship Grim Bird would take them away toward far western lands where opportunities were said to lay just waiting for bright youths like them.
That was also the direction their father-ship had last been seen, some years ago. "It can't hurt to keep our eyes open," Leie had proposed, though Maia had wondered, skeptical, If we ever did meet our gene-father, what would there be to talk about?
Tepid water still flowed from the corner tap, which Maia took as a friendly omen. Breakfast is included, too, she thought while washing her face. If I make it to the kitchen before the winter smugs arrive.
Facing the tiny table mirror — a piece of clan property she would miss terribly — Maia wove the over-and-between braid pattern of Lamatia Family, obstinately doing a neater job than Leie had. Top and bottom ends she tied off with blue ribbons, purchased out of her pocket. At one point, her own brown eyes looked back at her, faintly shaded by distinctly un-Lamai brows, gifts of her unknown male parent. Regarding those dark irises, Maia was taken aback to find what she wanted least to see — a moist glitter of fear. A constriction. Awareness of a wide world, awaiting her beyond this familiar bay. A world both enticing and yet notoriously pitiless to solitary young vars short on either wit or luck. Crossing her arms over her breast, Maia fought a quaver of protest.
How can I leave this room? How can they make me go?
Abrupt panic closed in like encasing ice, locking her limbs, her breath. Only Maia's racing heart seemed capable of movement, rocking her chest, accelerating helplessly... until she broke the spell with one serrated thought:
What if Leie comes back and finds me like this?
A fate worse than anything the mere world had to offer! Maia laughed tremulously, shattering the rigor, and lifted a hand to wipe her eyes. Anyway, it's not like I'll be completely alone out there. Lysos help me, I'll always have Leie.
At last she contemplated the gleaming scissors, embedded in the table top. Leie had left them as a challenge. Would Maia kneel meekly before the clan matriarchs, be given sonorous advice, a Kiss of Blessing, and a formal shearing? Or would she take leave boldly, without asking or accepting a hypocritical farewell?
What gave her pause, ironically, was a consideration of pure practicality.
With the braid off, there'll be no breakfast in the kitchen.
She had to use both hands, rocking the shears to win them free of the pitted wood. Maia turned the twin blades in a shaft of dawn light streaming through the shutters.
She laughed aloud and decided.
Even winter kids were seldom perfectly identical. Rare summer doubles like Maia and Leie could be told apart by a discerning eye. For one thing, they were mirror twins. Where Maia had a tiny mole on her right cheek, Leie's was on the left. Their hair parted on opposite sides, and while Maia was right-handed, her sibling claimed left-handedness was a sure sign of destined greatness. Still, the town priestess had scanned them. They had the same genes.
Early on, an idea had occurred to them — to try using this fact to their advantage.
There were limits to their scheme. They could hardly put it over on a savant, or among the lordly merchant houses of Landing Continent, where rich clans still used the data-wizardry of the Old Network. So Maia and Leie had decided to stay at sea a while, with the sailors and drifter-folk, until they found some rustic town where local mothers were gullible, and male visitors more taciturn than the gossipy, bearded cretins who sailed the Parthenia Sea.
Lysos make it so. Maia tugged an earlobe for luck and resumed hauling her gear down the twisty back stairs of Lamatia's Summer crèche, worn smooth by the passage of generations. At each slit window, a chill breeze stroked the newly-bare nape of her neck, eliciting a creepy feeling that she was being followed. The duffel was heavy, and Maia nursed a dark suspicion that her sister might have slipped in something extra while her back was turned. If they had kept their braids for another hour, the mothers might have assigned a lugar to carry their effects to the docks. But Leie said it made you soft, counting on lugars, and on that she was probably right. There would be no docile giants to ease their work at sea.
The Summer Courtyard belied its name, permanently shadowed by the towers where winterlings dwelled behind banks of glass windows with silk curtains. The dim quad was deserted save a single bent figure, pushing a broom under dour, stone effigies of early Lamai clan-mothers, all carved with uniform expressions of purse-lipped disdain. Maia paused to watch Coot Bennett sweep autumn demi-leaves, his gray beard waving in quiet tempo. Not legally a man, but a "retiree," Bennett had been taken in when his sailing guild could no longer care for him — a tradition long abandoned by other matriarchies, but proudly maintained by Lamatia.
On first taking residence, a touch of fire had remained in Bennett's eyes, his cracking voice. All physical virility was certifiably gone, but well-remembered, for he used to pinch bottoms now and then, rousing girlish shrieks of delighted outrage, and glaring reproval from the matrons. While formally a tutor for the handful of male children, he became a favorite of all summer kids for his thrilling, embroidered tales of the wild, open sea. That year, Bennett took a special shine to Maia, encouraging her interest in constellations, and the mannish art of navigation.
