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Pebble Among The Stars

Gregory Benford

Dawn comes redly on a water world.

Shibura sat comfortably in lotus position, watching the thin pink line spread across the horizon. Slowly the Titanic Ocean lost its oily darkness and rippled with the morning wind. Waves hissed on the beach nearby.

The pink line collected into a red ellipse, then into a slowly rising yellow ball. The gathering wetness of the morning fog slowly seeped away. Shibura passed through this transition complete, of a piece, attention wholly focused. Then a small creature, something like a mouse with bat wings and a furry yellow topknot, coasted in through layers of fog and landed on his shoulder. Smiling, he made a finger perch for the animal, noting that its wings were translucent and covered with fine pearly moisture. Shibura and the air squirrel studied each other for a moment. There came the furious beat of wings from above and the faint high cries of pursuit. The squirrel fidgeted; Shibura fished a crumb from his pocket and threw it into the air. The animal leaped, caught it with a snap and coasted away on an updraft. Shibura smiled.

Waterchimes sounded and a small, nut-brown man emerged from his home further down the beach. He began doing exercises on the white beach: hip thrusts; smooth flowing of limbs first one way, then the other; easy leaps into the air. The man's house was a vaulted, delicate structure of curved lattices. The reddish grease-wood gave it the appearance of weight and mass, belied by the rakish tilt of the columns and cantilevered beams that would have been impossible in normal Earth gravity. Everywhere there were curves; no angles, no sharpness or sudden contrast to jar the eye.

Shibura enjoyed the man and his house, just as he appreciated the other homes hugging the tide line of the Titanic. But they were people of the world, and given to such things. He was a Priestfellow and lived in a rude hut of rough cane wood. His floor was fine ground sand.

His food—Shibura reached to the side and found a bowl of red liquid—simple and adequate. His neighbor was a dealer in metals who shipped deposits from the Off Islands for use in the holy factories. The small man had achieved a station in spiritual life adequate to his personality, and now reaped the rewards. So it would come to Shibura. He had but to wait until the Starcrossers made audience on Seascape again. Then—if the audience was successful and reached cusp—he would fulfill his role and pass through the holy lens.

The lesson was clear: if the Starcrossers were pleased, if the Paralixlinnes proved functional, then Shibura (indeed, all of Seascape) would have proved holy in the light of the stars, complete again for another generation or more. After that audience would come the material things, if Shibura wished them.

Within himself he was sure he would not desire such trappings. He relished the life of austerity and the denial of the body. Not, of course, for its own sake: that was counter to the integrated spirit. But he knew that for himself simplicity was integrity and serenity. Even the coming of the Starcrossers would not deflect him from this.

Down the coast Shibura could see people leaving their homes and walking on the beach, some swimming and others doing morning meditation. Through the thinning fog he could make out the main road, still void of traffic. A lone figure moved down it in the quilted morning shadows: a priestservant, to judge by his robes. Shibura wondered what the man's mission could be. He believed he was the only Priestfellow nearby, but he could imagine no task before him which required a summons so early. Perhaps the man was bound out of town, toward the interior farmland.

Well, no matter. He tried to return to his meditation, but his focus veered. The sun had risen slightly, and its steam brought him even more into the awakening of the morning. He looked up. The great eye of Brutus hung overhead, a half crescent streaked with brown and yellow bands. As he watched, Shibura could see small changes as the great clouds of that turbulent atmosphere swirled and danced. He knew that Brutus was massive and powerful; it sucked the waters away in the second tidetime, stronger than the sun. But now it seemed calm and peaceful, unracked by storms. So unlike Seascape it was, yet Brutus was the parent of this world. Shibura knew this as a truth passed on from the Starcrossers, but it seemed so unlikely. Seascape was a place of quietness and Brutus usually a drove of storms. There were some in the streets who said Brutus influenced the lives of men, but when asked, the Starcrossers said no—men were not born of Seascape, and their rhythms were unkeyed to this world, however much it suited man to live here.

Shibura shook his head; this was disturbing, it took him out of his natural place. All hope of further contemplation vanished when there was a loud jangling of his welcome bells. The priestservant was padding quickly down the short wooded path. His sandals scattered pebbles to the side in his haste. Shibura breathed deeply to compose himself and caught the first sharp tang of the morning tide. The man knocked delicately on the thin door and Shibura called to him to enter. He was an old priestservant who, it was said, remembered well the last audience of the Starcrossers. His robe was tattered and retained the old form of pants and vest beneath his flowing purple outer garments. The man smiled, exposing brown teeth, and ceremoniously handed forward a folded yellow parchment.

Shibura took it and carefully flattened the message against the sand before him. The calligraphy was hurried and inexact. Here and there the ink was smeared. Shibura noted these facets before reading it; often one could learn more from them than from the literal contents. He prepared himself for an unsettling point.

Slowly, he read. His thumbs bit into the parchment and crinkled it. His breath made a dry rasping sound. After perfunctory salutations and wishes of the day, the message was laconic:

They are coming. Prepare.


The great sphere rode through Jumpspace, unseen and unknown.

Its air was stale. The bridge was dark; hooded consoles made pools of light where men sat calculating, measuring, checking. The Captain stood with hands clenched behind him as the calculation proceeded. There were men sealed within the walls and wired forever into the bowels of the computers; the Captain did not think of these. He simply waited in the great drifting silence between stars, beyond real space and the place of men.

Silvery chimes rang down thin, padded corridors, sounding the approach of Jump. The bridge lay in dull red light. Men moved purposefully about it but everyone knew they were powerless to control what was coming.

Justly so. Converting a ship into tachyons in a nanosecond of realspace time is an inconceivably complex process. Men devised it, but they could never control the Jump without the impersonal faultless coordination of microelectronics.

A few earnest, careful men moved quietly about the bridge as they prepared to flip over into realspace. In the same way that a fundamental symmetry provided that the proton had a twin particle with opposite charge, helicity and spin—the anti-proton—there was an opposite state for each real particle, the tachyon.


