Reunion, Part 3
“Well! Good morning, sleepyheads. You two certainly slept late.” Ken smiled and stood as Garth and Kiza found their way to the roof garden. “So, how was your night?”
“Fine, fine,” Kiza replied, placing her tray on the open patch of grass next to Jofuran and settling down. Garth joined her, his jaws still parted in half a yawn. He watched the two fems hug in a way that that looked to him more than just “friendly.” Jofuran’s face was worried. “He’ll be fine,” he heard Kiza tell her.
“I know,” she said. “I’m just going to miss him.”
“Six to eight days,” Ken pointed it. “Compared to your youth, it might seem a long time, but really, it’s just a week. At first they start to go by so slowly, then they go by fast, then you start to appreciate them one by one.” He gestured with the pinky of a hand that was otherwise wrapped around a glass of orange juice at the three of them. “You all have so much life ahead of you. The universe is changing even as we speak. This morning the press release of the changes made to the Great Hall go out over the airwaves.”
“Sir?” Garth asked.
“Garth,” Ken said. “I asked you about that.”
“Ken,” Garth restarted his question, “What will happen when Terrans start being fertile again? The Australian and Indian Massacres were the result of fertility issues, weren’t they?”
“Yes and no,” Ken replied. “If I remember my history correctly, and I well should since I was there, the Australian and subsequent Indian Massacres were the result of overcrowding, a religious people’s attempt to get away from a government that was trying to institute fertility control over a region that really needed it, and starvation. It was a very ugly time for Terra.”
“But what do you think will happen?”
Ken leaned forward. Garth noticed that his pants were made of some glossy material, perhaps a red-dyed leather or similar material. “The war of the sexes will return.”
“The first thing I predict’s going to happen, Garth, is that everyone will suddenly begin cashing in their Rights of Replacement during their lifetimes. Pregnancy and doing things quote the human way unquote will be in vogue. Then, after about two years of this women who have had their children will being appearing on talk shows and interviews talking about how painful it was, how animalistic it was, how undignified pregnancy is for the modern Homo Sapiens Samanis. Meanwhile, the Saman Corporations will suffer an enormous loss of revenue as maybe thirty percent of their income goes elsewhere.
“After the ‘truth’ about how ‘horrible’ pregnancy is comes out, people will demand that the Saman Corporations do something to ensure that Homo Sapiens Pendorii ad Terra doesn’t have to go through this ‘awful’ procedure. The Saman Corporations will reap back their lost revenues revamping their procedures to handle contributed samples instead of deposits made during Right of Replacement Registry. The cost for the procedure of ‘extracting’ these contributions will cover their losses from revenue that would have been generated from the Saman Transfer. The cost, in the name of fairness, will be equivalent for both men and women even though for men it will consist of nothing more than masturbating into a petri dish, while women will require some kind of invasive procedure.
“Meanwhile, Pendor will make a killing teaching and selling back to Terra the secrets of reproductive science.
“Finally, some women will actually enjoy pregnancy. These women will become a serious commodity on the market for men seeking a ‘natural’ son or daughter and a ‘natural’ method of gestation and delivery. A strange ‘war of the sexes’ will occur, and I’m not going to venture if this ‘war’ will benefit or hurt the relationship between men and women in the end.” He took a deep breath. “And that’s my exposition for the day.” He reached out a hand and placed it on Jofuran’s shoulder. “Other than to tell you that Nickolai will be all right.”
Jofuran nodded. “I… I know. I just don’t know what to do in the meantime.”
“Stay with us!” Ken said, spreading his arms wide and invitingly. “We’ve got all the comforts of home and I surely like your company, Jofuran.”
She nodded. “I’m just worried.”
“I’m sure he’s fine.”
