skip to Main Content
Home of the finest science fiction and science fact

Story Excerpt

The Jazz Age

by Mark Tiedemann

Illustrated by Eldar Zakirov

Olva entered the Grand Hall of the Accords and reveled briefly in the surge of shared excitement. Beneath the arching transparency, through which the shoulder of Mars and the variegated assemblage of the Trishti mothership glowed, the highest lattices of government and society gathered for the Jubilee. This was only Lerin’s second visit to the hall, the first in an official capacity. He had grown up watching broadcasts of the events in this space, and it still possessed an aura of mystery for him. He paused at the end of the ramp up to the peaked entryway, touched the silk accent Josa had folded into his breast pocket, briefly distracted by the tinge of disappointment that she had chosen not to accompany him tonight, and stepped into the arena with a sensation of passing from one life into another.

From the opposite end of the Hall came the sounds of a small orchestra playing the Canto Mundi. Clots of dignitaries made islands scattered across the polished black marble floor, their reflections falling below them in pastel waves as they moved, while serving motiles rolled innocuously among them offering drinks and treats. Lerin felt self-consciously underdressed seeing the lush wardrobes of the senior staff. His stipend had not caught up with his recent promotion, but he had bought a new suit for this occasion, wishing he could afford a still better one.

Then he saw the first cluster of Trishti, and all thought of personal inadequacy evaporated in a surge of awe. They stood in groups of five, tall and impossibly slender even within the voluminous folds of their draped robes that rippled through pastel and metallic colors. Lerin’s pace slowed, and he knew he stared, that in seconds it would be obvious even to a Trishti that he was new at this and naïve—

“Olva.”

He found a familiar face in the crowd of dignitaries, attached to an arm that gestured for him to approach. Kans Metic, head of Communications and Exocryptology. As Lerin joined the small group of people, a motile rolled by with drinks, and he snagged one, spilling a small amount over his thumb. He resisted the impulse to lick the alcohol off and held onto the glass while introductions were made. He paused, startled, when a lone Trishti joined them.

“Olva,” Section Chief Metic said expansively. “This is Rin Calvert, of Domestic Intelligence . . . Parl Jaya, mayor of Shiap-sin . . . and Sesra Foon, of the Colonial Liaison . . . and her guest,” raising both hands, palms facing, toward the Trishti, “Tri Merish-zol—honored that you’ve joined us—may I introduce Lerin Olva, recently promoted head of his department.”

Lerin bowed to each person in turn, lingering a few moments on Sesra Foon. She seemed slightly taller than him, her black hair piled above a high forehead. She looked at him from dark green eyes in such a way that Lerin felt he needed permission to look away. The Trishti nodded, then, breaking the spell.

“How wonderful for you,” Sesra Foon said. “What department?”

“Primary Reception,” Lerin said.

An eyebrow rose fractionally. “Excellent. Your family must be proud.”

“She is,” Lerin said.

“Where is Josa?” Metic said. “I was looking forward to seeing her tonight.”

“No, she . . . ill, I’m afraid. Sorry to miss it.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. Give her my regards.”

“Of course.” Lerin was relieved that Metic dropped it so quickly. He still had not figured out how to explain that, for some reason, his wife disliked Trishti.

Rin Calvert gave Sesra Foon a sharp look, which she obviously ignored, covering any reaction by raising her glass to her lips. Parl Jaya cocked his eyebrows at Metic, who gave Lerin an almost conspiratorial smile. Suddenly Lerin felt exposed, that all these people knew the truth. But that was impossible. At least, he hoped so. Then he realized they probably thought Josa was having an affair. “She’s ill” was code for “I don’t know where she is” and Lerin had clumsily stepped into the misunderstanding he now could not correct without looking like an unsophisticated colonial from the sands of Marinaris.

“We’ve just been discussing the new station at perihelion,” Metic said finally. “Details are nearly ironed out and perhaps we can begin final construction within a month. I’d say the station will be online within two years?”

Sesra Foon regarded Metic evenly. “I suppose you’ll insist that one of your own Exo people be in charge? Perhaps even Mr. Olva here. Promotion at such a stage in his career, you’re grooming him, obviously.”

“Our people do have more experience with Trishti communications,” Metic said.

“Only by virtue of monopoly,” Foon said. She glanced up at her Trishti “guest” as if expecting a comment. When Merish-zol remained silent, she continued with a shrug. “Still. Expertise is difficult to argue with.” She looked at Lerin. “Are you very good at your job?”

Lerin did not like the sudden examination, even less than being discussed in the third person in his presence, but he laughed quietly. “My superiors believe I am.”

“Do you agree?”