The speed of light, c, is an upper limit to all velocities in the universe to which man was born; in the tachyon universe c is a lower limit. To men, a particle with zero kinetic energy sits still; it has no velocity. A tachyon with no energy is a mirror image—it moves with infinite velocity. As its energy increases it slows, relative to us, until at infinite energy it travels with velocity c.

As long as man remained in his half of the universe, he could not exceed c. Thus he learned to leave it.

By converting a particle into its tachyon state, allowing it to move with a nearly infinite velocity and then shifting it back to realspace, one effectively produces faster-than-light travel. In theory the process was obvious. It was Okawa who found the practical answer, some decades after the establishment of Old Nippon's hegemony. The Captain had often wondered why the Jumpdrive did not bear his name. Perhaps Okawa was born of impure strains. Perhaps he was an unfavored one, though passing clever.


A slightly audible count came through the padded rooms of the starship. Silvery chimes echoed, and the Captain closed his eyes at the last moment. A bright arc flashed beyond his eyelids, so he could see the blood vessels as he heard the dark, whispering sound of the void. A pit opened beneath him, he was falling—

Suddenly they wrenched from tachyon space and back into the real universe. There was really no difference between the two; each mirrored the physical laws of the other. There were stars and planets in tachyon space, surely—but no man had ever stopped to explore them. No one knew if a real spaceship transferred into tachyons could be maintained in the presence of dense tachyon matter. The physicists said it was doubtful, and no one cared to test the point.

The ship trembled slightly—or perhaps it was only his own reaction—and the Captain turned to the large screen of the foredeck. There was the F8 star, burning hot and yellow.

"A minute, Cap'n," the Executive Officer said. "Looks like we blew a few on that last one."


"The ferrite banks. A lot of them failed."

"The Paralixlinnes, you mean," the Captain said precisely.

"Right. Some are showing flashover effects, too."

The Captain frowned. "I am afraid this might put us over the margin."


The Captain grimaced at this insolence. "We may not have enough ferrite memory to make the transition back into Jump. I want a detailed report, if you please."

"Oh." The Executive Officer nodded and turned slightly away, fumbling at his fly. "You think it's that bad?" As he spoke he began urinating into the porous Organiform flooring. "I mean, it could trap us here?"

The Captain stepped away and clasped his hands behind his back. "Well, uh, yes, it might." He knew this public passing of water was acceptable practice on some worlds, the product of crowding and scarcity. He knew it was not supposed to be a sign of contempt. But something in the Executive Officer's manner made him think otherwise. Certainly actions like this were forbidden on his own home world . . .

"What happens if we try it without getting more ferrites?" the Executive Officer said, looking back over his shoulder. His urine spattered on the Organiform and quickly disappeared. Many spots in the ship had such floors and walls; in the long run it was the only way to ensure cleanliness. Dust, liquid, odd bits of paper—all were absorbed and gradually bled into the fuel reserve, to be chewed apart in incandescent fusion torches and converted into thrust.

"The ship's mass will not trigger coherently."


A political appointee, the Captain guessed. "We would emerge into tachyon space with each particle traveling at a different velocity."

"Ah, I remember." The man finished and zipped his fly. "Tear ourselves apart. Grind us to atoms."

"Uh, correct."

The Executive Officer had made no attempt to hide himself from view while urinating. The Captain wondered whether the man had any convention of privacy at all. Did he defecate in public? It seemed impossible, but—

"Okay, I'll get that report. Might take a while." The man did not bother to salute.

"See that it doesn't," the Captain said sharply and returned his attention to the phosphor screen. He expanded scale a hundredfold and found the banded gas giant planet. It was enormous, he knew, and radiated strongly in the infrared. At the very center of it, according to theory, hydrogen atoms collided and stuck, fusing together and kindling weak fire. But this vast giant of a world was not their aim. There, not far from the methane-orange limb of the planet, gleamed a blue-white moon: Seascape. He smiled.


Shibura sat, feeling the exquisite rough texture of the floor mat on his ankles and yet at the same time not feeling it at all. There was no sound, and all was sound. He was listening and shimmering in the sweet air of incense, relishing the sticky pull of damp robe on his flesh.

"Thus we proceed to fullness," finished the Firstpriest. "Quit of our tasks. Gathered once more into the lap of sunlight."

Shibura studied the old man's weathered brown face, receptive. The morning had begun with sainted rituals among the crowds of Priestfellows and Priestsisters. As the quiet rhythm of the day wore on, each was assigned a task of convergence, expressed gratitude, rose and departed. The damp of the suntide gradually seeped into the high vaulted room. The cold stone walls became clammy at first and then warmed, adding their own moist breath to the layered smoke of incense. From the rear of the great hall the singing reeds brought a clear, cutting edge of sound that aided the mind to become fixed.

"So we come to the end. All roles are suited but one." The Firstpriest paused and looked into Shibura's eyes. "There is left the place of him who stands on the right hand."

Shibura felt a momentary jolt of surprise. Then he extended his hearing and sensing behind and around him. True; he had not noticed the fact, but the other Priestfellows were gone. Only he remained. He felt a swell of elation. That implied—

"It passes to you as it once came to me," the Firstpriest said. From beneath the folds of his robes he produced a copper talisman and handed it to Shibura. It was deceptively heavy. Shibura tucked it into his side pouch and straightened the cloth. He knew no reply was necessary.

The ripples of excitement and surprise smoothed and vanished. The Firstpriest began the ritual passes Shibura had heard described but never seen. The old man's hands slipped through the torchlight, now visible, now unseen. Shibura entered into a state of no definition, no thought, no method. To put aside the thousand things and, in stillness, retain yourself. So the motions led and defined him. And inside, the soft tinkling chuckle of joy.