Not that they ever actually talked, the way two women might, about life and feelings and matters of substance. Still, Maia fondly recalled a strange friendship that even Leie never understood. Alas, too soon, the fire left Bennett's old eyes. He stopped telling coherent stories, lapsing into gloomy silence while whittling ornate flutes he no longer bothered to play.
The old man stooped over his broom as Maia bent to catch his rheumy eye. Her impression, perhaps freighted with her own imaginings, was of an active void. Of anxious, studied evasion of the world. Did this happen naturally to males no longer able to work ships? Or had the Lamai mothers somehow done it to him, both erasing a nuisance and guaranteeing he really was "retired"? It made her curious about the fabled Sanctuaries, which few women entered, where most men finally went to die.
Two seasons ago, Maia had tried drawing Bennett out of his decline, leading him by hand up narrow spiral steps to the small dome holding the clan's reflecting telescope. Sight of the gleaming instrument, where months earlier they had spent hours together scanning the heavens, seemed to give the old man pleasure. His gnarled hands caressed its brass flank with sensuous affection.
That was when she had shown him the Outsider Ship, then so new to the sky of Stratos. Everyone was talking about it, even on the tightly censored tele programs. Surely Bennett must have heard of the messenger, the "peripatetic," who had come so far across space to end the long separation between Stratos and the Human Phylum?
Apparently, he hadn't. Bewildered, Bennett seemed at first to think it one of the winking navigation satellites, which helped captains find their way at sea. Eventually, her explanation sank in — that the sharp glimmer was, in fact, a starship.
"Jelly can!" he had blurted, suddenly. "Bee-can Jelly can!"
"Beacon? You mean a lighthouse?" She had pointed to the spire marking Port Sanger's harbor, its torch blazing across the bay. But the old man shook his head, distraught. "Former! ... Jelly can former!" More phrases of slurred, nonsensical man-dialect followed. Clearly, something had happened which was yanking mental strings. Strings once linked to fervent thoughts, but long since fallen to loose threads. To Maia's horror, the coot began striking the side of his head, over and over, tears streaming down his ragged cheeks. "Can't 'member... Can't!" He moaned. "Former... gone. ... can't ..."
The fit had continued while, distraught, she maneuvered him downstairs to his little cot and then sat watching him thrash, muttering rhythmically about "guarding" something... and dragons in the sky. At the time, Maia could think of but one "dragon," a fierce figure carved over the altar in the City Temple, which had frightened her when she was little, even though the matrons called it an allegorical beast, representing the mother spirit of the Planet.
Since that episode on the roof, Maia had not tried communicating with Bennett again... and felt ashamed of it. "Is anyone there?" she now asked softly, peering into his haunted eyes. "Anyone at all?"
Nothing fathomable emerged, so she bent closer to kiss his scratchy cheek, wondering if the confused affection she felt were as close as she would ever come to a relationship with a man. For most summer women, lifelong chastity was but one more emblem of a contest few could win.
Bennett resumed sweeping. Maia warmed her hands with steamy breath, and turned to go just as a ringing bell cracked the silence. Clamoring children spilled into the courtyard from narrow corridors on all sides. From toddlers to older threes and fours, they all wore bright Lamatia tartans, their hair woven in clan style. Yet, all such bids at tasteful uniformity failed. Unlike normal kids, each summer brat remained a blaring show of individuality, painfully aware of her uniqueness.
Except the boys, one in four, hurrying like their sisters to class, but with a swagger that said, I know where I'm going. Lamatia's sons often became officers, even shipmasters.
And eventually coots, Maia recalled as old Bennett blankly kept sweeping around the ruckus. Women and men had that much in common... everyone grew old. In her wisdom, Lysos had decreed that life's rhythm must still include an end.
Running children stopped and goggled at Maia. She stared back, poker faced. Dressed in leather, with her hair cropped, she must look like one of last night's revelers, gone astray from the tavern. Slim as she was, perhaps they took her for a man!
Suddenly several kids laughed out loud. Jemanine and Loiz threw their arms around her. And sweet little Albert, whom she used to tutor till he knew the constellations better than Port Sanger's twisty lanes. Others clustered, calling her name. Their embraces meant more to Maia than any benediction from the mothers... although next time she met any of them, out in the world, it might be as competitors.
The clanging resumed. A tall lugar with white fur and a droopy snout lurched into the courtyard waving a brass bell, clearly perturbed by this break in routine. The children ignored the neckless creature, peppering Maia with questions about her braid, her planned voyage, and why she'd chosen to snub the parting ceremony. Maia felt a kind of thrill, being what the mothers called a "bad example."
Then, into the courtyard flowed a figure smaller but more fearsome than the upset lugar — Savant Mother Claire, carrying a tang prod and glaring fiercely at these worthless var brats who should be at their desks.... The children took heel, with a few of the boldest daring to wave one last farewell to Maia before vanishing. The distressed lugar kept swinging the bell until the wincing matron put a stop to the clangor with a sharply-driven elbow.
