Read Freenet Online

Authors: Steve Stanton

Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction

Freenet (6 page)

“Oh, it’s fine, dear,” Jula said with a slur as she stood and waved Simara closer, careful not to touch. “Come and sit with us. You can be our famous friend from the stars.” Her breath was hot and beery, her smile radiant.

“And you know what they say,” Marjum piped up with a wink, “one hand in the darkness is as good as another.” The girls all laughed uproariously at this. Apparently an all-female environment allowed for much more social leeway, or perhaps it was the alcohol talking.

“I wouldn’t know,” Simara said, trying to be frosty without raising a shield. “I’m sorry if I gave the wrong impression earlier.”

“She’s just teasing,” Trish said. “We all know Zen is a glad hand.”

“And a
sturdy
performer,” Marjum added with a leer. A chorus of sniggers offered knowing corroboration.

Simara glanced furtively at nearby tables, wondering who might be within earshot. “I wouldn’t know,” she said again to set the record straight. Could all these girls have had sexual experience with Zen, a small community coming of age together, playing masturbation games with no hope of procreation? How could a culture survive such an evolutionary dead end?

“Oh, sure,” Jula said and rolled her eyes with doubt. “Don’t be too
hard
on the girl.” Another round of drunken hilarity made Simara blush with consternation.

“I have to get back,” she said in dismissal. “Happy Vishan.” Simara shook her head with regret as the girls laughed behind her back

By the time she returned to Zen, he had hooked up with Katzi on business, the older man’s paunch covered by a matching green robe with silver star, his hair a greasy black tangle. They stood cheek to cheek talking quietly in each other’s ear, and a wad of cash disappeared into the folds of Zen’s robe as they exchanged nods of satisfaction.

Simara stepped close and jabbed Zen in the ribs. “Can we go home now?”

He smiled. “No, we can’t go. It’s Vishan. You remember Katzi?” He tipped his elbow out subtly in signal.

“Yes, certainly. You look fine tonight, sir.” She offered her forearm out in greeting, and he crossed it dutifully.

“Not as lovely as you, I must say,” he said with a bow. “You look much prettier with clothes on.”

Simara blinked at him in surprise. What the hell kind of thing was that to say to a girl half his age? She looked down self-consciously at her skimpy white shorts and glanced at her partner. Zen quivered one eye at her to indicate that all was well, so she turned and pasted on a smile for the elder man. “Thanks. Zen picked it out.”

“An eye for detail, that boy,” Katzi said. “Pleasure doing business with you both.”
Drop by anytime. Feel free to crash in my quadrant.
Simara’s imagination was running wild. She had probably had too much to drink.

“You have a hard-working crew,” she said.

Katzi grinned with delight as though that might be the highest compliment possible on any planet. “I’ll give them your accolades.”

“Please do,” she said. It was hardly a lie. They were all a bunch of freaky worker drones. “But tell me, where does the salvage go? There’s no one building shuttles on this planet. I don’t see any signs nearby of industry or technology.”

Katzi nodded. “The geomagnetic storms hold us back here on the surface. Computers are unreliable and communication is sparse. Insurance companies pick up the tab for most of our work, and the mining corps are always looking for strategic metals. Our salvage is worth twenty times as much up the gravity well. All we get is the crumbs from the table.” He spread his hands as though indicating the obvious. “We’re all just dead weight down here. I keep telling Zen, he should get offplanet while he’s young and strong. The sky is his true heritage. His father was a famous politician who boosted to Trade Station every year for meetings. All Zen needs is a good partner with a head for business. There’s a grand universe out there waiting for a couple of brave kids.”

Simara smiled. “Are you trying to get rid of me? I’ve only just arrived.”

“No, you take your time. Enjoy your success. Vishan is the season to be thankful.” He swept an arm in grandeur at the festive crowd, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “But keep your head down and your money in your belt.”

“Wise advice always,” she replied. So there was a shady side to the salvage business, as she’d expected. Insurance companies and mining corps were not known for friendly dealings even in broad daylight.