After a time they rose and moved from the great hall. They did not use the usual passage of exit. Instead, they walked slowly through the Organic Portal, as convention required. Shibura had been here only once before, when he was learning the intricate byways of the temple. Their sandals made echoing clicks in the great hall, but when they stepped into the Portal there came a sudden quiet, for they now walked on a firm softness of green. The Portal was a long, perfectly round passage that muffled all sound. It had no noticeable weave or texture, save the uncountable small pores. There were no torches, but the cushioned walls seemed to provide light. It was a hushed and holy place. It was the enduring gift of the Starcrossers.

The two men stopped midway. Near the floor on a small yellow patch was the place of dedication.

Shibura had learned some fragments of the Starcrossers' written language, but he could not decipher all that the patch contained. No one could. He and the Firstpriest squatted together for a long moment and regarded the yellowed print.

ORGANIFORM. 47296A index 327. Absorbent multilayer.

They passed out of the Portal and through the temple corridor. The Firstpriest began to unfold his memories of the last Starcrosser visit. There were preparations, always extensive and complex. The citizens of the city had to be prepared, and the Priestfellows themselves would have to see to their own personal states of mind as the event approached.

"I received word from the Farseer only this morning. They had been studying the motion of the central band in Brutus, but of course they set aside the usual five time spaces for observation of the Great Bear. That is the ordained place from which the Starcrossers speak."

"But it is not time," Shibura said. "We expected the audience in my third decade."

"I know. I never expected to see another Starcrossing. The last came when I was a boy—almost too young to hold the talisman you now carry. The Firstpriest of that time assured me I would pass through the lens—die—before the Captain came again."

"Why, then?"

"We must remember our place. The Captain is forever Crossing and his path is not so simple that we can understand."

"The men of the Farseer could not be mistaken? They did see the lights?"

Shibura knew a few of those patient watchers of the sky. He did not understand the great tube they seemed to worship and saw no true interest in what they did. The stars were but points of light and told nothing. Only the sun and Brutus held any interest for a man of religion, for they alone revealed their structure. The stars were great candles and might possibly say much, but they were too far away. Only through the Crossing did contact with the mightier places come, and then solely in the form of the Captain and his fellows. Nonetheless, only with the Farseer could the dancing of lights be seen and preparations made for the coming of the Captain.

"I have every trust in them. The Farseer was built in the far past, at the command of the Captain. The role of the Farseer is ordained and it is not for a Firstpriest or Priestfellow to question the tenders of the Farseer." The old man's head bobbed in the gesture of instruction. He smiled to show that his words carried no sharp edge and were meant only for reminding. Between the two men there had come a feeling of closeness. The Firstpriest's joy that he would again see a Crossing conveyed itself to Shibura and lightened his step.

After a pause Shibura said, "Was there any message in the dancing light?"

"The tenders of the Farseer said only that it was the ritual message. They come. They are now within the grip of our sun and we must be ready."

Shibura padded ahead and put his weight against the great door of the temple. They passed out into sunlight. Going down the steps, the bare baked stone face of the temple at their backs, the murmur of life swelled up around them. The great square before them was host to hundreds of people. Knots of friends drifted past amid the flicking echoes of hundreds of sandals.

The shops which lined the tiled walkways were small and displayed their wares with abandon, letting robes spill from their holders; beads and books and spices competed for the same spot in a display case. The two men passed through the crowd. Shibura relished the grainy feel of this uncomplicated existence: talking, laughing, some barterers greeting the price of items with a feigned sharp bark of disbelief.

The sun lay on the horizon, burning a hole in heaven. A few men and women clad in religious raiments spoke of their missions in life, advising of the latest revelation. Shibura bore them no malice, for they were simple people who followed their own blind vision.

Five of the women formed a circle and chanted:

I am

Not great or small

But only

Part of All.

Shibura smiled to himself. It was comforting to know that the purpose of their world was writ large even in the minds of the most common. These people were, of course, no less than he. They formed the base of the great pyramid at whose peak were not priests or merchants or the men of government, but a holy article; the Paralixlinnes. Shibura had learned much from those infinitely detailed and faceted cubes. As objects of meditation they were supreme; how fitting that they played the crowning role even in the vast universe of the Starcrosser.

The Firstpriest made a gesture and they turned down a bumpy avenue of black cobblestone. Rice bins towered over them, their great funnels pointing downward to the rude shop where the grains were sold. The tubs carried indecipherable scrawls in red denoting the strains.

Here the air had its own texture, the sweat of work and reek of spices. Where the two men walked the crowds separated and let them through. Word had passed in the early morning, once the Priestfellows had met in the temple. Now surely everyone in the city knew the time of cusp was approaching. Thus and so: in the damp morning the two men journeyed through the city to the foundry that was the focus of the city itself: the birthplace of the Paralixlinnes.

Shibura glanced upward at friend Brutus, thanking the brown and pink giant for this day. His senses quickened.


The Captain listened intently to the whine of the air circulator. So that was breaking down, too. Nothing in this ship seemed to work anymore.

The last transit through Jumpspace had fractured an entire encasement of Paralixlinnes, even though they were rated to stand up for longer than a year. The ship—indeed, the whole Jump network—was well over into the red zone. With that many encasements gone the ship might well fail at the next Jump. Perhaps the Captain could make it through by enforcing absolute discipline on the next Jump, but he doubted it. Many of the backup men were not well trained; it seemed a corollary of life that political appointees never knew their jobs. But if he ran the calculation through a dozen times perhaps the errors would iron themselves out. A slight mistake in the measurement of the metric tensor, some small deviation in the settings, a flashover in the encasements—any of these, and the ship would blossom into a thousand fiery fragments.

The Captain clenched his hands behind his back and paced the organiform deck. The hooded computer modules were lit, and the sullen murmur of the bridge would be reassuring to one who did not know the facts. The Captain turned and glanced down the bridge. His Executive Officer was talking earnestly to one of the lieutenants. The Captain could be sure that whatever the conversation, it would not concern ship's business. The Executive Officer was a Constructionist, and most of the lieutenants were sharp enough to have fallen directly into line as soon as the ship left its last major port. The Captain knew there were lists aboard of each staff member's political inclination, and he expected the list would soon be used.

