A story for everyone who ever loved the work of the late, great SF writer Cordwainer Smith.
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The Ruined Queen of Harvest World
By Damien Broderick, Kekai Kotaki
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Damien Broderick
All rights reserved.
"Where are my mausers?" cried Gloriana Avid, dressed in seven layers of floating white and gray muslin. "Ullimus Wong draws near! We must prepare the defenses of the orbital ladder in his honor, or against him. Come, mausers."
She peered into the great overgrown garden of her father's house. Few human people off Harvest knew this word mauser, which was an ancient name for a weapon held in the hand and directed to the killing of other humans. Fewer still recognized, with an irritated sigh, that this name, too, hid one yet older.
The war cats who stood guard over the rich treasures of Harvest were mausers, true, but mousers as well. Their ancestors, back on fabled Homeland, had been small, fleet creatures with small, fleet minds. Those cats lived and dreamed the hunt for their prey: feathered birds, tracked with furtive slow patient grace until the leap, murderous; and rodents even smaller than themselves, the mouses, for which they, the gray and white and black and tabby and striped mousers, were a mortal terror poised at the wainscoting. So it was with the descendents, the frightful augmented people, the war cats of Harvest.
"Come, my pretties, my lordly hunters, my avengers," cried mad Ms. Avid. Her words creaked out into the pungent air of the Harvest world, where, beyond the tangled brambles of the house, a hundred fruits still gleamed under an actinic star, where the cereal crops flourished in wind-flowing oceans of gold and royal purple.
"It is time to hunt," called Glory to her noble cats, and they came. Not to her bidding, for they were proud and walked alone, but in free recognition of her fiefdom. "Come along, Resolution, Triumphant, Defiant. And wait, now, who are you?" This cat was lean, with a head like a blade. Electricity danced and pranced in his pale blue eyes. She had never seen him before. All cats walk alone, as she knew, but this one seemed destined for some singular isolation. "Your name, sir, I say!"
"My name is Daisy," said the cat, standing very still in the midst of his brothers. Did they shun him? They did not turn their backs upon him, nor withdraw their heads, and they did not, either, turn in a mass of furious, shrieking repugnance to tear, beat or bite him until his corpse lay bleeding and huddled. That they would have done to a sport, a castback, a cat whose deoxyribonucleic acid was even one codon more seriously warped than Daisy's. This forbearance, or minimal respect, did not mean they loved him, nor admired his solitude. The mausers put up with him at the margins of their number because he was a son of Courageous and Precious Blue Silk, was sworn, as were they all, to the defense of Harvest and the house.
Gloriana Avid gave one sniggering bark of laughter to hear that name, and smothered her mouth in billowing sleeves.
"And where are your ... sisters?" Every mauser heard the absent words, the missing words, the masked words: your brothers' other sisters. But a word unspoken yields no clear offense. The ears of the wiry cat went back for an instant only, the deep snarl in his throat chopped off at a cough.
"Come forth, sisters," he cried in a piercing voice. "The mistress would see you, even though the time is not fitting, her mausers, your brothers, being gathered here together."
"Oh, no, no," cried Glory in her shrill, disappointed, wary tones, "that is not what I —"
But here came cat females, from the hard shadows of the star's brilliant daylight, slinky and sinuous. Here was Summery Justice and Winter Kills, here was Autumn Falls and Spring Healer, lightly springing, falling like shaded leaves.
The air reeked abruptly, with lawless pheromones. Everyone except Avid fell into attitudes of alert pugnacity, thrilling with improper desires.
"Go back at once," cried Boundless Courage, stepping to the fore. "Ignore this one, this fool," and he cuffed Daisy across the side of the face, hard, claws scrupulously retracted. "Return to your fastness, sisters. This is not the time. This is not the place." With exquisite attention, Boundless monitored his brother's stance. Daisy did nothing. His breathing did not quicken, nor his whiskers draw back. (Each mauser could hear the pulse and breath of every cat in the clearing, and more besides.) His teeth set in a baleful grin. In silence he watched his sisters slink back into the shadows, casting glances over their shoulders. Their long lovely vibrissae gleamed in the sunlight, then were gone.
"Bad kitty," said Glory Avid, all a-twitter.
For a moment, Daisy and Boundless Courage regarded each other. Daisy slipped forward, then, and dropped to his knees, rolled upon his back into supplicant posture, as once, very long ago, his ancestral foe the dog might have rolled in obeisance to an overmastering superior, belly bared. To his own ancestors, as only disdained Daisy knew, this posture held a very different meaning. It blocked an enemy's approach from behind, while freeing all four muscular limbs and lethal claws to rake and rip.
Boundless nodded, a civilized being in an almost civilized time and place, and raised one foot to deposit it in ceremonial warning and acknowledgment on the defenseless bowels. And Daisy was no longer there. Snarling, he snapped upward, lunging at the senior brother. He tore with his unleashed claws the fabric from Boundless's loins, sank his sharp teeth instantly into the mauser's befurred groin, twisted, keening a battle cry between his clenched teeth, and ripped away all the gristle and flesh and tight double sac.
