Authors: Catherine Asaro,Steven H Silver,Joe Bergeron
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General, #Action & Adventure, #Science Fiction
Our culture tends (somewhat hypocritically) to regard science and art as quite separate, even alien. But others might blend them in ways we'd find really alien. . . .
|Table of Contents|
|1||The Dreamers of Nightingale|
|3||The Giant's Rib|
He missed the sun.
The planet Ansatz boasts one city, Nightingale, a gem that graces eternal night. Just as a diamond sparkles because light that ventures into its heart is captured, bouncing from face to face, so Jato Stormson was trapped in Nightingale. Unlike the light inside a faceted diamond, however, he could never escape.
After a few years, his memories of home faded. He could no longer picture the sun-parched farm on the planet Sandstorm where he had spent his boyhood. It was always dark in Nightingale.
The Dreamers — the artistic geniuses who created Nightingale — were also mathematical prodigies. That was why they named their planet Ansatz. It referred to a method of solving differential equations. Guess an answer, an ansatz, and see if it solved the equation. If it didn't, make another guess. Another ansatz. Jato felt as if he were trapped on a guess of a world.
One night he went to the EigenDome, an establishment for dancing. He sat at a table and waited for the drink server, but the server never came to his table. That was why he rarely visited the Dome. The artist who had designed the place considered it aesthetic to have humans serve the drinks and the humans in Nightingale ignored him. But that night he was lonelier than usual and even the icy Dreamers were better than no company at all.
Made from synthetic diamond, the Dome resembled a truncated soccer ball. Jato had looked up its history in the city library and found a treatise on how the Dome's shape mimicked the molecule buckyball. Its holographic lighting evoked the quantum eigenfunctions that described a buckyball. He didn't understand the physics, but he appreciated the beauty it produced.
Tonight Dreamers were everywhere, dancing, talking, humming. Centuries of playing with their genes and living in perpetual night had bleached their skin almost to translucence. Their hair floated around their bodies like silver smoke. Light from lamps outside the Dome refracted through the diamond walls, gracing the interior with rainbows that collected on the Dreamers in pools of color. They glistened like quantum ghosts.
Across the Dome, the doors opened. A spacer stood in the doorway, her body haloed by the rainbow luminance. This was no Dreamer. She looked solid. Sun-touched. She must have come in on one of the rare ships that visited Nightingale; rare, because the Dreamers allowed no immigration and most sun-dwellers found a city of unrelieved night depressing anyway. The only reason people usually came to Ansatz was to trade for a Dream.
Ah, yes. The Trade.
Dreamers make a simple offer; give one a pleasant dream and in return the Dreamer will give you a work of art. They allow you ten days to try. After that, you must leave Nightingale, trade or no trade. Considering the prices Dreamer art claims throughout the Imperialate, that trade seems astoundingly one-sided, the offer of great treasure for no more than a nice dream.
Jato had let the lure of that promise fool him. He spent years saving for the ticket to Ansatz. But how do you give a dream? It was harder than it sounded, particularly given how sun-dwelling humans revolted the Dreamers. The same husky build and rugged looks that had won him such admiration back home repelled the Dreamers. Considering their disdain for ugliness, he feared they wouldn't even let him stay the ten days.
They never let him go.
So now he sat by himself and watched the spacer walk to a table across in the Dome. She wore dark pants tucked into boots and a white sweater with gold rings decorating the upper arms. Her clothing looked familiar, but Jato couldn't place why. She had no jacket; Nightingale's weather machines aided the planet's natural convection to keep the climate pleasant, free from the fierce winds the tore at the rest of Ansatz. Her hair was a cloud of black curls with gold tips, and dark lashes framed her eyes — green eyes, the color of a leaf in the forest. Her skin had a dusky hue, full of rosy blooming health. None of the Dreamers spared her a second look, but Jato thought she was lovely.
She sat down — and the server showed up to take her order. Irked, Jato got up and headed for the laser bar, intending to insist they serve him. Reaching it, however, was no simple feat. The Dome's floor consisted of nested rings, each slowly rotating in one direction or the other. The text he had found in the library described some business about "mapping coefficients in quantum superpositions onto ring velocities." All he knew was that it took a computer to coordinate the motion so patrons could step from one ring to another without falling. Dreamers carried it off with grace, but he had never mastered it.