Nickolai sighed and sat down on a convenient log that had fallen across the apparent path to the Great Hall. Down this hill (mountain?) side and just a short distance across the valley he could see the Hall clearly, jutting out of the forest and into the sky. He hadn’t anticipated how large it was; from where he sat it looked maybe two kilometers wide and maybe one high. Few structures he was familiar with were that large. He’d been to Shimizu and Arcosolieri, but each of those had the feel of ‘city’ to them. This, though, was just a black, gleaming cylinder of nothing that intruded on the peace of the forest without actually disturbing that peace.
His feet hurt. He had stopped to rest them and to take a sip from his canteen. He didn’t understand why Ken had insisted on taking a sleeping bag and a change of clothing; it looked to him like the Hall was well within a day’s journey. He sighed and rose, feeling the straps at his back and the belt about his waist tighten up with the weight of his backpack.
He took one step forward when a word caught his attention. “Hey.” He turned to find someone up the hill slightly looking down at him. The word hadn’t been shouted, just spoken and spoken calmly.
“Hello?” he asked.
“Are you Nickolai?” The voice belonged to a femTindal who began walking down the path slowly, picking her way amongst the roots that rippled the terrain of the path. She wore a backpack much like his although the control straps crossed her body instead of going under her arms. Nickolai thought that made sense for someone with as supple a shoulder as Tindals possessed.
“That’s me,” he said. “Are you going to be my guide?”
“Yep,” she said. “Although the AI told me you could probably make it on your own, I figured you’d like some company.”
“I appreciate it,” Nickolai said. She looked up at him and he thought the expression was confusion. “No, really. I don’t think I’d want to spend an entire walk by myself. I’m not a very good person alone.”
“Which one is your problem? You get morose or bored?”
“Both,” Nickolai admitted.
“Oh!” the Tindal said. “I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Greta.”
“And you already know I’m Nickolai.”
“Yeah.” She smiled and Nickolai smiled back. She had a slightly heavyset appearance to her, and on her there were traces of white fur along her neck as well as completely covering her hands. She wore a flannel plaid shirt that buttoned up the front and did nothing to hide her large endowment, denim jeans, and heavy hiking boots. “Look, but don’t touch,” she chided him, laughing gently.
“Nothing. Come on. We can make the Hall by nightfall if we push it.”
He nodded and let her go by, guiding him down the path towards the Great Hall. “Listen, I know this is going to sound a little strange,” Greta began as they continued walking, “But I want you to know now that I don’t resent the changes in the law affecting the Hall.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“Maybe you missed it. My full name’s Greta Rumbel.”
Nickolai racked his brain for a few minutes as they hiked. He was so distracted he almost missed a small branch blocking his path and tripped. “Whoops,” he said. Greta caught him; those tens were a lot stronger then they looked. “Thanks.”
“I’m really sorry if I sound stupid, but your name doesn’t mean a thing to me.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding a little disappointed. “I was hoping you’d recognize the name. There’s a Journal Entry about me.”
“Nobody has time to read all of them,” Nickolai pointed out.
“I know,” she shrugged. “I walked the Hall in ‘120. Ken was my guide.”
“Oh.” Not sure what to say next, Nickolai fumbled for a moment. “Then you know that people aren’t going to change anymore, right?”
“Right. And I just want to say I don’t resent it. I’m happy the way I am. It was about as difficult as coming to grips with the fact that I’m a lesbian. And it’s about as different, too. Because being a lesbian was something I was born with. Being a Tindal was something I blindly chose to let something else give me.”
They walked on for about an hour. “What do you do now?” Nickolai asked.
“I’m a mechanic, if you can believe that.”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it. What do you work on?”
“Mostly heavy lift vehicles. I’ve never really had the skill to fly anything in my life, but I love the feel of ripping open a fusion plant and making the guts do what I want. Getting the mix on a gravitics pad just so, and then watching the entire conglomeration lift off the ground…” She sighed.
“Sounds so… manly.”
Greta chuckled. “You’d be surprised. I have long hair like this because I love being feminine.”
“Wouldn’t you call what you do more engineering?”
