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|Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice|
|Peaceful Intent--Stories of human/Alien Interaction|
|The Dreaming Fire|
Faultless part 1
The thrust of a left foot propelled her through the slow water. Skimming a bristle of sea leaves with one pump of her legs, she careened around an irregular cone of coral. Darkness and depth called but she arched her back, snapped arms to her sides, and left the heavier water behind. A school of bluefish shattered in a thousand directions as she aimed through them.
Time seemed still here but she knew, beyond the ocean, it was spinning out of control. The oxygen rich surface glowed green two lengths above her. Twisting sideways while scooping with her hands, she trapped the press of water into a tight funnel. The rising bubbles pulsed against her skin. Their whiteness clung together and blinded her within a foam tube of insulation. The fragile edges of stored seashells scraped the lining of her pocket as the pressure of her created vacuum squeezed inward. Breaking through, she snapped her hands and feet together, then apart again, shooting forwards.
On the day of thirteen there would be no more diving to sift for shells in the mud of the ocean floor. No longer could she lay beached in a rainbow of light, floppy on the hot sand, listening to the shrieks of birds. She’d have to be useful. There’d be no choice, for the children of the Faultless transformed at dawn, the day of their thirteenth year. The day of adulthood. After a night of sleep, they’d awake, clumsy with it still, to find themselves reshaped. They didn’t mind, weren’t filled with regret. The flow of their life never hiccupped. But she thought she might miss what she’d been.
Her nearest friend had transformed four days earlier and no longer swam the waters with her. He now had strong arms able to swing 180 degrees and a net of fireproof hair grew from his skin. Shortening, his legs had grown thick and squat. His feet were wide and the new toes knobbed a grip fiercer than a suckerfish against the floor.
He’d become a metal worker and would only sink from his increased weight and webbless feet. The oceans were now dead to him. She’d learned to keep her eyes on her toes while passing the forge, for he ignored her well. People who played with babies were nannies and she was still a child. Too easily, he’d grown away. All was as it should be, as it had always been, but she was betrayed.
Reaching the sand, she shook the water from her limbs and stretched her legs into a wide stride to lesson of the gravity pull of land. She’d spend the day carving a remembrance of him out of stone on the little island hidden from the coast of Faultless Own by the restless mound of sea. More of a moss covered lump of claystone than an island, it had breadfruit, banana and orange trees on the far side where they’d often feasted. Where they’d let the juice run sticky off their hairless chins. Clearing her mind, she reached for her tools and circled the blank faced bust she’d begun the day before.
Half a day later, her hands had sweated themselves around the scraping blade. Stepping back, she examined the semblance she’d pulled from the pinkish-gray stone. The curve of his head on the long and supple neck was captured. The shape of his eyes, round and lidless, was correct but… something wasn’t right. He seemed to return her stare from a distance. More like the expression he held now and not then.
Scratching the back of her hairless head with one hand while the other balanced the carving knife, she circled the statue. A flick of her wrist adjusted the line of his lips, thin with a full bottom, into more of a curve. She added a crinkle to the edge of his eyes by digging in gently with her blade. She was pleased. It was better, but she’d have to return tomorrow to be sure. A day between what she’d created and her eye would make a difference in how she viewed it.
She’d come back … if she could.
A scan of the skyline showed the sun at three quarters, its light a dusty lilac. With fingers somehow clumsy, she rolled the tools in the waterproof cloth. Dropping it into her pocket, she dove into the water and felt her tight skin relax. She’d lost track of time again and had stood too long in direct sunlight. Others could easily break away and submerge, flipping and rolling in the near yellow of the morning ocean, then return to pick up where they’d left off. But not her, once she turned away, she felt as if she’d ripped the connection to her art. She’d have to stare it into submission before she could catch it up again.
That would have to be done all over again… tomorrow.
She found herself slowing the push of her legs, making spirals down and back to the surface. The water changed from burgundy to rose and back again. Her parched skin drank and, although she knew it would be plumped by the time she reached the shore, she dawdled until the last possible moment before renewing her swim home.