Another glib reply evaporated in Lerin’s throat. He thought he recognized challenge in her gaze and felt somehow that this was a test. He had been through so many of these subtle probings in the past months, he thought he had grown used to them. A score of decisions each day, how to answer who about what, when to prevaricate, when to be honest.

“Yes,” he said. “I do.”

The character of her scrutiny changed. A smile almost emerged, producing in Lerin a moment of satisfaction wholly unexpected.

“What are your plans, Olva?” Metic asked then, breaking the mood. “After you get settled in, I mean.”

“Um . . . Josa and I are taking a holiday. A trip to the Reger Mountains.”

“Oh,” Parl moaned, “they are wonderful this time of year. One of those cottages nestled up in the convolutions on the western slopes? They did a marvelous job when they built those. We used to do a time-share on the southern end.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“I thought,” Metic said, “you might take the opportunity to visit Earth. Your status qualifies you now. A transit pass would be easy enough to arrange.”

“This is what Josa wants, so . . .”

“Don’t exhaust yourself,” Metic said, smiling, “you’ll have a lot of work to do when you get back.”

“I—” Parl began.

Just then, an intense chime sounded, filling the hall with its crystalline tone. Everyone turned toward the dais, behind which the transparency gave a view of stars below the sinuous shape of the Trishti mothership.

Upon the dais stood several dignitaries and their Trishti counterparts.

“My god,” Lerin whispered, amazed at the spectacle. The combined substance of civilization stood on that stage, elaborately and expensively clothed, exuding with every gesture the seemingly effortless synergy of the collaboration between the starfaring Trishti and developing humanity. In those smiles and choreography of mutual appreciation, Lerin imagined he could see the future: humans in their own starships, ranging the caravan routes side by side with their Trishti benefactors.

“The future,” Sesra Foon said beside him, echoing his thoughts. “And all that might be.”

Lerin glanced at her. She smiled. “Or might not,” she added. “Do you like music, Mr. Olva?”

“Um . . . yes, I—”

“Friends. Welcome.”

On the podium, standing within the pool of golden light, the prime minister addressed them. She laced her fingers together, breast-height, and beamed joyfully.

“On behalf of the colloquium and the representatives of the various polities, city-states, and colonies, I declare the Grand Jubilee begun.”

The orchestra swelled into the colloquium fanfare amid applause. Lerin’s pulse jumped as the prime minister turned to introduce the head of transport development. Hoshel Dem supervised the many-headed organization responsible for building humanity’s first starship. His face was known to the entire system, and his popularity was enormous. Rumors ran that he intended to challenge the prime minister in the next election. Lerin thought he could win but hoped he would stay in his present post till the ship was finished.

He stepped to the podium and raised his arms until the applause faded. Then—his attitude every bit the candidate—he surveyed the Hall, bowed respectfully to the Trishti on the dais with him, and spoke.

“My friends. We are all here because of an amazing encounter almost fifty years ago. Some of you remember, because you were there when the Trishti sailed into our system, into the midst of a civilization in crisis. It was a time when we had no idea where we were going or even if we could go anywhere. In many ways, it was a typical period—governments in contention, populations restless, war imminent. So the Trishti arrived to see us at our most ordinary.”

Polite laughter rippled through the audience. Lerin glanced around at his companions. Parl Java was gone, but the others gave Dem their complete attention.

“But the Trishti brought more than they intended. Just their arrival stopped much of the bickering, focused our attention. But it would not have lasted without the other part. The promise. That if we could successfully build our own starship, then we could join the community of the galaxy. We were shown evidence of many thriving civilizations, of a network of sapient races, all interacting peacefully in a vast realm across the stars. And we became hungry, as humans always do, when shown what might be. The Trishti brought us unity. They brought us inspiration. They brought us a purpose that has bound us all to a single vision for five decades. Build that ship and go out among the stars to be part of the most incredible future we could ever imagine.

“And they stayed, to watch and in small ways help. They could not simply give us the technology. They could not correct our mistakes. At best there were tantalizing hints. But they stayed and they watched and they provided assistance in other areas that have been of tremendous help to us and have given us what many believe to be our best age. I know I wouldn’t want to live at any other time. My life, as most of us here, I’m sure, has been filled with more than most humans down through history could only dream—if they could dream such things.

“But the one thing I wanted that we didn’t have was to see that starship. I’ve dedicated my life to seeing it made real. For the last eight years I’ve been head of the Omicron Project. For the last eight years I’ve supervised some of the most brilliant and talented people who have ever lived, overseeing their efforts to bring the Omicron to fruition. Make it real.