Blood sprayed. Boundless Courage shrieked, clutching at himself. Aghast, confused, mausers flailed, struck at each other, crying, "Unsporting!" and "How vile, sir!" and "You are no gentleman!" Blood and fear and fury reeked, vibrissae quivering beneath their nostrils.
"No!" sobbed Gloriana Avid. She drew back, seeing droplets of red flung upon her white and gray muslin. "Cats, stop! This must not be!"
But she was wrong. It had to be. It was the first public declaration of inevitable war between the Worlds and the detestable cat, the abominable cat, the cat who one day would lay waste the Homeland world itself, after the Death-ferried tattered man had come down to Harvest, the Landgrave who would mend Ms. Avid's heart at such cost.
* * *
While the Lords and Ladies of the World sustained a complacent belief in their own superlative knowledge and power, they had not foreseen Daisy's destiny. His label name was given him by their unwatched machines, which made slips of this kind only one time in ten billion — and yet, when those errors did occur, a blight roared down, nearly always, like a curse upon their World.
Later, the poets singsonged it up:
Here is the caïque Death rowed in the morn,
That ferried the man all tattered and torn,
Who kissed the maiden all foresworn,
Who engendered the cat with the crumpled horn,
The detestable cat,
The abominable cat,
That tore down the Worlds the Lords built.
Some of the ditty has it right, but some is spiteful or misleading gossip. No permanent harm ever came to Daisy's manly horn; afterward, he sired litter upon litter of bold war cats who took his patronymic haughtily, spitting in the eye of the world. (Not of the Homeland World; that was gone and done, so sorry.) It was not truly Death that fetched the frozen man, Landgrave Ullimus Wong, to the Harvest planet, where he met and wooed Ms. Avid (the gravid Landgravine, as history would dub her), that wronged woman cruelly betrayed not once but thrice.
They made it
as the cats now howl in their own jamborees.
Daisy's siblings, his brothers in arms from the litter fathered by Courageous upon their dam, Precious Blue Silk, were fighters all: ruined Boundless Courage, first born of the litter, and Invincible, dark-pelted Dominant, sturdy Renown, Defiant, Resolution, and Triumphant. His own fate was sealed in the twist of deoxyribonucleic acid that spelled his demeaning name. A word may be altered, taken back, guarded behind shuttered lips, masked; a genome was forever, inviolate, or mere anarchy might be loosed upon the Worlds.
As it was, even so.
* * *
"This Landgrave, is he handsome?" asked Summery idly. Flaming virga streamers of high cirrus caught the setting sun and their ice burned the sky.
"And besides, what is a Landgrave?" Autumn was pettish. She could consult the Know but found it beneath her dignity. Ms. Falls was a most particular augmented cat, a professional of disdain. She preened her gleaming whiskers, fire-tinted from the sky.
"A human of high degree," Spring informed her. She had investigated the matter. "You should learn all this, if you mean to escape our confinement and find a suitable mate in the stars." It was said of Spring Healing that she knew all the songs of all the heartsick greeting programs men and women sent each other on days and nights of special ardent, amorous import. Sitting by a bay window in their high tower, she looked in the opposite direction from her sister Summery, across fields of produce brazed in the late afternoon glow, and hummed, then sang one of her own:
Oh my darling, oh his darling,
Oh your darling, Healing Spring!
All is lost and gone forever
Nothing lingers, Missy Spring.
Light she was and late he found her,
And her toes were clad in fur,
Healing boxes, curing poxes,
All too late for Glory, her.
"A Landgrave," Winter Kills told them, gravely, "governs in his own right under the sway of a Lord Emperor. But the Lords and Ladies of the Worlds do not admit the authority of an Emperor above them, nor of a Count, and certainly no Landgraf. And the Harvest planet is never his landgraviate, this jumped-up imposter, whatever patents of nobility he might brandish. Should he do so," she added, fanning her pale, pale face with a waved hand, claws tucked away within gold thimble gloves, "and I confess to having no familiarity at all with this, nor any considerable interest in pursuing the matter. I am hungry. It is time to dine."
None of them mentioned the abomination of their eldest brother's gelding.
Nobody knew what to make of it, nor of the detestable Daisy, who had withdrawn and was not to be found.
But they were all frightened. And these were not timid mausers.
* * *
Here is why Gloriana did what she did, poor angel.
She was deserted by her mother, Grace Desdemona Merribelle Avid, the loveliest human woman in all the Worlds, dark beauty manifest. To her admirers, Grace Avid was fondly addressed as "Glorious Desdemona" with the stress on the second syllable, not the penultimate: Des-DEM-uh-nuh. And here is the full measure of Desdemona's desertion of her only daughter: Gloriana was not abandoned instantly, at birth, in the crib, when a mercy of swift forgetfulness might have been balm to ease all but the most abstract pangs and longings of infancy. No, her glorious mother, for whose famous beauty she was named, whose beauty she inherited, whom she idolized and loved with all her strong young heart, fled Harvest when Gloriana Avid was five years old, most vulnerable to the wrenching pangs of loss and abandonment.
