+Gods, a solid day in front of the computer. And I am so looking forward to night shift. I hate Wakey pills. They make me jumpy.+
[Now, Varx, if you whine any more I'll have to drink you.]
+Ha ha. Ahh, why do we have to watch 'em at night, anyway? They hardly do anything.+
/If you were at all familiar with proper experimental procedure, Varx... but your shortcomings as a researcher are well known to us./
[It's just that I want to know if anyone tries to hurt them. I'd die if that happened.]
/Shag, Ill never understand why you chose subjects that you're emotionally attached to. You do realize that if they are attacked, you can't interfere with the aggressor or aid the subjects in any way. Your interference would completely invalidate the experiment./
[Yes... well, they're smart, they'll stay out of trouble.]
The squeak of a bedspring woke Ringo; and, rubbing his eyes as he sat up, he yawned and said, "What a dream, me on another plan-"
His face fell. The gray stone room that surrounded him was as real as it had been last night. Only an open window's worth of blue sky lent any color to the place, if one didnt count the dull gleam of the brass bed frames or the faded yellow stains on the woolen blankets. The door didnt lock (although it did shut firmly); the chamber pots under the beds made the room smell like a privy (there was, of course, no toilet paper); and the only light source besides the window was a stub of tallow candle in a plate, forever extinguished as none of the four had the least idea of how to use the tinder box lying next to it.
Still asleep, John lay on his bed, his hands fused to the neck of the guitar that covered his body. The bed had been made to accommodate a standard Ketafan, not a middling tall Earthman, so his feet poked into the room like tines on a plug. Across the room, Paul had nodded off while sitting up in bed and leaning against the wall; his eyes were slightly open as he dozed. On his right hand he wore a black velvet glove. George sat on his bed in the lotus position, eyes closed, meditating. All four were still fully dressed except for their shoes and socks.
"Shit!" Ringo pounded his fist on the bed. "Oh shit, shit, shit!"
This woke the others and brought George back to reality. They stared at each other, gloomy, hungry, smelly, itchy all over. The occasional wrongness of Gib Neb audible in their bedroom hadn't been conducive to restful sleep, either.
John pried his hands off the guitar neck and flexed his fingers, which, besides being all chewed up, were deeply imprinted with the images of guitar strings and frets. Ow. Fuck. I feel like shit. When hed limbered up his hands as best he could, he threw Paul an accusatory, still-sleepy glance. "Why're you here? I thought she'd keep you in her room overnight. How was she?"
Paul yawned and stretched mightily. "We didn't do anything. She needs the lust dust to get horny. All I did was play me hands off. He displayed his gloved hand to the others. She got me this when she saw how badly I was bleeding. Cant play well with it on, but then, cant play at all without fingers, so ." He essayed a feeble grin, which faded when none of the others returned it. With a groan he got to his feet and smoothed down his shirt in a futile attempt to get the creases out, then ran his fingers back through his hair to straighten it a bit. A quick peep out the windowAt least its a nice dayand he turned to the others with as much of an air of brisk competence as he could muster. "Right, come on! He gestured for the others to get up. Let's make the best of a bad situation. No one else has been on another planet; theres got to be thousands of interesting things about. Let's learn everything we can. Itll keep us busy, and maybe well figure out why were here. Anyway, we cant sit round here too long; weve got a breakfast gig to get ready for.
It was this last sentence, especially the word breakfast, that got the others moving, albeit with much grunting and cursing and squeaking of beds. And immediately they started learning; their first lesson was that there was nowhere to get washed up properly. The best they could manage was a bucket of water from one of several wells that served the castle, combined with an absolutely disgusting soap made from lye and ashes and some kind of animal fat. Paul and George wouldnt even touch it, and the others emerged from their paltry toilet smelling twice as bad as before, stinging where the soap got into their cuts and scrapes, and feeling slimy. With such a soap, which of course didnt lather, shaving wasnt even an option, even if they had had razors, which they didn't.
