Letter From The Editor - Issue 56 - April 2017

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Letter From The Editor
by Edmund R. Schubert
Stories
Sojourn for Ephah
by Marina J. Lostetter
The Golem of Deneb Seven
by Alex Shvartsman
On Horizon's Shores
by Aliette de Bodard
A Heretic by Degrees
by Marie Brennan
Oyster Beach
by Sophie Wereley
Beautiful Winter
by Eugie Foster
The Hanged Poet
by Jeffrey Lyman
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At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
New wave
by Chris Bellamy
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On Horizon's Shores
    by Aliette de Bodard

On Horizon's Shores
Artwork by Dean Spencer

Alex and Thi Loan transferred at Sapalawa Spaceport, from their small shuttle to a military Naga craft -- the only ones still allowed to crawl between the stars with the fuel shortage.

Because the thought of their mission on Horizon weighed on Alex's mind, he said, "You've read the files?"

Thi Loan shrugged. "There isn't much. Professor Kishore died -- and then . . . suddenly there wasn't enough fuel for the spaceships." She smiled, a showing of white teeth against her tanned skin.

"It's a little more complicated than that," Alex said, darkly. "I can't believe they have no idea why it happened." He'd seen the images in the wake of Professor Kishore's death: the automated boats at their anchors, their control panels and quantum brains jammed by the song of the hatirkas. And that was it. That was all it had taken to paralyse the quadrant: no more boats meant no more algae oil, and no more oil meant no fuel.

Thi Loan shook her head. "Horizon's a reservation, not Federation territory. There was just Kishore and the other xeno posted here. Not enough to really investigate. And you know they're not going to pull anyone off of the algae gathering stations."

"You really think our presence will make a difference?" Alex asked, bitterly. He'd read the mission brief; he knew what they wanted of her.

Thi Loan shrugged. "We've had our successes."

"Yes. I wish to God they'd take those and leave us alone."

"They never do," Thi Loan said. "That's the whole point of having xenos." There was reproach in her voice, and he wasn't sure why.

Alex said, "We'll see when we get there. See what we can do to understand why the hatirkas are stopping the ships." But he didn't want to get there.

Again, silence. Thi Loan sat in her chair, as regal as an empress.

"Alex," she said, gently. "We'll board soon. You have to reconfigure now."

He shook his head and didn't move.

Her face was that of a mother reproving a wayward child. "It won't get better if you put it off, you know."

She was right, as usual. But . . .

He'd seen the orders, and he didn't want to get there. He didn't want Thi Loan to get there. He was getting the standard xeno modifications -- enough to ease his way among aliens while he tried to discover the cause of Kishore's death. But she was going all the way from human to tirka to adult hatirka. Her job was to get the hatirkas to stop doing whatever it was they were doing that had shut down the boats. To get production restarted on the Federation's precious spaceship fuel.

And to achieve that aim, they were subjecting her to a barely legal metamorphosis, using brand-new, untested nanos; and more importantly, that metamorphosis would be irreversible past a certain stage. If they didn't succeed quickly, Thi Loan would become so alien that the nanos wouldn't be able to restore her to human form. But they didn't have a choice. Xenos never had a choice, not with the Federation pulling the strings.

Thi Loan was still watching him. With a sigh, he pressed his hand on the terminal by the side of the chair, and felt the familiar tingle as the computer connected with his palm.

"Authentication complete," the computer said. "Alexander Paul Cadogan, xeno number 186554." Then a pause, and another tingle. "Nanos reprogrammed for assignment on planet designated 'Horizon.'"

He didn't feel anything. He ought to have -- he had nanos lodged in every cell, a price to pay for a xeno's education -- but he never did. He watched Thi Loan bend over and touch her own fingers to the pad -- and for a split second, he wanted to wrap his arms around her and take her away, to prevent her assignment from being downloaded. But she was looking straight at him and shaking her head. "It won't change anything, Alex."

The computer said, "Bui Thi Loan," then paused -- for a much longer time than it had done for Alex. "Nanos reprogrammed for assignment on planet designated 'Horizon.'"

Thi Loan withdrew her hand from the pad, very slowly -- stared at it as if unsure of what to do next. That was it -- she had the timebomb now, the insidious nanos within her were starting to rewrite her DNA, and he'd done nothing to stop it.

He watched her, already wondering where the changes were going to show, which parts of her anatomy would be modified first -- and he knew he'd ask himself the same questions over and over on the three-week journey to Horizon. They'd lead nowhere; but he couldn't help it.

The first thing you saw on Horizon was the sea.

It stretched, endless, around the small landing pad and the even smaller research centre: a heaving mass of iridescent water, exhaling brine and the acrid smell of oil -- all meeting the grey-green hues of the sky in a haze of foam. In the distance, swimming beyond the algae-covered waters, were the elusive, serpentine shapes of the hatirkas, their song mingling with the roar of the waves. Between the research centre and the hatirkas were the darker, bulkier shapes of the forage boats, anchored to their platforms. They weren't moving.

Still no answer, then.

Of course there would be no answer, not from hatirkas. What did the Federation hope for? That Thi Loan could somehow mediate between mankind and a wholly incomprehensible species?

What a joke.

On the sands, Thi Loan had stopped. She took one, two halting steps towards the waiting waves, her fingers clenched into fists. Her face was tense -- filled with a longing Alex knew all too well: that bitter need for the beaches of her childhood.

And he knew, too, that there was no going back to that time, that Earth's rising sea had drowned every inch of the Mekong Delta she'd grown up in. "Thi Loan," he called.

She didn't turn. The wind ruffled her hair; her arms stretched, like sails to catch the brine. In the background, a tirka triad was swimming out of the water, pushing themselves up with their stubby hands. They didn't look at the humans. They never did.

"Thi Loan."

At length, her arms fell; but she still didn't move. Alex walked to her in silence.

"It's so big," Thi Loan said. Her voice was already taking on the singsong accents of the tirkas: an inescapable reminder of why they'd come here.

