Pictures of an Expedition
A sequel to "Shore Leave" and a prequel to "Throne of the Gods"
By arrangement with, and in cooperation, with Shadar
1. Look Around You
They didnt mind her riding outside.
She just wanted to feel the emptiness of the universe against her skin, and occasionally indulge herself by using her powers for their mission, of course. By now, her colleagues knew that this wasnt showing off, and that she wasnt trying to set herself apart from them. Still, if only her friends could share this experience .
It wasnt just that theyd have to wear space suits. They could never see the things she could with her naked eyes; they would always have to squint through telescopes or instruments. Some of them, she knew, were busy with those instruments even now. Did they ever wonder whether they were missing the views she took in so effortlessly?
Theyd come through the wormhole safely. First transits were always risky even though the ancient beacons were nearly always perfectly aligned. The few that werent could only be identified after entering their wormholes. If that happened, the travelers might never come out at all, or end up in some alternate universe, where even the laws of physics could be different enough to kill them quickly or slowly. Or they might emerge in an alternate time line, cut off from all hope of return to the worlds and people they knew.
Alisa-zar KimVallara didnt like to think about those possibilities. But for now, she didnt have to. She could relax for a moment, her naked body exposed to the universe, as if her very nerve endings were touching the distant stars and galaxies. But only for a moment. There was work to do...
She scanned the system ahead. Promising so far: the gas giants were far out from the primary, which left plenty of room for smaller rocky worlds closer in. But in most systems, those worlds were only small and rocky, with atmospheresif anyof carbon dioxide or nitrogen. If this system were like most, they had wasted another long journey.
She was stretching her telescopic vision unusually strong, even for a Velorian to the limit, hoping to get a fix on one of the inner planets, when a voice sounded in her conduction comlink.
"Were getting radio signals. I repeat, radio signals. They dont know it yet, but theyve just made contact."
There was relief. There was even joy in the voice of Captain Davidson. The joy of discovery that all Kelsorians lived for.
Alisa felt that same joy. She too was a Kelsorian, after all.
2. In Orbit
Captain Jecel Davidson was understandably confused when his first officer reported on an assessment of the natives by one of the scholars.
"Muppets, Sir and Captain. Thats what she called them."
"Some obscure Terran reference, I suppose. Noenda does tend to that sort of thing."
Noenda Li Gran tended to another sort of thing as the Mindfuls resident authority on body language. She hadnt yet had a chance to get up close and personal with the natives. But then, none of them had. There was still much work to do before they could make their approach.
The Kelsorian ship was maintaining a distant orbit from the planet distant enough, Captain Davidson had judged, to avoid detection. There were a couple of native spacecraft, large enough to be manned, but they were headed for a planet now on the other side of the local sun.
Linguistics was monitoring radio and television broadcasts in the painstaking process of deriving the spoken language. Still, the Doyle-Mattos algorithm for sound order and frequency had already revealed that the natives were extraordinarily intelligent.
Luckily, they had developed a planetary Internet, and the semanticians had already accessed enough material to reproduce the written language, which also appeared to be very complex.
By analyzing the actions in the broadcasts, rather than the words, Gran thought she was ahead of the rest of Linguistics, and maybe she was right. So far as she could tell, the natives didnt express anger, let alone violence in what appeared to be their news and documentary, or entertainment and fiction programs.
Some programs depicted what appeared to be ordinary domestic life, including sex which was so blatant that it would have been considered pornographic on some worlds but which here seemed to be taken as naturally as eating. Some of what appeared to be entertainment programs were musicals about people working together to build highways or dams, fight fires and floods. Things like that.
"Like Aurean propaganda, or Communist films from Stalins Russia or Maos China," she remarked. "Except that the body language appears sincere. And there arent any images of Great Leaders or weaponry."
Biomorphology could only confirm the obvious: that the natives were at least similar to mammals, that there seemed to be relatively little racial or sexual variation in body type indeed, it was sometimes hard to tell the genders apart except in sex scenes. Despite their gentle nature, the natives seemed far from passive; they were always doing something, if no more than grooming each other. At least in their videos.
Planetology had already mapped the world. There was one great continent, with a few scattered islands in the surrounding ocean. But that continent was apparently of fairly recent creation in geological terms; the collision of two land masses had created a north-south mountain range and a plateau to its east that dwarfed the Himalayas and Tibet on Earth. The axial tilt was slight, and the climate generally mild, but the Great Barrier still made for interesting weather.
Linguistics had only barely cracked the language on the day that images of the stars began to appear on the native TV news. One of the images, too small to show a great deal of detail but large enough to show its nature, was the Mindful.
"Gentles, officers and scholars," Captain Davidson announced. "We have been well and truly made."
3. Sense and Sensibility
Chief Astronomer Amsul had, of course, notified the First Speaker of his own Syndic the moment he had discovered the alien ship. Word was then passed to the First Speaker of the Congress of Federated Syndics.
The Great Hall of the Syndics was a sea of gray faces as the delegates assembled in answer to the call for an emergency session. A number of them had left for home, it being a recess. Some had hastily returned by air; others were in virtual attendance by monitor.
Amsul had not been invited; his advice was neither asked nor given. But First Speaker Songhay understood the issue raised by the alien presence in their system. He expected that the representatives of the syndics would understand it as well, and he was not disappointed.
"With respect to their intentions, the matter is clear," intoned the representative of the Eastern Plateau Solar Power Syndic. "Were we to undertake an interstellar journey of this magnitude, it would require the cooperative allocation of resources on a global scale, even more than that required for our insystem expeditions and interstellar probes. It would thus require a degree of wealth many orders of magnitude greater than our own.
"Can we believe that this is their only ship, and Domyr their only destination? We cannot believe that; we can only believe that they must have access to resources many orders of magnitude greater than our own, and that they have therefore achieved a unity of purpose and unity of action that encompasses an entire system. Perhaps even more than one system, given the high unlikelyhood that we are the first people they have visited."
"Comrade Kumbi has outlined the most probable scenario quite correctly," Songhay responded. "Still, we bear the responsibility of considering alternative scenarios, however improbable. I need hardly remind the comrade delegates that the situation we face is without precedent."