The Captain shrugged and turned away. Let the Executive Officer do what he would, this voyage was not finished and the ship was in far more peril than most of the officers realized. Politics could wait. If there was some failure at Seascape this ship might very well never leave realspace again. He turned his attention back to the large screen. They were following a smooth ellipse in toward the gas giant that loomed ahead. At the terminator the Captain could see flashes of gigantic lightning, even at this distance.

This planet was at least nine Jupiter masses; its compressed core burned with a lukewarm fusion reaction. The physics of the thing would make an interesting study. He had never visited this system before, and while reading the description had wondered why an experimental station did not orbit the gas giant for scientific purposes. But then he realized Seascape had a telescope and would see the station. No one wished to perturb the priests of Seascape with an artificial construct in their skies. Such things had proved unsettling on other worlds. So the great gas planet went unstudied and Seascape, according to the computer log, displayed very little social drift. The society there had lasted over ten thousand years, and the Captain was quite aware that he should do nothing to upset it.

He gave an order and the view shifted from the swirling bands to a point of light that orbited the great planet. The view expanded, focused. Seascape shimmered in blue-white. At first it appeared to have nothing but vast oceans, but as the eye accommodated to its light a few details emerged. Lumps of brown were strewn randomly, as though by a careless Creator. At the edge of the horizon lay the only continent. The Captain wondered idly if a drone Ramscoop was by chance making delivery now, but a quick scan of the orbital index indicated nothing around Seascape that would fit the parameters. He made a mental note to complain—for the nth time—about the lack of communication with the drone operation. Worlds like Seascape needed tools, cutting bits, sometimes rare metals and ceramics; if the drone were off schedule or failed in flight there was no way of knowing whether the client world was carrying on manufacture any longer. More than once the Captain had brought his ship out of Jump to find a servant world without necessary materials. Without the few pieces of crucial high technology that the Ramscoop should have brought, the manufacturing process broke down. Without a cause to move them the priests had to search for some other aim, and usually they failed. The world began to come apart at the seams. Not only was the Jumpship's mission worthless, but sometimes fatal damage was done to the client society itself.

The Captain ordered a further magnification and the mottled brown continent became a swollen mark on the planet's limb. There was a belt of jungle, a crinkling gray swath of interior mountains, convoluted snake-rivers and—in the island chains to the north—frigid blue wastes.

An orderly passed by; the Captain accepted a warm mug of amber liquid. He sipped at it gingerly, made a face. He paced the deck again till he came to an area of Organiform and then poured the cup into the floor. In the light gravity the drink made an odd slapping sound as it hit the Organiform and was absorbed.

The Captain glanced back at the screen, where the single continent was spreading over the edge of the planet.

Seascape was tidelocked so that the single continent always faced the banded giant. It was rare for an Earth-like planet to be a moon and even rarer when the geological mix in its crust was hospitable to man. The Captain wondered what it would be like to live on a world where the Sun was regularly eclipsed by a gas giant planet; what color was the halo? There were so many unique things about any world: winds that deafened, oceans that laughed, tranquility beside violence. Even the routine miracles of the xenobiologists could not wash away the taste and sound and smell of what was new and alien.


The Captain turned. It was totally unnecessary to shout on the bridge. The Executive Officer was taking his time; he stopped and spat expertly into the Organiform carpet. The Captain went rigid.

"About time we sent them a burst, don't you think?" the other man said casually.

"It's day at their observatory."

"So what?"

"They cannot read laser flashes in broad daylight, obviously."

"Use radio. Hell—"

"Their culture was not designed to need or use radio. They haven't developed it and if we don't introduce it, perhaps they never will."

The Executive Officer regarded him shrewdly. "That's probably right."

"I know it is right," the Captain said.

"Yeah, I guess I could look it up if I had the time. I thought we ought to tell the natives we were coming in faster than usual."

The Captain regarded him with distant assessment. "And why is that?"

"We can't afford to spend much time here. Get the components and leave. There are good political reasons to be ahead of schedule this time."

"I see," the Captain said evenly. He glanced up at the screen where the ocean world was rolling toward them and savored the view one last time. His few moments of introspection had lifted some of his troubles, but now the weight of working with such men returned. He breathed deeply of the cycled air and turned back to the Executive Officer. Men might fly between the stars, threading across the sky, but they were still only men.


The message found them as they entered the Kodakan room.

Shibura padded quietly behind the Firstpriest. They had reached the door when he felt a slight tap on his shoulder and turned. A man stood beside him panting heavily in the thick air. The chanting from within drowned out his words. Shibura gestured and the man followed him out into the foyer of the holy foundry.

"We are beginning the game," Shibura said rapidly. "What is it?"

The man still gasped for breath. "From the Farseer." Pause. "Starcrossers."

"What?" Shibura felt a sudden unease.

"The Watcher sent me at the run. The Starcrossers will not circle the sky five times. They come two circles from now."

"That is not congruent with ritual."

"So the Watcher said. Is there a reply for the Watcher?"

Shibura paused. He should speak to the Firstpriest but he could not now interrupt the Kodakan. Yet the Watcher waited.

"Tell him to omit the Cadence of Hand and Star." He juggled things in his mind for a moment. "Tell the Watcher to spread word among the populace. The Firstpriest and I shall go to the small Farseer to watch the next circling of the sky. The Firstpriest will want to see if events are orderly among the Starcrossers."

The man nodded and turned to leave the foundry. Shibura reflected for a moment on his instructions and decided he could do no better without further thought. And he could not miss the Kodakan.