"I know." He squeezed her shoulder, briefly -- aching to take her in his arms, to tell her that it was going to be all right, even though it was a lie. But she'd never been that demonstrative; not in public. Alex added, "But it's not our sea."

Thi Loan didn't speak for a while. "No. It's not the same smell, is it?" Her hands unclenched. She stared as the foam exhaled over the horizon line, just long enough to open a hollow of fear in Alex's stomach. "Let's get to work. The nanos won't wait for us."

Meghan, the senior xeno on Horizon, welcomed them into the research centre. She took them to her own rooms on the side of the building and made some tea -- artificial, of course, nothing Earth-like grew on Horizon. Alex sat down by Thi Loan's side, swallowing the stretched-out taste of dehydrated drinks.

"I'll show you to your rooms later," Meghan said. Her blue tirka ruff kept opening and closing -- like gills -- as she spoke. Alex couldn't help but stare. Damn it, why? He'd seen many xenos over the years, so many variations on nano-modifications -- heard so many voices, some even weirder than Meghan's warbling, staccato tones. It was the same transformation that was going on inside him.

But he knew he was lying to himself.

How do I live, if I know you won't be here by year's end? he'd asked Mother a lifetime ago. He had been devastated by her decision to refuse further medical treatment. She'd turned her face away from him, hiding a grimace of pain. "You can't change what's already happened. You can't heal me. And you certainly shouldn't try to follow me," she'd said, as if sensing the horrible thought that that was already coalescing in Alex's mind. "All you can do is live hour by hour, and day by day."

That had been impossible for Alex to hear. If he had to let go, he at least needed to know more. To understand her decision.

Meghan drank her tea and waited for Thi Loan to do the same. Thi Loan wasn't really drinking -- her gaze was distant, even though her own ruff was barely visible.

"All right," Meghan said. "This is the point where I usually give xenos enough pointers to make sense of the planet." She set her cup down on a woven-fibre mat. "Unfortunately, in the case of Horizon, I believe you already know all you need to."

"We've read the files," Alex said. "On the out journey."

"Yep," Meghan said. "And the files are all you get. As they said: we can talk to the tirkas. Or rather, we have a fragmentary understanding of their language, and some of their customs. And that's it. They're not interested in us: they might understand what we're saying -- but they rarely talk to us."

"Surely observation --" Alex started.

"It's been tried. We've learned a few things, as I said. But only scraps. I have thousands of hours of video," she smiled bitterly, "but no framework in which to interpret them. I see them gather around a bit of driftwood, but how do I know whether it's a religious ceremony, or just curiosity?"

"I'll see those videos," Thi Loan said, speaking up for the first time.

Meghan shrugged. "If you like." She shook her head. "We've been on Horizon for a century, and we still live separately."

"Tell us about Kishore," Thi Loan said. She'd brought the palms of both hands together, in what Alex called her Buddha pose, and her face was creased in thought.

Meghan shrugged. "He'd been here five years. He was one of the older crop of xenos, with the second generation of nanos. But they were good enough for him to try to establish contact. You'll have to read some of his findings."

"About the triad matings?" Alex said, carefully skirting Kishore's real accomplishment: the discovery that tirkas and hatirkas were the same species, a transformation from larva into sterile adults. The same discovery which had allowed the scientists of the Federation to reprogram Thi Loan's nanos, to allow her to change from tirka to hatirka -- from the slightly alien to the completely incomprehensible.

Meghan nodded. Her smile was ironic. Likely she knew what Alex wasn't telling her about Kishore and nano research. "You already know all there is to know about him, don't you?"

Thi Loan shrugged. "You might have seen something that wasn't in the reports."

"I wish," Meghan said. "I just found his body in the boat. That's all."

Thi Loan was staring in the distance again; after a moment of silence, she spoke up. "The hatirkas . . . Their song has changed."

Meghan looked at her for a while. "Maybe," she said. "How long have they given you?"

Alex knew the true meaning of the question -- how long until the nanos finished their work within Thi Loan -- but he chose to be vague. "We have to find a solution as soon as we can."

"Yes," Meghan said. "The entire quadrant depends on the spaceship-fuel Horizon produces. I imagine they'd want those boats to start again, and fast." She looked again at Thi Loan. "I'm just not sure what they think you can do."

Alex bristled at the implied criticism, though it wasn't unexpected. "Thi Loan's the best xeno the Federation has."

Meghan waved a hand. "I know. Spare me the praise. I've read her file. If you want to work a miracle . . ."

The miracle Alex wanted had nothing to do with the ships or with the tirkas, but he didn't say it. It was a foolish idea: what xeno could go against the programming of their nanos, against their masters of the Federation?

He wished Thi Loan could.

There was a bubble in their room: a smooth, huge vat of nano-grown fibreglass which took up half the space available. It rocked back and forth, driven by the mechanism on its pedestal -- and the liquid inside sloshed to a rhythm almost identical to that of the waves outside.

Alex and Thi Loan took one look at it, and then at each other. Thi Loan raised a hand to her blue-veined lips. Alex suspected that she was imagining the same thing he was: a being with the stubby arms and sinuous, serpentine shape of hatirkas -- and the eyes of a human -- crawling into the safety of the bubble to complete its metamorphosis away from prying gazes.

"Let's --"

"Yes," Alex said, and together they moved the bed to the other side of the room -- just under the window, as far away from the bubble as possible.

But the bubble was still there during dinner, wedged into his thoughts. Thi Loan was even quieter than usual: the only noise that punctuated the meal was the silvery sound of her chopsticks against the metal bowl. Alex's throat itched, and no amount of honeyed tea could wash down the bitter taste. Of course, it wasn't in his oesophagus that the problem was, but in his wind-pipe, which was rearranging itself on a molecular level.

"You want to see the videos tomorrow?" Alex said.

"Might as well start with something. I'll go out afterwards." Thi Loan's face was set.

Alex said, "You don't have to."

Thi Loan smiled without joy. "You think I can't handle this planet?"

She was bristling easily tonight -- the long journey, perhaps, had made her more sensitive than usual.

Alex had no wish for a quarrel, but he could not bring himself to lie. "You saw what the beach did to you. How it affected you."