Mother Claire turned and gave Maia a calculating regard. Even in old age, she embodied the Lamai type. Furrow-browed and tight-lipped, yet severely beautiful, she had always, as far back as Maia remembered, cast a gaze of withering disdain. But this time, instead of the expected outrage at Maia's shorn locks, the headmistress's appraisal ended with an astonishing smile!
"Good." Claire nodded. "First chance, you claimed your own heritage. Well done."
"I..." Maia shook her head. "...don't understand."
The old contempt was still there — an egalitarian scorn for anything and everybody non-Lamai. "You hot-time brats are a pain," Claire said. "Sometimes I wish the Founders of Stratos had been more radical, and chosen to do without your kind."
Maia gasped. Claire's remark was almost Perkinite in its heresy. If Maia herself had ever said anything remotely slighting the first mothers, it would have meant a strapping.
"But Lysos was wise," the old teacher went on with a sigh. "You summerlings are our wild seeds. Our windblown heritage. If you want my blessing take it, var-child. Sink roots somewhere and flower, if you can."
Maia felt her nostrils flare. "You kick us out, giving us nothing...."
Claire laughed. "We give plenty. A practical education and no illusions that the world owes you favors! Would you prefer we coddled you? Set you up in a go-nowhere job, like some clans do for their vars? Or drilled you for a civil service test one in a hundred pass? Oh, you're bright enough to have had a chance, Maia, but then what? Move to Caria City and push papers the rest of your life? Scrimp on salary to buy an apartment and someday start a micro-clan of one?
"Pah. You may not be all-Lamai, but you're half! Find and win a real niche for yourself. If it's a good one, write and tell us what you've got. Maybe the clan will buy into the action."
Maia found the strength to voice what she had wanted to say for years. "You hypocritical cat —"
"That's it!" Mother Claire cut her off, still grinning. "Keep listening to your sister. Leie knows it's tooth and claw out there. Go on now. Go and fight the world."
With that, the infuriating woman simply turned away, leading the placid lugar past the nodding, bleary-eyed old coot, following her charges toward the classroom where sounds of recitation rose to fill the cool, dry air.
To Maia, the courtyard, so long such a broad part of her world, suddenly felt close, claustrophobic. The statues of old-time Lamais seemed more stony-chill and stark than ever. Thanks, Momma Claire, she thought, pondering those parting words. I'll do just that.
And our first rule, if Leie and I ever start our own clan, will be — no statues!
Maia found Leie munching a stolen apple, leaning against the merchants' gate, looking beyond the thick walls of Lamatia Hold to where cobblestone streets threaded downhill past the noble clanholds of Port Sanger. In the distance, a cloud of hovering, iridescent zoor-floaters used rising air currents to drift above the harbor masts, on the lookout for scraps from the fishing fleet. The creatures lent rare, festive colors to the morning, like the gaudy kite-balloons children would fly on Mid-Winter's Day.
Maia stared at her twin's ragged haircut and rough attire. "Lysos, I hope I don't look like that!"
"Your prayer is answered," Leie answered with a blithe shrug. "You got no hope of looking this good. Catch."
Maia grabbed a second apple out of the air. Of course Leie had swiped two. On matters of health, her sister was devoted to her welfare. Their plan wouldn't work without two of them.
"Look." Leie gestured with her chin toward the slope-sided clanhold chapel, where a group of five-year summer girls had gathered on the portico. Rosin and Kirstin munched sweet cakes nervously, careful not to get crumbs on their borrowed gowns. Their braids were all primly tied with blue ribbons, ready to be clipped in ceremony by the clan archivist. In cynical conjecture, Leie bet that the pragmatic Mothers traded all that glossy hair to burrower colonies to use as nest material, in exchange for a few pints of zec-honey.
Each of those young women bore a family resemblance, having effectively shared the same mother as Maia and Leie. Still, the half-sisters had grown up knowing, even better than the twins did, what it meant to be unique.
They must be even more scared than I am, Maia thought sympathetically.
Within the dim recesses of the chapel, she made out several senior Lamai and the priestess who had come up from the city temple to officiate. Maia envisioned wax candles being lit, setting aflicker the deep-incised lettering that rimmed the stone sanctum with quotations from the Founders' Book and, along one entire wall, the enigmatic Riddle of Lysos. Closing her eyes, she could picture every carven meter, feel the rough texture of the pillars, almost smell the incense.
Maia didn't regret her choice, following Leie's example and spurning all the hypocrisy. And yet...
"Suck-ups," Leie snapped, dismissing their peers with a disdaining snort. "Want to watch them graduate?"
After a pause, Maia answered with a headshake. She thought of a stanza by the poet, Wayfarer:
Summer brings the sun,
to spread across the land.
But winter abides long,
for those who understand.
"No. Let's just get out of here."
Lamai clan mothers had their hands in shipping and high finance, as well as management of the city-state. Of the seventeen major, and ninety minor, matriarchies in Port Sanger, Lamatia was among the most prominent.