Zen stood content, and Katzi seemed in no hurry, so Simara turned to watch a group of musicians setting up for after-hours entertainment with stringed instruments and a squeeze box. How much longer could this go on? She could feel gravity sucking at her again, dragging her implacably down. Her vision went fuzzy as waves of nausea made her stomach lurch upward, bloated with frothy mead. She almost reached out to steady herself on Zen’s shoulder, but resisted the urge—no public groping in front of this crowd! Boisterous voices sounded too loud around her, and she imagined Jula and her gang whooping it up at her expense. Her own skin felt rough and abrasive against her flesh. Even her hair ached. Finally she could stand it no longer. “Zen, I’ve got to rest. Is there a hot spring nearby? This gravity is killing me.”

He turned with a look of concern and scrutinized her face as she wavered unsteadily. “Come with me. I’ll find you a place to lie down.”

She relinquished herself to his care, barely able to focus her attention as he led her through the crowd under a waterfall of flowstone to a tunnel opening on the wall. Steps led down into darkness, but a glimpse of light appeared in the distance as they descended. They travelled down a length of tunnel and turned into a large cave hewn from the bedrock, the walls creviced with chisel marks and decorated with tapestries. “Luaz?” Zen shouted. “Are you in?”

“Zen, is that you? Bless Kiva!” An older woman strode into the cave wiping her hands on a cooking apron. She embraced him with an open show of affection that made Simara tense with alarm. A lover? A pervert? She felt disconcerted with anxiety at these strange people with their mixed messages. The woman turned to study her with inquisitiveness, her grey hair pulled tight behind her ears in a braid.

Zen reached an arm behind the woman’s back and held the other palm up for an introduction. “Simara, this is my mother, Luaz. Mom, this is Simara. I found her in the desert.”

Simara almost fell back in surprise. His mother? Zen was taking her home to the family so soon? What the hell? She looked from Zen’s warm brown eyes back to his mother’s face, Luaz’s eyebrows now wide with wonder, her smile a tight line. “Hi,” Simara said. No hand out in greeting this time, no elbow up. She dared not move a muscle for fear of interpersonal insult.

“She’s feeling ill,” Zen said. “Can she rest here for a while?”

“Of course,” Luaz said with a nod of welcome. She pointed with both palms toward an opening in the cave wall. “Come this way. Are you sick with the cactus?”

“No, I don’t think so. Just the gravity.”

“Gravity?” Luaz glanced at her son and back. “Oh, of course. You’re from the sky.”

“She crashed in the desert,” Zen said. “We’re keeping it a secret for now. Just for safety, okay?”

“Of course,” Luaz said again, invincible with experience. “You run along back to the party. Don’t worry about a thing.”

“Thanks, Mom. You’re looking great.”

“You, too,” she said, “except for the black eye.” She tipped her head at him in query.

“It’s nothing. Just a spider bite. The best from Kiva.” He turned and hurried away before she could follow up on the interrogation.

Luaz stood quiet for a moment, then turned to Simara with a motherly smile and an open arm pointing with invitation. She led her down a gentle decline to a small cave where a hammock hung from corner to corner, draped with a tasselled tapestry and adorned with pillows. A wooden chest of drawers rested against one wall, a strange anachronism, probably an expensive heirloom. Simara had yet to see a tree growing anywhere on this hellish planet.

Luaz settled her in a gently rocking bed and covered her with a sheet of linen. “Are you partnered with Zen?”

Simara stiffened with growing confusion. “No, I . . . I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I see,” Luaz said with a worried face and wary smile. “Has my son harmed you in any way? Have you been in a fight?”

Simara sat up and almost fell out of the hammock. “No, certainly not. He has been nothing but a gentleman.” The room swayed around her, and she stifled a stomach spasm with a fist on her abdomen.

“There, there,” Luaz said as she pantomimed a push back down, careful not to touch. “Rest easy. All will be well. I’ll leave you in peace and check back later.” She stood and rolled a tapestry down over the doorway as she ducked underneath.

One single filament of light hung from a wall bracket near the pebbled ceiling of the cave where stalactites had been broken off to leave flat stumps of rock. A crude painting hung on one wall, the brush strokes childlike in simplicity, a fertile landscape with lush vegetation under a haloed moon, an image of paradise from a book perhaps. This was probably Zen’s room as a child. His personal effects were probably still in the chest of drawers. Dizzy with sickness and too much ale, Simara felt like she was infringing on Zen’s privacy, invading his past. Awkward circumstance had thrust her into his life, and now into his family. She had embarrassed herself in front of his former lovers. What must they all be thinking about her, the strange alien girl from the stars?

