A Rarefied View at Dawn
by Dave Wolverton
In the sandstone sanctuary atop the mount of Kara Kune, in ancient
times there was only one punishment for men who committed crimes:
the guardian droids, called Valkyries, hurled them from the battlements,
to fall through the cinnamon-colored mists to the jungle below, and live
or die as fortune decreed.
Now Bann and Maya raced along the wall-walk in the early dawn, their
bare feet slapping the smooth sandstone ramparts, the mists boiling
outside the castle like a cauldron while the coming sun silvered the sky.
They were dressed alike, wearing the black silk tunics of schoolchildren
with black skullcaps and golden sashes about their waists. Both had
long dark hair braided down their backs, falling nearly to their knees. Of
the two, Bann was the most beautiful. The girls of the city envied his
lustrous dark hair, his incredibly long eyelashes, and his thin, graceful
hands. He was so small-boned and delicate that he looked as if he were
made of porcelain. Maya, at twelve, was two years older than Bann, and
was developing the wide hips and breasts of a young woman.
Suddenly, Bann became aware that Maya was no longer following. He
turned impatiently. Maya had climbed atop the fortress's smooth wall,
and now sat with her legs dangling over hundreds of feet above oblivion.
Bann's heart thumped in his chest. He called back, "Mara, hurry, the
muysafed said that there will be a surprise for us this morning!"
Maya grinned. "The muysafed often makes such promises, silly," she
teased. "It is her way of making you want to come to school."
I know, he thought. And I'm grateful to her for it. School is so much
better than home. Sometimes his mother's sad countenance weighed on
him, and he hated being there.
"But I think that today she will have the baby chicks," Bann urged. It
was no secret that their teacher had received some eggs from a far-off
fortress, and that she had just been waiting for them to hatch.
"They're just chickens," Maya dismissed. "You've eaten chicken many
times. Let's watch the sunrise."
"But this is different," Bann urged. "These are alive." He couldn't
express how much he wanted to see them. They were, after all, fellow
creatures from Earth, a tenuous connection to his heritage. They had
eyes like other earth creatures, not probas with which to sense magnetic
waves. They had hearts and guts and other organs like humans.
From far below the fortress, in the steaming jungles, sounded the
rumbling hornlike cry of a yarrev, a creature that dwarfed even the
largest dinosaurs of old Earth. It must have leapt a few strides, for Bann
heard trees crashing and the fortress suddenly trembled slightly.
Bann ambled back to Maya, who sat upon the stone wall. He placed a
hand protectively on her shoulder, lest she slip.
Below the walls of Kara Kune there were only rust-colored mists for as
far as the eye could see. In late summer the omni-present clouds often
raised high enough to tumble over the walls and cover the city for days
on end. In the winter, as the air cooled, the clouds would drop low. But
Bann had never seen the sprawling valley below the fortress. It was
rumored that there were ocher hills and winding rivers the color
cinnabar and tangled violet jungles bursting with alien life.
But Bann saw nothing more than he had ever seen in his ten years --
the sun of Lucien groping at the distant horizon, as if seeking a
finger-hold in the clouds.
"Look," Maya urged. "The clouds have dipped lower than I've ever seen,
and the air is rarified today. Follow the lights toward the edge of the
Bann followed her pointing finger and spotted the lights from a pair of
floater ships that skimmed above the boiling red clouds. Their
shimmering air sacs filled with clear light from time to time as the
hydrogen furnaces fired, and their stabilizer struts and gondolas hung
beneath them, making the ships look like luminous jellyfish the color of
ash, hovering in the distance.
And then Bann saw it just at the edge of the world -- the very tip of a
pale sanctuary shining above the mists, white castle walls dominating
some mountain peak.
"Tahaj?" he asked. It was the nearest city, forty miles away.
"It must be," Maya agreed. "You're pretty smart, for a runt." She smiled
at him playfully, then suggested. "Sit up here. There's a warm wind
drifting up from the jungle. It feels good between your legs."
Not me, Bann thought. The notion of climbing up on the wall terrified
"Come on," Maya said. "It's fun. Even if you fell, we're on the east wall."
"East?" Bann asked.
"The east side is the easy side," Maya said. "The ground is only a
hundred feet down through the mist, and the hill is steep and sandy. If
the city ever comes under attack, jump off the east side, if you want to
Bann heard the whine of electric motors and noticed a Valkyrie
careening toward them on its single wheel. The droid had a body of
carbon polymers, but wore a helmet to give it a human shape. Lasers
inside the helmet projected an image on the inner surface of the visor --
a gray-haired matriarch whose stern features clashed with her caring
"Please, citizen," the Valkyrie warned Bann. "Do not push her."
