I was in love with Gina, and the food was good; I didn't argue. But whoever and whatever Avi was, creativity wasn't one of his vices -- I was sure of it. Either his story was true, or....
...Or it was politics. Either way I didn't like it. I could feel the old resentments come and settle over me again like ash while I sat there forking ragged pieces of omelette into my mouth. Who would it be this time? And how long did I have before they came at me again? Hours? Days?
Worse still, Gina thought I was in on it. I put my fork down on the table and looked up into the glint of suspicion still visible in her eyes. She didn't look away, not immediately, and the rest of breakfast passed between us like a bad marriage -- gestures made and then abandoned, half-smiles, silences -- it wasn't until the lift had carried us halfway down to the ground floor from her apartment that I finally found my voice again.
"You think he's some sort of spook, don't you?" I said. "And me too, maybe. Is that it?"
She shrugged. "I think he knows too much, that's all."
"I don't know, Thomas, really." She was choosing her words carefully, trying to placate me. "And for what it's worth, I don't believe you do either. But what he told us last night was privileged information; Earthborn or not, you can't have missed that. It wasn't something he just ran across, that starship story, and he wouldn't be gossiping about it if he did. Not if he had any sense." She stopped to take a breath, but her anxiety got the better of her. "Damn it, Thomas," she blurted, "of course he's a spook. How could you work with him for two years and not be aware of it?"
So that was it. She didn't think I was a conspirator; she thought I was dumb. Not very flattering, but at least it had us talking again. I closed my eyes and swallowed as the lift began to slow its descent.
"Listen, Gina," I said, "you're right, I'm Terran. But I'm not a fool. I know that Avi isn't what he seems to be, and I also know that we didn't run into him in the Eye last night by accident. What I don't know is what he wants."
"You don't have any idea?"
"And you're worried."
"Not about Avi -- it's the people he answers to who worry me. They went to a lot of trouble last night, staging that little scene for us, and sooner or later they'll want to turn a profit on it -- I know them. Somehow that worries me a lot more than misjudging a friend."
She was about to say something soothing, but the chime announcing our arrival interrupted her. We waited awkwardly, suspended between thoughts, until the right parts finally meshed and the doors flung themselves silently open on the lobby.
"Come on," I said, "the hell with it. You were going to show me the forest today, remember? Let's forget Avi for a while and go find ourselves a tree to sit under."
She gave me a raised eyebrow and a sigh, but she didn't argue. We stopped at the desk and got a map of the trails, and fifteen minutes later we were completely surrounded by the pines I had already spent so much of the morning watching from her bedroom window.
"Quite a garden," I told her as we walked, "better than you see on most of the rings. But I don't like calling it a forest."
"The Gestalt is wrong, that's why not." I backpedalled ahead of her, trying to catch her eye. "Look around you, Gina," I said, "What do you see?"
"Mmm.... But not a forest, right?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean it takes more than trees to make a forest. There has to be a randomness, an unpredictability -- something you can feel."
"Sounds like mysticism to me."
"Maybe it is. But look at them; they're all exactly the same, these trees. No dwarfs, no giants; each one flawless and perfectly vertical -- you can smell the genetics lab from here."
"So what? Alpha isn't Earth, Thomas. Maybe you expect too much."
"I don't think so. If we call this place a forest, what do we call the High Sierra? Two generations from now who's going to care? Nobody, that's who."
"Is that such a great tragedy?"
"I don't know, love; I'd sleep better nights if I did."
"And besides, that's what EdCom hired you for, isn't it -- to make sure we don't forget?"
"So they tell me. Most of the time it feels more like show business. Where are we anyway?"
It wasn't an easy question. According to the map, we'd been working our way spinward on the lowest level of the ring floor, following a path which ran along the edge of a small watercourse roughly equidistant from the rim terraces. But with nothing around us but trees to take a bearing on, it was hard to tell how far we'd come. We bent over the map again, and after a few minutes spent pointing and scratching our heads, we made an interesting discovery. We weren't lost, but we wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry either. The path we were standing on was the only way in or out of the forest -- all of the main circumferal routes, pedestrian as well as vehicular, were plotted much farther out toward the rim.