"Yes." Thi Loan was silent for a moment. "Yes. There is that." She sighed, and then raised her bowl of tea to her lips. Her eyes were as bright as the stars in the void. "But I'll still do this. I have to."

When the sea had finally engulfed her village after its long, protracted agony, Thi Loan hadn't been there: the Federation had kept her away, as it had done during her whole studies -- afraid she'd abandon everything and go home.

She'd been incommunicado on Lixacan, on a diplomatic mission to establish a joint city with the Yoalli. She'd said nothing when Alex had brought her the news; nothing when the first mails had come from her family, showing her the deserted streets where the water lapped at the houses. But the holos of her childhood, which she'd always kept on her personal reader, had vanished overnight -- replaced by pictures of Alex and her mountaining in the Andes, in the Himalayas, climbing the summits of the Alps with a broad smile on their faces, and no sea to be seen for hundreds of kilometres.

"The sea --" Alex said.

Thi Loan shook her head. " -- is my own affair, Alex. Please. You worry about me too much."

Alex could have brought up any number of points. But he was wise enough to say nothing.

"You're right," he said. "Let's take things as they come."

Hour by hour and day by day, Mother whispered in his mind, You don't have to understand why. If you love me, just accept it. But he'd learnt to ignore her by now, to relegate her to the back of his thoughts with his other fears -- and he took Thi Loan's hand and brought her into the bed, and they made love slowly, fiercely, as in the first days of their marriage, a bulwark against the storm.

The bubble, all the while, never stopped rocking.

Afterwards, Thi Loan slept curled on the bed, her throat a slightly darker blue where her ruff was developing.

There had been a legend, once, about blue throats and a god who had swallowed poison to save the world. Alex couldn't help but wonder what the god had felt, sacrificing himself for the sake of mankind.

Of course, no one had asked Alex or Thi Loan how they'd felt either. It was how the game was played: ten years of xeno courses at uni, full medical benefits and a salary big enough to own acres of land on Old Earth -- but there was a catch. There was always a catch. Where their masters bid them go, they had to go -- and they had to go with a smile on their lips.

Alex thought of drunken parties in Mumbai, of sunsets by the shivering sea; of all that would be gone when the nanos irrevocably changed Thi Loan; and he found that his hands were shaking.

To calm himself, he walked to the computer terminal, turned it on, and began typing the usual messages: "Dear Aunt Linda, Dear Father, we have safely arrived on Horizon . . ."

His com chimed, "Alex! Didn't expect to see you around!" Pablo. Of course. Who else would be online so late -- and who else would pepper his speech with exclamation marks and 3D-emos?

Alex forced a smile he didn't feel; he turned on his internal head speakers and diverted the audio to them. Then, with a flick of his hand, he activated holo-visuals. Pablo's tanned face appeared on-screen, with the prominent fangs and fan-like ears of his hanjiu flock.

"Hombre," Pablo said, crushing Alex in a hug. Even in virtual space, it was as disturbing as in real life to see two ghostly arms folding around him. They hadn't nicknamed Pablo "the Bear" at uni for nothing. "It's good to see you."

"Good to see you too," Alex said. "How are you doing?"

Pablo grinned. "Trying to explain Christian religion to the hanjiu. So far, so good."

Alex couldn't help it. "You do know --"

"That's it's on the list of untranslatable topics? Yeah," Pablo said. "They asked, Alex. What was I supposed to do?"

Alex shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I'd have done the same." He'd never been one for rules, and neither had Pablo.

"Anyway . . ." Pablo shook his head, as if trying to dislodge a persistent insect. "How's Horizon?"

Alex had expected the first thing that would come to mind to be Thi Loan, but instead he found himself saying, "Big. Ocean as far as you can see."

"Scary," Pablo said. Pablo, like Alex, was from a race of mountain-dwellers, without Thi Loan's hate-love relationship with the sea: to him, the ocean wasn't a source of subsistence or of pride, but simply the invisible killer, the encroacher irretrievably drowning the lowlands of Earth. "And the tirkas?"

"Scary," Alex said, finally, thinking of the lone figures on the shore. "In a different way."

"That's aliens," Pablo said. "Once you get to know them --"

"That's not going to happen," Alex said. And he wasn't talking about the tirkas' total indifference to humans, but about the fact that they were taking Thi Loan away from him. He was being unfair and he knew it; but he couldn't help himself.

"Give it time."

"Yeah, I don't think we have that. We're looking into Kishore's murder, and --"

"Alex." Pablo's voice was concerned -- yet as unyielding as steel. "I'm not the Federation, remember? I don't care about your excuses."

That was too much, even coming from Pablo. "I don't need excuses," Alex said, his hands clenching into fists. "They're changing her, and there's no coming back. And I'm supposed to watch, damn it! I'm supposed to watch all the while, and do nothing!"

On the other end of the com, Pablo's face had grown unreadable, the hanjiu ears turned towards the ground, the mouth as purplish as burst blood vessels. "That's the way it works. Can't change the nanos, Alex. Can't give them new orders." But his eyes wouldn't quite meet Alex's, and that had always been Pablo's way of lying.

"There is a way," Alex said, trying to contain the hope rising in him -- strong enough to crush his chest. "You know there is --"

Pablo didn't say anything for a while. At length he turned away from the screen -- not letting anything of his gaze betray him. "There might be," he said. "Government hacks. Illegal, of course. And dangerous. You know that as well as I do."

They'd both known a girl when they'd been in uni: Elspeth, a tall, uneasy blonde who had never looked quite right for the xeno program. She'd gotten hold of hacks, God only knew how -- and the janitor had found her in the morning, all twisted out of shape, every organ trying to evolve into something else, something different. Like a puzzle of flesh all askew, and the pictures had gone around -- and everyone had wondered what she'd been trying to do. But of course, they'd never know.

"I know," Alex said. "Believe me. But --" But if he had to go down into Hell to prevent this, he would. He'd had enough of one family member wasting away on his watch. There would not be a second one. "If there's a chance, any chance at all . . ."