THREE

Her stepfather came to her in a dream again, the same midnight horror, his slavering face stinking of alcohol and rough with stubble. His fingers groped her, pinching between her legs.
Give me some tight pussy, you cheap slut.
He pressed his body upon her, his penis a dead weight.
You dirty girl, you like that don’t you?
She screamed and lashed out against him. She punched him in the face and kicked him in the scrotum. “No!” she shouted. “Get off me, you drunken bastard!”

They fell in a tangle as the hammock tilted upside down. Simara grunted with pain as her arm and shoulder hit against solid rock.

“What in Kiva’s name?” Zen said as he stood and staggered back against the wall. He brushed at a wall switch to turn on the single filament of light, a bare candle in the darkness. His eyes were red and bleary from too much mead, his stance wavery and uncertain. “What are you doing in my bed?”

Simara looked up and rubbed at her elbow. Her arm had gone numb and fuzzy with pain. God damn it all.

Luaz flung back the tapestry as she barrelled into the bedchamber. She surveyed the scene in an instant and froze for an explanation, her eyes wide with astonishment. Simara burst into tears, her stepfather’s face still leering in her mind’s eye, a poison of violation roiling inside her.

“I . . .” Zen began and stopped, clearly drunk and disoriented. He seemed to be pondering some great paradox as he rubbed a fresh bruise on his chin.

Simara picked herself up and hobbled past them for the cave mouth, desperate to escape.

“Wait, just a minute,” Luaz said behind her, but Simara dared not turn back for a confrontation. She ran blindly up the tunnel and followed the sound of music in the distance, wandering from corridor to corridor until she found her way back to the crystal ballroom. The crowd had thinned for the afterparty, but a trio blowing brass horns accompanied a string band now, and a circle of onlookers gyrated to a jazzy tune. The style of dance had changed markedly from the formal rituals of tradition to a wild freeform of movement, the dancers younger, some with drinks in hand. Incredibly, the buffet table was stocked with fresh pastries, and Simara gorged on fruity concoctions dusted with icing sugar until she felt strength return. She took a cup of guava mead and sipped her drink as she searched for a secluded corner to hide from the riot of colour and noise.

A young man caught her attention from across the room, and she turned away too late. He began to push toward her through the crowd, a blond boy dressed in a bright yellow robe with a red crescent emblazoned on the chest. He strolled up to her with lazy confidence and smiled. “Can I serve you anything?”

Simara sipped her drink. “No, thank you.”

He nodded, nonchalant. “Great party. Happy Vishan. I’m Justin.”

“Simara.”

“You’re looking well.”

“You also,” she said with caution, wondering about every nuance of communication and trying to play it safe. “I’m just visiting.”

“I can see that,” the boy said as he plucked at his robe.

Of course, her white tunic marked her as a tourist. Everything was colour coded in this crazy place. She smiled with wan resignation.

“I’m from the clan of the moon lizard,” Justin said.

“That sounds like a frightening creature. Do they eat humans?”

He laughed with a pleasant lilt. “No, they’re quite small. About the size of a cave ferret.”

“Hmm,” she said, wondering how big a cave ferret might be and whether that was a new cause for worry.

“Where are you staying?”

She thumbed absently over her shoulder. “With a friend. He’s busy at the moment.”

“Would you like a guided tour of the caverns while you wait? See the wonders wrought by Kiva?”

Simara splayed her fingers at the magnificence of the ballroom. “It’s all phantasmagorical to a space rat like me.”

“You’re from the stars?”

“Not exactly. You can’t actually land on a star.”

“Ahh,” he said. “Wow.”

She shook her head with self-effacement. “It’s not all that great.”

“So, what about the tour? I know all the local sights.”

“Sure, I guess. Someplace quiet would be nice.” She followed his elbow of invitation into a new branch of tunnels lit by the ubiquitous glow tube overhead. The upper mountain was riddled with a labyrinthine maze carved naturally by water and smooth to the touch. The cavern ceilings were hung with all manner of exotic stalactites, some like icicles, others flat like tapestries.

“First stop is the drapery room,” Justin said. “It took a million years to make these designs.” He waved a hand up grandly. “These giant sheets formed from seepage through fractures in the bedrock. Some are so thin you can see through them.”