“And they have. I am pleased to announce here, tonight, that we have succeeded. We have a star drive. We have our ship. And soon, very soon now, well ahead of our original timetable, we will take the Trishti up on their promise and join—”

The applause, at first scattered, now swelled to a deafening thunder, drowning Dem out.

Lerin ached with sudden and complete joy. Everyone around wore expressions of rapt exhilaration.

The orchestra started playing again, loudly, trying at first to focus and resolve the reaction but yielding to the mood within a minute and giving in to the celebration. The beat slammed through Lerin. Glasses fell to the floor, laughter rippled across the Hall, and Dem never regained their attention.

Lerin turned, disoriented, and impulsively embraced Sesra Foon. She laughed and easily spun him into a dance.

Lerin glimpsed the dais once more and saw the prime minister speaking tersely to Hoshel Dem. The Trishti had gathered among themselves to one side, bobbing their heads animatedly. Parl Java had mounted the dais, standing near the prime minister. Then Lerin turned again, his vision filled by Sesra Foon, his pulse seized by the rhythms of the Jubilee. He saw people caught up in the madness of joy, giving themselves over to celebration, and wished he could join them in forgetting, however briefly, everything else. As he danced, though, his delight was dampened by Josa’s absence.

*   *   *

Josa lay on their bed, naked, ears covered by ’phones. Lerin stood in the doorway for a time watching the way her body moved in response to whatever sounds traveled through her head. In the faint light, her movements aroused him.

Suddenly her eyes opened, and she looked at him. A moment later, her hand touched the nightstand, and soft, warm light came up. She pulled the ’phones from her head and propped herself on an elbow, smiling.

“Hi,” Josa said. “What time is it?”

“Late,” Lerin said, stepping into the bedroom.

“How did it go?” She swung her legs off the bed and adjusted the ’phones on their stand.

“Wonderful. I wish you’d been there.” She shrugged. “Hoshel Dem announced that they’ve completed the Omicron.”

Josa looked around at him, a frown dragging her eyebrows lower. “He said what?”

“He announced that the starship is ready. Five years ahead of schedule.”

Josa laughed dryly. “And everyone believed that?”

“Why not? Dem’s one of the best. If anyone could get the project in ahead of time—”

“But five years? Lerin, come on.” She stood and crossed the bedroom, still naked, dragging Lerin’s gaze with her.

She sat at her desk and opened a data portal. Within a minute she gestured for him to join her. “Look,” she said, pointing. “These are the market responses to material acquisitions. Three percent has been going into the Omicron consistently for the last twenty-two years. The projections were made over thirty years ago, with Trishti advisors, and they’ve been almost perfectly consistent during the life of the project. On these materials and commodities, the market fluctuations in relation to the project have been nearly flat.”

Lerin stared at the graphs and numbers. His head felt muzzy from the drinking and dancing, the music and impressive company. He could not quite focus.

“So?” he said.

“So in order for Dem to be finished now, at some point the acquisitions would have had to rise a full point or more on some of these over the last few years and on others dropped. The result would be clear fluctuations in the market around them. That hasn’t happened. He simply hasn’t changed anything sufficiently to indicate that he’s even close to being finished.”

“Unless he’s just continued absorbing in order to mask the reality.”

Josa scowled up at him. “Dem’s lying. He wants to be prime minister next year. He just made his best bid for it.”

“But—”

Josa shut down her portal and went back to the bed.

“—he’d have to be finished then, or everyone would know he lied.”

“Lerin!” Josa sighed loudly. “For someone who’s making a career in politics, you can be incredibly naïve. He can blame any failure on the prime minister. He was telling the truth, but she had kept details from him, interfered at key points, made sure the project was bogged down in bureaucratic detail. Dem’s not an engineer, he’s a politician. And apparently, from what you’ve told me, a very good one.”

“I’m not a politician, either.”

“No, and neither are you an engineer. But you’re in one of the most political environments in the system.”

Lerin felt desolate and small.

“It’s all right,” Josa said. “Probably if it gets too embarrassing for him, he can just ask the Trishti to funnel more help to the project.” The inflection she put on the name made it sound like an epithet.

“You really don’t like them, do you?”

“It’s complicated. They make us dependent. It scares me sometimes.”

“What does?”

“Not knowing what we’d be like without them.”

“We’d only be what we could be.”

“Which is?”

Lerin almost said “what we already are.” But he hesitated, realizing how insincere that would sound. He did not want to argue, not tonight, and yet they were starting already.

“Exactly,” she said then. “You don’t know, either.” She shook her head. “I’ll be so glad to get away for a time. Thank you for the holiday.”

“I have to go in to the department in the morning for a short while. Half hour at most, introduce myself to everyone. Then we can go.”