"That's how they sell those, you know. Misplaced hopes." Pablo sighed, a sound that Alex's new ears struggled to interpret. "I'll look into it. But I make no promises. No guarantees. You two are on your own."

Alex turned slightly to look at Thi Loan -- and felt the ache in his own throat, the tightening, as if he was going to suffocate at any moment. Nanos, he knew -- nanos, not grief or the sense of loss -- just a new configuration for his vocal tract.

He thought of the last planet they'd been on, of the herd-like garakas and their placid, Zen-like mentality; of Thi Loan, smiling as she recounted a Vietnamese legend to them: something about a girl finding a golden ball among the husked rice kernels and ascending into the stars to speak to the Jade Emperor.

"We've always been on our own," he said.

Meghan showed them the videos, hour upon hour of them, an endless accumulation of frames that didn't make any sense.

Thi Loan sat watching them, her brown eyes wide -- taking in everything, dissecting it, trying to build a coherent system from what she was seeing. Alex had no doubt she'd succeed: Thi Loan had the uncanny ability to make sense of widely different cultures, the same gift that had allowed her to sail through her classes at uni -- the same gift that had gotten her noticed by the Federation, chosen for this job.

Alex, to whom the videos didn't speak, drifted into Meghan's quarters.

"I take it the prodigy is working?" Meghan asked, somewhat sarcastically.

Alex didn't rise to the bait. Theoretically, he should have been out there, gathering the information Thi Loan needed to fit into the tirka frame of mind. He couldn't bring himself to do it though; it felt like aiding and abetting the Change. He just couldn't do that.

"Where did you find Kishore?" he asked.

"Drifting in his boat." Meghan shook her head. "Never found a cause of death, either."

"What was he doing out there?" Alex asked.

"What we all do," Meghan said. "Gathering information on the hatirkas."

"He'd done it often, I take it."

Meghan's gaze was shrewd. "It wasn't unusual, if that's what you mean."

"Apart from the fact that he died."

Meghan shook her head. "Yes," she said, finally. She stared at the Spartan furnishing of her room. "I'll show you what was on the boat, if you want."

"Why not?"

It wasn't terribly interesting, sadly: there was a change of clothes, a neon lantern, and a handful of first-aid nanos. A pile of memory chips, too, which made Alex frown. Meghan slid one of them into a reader, and handed it to him. "He took notes everywhere," she said.

The chips weren't very interesting: mostly fragments of Kishore's magnum opus, a thorough study of tirka and hatirka life that would, theoretically, have propelled him to the firmament of xenobiology. But everything was incomplete, and nothing coherent could be put together. "That's useless," Alex said, finally, and Meghan nodded.

"Nobody said it would be useful," she said. "Or that his death can be solved at all."

"And you can live with that?" Alex asked.

Meghan shrugged. "Do I have a choice?" And, when he remained silent: "Not everything makes sense, Alex. That's the first lesson you learn here on Horizon."

After that, the days seemed to shiver and merge into one another, like a hazy road in the midday sun. Alex got up in the morning and washed, staring at his image in the mirror -- at the alien ruff on his throat. The water cascading over him felt warmer and more reassuring than it should have.

Most mornings he went walking. He tried not to remember the first thing he'd see when opening his eyes -- not to chronicle, day after day, the effect the nanos were having on Thi Loan: how her eyes had turned larger and broke the light into facets, how her arms kept shrinking, tightening around their bones like those of a malnourished child.

Pablo sent regular, terse messages about his progress -- or lack thereof. But Alex didn't say anything. What Pablo had offered, and what he'd accepted, was illegal, and, if they were caught, there would be Hell to pay.

One morning Alex woke up to find that Thi Loan wasn't by his side. His first, panicked thought was that the nanos were faster than he'd thought, and that she'd already shut herself into the bubble for the final transformation. But the bubble was empty, quietly rocking on its pedestal. Then where --?

With his heart tightening, he ran out of the research centre and onto the grey, glistening sands, looking towards the horizon, a wordless, anguished prayer resonating in his thoughts.

There was a group of tirkas talking to each other in staccato gestures, utterly unaware of his presence. The wind carried to his ruff the smell of their conversation -- something about changes and the will of the sea.

And then, as if the world had shifted on its axis, he saw that one of them wasn't a tirka at all, but Thi Loan. He knew from the way she held her head; the calm, measured way her forked hands rose and fell.

He stood for a while, his expanded throat contracting with the rhythm of his breath, tingling with each chemical he received. He thought of the nanos continuing their slow, insidious work inside her. She wasn't looking at him; she hadn't looked at him in a long time, and now she'd changed so much he barely recognized her.

In a heartbeat he was running toward the other side of the small island where they'd found Kishore's boat.

He ran, his feet sliding on the sand, breathing in the acrid smell of Horizon's brine. The sea by his side wasn't grey or blue or wine-dark -- but the iridescent colour of growing algae; and in the distance were the hatirkas, sinuous shapes limned in refracted light.

Better not think of the hatirkas.

Kishore's boat was still there, half on land, half in the water. Alex slowed down when he got near it: an air of neglect and stillness hung about it, as commanding as the silence of the grave. Oily water lapped at its keel, making a low, gurgling noise that sounded almost happy.

On a whim, Alex hoisted himself inside, wincing as his muscles protested. He wasn't as fit as he had been before the transformation began -- and the nanos would be messing with his metabolism for another few days.

The boat was simple enough: a hull with a hybrid motor, starting on battery and burning the algae for fuel once it got into deep waters. A pair of steel oars hung within the hull -- just in case. They didn't look as though they'd been used at all. A patina of salt and oil covered them, the same patina that covered everything left outdoors on Horizon; but they didn't seem to have algae. Just to be sure, Alex lit his UV lamp and passed it over the whole keel. And, sure enough, nothing shone back.

Except . . .

There was a fluorescent handprint near the back; and when Alex ran his own hand on the steel, something inside the boat clicked -- and a secret panel slid open.

Inside, nothing; just more fluorescent fingerprints. Alex photographed them, not really believing that was a great discovery: the prints probably belonged to Kishore or Meghan, nothing out of the ordinary.