Bann held Maya's shoulder, afraid that she might slip and fall if he did
not hang on. Maya reached up and with her right hand and touched his
left. "He'd never do that. He's my friend."
The Valkyrie was just as stern with Maya. "Do not let your legs dangle
over the wall."
"It feels good," Maya said.
The Valkyrie drew near, close enough to snake out a mechanical clamp if
Maya tried to jump.
"You have received a demerit," the droid notified her. "It will appear in
your daily logs. Your mother and your muysafed will also be warned that
you have been using thermal air currents to engage in vaginal
stimulation, and that you did so in the presence of a male. Although
these acts in themselves are not illegal, it will be noted that you are
pubescent, and need extra guidance and monitoring."
The droid rolled forward, placing its bulk between Bann and Maya,
pushing Bann back. He didn't understand what the droid was saying --
using words like pubescent and vaginal, but Bann knew that it wanted
him to leave.
He took a step backward. Maya swung her legs toward him and dropped
onto the wall-walk.
"Come on," she told him, taking his hand and casting a defiant look at
the droid. They raced along the wall, leaving the Valkyrie behind.
Class that morning was held in the dome. The midwinter sun would
hardly climb above the horizon, and so the children would not have to
flee into the caverns to avoid the heat.
Instead, twelve young girls and one boy basked in a garden-like
atmosphere, the grow-lights glowing like small suns above them, willow
trees in a small grove arching overhead, their white-robed teacher
looking proudly down at her treasure -- a handful of baby chicks that
trundled about, some still wet from the shell. His teacher was called the
muysafed, the white hair, out of respect. But actually she had dark hair
and braids, though rumor said that she was over two hundred years old.
Bann studied his chicken. It was like nothing that he had ever seen, and
not quite what he had imagined. He'd once seen a holo of a bird from old
Earth, a sea eagle in flight. And so he knew of feathers and wings.
But this creature seemed to have neither. Instead of wings, it had
stubby malformed stumps. Instead of feathers, it had a covering that
looked like the yellowed balls of cotton that grew in the fields atop the
highest hills of the sanctuary.
Its eyes were nothing like human eyes -- dark little pools that blinked
too much. And its tiny talons were the kind of thing that would give a
child nightmares. Yet as he held it, Bann was delighted to feel its tiny
heart kicking like a cricket within its chest, and to enjoy cool warmth. It
was so like a human -- nothing like the wild oily "geckoes" that
sometimes climbed over the sanctuary walls upon their sticky
Bann decided that he liked his chicken. The little creature pecked at
grain when Bann held it in his hand. He named it Yusaf.
"Today," the muysafed said in a loud voice, "we are going to perform an
experiment upon these chickens." She was staring right at Bann as she
said it, as if to see his reaction. "Chickens are much like humans," she
added. "As you can see, they have eyes like ours, and feet, and hearts
"And lungs, too," Bann added.
The muysafed smiled at him. Bann knew that he was one of the
brightest children in the class. He felt proud to have recognized the
And wings. They have wings, and it was birds that showed mankind how
He wanted to say that, too, but was just waiting for the appropriate
"And lungs," the muysafed admitted. "And chickens respond to some
chemicals in exactly the way that we do," the teacher said. "One such
chemical is a hormone called testosterone. Does anyone know what
Amayah, the oldest girl in the class, more of a young woman really,
raised her hand and said, "It's what makes a man a man."
One girl behind Bann snickered, and others moved away from him, just
barely. Only Maya drew closer, holding his hand, reassuring him.
Talking about men was discomforting. It was men who had destroyed
the old world, Earth, with their wars and violence, forcing the Three
Thousand sisters to flee in their starships. Men were frightening things,
evil, and were kept outside the sanctuary walls. Bann had never actually
seen one. Two other boys lived within Kara Kune, but they were younger
than Bann, mere toddlers. Rarely did a woman choose to conceive a boy.
Usually she merely cloned herself, or mixed her seed with that of another
Still, there were men who lived outside the sanctuary, small tribes of wild
men who rode the Floater ships. There were pirates, too, who sometimes
stole women from the sanctuaries if the Valkyries couldn't stop them.
And in some way that Bann didn't understand, these men forced women
to make babies for them.
As his teacher talked, Bann could feel blood rising to his face, and his
stomach tightening, making him sick.
"Correct," the muysafed said. "It is testosterone that turns boys into
men. Among people, boys turn to men slowly. But with these chickens,
we will speed the process by giving some of them large amounts of
synthetic testosterone, so you can better witness the reaction."