Josa nodded, suddenly abstracted. Then, just as suddenly, she held a hand out toward him.

“They think you’re having an affair,” he said. “That the reason you weren’t with me tonight was because you were with someone else.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“Yes.”

“There isn’t anyone else, Lerin. Not for this.” She stretched on the bed, parted her legs, and waggled her fingers at him.

Lerin undressed as he made his way to the bed.

*   *   *

Lerin walked into his department the next morning still smiling, a residue of excitement still tingling along his nerves. He strode purposefully through the maze of cubicles, enjoying the susurrus of portals and conversation, the electronic texture of the work being done by the cadre of people now subordinate to him.

His previous post, in cryptology and assessment, was in a larger chamber subdivided into cubicles that enforced a monastic isolation. This was open, bright, no walls separating people from each other. His new office was at the end of the wide walkway through the center of his domain. He wondered how long it would be before the euphoria wore off and this became ordinary.

He still wondered why he had been chosen. His work had always been good, but his command of Trishti was not nearly as good as others. He had written a dissertation on their Ashturi Codex that had been well-received. The document was a kind of philosophy text-cum-guide book, much in the vein of the I Ching, but considerably more complex and convoluted. Lerin had offered some insights—primarily on its structural similarity to music—and someone higher up had noticed. That and a piece of original work on high-order cryptology pulled him in line for promotion.

He paused at his door. A plaque had already been set in place with his name etched in elegant script. He touched the pad and the door swung open. He stepped in—

—and found someone already waiting for him.

Lerin blinked.

Sesra Foon stood. “Forgive me, Mr. Olva. Your arbiter said it would be all right to wait in here.”

“Of course. Forgive me. I won’t be here very long. I wanted to come in and greet my staff.”

“Overlook your new domain? I understand. I just wanted to come by and tell you what a delightful time I had last night. A once-in-a-lifetime event.”

“Indeed.”

“You said you were going on holiday. To the Reger Mountains?”

“Yes, we’re leaving this afternoon.”

“I have a domicile in the Regers. Perhaps you would be interested in dining some time in the next few days? Here.” She handed him a card. “Let me know. I would be most gratified.”

“Thank you. I’ll discuss it with my wife.”

“Do.” She smiled and extended her hand. “Thank you for the dancing, the conversation, and forgive the intrusion.”

He grasped her hand. “Not at all. My pleasure.”

“By the way, if you don’t mind my asking—do you think Dem was telling the truth?”

“About the Omicron? Of course. Why would he lie?”

Sesra shrugged. “What does your wife think?”

“Do you know my wife?”

“No. But I had the impression you rely on her a great deal. Was I wrong?”

“No, it’s just—”

“Forgive me. That was impertinent. I look forward to entertaining you both on the surface. Good luck, Mr. Olva.”

“Thank you.”

Sesra Foon left then. Lerin looked down at the card in his hand and realized that his pulse was running fast. Dismayed, he tucked the card in his pocket and went around to his desk.

He pressed the call for his arbiter. A few seconds later, a tall man entered the office.

“You are Javli?” Lerin asked.

“Yes, Mr. Olva. Welcome—”

“You gave Ms. Foon permission to wait in my office?”

“Uh—yes, sir—”

“I’ll prepare a list of people you may admit to my office in my absence. In future, if there’s doubt, they may wait outside. I’d like to speak to the entire staff now. Bring them in here, if you please.”

Javli’s face remained carefully neutral. He bowed and left. Less than a minute went by before the door opened again, and people filed into the room.

Lerin introduced himself and gave a short speech about his expectations and his hopes that they would work smoothly together. When he finished, he asked if anyone had questions. He was disappointed that no one did, but he dismissed them to their posts.

One woman remained behind.

“Yes?” Lerin said.

“I’m Gellis Matho, your head of decryption.”

“Ah. Yes, of course. Is there something?”

She nodded and came to the edge of the desk. “I wanted to bring this to your attention. It came through an hour ago.”

She handed him a disc, which he slipped into his desk reader. On the screen a list of Trishti sigils followed by translations scrolled up.

“These look like department titles,” Lerin said.

“They are. If you would look to the far right . . .”

Behind each entry Lerin read: date suspension, followed by a time chop.

“That’s four days from now,” Lerin said. “Date suspension? What does that mean?”

“I requested a clarification, but they haven’t replied yet.”

Lerin stared at the list. “I don’t understand.”

“All those departments are Trishti cultural liaison units.”

Lerin drummed his fingers on the desk, staring at the screen. “I’m at a loss. Request clarification again if they remain unresponsive. Copy this to Section Chief Metic.” He pulled the disc and handed it back to her. “No public statement.”

