Glory Season sample chapters
Chapter 1 (conclusion)
That proved easier said than done. There were many sails in Port Sanger, from hand-carved, hard edged wind-wings, to stormjammers, to clippers with flapping sheets of woven squid-silk. At the diplomatic docks, just below the harbor fort, there was even one rare, sleek cruiser whose banks of gleaming solar panels basked in the angled sunshine. Maia and Leie did not bother with such rich craft, whose crews would have spurned their paltry coinsticks as fishing lures. They did try their luck with well-turned freighters flying banners of the Cloud Whale League, or the Blue Heron Society, voyager guilds whose gray-bearded commodores sometimes called at Lamatia Hall to interview bright boys for lives at sea.
According to childrens' fables, once upon a time boys like Albert simply joined the guilds of their fathers. Even summer girls used to grow up knowing which Daddy Ship would take them someday, free of charge, to wherever opportunities shone brightest for young vars.
Clone-child you must stay within,
Home-hive to protect, renew.
Var-child you must strive and win,
Half-mom and half-man, it's true.
Let the heartwinds blow away,
Winter's frost, or summer's bright.
Name the special things that stay,
Fixed, to guide you through the night.
Stratos Mother, Founders' Gifts,
Your own skill and eager hands.
One more boon, the lucky lifts,
Father ticket to far lands.
One old teacher, Savant Judeth -- a Lamai with unusual sympathy for her summerling charges -- once testified that truth underlay the old tales. "In those days, each sailing society kept close contact with one house in Port Sanger, carrying clan cargoes and finding welcome in clan hostels, summer and winter both. When var girls turned five, their fathers -- or their fathers' compeers -- used to carry them off as treasures in their own right, helping them get settled in lands far away."
To Maia it had sounded like romantic drivel, much too sappy to be true. But Leie had asked, "Why'd it stop being so?"
Momentarily wistful, Savant Judeth looked anything but typical for a stern-browed Lamai.
"Wish I knew, seedling. It may have to do with the rise in summer births. There seemed a lot when I was young. Now it's up to one in four. So many vars." The old woman shook her head. "And rivalry among the clans and guilds has grown fierce; there's even outright fighting..." Judeth had sighed. "All I can say is, we used to know which men would lodge here, to spark clones during cooltime and sire sons during the brief hot. Oh, and beget you summer girls, as well. But those days are gone."
Hesitantly, Leie had asked if Judeth knew their father.
"Clevin? Oh, yes. I can even see him in your faces. Navigator on the Sea Lion he was. A good egg, as men go. Your womb mother, Lysos keep her, would favor none other. You got to know men in those days. Pleasant it was, in a strange way."
And hard to imagine. Whether as noisy creatures who sheltered in the getta during summer, slaking their rut in houses of ease, or as taciturn guests during the cool seasons, lounging like cats while the Lamai sisters coaxed them with wine and plays and games of Chess or Life, either way, they were soon off again. Their names vanished, even if they left their seed. Yet, for one entire year after hearing Savant Judeth's tale, Maia used to search among the masts for the Sea Lion's banner, imagining her father's sunburnt face when he laid eyes upon the two of them.
Then she learned, Pinniped Guild no longer sailed the Parthenia Sea. The var daughters its men had sired, five long cycles ago, were on their own.
None of the better ships in harbor had berths for them. Most were already overloaded with uniques -- hard-eyed var women who glared down at the twins, or laughed at their plaintive faces. Captains and pursers kept shaking their heads, or asking for more money than the sisters could afford.
And there was something else. Something Maia couldn't pin down. Nobody said anything aloud, but the mood in the harbor seemed... jumpy.
Maia tried to dismiss it as a reflection of her own nerves.
Working their way along the docks, the twins found nothing suitable departing in under a fortnight. Finally, exhausted, they arrived on the left bank of the river Stopes, where tugs and hemp barges tied up at sagging wharves owned by local clans that had fallen on ill fortune, or simply did not care anymore. Dejected, Leie voted for going back to town and booking a room. Surely this string of rejections was an omen. In ten days, maybe twenty, things could change.
Maia wouldn't hear of it. Where Leie fluxed from wrath to smoldering despair, Maia tended toward a doggedness that settled into obstinacy. Twenty days in a hotel? When they could be on their way to some exotic land? Somewhere they might have a chance to use their secret plan?
It was in a grimy hostelry of the lowly Bizmish clan that they met the captains of a pair of colliers heading south on the morrow tide.
The world of men, too, had its hierarchies. The sort who were smart-eyed and successful, and made good sires, were wooed by wealthy matriarchies. Poorer mother-lines entertained a lower order. Stooped, sallow-skinned Bizmai, still gritty from the mines they worked nearby, shuttled about the guest house, toting jars of flat beer that Maia wouldn't touch, but the coarse seamen relished. The twins met the two collier captains in the stifling, dank common room, where carbon particles set Maia's nictitating membranes blinking furiously until they moved outside to the "veranda" overlooking a marsh. There, swarms of irritating zizzerbugs dove suicidally around the flickering tallow candles until their wings ignited, turning them into brief, flaming embers that dropped to the sooty tabletop.
"Sure will miss this place, betcha," Captain Ran said, smacking his lips, laying his beer mug down hard. "These's friendly ladies, here. Come hot season, uptown biddies won't give workin' stiffs like us a fin or fizz, let 'lone a good roll. But here we got our fill."