She drew out a syringe and injected three chicks. One got a little
testosterone. Maya's got three times as much, and Bann's got ten times
more than Maya's. At the end of the day, Bann got to take his chick
That evening, when Bann reached the grotto where he lived with his
mother Tuyallah, he raced in with Yusaf. Just as he got inside, the chick
pooped. Its mess was white and stringy, with bits of yellow and gray in
it. Nothing like the poop that humans made, but Bann was astonished
to see how much like a person a chick could be.
"Mom, look what I got!" he shouted as he barged through the door,
holding the chick out to see. Yusaf was trembling, as if sick with a fever.
"It's just a temporary reaction," the muysafed had assured Bann, "from
Bann grinned broadly, giddy having his own chicken, but his mother only
smiled tiredly, a forced smile that didn't even feign happiness.
"So, they're doing the chicken experiment at school," she said.
"You know about it?" Bann asked.
"We did it when I was young," Tuyallah said. She frowned and looked
away. "Let's go out tonight, to celebrate," she suggested. "We'll get
dinner in the market.
Bann was delighted. Most of the time, his mother fixed dinner at home.
So they put the chick away, and began to walk to the market.
The evening was hot. Even in the dead of winter, it could reach a
hundred and twenty degrees during the day. Little red-eared lizards --
remnants of an ancient attempt to terraform the planet -- would race out
in front of them, shiver their whole bodies, and bury themselves in the
When they reached the market, it was still too early to buy food. The
baker woman had just fired up her clay ovens and was stamping the
loaves with the word peace before putting them in to cook. The lamb
woman was still burning her sweet-smelling saxaul wood down to coals
before putting on the skewers of shish kabob.
Bann's mother said little as she walked, only greeting other women with
falsely enthusiastic, "Peace in your mind, sister, and joy in year heart,"
as they passed. Few of them bothered to return the greeting to a woman
who was of such low social standing.
Since dinner was not ready, his mother stopped at a stall and bought
some cold green tea. She sweetened it with white grapes, the kind that
are so honeyed that you can only eat two, which she squeezed right into
When she was done, she led Bann down a road to the far side of the
sanctuary, a place where Bann had never been.
When the road was empty, his mother said softly. "I hear that you and
Maya were caught up on the wall today."
"We were just walking to school," Bann said, "like we always do."
His mother took a deep breath. "Did she touch you?"
"She always holds my hand," Bann answered. "She's my best friend."
They walked farther down the road, which now switched back and
dropped at a steep angle, so that they were walking deep in the shadows.
"Of course she's your friend." Tuyallah slipped her arm through his and
took his hand, gripping it tightly, almost as if she were afraid to let him
"Did she ask you to touch her?" Bann's mother asked, "Between the
legs?" she added hurriedly. "Or on the breasts? Or to kiss her?"
The thought was repulsive, and Bann wanted to shrink into the ground
as he answered. "No. Never."
"Good," his mother said. "You should never do those things. Sometimes,
even girls will want that. And you should never do that for them. Do
Bann didn't really understand, but his stomach was clenching again, and
he felt so uncomfortable that he just nodded yes so that he wouldn't
have to talk anymore.
He saw some girls playing Baku, kicking their balls at one another and
then rushing for the safe stones.
"I'm the best in my class at Baku now," Bann said, thinking that he'd like
to go play with the strange girls.
"That doesn't surprise me," his mother said. "You're growing up so fast."
She kept walking down the street. It was leading down into the lower
quarters now, beneath the rust-colored clouds. When they dropped far
enough, the reddish fog colored everything like blood, and the smell of
yicksh -- the microscopic life-forms that lived in the humidity -- got
thick in the air. It tasted like bitter melon.
Down they walked, past switchback after switchback. The darkness
grew more imposing with each step downward. Bann had heard that if
you descended far enough, you could reach the violet jungles down in the
valleys, where even the light of Lucien's bright sun could not penetrate
Tuyallah kept descending the steep road, and Bann followed, unsure
where they were headed, until they reached a gate. A cadre of Valkyries
stood by, armed with magnetic pulse rifles to repel alien creatures, and
plasma weapons to fight off any incursions by men.
"Peace to you, sisters," one of the Valkyries said as they neared, using a
greeting that was common even if a boy was in the group. "Shall we
escort you beyond the gate?"
"Thank you, sister," Bann's mother replied. "It would be welcome."
The droid began to open the gate. The electric motors had failed
centuries ago, and the technicians here could only afford to repair
equipment vital to the sanctuary, so the droid removed the gate's
crossbars and pushed it open.
Bann found himself breathing hard. He had never imagined leaving the
city. He'd heard too many stories of cutthroats and wildmen to feel safe
outside the gates.
"Where are we going?" Bann asked.
"To visit your father," Tuyallah replied.
Bann's jaw dropped. "I have a father?"
"All boys have fathers," Tuyallah answered. "But few girls do."
"Did he hurt you?" Bann asked. "Did he force you to make me?"