It was frustrating, especially for Gina, to be forced to play Hansel and Gretel within sight of the rim, but Bayern's designers had been proud of their handiwork -- they wanted to make sure we took the time to appreciate it. And whether or not I approved of their methods, I had to admit that their "forest" made a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. Apart from the other sightseers we passed occasionally, and the crossring traffic faintly audible in the distance behind us, we were alone with nothing to disturb us but the music of the water and the birds calling to one another like miniature flutes in the branches above our heads.
Bowing to the inevitable, we wandered arm in arm for an hour or so, laughing and making up names for the flowers we discovered here and there along the edge of the water. Eventually we made our way down to a grassy embankment under one of the footbridges and sat there silently for a moment watching the currents eddy around the irregularities in the streambed below.
"It may be prejudice," I said, when we both looked up again, "but this just doesn't work for me. I can't get used to trees tailored from a set of statistical parameters and engineering diagrams tucked away in core memory somewhere -- it makes me crazy. And it's all like this, Gina, the whole environment planned down to the last detail. We're the only things in it still capable of anything unexpected. Maybe I should be grateful to Avi after all. A little surprise now and then could be just what I need."
"Risky," she said, "these surprises of yours. Keen eyesight and a few quick moves aren't enough, Thomas. You've got to think ahead if you want to control what happens to you."
"But I don't, Gina. That's the whole point. Control isn't much of a survival trait, not in the long run. To control things you have to be outside them, and where does that leave you? Have you ever plotted schizophrenia intersects?"
"What about war and disease and natural disaster? What about 'nasty, brutish and short'? Do you want to go back to that?"
We sat there, the two of us, watching the water run. Thomas the philosopher, I thought. Can't tell whether the pain is in his heart or in his head.
Gina leaned over and trailed one hand in the water. "Tell me, Thomas," she said, "do all Terrans find life in the Archipelago this distasteful? Or is it just you?"
I kept my eyes on the water rippling between her fingers. "We come from a different culture, Gina," I said.
"That's not an answer."
"Half an answer."
"And the other half?"
"The immigrant -- the little man with the wide eyes and the cardboard suitcase under his arm in the old stories. He walks down the gangplank and people show him things -- glittering, incomprehensible things. They tell him here you need a license, there a little grease; the slaughterhouse takes applications every Monday. So when he finds himself a mattress somewhere later, and the door closes behind him, what does he think about? Pissing off the back porch maybe; watching his wife wring out wash by the bank of the river back home. Forty years later you'll find him halfway across the continent cutting patterns or selling vegetables from an outdoor stall, and he'll still speak with the same accent, still see things that aren't there except for him."
But as I stood at the edge of the forest later, watching the slidewalk whisk her off to one of her seminars on the far side of the ring, I wondered. What was the point of explaining? To bridge the gap between us, between Alphan and Terran, required common experiences of a very particular kind, and we didn't seem to have any that would serve....
It hadn't been that way in the beginning. They'd all been Earthborn themselves in the beginning, carried out into space on a wave of social and technological evolution, of economic pressures no longer manageable on a planetary surface. Most of them had left without realizing what it would be like to live in a place where home was only a point of light in the sky. And later on, when they did realize it, it was too late -- only a very few were ever able to go back.
There had never been anything like it before in human experience, not since the great ice ages, yet there was nothing in the official histories except numbers -- I had looked. There was no mention of what it must have felt like, no mention of boredom, or ambition, or greed; and no reference at all to homesickness -- just a list of those sent back -- repatriated was the term used -- in the days before the category was dropped altogether from the statistics. It was strange.... They had known Earth, been born on Earth, as I had. Surely it must have followed them; haunted them as it had haunted me.
But I would never know, not now. The folklore which had existed in the early days had long since been obliterated -- later generations had found it an embarrassment. Except for the exaggerated deference paid the Earthborn on certain ceremonial occasions, it was hard to find anyone now who was willing to acknowledge our common origins.