Maia well believed it. Of the Bizmai in sight who were of child-bearing age, half were heavy with summer pregnancies. Her nostrils flared in distaste. What would a poor clan like this do with all those uniques? Could they feed and clothe and educate them? Would they, when summer offspring seldom returned wealth to a household? Most of those babies would likely be disposed of in some ugly way, perhaps left on the tundra... "in the hands of Lysos." There were laws against it, but what law carried greater weight than the good of the clan?
Perhaps the Bizmai would be spared the trouble. Many summer pregnancies failed by themselves, spontaneously ending early due to defects in the genes. Or so Savant Judeth had explained it. "All clones come as tried and tested designs," she had put it. "While every summerling is a fresh experiment. And countless experiments fail."
Nevertheless, the var birthrate kept climbing. "Experiments," like Maia and Leie were filling the lower streets in every town.
"That's one reason we're on a short haul, this run..." said the other officer. Captain Pegyul was thinner, grayer, and apparently somewhat smarter than his peer. "... carryin' anthracite to Queg City, Lanargh, Grange Head, an' Gremlin Town. We may not be one o' those big time, fruity guilds, but we got honor. The Bizmai want us stoppin' back again mid-winter? We'll do that for 'em, after they been so kind durin' hot!"
That must be why the mining clan was so accommodating to these lizards. Men tended to get sentimental toward women carrying their summer kids -- offspring with half their genes. In half a year though, would these idiots even notice that few of those babes were still around?
"Gremlin Town will do fine," Leie said, draining her stein and motioning for a refill. The destination was south instead of west, but they had talked it over. A detour could be corrected later, after they had worked a while at sea and on land. This way, they'd arrive at the Oscco Archipelago seasoned, no longer na´ve.
The thinner of the two masters rubbed his stubbled jaw. "Uh huh. So long's you both'll do what yer told."
"We'll work hard. Don't worry about that, sir."
"An' yer mother clan taught you all the right stuff? Like, say, stick-fightin'?"
Maia was sure Leie also picked up the sailor's sly effort at nonchalance. As if he were asking about sewing, or smithing, or any other practical art.
"We've had it all, sir. You won't regret bringing us aboard, whichever of you takes us."
The two seamen looked at each other. The shorter one leaned forward. "Uh, it's both of us you'll be goin' with."
Leie blinked. "What do you mean?"
"It's like this," the tall one explained. "You two is twins. That's nice, but it can make trouble. We got clan women booking passage from town to town, all along the way. They may see you two, scrubbin' decks, doin' scut work, an' get the wrong idea..."
Maia and Leie looked at each other. Their private scheme involved taking advantage of that natural reaction -- the assumption that two identicals were likely to be clones. Now the irony sank in, that their boon could also be a drawback.
"I dunno about splitting up," Leie said, shaking her head. "We could change our looks. I could dye my hair --"
Maia cut in. "Your vessels convoy together all the way down the coast, right?" The captains nodded. Maia turned to Leie. "Then we wouldn't be separated for long. This way we'll get recommendations from two shipmasters, instead of just one."
"I won't like it either, but look at it this way. We double our experience for the same price. Each of us learns things the other doesn't. Besides, we'll have to go apart at other times. This will be good practice."
The startled expression in her sister's eyes told Maia a lot about their relationship. There was a soft pleasure in surprising Leie, something that happened all too seldom. She never expected me to be the one accepting a separation so easily.
Indeed, Maia found she looked forward to the prospect of time by herself, away from her twin's driving personality. This should be healthy for both of us.
Hiding her brief discomfiture behind an upraised beer stein, Leie finally nodded and said, "I don't guess it matters --"
At that instant, a flash whitened their faces, casting shadows from the direction of town. A sparking, spiraling rocket trailed upward from the harbor fortress, arcing into the sky and then exploding, lighting the docks and clanholds with stark, crawling patterns of white and dark. Silhouettes revolved around pedestrians stunned motionless by the abrupt glare, while a low growling sound rapidly climbed in pitch and intensity to become an ululation, filling the night.
Maia, her sister, and the two captains stood up. It was the seldom-heard wail of Port Sanger's siren... calling out the militia... alerting its citizens to stand to the defense.
* * * * *
What should be our desiderata, in designing a new human race? What existence do we wish for our descendants on this world?
Long, happy lives?
Fair enough. Yet, despite our technical wonders, that simple boon may prove hard to deliver. Long ago, Darwin and Malthus pointed out life's basic paradox -- that all species carry inbuilt drives to try to overbreed. To fill even Eden with so many offspring that it ceases to be paradise, any more.
Nature, in her wisdom, controlled this opportunistic streak with checks and balances. Predators, parasites, and random luck routinely culled the excess. To the survivors, each new generation, went the prize -- a chance to play another round.
Then humans came. Born critics, we wiped out the carnivores who preyed on us, and battled disease. With rising moral fervor, societies pledged to suppress cut-throat competition, guaranteeing to all a "right to live and prosper."
In retrospect, we know awful mistakes were made with the best intentions on poor Mother Terra. Without natural checks, our ancestors' population boom overwhelmed her. But is the only alternative to bring back rule by tooth and claw? Could we, even if we tried?