"No," his mother said. "Nothing like that. I met him here, outside the
city. Just once. I . . . asked him to sleep with me, to make a baby."
"Why?" Bann asked. His mind was racing furiously.
"I was curious," she said. "I'd heard that men could be so . . . alluring.
And the thought of meeting a male lover excited me. I guess . . . I was
"For having me?" Bann asked.
"No," his mother said, squeezing his hand. "Never for having you." She
cleared her throat. "I was foolish to think that I could change the way
that things are."
The droid finished opening the gate, and timidly Bann stepped outside,
following his mother. A pair of Valkyries led the way.
Almost immediately a shadow fell over them. Bann looked up as a pod of
sky-whales slowly swam through the fog overhead, their wide wings
undulating as they fed on micro-organisms in the sky.
Bann wondered what his father would look like. He'd never seen a man.
They walked down a trail, into the gloom, and soon strange
pseudo-plants began to rise all around them. Violet-colored vines twined
around each other madly, forming a canopy overhead. Bann could hear
three vines straining, making cracking sounds, as they sought to pull
down a larger tree. It suddenly shattered, and light opened in the
canopy. But almost as soon as it opened, the competing vines and trees
leaned in to claim the meager sunlight.
Enormous beasts could be heard in the shadows, so the Valkyries
powered up their rifles and slowed.
"You'll have a decision to make soon," Tuyallah told Bann. "I want you to
What decision, he was going to say. But suddenly they turned a corner,
and reached a small wooden fortress made of sharpened poles. It wasn't
large, perhaps only big enough to hold a couple of hundred sisters. A
creature sat atop the wall, bearing a magnetic rifle. Bann had seen
pictures of apes and chimps, hairy creatures that once lived in trees on
Earth. This looked like one. Long hair covered its face, and it wore a
tunic that left its chest, arms, and legs exposed. Hair covered them, too
-- not as thick as a goat's hair, but the creature was obviously more
animal than human.
"Ohhh," it crooned in a deep voice, eyes going wide at the sight of Bann
and Tuyallah. "Now there's a likely pair of screamers. Come for a thick
one, have ya, ladies?"
Bann stared at the creature, and fear seized his tongue. He hadn't heard
that apes could speak.
"No, thank you," Bann's mother said. "I'm looking for a man. His name
is Bann. Bann McKenzie. He's a pilot."
The ape grunted, scratched at its crotch. "Bann, Bann the sailor man.
Haven't seen him in years. But if it's a man you want, I'm hard enough
for you, and you know what they say, 'A hard man is good to find.'"
Bann gaped. He had assumed that the creature was an ape, but it
claimed to be a man!
"Bann McKenzie is the one I want," his mother said.
"Maybe his ship is in port. Or maybe someone else knows where to look.
Go right on in." The creature kicked a lever, and a wooden door flung
open beneath him. Bann and his mother entered.
The fortress was small indeed. A shanty town made of rough wood
opened onto an empty square. One stall held a man who was skinning
goats in the open air.
Bann heard a cry and glanced to his right. Two boys, little older than
Bann, were tussling in the street. One cried out in pain, and Bann
Both boys looked up at the sound of his voice and grinned, as if to prove
that no harm had been done.
"It's all right," his mother said. "They're just playing.
"But . . . someone could get hurt," Bann objected.
His mother said softly, "Boys often play . . . by fighting each other."
The boys continued to wrestle, and Bann watched, heart hammering.
Such violence was forbidden in the sanctuary.
"Come along," Tullayah whispered. "The Valkyries are getting too far
Indeed the droids had taken a good lead. They were heading to the far
side of the fortress, where a pair of Floater ships hung at port. Some
rough-looking men were loading bales of Kara Kune cotton on one of the
gondolas, along with crates of electronics.
Tuyallah hurried down the mud street, past men who came out the
shops to gawk at her and her son. Bann saw a woman, too, a feral
woman dressed in men's leather pants, with daggers sheathed in her
boots, an open leather vest barely concealing her breasts. She watched
Bann knowingly, smiled and blew a kiss at him.
Bann's mother stopped just beneath the stabilizer bar on the first
Floater, a scarred old ship called "The Ether Sea." She did not seem to
know who to address, so she clapped her hands for attention and called
out, "I am looking for a man, a pilot, named Bann McKenzie."
One rough man who was wrestling a barrel up a ramp peered at her. His
eyebrows were so thick that they looked like an extension of his beard,
but the hair on top of his head seemed to have fallen off. Bann
wondered what illness would cause such a hair loss.
