God’s Gift Star System
“Have you truly never done this, sip’ya’a?” Eb’shra Maladar asked, clutching Ersha’s arm as she looked up and around at the pale blue sky and its flocks of fat, gray-bottomed clouds. The warm breeze played in her mane of thick, black hair, as dark as his own, quickly giving her a windblown look that under other circumstances would have been attractive. As was her habit when in the company of Humans, as they most certainly were at that moment, she spoke the Human language with a sprinkling of Leyra’an phrases. “Have you never walked upon the open face of a living world?” She drew a deep breath and released it with a satisfied sigh. It seemed almost to intoxicate her, from the way her eyes were shining.
“Never,” Kr’nai Ersha replied, as casually as he could manage. He felt nothing of the sort. He let her cling to his arm, her dark cinnamon scales in contrast to his of a more golden hue, her arm bare of markings, and his bearing curved stripes of darker pigment, far more common among the Leyra’an. All the while he wished for some anchor point of his own.
“It was a long time ago, that first one,” she said. “I found it frightful and very stimulating, all at once. I had a better appreciation for the others, after that. Those were terraformed worlds, though. This world, ah – this world truly lives!”
Ersha let her go on, struggling not to let his own increasing discomfort spoil Maladar’s adventure. At the first sign he was in trouble she would hustle them back indoors, and then off the planet itself, even though she was reveling in this experience. For Ersha it was no adventure, but rather a test of courage and endurance – and of the Commonwealth nanomed technology that suffused his body. Ersha was sure he could feel it churning through him as it sought to restore his equilibrium, his – what had Alicia always called it? Homeostasis?
Churn quickly, little friends! he implored the molecule-sized machines in him. Before the churning in my stomach gets the better of us all!
Ersha had once been the ambassador to the Republic from the Confederation of Clans, many years before, during a fruitless effort to end the war. The negotiations never got further than a truce, and he’d never gotten anywhere near God’s Gift, the living world that had been the salvation of the Founders of the Republic nearly three hundred years before. No Leyra’an had been here since before the start of the war. Now the war was truly over, and he and Maladar had the honor of being the first. Ersha stood with the breeze in his face wishing he could be almost anywhere else.
Maladar, meanwhile, was inhaling the moist breeze as if the rich, organic aroma of the lake before them provided her with some sort of nourishment. It baffled him; they’d both grown up in habitats and stations, as often as not well outside the habitable zone of a given star. The space-time nodes that made interstellar travel possible were never found that deep in a star’s gravity well. Much of his later adult life had been spent in one warship or another. Even his time as ambassador to the Republic had been spent in a station. How did she come to be so delighted by such an uncontrolled environment? Maladar was more than simply at ease by the shore of this inland sea; she acted as if it were her natural environment. As if she belonged here. But then, he reflected, she was that way everywhere she went.
Something about the way she looked at the water made him a bit apprehensive.
Emerson Worth, President of the Republic, had called them straight to the center of the Republic, called for representatives of all the Sibling Species and the Humans of the Commonwealth. At his invitation they’d traveled in one of the Republic’s cheat drive ships, making the visit practical. The cheat drive was an innovation capable of almost but not quite forming a matrix field while in a star system’s gravity well, with the result that the ship using it could skip into and out of the universal matrix without damage. The decrease in interplanetary travel time was astonishing, almost as surprising as the decision by Worth to declassify it. And so it had been made possible to visit the living world where the Republic was born, though time and events pressed them. The idea behind the visit was to make it as plain as possible to the people in the very heart of the Republic that the Leyra’an were no longer their enemies. It had taken more than fifty years, but Leyra’an feet were upon the surface of God’s Gift once more. Ersha was sure his feet should have felt honored.
Ersha could have waited another five decades. That would have been just fine.
He braced himself against a surge of vertigo and clenched his teeth against nausea. He looked down at the short, green turf beneath his booted feet, and saw the breeze flatten his dark green trousers against his legs for a moment. A breeze of such strength in a station likely meant a breach, and he was unable to avoid a moment of anxiety. His shadow was dark against the grass, and it was easier when he looked down, rather than up into the sky.
Ersha didn’t dare look at the horizon. The way it curved was wrong, just wrong, and he could not bear it.
Perhaps it will be easier at night, he thought as the dizziness and sick feeling mercifully ebbed before he disgraced himself. Perhaps the sight of stars over me will help.