Intelligence is loose in the galaxy. Power is in our hands, for better or worse. We can modify Nature's rules, if we dare, but we cannot ignore her lessons.
-- from The Apologia, by Lysos
An acrid scent of smoke. A fuming, cinder mist rising from smoldering planks. Distress flags flapping from the singed mizzen of a crippled ship, staggering toward asylum. The impressions were more vivid for occurring at night, with the larger moon, Durga, laying wan glimmers across the scummy waters of Port Sanger's bayside harbor.
Under glaring searchlights from the high-walled fortress, a dry-goods freighter, Prosper, wallowed arduously toward safe haven, assisted by its attacker. Half the town was there to watch, including militia from all of the great clanholds, their daughters of fighting-age decked in leather armor and carrying polished trepp bills. Matronly officers wore cuirasses of shiny metal, shouting to squads of identical offspring and nieces. The Lamatia contingent arrived, quick-marching downhill in helmets crowned with Gaeo bird feathers. Maia recognized most of the full-clone winterlings, her half-sisters, despite their being alike in nearly every way. The Lamai companies briskly spread along the roof of the family warehouse before dispatching a detachment to help defend the town itself.
It was quite a show. Maia and her sister watched in fascination from a perch on the jetty wall. Not since they had been three years old, had there been an alert like this. Nor were the commanders of the clan companies pleased to learn that a jumpy watchwoman had set off this commotion by pressing the wrong alert-button, unleashing rockets into the placid autumn night where a few hoots from the siren would have been proper. An embarrassed Captain Jounine spent half an hour apologizing to disgruntled matrons, some of whom seemed all the more irascible for being squeezed into armor meant for younger, lither versions of themselves.
Meanwhile, rowboats threw lines to help draw the limping, smoldering Prosper toward refuge. Maia saw buckets of seawater still being drawn to extinguish embers from the fire that had nearly sent the ship down. Its sails were torn and singed. Dozens of scorched ropes festooned the rigging, dangling from unwelcome grappling hooks.
It must have been some fight, she figured, while it lasted.
Leie peered at the smaller vessel which had the Prosper in tow, its tiny auxiliary engine chuffing at the strain. "The reaver's called Misfortune," she told Maia, reading blocky letters on the bow. "Probably picked the name to strike terror into their victims' hearts." She laughed. "Bet they change it after this."
Maia had never been as quick as her sister to adjust from adrenaline to pure spectator state. Only a short time ago, the city had been girding for attack. It would take time to adjust to the fact that all this panic was over a simple, bungled case of quasilegal piracy.
"The reavers don't look too happy," Maia observed, pointing to a crowd of tough-looking women wearing red bandannas, gathered on Misfortune's foredeck. Their chief argued with a guardia officer in a rocking motor launch. A similar scene took place near the prow of the Prosper, where affluent-looking women in smoke-fouled finery pointed and complained in loud voices. Farther aft on both vessels, male officers and crew tended the tricky business of guiding their ships to port. Not a man spoke until the vessels tied at neighboring jetties, at which time Prosper's master toured the maimed vessel. From his knotted jaw and taut neck muscles, the glowering man seemed capable of biting nails in two. Soon he was joined by Misfortune's skipper, who, after a moment's tense hesitation, offered his hand in silent commiseration.
A rumor network circulated among dockside bystanders, passing on what others, closer in, had learned. Leie dropped off the jetty in order to listen, while Maia stayed put, preferring what she could decipher with her own eyes. There must have been an accident during the fight, she surmised, tracing how fire had spread from a charred area amidships. Perhaps a lantern got smashed while the reavers battled the owners for their cargo. At that point, the male crews would have called a truce and put both sides to work saving the ship. It looked like a near thing, even so.
Reavers were uncommon in the Parthenia Sea, so near the stronghold of Port Sanger's powerful clans. But that wasn't the only curious thing about this episode.
Seems a stupid idea, hiring a schooner to go reaving this early in autumn, Maia thought. With storm season just ending, there were plenty of tempting cargoes around. But it was also a time when males still flowed with summer rut hormones, which might kick in under tense circumstances. Watching the edgy sailors, their fists clenched in rage, Maia wondered what might drive the young vars in a reaver gang to take such a risk.
One of the men kicked a bulkhead in anger, splintering the wood with a resounding crack.
Once, on a visit to a Sheldon ranch, Maia had witnessed two stallions fight over a sash-horse herd. That struggle without quarter had been unnerving, the lesson obvious. Perkinite scandal sheets spread scare-stories about "incidents," when masculine tempers flared and instincts left over from animal times on Old Earth came to fore. "Wary be you women," went a stanza of the rhyme oft quoted by Perkinites. "For a man who fights may kill..."
To which Maia added privately -- Especially, when their precious ships are in danger. This misadventure might easily have tipped over into something far worse.
Militia officers led the band of reavers, and Prosper's passengers, toward the fort where a lengthy adjudication process would begin. Maia caught one shrill cry from the pirate leader: "...they set the fire on purpose 'cause we were winning!"
The owners' spokeswoman, a clone from the rich Vunerri trading clan, vehemently denied the charge. If proven, she risked losing more than the cargo, and fines to repair Prosper. There might even be a boycott of her family's goods by all the sailing guilds. At such times, the normal hierarchy on Stratos was known to reverse, and mighty matrons from great holds went pleading leniency from lowly men.