Breakfast was rather more pleasant. Before their performance, Grynun gave George and John velvet gloves, identical to Pauls, to protect their hands, for which they were grateful, even if they were somewhat thick-fingered in their playing later. Nobody seemed to notice. And she only had them play three songs before they could eat. Breakfast was a thick oat porridge with berry-flavored honey; it actually didn't taste like crap, and they wolfed many bowls down gratefully. (Afterwards, they worried about diarrhea or, God forbid, dysentery, but even Ringos delicate stomach handled the rough food with little protest.)
As they ate, Idris occasionally came up to them and dropped money on the table, until they had a small flock of copper coinsand one gold piece from the shirtless Arm Remlar, who slapped it on the table and grinned round at the Idris, bellowing, "A gold gry is not half what you deserve, bards!" He sounded for all the world like a politician trying to win favor with his voters, although his gold-and-diamond nipple rings suggested a rather specialized constituency.
When the dining hall was mostly empty, and it was clear that Grynun wasn't going to ask the four to play again until lunch, George got up and left, mumbling something about needing to think. Paul was about to follow him, but Grynun came up to the table just then and bade him accompany her.
At first Paul's job was to play softly in the background while Grynun went grumpily about her duties: reviewing the Fingers and Thumbs and the serving-class Feet, talking with high-level Wrists about new recruits, conferring with the Arms about the food budget, and so on. But when it was time for her to preside over Focan's quarrels and complaints in the Hearing Hall, she bade Paul wait for her in her bedroom, safely away from the curious eyes of fodder.
Ralin the room-guard readily let Paul in. There was nothing for Paul to do, so within ten minutes he was sitting in the hall talking with Ralin, who was almost pathetically glad for the company, even though Paul was careful not to say much. Indeed, the guard turned out to be a great chatterbox. His chief topic of conversation was his jan totals. Ralin proudly showed Paul his little black book, called a janan, and the many columns of carefully noted good and bad jan values, of which the good jan outweighed the bad. He would point to a number and say, Dis I got when I pulled a horse from deep mud, or Here was I drunk during de Festival of Duraks Delight an beat up a farmer. Then he would go into greater, sometimes excruciating, detail about the point-earning event, often rambling off onto barely-related tangents. Of course, his speech was filled with people, places, and concepts that Paul didnt know and didnt think were safe to ask about. Mostly, all Paul did was smile and nod and wish that hed been content to sit quietly in the room.
But one tangent proved unexpectedly interesting. Ralin mentioned that Grynun was tired of being Idri-Head, had been so for quite some time, but remained in the post because she couldn't decide which Arm should succeed her. "Remlar should be Idri-head," the guard said, pounding his fist into his palm, "as he be Grynun's son, an' Terdan would end de Raleka by killing everyone in Focan! Hung him my uncle, who was not Raleka," he added angrily. "But some noisy Wrists hate Remlar an' yelp in Grynun's ear until she be confused an' unsure."
Now, Paul didn't need Ralins bitter words to prefer Remlar over Terdan. Maybe the Idri-Heads son had come off as an oily politician in the dining hall, but that sort of phoniness was vastly superior to Terdans rabid hostility. As Ralin returned to his jan narrative, Paul silently vowed to do his best to influence Grynuns choice and began to map out his strategy. So when she returned, sweating and angry, and flung herself on the bed, demanding music, Paul went into a performance that even surprised him a little.
He sang, using his youthful voice to full advantage. He told storiescarefully editedof Earth, describing places like Hawaii and Switzerland. He made sly jokes and used funny voices, so that even when Grynun didn't get the jokes she still laughed. He wrote a song for her on the spot, which frankly astonished her. And he subtly flattered her by listening intently to everything she said, from complaints about the ineptitude of Dagarno Silver-clouds-in-the-sky (her father and predecessor as Idri-head) to offhand slurs about "dung on legs" elves.
And because he could charm the socks off a horse when he wanted to, she went from angry to grouchy to amused to laughing; the tension left her face; she reminisced about more pleasant things, such as Naffa Taskaminhafedic, her dead husband (the dark man in the painting) and father of Fi'ar and Remlar. The gaze she began to favor Paul with was admiring, almost loving. And when she turned that gaze on him as soon as she saw him next morning, he knew she was hooked.