“I guess,” Greta shrugged. “But it’s not something I went to school for. I just needed to fix a fusion plant, so I pulled out a manual and started fixing my own processor cards for it. Blammo. Worked the first time. I’m informal. I don’t take measurements to see if my projects work, I just find some idiot who’s willing to fly them the first time.” She laughed. “I have a lot of crazy friends. Ken has flown my stuff once or twice.”
They broke for lunch by a wide stream that they forged beforehand. “Tell me something, Greta. How would you describe Pendor? I mean, you’ve lived here for a long time, right?”
“Eight centuries. I’ve never even gone off-Ring, not even to Pandora. I should do that. I keep telling myself I should, but I never really get around to it. Pretty strange for an airmech, huh?” She took a bite from her sandwich. “Pendorians call Pendor a technological ‘limited anarchy of respect,’ and I have to agree with that. Anarchies don’t work when one person can be swayed by emotions rather than reason. Pendor works because there’s almost no ‘mob mentality’ here. It’s impossible.’
“Look at it this way,” she said. “Crowding happens because of a shortage of something, be it land or food or water or whatever. People either crowd around something, or they get crowded around a resource by breeding and influx. The basic resources that cause crowding are land, food, water and shelter.”
“What about security?” Nickolai asked.
“The idea of security exists because of the resource,” Greta replied. “Those in control of what they think is a limited resource want to protect the security of that resource, their security. If there’s no such thing as a ‘limited’ resource, then there’s no need to seek security.”
“But, but… burglary, rape… what about them?”
“What about them? Burglary is the nonconsensual redistribution of resource. Sometimes they call it taxes. Rape is the nonconsensual taking of a perceived resource, a sex object. Believe me, I know a lot about rape.” Her voice took on a dark and vindictive tone. “Neither sex nor women are ‘a resource’, and the rapist needs to be reminded of that. Fatally.”
“Okay, so, laws exist on your planet and elsewhere not to control individuals, really. They do that, but that’s an application of group power as dictated by power-holding individuals. Laws exist to control mobs. On Pendor you can’t have a mob. Mobs form from crowds, and we almost never have crowds.”
“I saw a crowd at D’Arctangent Mall.”
“You’ll see them,” Greta agreed as she began packing up her supplies. Nickolai took that as a hint and began doing the same. Soon they had their packs on their backs and were again on their way. “You’ll see crowds, but they’re temporary. They exist for an, oh, how should I put this? An ad-hoc resource. It doesn’t really exist except for that moment. It’s not something a demagogue can take hold of and lead people with.”
“Okay. I see. But where does the ‘respect’ part come from?”
“Like I said, basic needs are met. It’s not like Terra’s experience with their ‘imperial destinies,’ where there was plenty of open space but water and such were limited, and where natives threatened lives and resource. The only threats out here don’t come from people, but stupidity. We train our children to not be stupid, for one thing. That’s Terra’s greatest weakness, Nickolai, no offense.” She looked up at the Hall and sighed. “You know, Nickolai, I haven’t made this walk in eight centuries. This is the first time I’ve ever been asked to guide someone, and I wondered how I would handle it. It’s nice to be doing it without pain.” She looked back at him. “The last time I did this I had bone cancer. Pretty nasty and already guaranteed fatal.”
“You made the whole walk that way?”
She nodded. “With Ken’s help. He was a different person then, but not really much has changed. He’s grown up, maybe. Slowed down a little, but that’s to be expected from him after eight centuries. Anyway, respect.”
“We say respect because there’s a difference between a need and a want, Nickolai. Lots of people want things they don’t have. That’s why we still do worry a little about thieves and the like. Mostly for art treasures. You see this stuff I’m wearing? It’s entirely hand-made. From the very cloth all the way to the final stitching. The person who made it all is an old friend and a fine craftswoman. She learned to make it for me because as an immortal, she needed something to fill her time, to provide for her personal need to fulfill herself. She gives her products away to people she respects or who receive recommendations to her from people she respects.”
“Much of your stuff is hand-made too, I see. I imagine you must have Ken Shardik’s respect if he gave you a pair of Rance boots.”