“Amazing.” They did indeed look like hanging cloth in elaborate folds, white and shiny like porcelain. Simara reached up to touch a wet edge. “They’re still growing,” she said as she rubbed liquid between her fingers. Down at her feet, the rock was mounded with a convoluted texture that reminded her of brain tissue.

“Just over a centimetre every hundred years,” Justin said with a nod of sure wisdom. He poked her elbow to get her attention. “Next up is Kivakulia, the Apparition of God.”

Simara dragged her eyes away to follow Justin up another tunnel. They climbed a steep incline and grappled loose gravel with their hands to steady themselves. A damp odour reminded her of the smell of clouds and rain. A reddish glow emanated from the top of the hill and grew brighter as they approached.

“This is the most holy place in the mountain, Kivakulia. The early explorers knew they had found God when they came upon this formation.” A huge, glowing angel stood before them, stretching from floor to ceiling, flared out and flattened in the middle. The column emitted light in the red-orange end of the spectrum, seemingly by magic in the darkness. A fence with an iron railing had been erected in a hexagon around it.

“No way,” Simara said in awe. “It must be a trick.”

“Imagine creeping through these tunnels in the days before Bali had electricity,” Justin said, “exploring in the darkness with your headlamp beam or flashlight in hand, and seeing the Apparition of God for the first time. That must have been something.”

“Why does it glow? Is it hot?”

“No, it’s fluorescent calcite,” he said, “activated by impurities like manganese. The invisible short-wavelength radiation is absorbed by the crystals and remitted as a longer wavelength that we can see. It’s also slightly phosphorescent, which means it will continue to glow after the light source is removed.”

“It’s not magic?”

“No, but it was thought to be a supernatural manifestation for many years. You can see why.”

“That is totally awesome!”

“Kivakulia,” he said with pride.

“Can I touch it?”

He frowned. “No, the oil from your fingers might harm these delicate crystals. But there’s more. The lover’s room is just down this tunnel to the left. It’s a cavern filled with standing stones growing up from the floor.”

Simara followed him farther into the fantastical maze, marvelling at each new texture of marbled calcite—gourds and clumsy ribbons, fountains and stubby fingers. For untold millennia before the arrival of humans, the seeping waters had toiled over these artful creations, drip by steady drip. Could it really be just an accident, a chance variation of rainwater and underground streams? Or was this Kiva’s declaration of glory?

“Watch your head here,” Justin said as he stood by a narrow crevice. He pushed the back of her neck to guide her forward past a craggy overhang. She stooped and felt a brush of rock at her hair.

The tunnel opened up into a dimly lit grotto of wonder. Huge marble statues rose erect from the ground like a white army at attention, their heads blunt and rounded, glistening with life. Corresponding stalactites hung dripping high above in darkness, and a few had reached their partners to form pearly columns of calcite. “You can touch freely in the lover’s room,” Justin said. Simara stepped forward to the nearest formation and stroked cool calcite, smooth as glass and hard as iron. She envisioned primitive explorers surrounded by these standing stones, praising the wondrous works of Kiva. Murmured voices sounded in the distance, and as her eyes adjusted to the meagre light, Simara noticed couples sequestered in distant shadows.

“About fifty centuries ago, there was a drought in the water supply here,” Justin said behind her. “You can see that the stalagmites were narrowed for awhile and then renewed.”

Simara peered up at the huge columns anew and noticed the bulbous tips on each one. Oh, mothership, each one looked like a penis at attention! “Wow, that’s definitely an army of phallic symbols.”

Justin chuckled knowingly with invitation. “That’s why the lovers meet here.”

Simara felt a flush of insurgent fear as she turned to him. Sure enough, he had pulled up his yellow robe and held it above his naked hips as he leaned with casual ease against a marble column. The white stalagmite between his thighs stood upright with promise.
Can you give me a hand, good friend?

With a gesture of pure instinct, Simara hauled back and sucker-punched Justin with a vicious roundhouse blow straight to the cheekbone. He cried out and fell to the ground with his nose in his palms as blood began to drip between his fingers. He rolled and cried like a wounded animal as Simara curled her bruised fist in her abdomen, wondering what the hell had just happened. She felt like a dirty girl again, violated anew. “Cover yourself up, you pervert,” she said as she kicked his naked thigh, and Justin groaned and scrabbled at his gown with bloody hands.