“Yes, sir. Um . . . welcome, sir. And have a pleasant holiday.”

“I’m looking forward to working with all of you.”

Lerin sat down after Matho left and continued staring at the now blank screen. Date suspension? Nothing further occurred to him, though he began to feel a twinge of guilt over the abrupt way he had dealt with his arbiter. Foon’s visit made him uncomfortable, and he had taken it out on him. Not very professional. Too late to do anything about it now. Josa was right; he was not a politician. He had been an independent worker in every department he had been assigned to since coming to work for the Colloquium Interface four years ago. All his advances came by merit, not personality. Need to work on that, he decided, then put it out of his mind for now. He went through his portal messages, sealed his personal files, and headed home.

*   *   *

The Reger Mountains swept inland from a thin strip of coast on the western shore of the lake now filling the Iani Chaos depression and followed the curve of the land from north to south, forming a parenthesis of snow-clad peaks and ridges beneath the pressure field that held in the bubble of atmosphere. Josa had found a vacation dom nestled between two limbs in the southern foothills, overlooking a small bay. Islands poked above the blue water, crowned with trees and grasses. The mountains had once borne a different name, but Lerin forgot what it was, and anyway it no longer mattered since they had been recontoured as part of the project to filled the basin with liquid water and create a habitable zone that resembled Earth. Lerin questioned how successful the imitation was, but the region was beautiful.

Lerin stood on the balcony, just outside the transparent wall of the main room, staring at the ocean. Josa came up beside him, drink in hand.

“How did you find this?” Lerin asked.

“You like?”

“It’s marvelous.”

“Good. I’ve taken an option on it.”

A few moments passed before Lerin registered the words. “What?”

“The price seemed reasonable,” Josa said matter-of-factly, “especially given your promotion.” She shrugged. “Besides, you’ll be even more involved with Interface than before. I think having a place like this to leave that all behind will be necessary.”

“But I don’t even have the increase yet—”

“We haven’t signed anything. I said an option. I wanted to see your reaction first.”

“Oh.”

“We can get a smaller dom in the city, close to the shuttle terminal, and we can take advantage of your extended holiday allotment.”

The city—Burroughs, several hundred kilometers north on the Chryse Planitia—was built on an even older colony and was the capitol of Mars, though not the largest city. Lowell held that honor at nearly half-a-million inhabitants.

“Move here?”

She nodded, smiling.

“Anything to get as far from the Trishti as you can,” he said.

Josa’s smile faded. She held her glass with both hands, turned to stare out at the beautiful scene. After a time, she went back inside. Lerin watched the sunset, feeling helpless and cruel.

*   *   *

Lerin reached the summit of the trail a little past noon. Sweat ran freely down his face, stinging his eyes, and neck and back, pooled around the waistline of his pants. He paused, gazing over the tops of the dense cedar growth covering the slopes, and took a long drink from his canteen. His legs ached, and he sensed the beginnings of a headache behind his eyes, but otherwise he felt surprisingly good.

He advanced to the eastern side of the rise. The convolutions of the inland range etched distance-blued patterns all the way to the horizon. For a moment Lerin’s pulse quickened at the idea of being so far from everything that normally comprised his life—the urban spaces and machines, daily meetings and communiqués, human and alien intrigues. Perhaps Josa was right, they needed a place isolated from all that, just to maintain perspective.

But the career demands constant feeding.

He swallowed a painkiller to stave off the headache and started to turn away from the scene. Movement below and to the left caught his attention. Something metallic glinted through the foliage.

Lerin walked along the rim of the trail, trying to catch another glimpse. After a dozen meters he found nothing. He dismissed it then as an effect of the incipient headache, a flash within the eye rather than outside, and stepped back to the main trail—

—and heard the sounds of Trishti.

There was no mistaking their voices—wet glass stroked by deft fingers, flutes played in the midst of a gust, sand on silk—or the odd combinations of liquid pops, almost-vowels, and deep continuos that might have been consonants. Their speech cut through the rustling of treetops, birdsong, and sea breeze that had accompanied Lerin all during his hike.

He stopped, listened till he could determine a direction, and softly stepped off the trail and descended into the dappled shadow beyond the treeline.

He found them, a pair, twenty meters below the ridge, standing in a clearing left by the fall of an ancient tree. One stood on the decaying tube of the tree, the other, almost in an attitude of supplication, by the shattered stump. Further on waited the eggshell mass of a Trishti flyer, mother-of-pearl-over-harsh-steel bright in the sun. They seemed to be singing.