But never from a var. It would take a true revolution to reverse the social ladder that far. For summer-born women ever to sit in judgment over clones.
Maia watched the procession march past her vantage point, some of the figures limping, holding bloody gashes from the fight that led to this debacle. Medical orderlies carried stretchers at the rear. One of the burdens lay completely covered.
Perkies may be right about women having less murderous tempers, Maia contemplated. We seldom try to kill. It was one reason Lysos and the founders came here -- to create a gentler world. But I guess that makes small difference to the poor wretch under that blanket.
Leie returned, breathless to relate all she had learned from the throng. Maia listened and made all the right astonished sounds. Some names and details she hadn't pieced together by observing... and some she felt sure were garbled by the rumor chain.
Did details matter, though? What stuck in her mind, as they left with the dispersing crowd, had been the expression on Captain Jounine's face as the guardia commander escorted her bickering charges over a drawbridge into the fortress.
These aren't the peaceful times she grew up in. These are tougher days.
Maia glanced at her twin as they walked toward the far pier where the colliers Zeus and Wotan lay loaded and ready for the morning current. Despite her accustomed bravado, Leie suddenly looked every bit as young and inexperienced as Maia felt.
These are our days, Maia pondered soberly. We'd better be ready for them.
The moons' pull had modest effect on the huge seas of Stratos. Still, tradition favored setting sail with Durga tide. After last night's excitement, the predawn departure was less poignant than Maia had expected. All these years she'd pictured looking back at Port Sanger's rugged buildings of pink stone -- castlelike clanholds studding the hillsides like eagles' nests -- and feeling a cascade of heady emotions, watching the land of her childhood recede from sight, perhaps forever.
There was no time for dwelling on milestones, however. Gruff-voiced chiefs and bosuns shouted orders as she and several other awkward landlubbers rushed to help haul lanyards and lash straining sheets. Supplementing the permanent crew were more than a dozen vars like herself, "second-class passengers" who must work to supplement their fares. Despite Lamatia's stern curriculum for its summerlings, a stiff regimen of toil and exercise, Maia soon found herself hard-pressed to keep up.
At least the biting chill eased as the sun climbed. Off came the leather garments, and soon she was working in just loincloth and halter. The sluggish, heavy air left her coated with a perspiration sheen, but Maia preferred wiping sweat to having it freeze on her.
By the time she finally had a spare moment to look back, the headlands of Port Sanger's bay were disappearing behind a fog bank. The ancient fortress on the southern bluff, at present covered in a spindly shroud of repair scaffolding, was soon masked by brumous haze and lost to view. On the other bank, the spire of the sanctuary-lighthouse remained a mysterious gray obelisk for a while longer. Then it too faded behind low clouds, leaving an endless expanse of ice-flecked sea surrounding her contracted world of wood planks, fiber cords, and coal dust.
For what felt like hours, Maia ran wherever sailors pointed, loosening, hauling, and tying down sections of coarse rope on command. Her palms were soon raw and her shoulders sore, but she began learning a thing or two, such as not trying to brake a lanyard by simply holding on. Fighting a writhing cable by brute force could send you flying into a bulkhead or even overboard. Watching others, Maia learned to wrap a length of hawser around some nearby post in a reverse loop, and let the rope's own tension lock it in place.
That left the converse problem of releasing the damned thing, whenever the mates wanted slack for some reason. After Maia was nearly slashed across the face on two occasions, a sailor took time to show her how it was done.
"Y'do it like these, an' than these," a wiry male, no taller than she was, explained without obvious impatience. Maia awkwardly tried to imitate what in experienced hands seemed such a fluid motion. "Yell get it," he assured her, then hurried off, shouting to prevent another landlubber from getting her leg caught in a loop of cord and being dragged over the side.
Well, I was hoping for an education. Maia now understood why a noticeable minority of the men she'd seen in her life lacked a finger or two. If you weren't careful, a surge of wind could yank a rope while your hand was busy looping a pin, tightening with abrupt, savage force, sending a part of you spurting away. With that nauseating realization, Maia forced herself to slow down and think before making any sudden moves. The shouts of the bosuns were terrifying, but no more than that awful mental image.
Nothing was made easier by the film of carbon dust coating nearly every surface. The cargo of Bizmai anthracite sent black puffs through the poorly sealed cargo hatches each time the Wotan shifted in the wind. Luckily, Maia didn't have to climb the grimy sheets, which crewmen scaled with such uncanny diligence, like apes born to dwell in treelike heights amid the wind.
Whenever duties sent her to the port side, she tried stealing glimpses of their sister vessel, the Zeus, keeping pace two hundred meters to the east. Once, Maia caught sight of a trim shape she felt must be Leie, but she dared not wave. That distant figure appeared plenty busy, running awkwardly about the other collier's deck.
At last they cleared the tricky coastal waters and the convoy's course was set. A north wind rose, filling the squat sails and, as a bonus, spinning the electric generator on the fantail, giving rise to a shrill whine. When the mates seemed satisfied that all was well in hand, they shouted fore and aft, calling a break.
Maia slumped amidships as her throbbing arms and legs complained. Get used to it, she told them. Adventure is ninety percent pain and boredom. The saying supposedly went on, "and ten percent stark, flaming terror." But she hoped to give that part a miss.