For the very reason that it was without precedent, it was difficult for the delegates to frame alternative arguments. An elderly and somewhat eccentric comrade, a historian who represented the Higher Education Syndic and was a specialist in the Wars of Unification, raised the specter of social evolution having taken a different course on other worlds and the alien visitors being the servants of interstellar Lords and Ladies
Songhay invited others to elaborate on the theme, but the elderly historian failed to gain any support. After some further pro forma discussion, a consensus was quickly reached that the visitors should be welcomed. The alternative was almost literally unthinkable. Only then were the media syndics informed of the situation and invited to spread the news. Amsul was ready with the same unmistakable pictures that the Mindful was soon monitoring.
The First Speaker and the Congress, assuming that all was well, turned to reaching a consensus on welcoming arrangements. But their deliberations were interrupted by further news, this time from the Comrade Shoka of the leading media syndic. Songhay put the syndics own first speaker on the viewscreen of the assembly chamber..
"The aliens have opened what they call a hailing frequency," Shoka reported. "They say that they wish to be taken to our leader."
"Leader?" asked Songhay.
In Domyran, a leader was only a person entrusted to direct a specific task at a specific time.
"A translation error, perhaps. Presumably they are still learning our language. Has the contact been visual, or by radio only."
"Visual. They are not like us."
"This was only to be expected."
"They are not like each other."
Shoka patched through an image from the bridge of the alien ship. It was indeed as he had said. None of the visitors had facial fur, although most had longer hair atop their heads. Of body fur, it was impossible to say, as they were clothed from the neck downwards. But none of that was important.
The one speaking for the aliens they assumed it was a man was brown of skin and black of hair, but the others in the background were of varying hues and hair colors. Those appearing to be females had secondary sexual characteristics similar to those of Domyran women but far more exaggerated. From their eyes, and other facial features, as well as their arms and hands, most appeared to be members of the same species. But there were a couple of obvious exceptions
Long-term adaptive radiation to conditions on diverse worlds, Songhay thought as he noted the variations among those apparently of the same species. This must be an ancient race; perhaps eons old, to have spread to so many planets. Yet they must have brought with them the sense of unity they had achieved on their original homeworld, for here they were engaged in common enterprise an enterprise to which they had attracted others not of their kind.
His words to the Congress gave voice to his thoughts.
"It appears that we have much to learn from these people," he concluded. "Perhaps we are about to become part of something even greater than ourselves."
4. Not So Tight a Ship
Jecel Davidson wasnt known for running a tight ship in the traditional sense. He paid little attention to the formalities of rank and the disciplines that went with them.
With officers of the bridge, navigators and engineers, it was, of course, necessary to observe formalities. But with the researchers, whose actual functions had practically nothing to do with their naval ratings .
Even with the bridge officers, it was all stuff and bother, considering how unlikely it was that anyone on the ship would ever have need to even touch a weapon, let alone use it. Darwin hadnt taken a single musket with him on the Beagle, Noenda had once told him. That wasnt possible here. Still
To him, the officers and scholars were like family. It had always been like that, even when hed had a family. Well, not quite a family, but a wife, anyway: Miriam. And theyd been planning to take leave together, to start a family. But then Miriam had died in a freak accident on another mission.
When she was interviewed for a posting to the Mindful, Alisa-zar KimVallara she was now going by her true name wanted to get things straight from start about her... experience. There was an official story, and she was sticking to it.
"You know who I am. And what," she said.
"It would be impossible not to. After your last expedition. And all that followed."
"I cant talk about that. Its under Seal."
"Understood. But people talk, just the same. All sorts of idle speculation."
"Like about Andre?"
There was an edge in her voice, a sense of loss.
"I never believed that you bore any responsibility there. No matter what some people said. And I especially wouldnt believe anything Durgin said."
"Will my presence here be a problem for you?"
"Do you believe that it will be a problem for any of your men and women?"
"I shouldnt think so. Theyre pretty broad-minded. And I know your reputation in the Service. In my estimation, your behavior has always been above reproach."
"You understand the necessity for the Klaven?"
"Stuff and bother. Still, it cant be helped.
She knew that he had no love for heavy weapons, unlike Durgin. And the Klav'en was no longer strictly necessary for routine work – she couldn't talk about why. But she wanted to be sure that he was unlike Durgin in another respect.
"I trust, nevertheless, that you dont have any issues? That I will be permitted to use my powers openly? In the interests of the mission?"
"Why ever not?"
5. Well Landed, Ill Met
The name of the planet was Domyr. The name of the sun was Svyet. An average world and an average sun. But nothing else was average, beginning with the welcome, which was like none the Kelsorians had ever encountered before.
When one of the shuttles from the Mindful landed at Chief Inport, Captain Davidson and his party were greeted by First Speaker Songhay and a man named Iffar, the leader of a special committee created by the Congress to tend to the visitors. No one else. Workers at the landing field took a break from their duties long enough to come look at the Kelsorians, but there were no cheers, no pressing for autographs, no shouted questions.
Questions, interviews. Those were for the media syndics, who would be present when Davidson addressed the Congress, although most of the medias questions would doubtless be anticipated by the delegates.
Culture section, represented groundside by Noenda Li Gran and Sprague Carter, had strongly advised the captain to be modest in his demeanor and honest in all he said, as the Domyrans frowned on what they called egoizing and seemed to communicate by body language as much as words. There was no deception here; it was almost unthinkable.
"I shouldnt think that will be much of a bother," Davidson said. "I think I have a sense of things here from deepteach. The language, at least. Enough to get by. They wont expect perfection from a stranger, I would imagine."
And indeed things went well, at first. He explained about Kelsor, about its mission of research and exploration, its facilitation of trade in technology and ideas. He talked about Kelsor 7, their homeworld, which he knew from experience would seem strange and interesting, as the planet of a brown dwarf orbiting a yellow sun, deriving its heat from one and its light from another.
He talked about some of the local customs, even the Long Day-Short Year Festival, when Kelsorians shed their inhibitions and just about anything went. Culture section had discovered that periodic orgies occurred among Domyrans, and judged that the Congress and the media would not be offended. Davidson also explained why the name of the festival was a joke, the Long Day and the Short Year both corresponding to the orbital period of tidally locked Kelsor 7 about Kelsor 6, the celebration reaching its peak during the eclipse of Kelsors yellow sun by the red-brown dwarf.
There was much else to tell, about the physics of wormholes, and the dangers of their passage. Kelsor was happy to share the vectors of the local wormhole, which had, in any case, turned out to be correctly marked by the Old Galactics. Of course, he cautioned, it would be necessary to find a source of xintanite in the system in order for the Domyrans to build the Vendorian steel hulls that were essential, as were force fields, for such traverses. Again, Kelsor was happy to supply all the technical details.