The incongruity of the scene astonished Lerin. He could not imagine Trishti in any other environment than the smooth, manufactured spaces of the cities or the stations. Few ever came down to the surface, barred by their own restrictions, curiously reluctant to leave their own constructs. Standing here in the unmediated wilderness, still dressed in the lush robes that seemed to suit them for every occasion, they looked more truly alien than Lerin had ever recognized. He had never realized just how unnatural their beige skin with its hint of oil-on-water refraction looked—till now.

The conversation, if conversation it was, made no sense to him. A few humans had learned to understand a pidgin form of Trishti—he had heard of a creole forming among certain linguists in the embassy—but Lerin was unable to translate the spoken language. Except as music. A growing cult of music lovers used Trishti motifs and tones to compose, and so far it seem best suited to jazz. The emotional content came through, though even that bypassed complete comprehension, no doubt due to a range of emotions humans never experienced. Still, even through the orchestral textures, it seemed to him that these two were arguing—and that the one on the tree trunk was chastising the other.

Abruptly, the one standing by the stump made a sharp, ragged sound that ended the dialogue. Lerin held his breath, waiting. After several seconds, the other made a short bow, and retreated to the flyer. A minute later, the spheroid rose through the trees, fading to nothing as it did, till it vanished.

The Trishti remaining stared after the flyer for a long time, then walked to the fallen trunk and stood by the spot where the other had been. The robes began to shimmer, a wave form vibration moving rhythmically from the neckline down.

Lerin crept silently back up the slope. When he reached the trail, he felt intensely uneasy. He wondered if anyone else had ever seen a Trishti weep before.

*   *   *

“Your arbiter called,” Josa informed him when he walked into the dom. She looked up from the slate in her lap. “Enjoy your hike?”

“Yes, I did. Strange.”

“What? That you enjoyed it?”

“No, I—” Lerin hesitated, then decided not to tell her about the Trishti in the mountains. “What did my arbiter want?”

“Something about unusual traffic. He said he needed to talk to you as soon as possible.”

Lerin wanted to shower first, but he went into the small office just off the main room and tapped his code into the comm. It took nearly thirty seconds to get through to his department—time enough to slip a robe on after shucking his sweat-soaked shirt—and his arbiter quickly transferred him to Gellis Matho, his chief decryptor.

“Sir, we’ve been receiving more of those ambiguous messages from Trishti departments.”

“The date suspension ones?”

“Yes, sir. The thing is, I’ve been trying to get clarification from them, but the departments that have posted these messages are no longer responding.”

“What, they’re referring the query on?”

“No, there is simply no response. As if no one is there to respond. Dead channels.”

“Odd. Have you passed this on to Chief Metic?”

“I have. He’s making his own inquiries and hasn’t gotten back to us.”

“Pass the new ones on, then contact any departments that have not sent such a message and see if you can get an answer that way.”

“That’s out-of-protocol—”

“So are dead channels, Matho. If they’re having technical problems, they may not know it.”

She gave him a dubious look. He did not believe it himself, but it made no other sense.

“I’ll be back in a few days,” he said. “I’m sure it’s just a glitch of some kind.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you for keeping me posted.”

The link broke, and Lerin stared at the screen for a time. Then he entered Section Chief Metic’s code.

Chief Metic is not available at this time. Please leave a connection.

Lerin terminated the link; his department had already queried Chief Metic, his own call might make it appear he was panicky. Uneasily, he went out to join Josa.

*   *   *

Sesra Foon’s dom lay six kilometers north of them, a short hop by flyer. The sun was beginning to set as Lerin landed on the roof pad of the sprawling structure. As he stepped out of his own vehicle, Lerin looked across the pad to another craft: the smooth-shelled egg of a Trishti flyer. He felt himself stiffen immediately as he escorted Josa to the lift.

“My,” Josa breathed as she stepped into the great room. The west-facing wall was open to the sea breeze and gave a glorious view.

Sesra Foon stood on the balcony with a slender man in dark evening dress. His hairless skull caught the sunlight in a pale halo as he poured from a bottle of red wine, filling Sesra’s glass, then his own.

“Ah,” he said, his voice surprisingly soft. “Guests.” He dropped the bottle into the tripod-mounted bucket beside him and raised his glass. “Welcome.”

“Mr. Olva,” Sesra said. “Thank you for accepting my invitation. This is your wife?”

“Josa,” Lerin said, “this is Sesra Foon, Colonial Liaison.”

Josa nodded politely. “You’re from Kouriesk?”

“No, I’m a vacuum child,” Sesra said. “Born on Dreen Orbital.”

“But your affiliation is Kourieska?” Josa persisted.