"McKenzie? Haven't crossed paths with that old scoundrel in what -- five
years? Back then he was runnin' guns between Buddha's Reef and
Bann had never heard of Buddha's Reef, but King's Tit was pirate
country -- a mountain base hidden beneath the fog. It was high enough
so that there was still some light, low enough so that it couldn't be seen
from the air.
Bann's mother bit her lip, frustrated. "Can you send him a message?
Tell him that he has a son?" She clenched Bann's shoulder. "A fine
The man smiled sadly, studied Bann. "A son is it?" he said, shaking his
head. "Not much of a boy. Looks more like a girl to me. Not fit for a
man's work -- at least not yet."
"Nevertheless, his time is coming," Tuyallah said.
The man shook his head, as if there was little that he could do. "I'll
beam a few messages to passing ships, but I can't guarantee anything.
Haven't seen McKenzie in years. Pirates could have got him. Or maybe
he crossed the Sizzle to Far-And-Away. Why don't you take the boy
home? Forget about McKenzie."
"You will deliver the message?" Tullayah begged.
"For all of the good it will do."
"Thank you, brother," Bann's mother said, bowing her head in gratitude.
Of all the strange things that Bann had seen that day, this last was the
strangest of all -- his mother bowing to the grizzled old ape-like man.
She turned quietly, pulled Bann behind her, and they began the long
climb back uphill.
Bann was too stunned to say much for a long time. They walked up
through the trees, and as they did, the sun dipped below the horizon,
leaving the jungle in darkness. One Valkyrie took the lead and the other
walked behind, both cranking their running lights to bright, so that the
group traveled in a haze of glory.
"Why did you bow to that man?" Bann asked as they walked. "He didn't
deserve such honor. You can't trust him to help you."
"All people deserve respect," Tuyallah said. "Besides, he is already
helping us. His ship carries goods between the sanctuaries. His troops
in their little fortress keep monsters from the lower reaches of the
mountain and frighten off pirates. It's men like him that do our dirty
work. And they do it because they are noble and generous, despite what
some of our sisters may say."
Bann had never heard such talk before. Men could be noble and
generous? It was a daring thing to say, blasphemous.
They reached their own market after sundown, and Bann ate four
skewers of shish kabob and half of a honeydew. He danced with the girls
in the town square, drinking peach juice sweetened with cotton-blossom
honey. He got so full that he felt "drunk on food," as the saying went.
Well after dark, Maya came out. She wore a white sleeveless tunic, cut
low in the front. The white contrasted sharply with her dark skin.
Bann was eager to tell her of his adventures, but she seemed timid, as if
she wanted to talk later, in private. A group of women came out to play
music, and many of the women began to dance.
Maya seemed to reach some decision, and she put bells on her anklets,
as women do when seeking a girlfriend, and she pulled Bann into the
She clapped her hands above her head to the sounds of shrill pipes, and
danced around him, whirling, eyes riveted on him, her white teeth
flashing in a smile.
Her face was radiant, her rosewater perfume intoxicating. Bann raised
his hands and clapped, too, as Maya danced for him.
For the first time in his life, Bann wondered what it would be like to take
her as a lover. Many sisters took each other for lovers, but Bann was too
young for such a thing. Indeed, he had no idea what he would do with
her. Hold her? Kiss her? Caress her.
He longed to kiss her, and as she danced, her pert young breasts
bouncing and swaying, for the first time he wondered what it would be
like to touch them, to stroke them, or to explore the sacred place
between her legs.
He gritted his teeth as he danced, fearing that others might somehow
guess at his shameful thoughts, his desires were so strong.
She smiled, drawing so close to that her breasts brushed his chest, then
whirling away. "What?" she laughed. "What is it?"
Bann wanted to speak, to tell her what he was feeling, but couldn't find
Suddenly her expression changed and her eyes went wide, as if she had
guessed at his thoughts. She drew close and whispered, "After the
dance. Meet me behind the flower-seller's stall."
Bann made no answer, but when the dancing ended and the shadows
got deep and the stars lit the bowl of heaven, he made his way to the
flower-seller's stall. In the shadows behind it, Maya was waiting.
Up on the towers of the fortress, the city's beacon's were ablaze. A beam
of light flashed over them, and Maya pushed Bann a little, nudging him
forward, and laughed. "I know," she said. "I know."
"Know what?" Bann asked.
"I love you, too," she said.
She leaned forward then, and Bann could smell her sweat, and the sweet
oils in her hair, and for one moment the weight of her chest was fully
against his, and he felt intoxicated by her presence. Almost, he wished
to reach out and put his arms around her, to claim her, the way that
women did when they married. She leaned into him and kissed his lips.
He reached up and stroked her hair, pulling her close, enjoying the
moment. But his heart was beating so fast that he could not really savor
Fearfully, he reached up and touched her breast. It yielded beneath his
touch like the softest clay. He explored it, running his fingers from her
armpit down to her nipple.