When the time came for questions, Comrade Kumbi was the first to be recognized by the First Speaker. "What of the other worlds of your community, whence come those who do not look like you?" he asked. "Our own harmony would be enriched by learning of the greater harmony that you have achieved."
Davidson looked at Kumbi, at Iffar and Songhay, at his fellow travelers from Kelsor 7, and back at Kumbi, one of a sea of gray faces, all looking at him with rapt attention.
"Be honest in all you say," hed been advised. There was no other choice, really.
"Im afraid there isnt any community," he told the Domyrans. "At least, not the sort you evidently have in mind. Were Kelsorians. Were just ourselves. Some of us come from other worlds, other communities, and all of us are descended from people who left other worlds."
He hoped that would satisfy Kumbi and the other Domyrans, but of course it did not. So he told them the rest. He told them about Velor and Aurea, and the Great War between them. He told them about slaughtered worlds, about enslaved worlds, about fleets of warships met in terrible battle. He told them about godlike beings with enhanced genetics, against whom lesser folk were as helpless as insects. He told them about Primes and Protectors, and how other worlds and other peoples became pawns in their struggles.
Davidson knew, although he could not say how he knew, that a profound change had come over the Domyrans. Something in their eyes, some subtle change of expression? He wasnt good at reading that sort of thing. But whatever it was had spread almost instantly around the Hall. To Songhay and Iffar too, he noticed. Alisas expression, too, had changed, but he failed to notice that.
Nothing had changed. Not on the surface. The Domyrans were still in rapt attention. And yet everything had changed. Kumbi kept his silence now, and the other questions from delegates and the media which were many all dealt with technical questions: the physics of wormholes, differences between Domyran and human DNA (The Biology section had him up to speed on that.), anecdotes about previous missions, alien planets and lifeforms,
Afterwards, Songhay said nothing about his frightful revelations; neither did Iffar. And while they had been broadcast live by the media, they were not repeated. Davidson felt it wise not to ask about that, not to discuss the Great War again at all unless he was asked, and he was not. His hosts did not seem offended; if anything, they were positively eager in their desire to please the Kelsorians.
6. No Cause for Complaint
When Alisa-zar KimVallara had first arrived at Kelsor 7, she had adopted the name Alisa Liddell. This was perfectly acceptable to the officials. Newcomers were often people leaving behind something they didnt want to catch up with them.
Not that the world was a haven for refugees, political or otherwise. Still less for the tired, the poor, huddled masses or wretched refuse. Kelsor 7 wanted only the elite of mind; any other considerations were irrelevant. Race and species were irrelevant, Planet of origin and any laws obtaining there were irrelevant.
Alisa had qualified for citizenship on intelligence and vitality. She had the mind, the energy and the dedication. She also had the courage to face the possibility that she would be cut off forever from the world of her birth, from her family and friends on that world.
"I took that risk, I knew I took it," she explained later. "Therefore I have no cause for complaint."
That was shortly after a Messenger, heroic but hardly prudent, had arrived demanding her return. The officials naturally refused to reveal her location, let alone turn her over. The Messenger had become belligerent, threatening dire consequences. But the Kelsorians had threatened direr consequences: cutting off technological exports to the Enlightenment.
"Technological exports" included the quantum electric drive modules that were essential to military craft, or any other starships that hoped to travel from wormhole to wormhole at more than a snails pace. Heavily shielded to protect them from vagaries like ion storms, they were also rigged to self-destruct if anyone attempted to disassemble them, or even examine their inner workings with penetrating radiation including tachyon vision.
QED modules had to be replaced on a regular basis. The Kelsorians insisted that this was because of inevitable wear and tear. Velorians, Aureans and other clients suspected that the short life of the devices was deliberate, a means of assuring their dependence and Kelsor 7s wealth. But there was nothing they could do about it; no one else had been able to duplicate the technology. Even the Messenger could understand that.
It was just as well, in any case, that he hadnt been given the authority to initiate force or violence. Kelsorians were no match for Velorians, but they had their ways. At a discreet distance from their tête-a-tête, they had posted a detachment of Fraulisets. The android defenders were thought to have vanished with fallen Vendor, but a few had been salvaged, back-engineered and replicated here.
Calling on the guards would have been effective, but hardly diplomatic. But then the Messenger had hardly been diplomatic when he made his parting words, ones to the effect that Alisas name had been added to the Calendar of Rogues and that she faced a death sentence if she returned home or was discovered on any other world.
For all her brave front about her exile, Alisa could not escape its pain. She could bury herself in her work, knowing its importance. She could find solace in the company of men, although that had come later for her than for most of her kind. She could keep up with the news from Velor, although that was not always pleasant. But thoughts of family and friends she had left behind could still occasionally drive her to tears.
Her first lover, Captain Peter Durgin of the Anders Flame, had been entranced by her rare combination of physical invulnerability and emotional vulnerability. Their lovemaking had always been intense, but it had been especially intense whenever he was able to minister to her soul as well as worship her body.
Yet in the end, he had betrayed her by asking more of her than she could give. And then he had betrayed her utterly, even to she didnt want to think about that. The best that could be said of him was that he had made the same mistake twice, that he could never seem to realize the futility of a long-term relationship, still less actual marriage, between a Velorian and a she hated to use that word, but it had hung there between them.
As it was later to hang between her and other lovers she took, after her exposure, back home at the Institute. Alisa had always tried to choose them carefully. She never exploited the power of her pheromones, never sought to play the "other woman." Honesty and trust were important to her, who had been given little of either. Yet she had not been lucky in her choices. She hoped it would be different with Jecel Davidson, who seemed to have nothing in common with Durgin but his rank.
She hadnt rushed things with Jecel, even though she knew that he was a widower and had no other attachments shed made certain of that. She had kept their relationship on a professional level. Only when she knew he could feel comfortable with more than that did she let things take their natural course. Everyone on the Mindful soon knew about them, even though they never talked about it: the looks on their faces told all.
Their first night together, Jecel had been amazed that he had brought such pleasure to the living goddess who now shared his bed. It had helped that she hadnt been the least bit shy in advising him of her needs and desires. But it had also helped that he had cast aside any restraints that would have bound him in loving a frail. Her pheromones had empowered him, but the expression of that power, the utter freedom hed felt with her, was all his own.
