Deep in the night, the river flowed: a black, hot flood, here in this drowned world. Rain hurled down, peppering the thatch roof, filling the river ever higher. From the water's surface, wavering lights from electric lamps twisted back up, cut to ribbons.
Anton Prados sat outside the screened room where Nick Venning slept in his hammock. On the narrow walkway, with the river sliding under the stilted platform, Anton waited out his guard duty shift, a precaution in this land of disturbingly familiar beings. He thought he heard a small plop--a stone or a gecko falling into the river. His hand twitched on his empty holster, where his gun should have been. Confiscated by the monarch of the rivers. For the past two weeks, they'd been guests of the royal pavilion, taking the king's lavish meals, waited upon by his servants. Prisoners in silk, as Anton thought of it.
Still, it was a decent reception from a semi-industrial people with no concept of the galaxy, and no idea why the humans should think that anyone had called them. It could have been worse. Anton and his crew were rather like dinner guests arriving on the wrong night, on the wrong doorstep. The Restoration was lucky not to be turned away.
The shuttle had landed on a rock plateau in the middle of the populated delta lands. It was soon greeted by a throng of people arriving in skiffs, men and women with bronze skin and a range of weapons from digging tools to primitive pistols. Anton walked unarmed into their midst. It was a good tactic. Not that they were entirely surprised to see him. They had telescopes. They'd known visitors were here. Anton admired their poise, since his own crew continued to be dumbfounded by the presence of what looked like human beings thirty light-years from Earth.
Now, as he sat outside the monarch's palace, he watched the shadows of the residents pass to and fro behind the thin wall panels. The Dassa, as they called themselves. Descended, surely, from humans on Earth. Genetic diversity sequestered, as the Message said.
Though not always dark-eyed, they were bronze-skinned--altered or selected for the tropical environs, Zhen had guessed. Because they had to live in the hot latitudes of the planet. Because of how they reproduced.
Around him, the tiers of the royal compound stacked up to three stories, depending on the height of the foundation stilts. Under it all, the palace river turbines provided electricity. Across the small inlet, where the palace sprawled along the river, the women on the ground mission, Bailey and Zhen, were assigned quarters. Their light was out. Sleeping.
A gust of wind puffed at the woven reed wall, bearing pungent odors of bloated wood and mud. Dimly, he could make out small bridges here and there, inundated by water, arched wooden trestles protruding like the backs of sea monsters.
Geckos crawled freely up the stilts from the water to catch insects attracted to the lights. Anton watched them stalk their prey.
The geckos were genetically identical to those of Earth. Although microbiology, not zoology, was Zhen's field, she had research tools at her disposal; most of the shuttle cargo had been Zhen's lab equipment. In contrast to the geckos, however, some specimens of animal life had not made the transition from Earth in exact form. Or else they had evolved. The monkeys, for instance. The Dassa, for another.
Though the Dassa were not perfectly human, the women they called hoda likely were. Because the hoda could bear children, and proper Dassa did not. Not in the usual sense.
So the hoda represented potential breeding partners. From Zhen's analysis, their genotypes were incredibly diverse, a priceless reservoir of genetic diversity. But how could they be mates for those on Earth? Even supposing they were inclined to mix with their human cousins, how could they, given the space/time intervals--three real years, depending on the changing lattices of the tunnels. And, of course, the hoda were forbidden to bear young. So even now the solutions were not obvious.
Nothing was obvious. The civilization that created the satellites remained hidden. Dassa technology excelled in chemistry, especially for creating and molding superplastic ceramics using the local deposits of aluminum, magnesium, and zirconium. On a rainy excursion far up the Puldar River, Anton's team had seen the mill works, with its chemical labs and labor-intensive milling processes. But tronics and higher technologies were unknown to these people. The Dassa had not built the satellites.
The palace scholars and even the king himself, from what little contact they'd had with him, were not good sources of information, for they had no notion of messages. But if a signal was sent, it would have come, they said, from those known as the Quadi.