When he pulled himself out of the boat, he found himself staring at a tirka -- and although it was looking at him with what first appeared to be the same bored disinterest that tirkas show toward all humans, there was something else in this one's stance. It was emitting a chemical: the tirka equivalent of a hand wave.

Alex took a deep breath and fumbled with his own, newly-grown glands, trying to imitate it as best as he could.

The tirka cocked its head right, then left, radiating disapproval. Damn the manuals, Alex thought. They always told you that using this stuff was instinctive once you'd studied the language. It only worked if you were Thi Loan -- but then, Thi Loan was quadrilingual in Earth languages, and fluent in God knew how many other alien tongues.

"Apologise/humility," Alex said, hoping he'd put the stresses where they belonged and he hadn't mangled the diphthong past retrieval.

The tirka said nothing for a while, and just when Alex had convinced himself that it was going to leave, it moved its ruff with an audible sigh. "Youth/ignorance. Deep waters/ends."

It barely made any sense -- God, how he wished Thi Loan were here.

"You/other companion Hachand/honoured guest?"

The Hachand. The Changing One. The Dying One. In their language it seemed to be the same. It was talking about Thi Loan. "Yes/emphasis," Alex said.

The tirka gestured towards the boat. "Owner/curious."

It was an odd accent to put on the last word -- in fact, the association of the chemicals and of the high-pitched accent almost made the secondary meaning of curiosity more important than the primary. Why the emphasis?

Alex pointed at the boat again, and at the sea. "Owner/dead?"

The tirka turned its multi-faceted eyes towards the boat. "Deep waters/secrets," it said, with an expansive mandible movement, their equivalent of a shrug. "Sea/depths keeps all/takes all."

"Compartment/secrets," Alex said, gesturing at the boat. His head spun, and he only kept the vocabulary possibilities separate through sheer strength of will. Juggling between the spoken and the modulated meanings was taking a heavy toll. "Stolen/destroyed?"

The tirka shrugged again, and turned away. Clearly, it had said all it had wanted to.

Alex watched it walk to the shore, dipping its forked hands into the sea -- crooning to itself in words he couldn't understand.

Meghan, he knew, would have been overjoyed -- a tirka had taken an interest in a xeno, had spoken without being prompted to. But Alex knew why it had chosen him, and it wasn't because of his own nanos or anything he had done; it was only because of his connection to Thi Loan.

Still . . .

They did, after all, notice more than they let on. Why had they thought Kishore curious -- and not Meghan, for instance?

Alex pulled himself into the boat again, and knelt by the secret compartment. He shone the lamp into it and watched the fluorescent handprints. They were in a sequence, except for one, which dragged across the whole of the compartment: a slow 90-degree rotation while gradually splaying the fingers.

Deep waters/secrets.

He was on Horizon, and there were double meanings within everything.

Carefully, Alex laid his own hand on the steel -- every instinct in him screaming that he was destroying evidence -- and rotated it to match the handprints, slowly extending his fingers.

Nothing.

He hadn't expected it to be that easy; but if life had taught him anything, it was stubbornness. He placed his hand into position again, and tried yet again.

Nothing on the second or the third try. But on the fourth . . . Just as he was about to give up, believing the tirka to have meant nothing more than what it had said, another click resounded through the steel; and the back of the compartment split apart.

Inside were Kishore's true secrets: a thin sheet of paper that was covered with incomprehensible equations; and a memory chip already eaten at by the oil and the salt.

The chip was standard-issue: Alex's personal reader could read it. He had to fight to slide it in because of the layers of foreign materials on the circuits; but the reader powered up, all the same.

Whatever had been on it was badly damaged, plastered over by Horizon's brine, but Alex could get the beginning of it, and enough words scattered throughout to guess at what it was.

It was a report, and it wasn't going to the Federation, but to a researcher at Betelgeuse Point, which hosted the biggest oil refineries in this quadrant. It said something about new processes, and about the low yield of Horizon's algae fields -- it seemed there was barely enough fuel produced to cope with the explosion of spaceship traffic.

It was an old, old dream: being able to put Horizon's algae within tubes, to control their growth from start to finish -- and to increase fuel production by a thousand fold. It was this century's Eldorado -- and like its sixteenth-century equivalent, no one had ever found it. Horizon's algae weren't reproducible with nanos; they withered when taken away from the planet, and the labs had yet to come up with a reason to explain this.

Everything in that report -- whatever it had been before the sea had eaten at it -- that had been Kishore's real reason for coming to Horizon: not helping Meghan, or writing a book, but simply following his dreams of fame and fortune.

It wasn't surprising. Disappointing, perhaps, but Alex had had enough experience to know the depths of human greed -- the same humans who'd send Thi Loan to Horizon to make sure production continued without a hitch, without caring about her past or her future.

Curious/excess.

Was that the reason for Kishore's death: something so brutally simple? Something he could give to Thi Loan, enough that she could get the boats running again, before it was too late to reverse the nanos' work in her body?

Slowly, Alex walked back to the research centre, trying to crush the nascent hope that made his heart beat faster.

He found Meghan in her lab, watching a video of tirkas entering the sea. She was vocalising notes to her e-assistant -- something about the tirka cycle and the rhythm of algae growth.

"Alex?" she said when he closed the door.

He laid the chip in front of her. "You said you'd checked the boat."

Meghan frowned. She turned off her e-assistant with a flick of her head, and took the chip. "I did," she said, curtly. "You found this in the compartment, I presume."

Things were starting to make less sense -- and he wasn't even facing a tirka, or Thi Loan. "You knew about the secret compartment? Then why --?"

Meghan took the chip and slid it into the reader of her e-assistant. Her lips mouthed the words of the report for a while. At length, she raised her eyes. "Kishore was paranoid about backups. He'd had most of his master's work destroyed when his student hall burnt down, and he swore it wouldn't happen again. He kept copies everywhere. I found piles of chips beneath his bed, and another pile on the boat. I gave you every one of those, incidentally. That compartment was full of them." She shrugged. "I must have missed this one when I gathered them."