"Do you feel proud?" shed asked him, after theyd lost track of how many times theyd come.
"Proud enough to brag to the others?"
"No. Much too proud for that."
7. Ministers of Fear
"Theyre afraid of us," Noenda told him after they left the Great Hall.
"Their body language again, I presume," Davidson responded.
"Its almost palpable."
It became obvious even to him when they repaired to the cafeteria up the street. They had eaten here before, and drawn the friendly curiosity of the Domyrans at nearby tables. But now they drew only furtive glances.
It made Davidson feel even more awkward than the low ceiling, which reminded him of how the Kelsorians must seem a race of giants to the natives.
"But what have we done?" he wondered. "Nothing!"
"Except tell the truth."
"At your very own insistence, I seem to recall."
"So youre blaming me?"
Davidson shook his head.
"There was nothing else to be done. I know that. But what do we do now? Try to prove were the good guys? That were not the Evil Empire?"
"Theyll still know its out there. And think weve brought it to their doorstep."
"As if the Aureans would come all this way. Or the Velorians, for that matter."
Velorians, Davidson thought. And he thought of a particular Velorian.
Alisa had gone back to the hostel, saying shed wanted to review notes on some of the outer planets radioed by another team from the Physics Section in Shuttle 2. Physics was spread pretty thin, with yet another team in Shuttle 3 exploring the other inner planets.
She had almost looked ill, he thought. And Velorians were never ill.
Davidson might be a bit thick when it came to relationships, but he wasnt stupid. He was simply the sort of man who always knew when he had given offense, but always knew it too late. He realized what must have given Alisa that look. He might have gone after her, but that would have made things worse. To show that he disbelieved her excuse, to try to say something when he couldnt think of the right thing to say, if there were any right thing.
Anyway, he had another crisis to deal with now. If Noenda and her colleagues in the Culture Section couldn't help, the entire mission might be a failure. I should hate for that to happen, he thought.
8. Cause for Complaint
The night after Jecel spoke to the Congress, Alisa could hardly speak to him. She felt guilty about that. After all, she had forsworn any loyalty to Velor, even as Velor itself had forsworn her. She had proven her allegiance to Kelsor again and again.
And yet, and yet… when Jecel had spoken those damning words about her people, it was as if he had twisted a knife in her heart. Because, she realized, they still were her people, however much she tried to deny it.
"You know I love you," he'd told her. "You know I think of you as one of us."
More than she herself did, she reflected. She knew that it was true. She knew that it was unfair to reproach him.
"Under the circumstances, it would be best for the Domyrans to think likewise."
She only nodded. Yes, It would be best. But she wasn't thinking about Domyr at that moment, or about anything in the present. She was thinking back…
After Rostran, after the Lost City, she and her shipmates had been summoned to testify before a special subcommittee of the Secretariat assigned to investigate the affair. In closed session, of course. It was a dilemma for her and all of them, because they had promised Klara they wouldn't give away the secret of the hidden planet that wanted to remain hidden.
The subcommittee's experience with Peter Durgin had been unsatisfactory, to say the least. He couldn't account credibly for the loss of lives on the mission, even though the rest of the crew had backed their official story. Nobody but Alisa had known the whole story about Andre Kalik. The subcommittee was counting on her, and she forewarned its members that what she would reveal must go no further.
"Do you undertake to tell the truth, Dame and Scholar?" Chairman Yakovsky had asked.
"I so undertake, Sir and Chairman."
"If you fail to tell the truth, do you agree to Unspeaking?"
She knew the punishment: None would have converse with her for whatever period of time the committee might direct.
"I so agree. But I shall tell the truth in any event."
She told it all. The mission to Cygnias 275. Rostran. The Gwyndylyn and the Kirke, the kella'primes and the Betans and the tset'lars and the old Goddess and the new Goddess, and even the Krypterran golden child become Golden Woman. The war and their losses in it, the social upheavals, leading to a new and hopefully better world order. Her own enhancement and Peter's and Andre's. Their return to the wormhole. The Lost City of the Old Galactics, and what had befallen Andre there. All in excruciating detail.
Yakovsky was incredulous, threatening her again with Unspeaking.
"If you do not credit me, Sir and Chairman, summon a physician for a brainscan."
The brainscan indicated that she had indeed been telling the truth. This disturbed Yakovsky even more. In fact, he was terrified.
"Enter her testimony in the record, and mark the record off the record," he ordered, a quaver in his voice.
The scribe complied, coding the cube Blue Rose. The committee then voted and issued its formal ruling: Rostran was placed under interdict, and so were all those who took part in the mission. They were never to speak of it again.
So it was. Except for Durgin. Except for Alisa. One of them observed the seal of the Blue Rose. The other was suffered to draft the offcial cover story, while keeping the most frightening aspects of the truth to himself – but blamed Alisa for the loss of Andre and other transgressions.
The mystery, and the rumors and speculation, came between Alisa and her colleagues in the Department, between her and her students at seminars. Her origin, now exposed, likewise came between her and her lovers. Was she loved for who she was or what she was? She wished it didn't matter; she wished that it was only the pleasure they shared that mattered.
She had kept up with the news from Velor. She had even had occasional word from her mother, through unofficial channels at the embassy on Bering's World, although it had been a while. Naomi herself was doing well last she'd heard; she was content with her diplomatic service. Sara's acting career was flourishing; her videos often made the top ten. Nikki was in recovery. She always seemed to be in recovery, but at least she had a job with Sara. James was with StarBright Corps, helping train Protectors.
Alisa had felt a stab of inner pain at that last. There had never been word from James in her mother's messages. Mother had tried to gloss over that, but Alisa could read between the lines. She could also read between the lines of the news dispatches: nothing had changed in the Enlightenment. Nothing to make her regret her decision to become a refusenik.
She thought again of her old nightmare. She thought of Andre, now back on Rostran – could they ever salvage his mind? She thought again of her failed quest. So near, and yet so far. But maybe young Lionel DeCamp in the Cultural Department had been right, maybe the answer to the fate of their civilization didn't lie in wormholes after all. Maybe there could yet be a happy turning, something unexpected and seemingly miraculous for which she would have to be ready.
Whatever that might be, she hadn't found it at the Institute. But she had it all wrong, DeCamp had insisted later during a Long Day-Short Year observance; you couldn't look for that sort of thing. It would come, or it wouldn't. All you could do was keep your mind open. So she tried. She kept up with her physics work, but studied other things as well — history and culture, Including Aurea as well as Velor and the Enlightenment worlds and Old Earth itself.