Nickolai looked down, surprised. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Are they breaking in nicely? I imagine it must be tough breaking in a pair of boots during a hike like this.”
“I’m managing,” Nickolai replied. “It’s just a little more difficult that I thought.”
They reached the base of the hillside and began walking along the flatter terrain of the valley. “Greta?”
“I guess some of that respect must come from AIs. Do they ever play favorites?”
“It’s hard to say the play favorites, Nickolai.” She brushed a lock of straight black hair out of her face. “We try to say that everyone is equal, but that’s just not true. People have different talents.”
“What about resentment? What if someone resents the fact that no matter what, they’re not going to be the best at what they want to do?”
“I say ‘tough?’” Greta replied. “And if they don’t like it, well, they can go away. Or I can. And if they don’t leave me alone, I can find someone who will tell them to leave me alone.”
“That sounds so cruel.”
“What can I do?” she asked. “You know what happened to terra when they tried those horrible homogenity experiments. It never works. People are always going to be left behind. It’s best to let them find a niche that works for them and then leave them alone. The second biggest mistake Terra ever made was when it realized the homogenity experiments were a total bust, they went to testing people for aptitude and assigning them niches.”
“Terra needed certain kinds of people for certain things back then,” Nickolai said defensively. “A city was doomed without enough maintenance people in each category needed, be it sanitation, communication, power, infrastructure…”
“Don’t you dare lecture me on what Terra needed back then,” Greta exploded. “I was there. Don’t let this shape confuse you, Nickolai, I was a Terran living in the times you’re talking about. I’m not a history lesson you read out of a book, okay? I was there. I saw it all happen.” She sighed. “I’m sorry. I guess you’re right. Yeah, we did think we needed certain numbers of certain things and we encouraged the wrong people in the wrong numbers into the wrong categories. But that was they way things were. The sciences of automation and auto- maintenance were barely off the ground when I left Terra.”
“I guess I should learn to listen to my elders, then,” Nickolai said.
“Don’t be sarcastic. You’re damned right you should. I’ve lived through and forgotten more history then you could ever possibly remember from your history textbooks.”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic,” Nickolai said.
“I… ” Greta sighed. “Sorry. My turn to apologize. I’m a very political person; talking politics and history is a hobby of mine. I’m also very used to taking a lot of talk back from my son. He’s almost fourteen now and sarcasm is his weapon of choice.”
Nickolai nodded. They mounted a brief hill, nothing more than a mound sticking up out of the valley floor. It projected just high enough that they could see the Great Hall clearly. “Maybe two, three klicks.” Greta examined her watch. “We should be there two hours before nightfall. Plenty of time for you to reach the center.”
They plunged once more into the forest, picking their way amongst the trees on their quest for the Hall. The sunlight filtered through the trees warmed Nickolai’s skin and he felt surprisingly light of spirit. He looked forward to the Hall. “It’s not much more than a formality, is it?” he asked.
“I guess at this point, that’s all it is.” She stopped and turned to look at him. “It’s more than that. That’s not true at all. The Great Hall, even if you don’t change your body, it does change your mind. You learn about yourself in ways you didn’t imagine, and some of these little hints don’t come until many weeks or even years after you’ve walked the Great Hall. Part of the lessons of Hallwalking.” She resumed walking and he followed.
“I wish I understood what made the Hall what it is,” Nickolai said.
“Good luck!” Greta laughed. Suddenly the trees broke around their steps and the Hall loomed before them. “Yow!”
“Wow is right,” Nickolai said. “I hadn’t thought we were that close.”
“You never can tell with the Hall,” Greta said. “Sometimes it just sort of sneaks up on you. The valley changes with every walker, every day. It’s very weird.”
“It’s not just the Hall?”
“Hell, no. Have you ever seen a picture of the Hall from overhead? No? Nobody ever has. Photographs of the Hall from overhead don’t exist because every time someone’s tried to take one there’s just an empty valley in the photograph. No Hall at all.”
“Maybe none of this is real. Maybe we’re both in some elaborate virtual reality system.”