He entered the chamber quietly. He made the canonical hand passes diagonally across his body to induce emotions of wholeness and peace. The low hum of introduction was coming to an end. Shibura took his place in the folded hexagon of men and women and began his exercises, sitting erect. He aligned his spine and arms and found his natural balance. He raised his hands high and brought them down in a slow arc, breathing out, coming down into focus, outward-feeling. In his arm carrier he found the gameballs and beads. He began their juggling and watched as they caught the light in their counter cadences. Sprockets of red and blue light flashed as they tumbled in the air. The familiar dance calmed Shibura and he felt the beginnings of congruence in the men around him. Across the hexagon the Firstpriest juggled also, and a feeling of quietness settled. The sing-chant rose and then faded slowly in the soft acoustics of the room. The factory workers signaled readiness and Shibura began the game.

The first draw came across the hexagon where a worker of iron fingered his leaves nervously. The man chose a passage from the Tale and unfolded it as overture. The play fell first to the left, then to the right. It was a complex opening with subtle undertones of dread. Play moved on. Gradually, as the players selected their leaves and read them the problem gained in body and fullness.

For the older man came down from the hills on the day following, and being he of desperate measure, he sought to bargain on the rasping plain. Such was his mission of the flesh that he forgot the custom. There are things of trade and there are things not of trade; the old man forgot the difference. He sought gain. The things he loved he had made himself, but he knew not that to give to himself was necessary to find himself and others. There came a time . . .

All entries made, the play passed to Shibura. Shibura began the second portion of the Kodakan: proposal of solution. The draw danced among the players and the air thickened.


It came to this: you are one of two players. You can choose red or black. The other player is hidden and you hear only of his decisions. You know no other aspects of his nature.

If you both pick red, you gain a measure. If both choices are black, a measure is lost. But if you choose red and your opponent (fellow, mate, planet-sharer) votes black, he wins two measures, and you lose two.

In the end it gains most measure for all if all play together. He who cooperates in spirit, he who senses the Total—it is he who brings full measure to the Kodakan.

Kodakan is infinitely more complex than this simple trading of measures, but within the game there are the same elements.


Today the problem set by the workers carried subtle tension.

The Starcrossers come in audience yet they take from us our most valued.

If the Paralixlinnes be our consummation—

—Apostles of first divinity—

—Why should we give them over to the Starcrossers?

We shall suffer loss of Phase.

We shall lose our moorings. Go down into darkness.

But now the play returned to Shibura. He pointed out the automatic ships that came to Seascape. Did these machines without men not bring valued supplies, components for the working of the Paralixlinnes? Bore they not new and subtle devices? Delicate instruments, small lenses to bring insight to the making of the Paralixlinnes?

The gameballs danced and the spirit moved out from Shibura. The workers caught the harmony of the moment. Shibura indicated slight displeasure when divergent moods emerged, rebuked personal gain, and drew closer to the workers. The Firstpriest added tones of his own: praise of the workers; admiration of the delicate iron threads that honeycombed the Paralixlinnes; love of workmanship.

So, Shibura asked then, as one casts food upon the Titanic and through the mystery of the eternal currents there returned the fishes and the deepbeasts; so the Starcrossers gained the Paralixlinnes and Seascape received the Ramships with their cargo of delights.

The mood caught slowly at first and only with the rhythm of repetition did the air clear, the tension submerge. Conflicting images in the game weakened. The players selected new leaves, each bringing to the texture of events some resonance of personal insight.

Shibura caught the uprush of spirit at its peak, chanting joyfully of the completion as the play came to rest:

In pursuit

Of infinity

Lose the way

Thus: serenity.

The Firstpriest imposed the dream-like flicker of gameballs and beads. The muted song was clothed in darkness. Then stillness.

Accept them as the flower does the bee. The fire burning, the iron kettle singing on the hearth, an oiltree brushing the leadened roof, water dripping and chiming in the night.

The hexagon broke and they left, moving in concert.


Shibura stood with his arms folded behind him and listened to the clicking of the implements. The Firstpriest was engaged with the small Farseer, and attendants moved around the long tubular instrument, making adjustments. Shibura looked out the crack of the great dome and down at the sprawling jumble of the town as it settled into dusk. Even at this distance he could see the flicker of ornamental torches and make out the occasional murmur of crowds.

In the main street the canonical pursuit was in progress. Bands of young men in tattered rough garments ran down the avenues, laughing and singing and reenacting the sports of the Fest. There came the muffled braying of domestic animals. The segretti were loose; Shibura could see one of the long-limbed animals chasing a group of men under the yellow torchlights.

The segretti snapped at a lagging man, but he dodged away at the last moment. The animals were fairly harmless anyway, since most of their teeth had been pulled. Their three legs still carried the sharpened hooves that could inflict wounds, but these were easily avoided by rolling away if the man was quick about it. The segretti chase was the most ancient of the Fest ceremonies. It spoke of the earliest days of man on Seascape, when he had not tamed the animals of the inner continent and was prey as often as he was hunter. Shibura had run like that once, taunted the segretti and felt the quick darting fear as the animal brushed too close. But that was behind him. He would not know it again.

"It is there," said the Firstpriest. "All seems in order."

Shibura turned away from the view. He murmured a phrase of pleasure and relief, but still he felt a gnawing anxiety. Things were askew; the Starcrossers should not perturb the ancient ceremony this way. He felt restive. Perhaps the Game earlier in the day had not truly brought him to completion.

The Firstpriest was conferring with the attendants of the instrument. Shibura knew its function, just as he knew the role of the machines in the foundry and the mines and the optical shops, all of which came together to make the Paralixlinnes. It was only necessary to know their role, not the details themselves. These were the only rightful machines for life on Seascape. Occasionally, through the long scroll of history, men had tried to extend the principles in the Farseer or devise new ways in the foundry. Sometimes they even succeeded, but the radical nature of what they did caused unease and loss of Phase. History showed that when these men died their inventions passed with them.

One of the attendants stepped around the long tube and her flowing robe caught his eye. She had long delicate fingers and moved with grace across the gray stone floor. Her sandals seemed to make a quiet music of their own.