But things were getting stale for her on Kelsor 7. It was time to move on, again. It was because she had wanted lick her wounds, to put Rostran and all the rest behind her, that she had taken a sabbatical. It was because she had wanted to put the heartbreak of her own past behind her once again that she had decided it was time to return to space.
Anyway, the academic life wasn't enough for her. She wanted to be out there, exploring new worlds, not sitting at a console and reliving her old travels at conferences. There were still adventures to be had, if never again like those she'd shared with the expedition to Cygnias 275. It would also be different on the Mindful than on the Flame, she'd thought. And for a time, it was. She had felt healed, she had felt whole. Except about Andre, of course, though she kept her feelings about him to herself. But then…
She and Jecel were staying at a hostel in the Domyran capital. The ceiling was low but the beds and other furnishings were human-sized, the natives having had ample time to prepare for their coming. The bed was soft and luxurious. Good for sleeping, good for loving. But there was neither tonight.
She'll get over it, Jecel thought, And hoped that it was true.
I'll get over it, Alisa thought. And hoped that it was true.
9. In Training
The Domyrans had expected their visitors to fly Shuttle 1 to the Throne, but Davidson had thought it a friendly gesture to make use of local transportation, and it seemed that nothing could dissuade him.
"Besides," he pointed out, "Some of us on the mother ship would also like to visit, and the shuttle is needed for that. The pilot has been instructed to pick us up at the Throne as soon as we're done here."
Iffar seemed taken aback, but said he would be pleased to cooperate.
Notwithstanding the precedent of the hostels, it somehow hadn't occurred to him that local transportation would have to be retrofitted to accommodate the giants from the stars. And despite Iffar's polite delaying tactics, Davidson was eager to get to the central train station, which was within easy walking distance.
Taking the train was part of the plan. Or so Davidson saw it. Perhaps they could still regain the good will of the Domyrans by being as down-to-earth as possible. They couldn't ever be really like their hosts, but they could show that they really liked them. He certainly did. He'd looked up the reference to muppets. It was a good image to keep in mind as they made the grand tour.
With Iffar as their guide, they spent several days visiting factories, farms, public works, even the memorial fields in or within an easy drive of the capital, the local transport syndic having outfitted a special jitney to accommodate them. The Domyrans were cooperative, oh so cooperative, and yet it all seemed to have an artificial quality about it, from the museum tours to the song and dance performances ("Like Bollywood," Noenda said, whatever Bollywood was.).
As the days passed, there was a bit of a change, she was pleased to report. The natives still seemed to be restless, but no longer fearful. They crowded about the visitors again, in what was close to the correct manner they had encountered at their landing. Scenes like that were broadcast by the media, which seemed to be subtly communicating the attitude as well as the events. The train trip might well cement things, Davidson believed.
So he arrived at the station barely an hour after making the request, gaggle of scholars in tow, to find a beehive of activity as workers of the Rail Transport Syndic scrambled to remove all the standard Domyran seats from one of the train cars and assemble new ones large enough for the visitors from materials that had somehow materialized on the station platform.
The grey-furred Domyrans fairly raced about their tasks, some inside the car, some on the platform, some moving back and forth. At first glance, it looked chaotic, like the antics of Terran monkeys at a zoo. And yet it was all organized. Every Domyran seemed to know his or her task; with a bare minimum of words and gestures, they coordinated their efforts with incredible efficiency.
There was a system to all of it, from cutting up the old seats and removing the pieces to bolting together sections of the new ones on the platform, carrying them on board and setting them up — which included installation of attachments to bolt them to the floor. Where the raw materials had come from in the first place, the Kelsorians never did learn — they were to embarrassed to ask. They clearly hadn't been intended for their present use, and yet somehow the Domyrans had found something to the purpose.
When they were done, accomplishing in an hour or so what might have taken days on a Terran world, the First Speaker himself bowed and thanked them for their work. The Rail Transport Syndic workers bowed in return, accepted his thanks, and scurried off to return to whatever their regular duties were that day.
"Please excuse the delay," Iffar said as he turned to the visitors and bowed.
"No apologies are necessary," Davidson said with as much grace as possible, returning the bow. "We are indeed pleased to have witnessed your people's labors before enjoying their fruits."
Enjoying the fruits of Domyran labor was a relative matter. The train doors were still too small for the Kelsorians to board without ducking, and the ceiling was low by their standards, although not so low that they risked bumping their heads. And the seats, made from some sort of treated wood, were plain and hard.
Alisa, the tallest among them, had to watch her head, but there were a few centimeters to spare. The hardness of the seat didn't bother her, although it was doubtless a discomfort to her seatmate Noenda. She could have flown to the Throne, of course, but that would have been unseemly, even if she hadn't accepted the obligation to conceal her true nature. And she wanted to talk with Noenda in any case.
"It's almost like telepathy. Like the Diaboli," Alisa ventured.
"Nothing like. More like the subliminal communication between long-time lovers. The kind who know each other so well that sense each other's moods and needs without having to ask — who at moments even find themselves spontaneously saying exactly the same thing in response to a situation. Only here, it isn't limited to lovers. And it's not just at moments, but all the time."
"Still, it must take training, too."
"Like the pit crews at the Indy 500."
"Another of your obscure Terran references. But unlike Jecel, I'm up to speed on that sort of thing. I've been doing the studies in comparative cultures lately. Who knows, I might even join the Cultural Department when we get home."
10. A Few Days in the Country
If Davidson had had any idea what the train trip would actually be like, he might have had second thoughts. He was used to express tubes on Kelsor 7. This was nothing like that. Nor even like the bullet trains of other planets.
The passing countryside eastwards of the capital was picturesque, but soon boring — except, of course, to Mussorgsky of the Biology Section, who never tired of talking about the different sorts of crops and the role they played in the Domyran diet. To Davidson, they were all a grayish-greenish-bluish blur.
It was the same with the livestock.
"Notice the refined manner in which the kray are cropping the grass as a group effort," Mussorgsky observed. "It's as if their very psychology has evolved in precisely the same manner as the Domyrans."
Davidson couldn't see anything more refined about the kray than about the train seat, which was giving him a royal pain in the ass. But he had to put on a show of interest, what with Iffar keeping an eye on them.