It was their belief that long ago the Quadi had created the people of this world. More than a creation myth, the belief was supported by evidence of tracings from stone carvings at a nearby site attributed to the Quadi. Among the pictographs of flora and fauna were those of variums, the shallow birthing pools, and the infants brought out from them. The ground team had seen these tracings, including indistinct renderings of what might have been the old race. Palace scholars said no, they were merely animals, or fantasies. "The Quadi are gone," they said, as though any likenesses of the Quadi would have fled with them.
Across the channel, a black gecko moved slowly up a post of the women's pavilion.
Anton rose. That was no gecko, to be seen at this distance. An empty skiff waited, tied to a pier. The black shape climbed toward Zhen and Bailey's room.
He was at Nick's side in two steps. "Someone's trying to break into Bailey's hut."
Nick came awake, managing to unravel himself from the sleeping hammock in one motion.
"Bring help," Anton said. "I'm going over."
Nick was instantly alert. "The guards won't let you."
"I know. Let's move."
Nick opened a screen, rousing the guards.
Anton had no intention of waiting for permission. He looked at the reed wall opposite the open screen where Nick argued with the guards. Then Anton plunged through the wall, taking splinters of reeds with him onto the deck.
He found himself on a narrow walkway with water sluicing by in a channel. Running along this walkway, he called to mind the layout--the maze--of the nearby quarters, with their catwalks, bridges, ramps, and huts.
His own hut was deliberately apart from the others, connected by a rope bridge that swayed now beneath his pounding feet, pitching wildly as he sprang onto a narrow ramp leading up. Dassa guards appeared from above, barring his way, drawing their single-shot pistols--primitive, but no less deadly.
"Soldiers," Anton said, pointing in the direction of the pavilion. In the crisis, he'd forgotten how to say intruders in the Dassa language. Well, soldiers would do. To his relief, the guards fell in with him, drawing pistols. "The hut of the human women," he told them as they ran along an extended lanai, past screens now opening with curious Dassa, staring. The guards led him at a fast clip into a snaking corridor inside the pavilion, through a gallery with burnished wooden floors and then out, across a bridge spanning one of the canals. They hailed guards on the other side, bringing them into a line behind Anton and the king's guard.
They led him in a race up another ramp. The guards then paused before one compartment and, raising their long knives, sliced down each side of the mat wall, severing the twine fastenings, and smashed past, into the interior.
In the darkness, figures moved. Anton shouted, in English: "Bailey, Zhen. Get down."
One figure remained upright, silhouetted against the lights that now brightened outside.
Anton surged forward. The figure pushed open the reed mat and jumped. The wall fell with him. Stepping to the edge, a king's guardsman took aim with a pistol.
"Don't shoot," Anton said. "Capture him." But the guard fired, and then again.
Bailey was at Anton's side. "Zhen's all right," she said. "She was using the privy. All they found was me." As if to confirm her statement, Zhen appeared at the open screen amid the guards, her eyes wide.
Anton joined the guard at the edge of the hut and looked into the water below. A black-clad figure floated, facedown. A portion of the hut wall floated past him under the pavilion.
There was just one body. The small dinghy could have held only one, and no other craft were in view.
Nick was pushing through the crowd that had now formed in the hut. He came to stand next to Anton. "You went right through the wall, Captain," he said. "That seems to have created more of a stir than the invasion."
"I needed a shortcut," Anton said. In the surrounding ramble of the palace, people were gathered on walkways, roofs, and bridges, or huddled under the long roof eaves. Some held torches, despite the flammable pavilions, but the flames sputtered in the remains of the downpour. In the flickering light stood a silent assembly of guards and slaves, men and women of all Dassa ranks, the royal bureaucrats who took residence in the king's palace.
Anton mused, "I think they were after Zhen." Of course, Zhen had been controversial from the beginning, being born to bear. And, unlike Bailey, still able to do so.
Nick continued: "Right through the wall. Next time, try not to demolish palace property when you're in a hurry."
"Offer to fix it, then," Anton said. He watched the body floating below. The king had said there was resentment of the humans, and they must not go out, must give the Dassa time to adjust to them.
Nick turned away, annoyed. "These are cultural matters, Captain. They matter. Or why else am I on the ground mission?"
