Read Dreamfall Online

Authors: Joan D. Vinge

Dreamfall (page 2)

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Everyone and everything around me slipped out of focus, exceptfor the three Hydrans looking at us expectantly from across the room. SuddenlyI felt as if the drinks and the tranks and the camphs had all kicked in atonce.

The Hydrans stood together, looking toward us. They’d stood thatway the entire time, close to each other, as if there was strength in numbers.But I was alone; there was no one like me in this crowd, or in any other crowdI’d ever been a part of. Perrymeade led me to them, stopped me in front ofthem, as if I was a drone circulating with a platter of mind-benders.

The Hydrans wore clothing that would have looked perfectlyappropriate on anyone else in the room—just as well cut, just as expensive,although they didn’t show any combine colors. But my eyes registered somethingmissing, the thing I always checked for on another human;Databands.Noneof them had a databand. They were nonpersons. Hydrans didn’t exist to theFederation Net that affected every detail of a human citizen’s existence frombirth to death.

Perrymeade made introductions. The part of my brain that I’dtrained to remember any input recorded their names, but I didn’t hear a word hesaid.

There were two men and one woman. One of the men was olderthan the others, his face weathered by exposure, like he’d spent a lot of timeoutdoors. The younger man looked soft, as if he’d never made much of an effortat anything, or ever had to. The woman had a sharpness about her; I couldn’ttell if it was intelligence or hostility.

I stood studying them, the angles and planes of their faces.Everything was where it should be in a human face. The differences were subtle,more subtle than the differences between random faces plucked out of the humangenepool. But they weren’t human differences.

These faces were still alien—the colors, the forms, thealmost fragile bone structure. The eyes were entirely green, the color ofemeralds, of grass ... of mine. The Hydrans looked into my eyes—seeing only theirises as green as grass, but pupils that were long and slitted like a cat’s,like theirs. My face was too human to belong to one of them, but still subtlyalien ....

I felt myself starting to sweat, knowing that they werepassing judgment on me with more than just their eyes. There was a sixth sensethey’d all been born with—that I’d been born with too. Only I’d lost it. It wasgone, and any second now their eyes would turn cold; any second they’d turnaway—

I was actually starting to tremble, standing there in myformal clothes; shaking like I was back on some Oldcity street corner, needing afix. Perrymeade went on speaking as if he hadn’t noticed. I watched the Hydrans’faces turn quizzical. They traded half frowns and curious looks, along with asilent mind-to-mind exchange that once I could have shared in. I thought I felta whisper of mental contact touch my thoughts as softly as a kiss ... felt thepsionic Gift I’d been born with cower down in a darkness so complete that Icouldn’t be sure I’d felt anything,

“Are you—?” the woman broke off, as if she was searching fora word. She touched her head with a nutmeg-colored hand. Disbelief filled herface, and I could guess what word she was looking for. I watched theexpressions on the faces of the two men change, the younger one’s to whatlooked like disgust, the older one’s to something I didn’t even recognize.

Perrymeade broke off, went on speaking again, like someonerefusing to acknowledge that we were all sinking into quicksand. He droned onabout how my presence on the research team meant there would be someone “moresensitive to Hydran cultural interests—”

“And ate you?” The older man looked directly at me. My eideticmemory coughed up his name: Hanjen. A member of the Hydran Council. Perrymeadehad called him an “ombudsman’, which seemed to mean some kind of negotiator.Hanjen cocked his head== as if he was listening for the answer I couldn’tgive—or for something else that I hadn’t given, could never give him.

“Then I suggest,” he murmured, as if I’d shaken my head—ormaybe I had, “that you come and ... talk to us about it.”

I turned away before anyone could say anything more or doanything to stop me. I pushed my way through the crowd and headed for the door.


I stood in the cold wind and the deepening twilight on theriverside promenade, wondering again why they’d called this world Refuge. Thecity lay behind rile, its distant sounds of life reminding me that sooner orlater I’d have to turn back and acknowledge its presence: Tau Riverton, theorderly, soulless grid of a combine ‘clave, a glorified barracks for Tau’scitizen/shareholders, whose leaders were still eating and drinking and lying toeach other at the party I’d just bolted from.

