Read Dreamfall Online

Authors: Joan D. Vinge

Dreamfall (page 6)

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“It wouldn’t look good,” Sand said. “Obviously we don’t wantit to appear that some group of radicals is functioning, unchecked, as themajor influence in the Hydran Homeland. It isn’t good for Tau’s image—or forthe Hydrans’ either—if the FTA sees social chaos over there.” He jerked hishead in the direction of the river. “The kind of attention that it will attractfrom the FTA will not be the sort that HARM intends, believe me.”

I listened, squinting at him in the reflected glare of toomany windows in too many towers, grimacing as my mind cut through theself-serving bullshit to the truth:They were right.Humans would neverfeel safe enough to share real power with Hydrans. And the FTA was just ashuman as Tau, when it came to that.

“I see what you mean,” I said, getting up again. I looked towardthe plex where the missing child’s parents were going through a kind of hellthat cut across all the artificial barriers of race and money, that proved theonly universal truth was pain. “But what do you think I can do to change that?”

Perrymeade’s body language eased, as if he finallyunderstood what he saw in my face, or thought he did. But still he hesitatedbefore he said, “We’ve told the Hydran Council everything that Sand hasexplained to you. But they still claim to know nothing. I can’t believe that.You share a ... heritage with them, but you’ve lived among humans. You have abetter chance of making them understand what they’re risking by harboring thesedissidents ....”

What they were risking.I touched my head. I couldtell the Hydrans what they had to lose ... but who knew if they’d even give mea chance. All they had to do was look at me; all they had to do was try totouch my mind. I glanced at Perrymeade and Sand. There was no point in tryingto explain anything to them; they wouldn’t give a damn anyway.

“I have a question, before you go,” Sand said, turning tome. “Why aren’t you a functional telepath? Perrymeade said you used to be atelepath, but now you’re not. How do you get rid of a thing like that?”

I looked straight in through his dim, dead eyes. “You haveto kill someone.”

He started. I wondered how long it had been since someonehad surprised him. I wondered exactly what it was about what I’d said that had.

“You killed someone?” Perrymeade echoed.

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” I glanced at him. “‘When Iwas seventeen. I blew him away with a tightbeam handgun. It was self-defense.But it doesn’t matter if you’re a psion and someone’s brain goes nova insideyou. If I was really Hydran, it would’ve killed me. But I wasn’t Hydran enough.All it did was fuck up my head. So now I’m only human.”

Perrymeade’s face went a little slacker. I watched him pullit together again with a negotiator’s reflex.

Neither of them said anything more, until finally a mod camespiraling down out of the heights and Sand said, “Good-bye.”

Five

A pruvLre corporate mod took us over to Freaktown. No wanderingthrough its streets on foot for a Tau vip, even one whose job was to pretendthat he understood its people as well as he did his own. As we passed over theriver I looked down, seeing the lone bridge, one tenuous filament connectingtwo peoples and the different ways they looked at the same universe. I thoughtabout Miya: how she’d been chosen, trained, to help a human child the way nohuman could. How she had helped him ....

And then she’d betrayed him. I wondered whether I was seeingtoo incomplete an image to make sense of the truth, or whether Hydrans reallywere that alien, so alien I’d never understand how their minds worked.

The mod came down again somewhere deep in the heart ofFreaktown. We stepped out into the enclosed courtyard of a sprawling structurePerrymeade told me was the Community Hall.CommunitymeantHydran,toHydrans.Community ...communing, communication, to live in a commune...to have a common destiny, history, mind ....My own mind playedwith the word like a dog gnawing a bone, finding meanings layered insidemeanirgs, wondering whether any of them were ones the Hydrans had intended.

Here in the courtyard, sealed off from the decaying streets,there were actually a few shrubs and trees; a few of the colors of life, only alittle dusty and overgrown. I looked down. A garden of brightly tiled mosaicspread outward from where I stood. Dim with age and dust, it still made my eyesstrobe.