Anton looked at Nick, trying to bring his attention to wall screens and minor palace damage. Nick's face was hard and distant. It was an attitude Anton had seen in him over the two weeks they'd been groundside. A blameful look, as though Anton should not have risen so high. That might be true, but it hurt that Nick so often reminded him of it.
Below, the king's guard hauled the body into a narrow boat, bearing it underneath the stilted compound. With the spectacle over, people wandered back to their hammocks, but some still stared up at the hut where Anton stood. He felt their cool gaze. He wanted to answer them, to say everyone was all right.
But that was not entirely true, of course. A Dassa man had died tonight. And although the body was gone, an eddy of the river still bore a lingering, red tincture.
It had been raining for three weeks. Sometimes in thunderous downpours, sometimes in a sodden mist. Bailey was tired of it.
Now, at the first break in the weather, she was out of her quarters, looking to escape from the palace confines.
Give her something to do, by God. She never understood old people who preferred to sit and rock or nap. Just shoot me when I start to fall asleep in company. Even at seventy-eight, Bailey felt no older than a sprightly forty-five.
She was deep in the palace now, causing a bit of a stir among the nobles, who gave way before her with those polite smiles they had. Traversing the compound was not a simple matter. No single arcade was continuous, forcing one to ferret out bridge connections on one level, or follow ramps to other levels to pick up the thread again. The entire compound was badly in need of an engineer.
The aesthetics were another matter entirely. Woven reeds formed walls and roofs in an exquisite palette of neutral colors: browns, tans, yellows, and blacks. The floors, a burnished reddish wood, were the same color as the hair of these people, except for the slaves--the hoda--who were bald. The nobles all wore shifts of fabulous textured cloth, the slaves simpler fare--but lovely, as though the Dassa could not bear to be plain.
Someone drew a wall partition aside, and in climbed a young man from a boat anchored in the water below. It was unnerving how some screens could be doors and others were fixed. You never knew where, exactly, doors were.
She considered borrowing the young man's boat, but he might want it back. No matter. There were plenty of boats; it was a world of boats.
Anton had asked her not to mix with the Dassa without him. But what did he mean by mix? There were degrees of mixing. Bailey wasn't going to interfere with the king or with politics, especially now, with the attempt on Zhen's life last week and Zhen being under close guard. No, she would let Anton deal with the royals. In her life, she'd had her fill of important people.
Meanwhile, a little boat ride, to discover more fully who these people were. What they knew. How they could help. Eyes on the prize, my dears. You didn't get to be diva of the Western world without focus.
Because it was all here, everything that the Message had promised. It was simply a matter of figuring it out. The answer lay with the hoda, surely. Unless she was just a very foolish old woman, lacking--as her detractors claimed--the sense and the loyalty to stay home and tend to the Earth. But of course this mission was her way of tending to the Earth, to restore what humanity used to have: vitality, immunity, depth.
They must hurry, though. Captain Darrow would have had them combing that Quadi archeological site by now, refusing to take no for an answer. He really should not have died. Not that Anton was botching the job. He had, after all, made a friend of this King Vidori, and they certainly had need of friends. But he might be carrying the niceties too far. Darrow was not one for niceties, nor was she. Case in point: When the virus broke out on board, the two of them agreed that the ground mission would go forward anyway. Despite the risk that inhabitants would be exposed to a human disease. They'd come thirty light-years, and those handy little black holes were a new concept. Who knew if they would even be there for any future expedition? Besides, the incubation period was safely past. They were clean.
She watched the hoda slaves as they milled in the palace byways, watched them very carefully. They were all women, of course. That was the definition of hoda: born to bear. But what sort of children did they bear? No one knew, for slaves were not allowed to bear children. The Dassa, unfortunately, had no concept of proper conjugal relations. Regrettably, they were a species that farmed its babies . . . in ponds. The term was varium. Where men and women swam, and the result was a very ex-uterine gestation and birth.
Excerpted from The Braided World by Kay Kenyon. Copyright © 2003 by Kay Kenyon. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.