A crusty ladle appeared in front of her, proffered by a stick-thin old man with a sloshing bucket. Maia suddenly realized how ravenously thirsty she was. She put her mouth to the cup, slurping gratefully... and instantly gagged.
Maia felt eyes turn toward her as she coughed in embarrassment, trying to cover the reaction. She managed to clamp down and drink some more, recalling that she was just another vagrant summerling now, no longer the daughter of a rich, uptown clan with its own artesian well. In poorer sections of town, vars and even low-caste clones drew their drinking water from the sea and grew up knowing little else.
"Bless Stratos Mother, for her mild oceans," went a sardonic parable, not part of any liturgy. And bless Lysos, for kidneys that can take it. Thirst overcame the bland, salty taste and she finished the ladle without further trouble. The old man then surprised her with a gap-toothed grin, tousling her ragged-cut hair.
Maia stiffened defensively... then self-consciously relaxed. It took more than the passing heat of hard labor to trigger male-rut. Anyway, a man would have to be hard up to waste time on a virgin like her.
Actually, the coot reminded her a little of old Bennett, back when that aged male's eyes still danced with interest in life. Hesitantly, she smiled back. The sailor laughed and moved on to water others in need.
A whistle blew, ending the work break, but at least now commands came at a slower pace. Instead of the former frenzy of reefing and unfurling sails, coaxing the sluggish vessel past frothy shoals toward open water, their new chores consisted of stowing and battening down. Now that she had a chance to look around, Maia was struck by how much less mysteriously alien the men of the crew appeared than she'd expected. Moving about their tasks, they seemed as businesslike and efficient as any clan craftswoman in her workshop or mill. Their laughter was rich and infectious as they bantered in a dialect she could follow, if she concentrated... although the drift of most of their jests escaped her.
Despite their dronelike behavior ashore, ranging from boisterous to slothful, depending on the season, Maia had always known men must lead lives of toil and danger at sea. Even the crew of this grimy lug must apply both intelligence and concentration -- among the best womanly traits -- as well as their renowned physical strength in order to survive. She was filled with questions about the tasks she saw performed with such industry, but that would have to await the right opportunity.
Besides, she found even more interesting the women on board. After all, men were another race -- less predictable than lugars, though better swimmers and conversationalists. But whether summer- or winter-born, women were her kind.
At the elevated aft end of the ship, distinguished by their better clothes, stood or lounged the first class passengers, who did not have to work. Few summerlings could afford full fare, even on ships like this one, so only clones leaned on the balcony, not far from the captain and his officers. Those winter folk came from poorer clans. She spotted a pair of Ortyns, three Bizmai, and several unfamiliar types, who must have come from towns further north before changing ships in Port Sanger.
The working passengers, on the other hand, were all vars like herself -- uniques whose faces were as varied as clouds in the sky. They were an odd lot, mostly older than she was and tougher looking. For some, this must be one more leg of countless many as they worked their way around the seas of Stratos, always looking for some special place where a niche awaited.
Maia felt more sure than ever that she and Leie were correct to travel separately. These women might have resented twins, just as Captain Pegyul said. As it was, Maia felt conspicuous enough when the noon meal was served.
"Here you go, l'il virgie," said a gnarly, middle-aged woman with gray-streaked hair, as she poured stew from a kettle into a battered bowl. "Want a napkin too, sweetie?" She shared a grin with her companions. Of course the var was having Maia on. There were some greasy rags about, but the back of a wrist seemed the favored alternative.
"No, thank you," Maia answered, almost inaudibly. That only brought more hilarity, but what else could she say? Maia felt her face redden, and wished she were more like her Lamai mothers and half sisters, whose visages never betrayed emotion, save by careful calculation. As the women passed around a jug of wine, Maia took her plate of mysterious curry to a nearby corner and tried not to betray how self-conscious she felt.
No one's watching you, she tried convincing herself. Or if they are, what of it? No one has any cause to go out of their way to dislike you.
Then she overhead someone mutter, not too softly, "...bad enough breathin' this damn coal dust all th' way to Gremlin Town. Do I also gotta stand th' stink of a Lamai brat aboard?" Maia glanced up to catch a glower from a tough-looking var in her mid-eights or nines. The woman's fair hair and sharp-jawed features reminded Maia of the Chuchyin clan, a rival of Lamatia based up-coast from Port Sanger. Was she a Chuchyin half or quarter sister, using an old grudge between their maternal houses as an excuse to start a private one of her own?
"Stay downwind from me, Lamai virgie," the var grunted when she caught Maia's gaze, and snorted in satisfaction when Maia looked away.
Bleeders! How far must I to go to escape Lamatia? Maia had none of the advantages of being her mother's child, only an inheritance of resentment toward a clan widely known for tenacious self-interest.
So intent was she on her plate that she jerked when someone nudged her arm. Blinking, Maia turned to meet a pair of pale green eyes, partly shaded under a dark blue bandanna. A small, deeply tanned, black-haired woman, wearing shorts and a quilted halter, held out the wine jug with a faint smile. As Maia reached for it, the var said in a low voice, "Relax. They do it to every fiver."
Maia gave a quick nod of thanks. She lifted the jug to her mouth...