“Come, let us go down to the water!” Maladar said. It was never a question with her, and yet never quite a command. Much as he loved her, Ersha recognized that Maladar was one of the most self-centered people he knew. There was nothing malicious about it, which kept it from ever stinging the egos of those around her. Most of the time. But there it was, and so he dutifully and without question followed her from turf to sand, and to the edge of the lake, carefully watching the long-necked birds bobbing on the glassy blue waves that washed with foam and a splash upon the shore.
There would be no waves on a proper lake, such as the Willow Lake built beside the inn of the same name, far away in Bartram Habitat. Back home. He’d never felt it to be home quite as strongly as he did at this moment. No waves, no swans bobbing, unless a playful han’anga happened to splash down into the water nearby. His feet left the turf and pressed gently into damp sand as he walked with her toward the water. The smell of water and life filled his nose and lungs; the breeze was saturated with it! It wasn’t all that unpleasant in and of itself, but any pleasurable thing can be overwhelming in sufficient quantity. There was a bench made of smooth wooden planks near the water’s edge. “I would like to sit for a moment,” he said, waving a hand toward the bench.
“Are you unwell, Ersha?”
“I am fine, sip’ya. This is all just a bit overwhelming,” he added in a carefully controlled understatement. “Please, go down to the water. Just, ah, do not go too far. I fear you might fall in.”
“You would not come to my rescue?” she teased, eyes bright over a wicked grin, showing just a hint of teeth.
“I, ah, well, the truth is, I do not know how to swim!”
One of the Humans with them, tall, fair-haired and slim, stepped up from behind to stand beside Ersha. “Not to worry, sir,” said Malcolm, their Human guide and guardian. The five other members of his crew, like him dressed as casually as any visitor to the shore on this warm spring day, were scattered around them, watching Human passers-by. “We’d fish her out before the swans even noticed.” He grinned, once again forgetting how the Leyra’an reacted to a display of teeth.
But we are on a Human world, Ersha reminded himself. Here it is the Way of Humanity that must be observed. I must accept this, for acceptance is the heart of the Way of the Leyra’an, wherever we might be! And Malcolm is a good man, if a bit young for this duty. I rather like him.
For the Leyra’an, acceptance of reality as it is, and being in balance with it, was everything that mattered. Had the Humans of the Republic lived in such balance, many lives might have been spared. Instead, there had been war and death. Ersha tried not to hold it against all the Humans of the Republic, something made possible by his own guilt. His own decisions, made in moments of unforgivable anger, had led to the loss of many lives.
“Sir,” Malcolm said quietly. He stood beside the now seated Ersha and watched as Maladar reached the shore; water lapped the sand just centimeters from her toes. Her feet were bare, and her shoes dangled from her hands. Already spray from the breeze had spattered drops of water on her trousers, Maladar not being over-fond of skirts when traveling.
“Thought you might want this, sir,” Malcolm said in a low voice, not meant to be heard by anyone but Ersha. He moved his right hand toward Ersha a few centimeters, just enough to gain Ersha’s attention. Malcolm’s palm was turned toward Ersha, and there was a small, translucent packet tucked behind his thumb and against the palm.
“The drug your physicians prepared for me,” Ersha observed with a nod. “To fend off nausea and such.”
“Yes, sir,” said Malcolm. “I noticed that you’d left it behind, and snagged it on the way out.”
“I did not believe I would need it,” Ersha said. He didn’t mention the reason, that he expected the nanomed to resolve the problem fairly soon. Commonwealth medical technology was still a touchy subject for the Republic, seen by many as a denial of the will of their God. Ersha hadn’t left the packet behind by accident, but regretted the decision. “It turns out I was mistaken. Thank you, Malcolm.” He took the packet, opened it, and swallowed the contents. The relief it provided was almost immediate. Ersha looked up at the horizon.
“Most welcome, sir,” Malcolm replied.
It still curved the wrong way. But now it wasn’t a stomach-churning sight to be avoided. It was just profoundly unsettling.