Past the farms there came the factory forests, all carefully managed, trees the same age and height all lined up in rows. There were abrupt boundaries between sections devoted to trees of different ages and heights. Davidson could tell that the path of the railroad, which sprouted extra tracks and sidings in this section, marked a division between species.
"Lumber on one side, paper on the other," Mussorgsky explained, "All organized very efficiently,
When the train reached a zone of mature trees, they could see a beehive of activity. Not as hectic as back at Central Station, but just as organized. Huge machines that were part cranes, part trucks and part mobile sawmills deployed circular blades to strip the trees of their branches, cut the trunks into sections and convey the sections to waiting train cars. Smaller vehicles hauled away the branches. For mulch and firewood, Iffar explained.
Beyond the factory forests came wild forests, nature preserves. And beyond them an expanse of scrubland, dull beyond imagining.
It was on the morning of the second day that they first saw the Escarpment. Well, not exactly. It was still dark out when Iffar awakened them, and what they saw was that the stars weren't visible all the way down to the horizon.
Iffar stopped the train here, invited the Kelsorans to stretch their legs. It was a welcome suggestion, but comfort wasn't the object of the stop.
"Watch carefully, visitors from afar," he said. "There is nothing else like it on Domyr or, from what I have heard, any of your worlds. In the far North and the Far South, beyond the Escarpment, it is already daylight. But here…"
The Domyran must have had an internal clock, for at that very moment, dawn broke over the Escarpment, and the heights were outlined against the golden light of Svyet. And lightly to the left of the tracks, towering above all else, was the highest height of all.
"The Throne of the Gods," Iffar announced proudly.
Davidson knew then that the train trip had been worth it. He reached out to Alisa, put his arm around her. They stood together in shared wonder as the rising sun revealed more of the grandeur of the Throne.
The ground beneath them, which had been in shadow, was suddenly lit, and they could see the terminator race before them across the plain until it vanished into the distance. They all stood in awe, even the Culture and Biology people like Noenda and Mussorgsky
The train took hours more to reach the tunnel through the Escarpment that linked what had once been two continents. Fifty kilometers long and, even at that, it had to slope steeply upwards to reach the surface of the high plateau.
Thousands had died during its construction, Iffar told them: a sobering thought. It had been the same during construction of the tram that would convey them to the Throne.
The air was noticeably thin by the time they emerged at the transfer station for the tram, and it would be thinner still at their final destination. They were issued breathing masks and air tanks, just in case. None needed them yet, and Alisa didn't need one at all, but she went through the motions of testing hers.
The area around the transfer station was rocky and desolate. The only signs of life other than themselves were some sort of growths akin to lichen. To the east, the railroad tracks continued to the distant lowlands of the eastern subcontinent. To the west, the pylons and cables of the tram vanished upwards into the distance.
Iffar was all apologetic about the accommodations at the transfer station hostel; there simply hadn't been time to procure mattresses or furniture appropriate for the Kelsorians. Davidson was all reassuring: they wouldn't have missed this journey for anything.
And it's true, he thought. It's all true.
He and Alisa made love that night. He needed the breathing mask, but she didn't mind. They made a joke out of it. They even made it part of their fun.
11. Peak Performance
The main reflector of the World Eye was 30 meters across, several times the size of the largest surface telescope ever built on Earth. It could easily resolve the disks of stars dozens of light years away, and capture the spectra of any planets that had formed.
Between direct visual observation and examination of perturbations that betrayed the existence of those too small or distant to be seen, Amsul and his staff had catalogued some 10,453 planets. Most — especially those around remote stars — were gas giants, but many were smaller — and several hundred showed traces of oxygen in their spectra.
Were any of them planets she knew?
A number of them, Alisa told him after examining the records.
Remote worlds of the Enlightenment, in fact. But she left that unsaid.
She didn't want to talk about the Enlightenment. She didn't want to contradict anything that Jecel had told the Congress. She was still trying to sort out her feelings about that, and the last thing she wanted to do was share them with the Domyran — even to share the fact that she was Velorian born.
So they talked of other things. She steered the conversation back to the construction of the World Eye, and the role Amsul had played in the Deep Space Planetary Catalog project. She knew that such things were collective efforts on Domyr. Everything on Domyr was. And yet…
The Chief Astronomer was quite proud of it all, in a manner that Alisa had not seen in any of the other Domyrans they had met. What had Noenda called them? Muppets. That was it. From some sort of children's entertainment on old Earth.
"We saw you before you saw us," Amsul said, with the broadest smile that Alisa had ever encountered on the planet,.
That boast wasn't strictly true, she thought, but she hesitated to argue the matter.
Amsul somehow read the thought behind the hesitation.
"I mean, the World Eye saw you before you saw the World Eye," he amended. "I take it you have nothing like it?"
"Not on any world that has an atmosphere. But then no other inhabited planet that we know of has a site anything like the Throne."
"I had rather thought that might be the case. Our own planetologists have pronounced it a freak of nature, and there is nothing else like it in our system, even on worlds with far less gravity. In any case, it gave us the needed element of surprise."
"The sense of the Congress depended on it. Had you arrived unexpectedly, there might have been… confusion."
What was wrong with confusion, she wondered. It would have been normal, under the circumstances. You could always work things out if you put your mind to it. Well, scientific things, at least.
She didn't pursue the matter. They continued to talk about cosmology, about other worlds, other peoples. They could have kept it up for days, she thought.
They never met again.
12. A Revelation
They were sharing lunch in the observatory refectory.
"He's not one of them," Noenda said.
"What do you mean, he's not one of them?" Alisa wondered.
"He's illiterate, in a deeper sense than you can ever imagine. He doesn't know their true language. I can tell."
"Does anyone really know that kind of language? Even between lovers…."
"They know. That's what makes them unique, in all the known universe. They can truly read each other, truly understand each other. That's why they've been able to create a true utopia, where all others have failed. My God, what we could learn from them!"
"But you were just telling me that Amsul himself couldn't understand the language."
"He's an exception. An obvious exception. And one that proves the rule. His world is compassionate. It has made a place for him, as humane societies have always made a place for the blind, the deaf, the lame. More than that, it has given him an honored place. I've got to talk to Iffar. This could be what I've been waiting for. What we've all been waiting for."
Noenda excused herself, and hurried off to find the tour leader.