...and doubled over, coughing. The stuff was awful! It stung her throat and she could not stop wheezing as she passed the bottle to the next var. This only brought more laughter, but now with a difference. It came tinged with an indulgent, rough-but-affectionate tone. Each of them was five once, and they know it, Maia realized. I'll get through this too.
Relaxing just a bit, Maia started listening to the conversation. The women compared notes on places each had been, and speculated what opportunities might lie to the south, with storm season over and commerce opening up again. Derisory comments about Port Sanger featured prominently. The image of a whole town called to arms because some clumsy reavers spilled a lantern had them in stitches. Maia couldn't help also grinning at the farcical picture. It didn't seem funny to that dead woman, a part of her recalled, soberly. But then, hadn't somebody written that one essence of humor is the tragedy you managed to escape?
From hints here and there, Maia surmised that some of these vars had worn the red bandanna themselves. Say you gather a pack of down-and-out summerlings, resentful at society's bottom rung, and sign a sisterly compact. Together, you hire a fast schooner... men willing to pilot their precious ship alongside some freighter, giving your band of comrades a narrow moment to dare all, win or lose.
Savant Judeth's had explained why it was grudgingly allowed.
"It would've happened anyway, sooner or later," the Lamai teacher once said. "By laying down rules, Lysos kept piracy from getting out of hand. Call it welfare for the desperate and lucky. A safety valve.
"And if reavers get too uppity?" There had been confident menace in Judeth's smile. "We have our ways of dealing with that, too."
Maia never intended to find out what the great clans did, when provoked too far. At the same time, she pondered the sanitized legends told about the very first Lamai... the young var who, long ago, turned a small nest egg into a commercial empire for her clone descendants. Stories were vague about where the first mother got her stake. Perhaps a red bandanna lay in a bottom drawer of the clan's dustiest archive.
As expected, most of the vars aboard were working off passage while seeking permanent employment ashore. But a few actually seemed to consider themselves regular members of the Wotan's crew. Maia found it strange enough that women were able to interact with the planet's other sapient race to reproduce. Could women and men actually live and work together for long periods without driving each other crazy? While using a stiff brush to scrub the lunch dishes, she watched some of these "female sailors." What do they talk to men about? she wondered.
Talk they did, in a sing-song dialect of the sea. Maia saw that the petite woman who had spoken kindly to her was one of these professional seawomen. In her gloved left hand, the brunette held a treppbill, a practice model bearing a cushioned y-shaped yoke at one end and a padded hook at the other. From the way she joked with a pair of male comrades, it appeared she was offering a challenge which, grinning, they accepted.
One seaman opened a nearby storage locker, revealing a great stack of thin, tile-like objects, white on one side, black on the other. He removed one square wafer and turned it over, checking eight paddles set along its edges and corners. Maia recognized an old-fashioned, wind-up game piece, which sailors used in large numbers to pursue a favorite pastime known as Life. Since infancy, she had watched countless contests in dockside arenas. The paddles sensed the status of neighboring tiles during a game, so that each piece would "know" whether to show its white or its black face at a given time. By the nature of the game, a single token by itself was useless, so what was the man doing, inserting a key and winding up just one clockwork tile?
If programmed normally, the simple device would smoothly flip a row of louvered panels exposing its white surface unless certain conditions were met. Three of its paddles must sense neighboring objects within a certain time interval. Two, four, or even eight touches wouldn't do. Exactly three paddles must be triggered for it to remain still.
The burly sailor approached the small woman, laying the game token on the deck in front of her, black side up. With one foot resting lightly on its upper surface he kept it from activating until, gripping her treppbill in both hands, she nodded, signaling ready.
The sailor hopped back and the tile started clicking. At the count of eight, the woman suddenly lanced out, tapping the piece at three spots in rapid succession. A beat passed and the disk remained still. Then the eight-beat countdown repeated, only faster. She duplicated her feat, choosing a different trio of paddles, making it seem as easy as swatting zizzers. But the piece had been programmed to increase its tempo. Soon the tip of her treppbill moved in a blur and the clock-ticking was a staccato ratchet. Sweat popped out on the small woman's brow as her wooden pole danced quicker and quicker....
Abruptly, the disk louvers flashed with a loud clack! turning the upper surface white. "Agh!" she cried out. "Twenty-eight!" a sailor shouted, and the woman laughed in chagrin as her comrades teased her for falling far short of her record.
"Too much booze an' lazin' about on shore!" they chided.
"You should talk!" she retorted, "jutzin' with them Bizzie hoors!"
One of the men started rewinding the game piece for another try, but Wotan's second mate chose that moment to descend from the quarter deck and call the small brunette over for a talk. They spoke for a few minutes, then the officer turned to go. The woman sailor fished a whistle out of her halter and blew a shrill blast that got the attention of all hands.
"Second class passengers aft," she called in an even tone, motioning for Maia and the other vars to stand in a row by the starboard gunwales.
"My name is Naroin," the petite sailor told the assembled group. "Rank is bosun, same as Sailor Jum and Sailor Rett, so don't forget it. I'm also master-at-arms on this tub."
Maia had no trouble believing the statement. The woman's legs bore scars of combat, her nose had been broken at least twice, and her muscles, if not manlike, were imposing.
"I'm sure you all saw last night that the rumors we been hearin' are true. There's reaver activity farther north than ever this year, an' it's startin' earlier. We could be a target any time."
