by G. Howell
Text and illustration ©2005 G. Howell
|An earlier version of this novel can be read at the authors website
A paperback edition is available from ANTHRO Press
The final page of text on the wall screen faded to white. With ponderous, overly-dramatic slowness, the tome swung shut, its cover gleaming with texture-mapped polished leather and gold trim. An arm reached out to tap a key on the board. The screen snapped off and the only light in the room was the unobtrusive glow from the terminal monitor.
There was a moment of silence in which the hum of the ventilators seemed loud.
So? Whatd you think? he finally asked, swiveling his chair around to watch her.
She was highlighted in the muted glow from the screen, a subtle aurora that changed her, bringing her features out in sharp contrasts; highlights and shadows, sharp bone and smoother curves. The chairs leather creaked and rustled mutely as she settled back into it, one hand coming up to stroke her angular cheek. Strange I guess. An outsiders view of us. Those are really his words?
It probably lost something in the translation. And he makes references to things nobody, but nobody, understands; like that god, whatever or whoever that is.
Mas nodded vaguely, still staring at the wall. He blinked, then leaned forward to touch her arm lightly. You all right? he ventured.
Huh? Yes, fine. Just thinking. She abruptly glared at his intruding fingers and he reluctantly pulled his hand back. Her fur, a deep blue-gray, had a softness that belied its almost metallic luster. Actually, he reflected, he wouldnt mind touching her in a more tender manner, perhaps she
Dont even think about it! she snapped, ears back.
I can wait until your Time, he said with a grin, then ducked back to avoid a clawed hand that hissed through the space his face had been occupying a heartbeat before. Just kidding! he yelped, casting oil on dangerous seas. Im sorry!
She rumbled a growl deep in her throat; mollified, but barely.
There it was again, he reflected, that damnable wall she built around herself whenever anybody tried to approach her. He couldnt believe that anyone with her looks could be a virgin, but there were tales about her, that she actually took suppressives when her Time came around. He doubted that, but what did it take to reach her? What kind of upbringing could possibly do this to someone?
The growl faded but those eyes still smoldered.
Im sorry, he repeated. Back to business. Alright? Any questions?
Mas hissed and drew a deep breath. Does anyone have any real idea of what happened to them?
Nothing you could build a house on, he replied. Lets see It was a hundred and fifty years ago, fourteen years after Shanes translation. Tahr had relinquished her titles, her only son winning the challenges and becoming the new Shirai. She lived to see her grandchildren born, then Tahr ai Shirai died in her sleep. Peacefully. Fifty-three years old.
The Khy and your namesake left a few months later. Nobody knows where they went. One night they took an airship and headed west and vanished into history. The other hmans couldnt or wouldnt say where they were going. People are still saying theyve seen them; like that sighting last week.
That would make them about a hundred and eighty years old.
About that, he chuckled.
No other traces?
He scratched himself. Nothing. But, its a big continent. Maybe one day well find something.
Or perhaps they went home, she wondered aloud.
Thats one theory. Homeor perhaps somewhere else. He waved a hand toward the screen. As Khy said, who knows how many other realities there are.
Mas reached out for the keyboard and hesitated, a claw clicking against plastic as it described small, indecisive circles on the console. She was drifting again. Thinking. Had that narrative actually touched her in some way? Now she leaned forward and began pulling more pictures from the disk, displaying them on the wall screen. He settled back in his chair and watched, just an observer.
Light and color: monochrome and true color.
Oils and watercolors, charcoal sketches, portraits, anatomical details, ancient photographs thatdespite their poor definitionwere made all the more forceful by the knowledge that the subject before the lens was reality, not an elaborate costume. They flowed past in a mesmerizing collage of high resolution images that imprinted themselves upon the retina and in the memory.
The student glanced sideways at his companion. Her profile illuminated with flickering reflections, glowing eyes locked on the screen. Then her hand twitched, freezing the display. When his eyes returned to the monitor, he understood why shed stopped.
That one, he nodded at the screen, is hanging in the Hall of Memoirs. Very nice.