Sesra nodded. “Is that a problem?”

“You’d have to ask Lerin,” Josa said. “He’s the politician in our dom.”

Lerin laughed self-consciously.

Sesra smiled. “This is Daril Lans. He’s visiting me from Dreen. We went to academe together. Daril, this is Lerin Olva, newly promoted within the primary reception division of communications and cryptology. His wife, Josa.”

“You seem taken with the view,” Daril said to Josa.

“Yes, forgive me. I thought we had a good overlook.”

“Is there such a thing as a bad one along this coast?”

“Well.” She shrugged, smiling.

“I think the benefit of living here is having people you can visit regularly and share views with,” Daril said. “May I show you something?”

Josa blinked at Lerin, then nodded at Daril. He led her away, along the railing of the balcony and around the curve of the dom.

“She doesn’t approve of colonials,” Sesra said.

Lerin started to protest, but the denial seemed insulting. It had not been a question; Sesra Foon understood. “It’s complicated.”

“Not really. Kouriesk was the primary contact when the Trishti arrived. Earth has never forgiven them for having such good luck. It elevated them to a position most thought they didn’t deserve. Dreen was the first to join the Kourieska Aggregate just before the Trishti arrival, so by extension we’re rubes who don’t know our place. And yet, she was born on Mars.”

“Surface-satellite. She’s really not that judgmental, though.”

“Of course not. Daril is charming,” she said. “He’ll occupy her for a time and we can talk.”

“I thought this was social.”

“Of course it is, but everything lies on a continuum, doesn’t it? What did you think of Hoshel Dem’s announcement at the Jubilee Celebration?”

Lerin tried to sound nonchalant. “Wonderful, if true.”

“You’re skeptical. Let me ask you a different question. Do you think we could survive long without the Trishti?”

The question disturbed him more than he expected. “Why wouldn’t we?”

Sesra laughed. “We’ve been part of their conscience for over fifty years. They’ve been part of our economy. More, they’ve become a large part of our culture. Do you know many people with traditional human names? I don’t. Daril is close. Your Josa. Most of us have these hybrid concoctions that imitate Trishti names. My own—Foon? Up till thirty years ago my family was Fulton. Yours sounds close to original. Olva—Oliver? What do you think would happen if they picked up their property and left tomorrow?”

Lerin said nothing, his thoughts jumbled. He masked his confusion by staring out at the ocean, hoping he looked smarter than he felt.

He kept thinking, date suspension.

“This may not be an appropriate thing for us to discuss,” he said finally.

Sesra pursed her lips. “That would presume we aren’t on the same side, which I suppose is possible. But you’re right. Forgive me. What may I offer you to drink?” She pulled the bottle from the tripod and frowned when it proved empty. “More where that came from.”

Relieved, Lerin followed her into the dom.

At a sidebar, she poured him a glass of wine. He took a sip and turned at the sound of quiet laughter. Josa and Daril came into the main room. Josa stopped abruptly, her laugh fading. Lerin followed the direction of her gaze.

A Trishti stood at the doorway to another part of the dom.

Lerin recognized it from the Jubilee—Sesra’s guest, Merish-zol.

“Lerin,” Josa said quietly.

He doubted anyone else could hear the exact level of tension in her voice, but the mood nevertheless cooled noticeably. He could see no graceful way to exit, so time stretched while he waited for his hosts to give them an out, for the Trishti to leave, for someone to say something.

“I asked Merish-zol to join us for dinner,” Sesra Foon said. “I trust no one objects?”

Lerin felt his ears warm, watching Josa helplessly.

“No,” she said suddenly, straightening. “Not at all.”

*   *   *

Lerin stood on the balcony, gazing out at the darkness. The moons would be up later, but for now all that was visible were the lights of watercraft and a few flyers below the dome of stars.

The aftertastes of the excellent meal and fine wine mingled with the bitter tension of watching Josa cope with a Trishti sitting across from her. To his surprise, she had carried on a conversation, even smiled. He remembered little of it, most of it being shallow, word gestures to accompany the food.

The surprise came after dinner, when a trio of musicians began playing. The Trishti joined them, picking up a guitar, and blending in with the improvisations seamlessly. Gradually, the texture of the music changed, took on a distinct harmonic scale Lerin recognized as Trishti, modified to accommodate human modalities. The humans followed, let Merish-zol take lead, and patterns emerged that opened Lerin in ways that only unexpected music could. Jazz as had never been played before, as all jazz should be, he thought, unique, a response to the moment, and deftly contoured to mood, both responsive and directive.

He had glanced toward Josa and found her staring at the group, a strangely fixated expression on her face, at once rapt and frightened.