Maya's eyes went wide and she smiled broadly, as if at a shared secret.
She pulled him roughly, pressing her lips into his, as if by pushing hard
enough they could join permanently. She hugged him, her whole body
melting into him.
"Someday," she whispered fiercely in his ear. "Someday . . . you and I
will build our spirit temple together." She pulled back as the sanctuary's
beacon pulsed again. He saw tears sparkling in her eyes.
Then Maya pushed his chest and ran away, giggling.
It was not until he was lying in bed late at night, after having relived his
moments with Maya over and over, trying to make sense of them, that
Bann thought back to the ugly men that he had seen, and recalled that
his mother had told him that he would have to make a decision soon.
But what had she been warning him about? He had never heard. He
reminded himself to ask her in the morning.
Bann forgot to ask in the morning. He got too involved in playing with
his chick, Yusaf.
Over the next two weeks, the chick became the center of Bann's life.
Yusaf, Bann soon learned, loved to go to the fruit seller's stalls, where he
strutted atop the melons and flapped his stubby wings.
The chick grew fast. Yusaf's legs grew long and yellow. Soon, grotesque
little pinion feathers sprouted from this wings, as did an ugly little cock's
comb above his eyes. And to Bann's surprise, Yusaf started growing two
little bags beneath his beak -- testicles, Bann decided, just like his.
Bann felt sure that he was taking good care of Yusaf, for every few days,
he would bring the chick back to school for another injection, and Bann's
chick was growing faster than all of the rest.
His teacher kept it separated from the smaller chicks, and then
announced one day, "It is time for the second part of our experiment."
She placed all of the chicks together, and had the children sit in a circle,
watching them. She threw a handful of seeds into the dirt, and said,
"Now, sisters, I want you each to watch your own chick, and to count
how often it pecks at the others."
Bann let Yusaf go. Yusaf was twice as tall as the other chicks, and far
heavier. It did not need to fear them. But as the other chicks went to
eat, Yusaf pecked at their eyes and chased them about. He leapt upon
the girl chicks, and in a vicious attack finally tried to kill one. He leapt
on her, kicking with the tiny spurs on the back of his feet, and pecked
her head, leaving it bloody.
The teacher grabbed the chicks and drew them apart, telling Bann, "Hold
Bann felt ashamed of Yusaf, and whispered, "Bad chicken. Stop that
But Bann had learned one thing about chickens in the past few weeks.
They were too dumb to follow a command.
It didn't matter. The teacher had ended the contest. "Now, sisters," she
said. "What is the only difference between these chickens? They all ate
the same food. They all drank the same water and warmed beneath the
same sun. What was different?"
"Testosterone," Bann said, his hand shooting up faster than anyone
"That's right," she said. Then she went around the circle, and asked
each child to tell how many times her chick had pecked another. Bann's
chick had pecked others more than four hundred times. Maya's chick
had come in second in the contest, pecking other chicks more than fifty
times, and the chick that got only a small amount of testosterone pecked
others only thirty times. Some of the chicks hadn't pecked at others at
"Can you see how the testosterone hurts the chickens?" the teacher
asked. "Among chickens, it turns them into cocks. It causes the cocks
to peck others, sometimes to even kill others. It also has other effects. It
makes the cocks grow strong, with muscles to match their violence. It
drains all love from their hearts. It makes them stupid, eccentric, and
morally weak. That's why we must separate the cock from the hens."
Bann was clinging tightly to Yusaf. "Here," the musfayed told him. "Let's
put your cock away, so that the other chicks can eat in safety." She took
Yusaf and locked him in a cage, along with the other cocks.
As she did, she spoke with her back turned, "Among humans, " she said,
"testosterone turns boys into men. It is created by the body, in little sacs
called testicles, which are hidden between the boy's legs."
Bann felt stunned. His testicles were a rare and embarrassing thing,
almost a deformity. He'd never known what they did before.
He felt queasy. He wanted to assure the girls that he was not like some
other men. He wasn't strong or stupid or morally depraved. He raised
his hand. "I saw some men, once. Down below the city. They had hair
all over -- like goats."
I'm not like them, Bann thought.
"Yes," the teacher said. "Like animals." She smiled cruelly, raised her
hypodermic needle full of testosterone, and said, "Would any of you girls
All of the girls laughed nervously. Bann squirmed.
"The testosterone in a man isn't made all at once," the muysafed said.
"The testicles come most alive when a boy reaches puberty. That's when
his muscles grow large, and the hair grows, and the violence begins."
She smiled benignly, an angel in her white silk uniform.