Ersha was truly what his Human friends would call space born. He was on the surface of a planet, and he tried not to think of himself as trapped and helpless in the bottom of a gravity well. He was an honored and welcome guest. They were all of them, the assembled members of the Commission for Mutual Defense, in God’s Gift System to help coordinate an allied response to the Faceless, who even then were leaping from one star system to another through the Republic. All the Commissioners had been invited to visit the surface of the world. Maladar alone had accepted that offer. The other delegates were safely in their guest quarters, in orbit. Maladar had laughed at their excuses and taken the shuttle down, and as her companion, Ersha had no honorable choice but to follow.
The cries of wild, untamed native birds, the local name for which he’d already forgotten, sounded shrill and harsh to his ears. Even the fluctuations in the light level, dimming and brightening as the clouds floated along on the breeze, left him feeling anxious.
The stares of other beachgoers did nothing to ease his nerves.
The local information services had long since alerted the populace to the arrival of the delegation of aliens and Humans from the distant reaches of space. The delegates from the Concordance generated fascination and perhaps a little fear, due to their strangeness. The Humans of the Commonwealth drew a great deal of hopeful attention, and wherever they went they were asked about the rumored cure for Founders’ disease. But the Leyra’an had for too long been the enemy, stigmatized and reviled by endless streams of propaganda, hence the presence of Malcolm and his team.
There had been a number of small groups lounging on the beach, often on colorful blankets with picnic supplies piled on corners, when the visitors had arrived. Now many of the beachgoers sat and stared, leaning heads together to exchange comments. Ersha was quite sure he knew what the talk was about. Malcolm and his men had chosen a section of beach that was unoccupied, but Maladar and Ersha were plainly visible, and just as plainly not Human. Many of the onlookers merely seemed curious, but there were others who stared at the Leyra’an with faces either blank of expression, or eloquent of open hostility, of hatred. A few gathered children and belongings and left the beach behind entirely, as if the damp sand would carry some contagion to them from Leyra’an feet.
Malcolm and his crew watched it all very carefully. It was not obvious, but they were armed with powerful stunners. The President of the Republic, no less, had appealed to the citizens to welcome the visitors, and not judge anyone by the unfortunate past. But Emerson Worth was no fool, and the guards he provided were well-armed, just in case.
Let that be unnecessary! Ersha wished fervently. Gods of all Clans, and the Human god and goddess as well. Let that time truly be over and done!
There were children swimming in the water some meters off the shore. Ersha had seen them go into the water, members of a family that had held its ground further up the beach to Ersha’s right. He glanced that way, and noted a man standing there with his hands on his hips, watching the children. Ersha laughed quietly.
“Sir?” Malcolm asked.
“The children in the water,” Ersha said, nodding toward them. “What would you wager they were told not to swim in this direction?”
“No bet,” Malcolm said, laughing as well. “They’ll claim the current brought them here. At least, that’s what my story would be.” He smiled at Ersha. “I wouldn’t have been able to resist, either.”
“Nor would I!” Ersha felt better with something going on to distract him. “And now what do you suppose they are up to?” He could swear they were riding atop the modest waves coming in to the shore. It made him giddy to watch it.
“Ah, that’s called body surfing,” Malcolm replied. And at the same time a male voice, that of the watchful father, shouted something that was carried away on the breeze. “They’re going to land almost at her feet. Wonder if they meant to be so bold?”
“That will please her,” Ersha said with a smile. “Maladar loves children, and does not discriminate.”
Malcolm looked up the beach. “I hope it’s worth it! When my father looked like that, there was going to be hell to pay. And here he comes!”
Squealing and laughing, the trio of urchins rode the waves almost to the shore, then were left briefly stranded by the waves, to stand dripping no more than a couple of meters from Maladar. Waves coming in from behind surged around knees, thighs, or waist, depending on the age of the child. Their grins and laughter faltered a bit when they shook water from their eyes and saw how close they’d come. The tallest and presumably oldest was a boy, the next tallest a girl, as was the smallest and youngest child.
“Greetings, young ones!” Maladar hailed them with laughter in her voice. “That looked like most excellent fun!”
They stared at her for a moment, and then the older of the two girls said “Sure was!” in a high voice.
“Is it hard to learn?” Maladar asked.
“No,” said the boy, as all three shook their heads. His hair, like that of his sisters, was brown and plastered to his head; water streamed down across shoulders that were just beginning to gain some breadth. He nodded up the beach. “Even our Dad can do it!”
“Teach me how! I do believe I would enjoy this!” The children looked quickly at each other, then back to Maladar, all three seemingly frozen to the sand. “Oh, come, I will not eat you! Surely you are not afraid of me?”
