traditional society," said the alien, "a lady would often
be buried with her husband. A rather beautiful custom, don't you think?"
The Active Complement of the interstellar freighter stared at him, slightly
alarmed. Their companion, the illustrious "passenger" who
had elected to share their vigil, liked to play games with their expectations.
They never knew when he was joking. Humour glinted in Sigurt's black
eyes -sharply diamond-shaped as to the rims, a curious and attractive
difference from the Blue Planet oval.
"No, no! Not
buried alive. Not like that, not at all. She would live in the tomb:
she would retire there of her own free will, to spend the rest of her
days in peace and solitude." He reached a claw-like fingernail
to scratch his ear. "Lar'sz nobles and peasants continued the practice
well into historical times. It's the sons of the soil and the owners
of the soil who preserve old cultural features, isn't it? And the dispossessed,
of course. Refugees."
They were gathered
in the mess: seven Blue Planet humans, vital components in the freighter's
wetware: plus one celebrated alien archaeologist. The hold was laden
with precious ancient artefacts from "Sigurt's World", on
their way to an exhibition. The Cultural Ambassadors and their staff
were making the crossing in dreamtime, but this black-eyed, shadow-skinned,
graceful creature preferred activity. They were not clear -they weren't
good at reading the small print- whether "Sigurt" was a generic
name, or whether their archaeologist was also the actual "Sigurt"
who had made first contact. None of them had yet dared to ask him.
It was a pleasant, low-ceilinged saloon, decorated in silver and green,
the traditional colour scheme of the young culture of interstellar transport.
Light gleamed from above like sunlight through leaves, the floor had
the effects of grass and mosses. They sat around a blond wood table,
actually extruded ceramic fibre, that faithfully recalled polished birch.
The air was fresh and sweet, the whole impression was as if they were
in a roomy tent, a pavilion pitched in sunny woodland, somewhere in
the Blue Planet's beautiful temperate zones. But outdoors the blizzard
raged, pitiless, unimaginable. The hum of the torus was never-ending,
they no longer heard it.If it ever stopped, that deep subliminal murmur,
they would not have time to notice it was gone.
The Active Complement had just found out -Panfilo Nube, Payload Officer,
had discovered the small print of the manifest, in an idle moment- that
one of the pieces in the hold was supposed to be haunted. It was a tomb,
but the ghost was not the official owner, so to speak. It was something
called a "Tomb Wife", some kind of ghoul associated with tombs
in Lar'sz culture. Nadeem, the moody, black-browed Homeostat Commissar,
had asked Sigurt -half joking- was this spook definitely dead? They
didn't know much, but they knew that the people of Sigurt's World were
very long-lived, with a propensity for long comas when times were hard.
Sigurt had answered cheerfully that one could not be absolutely sure;
and hence the explanation.
"A Tomb Wife
did not provide for herself, you see," he continued. "She
was a hermit, a sadhu." He smiled at Nadeem, who did not
smile back. "Her family or her servants would supply food and necessities,
but they never saw her. Among the peasantry of course the widow simply
went to live in the graveyard, in full view of her neighbours. Her exclusion
from society was formal, ritual. . ."
Rafael, the young Assistant Navigator, frowned uneasily. "But how
can you say you're not absolutely sure she's dead? The relics down there
are thousands of years old, aren't they? I don't mind, I'd just like
to know. A ghost is cool, but a thing that lives in a tomb and isn't
In a starship's psychological topography, the hold is always down. Nobody
laughed. Rafe suffered from transit nightmares, an affliction as crippling
as seasickness -but it didn't affect his efficiency, or his passion
for this strange ocean.
"I think we can assume she's dead," said the mischievious
alien. "In the records of Tene'Lar'sznh, the royal house to which
this princess belonged, it's noted that the food-offerings first went
untouched about fifteen hundred years ago, our time. That's about four
thousand of Blue years, I think?"
The Active Complement
nodded hurriedly, in unison. Vast timescales made them nervous. A little
less, thought Elen, the Navigator. She was intimately aware of the relation
between a Blue Planet "year" and the same period for Sigurt's
planet; as she was aware of every detail of the impossible equations
of this journey. She wanted to put Sigurt right, but how would she reach
the end of that sentence? But when, in what relation, at what particular
moment? She closed the floodgates with an effort.