Her birthday. She stole out her sleep cocoon too early, before morning light and darted to the tall mirror in the bathroom. Staying a solid fifteen marks, she searched the reflection for change, twisting back and forth, but there was none. Her head and body were smooth and tan. Arms and legs the same shape and length with the scale webbing between fingers and toes.
What had happened? Today was her day of transformation and somehow, she remained untouched. How could this be? Was it because she’d wished so hard that she’d actually caused it not to happen? Squeezing her eyes shut, she yearned to transform into what she was supposed to become. She needn’t open them to know she remained the same but did anyway. Fingertips denting her cheeks, she gazed into her own eyes. Maybe it was too early, the sun hadn’t yet lit the windows. Slipping back into her cocoon, she waited for dawn, willing change but felt none. Nothing.
Realizing she was to stay this way, at least for today, and thinking maybe there’d been…not a mistake exactly, but someone could have recorded her day of birth carelessly. The transformation would happen tomorrow, or the one after. There’d been no real mistakes here on Perfection, not since the beginning of time. Deep down she knew there had not been an error now. After all she was slow, had always been so compared to her friends.
Already late to breakfast, she rubbed a looping pattern of lace over the slick floor with the toe of each foot, one step at a time. Her skin was too tight against her muscles and wriggly fingers crawled her stomach. The cocoon would be nice and sleeping until the next sunrise would be nicer. But regaining her senses, she realized doing so would cause much alarm. No one had ever stayed in bed past the first light, ever.
The best thing to do was pretend all was as it should be. She brought the wiggle to her shoulders, shook it off and skipped down the ramp as if nothing was wrong. After all, nothing could be wrong, for here everything was always right. She’d been told so and up to now there’d been no indication otherwise. But the dismaying idea of her being the first one butted in. Were they possible? Sitting before the breakfast already served, her incomparable nanny watched her covertly, clearly puzzled over the lack of transformation but asked no questions.
The next day it took added effort to leave her room and at the table, the caretakers were measured in their speech but otherwise showed no sign of tension. The rest of the compound didn’t seem to realize her day of transformation had come and gone. Treating her the same, her younger friends still ran and played, drawing and building in the sand with her from clear lightbreak to lavender evening. Becoming fewer as they transformed, she watched until there was only one close to her age left and then, he too was gone.
Being alone didn’t bother her, as long as she could do as she pleased. It wasn’t till the days grew shorter and she stayed awake past sundown to watch the first meteor shower of the season with the other faultless that a Sign was revealed. She’d turned to point out an unusually large burst of lights falling in the glittering sky, looking back to see if the others followed the line of her finger with their eyes. Nanny uttered a small squeak, stared in amazement at her child’s face before she regained composure and rapidly sent her to bed.
Once in her darkened room, she checked the mirror for what had startled Nanny so. There it was, in glowing lines, a curled symbol imprinted just above and centered between her two violet eyes. She tapped it lightly but it felt no different then the rest of her face. Pressing harder, she tried to scrub it off but all she gained was raw skin, the symbol remained as bright as before.
The Faultless were stunned when the news spread, not coming in droves to stare but stopping their work to look or going out of the way to find reasons to be near. They’d never seen anything like this before and could not suppose what she was.
There was no need for symbols on people, everyone knew who they were. What was wrong with her that she grew bright calligraphy on her forehead? Nothing had ever gone awry before and they weren’t sure if it had now. There must be a reason for her. They waited for her to transform into what she was to become.
She wasn’t fit for any trade nor did she seem to have an interest in developing one. Though she excelled at art, it wasn’t for any purpose that could be useful. She wasted her time on painting what she saw or imagined and didn’t construct houses or tools, or try harmonizing her surroundings as designers would. Instead of making pots or plates from clay, she made representations of the people around her or abstract shapes that she couldn’t explain other than she liked the way they looked.
