Authors: Steve Stanton
Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction
“What do you think?” Zen shouted with a swaying palm.
“It’s breathtaking,” she said, amazed that such an extravagant expanse could be found underground.
“Yeah.” He nodded and smiled. “Worth the trip, huh?”
“I shall never doubt you again,” she said. Six clan colours made up the mingling crowd: blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, and an ochreous red. Not many visitors dressed in white. The men all wore ceremonial cassocks, except for a few young boys in short pants, and the women were all bare-legged except for a few elders with their waists wrapped in saris. No infants were visible in the crowd, no babes in arms, and only two toddlers in the boisterous mix.
A familiar face framed with long dark hair popped into focus in her line of vision—Trish from the showers was pointing in their direction and speaking to a tall blonde woman in a satiny purple outfit and a shorter woman dressed in green. The group had clearly been waiting for them near the back door, the shortest route from the showers, a trio of girls already exchanging juicy gossip. Trish grinned and waved.
“Zen, darling, over here,” the blonde shouted.
Darling? Simara quickly turned to Zen to gauge his reaction. His face softened with pleasure, but turned pensive as his brain chugged ions. He glanced at Simara with fleeting guilt and back to the woman waving frantically. “Uh,” he said, “I’ll introduce you.”
The signs were obvious. His former girlfriend had been alerted to his presence, primed with some tawdry tale about a scantily clad stranger in the showers, a usurper. Simara followed Zen with determination, skipping to keep up beside him as he strode forward.
“Jula!” he shouted as they approached the trio. “You’re looking fabulous. This is Simara,” he said with a wafting hand. “Simara, this is Jula, and Marjum.” He pointed to the shorter woman with black hair, tawny skin, and a critical stare. “And you already know our friend Trish.”
Simara studied the three girls for social cues, but their mixed expressions seemed incongruous. Without the V-net she was blind and helpless on this world, hampered by paucity of experience with no background information. In her natural state, she would have known everything about the trio at the moment of first contact. Facial recognition screening would have given her instantaneous data. Pictures from infancy onward would have spilled into her mind, scholastic files, chat records, spending habits, all their intimate proclivities. She would have known the girls better than they knew themselves. Instead she was trapped in a two-dimensional tableau like a wooden theatre backdrop, trying to interpret a cheap semblance of reality from visual and verbal signals alone. How did people live like this?
“A pleasure to greet you all,” Simara said as she stepped boldly forward with her arm outstretched to offer them each a hearty handshake in turn. The three girls shrank back in unison and wiped palms on their upper thighs, their faces dour with distaste, and Simara frowned with consternation.
Zen reached to touch her shoulder and pull her arm gently down. “She’s just kidding,” he said to the girls with a grin of regret. “Simara’s visiting from offplanet.”
Jula quickly fluttered her fingers up to dismiss any worry. She offered her elbow out to cross forearms with Zen, then turned to Simara with a supercilious smile. “So you’re a trader?”
“Yes,” Simara said, wondering what sordid prattle had poisoned her arrival.
“How long are you staying?”
“I’m not sure.” She glanced at Zen.
“You must find it terribly hot in the desert,” Jula said, and the other girls murmured the consensus, terribly hot.
“It’s quite lovely here in the city,” Simara said, but the trio clammed up at that, not wanting to offer any hint of invitation. They pasted false smiles on cardboard faces and flitted their eyes.
Zen steered her away on the pretence of fetching drinks, and Simara stopped to confront him. “What the hell just happened back there?”
“You can’t offer your hand in public like that,” he whispered. “Hands are for sex.”
She furrowed her brow in disbelief. “What?”
“They thought you wanted to have group sex.”
Simara felt her face boil with a flush of blood. Oh, mothership, what kind of stupid custom was that? Had she really just invited three women to a lesbian orgy? “Are you kidding me?” she asked with irritation. “Your culture has sex with their hands? Have you never heard of coitus?”
Zen grimaced and frowned. “Don’t be a pervert, Simara. We’re not breeders. Babies don’t survive on Bali.”
Simara paused to study him. She quickly reran events in her mind since her landfall. The salvage crew had crossed forearms in close quarters, no high fives, no back slapping. She glanced around the cavern at the couples talking and laughing. No one held hands, no one fondled or embraced. How could she have failed to notice something so obvious? “But you touched me,” she said.