"The food went untouched?" she repeated. "And that's
how they knew? So, what did they do, when a Tomb Wife's food 'went untouched'?"
"Nothing at all." Sigurt's pointed teeth flashed: the modified
aggression of a grin, which seemed to be a constant of humanoid life.
"How quick of you, Elen, you're exactly right. A lady of rank did
not allow herself to be seen, once she'd taken up residence. Her servants
or family would continue to supply her needs, but they were forbidden,
by the lady's own will and testament, to go looking for her, and the
tomb could be a large and complex building. Nobody would know when,
precisely, the offerings became offerings to the dead." He paused.
"Isn't that beautiful? After a year -or thereabouts, depending
on the liturgical calendar- the undertakers were allowed inside. The
lady's remains would be found and there'd be a funeral. In the case
of our princess, however, legend has it that no remains were ever recovered.
And that is how this particular tomb became known as 'haunted.'"
legged it one dark night," decided Rafe, with relief: and then
blushed. "Uh, sorry if that's a poor taste idea, Sigurt, no offence."
"Aren't you a Lar'sz'ian, Sigurt?" wondered Carter, the burly
ship's doctor; who wore the captain's armband. "Larziote, Larzy-ite,
however you say it?" Carter was one of those people who have to
assert themselves, in the presence of celebrity or renown. He had a
horror of showing deference to anything or anyone.
For a moment the alien bristled, a startled double-take of affront,
thought Elen (although she couldn't be sure). The Lar'sz' were now (when
is now, where is now?) an impoverished, short-lived remnant. The famous
tombs, temples, ruins, were scattered over scratch-dirt, subsistence
farming desert country. Maybe it was like telling a Brazilian you'd
thought he was Portugese.
"My family has Tene'Lar't ancestry, but it's a long way back."
Nadeem the Commissar
shifted in his recollection of a birchwood chair: restless with thoughts
he knew nobody shared. "Why do you say 'Tomb Wife' Sigurt? Why
a lady? You beings don't have our two biological sexes."
Nadeem was a Diaspora-denier. He would bore the socks off you explaining,
interminably, how actually there was NO uncontroversial evidence that
all planetary variants on the sentiend biped model, all the possessors
of "numinous intelligence", capable of interstellar transit,
were descended from a single species. He refused, passionately, to accept
that the original species had been a hominid from the Blue Planet -a
precursor of homo sapiens who had flourished and vanished, leaving only
the faintest and most puzzling of traces. It's only a theory, he'd insist.
And yet the man was a scientist.
You had to excuse him (they did excuse him, they were very tolerant
of each other's foibles. Sigurt shared this trait, or he could not have
joined them). You had to remind yourself that believing that the earth
was the centre of the cosmos had once been good science and sound common
sense, and many eminent scientists had clung to the old model, long
after the new facts arrived.
Diaspora-deniers favoured the term 'beings'. They thought it made them
sound rational and agnostic; which it did not. The rest of the Actives
called their illustrious friend an alien, without embarrassment, because
at home alien had become a term for the much-loved human practice of
bodymorphing, and they'd forgotten it might be offensive. Sigurt didn't
seem to mind. He called them "Blues".
He was not just eminent, he was an original, a Blue Planetophile. His
skill in 'Blue' languages had not been acquired for the sake of this
trip, it was his hobby in real life. He had no trouble dealing with
"Ah, good point." He pondered, raising his eyebrows, which
were commas of black velvet, the same texture as the close mat of hair
(or fur) that covered his skull and extended down his neck and across
his shoulders, glimpsed at the throat of his ship-issue green jumper.
"Let me think. No, I'm sure "wife" is correct. The wife
is the one who remains, who cannot tear herself away. This is social
gender, not biology."
Nadeem was not
satisfied. Ideally, he explained, all self-respecting other beings,
when speaking human language, should call themselves it -
Elen imagined a
dry landscape, a dustbowl sky: parched mounds with small stone markers
(the graves she envisaged were Muslim, somehow). The burial ground was
sown with sad hunched shapes outside little cardboard shacks; the villages
were depopulated of grandmas. Did the tomb-wives really choose seclusion?