"You told us --"

"That I gave you everything I found on that boat. Why not? It was the truth." Her voice was defiant, and Alex knew why she'd done this -- the petty need to remain in control of Horizon, to challenge Thi Loan on a ground where she couldn't lose. He'd have liked to shout at her, but he couldn't -- he still needed her goodwill.

"It's a report to Betelgeuse Point," he said, slowly. "About algae yield. You didn't think that might be significant?"

Meghan just stared at him, obviously struck speechless.

Alex went on, relentless, "He mentions tubes and artificial growth."

Gradually, he became aware that Meghan's expression was no longer hostile -- but that she was shaking her head in a slow, sad way. "Oh, Alex. I know what you're thinking, but I've seen the original report. I can show it to you. It's not the reason he died."

"It's not?" His voice was as challenging as hers had been a moment ago.

Meghan went towards the back of the lab and placed the palm of her hand on a cupboard -- which slid open. The shelves were full of chips; and on the right was a small keypad. She typed in some numbers, and the shelves shifted and presented a single chip.

"There," she said, coming back to the table. "You'll see."

Alex slid the chip into his reader -- it went in smoothly, easily, as if eager to disgorge its contents -- and fired up the screen.

It was a report to Betelgeuse Point; and it was focused on algae yield. But, with the missing words filled in, the context became quite different. Kishore hadn't been experimenting with new ways to grow or harvest algae; the whole point of the report was simply to confirm that there was no other way to produce fuel for spaceships, that tubes and artificial lights and nutrient wouldn't make a difference. Alex recognized the profusion of technical points and mathematical formulas: the scientist's supreme weapon to try and confuse the layman. Kishore hadn't even gathered enough data to justify all of this; but he'd written the report anyway.

"Betelgeuse Point --"

"They pressed Kishore the last time he went to buy supplies," Meghan said. "I wrote some of that piece, actually." She grimaced. "The last thing we wanted, both of us, were more machines on Horizon."

Alex stared at the report, willing it to change, to become something else. He'd believed, so much, that he'd found the solution; that Thi Loan could solve the problem before her metamorphosis had become too advanced to be reversed; but now he saw it was as foolish to have believed in that as to believe that the sea level on Old Earth would decrease.

As for the possibility that Betelgeuse Point had come here and killed Kishore in retribution . . . It was just too ridiculous to even consider. The place was too small, and any extra person would have stuck out like a mountain-dweller on the beach.

"Perhaps the hatirkas misunderstood what he was doing," he said.

Meghan shrugged. "Who knows that the hatirkas think?"

Only one person, Alex thought. Like Meghan, he knew the answer to that question; but he couldn't bring himself to utter it out loud.

Thi Loan was still on the beach when he came home -- absorbed in her discussion with the tirkas. He waved to her, but she didn't answer. He couldn't say he was surprised; he simply went inside to brew himself some tea.

With the ruff around his throat, he was much more sensitive to the foul taste in the mug: he gulped the liquid down in one convulsive swallow. But it wasn't quite enough -- not salty enough, not mingling with the taste of Horizon's air. Soon, he thought wryly, he'd have to eat like the tirkas: fish and young algae buds, culled from the waters. He didn't think his digestive tract would be up to it, though. Modification of the intestinal flora wasn't on the list of nano-work: too much trouble, and it was easier to import food along with the other supplies the bases needed.

He felt drained of everything -- having his hopes raised and crushed again seemed to have emptied him from the inside out. So he lay on his couch and slid down into darkness -- into nightmares of Thi Loan crawling into the bubble, of hatirkas dancing before him, tormenting him with the weight of their knowledge -- laying their cold, damp fingers on his hands, dragging him underwater where he choked on algae oil . . .

"Alex!"

He woke up to something cold touching his shoulders: Thi Loan's forked hands, shaking him out of his sleep.

"You were -- screaming," she said. Her chemicals trembled in the air, on the edge of blossoming into accents.

"I --"

Her eyes were wide and faceted, and he had to make a conscious effort to remember what had happened. "Bad dreams," he said. "Did you have a good day?"

Thi Loan shook her head -- and for a moment she seemed lost for words. "Good," she said finally. "Learnt many things. About the Change."

It didn't surprise him. "Giving yourself to the sea, that sort of thing?"

She paused after he spoke, confirming the fear growing in his belly. "More complicated." Her eyes were distant again -- she focused on him with a visible effort.

"Thi Loan," he said, frightened that the time had come, that he was going to lose her.

"I'm all right." Her gaze was still remote. "Come on. Let's eat."

At dinner, he couldn't help but notice that she was eating fish and algae, even if they were still human-made things.

"About Kishore --" he said, hoping to draw her from inside her shell. He told her about what he'd found on the boat.

Thi Loan shook her head, her gills opening and closing on the rhythm of her breath. Her face was already tighter and longer than that of a tirka. "He was a good man," she said. "In love with Horizon."

"The tirkas are telling you that?"

She shook her head again. "His reports. Don't be silly, Alex. The tirkas don't care about us."

Alex snapped, "I'm not sure how they ever rose to the top of the food chain with such a blithe attitude toward other life forms."

Thi Loan smiled, revealing a row of neat, sharp teeth, as fine as those of a shark. "There was some . . . thought, a long . . . time ago. They decided we're . . . harmless. Harmless," she repeated, a little uncertainly, as if she were no longer sure that the word was the right one. "Are they wrong?"

"No, but --" He wanted to tell her about how frightened she made him -- about the chemicals that she emitted, hanging in the air like so many unsaid words: care/devotion, duty/dreams, sea/secrets . . .

After dinner, he discovered that they couldn't make love anymore; she'd changed too much for that. She lay on her side of the bed, exhaling chemicals with every breath. He stared at the ceiling, trying to accept the realization that the end was near. He saw how she struggled with human language; how long would it be before he had to speak to her in the tirka monosyllables?

Mother, in her final months, had been the same: so gaunt as to be unrecognisable, shot with so much morphine she had barely been coherent. And when she'd finally slipped away, he had been holding her hand in the hospital, willing her to at least wake up and say goodbye. But she never had.