That was the first of three unforgivable betrayals.
Finally Death, as legend has it, long afterward brought the chance (the inevitability, romantics and cynics alike would suppose) of a fourth great and heart-killing betrayal.
Death brought the time-locked tattered Landgrave Ullimus Wong in his box of ice, fetched him down from the dark empty places that cup all the worlds and their stars.
"Death," they say — it is a misnomer, and a cruel one; I protest it.
* * *
All mothers remove themselves eventually from their children.
All children find it necessary to cast off the protective and stifling concern of their parents.
It was not Desdemona's withdrawal that damaged her daughter's trust, but its abruptness, its blindly selfish disregard.
Mothers die, sometimes, and their children mourn, holding to the mystery of death as a fate imposed, unavoidable, its consequences unintended. Grace Desdemona Merribelle Avid failed to die; she went up into the dark that cups the worlds and entered her own brilliant light, her glory, emoting fantasies into the minds of hundreds of billions who joined her, became her, in the stages of imagination.
So she was gone, yet she was everywhere, inescapable, the name upon everyone's lips. How bitter. The old people of the Homeland world had a name even for this, as they did for almost everything: Mommie Dearest.
But put it aside as a dissonant dominant note droning, throbbing, behind Gloriana Avid's becoming. No more than that, if no less.
Mausers, too, abandon their litters, so it was not the absence of Precious Blue Silk, when she, in her turn, had gone from Harvest, that bent the detestable cat to his abominable path. After all, his staunch male siblings suffered no lasting angstful trauma in the departure of their dam. The lovely surviving females with their seasonal names went on unshaken, unbroken, having learned long before her departure the elements of right cat behavior.
Some claim to detect a common element here, of maternal treachery in human and mauser; to the contrary it is held, by the learned, who know only what they have been taught, as mere coincidence, perhaps contributory in small degree, perhaps a random skew.
What is beyond doubt is the second wounding done to motherless Glory — by the strutting biologist Bander Zonin, who caressed her delicate left foot with the most ardent promises, then tore flesh from bone and pilfered her world. It is enough to make Death smile, or grimace.
* * *
I was named Death by the ignorant and envious, because I cheated finality for my master, the Landgrave. For nearly a thousand years, by the calendar of the Homeland world, I voyaged the galaxy by slipstream beside his frozen person, waiting for the knowledge to arise on some world that would heal and then revive him. Doing it the other way around would kill him stone dead, and that was the last thing I wished to see on my watch.
So naming me by the fatal affliction I had striven so many centuries to forestall is inevitable, given the attraction to human minds of opposites, contraries, inversions.
Death, then, brought the Landgrave Ullimus Wong down the ladder from the black skies into the light-shot morning atmosphere of the Harvest world, wrapped in substances colder than ice, his frigid mind trickling with thoughts. He was a fool for honor, and had been tattered and torn in its quest, his very cells swollen and choked with sinister poisons from his terminal duel.
My master Wong was the last victim of those molecular machines loosed to corrupt the minds and flesh of humans in the galaxy, before his action obliterated them to the last atom and they were declared Wicked, listed, alongside the Mind Machines, at the head of Forbidden Technik. His noble deed broke the power of the small murderous machines, at terrible cost to himself. That made him a laughing-stock to some and a martyr to many more. But that is another tale, one everyone knows.
As the old, old realm perished in the moment of its victory, his doomed Seigneur placed him in my caïque, at the very edge of death, laden with immobilized molecular machines fought to a standstill even in his own flesh, and sent us aloft, fleeing through the slipstream in search of recovery that might never be found.
When word of the second betrayal of Gloriana Avid spread across the skies, a rumor circulating outward in whispers, riding the coattails of the gossip that always attended her luminous mother, I seized and correlated the data. Those rumors had eddied for decades before they reached me. Decades rose and fell like fashion, like the hot sun of Harvest upon its lush world's horizon, until word came of the third betrayal, and then decades more.
Riding the slipstream is no easy task.
To go from here to there, wherever here is or there, takes an instant too brief to measure. Calibrating the currents in the quantum tides, though ... ah, a special gift is required, and good fortune. Once, tall ships of the Homeland ocean world set out in hopes of a favorable wind, but languished, often as not, in doldrums, paralyzed, crew starved and gaunt, perishing of thirst surrounded by endless water, deranged by heat and pointlessness. It is that way also, too often, in the slipstream.
Excerpted from The Ruined Queen of Harvest World by Damien Broderick, Kekai Kotaki. Copyright © 2009 Damien Broderick. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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