Ahead of me a single bridge arced across the sheer-walled canyonthat separated Tau Riverton from the city on the other side. The canyon wasdeep and wide, carved out by what must once have been a multikiloton waterflow.Now there was only one thin strand of brass-colored river snaking along thecanyon floor, a hundred meters below.

I looked up again at the bridge span, its length brighteningwith unnatural light as the dusk deepened. At its far end lay not just—Hydran.Anothertown but another world, or what was left of it.Hydran.Alien.This was as close as the preprogrammed systems of the aircab I’dhired would take me—or anyone—to what lay across the river:Freaktown.

From here I couldn’t tell anything about the town on theother side, half a kilometer away through the violet dusk. I stole glances atit as I drifted along the light-echoed, nearly empty concourse toward the endof the plateau. Ghost voices murmured in my ears as my databand triggered everytight-beam broadcast I passed through. They whispered to me that there was afifty-credit fine for spitting on the sidewalk, & hundred-credit fine forlittering, fines up to a thousand credits and including a jail term if Idefaced any property. There were subliminal visuals to go with the message,flickering across my vision like heat lightning.

I’d never spent time in a combine ‘clave before. I wonderedhow its citizens kept from going insane, when everywhere they turned they gotfeedback like this. Maybe they simply learned to stop seeing, stop listening. Iwas pretty damn sure they learned to stop spitting on the sidewalk.

What was left of the river poured like dregs from a spilledbottle over the barely visible precipice up ahead. Up on the heights, poisedlike some bird of prey, was the Aerie. I could see its streamlined gargoyleform, the fluid composite and transparent ceralloy of its body straining outover the edge of the world like a death wish, silhouetted against the bruisedmauves and golds of the sunset sky.

I remembered how I’d left it; thought about the drinks I’dhad up there tonight, that maybe I’d had too many, too close together. Ithought about the trank patches I’d put on even before I got to the party.

I reached up and peeled the used, useless patches off myneck. I dug in my pockets for a camph; stuck the last one I had into my mouthand bit down, because it didn’t matter now if having another one was a badidea. As the camph numbed my tongue I sighed, waiting for it to take out all mynerve endings the same way, one by one.Waiting .... It didn’t help.Tonight nothing did. Nothing could.

There was only one thing that could give me what l needed tonight,and I wasn’t going to find that in Tau Riverton. And with every heartbeat Ispent not looking across the river, my need grew stronger.

Damn you!.I shook my head, not even certain who Imeant. I leaned against an advertising kiosk, letting the shifting colors ofits display holos bleed on me. The voices murmuring in my ears changed as Ichanged position, urging me togo here, buy this,reminding me thatthere was a fine for loitering, a fine for defacing a display unit. The colorsturned the clothing I’d bought this afternoon into something as surreal as mymemories of tonight’s reception.

I looked back across the river again, pushing my hands intomy pockets. The season was supposed to be spring, but Riverton was located farsouth, near Refuge’s forty-fifth parallel, in the middle of what seemed to behigh desert. The night air was cold, and getting colder. The cold made my handsache. They’d been frostbitten more than once, back in Oldcity. Quarro’s springhad been cold too. I watched my breath steam as I exhaled; condensation touchedmy face with dank cloud-fingers.

I began to walk again, back the way I’d come, telling myselfI was only moving to keep warm. But I was moving toward the bridge, the onlypoint of intersection that existed for two peoples living on the same planet butin separate worlds.

This time I got close enough to see the access clearly: Thearched gateway, the details of the structure. The guards. Two armed men,wearing corporate Security uniforms, Tau’s colors showing all over them.

I stopped as their heads turned toward me. Suddenly I was angry,not even sure why ... whether it was what those uniformed bodies said about theaccess between their world and the one on the other side, or just the fact thatthey were corpses, and it would be a long time before the sight of a CorpSecuniform didn’t make my guts knot up.