Off to my left a stream barely the width of my open handwove a silver thread through the dry shrubbery. Half hidden in the bushes Icould see a velvet patch of mossgrass, so green and perfect that I startedtoward it without thinking.

I stepped across the stream onto the waiting patch of green ...and found the knee-high sculpture of a Hydran woman sitting cross-legged on amandala of tile. Her inset eyes of green stone met mine, as if she had beenexpecting me to be expectittg this.

No one in the courtyard could see what I was seeing now. Noone who didn’t step across the stream would ever see it. I smiled.

I looked up as someone emerged from the shadows at the farside of the courtyard: a Hydran, striding toward the others as if he was onlyhuman, &S though he didn’t have a better way to get from one place toanother. He was one of the guests from the reception last night. My memoryoffered up his name: Hanjen.

He stopped almost in midstride as he saw me. The look on hisface was the same look my own face still wore: pure astonishment.

I stepped back across the stream into the courtyard. Hestood perfectly still, watching as I rejoined Perrymeade by the mod.

At last he made a small bow and said something in a languagethat must have been Hydran.

“What did he say?” I murmured to Perrymeade.

“I don’t know,” Perrymeade said. “Some sort of greeting. Idon’t know what it means.”

“You don’t speak their language?” It wasn’t that difficultto learn a language by accessing. And someone at his level in a corporategovernment had enough bioware to let him run a translator program, if accessingwas too much trouble for him. “Why not?”

He shrugged and looked away from me. “They all understandours.’t

I didn’t say anything; I just went on looking at him.

“Besides,” he murmured, as if I’d said what I was thinking,or maybe because I hadr’t, “the Hydrans claim all language is only second best.So there’s really no difference.”

DKEAMnALL / 79

“Yes, there is,” I said. I looked away again, listening forsomething else: trying to tell whether Hanjen reached out to me with his mind,trying to be open. Waiting for a whisper, a touch, anything at all; desperatefor any contact, for proof that I wasn’t a walking dead man, or the last onealive in a world of ghosts.

But there was nothing. I watched the Hydran’s face. Emotionmoved across it like ripples over a pond surface. I didn’t know what theemotions were because I couldn’t feel them, couldn’t prove that he was real,any more than I could prove that I wasn’t utterly alone here.

“Mez Perrymeade,” he said, glancing away from me as if I didn’texist. “We have been expecting you. But why have you brought this one,” meaningme, “with you?” The words were singsong but almost uninflected, not givinganything away.

“Mez Hanjen,” Peffymeade said, trying to hold himself asstill as the Hydran did. He looked like he was trying to hold back water. “Iasked him to come.”

“No,” I said, forcing myself to meet Hanjen’s stare. “Youasked me to come. Last night, at the party.” We were all speaking Standard,now. I wondered whether anyone from Tau had ever bothered to learn the Hydrans’language. I wondered suddenly why Hydrans even had one, needed one, when theycould communicate mind-to-mind. The data on Hydran culture that was freelyaccessible on the Net was so spotty I hadn’t been able to learn even that muchabout them.

Hanjen made a small bow to me. “That is true. However, Ihardly expected, under the circumstances ...” He broke off, looking toward thespot where I’d discovered the hidden statue. He shook his head, glancing at me againas he began to turn away.

He stopped suddenly and turned back, making eye contact withus. “Excuse me,” he murmured. “I meant to say, ‘Please follow me, the membersof the Council are waiting.’”

“Are they all like that?” I muttered as we started afterhim.

Perrymeade shrugged and grimaced as Hanjen disappeared intopatterns of light and shadow.

For a second I thought Hanjen had disappeared entirely,tele-ported himself, making some point by leaving us behind. My chest hurt as Iwondered whether I’d been the reason. But when I stepped into the shadowsbeyond the courtyard I saw him moving ahead of me through a lightplay oforganic forms—trees and shrubs, columns and arches built on the same fluidlines. There wasn’t a right angle anywhere; wherever I looked, my eyes had troubletelling life from art.