Or were they compelled by the iron hand of custom? Which nobody inside
the rules will ever admit is an oppression. The blizzard outside ought
to be a sandstorm, she thought, to match their cargo. But it was whiteness
she always imagined "out there". A white darkness of quantum
vacuum. She noticed that Sigurt had said wives, not widows, though his
English was very good; and she wondered about that. They are not the
widows of the dead but the wives of the tombs.
"Stop kidding yourself, Batman," Nadeem was getting agitated.
"It's not a one-off planetary evolution that we have in common,
it's time, gravity, hydrogen bonds. It's an accident of convergent evolution
that we look more or less alike. You've let yourself get sucked in to
a cheap, tourist way of thinking, denying your own difference, fantasising
that you can understand us-"
"You're a racist arse, Nadeem," responded Sigurt, amiably.
"Anyway, you just did it yourself."
The alien raised his arms, spreading the webs between his slender fingers,
hooking the air with his claws. "Anthropomorphising. You called
Elen suited up and visited the hold. The float tube delivered her to
darkness, where she drifted from one handhold to the next, following
track lights to the main cargo compartment. She flooded the great space
with air and pressure, touched down as gravity embraced her: took off
her helmet, passed through the lock and walked into a cavern at the
roots of a sea-mount. The habitat a green, sunlit island far above-
The artefacts were crated in force-fields, but she couldn't adjust the
light above art-conservation level. Pedants, she murmured, marvelling
at the dim, pixelated spectacle. The Lar'sz' part of the collection
was the most impressive: so damned impressive you could almost justify
the mad expense of the shipping. The haunted tomb was huge, multistoried.
It caught her breath. She circled it slowly, calculating that their
whole living quarters would easily fit into the Tomb Wife's portico.
There was a single doorway, a black teardrop without a door: set about
two metres above ground level, amid a coruscation of carved and inlaid
stone. It would be a scramble to get inside. Perhaps the front steps
had been left behind, or there was a secret mechanism, something like
ancient Eygpt. She sat cross-legged, slightly awkward in her suit, gazing.
Like most sailors of the strange ocean, she rarely got further than
the dockside when she made landfall. Even if there'd been more time
and less bureaucracy she wouldn't have been tempted by a lightning tour
of Sigurt's planet. What for? You'd see so little. You'd learn hardly
She'd been interested in the cargo as a professional challenge, a factor
in her calculations. The science of transporting massive material objects
was in its infancy, and artwork was a nightmare! But here in the gloom
she felt the value of these things. A virtual Lar'sz' tomb, freighted
through the transit in a courier's brain, downloaded into the digital
inventories of a limited-release of premier museums, could never have
had this presence. The Exhibition was going to be a revelation.
There was nothing to stop them from breaching the force-fields for a
preview; without the fuzz. No areas were barred to Active Complement,
except the fearsome threshold of the torus itself. She should come back
with Sigurt, get him to give her a guided tour. But not the tomb, she
If she went into the tomb, she'd like to do it alone.
The image of a
dessicated heap of bones and skin, preserved intact, flitted through
her mind. The Tomb Wife in a stone room, an old lady fallen down with
a broken hip, too proud to cry for help when she heard her servants
arriving and departing. But how old was she? Maybe she was still young
when the food offerings "remained untouched". Sigurt would
know. She would ask him. Or better, she'd look it up herself, and impress
him by knowing something. It was probably all in the background files
the Complement didn't bother to read.
If the practice had "survived into historical times" it could
still be happening. Suttee had continued in India long after the Brits
tried to stamp it out; had resurfaced even in the Space Age. But it
was the haunting that fascinated Elen. Do ghosts travel? Did pharaohs
and Inca sacrifices wake up, bewildered, in glass cases, half a world
away from home? Did they wake up in modern times, to find themselves
replicated in software? What about a journey so immense that it has
no duration? What damage would the relativity storm of the blizzard
do to something as fragile as spiritual remains? How embarrassing if
the loaned archaeology arrived stripped of its patina and pedigree.
. . How embarrassing for the fledgling enterprise of interstellar freight,
if there should be a Missing Legend incident!
She listened until she was sure she could hear footsteps inside the
ziggurat. No, it's okay, she's still there, still haunting. Unhurried,
peaceful, timeless, the Tomb Wife was going about her quiet routines.