Ah, Shibura thought. Ah it was and ahiit did.

When the audience was over, the Starcrossers gone and he released from his priestly vows, this was what he would seek. A woman, yes. A woman to have in the yearly fortnight of mating. A woman for companion in the rest of the long year. A warm molecular bed of cellular wisdom, receptive. Shadowed inlets of rest. He would not seek adventure or wealth. No, he would seek a woman.

There came a hollow clanking as the Firstpriest came down from the perch.

"The Starcrossing is as before. Their ship is not changed from the last audience." The Firstpriest smiled at Shibura and took his arm. "Would you like to see?"

Shibura nodded eagerly and mounted the iron stair. He settled into the carved oaken chair, and another woman attendant helped him strap in. She turned a massive crank and heavy oiled gears interlocked. It required several moments to bring the tube around, and beads of sweat popped out on her brow. Shibura watched her with interest until the eyepiece swung down to meet his face.

He pressed his eye against the worn slot. At first the field of view seemed dark, but as his eye adjusted he caught a fleck of light which moved from the left into the center. The dot seemed to grow until suddenly it was a silvery ball moving lazily through the great night. Shibura had heard of this but never seen it: The ship that crossed between stars in the wink of a moment. Not like the Ramship which required more than a man's life to make the journey, and carried only instruments or supplies. This ship knew the dark spaces too well for that.

Tomorrow a smaller craft would detach itself from this sphere and dip down into the air of Seascape. Tomorrow was so soon. He and the Firstpriest and all the others would have to labor through the night to make adequate preparations. The people had to be brought to awareness in large meetings; there was no time for the usual small gatherings.

Shibura felt a gathering tightness in him. It was not well to rush things so.

"Come," the Firstpriest called up. "We must go."

The woman labored and the gears meshed again. Shibura wished he had more time to study the ship, to memorize its every line. Then he hurried down the cold stone steps and went to help.


The morning air shimmered over the Canyon of Audience. A swarm of birds entered it from the south and flew its length in W formation. They fluttered higher as they came toward Shibura, probably rising to avoid the murmur of the gigantic crowd. Shibura stood with the others at the head of the valley, the crescent of Brutus at their backs.

The hills were alive with people. They were encamped in the low hills that framed the valley; most had been waiting since yesterday. Delegations were here from the inner continent, an entire fleet from the Off Islands, pilgrims of every description. These were more people than Shibura had ever seen before. The massive weight of their presence bothered him, and he had difficulty focusing on the moment. He knew he was tired from the long night of performing blessings and meditations before the Paralixlinnes.

"Seistonn," the Firstpriest murmured, placing a gentle hand upon Shibura's shoulder.

"I am distracted. I hope the Paralixlinnes prove suitable."

"I am sure the workers have done well."

"Would that I were a foundry worker," Shibura said. "They have only to watch now."

"For others there is process. For us there is the comfort of duty." The Firstpriest smiled. To Shibura the crescent of Brutus seemed to form a halo around the Firstpriest's head. The halo rippled and danced in the rising warm air of morning.

Shibura nodded and turned, hands behind back, to regard the incredible view before them. A Prieststeward said there might be a million people here. It was probably no larger than the audiences of antiquity, since the population of Seascape varied little, but the variety astonished Shibura. This was the most important spiritual event of their lives, and the most impassioned were demonstrating their prowess to pass the time. There were men who could pop metal bands wrapped around their chests; women who babbled at visions; children who whispered to dice and made them perform; a wrinkled gray man who could stop his heart for five minutes; walkers on water; religious acrobats; a man who had been chanting hollowly for three days. All this added to the murmurs that came from the hills, aswarm with life.

Far down the valley, toward the west, they saw it first. An excited babble of sound came toward them as the word spread, and Shibura looked up into the gathering blue sky. A white dot blossomed. He prepared himself. The Priestfellows arrayed themselves in the formal manner and watched the dot swell into a winged form. It fell smoothly in the sky, whispering softly as the evening wind. Abruptly it grew and a low mutter came from it. There was a distant roll of thunder as the ship glided down the valley, turned end for end, and slowed. A jet of orange flame leaped out of the tail with a sudden explosion. Shibura wrinkled his nose at the sulphurous stench. The ship came down with lazy grace in the middle of the prepared field.

The sound of its arrival faded slowly, and there was no answering mutter from the crowd. All lay in silence. The Priestfellows paced forward under the direction of the Firstpriest, who carried the banner and welcoming tokens.

A seam opened in the side of the pearl-white ship. A gangplank slid out and after a moment a human figure appeared. He wore a helmet which after a few moments he removed. Other people appeared beside him, all clothed in a ruddy golden cloth.

Shibura watched the ancient ritual and tried to memorize as much as he could of each moment. In a way it was hard to believe these men had spanned the stars. Their aircraft was beautiful and sleek, but it was only a small shuttle compared to the spherical ship he had seen the night before. These men were taller and moved differently, to be sure. In the universe at large they were like the Manyleggers of the Off Islands who spun gossamer webs, bridging the gap between distant orange flowers. Yet here they seemed only men.

His time came: he stepped forward and was presented to the Captain, a tall man with a lined face full of character. Shibura presented the log of Seascape's history since the last audience. There were records of crop yields and births, accidents and deaths, details of factory and farm. The Captain turned and introduced the Executive Officer in prescribed manner. Shibura looked at this man and saw an unbuttoned pocket in his vest; a snagged bit of cloth near his knee; brown hair parted wrongly near the crown of the head; dirt beneath the fingernails; one thumb hooked into a wide belt. The Executive Officer stood with one knee bent, hips cantilevered.

Shibura greeted him. The man pursed his lips and looked at the Captain. The Captain whispered the opening two words and the man picked it up, completing about half the ceremonial response before bogging down. The Captain shifted uneasily and prompted him again. The Executive Officer stumbled through the rest of the reply.