Maybe that was what Avi's patrons were all about -- by keeping a close watch on me maybe they thought they could prevent me from telling lies about their ancestors. I smiled at the thought at first, then started to think. By the time the afternoon rains caught up with me, I was leaning against the trunk of a solitary pine overlooking the slidewalk track, reviewing the pieces of what had become an increasingly intricate puzzle.
No matter how I turned it, their interest in me just didn't make sense. They must have known how little they had to worry about. I was a historian, not a firebrand. When all was said and done, the only history I had any real feeling for was my own.
And, I told myself, there wasn't much of that. Earthborn or not, my early life could hardly have been called exotic. I was born midway up the coast of Alta California, the youngest child of a family of Watchers working the Pacific Flyway, and I'd grown up there, on a patch of marshland between the ocean and the mountains of the coastal range. The natural world I remembered had been far subtler than any of EdCom's spectacles, but in it I was cared for, happy -- until the eve of my fifteenth birthday there was nothing to disturb my contentment.
The change began in the Fall, in the third week of October more than twenty years ago. I was returning home, alone, from an afternoon of spotting in the marshes. It was early in the season, but a few Canadas had already begun to appear like solitary arrows in the leaden skies above us, turning up the next day in groups of four and five on the muddy banks of the delta below our station, strolling back and forth and preening themselves, as they always did, like courtiers awaiting an audience. Their arrival had made my father nervous, and he'd sent me out to investigate in case we had an anomaly.
It didn't look like anything serious, just a random deviation, and after reporting as much to the old man, I let my sisters dragoon me into helping them shift the incubators into the shelter of one of the wintering sheds. We went at it with the usual mixture of banter and silliness, but our jokes that day all seemed to have a slightly hollow ring; the echoes of my brother's wedding the month before still hung in the air around us as we worked.
Not that it had been an unhappy affair. His fiancée's village had welcomed us with a warmth and gentleness none of us had expected, and we had spent two whole weeks there -- two weeks matching wits with the uncles, dancing with the aunts, chasing the cousins through the sunlit streets until nightfall -- it had eased our sense of loss.
But now the summer and my brother were both gone, and year's end descended on us like a pall. My father spent less time at home, my mother and sisters found fewer occasions to speak to one another, and even though I made a valiant effort to resist it, a kind of numbness seemed to settle over me. I watched the autumn fogs drift up the coast toward us, blotting out everything as they came -- tree by tree, thought by thought -- the inner and the outer landscape swallowed up together.
All I remembered later were the smells -- the smothered plume of smoke from our converters, the mud and leaf mold blown in off the marshes, and sometimes, when the wind was just right, a hint of something almost medicinal from the row of ancient Eucalyptus standing ghost-like in the mist beyond the banding pens. I put it down to melancholy, to my brother's absence -- I was too young then to believe in premonition.
Then one day in the beginning of November a dry north wind sprang up out of nowhere as the sun was setting and blew steadily through the night, rattling my open window sash and whirling the dust curls around my room in miniature tornadoes while I slept. In the morning it was clear again, and I awoke to find that my strange paralysis had disappeared along with the fog.
I was puzzled, but grateful. Fall was no time to be afflicted with melancholy -- the seasonal wingcensus was about to begin, and with my brother gone we were shorthanded. My mother and sisters had left off genotyping the breeders and were preparing to tabulate the flyover data which my father and I would soon have to go out and collect. It could have been transmitted in, of course -- we had the capability -- but all electromagnetics, narrowband as well as broadcast, were shut down during the migrations -- the risk of interfering with the patterns was too great. Even the monitors themselves were passive. They didn't scan, but recorded a preset arc of sky instead, comparing what moved on it to a complex set of reference patterns. Whenever significant variations were recognized, they were coded and stored for pickup later.
And every day we walked out, my father and I, and brought them in. We'd leave at dawn on an irregular loop through the marshes, voiding and resetting each watchpoint as we went. It was a long way to walk in a day, twenty-five kilometers or more, and in the later weeks, particularly, we had to hurry to make it in before sundown. Even though I'd been doing it every season since I was ten, I still found it tiring. Back at station at the end of the day I'd sprawl in the first chair I could stumble to, my coat and muddy boots thrown in a heap beside me, my ears deaf to the voices and the clatter of cooking utensils coming from the kitchen.