To be sure Remlar wasn't somehow worse than Terdanin which case Paul wouldn't have gotten involved at allhe watched the Arms carefully during Grynun's chores that day. Remlar was an egotistical fop, always fussing with his hair and jewelry. While not a stupid man, he was a distracted one; his gaze would often wander to follow the bouncing rump of a passing Idri (both male and female), or a fly, or whatever caught his attention. However, he was certainly jollier than the dour Terdan, more even-tempered, and much more flexible in his thinking. Terdan would announce his position at the beginning of a meeting and then defend it against all attacks, compromising only grudgingly. Remlar always seemed willing to take advice from others. On the other hand, Terdan paid more attention in meetings, said more intelligent things, and (Paul had to admit) was much more the leader type.
Ultimately, Paul decided to go ahead and support Remlar. After all, the Idris were the bad guys; the best leader from the good guys point of view was an ineffective one. So that night, as Paul entertained Grynun again, he began to drop hints: Remlar would make a good Idri-Head, flogging is nasty, elves are people too, vegetables are better for you than meatgentle opinions that he hoped would snowball into major policy changes. And when turnips accompanied the meat at lunch the next day (engendering some surprise among the rank-and-file), he knew he was getting through to her, and crossed his fingers. Maybe he could, after all, be a force for good in this horrible place.
But he would never admit to himselfhe didn't darethat a desire to see Ketafa bettered and Terdan defeated was not really what motivated him. No, he was just keeping himself busy, because every moment that wasn't filled with activity and plotting was filled with despair and a dread that they were in Ketafa to stay.
So the Idris religion was fake. No surprise. But what did that mean? Was it Georges task to restore genuine religion? prove the existing beliefs were fake? pave the way for the introduction of Lord Krishna? Or was the whole affair a red herring, and Georges purpose was something completely unrelated? He had to know; he had to have direction. How he wished Lyndess had been able to talk to him longer! Even if she didnt know why he was there, she might have put him on the right track, or at least explained the difference between the Ketafan religion and whatever they practiced cross-Chasm. What if they practiced Krishna Consciousness over there? Damn it, why hadnt he asked Lyndess about Krishna first?
But Lyndess was unavailable, at least for the moment. Who else was there? The pink priest? George wanted to know if the priest knew the religion he espoused was fake, although he had no idea how to go about sneaking the knowledge out of the man. Anyway, Grynuns warning about talking religion reverberated in his head. Did the priest qualified as fodder? George wasnt about to experiment. Nor did he wish to bring down Idri wrath on his head for blasphemy, or whatever you called it when you knew the religion was fake.
He did manage to secure a copy of the pink book, the Tairce, as well as a Vasyn icon; Grynun insisted that the four be seen with the items, and that they mumble along with the congregation when the priest spoke in the dining room, to strengthen their image as the Favorites of the Gods. (The Idri-Head told them not to line up for jan, however, pointing out that as FOTGs they were assumed to be perfect in their point-assessment and could never do anything to get bad jan.) George read the book cover to cover; even if it contained nothing but nonsense, maybe he could uncover a kernel of truth in there somewhere, something to quiz Lyndess on when she got back. But the Tairce turned out to be a huge disappointment, as it contained nothing but long lists of actions and the points they were worthinstructive to a social scientist in outlining what the Ketafans considered taboo, but worthless for George's purpose.
Ultimately, whenever George wasn't performing, he fled to their bedroom, frightened and confused and frustrated, and meditated to calm himself. And when he finally achieved some peace, he continued meditating, because he came to the conclusion that the only way he was going to find out anything was to achieve God-consciousness. Hour after hour he sat in the lotus position with his eyes closed, chanting, asking, despairing. Why am I here? What am I expected to do? How am I going to get home? Idris, Raleka, cross-Chasm, elves, balanceso little of this resembled what he knew!
Was it possible God hadn't sent him there? That thought overwhelmed him with guilt; it was exactly what he shouldn't be concluding, for this had to be a test of his faith; but he wasn't a saint, he wasn't Buddha or Jesus! It wasn't fair to force him into that mold, when he'd never claimed anything more than humanity. (Maybe John was rightwhy worship someone who treated him like this? No, no, how dare he think that?)