“I thought you might be dead,” he said crisply, and stepped away toward a nearby table piled with food.
She followed on his heels as he took a plate and began to select items with his fingers. “What about eating? You have to use your hands to eat, don’t you?”
“Please don’t make a scene,” he hissed. “This is hard enough already.”
Simara picked up a ceramic plate and struggled for composure. “Sorry,” she murmured. “Help me, please, Zen. I don’t want to make a fool of myself.” She followed his example carefully as they moved down the buffet table, taking only what food he had on his plate, feeling like a total outcast.
“Traditionally, the right hand is used for eating and sex,” he whispered, “and the left reserved for activities related to toiletry. But a few decades ago there was a movement against discrimination, so left-handed people are now free to express themselves in public. If you’re right-handed, you should stick with the rule, or people will talk. It’s a big thing to share food with someone. A communal plate is generally reserved for religious observance.”
Again Simara tested memories now growing potent with meaning. Zen had shared a breakfast with her at his hot-spring bachelor pad, their first meal together. He had massaged her back with pest repellent. Apparently, they had been intimate without her knowledge. Heavens, they were practically married—he had wiped her bare ass with both hands while she was unconscious and near death!
Zen gripped her plate to steady her trembling hand. His brown eyes sought her own and held them like searchlights. “It’s okay, Simara. You’re doing great. Don’t worry about stupid social rules. You’re a skyfall princess.” He had soft eyes, trustworthy eyes, and his face was stern with understanding. She bit her lower lip and nodded.
“C’mon, let’s find a table and get some honey mead,” he said. “The dancing will begin soon.”
She followed mutely and sat with thankfulness, feeling weary. Dancing in this gravity? What a cumbersome fate. She longed for a geyser bath and weightlessness as she nibbled at food of mysterious origin. Zen fetched her a mug of frothy mead, and she reached for it absentmindedly with her left hand while she ate. But stopped and quickly dropped her arm. She finished her right-hand bite and took the drink in due time with civility. Zen chuckled quietly, his face impish:
That wasn’t so bad, was it?
She downed half the mead with a burp of satisfaction and slammed her mug on the table. Damn them all anyway. Zen grinned and followed her example, sloshing beer onto his plate in the process.
He returned in a few minutes with two more mugs of strong ale and a plate of fluffy pastries. He tipped a few onto her plate with sugary fingers, sharing food and relishing the impropriety. What a funny man. Spotlights blinked on and off in the central courtyard as buffet tables were moved aside to clear space. Musicians began to assemble on a terraced balcony up above where a patriarch in a purple cassock grandly announced the traditional Vishan dance about to begin at the stroke of midnight. Simara felt new gravity in her seat as Zen turned to her with query in her eyes. She shook her head. No way.
Jula coalesced out of the crowd as if on signal, a blonde beauty in purple satin. “Happy Vishan,” she proclaimed with a boisterous slur. “It’s our dance, darling.”
“Happy Vishan,” Zen said, “but I’ll take a break this year. I’ve been away so long, I’m not sure I remember the steps. Thanks, anyway.”
Jula smiled with dedicated grace, had probably expected as much under the circumstances. “Perhaps later,” Jula said with an awkward bow, and glanced at Simara with a tight lip and undisguised malevolence in her eyes:
Happy Vishan, bitch.
Simara sipped her mead and turned to Zen after she was out of earshot. “Was that a big deal?”
“Naw, don’t worry,” he said with a finger flip. “We broke it off long ago.”
Drummers began a slow and stately rhythm as mixed couples assembled back to back in the clearing. A loud gong sounded, a deep vibration that seemed crystalline in origin, and Simara turned her attention to the musicians on the terrace. The gong rang again, stately and magnificent, and she realized with surprise that the sound emanated from a huge stalactite hanging from the ceiling. One of the musicians was pulling a chain to strike a trip-hammer against the calcite crystal! Five repetitions, six, and on the seventh gong an orchestra began playing as the dancers took two steps forward and turned to face their partners with a single arm raised to full extension, waving back and forth in time to the chorus like a fanning palm branch.