Rafe had agonised
nightmares in which the Lar'sz' ghûl crept around his brain and
scratched at his bunk closure: seeking live human flesh. Seriously repentant,
Sigurt dredged up (or fabricated) some potent ancient Lar'sz'ian prayers:
which he translated into English phonemes, and taught Rafe to recite.
Elen had said nothing about the footsteps in the tomb, but she felt
equally responsible. She might have leaked it into the shared reality,
telepathy artefacts were the bane of starfaring. You learned that you
had to think no evil of your companions in the matrix; or there would
be hell to pay. And don't imagine spooks, or somebody will get spooked.
She did not confess. It would only have made Rafe worse.
At the end of a
long shift she unplugged herself from the mainframe, meeting as always
the adrenalin of panic as she returned to ship-time: clutching at her
stomach, icy down her spine. Carter was the captain on this trip, thank
God. But Elen was the one who crunched the numbers. She was finally
responsible for all the lives on board (not to mention those huge ancient
gewgaws in the hold). And the worst was knowing that if -if!-, she'd
let a transcription error get by, it would not manifest itself until
the closing phase. Not until too late. That's quantum computing, no
way around it.
The terror of the blizzard engulfed her. No radio, no GPS for this ocean.
No ground control for this spaceship, not the slightest possibility
of rescue. She saved-off their position meticulously, although off-frame
storage was nonsense, no such thing as a Black Box; and let the solidity
of the banks of instruments and winking screens reassure her. The freighter's
official name was Pirate Jenny (not that Actives themselves bothered
much with names of starships); reflecting the Brechtian, Utopian leanings
of the parent company, and its financial partner, the World State of
Earth. Other ships were the Clement Atlee, the Eleanor Roosevelt. Their
sisters were the White Visitation, the Sacred Wicca, the Caer Siddi.
Elen decided she preferred the occult strand. No Black Box but this
is Black Art. We don't know what we are doing, we conjure with monstrous
forces, far beyond our control.
Footsteps behind her, a breath on the back of her neck, a mocking sigh.
"So you got out," she whispered, and turned slowly: hoping
to catch a glimpse of the Tomb Wife's ghost.
Nobody there. She
never lets herself be seen.
They got used to the extra presence. "I blame myself," said
Sigurt, but in fact it was a common symptom, technically harmless in
terms of neurophysics: believed to be benign by superstitious Actives.
Only Rafe was troubled, and he had his prayers. Sigurt told stories.
Nadeem the Commissar and the Chief Engineer flirted. The Assistant Navigator,
Chief Engineer's former squeeze, took up with Passenger Liasion. Elen
visited the hold again, alone. She'd decided against the guided tour.
In the low light, looking up at that black, balanced teardrop, she fell
into a reverie in which the "Tomb Wife" tradition was not
oppression but a shimmering resolve. Not to move on, not to let go of
the past: to decide, so far and no further. The princess had chosen
to stick, as they say in cards, at the grief of loss. To stay with the
absence, never to let it fritter away into vague anniversaries, faded
rose leaves of memory. Was refusing to let go a feminine trait? Or was
it a Blue trait, which she was cutting and pasting onto the customs
of another planet? It was an Elen trait. She told people (family, boyfriends,
outsiders), that she was an interstellar navigator for the adventure
of it. The most exotic of exotic travel. But we do not travel, she thought.
Not a step. When the transcription is done -what does when mean,
where there is no time?- we will make the crossing in almost zero extension.
What we do is stay, in the paradoxical moment-
she stood up, used her sleeve controls to open the tomb's forcefield
and set her gloved palms on the doorsill. Her suit was limber, designed
for active wear. A push downwards, a bounce up, she had her knee on
stone. As she stood up diffuse lighting welled around her. The tomb
had been prepared for visitors. She realised, disappointed, that she
couldn't possibly be the first to enter since the Tomb Wife's time:
probably not even the first Blue! A short passage led into a stone room,
where a table like an altar stood against an inner wall. Above it a
life-size mural, in brilliant colour, showed two people, same height,
same build, sitting opposite each other, informally; knees up. They
both looked like Sigurt, in a generic way. They were gazing at each
other, their diamond-shaped eyes over-bright, their smiling lips full
of sadness. Both had the short cape of black velvet fur. One of them
seemed to be wearing a black half-mask. It was this figure who reached
to the other, one slender hand outstretched, as if in an unfinished
caress. Below them on the altar stood an array of diamond shaped bowls:
a curved platter, a heap of dry rags.