His reverie was interrupted once by Fi'ar, who sauntered into the room as if it were hers, plunked down on a bed, and gazed at him, licking her lips. Concentration quite ruined, he stared back at the tall woman, wondering nervously if she had gotten permission from Grynun to bed him after all. But she never said or attempted anything, and after about two long minutes she got up and left as abruptly as she'd come. George was much relieved, but it took him a while to stop thinking about her.
He had other secular moments... moments so poignant and lonely that they brought tears to his closed eyes. How he missed Olivia and Dhani! Or to spend a day in the garden, with the fresh brown earth caking his fingers... he even (and here he knew he was homesick) missed being asked for his autograph. At such times only God offered any hope at all, and George redoubled his efforts to unravel the tangle of Ketafa. Only when he understood his purpose in this new world would he be able to fulfill it and leave.
And he prayed, oh how he prayed, that his purpose didn't call for his permanent residence in Ketafa.
Learn everything he could? All right, Ringo decided to learn how much Ketafan liquor could put him under the table. After breakfast he poked his head into the kitchen to wheedle some booze out of the kitchen Idris. They praised him up and down for the music, hugged him, offered him all the food he wantedbut they didn't have any alcohol. Grynun kept her army dry. The kitchen staff did whisper names in his ear, Idris who could supply such things for a price, vendors in the city, but Ringo was in no mood to treat with an Idri, nor to venture into the city, since he knew hed have to go with an Idri escort. He did seriously entertain thoughts of breaking into Lyndess's house and stealing her wine pitcher, but he decided not to antagonize the one person they could talk to in the castle.
What he ended up doing was hanging around the kitchen a lot. The Feet who worked in there gossiped endlessly about people he didn't know, pestered him with questions about cross-Chasm that he didnt dare answer, and thought nothing about picking up a piece of meat that had fallen on the floor and throwing it back in a pot, but it was so nice to be around people who werent armed to the teeth and who didnt make him feel like a perpetual victim.
Early on, John decided that if he ignored everything, maybe it would all go away. He sat with George in their bedroom, staring into space and dreaming of Yoko. For a while he pretended he was having an acid flashback, mumbling things like "We're still on Earth, we just have to readjust." But he was too grounded in reality to truly believe Ketafa was self-induced.
Soon he got bored. Crawl-up-the-walls bored. George wouldn't talk, and with no TV to flick back and forth, or a radio, or even a pen and paper, all John had to occupy himself was his guitar and his mind. The first wore thin, the second produced only pain. He paced around the room and stared longingly out the window at Focan. Now there was something to do! Better than beating his head against the walls, anyway. But he didn't want to go there by himself. The idea of being alone on this alien planet was terrifying.
"Right, let's go look at the city," he said to George.
"Ah, sod off!" John stormed out of the room, intent on finding one of the others and carrying him around if need be.
He found Ringo and dragged him away from the disappointed kitchen Feet. Ringo didnt take much convincing to join Johnhe was fed up to the teeth with the meaningless gossipand they went on a little quest for someone to escort them around the city. Unfortunately, they discovered that the standard sort of escort for the Favorites of the Gods consisted of two full Hands of Idris, eight Fingers and two Thumbs, circling the fancy-cart. Not only was this incredibly off-putting, it also proved to be hard to arrange; they were informed by Grynun that unless they had a really good reason for going into the city, they had to wait until two Hands had some free time, which wouldnt be for a while.
The fires of adventure cooled, John and Ringo spent the rest of the day moping around their room, filling each other in on their activities prior to their kidnapping and bitching about their situation. But at dinner, a female Wrist sent by Grynun came up to their table and offered to take them to the top of one of the towers in the morning, and they eagerly seized on her offer. (Paul, increasingly enmeshed with Grynun, was cheerfully jealous; George just shook his head when they invited him along.)