A symphony of gongs began a complex melody as the musicians pulled cords with both hands to strike stalactites high above, each crystal exquisitely tuned to a single note on the diatonic scale. The couples on the dance floor whirled in unison and ended up facing away again, beckoning to the distance with a sultry invitation to incoming spring. The barefoot dancers wore anklets with tiny bells, and their synchronous movements added a jingling accompaniment to the crystal chorus from above.
“It’s a prayer for crop fertility,” Zen said close to her ear. “The beginning of the rainy season.”
“You have rain in the desert?”
He shrugged. “Sometimes. Mostly just mist from the clouds on the western face of the mountains. Kiva provides everything we need, but never enough to store up in complacency.”
The stalactites began to resonate and hum with increased amplitude as the musicians continued to hammer the gong notes, and the entire amphitheatre seemed to embrace the sound, to join in the symphony of celebration. Simara felt it in her bones and blood, a sound of angels playing celestial carillons on heavenly shores. Louder and louder the vibrations magnified until the whole mountain seemed to sing with praise.
The Vishan dancers cavorted like ballerinas in synchrony, a choreograph designed for supple spines and flexible tendons. The couples stayed connected with their partners in symbolic monogamy even when they spun apart in wild pinwheels of motion. In times of chorus they returned again and again with cascades of furious desire, but halted each time just before the moment of embrace, building a tension of sensuality from the lack of bodily contact. The women flayed their arms wide in artful submission with their breasts punched up and faces tilted skyward while the men wagged chins over the bounty with arms locked behind their backs in ritualistic chastity, the erotic symbolism made all the more provocative by the absence of touch, a raw sexuality held in abeyance behind a thin veil of imagination.
Chimes began to sound on the outskirts of the room as another line of dancers began to form with metal bells in hand. They swayed gently in time to the music, following the same rhythm and timbre as the main dancers in the courtyard, but their stylized movements were much simpler, and their melody a repetitive tune. They appeared to be a younger crowd, unattached to partners, their dance less sensual but still restricted by form. Children with baskets began to circle the periphery distributing wristlet bells to the audience, and soon everyone had a trinket to add to the noise. Simara accepted a bell and slipped it over her right hand, following Zen’s example. The bell jingled each time she raised her cup to her lips.
The pace began to accelerate as the musicians continued to hammer the stalactites, and the symphony reached a frenetic pace as the ballerinas pranced to the quickening beat. Simara’s body began to pulse with the rising tempo—she could feel the vibration of the mountain in her teeth, an impossible ecstasy of resonance. “I’m almost ready to explode,” she shouted into Zen’s ear.
He grinned and nodded as he watched the cavorting crowd. “It takes real stamina to get this far,” he said in admiration of the dancers. “We’re getting near the end.” He turned to face Simara and bent toward her. “Everything falls silent at the last gong.” He cut the air with a slanted palm. “No sound, okay? Only Kiva may speak at the pinnacle of Vishan. You’ll see.”
Simara returned to her drink. Everyone was having fun in a pandemonium of movement and gonging chimes. The pastries were cloying with sweet icing and the ale flowed freely. Children laughed and played with tinkling timbrels.
As the performance reached a crescendo of exuberance, the crowd stood to applaud the dancers now sweating with exertion as they stood waving their arms to the ceiling in pulsating reverence. A final harmonic cadence sounded like a crystal thunderclap as the musicians hammered a closing gong note. Everyone froze to listen with expectance. Young and old closed their eyes in unison and bowed their heads in worship as the mountain reverberated and the calcite crystal sang alone.
Simara strained to hear the voice of Kiva in the afterglow of majesty as the vibrations echoed down every tunnel and into every heart. The transcendent harmony lingered for many moments, and every smile turned beatific at the sound. As the magic mountain cried out divine, everyone knew without a doubt that spring had begun and the future would be better than the past. The desert god Kiva provided enough for all to share and none to prosper. A hum of holiness settled and drifted to a lingering silence.
Applause followed in a rising thunder as the dancers bowed with humility and thanksgiving, and a fresh cornucopia of food emerged from the kitchens along with full trays of mulled ale. Simara gained directions to the lavatory while she still had good wits, and she slid through the bustling crowd like an eel in oil. On her return, she noticed Jula and her two cohorts talking at a table near the back, giggling and tipsy. She approached with sure dignity, emboldened with the first blush of intoxication. “I’m not really a pervert,” she told them point-blank.