Maia found that a stretched conclusion to reach from one isolated incident, and apparently so did the other vars. But Naroin took her responsibilities seriously. She told them so, laying the padded bill across her back.
"Captain's given orders. We should be ready, in case o' trouble. We're not goin' to be anybody's sealfish steak. If a gang o' jumped-up unniks tries hopping this ship --"
"Why would anyone want it!" A var muttered, eliciting chuckles. It was the sharp-jawed woman who had cursed about "Lamai brats."
"What kind of atyp bleeders'd hop us for a load o' coal?" the half-Chuchyin went on.
"You'd be surprised. The market's up. B'sides, even a coerced split of profits could ruin the owners --"
Naroin's explanation was interrupted by an offensive blatt, imitating a fart. When the bosun glanced sharply, the Chuchyin var nonchalantly yawned. Naroin frowned. "Captains' orders needn't be explained to likes of you. A crew that doesn't drill together --"
"Who needs drill?" The tall var cracked her knuckles, nudging her friends, apparently a tight-knit group of tested travelling companions. "Why fret about lugar-lovin' reavers? If they come, we'll send them packin' for their daddies."
Maia felt her cheeks redden, and hoped no one noticed. The master-at-arms simply smiled. "All right, grab a bill an' show me how you'll fight, if the time comes."
A snort. The Chuchyin variant spat on the deck. "I'll just watch, if it's all the same."
Naroin's forearms revealed bowstring tendons. "Listen, summer-trash. While onboard, you'll take orders, or swim back where you came from!"
The tall woman and her comrades glared back, confrontation certain in their hard faces.
A low voice interrupted from behind. "Is there a problem, Master-at-Arms?"
Naroin and the vars swiveled. Captain Pegyul stood at the edge of the quarterdeck, scratching a four day growth of beard. Banal of appearance back at the Bizmai tavern, he now cut an impressive figure, stripped down to his blue undershirt, something males never did in port. Three brass arm-rings, insignia of rank, circuited an arm like Maia's thigh. Two other crewmen, taller and even broader in the shoulders, stood bare-chested behind him at the head of the stairs. Despite the redolent tension, Maia found herself fascinated by those torsos. For once, she could credit certain farfetched stories... that sometimes, in the heat of summer, a particularly large and crazy male might purposely torment a lugar into one of those rare but awesome furies the beasts were capable of, just to wrestle the creature one-on-one, and occasionally win!
"No, sir. There's no problem," Naroin answered calmly. "I was just explaining that all second class passengers will train to defend the ship's cargo."
The Captain nodded. "You have your crewmates' backing, Master-at-Arms," he said mildly, and walked away.
The shiver down Maia's back wasn't from the north wind. Generally speaking, men were supposedly as harmless, four-fifths of the year, as lugars were all the time. But they were sentient beings, capable of deciding to get angry, even in winter. The two big seamen remained, observing. Maia sensed in their eyes a wariness toward any threat to their ship, their world.
The Chuchyin made a show of examining her fingernails, but Maia saw perspiration on her brow. "Guess I could spar a bit," the tall var muttered. "For practice." Still feigning nonchalance, she stepped over to the weapons rack. Instead of taking up the other padded training bill, she grabbed a trepp meant for combat, made of hard Yarri wood with minimal wrapping round the hook and prong.
From the rigging, two of the women crew gasped, but Naroin only backed onto the broad, flat door covering the aft hold, scuffing a film of coal dust with her bare feet. The tall var followed, leaving tracks with her sandals. She did not bow. Nor did the short sailor as they began circling.
Maia glanced toward the two shirtless seamen, who now sat watching, all wrath gone from their docile eyes. Once more, she felt a half-excited, half-nauseated curiosity about sex. Her ignorance was normal. Few clans let summer daughters enter their Halls of Joy, where the dance of negotiation, approach, refusal, and acceptance between sailor and mother-to-be reached its varied consummations, depending on the season. Among the ambitions she shared with Leie was to build a hall of their own, where she might yet learn what delights were possible -- unlikely as it seemed -- in mingling her body with one such as those, so hirsute and huge. Just trying to imagine made her head hurt in strange ways.
The two women finished their preliminary swings, waving and thrusting their bills. Naroin seemed in no hurry to take the offensive, perhaps because of her padded, ill-balanced weapon. The Chuchyin var spun her chosen trepp in one hand with panache. Suddenly she leapt forward to sweep at her opponent's well-scarred legs --
-- and abruptly found those legs wrapped around her throat! Naroin hadn't awaited the traditional exchange of feints and parries, but instead rammed her awkward bill onto the deck, using it as a pole to vault over her foe's slashing weapon, landing with one leg across each of the other woman's shoulders. The var staggered, dropped her trepp, and tried to claw at the master-at-arms, but found her hands seized with wiry strength. Her knees buckled and her face started to color between the woman sailor's tightening thighs.
Maia breathed at last as Naroin jumped back and her opponent collapsed to the sooty hatch. The dark-haired sailor grabbed the Yarri-wood weapon dropped by her foe and used its Y-shaped yoke to pin the var's neck to the cargo door. Naroin was barely breathing hard.