The ceremony proceeded on a raised, hardpacked field near the ship. They were visible all the way down the vast canyon, but their words could only be heard by those nearby. Nonetheless there was no distant murmur of conversation from the other hundreds of thousands in the canyon. All stared raptly at the Starcrossers. All Starcrossers but the Captain and Executive Officer stood together in a group, smiling but not partaking actively in the formal ceremony. Shibura stood at the right hand of the Firstpriest and noted carefully each movement and word. When the moment came the Captain turned and addressed the people at large. His voice boomed out in the canyon. He knew the words well.

Something caught Shibura's eye and he glanced to the side. The Executive Officer was not standing in place. Instead the man paced impatiently and studied the faces on the nearby hillsides. As Shibura watched he produced a shaped instrument from his belt and began fiddling with it. He raised it to his mouth, and green smoke billowed up into the soft air.

Occasionally, as the Captain continued speaking, the Executive Officer would take the implement from his mouth and begin pacing again. The smoke smelled of something like barley. Shibura knew this action was not correct. The Firstpriest seemed oblivious and did not take his vision from the Captain. As the Captain concluded, the Executive Officer put away the implement and took out a polished metal cylinder. He tipped it up to his mouth and appeared to drink from it. When Shibura next looked back at him he was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

When the Captain finished there was a sudden crescendo of windbells in unison and the formal procession began. Shibura led the Priestfellows up the slight rise and over the lip of the canyon. The Firstpriest and the Captain entered the waiting ornamental carriage. The Captain said something to the Executive Officer, and the man turned to look at Shibura. There were masses of people everywhere, but aside from the music there was silence. Shibura bowed to the Executive Officer and gestured at the second carriage. The Priestfellows knew what to do; they arrayed themselves in the remaining carriages. With a lurch the procession began back toward the city.

Though their driver was expert, the carriage creaked and groaned with the strain. It was probably several thousand years old and had completed this task many times before. It seemed to know the ruts of the worn road.

The Executive Officer appeared uninterested in talk. Shibura studied him in the filtered light as they rocked and jounced their way along. The man had a day's growth of beard and gritted his teeth at the sway of the carriage. Something caught his interest on a hillside and he leaned out the window to look at it. He screwed up his eyes against the sun's glare and then beckoned to Shibura with his finger. Shibura leaned forward.

"What're they doing up there?"

Shibura followed his pointed finger. "They are performing religious exercises." Near the road a man was rippling his stomach, hands locked behind spine, balanced on the balls of his feet.

"What whackers. That's what you skinheads do?"

Shibura did not know what to say. True, he had no hair. Every Priestfellow was required to symbolize his renunciation of the flesh, and a shaved head was the most common selection.

"No," he said finally. "We perform other tasks."

That seemed to end the matter. The Executive Officer slumped back in his seat and closed his eyes. There he remained for the rest of the journey.

The noise of arrival wakened him. Shibura climbed down and held the door for the Executive Officer. The two followed the Firstpriest and the Captain through the great doors of the temple. The vaulted hall was cool and refreshing. In the flickering of the torches the crucibles seemed to glow with pearly moisture. The Starcrossers trooped in and began opening the carryslings they had brought. The Firstpriest and the Captain moved to the far end of the great hall and finished the ritual of welcome. Then they began to speak as they watched the examination of the crucibles.

The Executive Officer paced around the great hall with his hands behind his back. Shibura followed him at first, but when he realized the man was going nowhere in particular he returned to the center of the hall in case he was needed for some other purpose. Each Starcrosser was accompanied by a Priestfellow. Several Starcrossers set up a bank of machinery near Shibura.

Near him a Starcrosser knelt before a crucible and waited for the Priestfellow to unfasten the latch. Inside was a Paralixlinne cushioned in velvet reedwork. Shibura avoided looking too closely at the work; he did not wish to become fixed on the Paralixlinnes and be unready if he was summoned. At each crucible the Priestfellow turned away as the examination proceeded. The block of orange within was about a meter on a side, with delicate black ferrite stains embedded along fracture interfaces and slippage lines. Each corner was dimpled with an external connection; a Starcrosser slipped a male interfacer into each and studied the meters he carried with him. The intricate array within the Paralixlinnes seemed to dance in the flickering light with hypnotic regularity.

Shibura tried to allow the slow rhythm in the room to relax him. He felt a welling unease but he could not place the cause. Abruptly he realized that the Executive Officer was nowhere in the great hall. He glanced around but no one else seemed to notice it.

He padded quickly to one of the side antechambers and found nothing. Then he crossed to the side foyer and glanced among the columns there. Against one of them, in near darkness, something stirred.

As his eyes adjusted Shibura recognized one of the Priestsisters standing rigidly, back pressed against the stonework. Her eyes were wide, her hands clenched.

The Executive Officer had his knee between her legs, his hand caressing her hips.

He was speaking to her and she stared straight ahead, rigid. He moved his knee to widen her legs beneath the folds of her robes, and Shibura came forward.

The Executive Officer caught the faint slap of sandals on stone. He turned and saw Shibura.

Casually he released the woman and stepped back. She stared at him, still frozen. He regarded Shibura for a moment and then turned and walked casually away.

Her eyes showed too much white. She was on the verge of hysteria. Wordlessly he gestured toward the great hall and after a moment she seemed to comprehend what he meant; she nodded and shuffled away. The Executive Officer was gone, but the man had not walked in the direction of the great hall.

Shibura followed him, not quite knowing what to do. Beyond the foyer was a maze of meditation chambers; he spent several moments threading his way through them fruitlessly. He stopped and listened for a telltale sound. Even the talking from the great hall did not penetrate this far into the temple, and there was a pensive silence so still that Shibura could hear the sound of his own breath. Normally one could pick out the sound of sandals approaching, but the Starcrossers wore some form of boot with a padded sole which made no noise.