He managed to reach the dance floor, a languid disk turning in the Dome's center. Dancers drifted away from him, slim and willowy, silver-eyed works of art. On the other side, he ventured into the rings again and was soon being carried this way and that. Each time he neared a hovertable occupied by Dreamers, it floated away on cushions of air. He wished just once someone would look up, admit his presence, give a greeting. Anything.
Meanwhile, the server brought the spacer her drink, which was a LaserDrop in a wide-mouthed bottle. Tiny lasers in the glass suffused the drink with color: helium-neon red, zinc-selenium blue, sodium yellow. Drink in hand, she settled back to watch the dancers.
Jato quit pretending it was the bar he wanted and headed for the spacer. But whenever he neared the ring with her hovertable, people and tables that had been drifting away suddenly blocked his path. The spacer meanwhile finished her drink, slid a payment chip into the table slot, and headed for the door. He started after her — and the drink server appeared, blocking the way, his back to Jato, his tray of laser-hued drinks held high.
Jato scowled. He had always been long on patience and short on words. But even the most stoic man could only take so much. He put his hand against the server's back and pushed, not hard, just enough to make the fellow move. The server stumbled and his tray jumped, rum splashing out of the jars in plump drops. Even then, no one looked at Jato, not even the server.
He made it to the door without pushing anyone else. Outside, lamps lit the area for a few meters, but beyond their radiance, night reigned under a sky rich with stars. Jato strode away from the Dome, his fists clenched. He didn't want to give them the satisfaction of seeing their treatment provoke him.
The Dome was on the city outskirts, near the edge of a large plateau where the Dreamers had built Nightingale. The Giant's Skeleton Mountains surrounded the plateau, falling away from it on three sides and rising in sheer cliffs on the fourth, here in the north. The northern peaks piled up higher and higher in the distance, until they become a jagged line against the star-dazzled sky.
The Dreamers claimed they built Nightingale as a challenge: can you create beauty in so forbidding a place? This was the reason they gave. Jato had heard others put forth, but the Dreamers denied them.
Although his past attempts at convincing spacers to smuggle him offplanet had failed, he never gave up. In the distant shadows, he saw the spacer climbing the SquareCase, a set of stairs carved into a cliff. The first step was one centimeter high, the second four, the third nine, and so on, their heights increasing as the square of integers. The first twenty ran parallel to the cliff, but then they turned at a right angle and stepped into the mountains, rising taller and taller, until they became cliffs themselves, too high, too dark, and too distant to distinguish.
By the time he reached the first step of the SquareCase, the spacer was climbing the tenth, about the height of her waist. She sat on it, half hidden in the dark while she watched him. He approached slowly and stopped on the ninth step.
"Can I do something for you?" she asked.
"I wondered if you wanted a guide to the city." It sounded unconvincing, but it was the best introduction he could think of.
"Thank you," she said. "But I'm fine." The conversation screeched to a halt.
He tried again. "I don't often get a chance to talk to anyone from offplanet."
Her posture eased. "I noticed my ship was the only one in port."
"Did you come to trade for a Dream?"
"No. Just some minor repairs. I'll be leaving as soon they're done."
Behind her, Jato caught sight of a globe sparkling with lights in a fractal pattern. As it floated forward, it resolved into a robot drone over a meter in diameter, its surface patterned by delicate curls of the Mandelbrot set, swirls fringed by swirls fringed by swirls in an unending pattern of ever more minute lace.
Following his gaze, the woman glanced back. "What is that?"
"A robot. It watches this staircase."
She turned back to him. "Why does that make you angry?"
"Angry?" How had she known? "I'm not angry."
"What does it do?" she asked.
"I'll show you." Jato strode forward and hauled his bulk onto the tenth step. Although he towered over the spacer, she seemed unperturbed, simply scooting over to let him pass. That self-confidence impressed him as much as her beauty.
As he approached the eleventh step, the globe whirred into his face. When he tried to push it away, it rammed his shoulder so hard he fell to one knee.
"Hey!" The woman jumped up and grabbed for him, as if she actually thought she could stop someone his size from falling over the edge. "Why did it do that?"