It was a portrait. Two portraits actually. A strikingly beautiful middle-aged female gazed coolly outward, levelly meeting the eyes of any observer. The other figure stood at her left side, hairless fingertips lightly resting on the fur of her shoulder, gazing past her with the eyes that had captivated so many.
He looks so terrified, Mas said. The white around his eyes.
He knew it was normal for humans, that forsaken gaze, but it certainly appealed to the females. For some reason it drew them in like flotsam into a whirlpool. It fascinated him too; the look of a lost cub.
You can see it there, Mas said.
She flicked a hand toward the screen as if trying to snatch the words out of the air: That rapport between them. Its in the eyes, the way hes touching her Hard to explain exactly what it is. She stared at the picture, her head cocked to one side. You know, the artist has done an incredible job on him. Far better than the other pictures Ive seen. All the others make him look too Sathelike.
The student flicked his ears as he answered. She should have. Sasha ai Davies was quite familiar with the subject.
Mas slouched back into the chair. Saaa! I had no idea she was an artist.
Oath! What planetve you been on? Never mind. Shes done scores of portrayals of Sathe and humans. Theyre all down in the Hall of Memories and the museum. He studied the picture again. Ah, but Tahr had been beautiful: lean, muscular, ears with a few nicks, her mane plain and unadorned in the old style. Beautiful and
He blinked. Familiar? He glanced at the female sitting beside him, back to the picture. Was it
What? Mas was glaring at him.
No. No way.
Uh, nothing. Coincidence, or a trick of the light. She was still watching him suspiciously and any resemblance was gone. He yawned and stretchedsinews cracklingthen glanced at his watch, blinking the glowing numerals into focus. He blinked again and swore, Chastity! Weve got lectures tomorrow today whatever. The other volumes are going to have to wait.
She hissed softly and slapped the arm of the chair. I guess so. Do you think well have time to see them all?
His ears twitched. You a fast writer?
He shrugged. Then we should be able to fit them in. You coming?
Go ahead. Ill catch up.
All right. Dont forget the disk.
Again Mas was staring at the wall screen, the chromed claw of her index finger idly scratching at the arm of the chair. Almost lazily she reached out and pressed two keypads simultaneously. The printer hummed, spat out a glossy ten by ten. Mas took it and stared at it. Those eyes had round pupils.
Where are you?
You ready? came a voice from the door.
What? Huh! Yes, coming, she slipped the picture into her bag and took the disk from the drive, still thinking. Shed learned a lot that night, more than even her lessons back at the Manor had taught her: things about the Sathe past, and also some of her own history. They had told her there was a resemblance, but she herself had never been able to see it.
Still, perhaps someone else had. Thoughtfully she touched her face as she left.
He closed the door behind her, sealed it. I guess Ill see you in lectures, a?
All right. Oh, and thanks for your help.
Anytime, he smiled, then took the plunge. Ah, I was wondering: are you going to be doing anything this coming break day?
Mas stared at him, waiting as his ears slowly wilted under her scrutiny. You had something in mind? she finally asked.
I I thought maybe a meal? A play or film?
She stared again, then flashed a smile, All right.
I just All right?
She almost laughed at that befuddled expression. Why not? Just one condition.
You help me finish this. Work with me.
Done. That hopeful way his ears perked up againher own twitched. He was useful; a little naïve, but useful. It wouldnt hurt to humor him. Anyway, she found him less objectionable than many of the other maleseven some of the tutorswhod tried to paw her. Not unattractive, and even cute, in his own naïve sort of way.
She smiled and patted his arm. Perhaps we should get some rest now.
He fell in beside her as they walked back across the library floor. Good idea. Your place or mine?
Dont push it, male.
The voices and padding footsteps of the Sathe faded into the vast silence of the Citadel, the miles of corridors. Overhead, the huge banks of lights snapped off, one by one, leaving the broad foyer permeated with the almost imperceptible glow filtering through the high dome and storm beyond.
Rain drummed against old glass, but there was nobody to hear it. Away in the distance lightning flashed; once, then again and again