I made myself move toward them with my empty hands at mysides, wearing neat, respectable clothes and a databand.

They watched me come, their faces expressionless, until Iwas only a few steps from them under the gateway arch. It was warm under thearch.

My databand triggered the pillars on either side of me; theycame alive with mindnumbing displays of data: maps, diagrams, warnings, listsof regulations. I saw my own image centered in one of the displays, a scan ofmy entire body showing that I was unarmed, solvent ... and not quite sober.

I stared at the double image of my face, the file-match sideby side with the realtime image, looking at them the way I knew the guardswould look at them. Seeing my hair, so pale in the artificial light that it wasalmost blue. I’d let it grow until it reached my shoulders, pinned it back witha clip at the base of my neck, the way most students of the Floating Universityhad worn theirs. The gold stud through the hole in my ear tonight was about asconservative as I could make it, like my clothes. The light turned my skin anodd shadow-color, but it was no odder than the colors the guards’ skins hadturned in the light. I glanced down, away, hoping they wouldn’t look at my eyes.

One of the corpses studied the display while the other onestudied me. The first one nodded to the second and shrugged. “In order,” hesaid.

“Evening, sir,” the second Corpse said to me with a tight,polite nod. Their faces looked hard and disinterested; their faces didn’t matchtheir manners. I wondered what subliminal messages their helmet monitors werefeeding them, reminding them always to be courteous, to say “please” and “thankyou” when they rousted a citizen, or they’d see another black mark on theirrecord, a debit from their pay. “You have business over on the Hydran side?”

“No,” I muttered. “Just ... sightseeing.”

He frowned, as though I’d said something embarrassing orsomething that didn’t make sense. The other guard laughed, a soft snort, as ifhe was trying not to. “Not from around here,” the first one muttered. It wasn’treally a question.

The second one sighed. “It’s my duty, sir, to point out toyou that your blood alcohol level is high, indicating possible impairedjudgment. No offense, sir.” His voice was as flat as a recording. Flatter. “Also,sir, I’m required to show you this information.” He pointed at the displays. “Pleaseread the disclaimer. It states that you accept full responsibility for anythingthat happens to you on the other side of the river. That’s the Homeland overthere. It’s not Tau’s jurisdiction; it’s not Tau’s responsibility. We don’tguarantee your safety.” He looked hard at me, to see if I was tracking what he’dsaid ... looked harder at me as he suddenly got a good look at my eyes: thegrass-green irises, with the long slit pupils like a cat’s.

He looked at my whole face, then, and started to frown. Heglanced at the information display from my databand on the wall behindhim—undeniable proof, to both of us, that I was a full citizen of the HumanFederation. He looked back at my face again; his frown didn’t go away. But heonly said, “Curfew is at ten. Crossing closes for the night ... if you want tocome back.” He was already turning his back on me as he finished it. Hemuttered something to the other guard as I went on my way. I didn’t hear whatit was.

There were only a few people moving across the bridge onfoot. I tried not to look at the ones I passed, the ones who passed me. Theykept their eyes to themselves. one or two small private ground vehicles wentby, so unexpected that I had to dodge out of their way. The canyon below thebridge’s span was full of shadows; far below, light danced on the hidden watersurface.

By the time I’d reached the far end of the bridge I only hadeyes for what lay ahead. All I could make out were vague shapes and randompatterns of light, but every step seemed harder to take than the last.

I let my concentration fall inward, trying to forcesomething to happen in my mind; trying to focus, to listen, to reach out andspeak in the secret language that a thousand other minds must be speaking, mustbe hearing, just beyond the bridge’s end.

But it was no use. They were psions, telepaths—and I wasn’t.Tryingonly proved again what I already knew: That what was gone was gone.That what was past help should have been past grief by now; long past this sickhunger—

I was trembling, the way I’d trembled at the reception underthe stares of the three Hydrans. I told myself that I was cold, standing herewith the night coming on, at the end of winter on an alien world where I was atotal stranger. That my body’s reaction wasn’t because I felt so terrified thatI wanted to puke, wanted to do anything but go on.

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