Suddenly Bann thought about the statue of the heroine Vanyarra in front
of the assembly hall, the woman who had led the Three Thousand Sisters
into space thousands of years before. She was young and beautiful, all
dressed in white silk, her face hidden beneath the sheerest of veils. Her
back was arched, as if she would suddenly lift into the air, and her eyes
focused on something far away, high above her. Her face was exultant,
as if all her life she had sought to see beyond that veil, and suddenly her
vision had pierced it.
Bann felt like that, too. He could see the future. His body was
producing testosterone. Given enough time, he would become hairy and
stupid, like Yusaf, full of cruelty.
"Sister," he asked. "How do you fix testosterone?"
"Testosterone?" she asked. "There is no fixing it. It's a poison, a slow
poison that makes you feel stronger as it kills you."
"Aren't there any good men?" Bann asked.
"There are legends," teacher said. "But they're only fables. Lies. The
poison ruins all men. It makes them want to win at everything, to be the
first to raise their hands in the classroom, to run faster than others, to
dominate. It makes them want to rape women, even their own children.
It forces them to fight, to go to war, to kill their wives. Testosterone
destroyed Earth. That's why the wise matrons put the men from our
cities so long ago. There was a time when we were ignorant, when we
thought we needed men to breed," she looked pointedly toward Maya,
"but we learned better."
Maya bent low and hid her face behind her hands. She was crying.
"Can't we fix the problem?" Bann asked desperately.
"Perhaps," the muysafed said. "Sometimes, boys will have the testicles
removed, along with . . . that other thing between their legs. Once they
have been given a few shots of female hormones, their breasts will
develop, and they are practically women."
Bann realized suddenly that the teacher had arranged this whole
experiment just for him. It was the teacher's way of showing what he
needed to do.
He cringed, thinking of the pain that he would have to endure, but he
knew that he'd do it. He didn't want to let the poison keep running
through him. The thought of hitting Maya, of hurting her, was too
"Now," teacher said, "let's take a break. You can go outside, but I'd like
each of you to think about what you learned from our experiment. Maya,
you stay in here with me. I would like to speak with you privately."
Bann got up and walked under the willows for a moment there in the
dome, letting their fronds caress him, inhaling the bitter scent of their
leaves. But he felt an overpowering need to escape. He rushed out the
door, then stood with his back to the doorpost, hidden, thinking hard.
He heard a girl inside beg the teacher. "Can we keep the chicks?"
"Of course," the musfayed said, ever generous. "All but the ones that
have testosterone poisoning."
"And what will we do with them?" a girl asked.
"Put them to sleep, let them die peacefully. There isn't much more that
we can do."
"Can't we just put them in a cage, let the testosterone wear off, until they
"No," the teacher said sadly. "Even a little testosterone ruins them for
life. It doesn't wear off. And they don't really ever recover."
"Even Bann?" Maya asked. "Even if he becomes a woman?"
"He has lived with testosterone poisoning since his conception," teacher
said. "That's what made him a boy in the first place. It poisoned his
brain as he developed. That's why he must be the first to raise his hand
every time I ask a question. He can never truly overcome it. Still, for his
own sake, and for ours, we must encourage him to try."
Bann felt stricken. He heard the girls leaving the dome, and he hurried
to the sandy courtyard where the thin winter light filled the bowl of the
sky. Darkness would soon fall.
He could see the Valkyries patrolling the walls of the sanctuary. Their
grim weapons were legendary, as was their tenacity in battle.
Bann wandered near the wall, in its shadow. A spigot shot out of the
wall, dripping precious water. A great red rose bush grew beside it and
around it, its blossoms coloring the sandstone like blood.
Bann almost missed hearing them coming. He heard the single scuff of a
shoe, turned, and saw the girls from his class -- all of them but Maya.
"Oh," he grunted in surprise, just as one girl clasped both hands together
and clubbed him in the stomach. He collapsed to the ground, holding
his stomach, trying to imagine what he had done to deserve such
treatment, when the girls circled him and attacked.
Some fell on him and clawed at his face. One girl his arms. Others
kicked at his exposed parts. Bann curled up in a ball, trying to protect
himself, and shouted, "Hey? What's? What's?"
But he didn't ask the question. He knew why they had to do it. And so
he bore the pain and tried to wait it out. The girls did not beat him in
anger, but did so silently, that way that a craftswoman will work at her
weaving or pounding out her dough.
He was a danger, and they were removing him. They scratched at his
eyes and kicked his ribs until he could hardly breathe. Some of them
wrestled his arms behind his back, thin arms that almost looked like
porcelain, and a girl produced a pair of scissors from the classroom,
which she used to hack off his long hair.
The girl with the scissors shouted, "Spread his legs for me. Spread them.
Let's get rid of the cock!"