It was then, on the edge of sleep, that I'd sometimes find myself back walking again, watching a thousand wings flash in unison as a flight turned sunward, listening for the whisper first, then the roar as they cleared the marshes; the woodwind call of the leaders passing overhead. I'd feel the bite of the wind again, and the aching in my legs as we skirted the twilit mirror of the delta and headed in past the sandbars and gold-fringed reeds silhouetted in the last slanting rays of the sun.
I was happy then, happy in a child's way. My dreams lay close to the surface of my waking life; I could dip into them and return at will to a world which seemed to echo their vibrations.
But I wasn't a child any longer. In a few months I would reach the age of selection, and my father, according to our custom, would tell me what career had been chosen for me. From that moment on my training for the responsibilities of adulthood would begin in earnest.
At least that was the way it was supposed to happen. Fortunately for me, my father was a sensitive man, one who had taken the time to find out who his children were. He didn't wait until the formal birthday ceremony; he chose his own time and place to tell me. And no matter where I've been or what I've done since, the image of my father as he spoke to me that day has never completely faded from my memory.
We were walking; we'd been walking all morning and a good part of the afternoon without a break. The day was sodden and cold, and neither of us had wanted to stop. It was almost two in the afternoon before we found a spot on the edge of a small clearing which caught enough sun to look inviting. We wedged ourselves up onto a fallen tree trunk which had begun to dry out a little and rummaged in our packs for the meal we had brought out with us. We ate slowly and deliberately, each absorbed in his own thoughts, and afterwards we rested for a while, me swinging my heels idly against the log we sat on, following the rhythm of a woodpecker busy somewhere to the east of us, and my father leaning forward with his arms looped around his recorder, the head end of the shaft pressed loosely against his cheek. I couldn't help seeing something of the old Testament in the way he sat there, with his hands quietly folded, staring out over the clearing.
Moses in the Wilderness, I thought, complete with staff.
It must have been the recorder. Unlike the box-like instrument most Watchers carried, his was a tapered rod almost two meters long, with a string of irregular facets spaced out along the barrel and a crooked, shillelagh-like knob at one end. Old Isamu had crafted it years ago out of some opaque, bone-white polymer fashionable at the time, and being something of an artist as well as an engineer, he'd given it a rough, handhewn finish which concealed its true nature from all but the most careful observers. It was only after the sun went down that a faint but unmistakable luminescence revealed it for what it was -- a dual phase powered-memory photodigital. Beneath the casing it was a near-solid mass of spray-fabricated optical fiber storage traps, enough to record an entire day's migrations over the delta. It accepted both waver and pulsed laser input, and had a sensor-triggered power cell in the knob to keep the photon level in the traps readable until they were dumped. The luminescence was characteristic, but Isamu's clever choice of casing material took what was ordinarily an undifferentiated glow from the outer fiber walls and transformed it into a delicate shimmering which ran like water along the entire length of the shaft.
All in all it was a pretty piece of engineering, serving equally well as a recorder, and, when the lay of the land demanded it, as a walking stick. It was also, I realized for the first time, a deliberate symbol. Of the Watch, the humane face of science to which all of us had sworn allegiance. Perhaps, I thought, as I sat there looking at it, my biblical metaphor hadn't been so fanciful after all....
It wasn't that any of us were religious, not in the traditional sense. But there was a deep consciousness in all of us of having chosen a future different from the rest of mankind. We had decided to stay on Earth, and with that decision had come certain reponsibilities. Some of them had fancy names -- genetic cataloging, ecological macrochemistry, respeciation -- but the purpose behind all of them was simple. We were restorers; our job was to help repair the damage three centuries of human overpopulation had done to the planet which had borne us and nurtured us through the first million years of our existence.