“’Course not!” the boy said, though he was clearly ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.
“Not me!” the older girl asserted. The youngest child shook her head, frowning as if affronted by the very idea.
“Then we shall begin. I already know how to swim!”
“Ohmygod!” Malcolm raised a hand to forestall her as she began to strip off her clothing.
Ersha leapt to his feet and drew a breath to shout a reminder of where they were. He then felt a great fool when he realized Maladar wore a one-piece Human-style woman’s bathing suit under her clothes. But of course, having requested a trip to the shore, she surely intended to swim. Ersha was only surprised that she had taken the time to determine the local Human customs. The garment, Ersha saw, suited her perfectly.
“Come!” she commanded, and trotted down to the water, waded in, and vanished beneath the next wave.
The children glanced at each other and raced after Maladar a moment before their father could shout anything intelligible. Even the youngest sliced into the water with practiced ease, swimming strongly and soon catching up with Maladar. Ersha heard the command to stop, and turned to see a very angry man trotting toward them. When the man was close enough, Ersha could see his assumption was correct. The resemblance was clear; this was their father. Two of Malcolm’s team intercepted him, and there was a brief, heated exchange that Ersha couldn’t follow. “Let him come,” Ersha suggested, raising his voice. “Let him come. They are his children, after all.”
Four sets of heads and shoulders floated offshore together. The children set themselves into a wave and began to cruise with it back to shore. Maladar missed that wave, but managed the next, and let it carry her along.
She needs no lessons, Ersha realized. And this did not surprise him – much.
The children washed up on the sand, laughing and looking back the way they’d come, as Maladar glided to shore almost at their feet. She let the young lad help her stand up, though she surely needed no such assistance. Maladar stood, water streaming from her hair and dripping from slightly pointed ears, amber eyes flashing in the sun. The children looked up at her, beaming, quite caught up in their adventure. Their father shouted three names; they all flinched.
“Uh, oh,” said the boy.
“Told you we’d get in trouble!” said the older girl.
“Shut up,” the boy hissed. He looked at Maladar, then glanced at the reporters who turned up everywhere Maladar and Ersha went. “It’ll be worth it!”
“I do hope so, young man,” said Maladar, and she strode forward with them to meet their father.
Who tried not to stare at this magnificent and all-too-Human woman who bowed to him and said, “If they disobeyed you in coming here, they of course deserve to be chastised. The rest,” she waved out at the water, “was my doing.”
“I just – I just, well, we don’t want any trouble,” he stammered, gray eyes flicking from Ersha to Maladar, and then to Malcolm, who had a hand under his jacket.
Ersha knew there was a stunner holstered there.
“Oh, there is none, I assure you,” she told him. “Your children are fine companions, open, honest, and curious. As well as brave and very polite. You should be proud of them!”
If the children were at all encouraged by her words on their behalf it didn’t show. All three now stood behind their father, directed there by his gestures, staring resolutely at their feet. Ersha suddenly felt sorry for them. In the long run they would remember mostly being with Maladar. Near term, their father’s judgment would weigh far more heavily upon them.
“Children are curious creatures, are they not?” Ersha said to the father, keeping his tone light. “The same is true of the young of my people. And like these,” he nodded toward the downcast trio, “they at times show a bit less judgment than we would like.”
Whatever distraction Maladar’s appearance in the bathing suit might have caused was suddenly stripped away; the man just stared at Ersha, hard-eyed, his face darkening. “Your kind killed my father,” he said. “Before they were even born.” He turned his back on them and herded his offspring away. The little girl glanced briefly back, and there were tears in her eyes.
Maladar sighed and looked down for a moment, then back up at the retreating Humans. “And it will be remembered when he is a grandfather, himself,” she said in Leyra’an. “How many generations does it take, before hatred dies?”
“I fear it does not work that way,” Ersha replied, in kind.
“No,” said Maladar. “It does not.” She sighed again, looking sad and disappointed, then bent and gathered her clothes, pulling on the trousers and boots, but slinging the rest over her shoulders, and striding back to the turf-covered park beyond the beach. Ersha walked beside her, and Malcolm led the way with his men grouped around them and watchful.
Ersha looked up and the sky still curved the wrong way, but somehow that just seemed appropriate.