As the days passed, it became obvious that she’d retained her childhood shape. The same strong legs and skin with no adult hair. She continued to confound them so they rejected her. Not in any obvious way, but they began to forget to say hello to her, sometimes they seemed as if they might not see her until the last mark when they couldn’t avoid it.
Once, she walked the trail to Ideal Meadow and two clam diggers marched around her without any acknowledgement of her “hello” and continued talking among themselves as if she was invisible. Watching them get smaller in the distance, she felt a rush of heat fizzle out on her cheeks and forehead while the rest of her body went cold. She sat on the path and crossed her arms around her chest as if she might split apart. Nobody would have noticed, she was sure.
Eventually her stubborn refusal to transform into an adult could be ignored no longer. Nanny, face tight with the battle to stay normal while her growth stunted and should be adult remained a child against all the laws of nature, sent for the Wise Ones.
Three of them arrived the very next day.
She was itching to run and dive the depths of the ocean but stood her ground as they examined her inch by inch as if she was a bizarre abnormality...which, she might be after all. Once more, the new feelings she’d felt on the path after being ignored returned. The heat that rose from her stomach and sizzled out on her face must have changed her coloring for they asked her about it. Lightly touching the skin of her cheek, she shrugged and said she’d been running hard.
She was a problem in a world that had none, a puzzle for a people who didn’t have the skill or inclination to solve one. Fear was not a feeling they’d felt before but the Wise Ones knew what it was when it gripped their throats and stopped their voices.
After days of examinations they were no closer to solving the dilemma of her and were unsure of the value of continuing to try. They’d pursued the background, her nurture, compared her genetic structure to that of the parentage. According to the records it was as normal as anyone’s. Tracing the lighted symbol of her forehead at night, their gloved hands made it burn until they had to back away, feeling as if they faced a small sun that threatened to fire them into ash.
Finally, one of the wise thought he remembered where he’d seen the symbol before and searched the Library Of Complete Knowledge for it. No closer after two hours of rummaging, he gazed at the huge, life-sized painting of the Creator, looking for guidance but not quite forming the thought that he might need it.
The Creator was smiling gently, regal with long, silky body hair like none other. A slight glow infused his face as he looked down at his creations while holding the book of Prophecies, open in his hands.
The Wise One jumped to his feet, realizing where he’d seen it. In the book of Prophecies! This book was not for public consumption and only the Wise Ones could read it. The creator had written it for them, to describe what was to come. For every blade of grass was charted and not even a hair could fall from their bodies that he’d not allowed. This book was taken out of its smoky stone box once a generation and put back after copious notes of What Was To Come were taken. It was never wrong.
Filled with glee, the Wise One ran to his fellows and had to hiss strenuously to attract attention as they scanned the girl’s forehead with their examination glasses. Finally, they sent her from the darkened room and he explained what he’d remembered of the one time he skipped ahead a few years.
They frowned at the idea that he’d done this without full permission of the group but he justified it. The Creator must have instigated his curiosity so they’d know the symbol if they ever happened upon it. How could he not look when it was planned? They agreed he must be right, for they were never wrong. Even if it seemed as if one of them was getting above himself, there had to be a reason for it.
Vaguely uncomfortable, he lagged behind the others as they filed down the hall to the library and up to the smoky box. It took three of them to open it; they encircled and touched the cool stone with a thumb each. Opening silently, the top parted in the middle and slid down the sides. A mist floated from the square mouth as if a breath released into the dry air. Two fat books were revealed, the top one had glittering letters that spelled out the title: Conclusive Prophecies.
They hoisted it out with cotton gloved hands and set it on the silk covered lectern directly adjacent. The box silently closed on the one book remaining. The wise backed away and indicated the one who’d recognized the symbol to do the honors. For as impertinent as it might have been, he should be one to show them what he’d discovered.
They were startled as he turned over a thick chunk of pages to the very back of the book. There was an unwritten rule that you never looked further than your appointed generation and to look at the end, well, that spoke of curiosity beyond the scope of appropriateness.