You wouldn't imagine it, walking the market districts. There were some russet-haired Lamias about, proud and uniformly buxom in their finely woven kilts, striding ahead of hulking lugars in livery, laden with packages. Still, among the bustling stalls and warehouses, members of the patrician caste seemed as scarce as summer folk, or even the occasional man.
There were plenty of stocky, pale-skinned Ortyns in sight, especially wherever goods were being loaded or unloaded. Identical except in the scars of individual happenstance, the pug-nosed Ortyns seldom spoke. Among themselves words seemed unnecessary. Few of that clan became savants, to be sure, but their physical strength and skill as teamsters — handling the temperamental sash horses — made them formidable in their niche. "Why keep and feed lugars," went a local saying, "when you can hire Ortyns to move it for you."
A gang of those stocky clones had Musician's Way snarled, their dray obstructing traffic as six identical women wrestled with a block and tackle slung from the rafter of an upper story workshop. Like many buildings in this part of town, this one leaned over the street, each floor jutting a little farther on corbelled supports. In some neighborhoods, edifices met above the narrow road, forming arches that blocked the sky.
A crowd had gathered, entranced by the creaking load high above — an upright harp-spinet, constructed of fine wood inlay by the Pasarg clan of musical craftswomen for export to one of the faraway cities of the west. Perhaps it would ride the Grim Bird along with Maia and Leie... if the workers got it safely to ground first. A gaggle of the sallow-faced, long-fingered Pasargs had gathered below, trilling nervously whenever the sash-horses stamped, setting the cargo swaying overhead. If it crashed, a season's profits might be ruined.
To other onlookers, the tense moment highlighted a drab autumn morning. Hawkers converged, selling roasted nuts and scent-sticks to the gathering crowd. Slender money rods were swapped in bundles or broken to make change.
"Winter's comin', so get yerself a'ready!" shouted an ovop seller with her basket of bitter contraceptive herbs. "Men are finally coolin' off, but can you trust yerself with glory frost due?"
Other tradeswomen carried reed cages containing live birds and Stratoin hiss lizards, some of them trained to warble popular tunes. One young Charnoss clone tried to steer a herd of gangly llamas past the high wheels of the jiggling wagon, and got tangled with a political worker wearing a sandwich board advertising the virtues of a candidate in the upcoming council elections.
Leie bought a candied tart and joined those gasping and cheering as the delicately carved spinet narrowly escaped clipping a nearby wall. But Maia found it more interesting to watch the Ortyn team on the back of the wagon, working together to free the jammed winch. It was a rare electrical device, operating on battery power. She had never seen Ortyns use one before, and thought it likely they had mishandled it in some way. None of the clans in Port Sanger specialized in the repair of such things, so it came as no surprise when, without a word or any other apparent sign, the Ortyns gave up trying to make it work. One member of the team grabbed the release catch while the others, as in a choreographed dance, turned and raised callused hands to seize the rope. There were no cries or shouts of cadence; each Ortyn seemed to know her sisters' state of readiness as the latch let go. Muscles bunched across broad backs. Smoothly, the cargo settled downward, kissing the wagon bed with deceptive gentleness. There were cheers and a few disappointed boos as money sticks changed hands, settling wagers. Maia and her twin hoisted their duffels once more, Leie finishing her tart while Maia turned pensive.
The Ortyns almost read each others' minds. How are Leie and I supposed to fake something like that?
When they were younger, she and her sister sometimes used to finish each other's sentences, or knew when and where the other was in pain. But at best it had been a tentative link, nothing like the bond among clones, whose mothers, aunts and grandparents shared both genes and common upbringing, stretching back generations. Moreover, the twins had lately seemed to diverge, rather than coalesce. Of the two, Maia felt her sister had more of the hard practicality needed to succeed in this world.
"Ortyns an' Jorusses an' Kroebers an' bleedin' Sloskies..." Leie muttered. "I'm so sick of this rutty place. I'd kiss a dragon on the mouth, if that's what it took not to have to look at the same faces till I julp."
Maia, too, felt an urge to move on. Yet she wondered, how did a stranger get to know who was whom in a foreign town? Here, one learned about each caste almost from birth. Such as the willowy, kink-haired Sheldons, dark-skinned women a full head taller than the blocky Ortyns. Their usual niche was trapping fur-beasts in the tundra marshes, but Sheldons in their mid-thirties often also wore badges of Port Sanger's corps of Guards, overseeing the city's defense.
Long-fingered Poeskies were likewise well-suited to their tasks — deftly harvesting fragile stain glands from cracked stellar snails. They were so good at the dye trade, cadet branches had set up in other towns along the Parthenia Sea, wherever fisherfolk caught the funnel-shaped shells.