Next morning, after breakfast, Ringo and John and the Wrist trudged up about a million stairs to the top of the highest Idri tower. After they caught their breath, they enjoyed what the Wrist proudly claimed to be the best view in the city. They had no reason to doubt her. The castle towers were the highest points for miles around. John and Ringo could see the entire city spread out below them, a dark misshapen bagel with the castle, and the open square before it, as the hole. To the northeast and east, the sea sparkled. They saw the great semicircular harbor of Focan and many tall-masted sailing ships and a few steamships. The Vasyn and its attendant crowds were on the east side of the castle; the rest of the open square was filled with stalls and booths and tents and much bustle and commerce. The Wrist referred to it as the Free Market. Far to the southeast was the shantytown and the beginning of the long beach where they'd first arrived (Stal's house was too far away to see). Directly south stretched the main part of Focan, where they saw that a host of smoke-belching factories were the primary cause of the brown haze that hung over the city. The southwest and west were both hilly and forested; logging operations were visible in half a dozen spots. To the northwest, beyond the city, was a grassy prairie that was apparently no good for agriculture; only a few farms had been carved into it close to the city. Most of the farms visible from the tower were directly north.
They could also see what must have been Gib Neb, in the northwest part of the city. It bore only the faintest resemblance to Big Ben, being festooned with statuary and much pointier at the top. The clockworks and bells were enclosed above an open walkway where, presumably, tourists came up to gawk.
Soon the Wrist left John and Ringo to their own devices. Enjoying the relatively fresh air and sunshine, not to mention the privacy, they stayed at the top of the tower until lunch, pointing out interesting-looking things in the city. After the meal, they wandered round the castle grounds, watching the Idri practice gunplay and the horses get exercised. At one point they saw Stal, and they watched as he drove his small cart up to the kitchen entrance and delivered a slaughtered lamb to the cook. As he left, they waved and called to the sherder, but he grew pale and whipped his horse up and sped off. Belatedly they remembered they were supposed to have done him dirty, and they hoped the illusion hadn't been spoiled.
After dinner they got permission to look around the castle itself, as the cityfolk were not allowed in after dark. Aside from some dull administrative and supply roomsand the Hearing Hall, which was like a Theater in the Roundthey'd already seen the ground floor. The second floor housed Grynun, the Arms, and some of the highest-level Wrists; except for some paintings in the hall, it had nothing of interest for the two tourists. On the third floor was the bedroom given to the four, one of many allotted to high-level Feet and important guests. Nothing much to look at here, either.
However, things got much more interesting on the fourth floor, which was rarely visited, as evidenced by the clouds of dust that John and Ringo raised as they tramped up the stairs, sneezing at every step. They emerged into a dark, musty hallway. Feeble light trickled from a few gaping doors, and when they looked in they could see fascinating shapes heaped in rooms, barely illuminated by windows covered with grime. It was too dark and too late to explore properly, so they vowed to come back tomorrow with a candle or a rag to wipe off the windows. They actually felt a twinge of anticipation at the thought of looking through this largest of attics.
Next day, armed with an oil lantern and official permission to poke around, they returned to the fourth floor, which turned out to have an impressive number of rooms, nooks, and crannies. Why the Idris didn't use the space productively was a mystery.
And the stuff up there! Bags and boxes and piles of discarded junk, layered with dust and festooned with spider webs. Brass and bronze and glass glittered feebly in the flickering lantern light. Ringo and John walked among it, or more often squeezed past it, keeping up a running commentary on what they saw:
"It's too bad these plates are chipped, they're nicer than that crap we've been eatin' off."
"I guess this is their Venus de Milo."
"Eh, what's this, a metal bra? Christ, it'd rub your nipples right off."
"Well, this chap couldn't draw."
"Now, wouldn't this be fun to use on an album! Too bad it has no strings."
"Who'd paint flowers on a skull? Eh, I wonder if Lyndess'd want it for her garden."
"This must be the flag of the folks that the Idris conquered Focan from. Y'know, Ring, for a moment I expected it to be a Union Jack, like in that Star Trek episode when they brought out the American flag. Fuck, that would've scared the shit outta me."
And in another room... books! Stacks and stacks of books! Gleefully John grabbed one and blew the dust off its cover. Ringo watched as the title became visible:
"Crap," John sighed, paging through the incomprehensible thing. It could have been a novel, or Ketafan history, or even a how-to book; he would never know. The only thing he could tell about it was that it was very old, with its yellow pages and moth-eaten cloth binding and half the signatures coming loose. All of the books were extremely old.