Alisa looked after her, saying nothing. She didn't want to rain on her parade but…
It couldn't be that simple. If there was anything she had learned, on Velor or Reigel 5 or Kelsor 7 or any of the strange worlds she had visited, it was that nothing could ever be that simple. Even the Galen hadn't figured it all out; she'd learned that from experience, not just absorbed it from legend.
She gazed out the picture window of the refectory. The sky above the Throne was deep purple, the rocky terrain lifeless to all appearances, although she'd been told that there were a few microorganisms adapted to the thin air.
Rocks were easy to understand. Stars and planets and moons in their courses were easy to understand. Even wormholes weren't that hard to understand, if you let the laws that governed them speak to you. If you truly listened.
13. Desert Wind
There wasn't much to see on Qhali. It was cold and dry and dusty. And windy, They weren't quite sure why the desert planet's rotation was so slow, but it was slow enough to create a serious temperature differential between the day and night sides, for which the wind sought to compensate.
It was near sunset now where they'd set down. The signs here were good for xintanite, but they hadn't found any. Not that they needed any, but the Domyrans would, if they ever wanted to venture out of their own system. Physics Tech Sprague Carter thought this stop was a total bore, but Section Chief Blevins had insisted.
Even Blevins had admitted he'd rather be on Domyr. The landing party there was being treated royally, they'd heard, and the natives were really funny.
The shuttle was parked at the center of a broad valley. It narrowed towards the west, in front of them, sloped upwards into a canyon beyond the horizon. It looked shallow from here; the walls were more than a kilometer high, but so far off they didn't look it.
They'd picked the spot from deep imaging radar; that was what had hinted at xintanite. But the sounding probes from the surface were disappointing. The sun was setting now, and the wind was rising. Not enough to be dangerous, but it would raise more dust. Blevins said to pack it in for the night, which was a good idea -- because taking off in the dust would be a nuisance, and it was almost break time by ship's clock anyway, The pilot and the astrogator were already taking a snooze.
With the dust rising, Carter was fully suited. Otherwise, he would have settled for a breathing mask. The air pressure was close to human standard; it was just that the air itself was mostly carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which weren't much use to human lungs. But the dust was something else; it could get in your eyes. And when it came to sand…
Something flickered against the setting sun. Carter adjusted his helmet polarization to get a better look. He still couldn't make anything out; the rising dust was getting in the way. But then the sun was blotted out entirely, and that couldn't be the dust..
The front searchlight of the shuttle came on, and Blevins voice sounded in his com.
"What the hell is that?"
Carter looked again. Something rolling? A boulder? Coming their way?
14. A Greater Revelation
Jecel was out when Noenda came to their room.
She was distraught, completely out of control. Alisa had never seen her like this before.
"They slaughtered millions," she screamed. "Hundreds of millions. They're evil!"
"What?" Alisa protested. "What are you talking about?"
"Those memorial fields they showed us? The ones they say honor the fallen of the Wars of Unification? They were execution grounds, many of them, all over the world, for those who couldn't join in the new consensus, who couldn't accept the Revolution."
"Who told you this?"
"Iffar himself. He was so off-handed about it. As if it didn't matter. Because they are memorialized, after all; because the rituals are observed. Because their deaths made Domyr a better place, even if they had no place in it. And it's still going on."
"But the wars were over centuries ago."
"They kill those they consider defective."
Her face was pale, she looked as if she were about to vomit.
"On Velor, such people are never born," Alisa pointed out.
"But on Domyr, they sometimes are. Or sometimes they become defective. They killed Amsul's mother, did you know that? Because she lost her mind when she was shipwrecked. They were going to kill him as well, because he was with her, and it was too late for him to learn the language, the real language, when they were found. But they… decided that… he might still be… useful. Useful!
Her words came out in bursts, as if she were throwing them up. Then she did throw up. The room was suddenly filled with the stench of vomit.
Alisa said nothing, went to the personal for a towel, barely remembering to duck her head. She soaked the towel in water, came back and cleaned up the mess. Noenda was still pale, her body shaking.
Alisa's com sounded.
"Busy!" she told it, and cut off.
She held Noenda then, like a true friend, like a sister. The shaking gradually subsided. Only when she appeared to have fully recovered did Alisa resume the conversation.
"Amsul never told me any of this."
"Of course he didn't. It had nothing to do with physics or cosmology. And even if he had, he wouldn't have seen anything wrong in it. Because he agrees. They all agree! They can't do anything but agree. The others do it as a matter of course, by reading one another, adjusting to one another, a feedback loop that leads to consensus. He has to do it slowly and painfully, logically. Because he wants to belong. And he can't, he can't!"
"He seemed all right to me."
"Because he's in the limelight now. Because he's proven himself useful. Because he can think that he's a part of it. But if they should ever decide he isn't useful…:
"Surely they wouldn't–"
"I wouldn't want to be here to find out. I don't want to be here another day, another hour, another minute."
At that moment, Jecel ran in.
"We have an emergency, Alisa. That kind of emergency. Why aren't you answering your com?"
15. An Emergency Case
Jecel had glanced at Noenda, a questioning look on his face.
"We have another sort of emergency here," Alisa said. "One we'll have to deal with. But yours is a matter of life and death, I take it."
"So is mine," Noenda protested. "Jecel has to know–"
"But not right now," Alisa told her with undeserved harshness. "Not right this minute."
Noenda looked shocked.
"You know who I am and what I am," Alisa said, her tone softening. "You know that Jecel wouldn't call on me like this if my powers weren't absolutely necessary."
"It's Blevins and his people on Qhali," the captain broke in. "There's been an accident."
That seemed to bring Noenda back to herself, to give her a sense of perspective.
"Could you please excuse us?" Alisa asked her. "Your issues will be addressed, I'll see to it myself if I have to. But Jecel and I have to talk about life and death in the here and now."
That seemed to get through to her. Noenda headed for her room. Reluctantly, but with a sense of the inevitable. When she had left, Jecel began explaining the situation.
"Shuttle 3 has lost hull integrity," he told her. "From a rolling stone. That's the long and the short if it. No casualties, yet. Blevins woke up Deviyoni and Wu, and they were able to suit up before the air went bad. Carter was outside.
"Front ports cracked, hopelessly. Maybe damage to the hull itself. You'll be able to tell better, obviously."
Obviously, she thought.
"Shuttle 1 is on its way here," Jecel said. "The Domyrans know there's an emergency, but I haven't spelled out the details. They can do the math, and they'll wonder how we could possibly respond to the situation on Qhali. So we don't tell them."