The console was beeping, quietly: a message. In silence, he rose and walked to the keyboard, and rerouted the volume to his integrated head-speakers.

It was from Pablo, and the only thing it said was: Call me back. It's urgent.

He didn't like the sound of that: sending the hacks to him via the network shouldn't have posed any problems. Had they been found out? That didn't sound like a good explanation, either: the Federation would have impounded their ship, implants, and nanos in a heartbeat if that had been the case.

He typed in Pablo's number and waited for the image to come into focus. Pablo was wearing military fatigues, and his hands were covered in mud.

"Hi, Alex."

"What the hell --"

Pablo shook his head. "Building a mud house," he said with a smile -- an expression that didn't even touch his eyes. "But that's not what I wanted to tell you."

"The hacks," Alex said, a hundred alarm bells ringing in his mind.

Pablo smiled, tiredly. "I'll send them to you via the network. If you still want them."

"I don't understand --"

"Your hacks cost me a fair bit of hobnobbing with high-ranked Federation officials," Pablo said. He was looking Alex straight in the eye -- and Alex knew the expression: it was the same one Meghan had had when he brought her Kishore's report.

Why -- ?

"Alex . . ."

Pablo hesitated, then started speaking very fast, without stopping, his words tumbling on top of each other, merging with each other. "They told me things -- things known only at the highest levels. That the Federation would never send anyone on this kind of mission with barely-tested nanos."

Alex stared at him. "They made her do it."

Pablo's voice was soft, as soft and as cutting as the surgeon's knife when it parted flesh. "They didn't, Alex. Thi Loan volunteered for this."

That was -- He heard the words, and no matter which way he turned them, they didn't make sense. "That's not possible," he said, hoping Pablo would say something, anything, different from what he'd heard.

But Pablo stood his ground, his muddy hands falling at his side -- wan and small and defeated, but unwavering. "I know what I heard, Alex. If that's what it'll take to convince you, hombre, I can ask for her holo-recording -- the one where she suggested the whole scheme to the Federation . . ."

She volunteered. Thi Loan volunteered. The words beat against the confines of his mind like the wings of a maddened bird. "Stop," he whispered, and realised that Pablo hadn't spoken for a while.

Thi Loan volunteered . . .

"I'm sorry," Pablo said. "Alex . . ."

There were no words in the abyss he was falling into. He'd have asked why, but Pablo wouldn't know the answer -- and he couldn't bear the weight of someone else's speculation.

"Thank you," he said finally, politeness coming to his rescue when nothing else would.

Pablo shook his head. "I'll keep the hacks."

On impulse, Alex said, "No."

"No?" Pablo's voice was incredulous. "You don't need the hacks."

Anger flared for the first time. "Don't judge what I need and what I don't."

Pablo said nothing for a while. At length: "All right. I'll send them on to you. But --"

"I know," Alex said. "We're on our own."

Pablo shook his head, half-annoyed, half-angry. "You're not. That's why you shouldn't do any insensata thing right now, hombre. Anger's a bad judge."

Alex said thanks again, cutting the communication as gracefully as he could.

But he didn't move: he stared at his white, salt-wrinkled hands, their nails encrusted with gritty sand. He thought of Thi Loan, striding ahead of him in the mountains of the Himalayas, turning back to him with a wide, mocking smile, daring him to run to her -- of the way she'd stood on the beach with her hands clenched at her side, longing for something she couldn't have.

He'd thought he was supporting her, that he was making it easier for her to complete a Change she didn't want.

How wrong he'd been.

He never could keep a secret from her: that had always been his challenge. Even counting how distant Thi Loan had become, how alien to his ways of thinking, she'd still know something was wrong as soon as she took a good look at him.

So he decided to take the offensive.

He got up before she did -- and waited for her in the kitchen, cradling a mug of acrid tea between his hands.

She stopped when she entered. "Alex?"

"I spoke to Pablo last night."

"Pablo?"

"Pablo Jimenez y Cruz," he said. "Remember him?"

"Of course." Thi Loan stood with one hand on the wall, intrigued. "I don't see . . ."

Sometimes, there was no solution but bluntness. "I wanted hacks. To turn you back before it was too late." He paused for a second -- not long enough for her to interject -- and went on. "But of course you don't want hacks, do you? Seeing as you were the one who volunteered for this mission -- this Change -- in the first place."

There was a silence, filled only by the distant roar of the waves. Thi Loan had turned as still as a statue, except for her ruff, which was dilating and contracting faster than a human heartbeat. "I see," she said. "I see."

"That's all you can say?" Alex snapped. He inhaled the smell of the tea, its wrongness, its artificiality -- knowing it was all that anchored him to sanity. Seven years of marriage, and that was all that she had to say?

"What do you want from me?" Her words were slow, halting -- a further sign that her metamorphosis had entered its final stages. He forced himself to let her speak, to let her explain herself.

"Something. Anything. Why you suggested this madness to the Federation."

"Not madness." Her voice was quiet now. "I knew you wouldn't understand."

"No," Alex said. "You lost your home to the sea. I don't understand why you'd wish to lose yourself in it too." Even as he said it, he wondered if it wasn't her death-wish -- if it wasn't the same as those old Buddhist monks who would set themselves on fire to be free of the chains of the world. But Thi Loan wasn't Buddhist -- she wasn't even religious. "I don't understand why you'd endanger our marriage."

Thi Loan smiled and shook her head. "There is no marriage anymore, Alex."

"Because you chose to have your nanos activated!" He was up on his feet and shouting, and she still didn't move -- still looked at him with those bright, faceted eyes that he couldn't read. Her chemicals saturated the air, shaping words on the cusp of perception, words he couldn't understand. "Do you think that you'll get your home back if you give something to the sea?"

Thi Loan shook her head. "Who knows? But it's not the point. It's my choice, Alex. I need to do this."

"Then why?"

Her voice, when she spoke again, was that of a tirka, and the words hovered on the edge between English and an incomprehensible language. "Because I need this."