Near cousins to that clan, Groeskies, used their clever hands as premier mechanics. They were a young matriarchy, a summer-stock offshoot that had taken root but a few generations ago. Though still numbering but two score, the pudgy, nimble "Grossies" were already a clan to be reckoned with. Every one of them was clone-descended from a single, half-Poeskie summerling who had seized a niche by luck and talent, thereby winning a posterity. It was a dream all var-kids shared — to dig in, prosper, and establish a new line. Once in a thousand times, it happened.
Passing a Groeskie workshop, the twins looked on as ball bearings were slipped into axles by robust, contented redheads, each an inheritor of that clever forbear who won a place in Port Sanger's tough social pyramid. Maia felt Leie nudge her elbow. Her sister grinned. "Don't forget, we've got an edge."
Maia nodded. "Yeah." Under her breath, she added — "I hope."
Below the market district, under the sign of a rearing tricorn, stood a shop selling sweets imported from faraway Vorthos. Chocolate was one vice the twins knew they must warn their daughter heirs about, if ever they had any. The shopkeeper, a doe-eyed Mizora, stood hopefully, though she knew they weren't buyers. The Mizora were in decline, reduced to selling once-rich holdings in order to host sailors in the style of their foremothers. They still coifed their hair in a style suited to a great clan, though most were now small merchants, and less good at it than upstart Usisi or Oeshi. The Mizora shopkeeper sadly watched Maia and Leie turn away, continuing their stroll down a street of smaller clanholds.
Many establishments bore emblems and badges featuring extinct beasts such as firedrakes and tricorns — Stratoin creatures that long ago had failed to adapt to the coming of Earth life. Lysos and the Founders had urged preservation of native forms, yet even now, centuries later, tele screens occasionally broadcast melancholy ceremonies from the Great Temple in far-off Caria City, enrolling another species on the list to be formally mourned each Farsun Day.
Maia wondered if guilt caused so many clans to choose as symbols native beasts that were no more. Or is it a way of saying — "See? We continue. We wear emblems of the defeated past, and thrive."
In a few generations, Mizora might be as common as tricorns.
Lysos never promised an end to change, only to slow it down to a bearable pace.
Rounding a corner, the twins nearly plowed into a tall Sheldon, hurrying downhill from the upper class neighborhood. Her guard uniform was damp, open at the collar. "Excuse me," the dark skinned officer muttered, dodging by the two sisters. A few paces onward, however, she suddenly stopped, whirling to peer at them.
"There you are. I almost didn't recognize you!"
"Bright mornin', Cap'n Jounine." Leie greeted with a mocking half-salute. "You were looking for us?"
Jounine's keen Sheldon features were softened by years of town life. The captain wiped her brow with a satin kerchief. "I was late catching you at Lamatia clanhold. Do you know you missed your leave-taking ceremony? Of course you know. Was that on purpose?"
Maia and Leie shared brief smiles. No slipping anything by Captain Jounine.
"Never mind." The Sheldon waved a hand. "I just wanted to ask if you'd reconsidered —"
"Signing up for the Guard?" Leie interrupted. "You've got to be —"
"I'm sure we're flattered by the offer, Captain," Maia cut in. "But we have tickets —"
"You'll not find anything out there," Jounine waved toward the sea, "that's more secure and steady —"
"— and boring —" Leie muttered.
"— than a contract with the city of your birth. It's a smart move, I tell you!"
Maia knew the arguments. Steady meals and a bed, plus slow advancement in hopes of saving enough for one child. A winter child — on a soldier's salary? Mother Claire's derision about "founding a micro-clan of one" seemed apropos. Some smart moves were little more than nicely padded traps.
"A myriad of thanks for the offer," Leie said, with wasted sarcasm. "If we're ever desperate enough to come back to this frigid —"
"Yes, thanks," Maia interrupted, taking her sister's arm. "And Lysos keep you, Captain."
"Well... at least stay away from the Pallas Isles, you two! There are reports of reavers..."
As soon as they turned a corner, Maia and Leie dropped their duffels and broke out laughing. Sheldons were an impressive clan in most ways, but they took things so seriously! Maia felt sure she would miss them.
"It's odd though," she said after a minute, when they resumed walking. "Jounine really did look more anxious than usual."
"Hmph. Not our problem if she can't meet recruitment quotas. Let her buy lugars."
"You know lugars can't fight people."
"Then hire summer stock down at the docks. Plenty of riff-raff vars always hanging around. Dumb idea expanding the Guard anyway. Bunch of parasites, just like priestesses."
"Mm," Maia commented. "I guess." But the look in the soldier's eye had been like that of the Mizora sweets-merchant. There had been disappointment. A touch of bewilderment.
And more than a little fear.
A month ago there had been wardens at the Getta Gate, separating Port Sanger proper from the harbor.