A crowd of lovers quickly surrounded them and sent for aid, and the local constabulary arrived within minutes to take Simara into custody. An hour later she was in jail, stuck behind iron bars in an austere cave just big enough to recline, cold and shivering under a scrap of rotting canvas—from the heights of majesty to the depths of desolation in one act of thoughtless violence. God damn, what a mess. She had assaulted two men in less than two hours, and there was no use crying about it now. This was the absolute end. She could fall no further from here, and mothership would never find her in this underground prison. A calm and vacuous dread of depression surrounded her like an impenetrable curtain. She surely deserved a cruel fate, and a just punishment awaited her.

A magistrate official guarded her from his desk across the cavern, where he sat creaking in a leather office chair while he scanned a digital reader. Simara felt the weight of a towering mountain of calcite above her, ready to fall and crush her like a bug. She buried her face in a mouldy blanket and drifted in fitful sleep. She tossed and turned on the rocky surface and felt worse with every awakening. Out of habit, she tapped her earlobe when she woke and got a dead blank from the V-net each time—no audio, no vidi. Mothership had forsaken her.

A buzzing drone sounded in her ears, a permanent headache of fatigue. She stirred to a familiar voice and struggled against a dull heaviness of slumber. She pressed her cheek against iron bars to see Luaz arguing with the magistrate and gesticulating with animation. “I demand the right of substitution for my clan,” Luaz said.

The official shook his head. “She’s not of your clan. She’s an offworlder and must pay the specified ransom.”

“She’s staying in my cave. She’s partnered with my son.”

The man wiped at his brow, testing deep furrows. “Damn you, woman. Do you think I want to spend all Vishan in this office?”

“I demand the right of substitution for my clan as decreed in the Charter of Privilege,” Luaz repeated, her chin defiant.

The magistrate reached into his desk drawer and slammed a key card on the table. “Do it yourself,” he snarled. “I wash my hands of your insolence.”

Luaz picked up the card and strode to Simara’s cramped prison cave. She swiped the lock mechanism and swung the bars open. “Get out,” she said fiercely.

Simara squirmed forward and slid out of captivity, stumbling to her knees under the weight of gravity. She straightened aching muscles and watched in horror as Luaz crawled into the tiny crypt and pulled the iron door closed with a clang. “No,” Simara croaked.

Luaz blinked at her, resolute, a stubborn old woman.

Simara held out an open palm. “Give me the key.”

Luaz shuffled her body into the cave as far as she could go and glared back, her face a stern white mask. Behind them, the magistrate spoke into a communications device in his cupped hand, his voice a whisper of aggravation.

Simara sighed with confusion. “What are you doing, Luaz?”

“I have the legal right to take your place.”

“You don’t even know me. I’m a terrible person.”

Luaz shook her head. “You may think so now, but I’ve seen the hand of Kiva. Obedience is my privilege of consecration.”

Oh crap, that sounded like religious jargon—no point in trying to argue. Simara settled cross-legged on the rock in front of the cold iron cage and stared up into eyes glinting with holy light from the dark recess. Surely the woman would listen to reason. “Do you have a partner? Someone I can contact?”

“His name was Valda, a good man to the core, a wonderful father. He died two years ago from a quick cancer.”

“Zen’s father?”

“Zen’s heart followed him to the grave on that final night. His soul turned black and vacant with despair, and he fled alone into the wilderness to grovel in his ruin. I lost my two loves in a single stroke of fate. My life was wiped away, scrubbed clean to the bedrock. How could I start again at this age?” The light from her eyes went dark as she ducked her head. “Zen’s few visits on the days of ceremony were those of a ghost, a boy devoid of hope, a stranger in the skin of a man.”

“I’m sorry,” Simara said.

“Not your fault.” Luaz waved a hand. “The rads take us all in time—the great plagues of Bali.” A pause lingered between them, an emptiness longing to be filled. “When I saw Zen return with you for Vishan, my son had come back from the dead. He has spark in his eyes again, and life in his heart. Whatever you did to him was a blessing from Kiva. Whatever they do to me now will never matter, now that I have seen his true face again.”

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