Shibura moved quickly along the torchlit corridors. He found nothing. In a few moments he reached the Organic Portal and decided to go back. Probably the Executive Officer had returned to the great hall.

Turning, he glanced down the bore of the Portal. The Executive Officer stood with his back to Shibura, his knees slightly bent in a familiar stance. Shibura felt a sudden rising premonition. In the dull glow of the Portal walls he saw a thin yellow-amber stream appear between the man's legs. It spattered soundlessly on the floor.

Shibura rushed forward. The soft padding muffled the sound of his approach. Something welled up from within him. He smacked the man smartly on the back with the flat of his hand.

"No. This is a most holy place!"

The Executive Officer took a half step forward to catch himself. He fumbled at his fly, blinking at Shibura. Then his jaw tightened.

"What in hell—?" He shoved Shibura away. "You just take off."

"No. This is the Portal from the Captain. It—"

"You don't know what this is. We don't run off into the bushes the way you do." He kicked at the floor. "This stuff absorbs it."

Shibura stared at him, uncomprehending. "And you stroked the woman, the Priestsister, in an inappropriate manner."

"Spying, huh?" The Executive Officer had regained his composure. He shook his fist. "You guys want to tell us about women? Huh—you're unqualified."

Shibura said slowly, "We have our own—"

"You have nothing. Nothing we didn't give you. We fixed you so you wouldn't screw too much, wouldn't overpopulate. So you got a mating season, like animals. We did it."

"The mating fortnight is the natural Fest time of all men—"

"No, skinhead. I'm a man. You're a test-tube experiment."

"That is an untruth!"

"Yeah? You're trained for obedience. To kneel down to Jumpship men—real men."

The Executive Officer's lip curled back. Casually, openhanded, he cuffed Shibura. The Priest's head snapped to the side. "See? Made to take it."

Shibura felt something terrible and strange boil up in him. His pulse quickened. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He could not find focus in this swirling of intense new feeling.

"We . . . are following the path of certitude . . ." he began, quoting from the ceremony of dedication.

"Right, that's a good boy. You just run along now, I've got some more business to attend to here."

Shibura started to turn away and suddenly stopped.

The Executive Officer was unbuckling his pants. With a muffled grunt he started to squat and then looked at Shibura again. "What are you waiting for? Get going."

"No. No!"

The man hitched up his pants and held them together with one hand. He stepped forward, bringing a fist around—

Shibura blocked the arm. He clutched at the man's hands, not knowing what to do, and felt a sharp blow in his ribs. The pain startled him and he pushed, nearly losing his balance. Cloth ripped. He grappled at the other man as they fell together. The floor seemed to rush upward into his eyes. He landed with the Executive Officer's weight on top. His face pressed into the softly resistant foam. He caught the stench of urine and gasped. He wrenched upward and got free of the weight. He rolled away. The Executive Officer was flailing after him, and Shibura came up on his heels, ready to spring.

There was some distracting noise but he ignored it to concentrate on his opponent, who was slowly getting to his knees. The noise came again. It was a voice.

"Hold! Shibura, move back—" It was a Priestfellow.

Shibura froze. He allowed arms to encircle him, half listened to their river of words and exclamations. His thoughts ran furiously, and the Organic Portal seemed bathed in hot red light. The Executive Officer glared at him and raised a hand to strike, but another hand appeared and blunted the blow. The other man's face moved away, saying something, and was gone.

The sounds came as though from a great distance, hollow and slow. He stumbled away from there on the arms of two Priestfellows.

There was a sharp burning in his nose. He wiped at it and his fingers came away smeared scarlet. He tried to speak and found his mouth clotted, as though stuffed with acrid cotton.


Word of the event had reached the great hall. There was a babble of voices. With carryingholds and slings the Priestfellows were removing the Paralixlinnes.

Shibura stood and watched numbly. The two Priestfellows still held his arms. He saw the Captain looking over at him, lines furrowed on his brow.

After a time he blinked and saw the Firstpriest standing before him. The old man regarded him for a long moment and then said softly, "No word will be repeated of this. I have heard of the event. I think it best you do not follow us to the canyon. The Captain wishes to depart soon."

There was another long silence; and then, "I know this is a difficult time for you. Let this moment pass away."

Shibura nodded and said nothing. The two Priestfellows at his side went to help with the loading of the crucibles, and after a pause Shibura moved to the doorway of the great hall. The sudden silence of the room reminded him that he was now alone. All others were making preparations and entering the carriages. At the doorway he watched them go, a long line of ceremonial carts. The Paralixlinnes were sealed in their crucibles, which were in turn sheathed in sleeves of polished darkwood. Each neatly filled a cart.

At a call the procession began to move. The carriages departed first, and then the long line of carts rattled away down the cobblestone streets and into the damp heat of the early afternoon. Dust curled in their wake.

Shibura stood with one hand on the massive burnished temple door as the procession slowly wound away. His mind seethed. The Executive Officer's words had battered Shibura more than the fists. The picture endlessly repeated itself in Shibura's mind: The unbuckling. The abrupt squat. The grunt as he settled himself—

It had been the act of an animal. Not a man.

A man knows the time to fondle a woman. A man senses what is sacred.

Such animals as that Officer now had the Paralixlinnes and would carry them away. The purity of those forms would be profaned by the touch of the Executive Officer. The work of a generation was delivered into the hands of that—

Out of the confusion in Shibura's mind came a thought. Shibura was a young man. The Firstpriest would pass away and Shibura, he-who-stands-on-the-right-hand, would become Firstpriest. He would supervise the slow, serene craftsmanship that made the Paralixlinnes. He would follow the right path.

But when next the Starcrossers came, the Paralixlinnes would be safely hidden in distant mountain caves. They would be revered as they were meant to be.

Shibura clenched his jaws tight and smiled a terrible smile. The Canyon of Audience would prove a different host next time.


A landslide starts with the fall of a single pebble. Thus did the Empire begin to erode.

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