Hanjen led us without a word, not looking back, along a shelteredwalkway. The pbth wandered like a stream through a maze of vine-hung arbors;the arbors became a series of chambers, their ceilings and walls as random asthe walls of caves. In some of the chambers every inch of wall was covered withpatterned tiles; some had ceilings inlaid with geometries of age-darkened wood.There were flower-forms and leaf-forrns spreading like vines up any pillar orwall that wasn’t decorated with mosaics. My mind could barely take it in as wepassed through one room and then another. Perrymeade had called this theCommunity Hall, but the words didn’t begin to describe it. I wondered what itreally was, how old, what meaning it must have held for the ones who hadoriginally constructed it.

Other Hydrans passed us as we made our way deeper into themaze of chambers and passages. The unconscious grace of their movements seemedto match the sinuous beauty of the spaces we were passing through. I kept mygaze fixed on the ceiling, the walls, the floor; afraid to meet anyone else’seyes, afraid I’d catch them looking in through mine.

At last we entered an echoing vault of a room where a dozenother Hydrans waited. They sat or kneeled at a low free-form table, lookingtoward us as if they’d been expecting us. I looked away from them—looked up,and thought I was looking at the sky. Above us there was a blue translucentdome painted with clouds. Birds, or something like them, were soaring towardthe brightness of the sunlit zenith, 3s if they’d been startled into flight byour arrival.

I stopped dead, looking up; stood staring a moment longer, untilmy mind finally convinced my eyes that what they were seeing wasn’t real—thatthe birdlike things were only images, frozen in flight against a painted sky.No wings fluttered; there was no movement toward that burning glaze of light.

I looked down; the room and its faces rushed back into placearound me.

“Remarkable, isn’t it?” Perrymeade murmured as he passed me.“It always stops people cold the first time they see it.”

I followed him, keeping my eyes on his back until I reachedthe low table. Around it were seats, more than enough, although some of theHydrans kneeled on mats on the floor. The seats were made of wood like thetable; like the table, they’d been carved into nonlinear, organic forms. Theirwood smelled of oil and age. I hoped they were more comfortable than theylooked.

There was no sign of a high-tech insert on the table or anywhereelse in the room, even though this was apparently the meeting space for theonly formal government the Hydrans had. I wondered whether they really didn’tneed human-style data storage or whether Tau had simply refused to give themaccess to it.

Hanjen bowed to the waiting Council members. They nodded inreturn. Perrymeade was already sitting down. I faced the silent circle at last,hesitating as I chose a seat. I recognized two of the Hydrans as Moket andSerali, the ones who’d been at the party last night with Hanjen. There weremore older members than younger ones on the Council, but it was divided aboutequally between the sexes.

All of them looked well fed. They wore new, well-cutclothing that must have come from across the river; the clothes they’d chosenlooked expensive, even stylish. It didn’t match what I’d seen on people inFreaktown’s streets. Neither did the jewelry they wore—and there was a lot ofit—although some of the pieces were odd and old enough to have been heirlooms.Several of them wore nose rings, which were definitely not the look over inRiverton.

A creature that matched the ceiling’s painted birds perchedon one man’s shoulder. I studied it, trying to get a better idea of what itactually was. It was gray-furred, not feathered, more like a bat than a bird,with a long pointed face and enoffnous ears folded like origami. It raised itshead, looking back at me with bright darting eyes.

And then suddenly it launched into the air, spreadingleathery wings a handbreadth wide. It flew straight at me, right into my face.

I flung my hands up as claws raked my flesh inside aslapping, flapping confusion of wings. I fell into a chair as the bat-thinglifted off of me again.

I lowered my hands. Figures loomed over me; one of them wasPerrymeade. He was speaking to me, but I couldn’t seem to make out the words.

I struggled upright in my seat, smarting with scratches andhumiliation; saw someone pass the chittering bat-thing back to its owner.

The Hydran who gathered it into his hands glared at me as ifthe attack had been my fault, but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, whatany of them thought, what the hell had happened ... Except for the shrill,almost inaudible squeaks of the bat-thing, the room was totally silent.

And then the bat-thing’s owner disappeared.