"You're not making sense," Alex said, slowly.

"Do I have to?"

"I'm your husband, damn it!"

Thi Loan's eyes glazed again, taking on the distant look that was neither human nor tirka. "Change/everything clear/revealed."

"You're mad," Alex said. She was saying everything, and saying nothing. Did she really hope the sea of Horizon would explain why the sea on Earth had drowned the Mekong Delta? That had been caused by mankind and global warming, and nothing she found on Horizon would ever change that.

Thi Loan just stood there -- not rising to the bait, not getting angry. Just staring at him, a rock against which every one of his assaults broke into a thousand disjointed pieces.

"You're mad," he said again, and strode out into Horizon's muddy sunlight, leaving her behind.

When he came back, she wasn't there anymore -- but there was a darker shape inside the bubble, and he couldn't open it no matter how hard he struck it with his fists. He screamed himself raw, trying to reach her; but the slow, steady rocking of the bubble diminished his voice to nothing. Her chemicals hung in the air, a tantalising smell, perpetually out of reach.

It was Meghan who found him, later, sitting on the beach with his reader on his knees.

Wordlessly, she slid down by his side. They watched the hazy shapes of the hatirkas, sliding in and out of the fog like beasts from children's tales.

"You know," Alex said, after a while, "They still creep me out."

"You get used to them."

"No," Alex said. "I can't. And I can't believe she'll ever get used to them either -- no matter what shape she's in."

Meghan shook her head. Her face was unreadable. "No one said it would be easy, Alex."

"Did you know?" Alex asked. "Did you know she'd volunteered for that?"

Meghan had a movement of recoil, barely perceptible unless one watched out for it. But Alex had done nothing but watching things since sunrise.

"No," she said. "She hid it well."

"Yeah. Even from me." He tried to keep the bitterness from his voice, but it was hard when he remembered Thi Loan's final proclamation. There is no marriage, Alex. "What a world."

Meghan took sand and let it drip from her hand, glistening in the sunlight. "You believe yourself responsible?"

"I don't know." And that was the worst: the thought that he could have said something, or done something, that had tipped her over the edge, that had ultimately made her volunteer for this. "I don't understand why she did this."

Meghan inclined her head, slowly. "We're not telepaths, Alex. You can't --"

"She was my wife, damn it!" No. No longer. The Hachand. The Changing One. The Dying One. One and the same.

Meghan said nothing.

"Her village -- it was disappearing, the whole time she was in college, studying xeno. But they wouldn't let her come back, not until she'd finished her indenture. They were afraid -- afraid we'd all run away if we saw our families. And afterwards, they posted her on one planet after another, until the only thing she ever saw were the holos of the drowned streets."

"In her culture, the sea is everything, and it takes everything," Meghan said. "For her, it had taken her childhood, her community -- everything except her life. It makes sense."

He recognised the doubtful tone, the same one the teachers had taken when warning them in their first xeno classes: just because something made sense didn't mean it was real. "You think that's the reason?"

Meghan shifted in a crunch of sand. "It's one possible reason," she said. "If it makes sense to you . . ."

People needed reasons, didn't they? Stories. Anything to make the going easier. He could have made up something, too. "It's not going to be enough," Alex said.

He saw her shake her head, sadly. "I'm afraid that's all you get. I'm sorry." She rose, letting the last of the sand drip back into the beach. "Goodbye, Alex."

That wasn't enough, Alex thought again as he listened to the sound of her footsteps receding in the distance.

He flipped open his reader, stared at Kishore's report -- at the words so neatly aligned, revealing nothing more than their vast ignorance of what was really happening on Horizon. If they couldn't understand what pushed people to sacrifice themselves -- if they couldn't understand why a wife would leave everything she'd ever known behind -- how could they hope to make sense of the hatirkas, or of what had happened to Kishore?

There was something else in his reader: Pablo's hacks. They couldn't be used on Thi Loan anymore, but there was a way, surely, to hack into himself, to set in motion the same metamorphosis Thi Loan was going through.

He could join her.

There was only the sound of the waves, and the distant song of the hatirkas. The beach was clean, the air heavy but free of any chemicals. He thought of the way Thi Loan had run away from him on the mountain path -- and of that first day on the beach, when they had already been apart from each other, and he knew the only answer he could give.

Whatever her reasons, she had made her choice, and he wouldn't demean it. But just as he wouldn't join Mother in death, neither would he join Thi Loan in her Change.

As the sun sank towards the horizon, he heard a vast, indescribable noise in the research centre. But he didn't turn around. He didn't need to. He just listened to the scratching of stubby paws, dragging themselves on the cold sands -- to the slow unfolding of a long, serpentine body -- and felt the chemicals saturate his ruff.

Thi Loan was on the beach now -- a silent shadow in the growing darkness, smelling of brine and oil. Dragging herself towards the waterline, and whispering of longing/sorrow/duty/pain until Alex's own throat ached with the need to respond.

Far, far away, on the vast, unknowable sea, the swarm of hatirkas had opened, leaving an empty space as neat as the path of a spaceship. And Thi Loan was swimming towards them, glorious and magnificent. The whispers on the wind changed to need/sorrow/share/atonement, and then into something else, something that made no sense at all but filled him with a great, quivering joy.

There followed another noise then, over the endless roar of the waves: the ponderous noise of motors striking the water. The first of the automated boats were leaving their platforms, harvesting algae from the waves -- the machine that fed the quadrant was grinding to life once more. There would be spaceships and space travel, and humans navigating once more between the stars in the sky.

Thi Loan had done her job, gotten the boats running again. The algae harvest was back underway. Alex had no idea how, and probably never would.

In the end, the algae was all the Federation really cared about. All they had ever really cared about. They would probably send Alex home without figuring out how Kishore had died. But he didn't care anymore. He merely sat there on the cold sands, with his useless hacks on his knees and his stories incomplete, listening to the song of the hatirkas and knowing he would never understand any of it, just as he'd never really understood Thi Loan.

And, like Mother's death, it didn't make sense. It wouldn't ever make sense no matter which way he turned it.

But it didn't have to.

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