“I’m real, all right,” Greta said. “I suppose it could be possible, but Ken’s really down on VR so I doubt that’s it.”
“Well, something has to explain it,” Nickolai said.
“I’m sure something does, but we’re not privy to that information,” Greta smiled. “Come on, let’s find that door.” He nodded and they began walking again. The clearing around the Hall was nearly a hundred meters wide from the treeline to the walls of the Hall, the last ten meters consisting of water. It was as if the entire Hall were surrounded in a moat of water. The door wasn’t hard to find.
“It’s always different,” Greta said, smiling. The door this time looked like a medieval gate complete with drawbridge for the moat. The bridge was down.
“Are you going to join me?”
Greta took a deep breath and said “I could. There’s no reason why I couldn’t and I think I’d like to. Do you want me to?”
Nickolai nodded. “Is it okay if I admit to being a little frightened?”
“It’s always okay to admit that,” Greta smiled. “I like you, Nickolai. You’re a solid guy.”
Nickolai grinned, feeling foolish at the compliment. “Thanks.”
“Let’s go. But this time you lead. All you want to do is head for the center.”
He nodded, resettled his pack on his shoulders, and stepped onto the bridge carefully. Nothing happened. He walked across the wooden planks slowly, Greta behind him. Still nothing happened. He walked under the portcullis and through the brief, stone-lined hallway.
Inside, the forest continued uninterrupted. Now they were inside the walls of the Hall and Nickolai could feel them surrounding him. “Ready?”
“Yep,” Greta replied. They began walking, following the same sort of path markings that had guided them the entire afternoon. They walked for another twenty minutes, and then the path passed by a small pool of water fed by a silent stream. “Oh, my God,” Greta swore silently.
“This is the same place where I changed,” Greta said. “Ken and I went swimming in here to take a rest from a very hot day and, the next thing I knew…” She let her voice trail off.
Nickolai nodded. “So, what should I do?”
“I don’t know,” Greta replied, shrugging. “Maybe you should go swimming?”
“Sounds like an idea at any rate,” Nickolai agreed. “I don’t think I saw swim trunks in here.”
“You Terrans and your modesty. Just get naked and dive in!” she replied, laughing.
Nickolai nodded, dropping his pack and stripping off his clothes. Once naked he jumped into the water.
He broke surface screeching, “It’s freezing!”
“Cold, huh?” she said, dipping her toes into it. “You’re right. It’s chilly. You’ll adjust in a minute or so.” She sat down on the same rock she had sat on centuries ago, reminiscing.
“You’re smiling,” Nickolai observed.
“Just remembering. It was here while I sat on this rock that I first let a man touch me.”
“How old were you?”
“Twenty-seven,” she replied, then laughed. “Oh, I see. I was a lesbian, remember? I told you that this morning. Scratch ‘was.’ I am a lesbian. But my few contacts with males since then have been usually been in the context of being a lesbian. Don’t get any ideas, Nickolai.”
“I’m not, I’m not,” he said defensively. “I was just curious about what you were smiling about.”
“You know,” she said, “Ken kept his pants on when he dove into the water. He didn’t want the sight of his naked dick to upset me.” She laughed. “I… I really appreciated that gesture, though. It meant a lot to me. And I don’t know if seeing him naked would have bothered me or not.”
“What do you think?” Nickolai asked as he tread water.
“It’s something to consider. I was very young then.” She stood up and stretched, closing her eyes. “Anyway, Nickolai, we should probably get moving and see what the Hall has in store for us.”
There was no answer. She ended the stretch prematurely and looked around. “Nickolai?”
Still nothing. He was nowhere to be seen. His pack and clothing were still lying on the ground by the pool, but he himself had vanished. Even the water had turned still and silent, reflecting her image back at her.
She smiled and shook her head. “Good luck, Nickolai.” Since he wouldn’t be needing it, she scavenged food from his pack and left the rest. Then, reshouldering her own pack, she walked out of the Great Hall.