And suddenly the were trying to pull his legs wide. He locked them
Bann gritted his teeth, and considered fighting back. He knew that he
was stronger than most of the girls.
But they got his legs spread, and the girls were still kicking and
scratching, and the girl with the scissors -- Amayah -- came for him
with a malicious gleam in her eye.
White hot anger flared in his chest. Bann reached up with a foot and
fended her off, no longer caring if he hurt her.
"How many?" he growled, grunting. "How many pecks for you, and how
many for me?"
One of the girls who was holding him down and biting gasped and
backed away in horror. Another loosened her grip. But others still
Bann shouted louder. "How many pecks for you, and how many for me?"
Others backed off, but still three tried to hold him down. Amaya lunged
with her scissors, and he used his foot to push her back. He threw the
girls off and climbed to his feet, roaring, "How many pecks for you, and
how many for me?"
The girls looked at him, their faces drawn and pale from shock. Bann
felt wetness at his nose, wiped with his arm, and saw that it was
bleeding. He silently took stock of himself. A few bruises and scratches,
a bloody nose, bite marks on his arms and cheek. The girls had not
done any serious harm, only surface damage.
Then one of the girls screamed, as if afraid that he would kill them all.
Suddenly the girls were fleeing, scattering like sparrows from a cat.
Then they were gone.
Bann felt almost no anger toward them, only bewilderment, sadness, and
He went to the spigot by the rosebush and wiped the blood from his face
and from the scratches and bites on his arm. He could not get them
clean, so he gave up.
He went back to his classroom, and found the muysafed still talking with
Maya, her arms around the girl, as if to offer comfort. The teacher
looked up at him as if in shock, but he knew that there was no surprise
in her eyes. This is what she had wanted: She'd held Maya here, the
only girl who would have protected him, and then aimed the other girls
at him like bullets from a gun.
"I have come to turn in my assignment," Bann said. "I have thought
about the experiment, and I have figured it out. This is what I have
learned: I should not exist."
The musfayed's eyes widened, and her nostrils flared just a little, as if
she had not expected such clarity. She nodded. "You are wise."
Bann turned, went to the cage that held Yusaf, and removed the chick.
He tucked it under his arm, and stroked its head.
"Bann?" Maya said, trying to rise from her seat. But the teacher held her
down and whispered, "Let him go."
Maya half-crouched, half stood in shock as her teacher held her. Bann
was out the door for the space of twenty heartbeats before Maya realized
that she had to go after him.
She tried to rise again, but the musfayed held her back a moment longer.
"Let him cool down," she said. "He will make the right decision. You'll
Maya held the teacher with her eyes for a long moment. She was revered
by other women, held in honor. But Maya suddenly felt as if she saw
behind her veil.
"I have learned something too," Maya said. "Bann says that he should
not exist. But I know a secret. . . ." She leaned forward and hissed, "You
are no better than he."
The musfayed stepped back in astonishment, as if she had been slapped,
and Maya leapt up. The teacher sought to grab her, but Maya dodged
beneath her grasp and raced out into the sunlight.
She peered across along the wallwalk and down the lanes, but Bann was
nowhere to be seen.
Maya searched all of that night for Bann. She went to his home that
evening and found his mother.
"I left food, clothes and money in a pack on the bed," his mother said, "in
case he decided to leave. He took everything but the money."
Maya studied the woman's sad face. Bann's mother was a poor woman,
a pariah. Bann would not have wanted to take her money.
She thought at first that he might still be in the city, but there was no
sign of him. The Valkyries that guarded the gates swore that he had not
gone out that way. At last she circled the vast city, walking along the
"I saw him leave, but I did not stop him," the guard upon the east wall
"Where was he when he jumped?" Maya demanded.
The Valkyrie rolled down the walkway. "Here," she said.
Maya looked into her face, a face that projected so much warmth and
concern, but really was really all metal and plastic and cold hard wires
"Thank you," Maya said. She peered down, could see nothing but
clouds. Their roiling surface was not more than a dozen yards below her,
and after that, all was a mystery. On the horizon, the sun of Lucien
struggled once more to climb into the sky, an effort that would fail all too
In the distance, in the high and rarified air so far above the canopy of
rust-colored clouds, the lights of floater ships winked on and off like
fireflies as they made for distant ports. She worried that Bann might
already be on one of those ships, heading beyond her knowledge. Or
even worse, he might be lying at the base of the cliff, killed upon some
sharp rocks, or wounded at the edge of the jungle, just waiting for some
predator to end his pain.
She considered going down to the gates, seeking an exit. But the
Valkyries that guarded the gate would never let her go. She was a girl,
after all, and served a higher purpose.
So before the Valkyrie could stop her, she ran two steps and leapt into
the air, following Bann's path into the unknown.