Maia recalled how the care-mothers used to take Lamatia's crèche kids from the high precincts down steep, cobbled streets to ceremonies at the Civic Temple, passing near the getta gate along the way. Early one summer, she had bolted from the tidy queue of varlings, running toward the high barrier, hoping to glimpse the great freighters in drydock. Her dash had ended with a sound spanking. Afterward, between sobs, she distantly heard one matron explain that the wharves weren't safe for kids that time of year. There were "rutting men" down there.
Later, when the aurorae were replaced in northern skies by autumn's placid constellations, those same gates were flung back for children to scamper through at will, running along the docks where bearded males unloaded mysterious cargoes, or played spellbinding games with clockwork disks. Maia recalled wondering at the time — were these men different from the "rutting" kind? It must be so. Always ready with a smile or story, these seemed as gentle and harmless as the furry lugars they somewhat resembled.
Harmless as a man, when stars glitter clear. So went a nursery rhyme, which finished,
But wary be you, woman, when Wengel Star is near.
Traversing the gate for the last time, Maia and Leie passed through a variegated throng. Unlike the uphill precincts, here males made up a substantial minority, contributing a rich mix of scents to the air, from the aromas of spice and exotic cargoes to their own piquant musk. It was the ideal and provocative locale for a Perkinite agitator to have set up shop, addressing the crowd from an upturned shipping crate as two clone-mates pushed handbills at passersby. Maia did not recognize the face-type, so the trio of gaunt-cheeked women had to be missionaries, recently arrived.
"Sisters!" the speaker cried out. "You of lesser clans and houses! Together you outnumber the combined might of the Seventeen who control Port Sanger. If you join forces. If you join with us, you could break the lock great houses have on the town assembly, and yes, on the region, and even in Caria City itself! Together we can smash the conspiracy of silence and force a long overdue revelation of the truth —"
"What truth?" demanded an onlooker.
The Perkinite glanced to where a young sailor lounged against the fence with several of his colleagues, amused by the discomfiture his question provoked. True to her ideology, the agitator tried to ignore a mere male. So, for fun, Leie chimed in. "Yeah! What truth is that, Perkie?"
Several onlookers laughed at Leie's jibe, and Maia could not hide a smile. Perkinites took themselves and their cause so seriously, and hated the diminutive of their name. The speaker glared at Leie, but then caught sight of Maia standing by her side. To the twins' delight, she instantly drew the wrong conclusion and held out her hands to them, earnestly, imploringly.
"The truth that small clans like yours and mine are routinely shoved aside, not just here but everywhere, especially in Caria City, where the great houses are even now selling our very planet to the Outsiders and their masculinist Phylum..."
Maia's ears perked at mention of the alien ship. Alas, it soon grew clear that the speaker wasn't offering news, only a tirade. The harangue quickly sank into platitudes and clichés Maia and her sister had heard countless times over the years. About the flood of cheap var labor ruining so many smaller clans. About laxity enforcing the Codes of Lysos and the regulation of "dangerous males." Such hackneyed accusations joined this year's fashionable paranoid theme — playing to popular unease that the space-visitors might be precursors to an invasion worse even than the long-ago horror of the Enemy.
There had been brief pleasure in being mistaken for a "clan," just because Maia and Leie looked alike, but that quickly faded. Autumn meant elections were coming, and fringe groups kept trying to chivvy a minority seat or two in the face of en masse bloc-voting by holds like Lamatia. Perkinism appealed to small matriarchies who felt obstructed by established lines. The movement got little support from vars, who had no power and even less inclination to vote.
As for men, they had no illusions should Perkinism take hold in a big way on Stratos. If that ever seemed close to happening again, Maia might witness something unique in her lifetime, the sight of males lining up at polling booths, exercising a right enshrined in law, but practiced about as often as glory frost fell in summer.
Leie was chuckling over a political tract the Perkinites were handing out. Maia nudged her sister. "Come on. There are better things to do with our last morning in town."
The rising sun had sublimed away the shore-hugging fog by the time the twins reached the harbor proper. Mid-morning heat had also carried off most of the gaudy zoor-floaters that Maia had glimpsed earlier. A few of the luminous creatures were still visible as bright, ovoid flowers, or garish gasbags, drifting in a ragged chain across the eastern sky.
One laggard remained over the docks, resembling a filmy, bloated jellyfish with dangling, iridescent feelers a mere eighty meters long. A baby, then. It clutched the main mast of a sleek freighter, caressing the cloth-draped yards, groping for treats laid on the upper spars by nimble sailors. The agile seamen laughed, dodging the waving, sticky suckers, then dashed in to stroke the knotty backs of the beast's tentacles, or tie on bright ribbons or paper notes. Once a year or so, someone actually recovered a ragged message that had been carried in such a fashion, all the way across the Mother Ocean.
There were also stories of young cabin boys who actually tried hitching rides upon a zoor, floating off to Lysos-knew-where, perhaps inspired by legends of days long ago, when zep'lins and airplanes swarmed the sky, and men were allowed to fly.