When the brave Wise One lifted his eyes from the page, he noted their faces were, as usual, serenely calm, although eldest set of eyes were chips of ice when they met his. An electric thought that he might have been mistaken to look ahead sparked so quickly through his dendrites he’d forgotten it existed before the route was complete. Although a faint dissidence remained within his brain, like the smell of last nights dinner caught in a morning room, he remained visibly secure.
Pointing and watching the trembling peach shadow of his finger wash across the silver symbol on a turquoise square, he indicated what was written under it in precise letters, the word: Creator.
Within a mouthful of silence, they stared, faces no longer serene but blank. What could this mean? The color of the background matched the delicate shade of the Creators hair and the unreadable book that rested under the one of prophecies, its bright cover untouched for centuries. It was not as if they hadn’t tried to read it, every ten centuries or so, a Wise One would lift it, rifle through and, although he knew that the lines of black marks were words, found he could not understand them. There were squiggles that were obviously pictures but appeared to be reflected backwards and upside down through a warped glass. The book would be replaced in the box and the Wise One would know it wasn’t meant for him.
The eldest reached out a hand and turned the single last page. On the back, written in small block letters were the words: She is my seed. I cannot tell you when she will rise only that she will. She is certain to understand the unknown. And after her, all is uncertain.
He closed the book thoughtfully and wandered to the farthest bench under an open window then raised his head to catch the freshening breeze within a large intake of breath.
“All is uncertain, after her.” He expelled the breath, the sound almost a sigh of distress. “I have never had to know uncertainty. I don’t understand…what to do.”
His companions looked to each other with something like panic before joining him at the window. The night grew darker as they debated whether she was a Creator or, they whispered to each other, she might be imperfect. A word not thought of much less spoken. Either one, a Creator or an imperfect, hadn’t been born of their planet before this. And to have one now, well it changed everything.
Eventually, towards morning, the Wise Ones were almost sure she was a Creator for HIS symbol (now known as such) was embossed on her forehead. The prelude to the Prophecies had noted that each creator could lay a seed for another creator to be born in the future, when and if ever they chose to leave. Did this mean their own dear Creator had abandoned them? For the seed? Her?
“She must be the seed. It is written so in the Book.” The youngest Wise One said to the rest, eyes intent under his feathery brows.
“Yes, but in the book our future continues the same as always. Yet, it also states that all is uncertain after her. They cannot remain as predicted and be uncertain at the same time,” The oldest hesitated. “Can they?”
Holding their flawless and large enough heads close together, they increased the number of their group to six. This needed powerful thought.
“As a creator, her being new at creation poses another problem. For what do we do with an untrained creator?”
“That’s correct. How would we train her? What could happen as she matures to full potential?”
Questions raced through their convoluted cortexes and out their flexible mouths. For she was the first confusion they’d encountered in the whole of existence. One of them was almost excited.
“Maybe what she has accomplished up to now, has been training enough?” The youngest was contracting his damp fingered hands in small convulsions.
“Even when fully transformed into our craft, we need education to become expert in our fields.” The middle one shuffled around a neatly stacked row of books.
“But we are Faultless… She is one of us, right?”
“Is she?” The eldest turned from his window and stared into the dim corners to where the others had now wandered in a decidedly unsettled manner.
They knew the planet Perfection was pristine and there was no need for either imperfection or adjustment. Change is what she’d cause unless they could stop her. There was also potential for contamination if she was imperfect and implanted her seed. They had to restrict her behavior and give her guidelines, teach her control and encapsulate her from the general population until she was ready.
“The creator wrote she could understand the unknown. What is unknown to us besides her?”
As one, the group turned and gazed at the smoky box on the pedestal in the center of the room. “The turquoise book” The words were hissed by five pairs of mobile lips and echoed sibilantly through the dim book ways.
Reaching a conclusion, they uncovered the unreadable book and hurried to the compound.
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