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A Rarefied View at Dawn
Artwork by Michael Graham
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 world."

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 him.

"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 live."

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 voice.

"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 pseudopeds.

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 that beat."

"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 bird's lungs.

And wings. They have wings, and it was birds that showed mankind how to fly.

He wanted to say that, too, but was just waiting for the appropriate moment.

"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 testosterone does?"

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 woman.

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 home.

*

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 the shot."

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 sand.

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 the tea.

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 go.

"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 you understand?"

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 the clouds.

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 foolish."

"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 think hard."

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 shouted, "Mother!"

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 ahead."

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 King's Tit."

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 son."

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 street.

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.

Cherish 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 the words.

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 it.

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 him tight."

Bann felt ashamed of Yusaf, and whispered, "Bad chicken. Stop that now."

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 else's.

"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 all.

"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 like some?"

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 repulsive.

"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 get better?"

"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 together.

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 fought him.

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 a void.

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 see."

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 upper walls.

"I saw him leave, but I did not stop him," the guard upon the east wall told her.

"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 underneath.

"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 soon.

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.

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