As if proving that it was a day of fate and synchrony, Leie nudged Maia and pointed in the opposite direction, southwest, beyond the golden dome of the city temple. Maia blinked at a silvery shape that glinted briefly as it settled groundward, and recognized the weekly dirigible, delivering mail and packages too dear to entrust to sea transport, along with rare passengers whose clans had to be nearly as rich as the planet goddess in order to afford the fare. Both Maia and Leie sighed, for once sharing exactly the same thought. It would take a miracle for either of them ever to journey like that, amid the clouds. Perhaps their clone descendants might, if the fickle winds of luck blew that way. The thought offered some slight consolation.
Perhaps it also explained why boys sometimes gave up everything just to ride a zoor. Males, by their very natures, could not bear clones. They could not copy themselves. At best, they achieved the lesser immortality of fatherhood. Whatever they most desired had to be accomplished in one lifetime, or not at all.
The twins resumed their stroll. Down here near the wharves, where the fishing boats gave off a humid, pungent miasma, they began seeing a lot more summer folk like themselves. Women of diverse shapes, colors, sizes, often bearing a family resemblance to some well-known clan — a Sheldon's hair or a Wylee's distinctive jaw — sharing half or a quarter of their genes with a renowned mother-line, just as the twins carried in their faces much that was Lamai.
Alas, half-resemblance counted for little. Dressed in monochrome kilts or leather breeches, each summer-person went about life as a solitary unit, unique in all the world. Most held their heads high despite that. Summerfolk worked the piers, scraped the dry-docked sailing ships, and performed most of the grunt labor supporting seaborne trade, often with a cheerfulness that was inspirational to behold.
Before Lysos, on Phylum worlds, vars like us were normal and clones rare. Everyone had a father... sometimes one you even grew up knowing.
Maia used to ponder images of a teeming planet, filled with wild, unpredictable variety. The Lamai mothers called it "an unwholesome fixation," yet such thoughts came more frequently since news of the Outsider ship began filtering down, through rumors and then terse, censored reports on the tele.
Do people still live in old-fashioned chaos, on other worlds? She wondered. As if life would ever offer any opportunity to find out.
With storm season over and the getta fence wide open, the harbor was a lively, colorful precinct. A season's pent-up commerce was getting under way. People bustled among the loading docks and slate-roofed warehouses, the chapels and re-curtained Houses of Ease. And ship chandleries — a favorite haunt while the twins were growing up, crammed with every tool or oddment a crew might need at sea. From an early age, Maia and her sister had been drawn by the bright brasswork and smell of polishing oil, browsing for hours to the exasperation of the shopkeepers. For her part, Leie had been fascinated by mechanical devices, while Maia focused on charts and sextants and slender telescopes with their clicking, finely beveled housings. And timepieces, some so old they carried a outer ring dividing the Stratoin calendar into a little more than three "Standard Earth Years." Not even hazing by fiver boys — itinerant midshipmen who often knew less about shooting a latitude than spitting into the wind — ever kept the twins away for long.
Peering into the biggest chandlery, Maia caught the eye of the manager, a bluff-faced Felic. The clone noticed Maia's haircut and duffel, and her habitual grimace slowly lightened into a smile. She made a brief hand gesture wishing Maia good luck and safe passage.
And good riddance, I'll bet. Recalling what nuisances she and her sister had been, Maia returned an exaggerated bow, which the shopkeeper dismissed with laughter and a wave.
Maia turned around to find Leie over by a nearby pier, conversing with a dock worker whose high cheekbones were reminiscent of the western continent. "Naw, naw," the woman said as Maia approached, not pausing in her rapid knotting of the sail she was mending. "So far ain't heard nary judgment by the Council in Caria. Nary t'all."
"Judgment about what?" Maia asked.
"The Outsiders," Leie explained. "Those Perkie missionaries got me wondering if there's been news. This var works on a boat with full access." Leie pointed toward a nearby fishing craft, sporting a steerable antenna. It wasn't far-fetched that someone spinning dials with a rig like that might pick up a tidbit or two.
"As if th' owners invite me to tea an' tele!" The sail-maker spat through a gap in her teeth toward the scummy water, glistening with floating fish scales.
"But have you overheard anything? Say on an unofficial channel? Do they still claim only one Outsider has landed?"
Maia sighed. Caria City was remote and its savants only broadcast sparse accounts. Worse, the Lamai mothers often forbade summer kids to watch tele at all, lest their volatile minds find programs "disturbing." Naturally, this only piqued the twins' curiosity. But Leie was taking inquisitiveness too far, grilling simple laborers. Apparently the sail maker agreed. "Why ask me, you silly hots? Why should I listen to lies hissing outta the owners' box?"
"But you're from Landing Continent...."
"My province was ninety gi from Caria! Ain't seen it in ten year, nor will again, never. Now go way!"