I felt this deeply, even as a child. We watched over things; no matter what else we did during the day, we always watched. It was in the air we breathed, the games we played, the time that governed all our activities. An act of atonement, some have called it, but I never thought of it that way. I was aware only of the gentleness and gravity in the things my family did every day, and my own pleasure in being part of them. I couldn't imagine any other kind of life. Maybe that was why what my father had to say to me that day came like a blow -- simple, final, devastating.
It wasn't what he said so much; it was the look on his face as he said it -- I could see in the knitted eyebrows, the set of the mouth, the directness of his gaze that he understood how little I had prepared myself to hear what he was telling me, and I knew that he regretted very deeply being the one to bring me such unexpected and painful news.
The message was simple -- I had been nominated for emigrant status. In the spring I was to go east over the mountains to Phoenix. My training for offworld assignment would begin there, in the western spaceport complex. In five years, when it was complete, I would be resettled with the rest of my quota in a permanent location somewhere in the Archipelago.
I refused to believe it at first. There was a mistake, a dropout in the demographic intersects maybe, a faulty namesort or crossed profiles. They couldn't want me. I was born for the Watch; I didn't have the talent or the desire to do anything else.
I had known about emigration for a long time, of course. All children born on Earth learn that fact of life at an early age. But somehow I had always thought that I would be exempt -- it was part of the folklore of childhood that only the unappreciative were chosen -- the lazy, the quarrelsome, the troublemakers, and I wasn't any of those things. I loved what my family did, and I was good at it. It didn't make any sense to send me away.
But my father explained to me -- slowly, patiently -- that emigrants weren't chosen according to the criteria used in other selections. They were chosen at random, by region, according to the rules spelled out in the first Treaty of the Diaspora over a hundred and fifty years before. There were no exceptions. Any unilateral attempts by the Terran authorities to modify the selection process would be considered treaty violations, and would mean the end of Terran autonomy.
It was my first experience of politics, sitting in a stand of Eucalyptus with my father on a damp day in November, hearing from his reluctant lips a sentence of exile from everything I knew and loved. I never completely recovered from it.
Not even now, I thought, after more than twenty years. I pushed the memory and the bitterness away again as I had so many times before. The rains had stopped, and the light was already beginning to fade as I picked my way back along the the lower edge of the darkside terraces toward Gina's apartment. There was a small stand still open near one of the crossring slidewalk transfers, and I stopped and ordered a bowl of soba. The chopsticks were glass, not bamboo, but compared to the rest of my surroundings they seemed like old friends. I went outside and stood there watching the pattern of lights emerge from the growing darkness on the opposite side of the ring as I ate. It was strange, I told myself, how little the pattern had changed in all these years. There still wasn't any connection between what I was and what they wanted from me, and I still resented their intrusion into my life as much as I ever had. I wasn't fifteen anymore, true -- I knew as well as anyone the difference between political necessity and the necessities which govern an individual life -- but old habits die hard. Fuck politics, I thought. Fuck politicians.
And now it was a starship, of all things. With Avi recruited to break the news.... It didn't make any sense. What connection could a Terran historian have with an interstellar mission? The whole thing was crazy -- and bloody dangerous. Avi'd been right about that. If word leaked out there'd be serious diplomatic consequences; maybe even war. Not a shooting war, of course -- the orbitals were the perfect glass houses when it came to throwing missiles back and forth -- but there were a lot of nasty things that could be done with blockades and attacks on mining concessions in the Belt, and no real restraints on any government willing to try them.
So why did they want to tell me, a Terran? I couldn't imagine a bigger security risk. The only explanation I could come up with, and it wasn't very reassuring, was an echo of something Gina had already said -- that they were testing me. Avi could have been planted on me two years ago not just to safeguard EdCom's educational program, but also to see if I could be trusted with sensitive information. And now for who knew what kinky reason, they'd handed me the lot. I could only guess what would happen if I disappointed them.
I finished my noodles and threw the bowl and chopsticks into a recycle slot on the bench next to me. The light was fading rapidly now as the giant mirrors outside completed their nightcycle pivot. Gina's seminar would be over soon. It was time I got back.