He stood up, brushing rock dust off his trousers. "As a warning."
That's when she did it. She smiled. "Whatever for?"
Jato hardly heard her. All he saw was her smile. It dazzled.
But after a moment, her smile faded. "Are you all right?" she asked.
He refocused his thoughts. "What?"
"You're just staring at me."
"Sorry." He motioned at the globe. "It was warning me not to go past the city border, which crosses the cliff here." Having the drones watch him up here was almost funny. As if he could actually escape Nightingale by climbing a staircase that grew geometrically.
"Why can't you leave the city?" she asked.
He discovered he couldn't make himself tell her, at least not yet. Why should she believe his story? Eight years ago, the Dreamers had showed up at his room in the Whisper Inn and locked his wrists behind his back with cuffs made from sterling silver Möbius strips. He had no idea what was happening until he found himself on trial. They convicted him of a murder that never happened and sentenced him to life in prison.
Supposedly, years of treatment had "cured" him, and he no longer posed a danger to society. So the Dreamers let him out of his cell, which had never been a cell anyway, but an apartment under the city. For a giddy span of hours he had thought they meant to send him home; if he was no longer dangerous, after all, why keep him under sentence?
He soon found out otherwise.
For the Dreamers who believed in his guilt, which was most of them, it would take a lifetime for him to atone. One of their most renowned artists, Crankenshaft Granite, had argued — with truth — that to Jato it would be almost as much a punishment to spend his life confined to Nightingale as to his apartment. But by making the city his jail, they showed their compassion for a criminal who had turned away from his violent nature. Jato saw why that logic appealed to the Dreamers, who for some reason had a driving need to see themselves as kind, yet who in truth considered all sun-dwellers flawed, deserving neither freedom nor friendship.
But he knew the truth. Crankenshaft's motives had nothing to do with compassion. The only reason Jato had a modicum more freedom now was because it made Crankenshaft's life easier.
Jato didn't want to see that wary look appear on this woman's face, the one spacers always wore when they learned his story. Not yet. He wanted to have these few minutes without the weight of his conviction pressing on them.
So instead of telling her, he pointed at his feet and made a joke. "This is where I live. These are my coordinates."
So much for scintillating wit, he thought. "Coordinates. This staircase is the plot of a non-linear step function."
She laughed, like the sweet ringing of a bell. "Why would anyone go to all this work just to make a big plot?"
"It's art." He wished she would laugh again. It was a glorious sound.
"This is some art," she said. "But you haven't told me why your people won't let you leave."
His people? She thought he was a
? It wasn't only that he bore no resemblance to them. Dreamers were gifted at both art and mathematics, neither of which he had talent for. Yet this beautiful woman thought he was both. He grinned. "They like me. They don't want me to go."
She stared at him, her mouth opening.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
She closed her mouth. "What?"
"You're just staring at me."
"I — your smile — " She flushed. "My apologies. I'm afraid I'm rather tired." She gave him a formal nod. "My pleasure at your company." Then she turned and headed down the stairs.
He almost went after her, stunned by her abrupt leave-taking. But he managed to keep from making a fool of himself. Instead, he stood in the shadows and watched her descend the SquareCase.
When Jato turned into the underground corridor that dead-ended at his apartment, he saw a Mandelbrot globe waiting at the door. Given that he lived nowhere near Nightingale's perimeter, only one reason existed for its presence. Crankenshaft had sent it. With Jato no longer confined to his apartment, Crankenshaft could have him brought wherever he wanted instead of the Dreamer having to come down here.
Jato spun around and ran, his boots clanging on the metal floor. If he could find a side passage too narrow for the globe to follow, he might evade capture. It was a stupid game Crankenshaft played; if Jato escaped the drones, Crankenshaft let him have the day off.
A whirring sound came from behind him. The drone hit his side and he stumbled into the wall, bringing up his arms to protect his face. An aperture opened on the robot and an air syringe slid out, accompanied by the hiss of its firing.
His view of the hall wavered, darkened, faded. . . .
Jato opened his eyes. A face floated above him, an aged Dreamer with eyes like ice. Gusts of wind fluttered her silver hair around her cheeks. He knew that gaunt face. It belonged to Silicate Glacier. Crankenshaft's wife.