She looked into the bowls. Dead leaves, granular dust-
Are the conventions of mourning a universal constant? Elen thought of
Etruscan tombs, Chinese ancestor worship. Her files contained no data,
only the vaguest notions, but she was pretty sure that mural was a masterpiece.
Her gauntleted hand must have brushed one of the artefacts. A label
sprang into existence in the air, explaining -in Sigurt's planet's dominant
script, in English, and in a third writing she didn't recognise-, that
the actual bowls and platters had been taken away, with their ancient
contents. These were replicas. The dry rags were a replica of the decayed
set of clothes that had been found-
The past as theme-park is a universal constant.
She explored the
stone corridors of the ground floor, paying no further attention to
the artwork: ghoulish and hopeful as a child, looking for the bones
that had never been discovered. She found only dust, and very little
of that. There were no stairways to the upper floors, and nothing she
could identify as living quarters. The artful lighting started to make
her feel like a tourist. She took refuge in the gloomiest of the courtyards
and sat there looking at another black teardrop, halfway up a wall:
quietly visiting the shade of a long-dead "princess".
Immense peace, engulfing spiritual quiet.
She listened for footsteps, suddenly terrified.Abruptly she got up and
returned to the entrance, dropped to the floor.
As she closed the
field behind her, embarrassed by her moment of panic in there, a black
manta-ray swooped across the ocean trench darkness. Elen yelped, and
stared around wildly. The shadow cruised again. Her heart was thumping,
my God, what is that thing? What's in here with me?
No answer but the hiss of disturbed air. "Hey! Who's there?"
Sigurt landed beside her with a soft thump, wrapping slippery folds
of bat-wings around him. "Ah," he said, with smiling interest.
"So it's you, Elen."
She stared, appalled: open-mouthed. "MY GOD! SIGURT! What d'you
think you're doing! You can't fly! This is NOT a game!"
"On the contrary," said the alien cheerfully. "The whole
universe is a game, is it not? A puzzle-mass of tiny units of information,
the pattern of which can be changed at will -given the torus, and the
fabulous software implanted in a trained, numinous consciousness. Such
as yours, Elen. I'm not the expert, but isn't that the whole basis of
Elen was shaking with horror. "You can't do this! You can't piss
around doing impossible things in the transition! Our lives depend,
every f-fucking moment-"
"On our conviction that all this is real," he finished, unrepentant.
He showed her the fx controller on his sleeve; and switched it off.
The bat-wings vanished.
"I can access a toy from the ship's library without damaging the
equation, can't I? I was just playing. I'm much lighter than a Blue,
and there's not a great deal of gravity in here. I've been jumping off
She dropped her
head in her hands as relief thundered through her, leaving her spent
and hollow. Starfarers live in constant terror, like sailors on the
ancient oceans. You don't realise, until you hit a peak, how high the
ambient stress is getting-
"Just for the record, Sigurt, there's no software, not the way
"I know that
we maintain all this," he waved a slender hand, shadow-pale in
the dark. "Between us. . . I've never been quite sure how it's
done. You Blues have all the secrets. Is it true that Starflight Actives
have had brain surgery?"
Sigurt's people had stunning cellular regeneration. They treated almost
any trauma as a purely medical problem. The sciences of surgery and
(worse!) gene manipulation had come as a horrible shock to them. Barbarism.
"No surgery. No implants. It's more like a tissue culture. You
have to have the right kind of brain to start with. The reason you can
be awake is because you're like us, Sigurt: but you're a straight, a
virgin. We've had the training that makes us grow the extra neuronal
architecture, which doesn't, er, exist in normal space-"
"Or you would be hydrocephalic Eloi, with heads the size of pumpkins."
She nodded, though she had no idea what an Eloi was.
They sat with their knees folded up, like the figures in the mural-
"I'm sorry I fooled around, Elen. I scared you. I think I'm going
"Or else you're reacting poorly to racist abuse, Batman."