Ringo took a book for himself. "This one is worse," he said, showing the pages to John. The script was an Arabic-like dot-and-swirl conglomeration that went vertically down the pages. That book was so fragile that when Ringo opened it and tried to turn the page, part of the page broke off in his hand and crumbled. Shit, he muttered, quickly closing the book and putting it behind another pile.
Disappointed, they (carefully) went through the other books, found two more different writing systemsand lo! Three at the bottom were in English: How to Breed Horses, Ivard Before the Gods, and Kujun: The Angry Border. John took the Ivard book and Ringo the Kujun one (he hoped it was some kind of novel), and they sat on the floor to read. But when Ringo discovered that his book chronicled a border dispute between the countries of Myomin and K'gasha, he put it down and said, "I'll be back, I have to go to the loo."
John was starting to get interested in his book, so he just waved as Ringo left.
John hadn't even finished the Introduction yet, and already he was fascinated:
... must not forget why this book was written: Ivard, the true Home, our sacred Land, was raped and its children aborted by the Poison-Gods, the Winners of False Contests, who cursed us with True Equality, blessing Priest and Beggar, Man and Woman alike, so that ALL had the Power that should have remained in the hands of a FEW. Every day, thousands died because they were too honorable to drink the Power-Poison that killed our Land. Those who survived did so by escaping to Ketafa, where the Gods could not follow...
Ringo came into the room just then, and John, without looking up, said, "This is bloody interesting, mate, you've got to read it when I'm done."
A moment later he realized the man standing over him was not Ringo but an Idria Thumb. Tallish, wiry, and dark, he was nobody John recognized. He clutched two small leather bags in his left fist.
The Thumb fixed John with a cool stare. "You enjoy reading, bard?" he said in a husky, vaguely familiar voice.
"Yeah." Careful to keep his page, John laid the book on the floor and stood up. "Sorry, was I not supposed to be in here? Grynun said we could come up here.
The man didn't respond. He held one of the little bags up to his eyes, examining it. Abruptly he said, Here," and tossed the bag to John. Automatically John reached to catch it, and as it touched his palm it burst -
Oh, the floor looked so comfortable. Just the place to take a nap. John yawned and sagged to the floor, curled up with his head on the Ivard book. As he began to drift off, the man's face rose moonlike over him and said, "Remlar does need a new subject. Never has Remlar experimented on someone from cross-Chasm before. I will take you to Remlar's hidden magic room. Remlar will reward me."
"Remlar," John mumbled. "G'night." The last thing he was conscious of was a hand opening his mouth and a dry tasteless powder poured on his tongue; then he slept.
[Oh no! Oh no, oh no, no no no no no! This isn't happening! Someone tell me this isn't happening!]
/I assume you know what that white powder is going to do?/
+Yeah, Shag and I saw this stuff used once. It's metamorph powder, it induces random mutationsow! Shag, let go!+
[Vaaaaaarx! Do something! We can't leave him like that! He can't be hurt, he just can't! Neutralize the powder, give him an antidote!]
/Because were forbidden to interfere with the progress of the experiment, Shagremember? But then, you knew the risk you were taking with these subjects. Incidentally, Varx, Im glad to see you finally conforming to the rules./
+Eat fire, Borl. She wasn't speaking to you. The reason we can't, Shag, is because we just don't have enough power in this terminal. If we were at the big box - +
/Really, Shag, if you persist in shrieking that way you brought this on yourself, you know./
+Borl, shut up! Shag, Shag! Calm down! We're not totally helpless! We can't stop the magic, but we can alter it!+
[Alter it? Are you sure? What good will that do?]
+I can control how he mutates. He'll have to take the full force of the powder, but I can channel it into something tolerable.+
[Is that the only choice we have?]
/No, the only choice we have is to let events progress without any interference from us./
[Borl, put down that keyboard!]
/I will not let you sacrifice the integrity of this experiment simply becauseOWWW! MY TAIL!/
[Here, Varx! Do it! But by the Gods above and below, keep him as human as possible!]
/OWWW! Godsgods damn you! OWW!/
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