When they were out of earshot, Maia chided — "Leie, you've got to go easy on that stuff. You can't make a pest of yourself —"
"Like you did, when we were four? Who tried stowing away on that schooner, just to find out how the captain got a fix on a rolling horizon? I recall we both got punished for that one!"
Reluctantly, Maia smiled. She hadn't always been the more cautious sister. One long Stratos year ago, it had been Leie who always took careful gauge before acting, and Maia who kept coming up with schemes that got them in trouble. We're alike, all right. We just keep getting out of phase. And maybe that's good. Someone has to take turns being the sensible one.
"This is different," she replied, trying to keep to the point. "It's real life now."
Leie shrugged. "Want to talk about life? Look at those cretins, over there." She nodded toward a paved area on the quay, laid out in a geometric grid, where a number of seamen stood idly, pondering an array of small black or white disks. "They call their game "Life," and take it damn seriously. Does that make it real too?"
Maia refused to acknowledge the pun. Whenever ships were in port, clusters of men could be found here, playing the ancient game with a passion matched only during the auroral months by their seasonal interest in sex. The men, deck hands off some freighter, wore rough, sleeveless shirts and metal ringlets on their biceps denoting rank. A few of the onlookers glanced up as the sisters passed by. Two of the younger ones smiled.
If it had still been summertime, Maia would have demurely looked away and even Leie would have shown caution. But as the aurora faded and Wengel Star waned, so too ebbed the hot blood in males. They became calmer creatures, more companionable. Autumn was the best season for shipping out, then. Maia and Leie could spend up to twenty standard months at sea before being forced ashore by next year's rut. By then, they had better have found a niche, something they were good at, and started their nest egg.
Leie boldly met the sailors' amiable, lazy leers, hands on hips and eye to eye, as if daring them to back up their bluster. One tow-headed youth seemed to consider it. But of course, if he had any libido to spare this time of year, he wouldn't go wasting it on a pair of dirt-poor virgins! The young men laughed, and so did Leie.
"Come on," she told Maia as the men turned back to regard their game pieces. Leie readjusted her duffel. "It's nearing tide. Let's get aboard and shake this town off our feet."
"What do you mean, you're not sailing? For how long?"
Maia couldn't believe this. The old fart of a purser chewed a toothpick as he rocked back on his stool by the gangplank. Unshaven in rumbled fatigues, he nudged the nearby barrel top where their refund lay... plus a little more thrown in for "compensation."
"Dunno, li'l liss. Prob'ly a month. Mebbe two."
"A month!" Leie's voice cracked. "You spew of wormy bottom muck! The weather's fair. You've got cargo and paying passengers. What do you mean —"
"Got a better offer." The purser shrugged. "One o' the big clans bought our cargo, just t'get us to stay. Seems they likes our boys. Wants 'em sticking round a while, I reckon."
Maia felt a sinking realization in the pit of her stomach. "I guess some mothers want to start winter breeding early, this year," she said, trying to make sense of this catastrophe. "It's risky, but if they catch the men with heat still in them —"
"Which house!" Leie interrupted, in no mood for rational appraisal. She kicked the barrel, causing the money sticks to rattle. The grizzled sailor, massing twice Leie's fifty kilos, placidly scratched his beard.
"Lesse now. Was it the Tildens? Or was it Lam —"
"Lamatia?" Leie cried, this time flinging her arms so wildly the purser scrambled to his feet. "Now, lissie. No cause t'get excited..." Maia grabbed Leie's arm as she seemed about to throw the sailor's stool at him. "It makes sense!" Leie screamed. "That's why they opened the guest house weeks early, and had us pouring wine for those lunks all night!"
Maia sometimes envied her sister's refuge in tantrums. Her own reaction, a numb retreat to logic, seemed less satisfying than Leie's way of breaking everything in sight. "Leie," she urged hoarsely. "It can't be Lamatia. They only deal with high class guilds, not the trash we can afford passage with." It was satisfying to catch the purser wincing at her remark. "Anyway, we're better off dealing with honest men. There are other ships."
Her sister whirled. "Yeah? Remember how we studied? Buying books and even net time, researching every port this tub was going to? We had a plan for every stop... people to see. Questions. Prospects. Now it's all wasted!"
How could it be wasted? Maia wondered woodenly. All those hours studying, memorizing the Oscco Isles and Western Sea....
Maia realized neither of them was reacting well to sudden despair.
"Let's go," she told her sister, scooping up the money and trying for both their sakes to keep worry out of her voice. "We'll find another ship, Leie. A better one, you'll see."
In GLORY SEASON Maia will endure hardship and hunger, imprisonment and loneliness, bloody battles with pirates, and separation from her twin. And along the way she will meet a traveler who has come an unimaginable distance — and who threatens the delicate balance of Stratoin's carefully maintained perfect society.
Copyright © 1993 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
Amazon.de Germany: Die Clans von Stratos (German-language Kindle ebook)
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Powell's US: paperback
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was cited as one of the top 10 writers the AI elite follow. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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