"Now what'd you expect, comin' at me that way? Bare wood against padding? No courtesy, then choppin' a cripple blow? Try that against reavers and they'll do more'n take our cargo, or sell you for a season's labor. They'll sea-dump you an' any other wench who cheats. And our men won't lift a finger, hear? Eia!"
The female crew shouted in refrain. "Eia!" Naroin tossed the bill aside. Wheezing, the half-Chuchyin crawled off the makeshift arena, covered with black smears. A glance at the quarterdeck showed that the men had departed, but assorted clones watched from first class, wearing amused expressions.
"Next?" Naroin asked, looking down the file of vars, no longer appearing quite so small.
I know what Leie would do now, Maia thought. She'd wait for others to wear Naroin down, pick out some weakness, then go at it with all panels charged.
But Maia wasn't her sister. Back in school she might watch a dozen bouts without recalling who had won, let alone who parried when for points. While her churning guts wanted to find some dim shadow, her rational mind said, "Just get it over with." Anyway, if Naroin was trying to encourage proper womanly combat virtues, Maia could offer a good contrast to the Chuchyin, and surprise those who called her "virgie."
Fighting a queasy tremor, she stepped forward and silently drew the other padded training bill from the rack and faced the arena. She ignored the staring clones and vars, ritually scuffed the dust thrice, and bowed. Bearing her own cushioned weapon, Naroin beamed beneficence toward Maia's courtesy. Both of them extended their bills, hook end forward, for that first, formal tap ...
Someone splashed water in her face. Maia coughed and sputtered. It stung not only of salt but of coal. A blur slowly resolved into a face... an old man's ... the one who had tousled her hair, she dimly recalled.
"Here, now. Y'all hokay? Nothin' broke, i'zer?"
He spoke a thick mannish dialect. But Maia got the drift. "I... don't think so..." She started to rise, but a sharp pain lanced through her left leg, below the knee. A bloody cut went about half way around the calf. Maia hissed.
"Mm. Ah see yet. S'not so bid. Here's sum salve that'll seer a beet."
Maia felt a whimper rise in her gorge and stifled it as he applied medicine from an earthenware jar. The agony departed in waves like an outgoing tide. Her throbbing pulse settled. When she next looked, the bleeding had stopped.
"That's... good stuff," she sighed.
"Our guild maybe small n' poorly, bit we got smart tube-boys beck in sanctuary."
"Mm, I'll bet." Between shipping seasons, some men dealt with extra time on their hands by fiddling in laboratories, either as guests in clanholds or at their own craggy hermitages. Few of the bearded tinkerers had much formal education, and most of their inventions were at best one-season marvels. A fraction reached the attention of the Savants of Caria, to eventually be published or banned. This salve though -- Maia vowed to get a sample and find out if anyone yet had the marketing rights.
She rose up on her elbows and looked around. Two pairs of second-class passengers were out on hatch cover, sparring under shouted direction from the master-at-arms. Several others lay sprawled like she was, nursing bruises. Meanwhile, two female crew members sat by the forward cowling, one blowing a flute while the other sang in a low, sad alto voice.
The old man tsked. "Really pushin' this yar. Fool'sh, runnin' fems too ragged t'work. Not roit, boy my lights."
"I s'pose," Maia murmured, noncommittally. She rose to sitting position and then, grabbing a nearby rail, managed to hobble onto one leg. She was still woozy, and yet felt vaguely relieved. Real pain was seldom as bad as the expectation.
Funny, hadn't Mother Claire once said that about childbirth? Maia shivered.
One of the practicing vars shouted and landed on the hatch with a loud thump. The women playing music switched to an ancient, plaintive melody that Maia recognized -- about a wanderer, yearning for a home, a beloved, all of the hearth-joys that came so easily to some, but not others.
Resting against the gunnels, Maia gazed across the seascape and found the Zeus keeping pace a bit behind, plowing through choppy waves with billowed sails. So far, this voyage had been at least as much a learning experience as her sister promised.
I do hope Leie's finding her trip just as interesting, came Maia's biting thought.
Two weeks later, on hitting their first landing in Queg Town, the twins finally set eyes on each other after their longest separation, and their reactions were identical. Each looked the other up and down... and simultaneously broke up laughing.
On the lower part of Leie's right leg, in a spot perfectly mirroring her own left, Maia saw a strip of new, pink scar tissue, healing neatly under the benign influence of sun, air, hard work and salt water.
* * * * *
Problem number one -- lacking natural controls, our human descendants will tend to overbreed until Stratos can no longer support their numbers. Shall we then have come all this way to repeat the catastrophe of Earth?
One lesson we've learned -- any effort to limit population cannot rest on persuasion alone. Times change. Passions change, and even the highest-flown moralizing eventually palls in the face of natural instinct.
We could do it genetically, limiting each woman to just two births. But variants who break the programming will outbreed all others, soon putting us back where we started. Anyway, our descendants may at times need rapid reproduction. We mustn't limit them to a narrow way of life.
Our chief hope lies in finding ways of permanently tying self-interest to the common good.
The same holds for our other problem, which provoked this coalition to drop half-measures, leaving the Phylum's bland compromisers behind. The problem which drove us to this faraway world, seeking a lasting solution.
The problem of sex.
-- from The Apologia of Lysos
This is the end of the sample chapters for Glory Season. To continue reading, purchase Glory Season from any store on this page.