"No immediate danger. But their air supply is limited. A few days."
"And it would take more than a few days for another shuttle to reach them."
"Exactly. And the Domyrans will know that too. So what do we tell them?"
Alisa had already thought it out.
"We tell them it's a medical emergency."
"Iffar had been about to tell me something about her when the call came in."
"Does he know where it came from?"
"No, I just listened. And told him I had an emergency to deal with. And tried to reach you on the com."
"You'll tell them the emergency call came from here. Noenda is seriously ill, and must be taken to the Mindful immediately for treatment."
She quickly filled him in on the details.
"I see," Jecel responded. "This is indeed serious. I shall have to explain to Iffar."
He was putting himself in the right frame of mind, even in the right frame of body, if that were possible. Iffar would realize that he was dissembling, but he could hope that the Domyran representative wouldn't realize what he was dissembling about.
16. Stellar Powers
Alisa carried Noenda aboard the shuttle. The cover story was that she was concerned for her friend, which was close enough to the truth. As the craft lifted off, Noenda came out of the near-catatonic state she'd been affecting. Which was not to say that she was pleasant company on the way to the Mindful.
There was no time to waste once they'd reached the mother ship. After leaving Noenda with as supportive a parting as she could find, Alisa headed for stores, brought out the klav'en, and carried it to the nearest shuttle bay. Because she was in a hurry, she took the weapon into her before firing it; she'd done that before. She rode out the orgasms; when she came down from them, she was fully empowered.
One of the crewman arrived to reclaim the klav'en and hand her the replacement ports for Shuttle 3. They were essential. Any other damage was apparently too slight for ordinary human eyes to make out. If it was there, she'd find it and fix it.
There was one bit of luck: The Mindful was nearly in line between the World Eye and distant Qhali. The ship could thus screen her departure for a while. But only for a while. The Officer of the Day ordered the shuttle bay blown, and she was out and on her way.
By the time she was spotted by the World Eye, she was too far away for the telescope to make her out as anything more than a tiny object moving at great speed. One of Amsul's colleagues pointed it out to him and asked what he made of it. It took him some time to get over his amazement and offer a tentative opinion.
"Perhaps some fragment thrown out by a distant supernova," the Chief Astronomer surmised. "It may well have been travelling for a million years. Of course its trajectory indicates that it entered the system from opposite our present position. It's a shame that we didn't detect it earlier, for we'll surely never see its like again."
17. Road Service
It was work only a supremis could do. Other than that, it was routine. It helped to have the assistance of calm professionals.
Lewis Wu was the pilot. Raveena Deviyoni was the astrogator. Wu could be mercurial off duty, screaming and leaping at the slightest provocation. On duty, he had nerves of steel. Deviyoni, despite her provocative name, was rather demure — except during Long Day-Short Year festivals. She was dedicated to her job, but wanted to go into physics.
Alisa had talked with her about that, and it had turned out that they knew someone in common: Subrahmanyan Ramalingam, chairman of the physics faculty at the Institute, who had once taken leave to serve as visiting professor at the University of Reigel 5. Alisa had met him there, and he'd encouraged her studies.
After her defection, Velor had pressured the Reigelians to declare him persona non grata, suspecting that he'd had a hand in the affair. He hadn't; Alisa would never have put him in such a compromising position. But he'd been glad to welcome her to Kelsor 7, where she studied under him, and he'd kept her secret until it no longer mattered.
Deviyoni's first encounter with him had been at mid-festival night, when ruddy Kelsor 6 ruled the sky and bathed its only planet in dim light and soft, seemingly sensual heat. She refused to give any details of her own close encounter, even now.
"But with our names, it was inevitable, of course."
Deviyoni and Wu hand helped Alisa punch out the shattered ports, and they both held the replacements in place as the Velorian carefully applied her heat vision to seal them in place, having already taken out the dings in the frame to assure a tight fit. She'd also used her tachyon vision to check the rest of the hull. Hairline cracks here and there; she took care of those too. After that, it was just a matter of replenishing the oxygen-helium mix inside.
Then came the hard part.
Alisa knew that she must have been spotted by the World Eye at some point during her flight here. She couldn't afford to be caught again; a second sighting of an anomalous object would arouse suspicions on Domyr. If the Domyrans figured out that she was Velorian, that might destroy all the good will that Jecel had worked so assiduously to restore.
She'd have to travel back to the Mindful with Shuttle 3, missing the chance for further time on Domyr, at the Throne, with Amsul — an anomalous phenomenon himself.
18. Look Around You
It was a month later.
The Mindful had begun the long journey home.
Blevins and Carter and the other physics techs who'd been off with Shuttle 2 studying the outer planets had completed their shore leave, most of which they spent at the Throne.
Amsul had been asking after her, she'd learned when she'd returned with Shuttle 3. But much as she longed to return to the World Eye, Jecel had advised against it. The Domyrans might read her body somehow, if their suspicions had been aroused. They already seemed to be upset about Noenda; Iffar had sensed some sort of brain sickness in her.
"Of course," the captain responded. "As I said, it was a medical emergency."
They seemed to accept that, while wondering about the lack of details. Perhaps they thought Kelsorians had some sort of taboo about discussing mental illness. It was a defect, after all, and they knew about the handling of defectives.
Alisa looked in on Noenda frequently, promised again and again to support her cause, to do whatever she could to make sure the mission report was complete, warts and all. And so it was — the report filed with the Divsion of External Affairs. Not so the version intended for dissemination abroad, the one that eventually reached Velor and the Scalantrans.
That was still in the future. For the present, there was the need to make conversation. Noenda's eyes glazed over at Alisa's talk of how Terran string theory related to her own work on wormholes, while Alisa was equally bored by discussions of the language of dance and how it had evolved on different worlds.
So they returned to the subject.
"I can't accept it," Noenda said. "The price of their utopia. I just can't."
"We sell QEDs to the Aureans," Alisa pointed out. "How many people die every day because of that?"
"Necessary? No doubt the Domyrans would agree."
"No, they wouldn't understand our kind of necessity. The necessity for the wealth that brought us here, that made this journey possible."
"Every culture has its own necessity. Or thinks it does. Something happens, perhaps by chance, but it seems inevitable. It becomes part of their history, even the foundation of their history. Aurea, Velor, the nations and religions and ideologies from which they largely sprang. It's not that different with the Domyrans, really."
"Do you suppose they can ever escape their history?"
"Can anyone? Can we?"