Sigurt laughed, and scratched his ear. 'Batman! Half-domino, cute little
shoulder cape. Sounds too girly for my taste. If you like comparisons,
we are more akin to frilled lizards than bats."
"Nadeem must really annoy you."
"He is something I would scrape off my shoe," pronouced the
alien, with relish. He tipped back his head. "Do you hear that,
They started to
laugh. The Active Complement lived in each other's heads, accomodating
each other as if they'd been workmates for a lifetime. They were a group
mind: inhibited, licensed; in constant negotiation. Elen replayed the
first remark Sigurt had made. Sigurt had known that someone was visiting
the artefacts, but because he was only supercargo, not A/C, he hadn't
known who it was.
"I've been visiting the Tomb Wife," she said. "I'm fascinated
by the idea of a ghost on an instantaneous transit. Do you know anything
more about her?"
The alien shrugged. "Like what?"
The tomb crouched like a massive, patient animal. Ancient artefacts
peered at them from the gloom, carving and shaping blurred into a vague
sense of life.
"Was she old? Was she young. . .? Did she have a lover?"
"Widows are a danger to social cohesion,' said the alien. "The
relict of a partnership has to be neutralised, or there'll be mesalliances,
inheritance disputes. Therefore the widow must marry again, harmlessly.
She must wed the tomb-"
"That sounds very human. Nadeem would be horrified."
Sigurt seemed to think it over. "The ancient Lar'sz' kept state
records," he said at last. "And accounts. Not much else was
written down. I'm afraid we don't know much. There are the bas-reliefs,
but they're high art, highly ambiguous. And not of her choosing, of
course. They are the memorial her husband ordered."
Elen wanted to ask what was her name, but she was afraid that might
be a lapse in taste, a cultural taboo. Another question came to her.
"Is it right to call her a ghost? Or did a haunting mean something
different to the ancient Lar'sz?"
"It's different and it's the same, of course."
The constant cry of one numinously intelligent sentient biped to another.
Sigurt grinned, acknowledging the problem. "Let me try to bridge
the gap. In my world we believe that people can, how can I put it, leave
themselves behind at certain junctures, life events. Someone else goes
on. When we speak of a haunting, that's our derivation. Not the, er,
spirit of someone physically dead. D'you see?"
"Yes," said Elen, startled and moved. "Yes, I think I
She felt that she knew Sigurt better, after this conversation. There
was a bond between them, the celebrated archaeologist and the navigator:
unexpected but real.
The country of
no duration can't be seen from the outside. You can never look back
and say there, I was. That's what happened. Everything
that "happened" in a transit was doomed to vanish like a dream
when they fell back into normal space. As the Pirate Jenny moved,
without motion, to the end without ending, of the paradoxical moment,
everyone had a terrible psychic headache. The Active Complement suffered
fretful agonies that swamped the ghost, Rafe's nightmares; all their
shipboard entanglements. They regarded Sigurt, whose wakefulness was
part of their burden, not so much as an exciting famous person, more
as a demanding pet. Batman's favourite expression (of course!) set everybody's
teeth on edge.
The captain had been interstellar crew for as long as there'd been commercial
interstellar traffic, and he could see the writing on the wall. "The
Pirate Jenny is a horseless carriage," he moaned, in mourning
for the sunlit green walls, the mossy ground, the polished birchwood.
"Soon it will all be gone, all this. Nobody will bother. Passengers
will transport themselves, we'll be obsolete."
She was mortally afraid that she'd made a mistake. She scoured the code
for a single trace of the ghost (there must be a trace!) found none,
and knew she must have missed something. Mistake, mistake. The insenseate,
visceral memory that she always felt like this in the closing phase
was no comfort at all.
"What about freight?" Gorgeous Simone, Chief Engineer, looked
up from a game of solitaire. "Who's going to carry the freight,
doctor? Hump it through the indefinite void, if not people like us?
Funx. Look at the size of that problem."
"Swearbox," piped Rafe, who had grown chirpy while the others
grew morose, and was now a rock, a shoal, an infuriating danger to shipping.
"Go and eat your head."
"They'll paint the crates with essence of consciousness,"
explained Carter, doomladen. "Or some crazy Borgs will break the
Convention. They'll create actual supernuminal 'Artificial Intelligence'
nanotech, and inject it into matter."
"So funxing what. You won't be redundant, you're a doctor."
"Ooops! Swearbox again!"
"Does not compute, man! If it's a true AI it'll have civil rights
and they won't be able to make it do anything. We'll unionise it, it
will be on our side-"
The alien laid his black velvet head on his slender arms on the tabletop
and sighed, very softly. All seven of them took this as an outrageous
insult. They'd have fallen on Batman and torn him limb from limb, except
that they knew there'd be hell to pay. The navigator quit the saloon
and retired to her section. God, let this be the peak. Let us be over
the mountain, this is unbearable.
They were over the mountain.
Elen reported their position, news which was greeted with exhausted
relief. Now there was nothing for her to do but watch the tumblers fall:
watch the numbers cascade into resolution, not a phase-point out of
place. She loved this part and hated it-
She went down to
the hold to visit the Tomb Wife, for the last time. There was a rumour
that they'd all be given free passes for the Exhibition, but she didn't
think she'd go. The relationship had been formed here, in the dim-lit
cavern under a sea-mount. It wouldn't be the same in normal space. The
tomb greeted her with its shimmering silence, with the stillness of
a grief embraced; set in stone.
"Hello?" she whispered. "I think I'm here to say goodbye."
She was not surprised when Sigurt joined her. They smiled at each other
and sat for a while; but the black teardrop beckoned. The alien succumbed
first. He hooked his long fingers into twin curves in the carving, that
she hadn't noticed, and was through the doorway in one movement. There
weren't any steps, thought Elen. The entrance is supposed to be like
that. She tried to copy his action but couldn't find the handholds.
She had to make the same scrambling jump as before; and followed him
to the chamber where the partners faced each other, the "wife"
poised forever in that gesture of farewell.
Emotion recorded in art was the rosetta stone, the only (and frequently
deceptive) common language of the Diaspora. Elen wasn't sure what a
rosetta stone had been, originally. Sigurt would probably know. But
she felt she understood the message of that unfinished caress, the speech
in those bright, half-hidden eyes. The dead are gone. The Tomb Wife
stayed with herself. She stayed with the life that had ended, rather
than going on, a different person-
How strange, how beautiful.
Sigurt had gone
further into the tomb. At length she heard him coming back. She didn't
have to look around, she could clearly picture him leaning in the ancient
doorway. She imagined staying with herself, in the country of
no duration. As often as she left this homeland and woke into forgetfulness,
she never got used to the wrench of parting. Oh, she thought. I need
not leave. I can stay. If I hadn't taken this berth, if I had never
met Sigurt, I would never have realised that I could do this! With a
rush of immense gratitude towards the alien she knelt, she crept on
her knees to the offertory table and settled there, curled against the
"The Tomb Wife was obliged to remain," said the archaeologist,
behind her, in a tone of mild apology. "For all eternity, with
the partner to whom she was bound. But in special conditions it might
be possible to make, well, a kind of exchange. One ghost for another.
I may have lied to you a little. In your terms, it happened long, long
ago. In my lifetime, the time I have spent awake, it was not so long
ago as all that."
Faintly, in her
mind's eye, Elen saw that she had let a transcription error get past
her, and what was happening to her now was the consequence. In absolute
terms there was no saloon, no eminent alien, no hold full of tombs,
there was nothing but the storm, never anything but the storm, the blizzard,
and she was falling into it, into the thrilling void of terror that
every starfarer knew was waiting-
Emotion can deceive. The sentient bipeds barely knew anything about
each other, as yet. Misconceptions abounded, wild mistakes were only
found out when it was too late. A family divided by a single language,
thought Elen: knowing at the same time that everything, the stone against
her cheek, Batman's deception, was a translation, and really there was
only the blizzard. Yet in the last paradoxical moment, annoyed that
it had to happen, that she would not stay here entirely, she felt herself
splitting, giving birth to the person who would go on.
-and saw herself walking away with Sigurt, arm in arm: glimpsed, through
the veil of Elen the Navigator's physical form, the Tomb Wife's caped
shoulders, the delicate black domino of velvet fur, the gleam of the
published F&SF magazine ed. Gordon Van Gelder August 2007