After, Josa had gone off with Daril Lans.

“The skies are not so clear for us.”

Lerin turned. The Trishti stood at the threshold of the balcony, gazing up.

“On your homeworld?” Lerin asked.

The Trishti stepped onto the balcony. “I may join you?”

“Of course.”

“Your mate, she prefers to be apart from me.”

“It’s . . .” Lerin groped helplessly for a politic answer, but gave up. “I’m sorry.”

“Unoffended. We are different. Not a welcome reality sometimes.”

Merish-zol came up to the railing and wrapped long-fingered hands around it—seven fingers each, including double-jointed thumbs that occasionally bent back at what for a human would be impossibly painful angles. Lerin imagined those fingers shifting along the frets of a guitar and envied the Trishti the added dexterity.

“Humans hide the truth well,” the Trishti said. “Hard sometimes to tell. But Josa is not so skilled as others.”

Lerin blinked up at the alien. “I saw you earlier. You were out walking. You met another.”

Merish-zol regarded him, face half-lit from the domicile. “True.”

Lerin wanted to ask what the meeting had been about. He wanted to ask why they had argued, if they had. He wanted to ask exactly how the Trishti felt about humans.

“May I ask, Merish-zol, what ‘date suspension’ means?”

The Trishti gazed at him for a long moment, then looked out at the night, face invisible in the darkness.

“We lie poorly,” Merish-zol said. “Tell me, do you lie for one reason or many?”

“Me personally or humans in general? We lie for any reason.”

“So you discriminate badly regarding when.” Merish-zol looked at him again. “Your starship. It is not ready?”

“I—can’t say for certain.”

“Why would you claim otherwise?”

Lerin laughed, suddenly nervous. “Politics.”

“Understanding fails.”

“A bid for higher authority, for political office. It’s complex. Don’t tell me you have no politics among your people.”

“Seldom. Violence tends to result. We suffer a necessary unity. Some would have it otherwise.”

The Trishti fell into a silence then that Lerin could not disturb. Its contemplation of the darkness over the sea seemed inviolate. Lerin put his hands back on the railing and waited.

“I like it here,” said Merish-zol finally. “So much, I like it.”

*   *   *

Josa clung to him that night. He knew almost immediately that she did not want sex, only touch. Comfort. He let her have what she needed, unsettled by her silence. From time to time she shivered. By the time she finally fell asleep, Lerin was exhausted, as if she had drained him of all the security he had to give. As he drifted off he felt it had not been enough, that he was insufficient to her needs.

*   *   *

Lerin walked into his new department. His stride slowed as he neared his private office. Several stations appeared unoccupied, and the babble of work he had heard the first time seemed sharply diminished.

Waiting within his office, Kans Metic sat before his desk.

“Olva,” he said, standing. “You’re prompt. That’s good.”

“Sir.”

“Close the door,” Metic said.

Lerin obeyed, an unpleasant tingle spreading across his torso and scalp. Metic did not ask him to sit down, continuing to stand himself, his face pinched and clouded.

“There’s a problem,” Metic said. “The day you left on holiday, we began receiving a series of odd communiqués from the Trishti mission. You know about them because you notified my office.”

“Date suspension.”

Metic’s eyebrows raised. “Exactly. How did you find out about it?”

“Routine queries began receiving it as a standard reply. My chief decryptor told me. I instructed her to check with other Trishti departments for an explanation and copy the data to you.”

“Well, we have our explanation, though damned if it makes any sense. The Trishti are leaving. Shutting down and pulling out.”

Lerin opened his mouth to speak, but his mind was suddenly blank.

“Why?” he asked.

“Who knows? They’re offering no explanation except a cryptic ‘you clearly do not need us any longer.’”

“Hoshel Dem.”

Metic’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

“Hoshel Dem,” Lerin said. “He announced that the Omicron was ready.”

“What about it? Nonsense, of course, but—” Metic’s expression changed sharply. “My god.”

Lerin went behind his desk and tapped a number into his comm. A moment later, Sesra Foon appeared on his screen.

“Mr. Olva,” she said. “A surprise. What may I do for you?”

“Is your guest still visiting?” Lerin asked, aware of Metic’s gaze.

“Daril?”

“No, the other.”

“Yes, actually.”

“May we speak?”

She frowned, but nodded. “Just a moment.”

“What are you doing, Olva?” Metic asked.

Lerin raised a hand. “Please, give me a few—”

“Mr. Olva. A pleasure. You wish to talk with me?”

Oddly, the Trishti looked almost ridiculous on the flat screen display, like a drawing or clay model concocted by a talented child.

“Merish-zol, yes, I—this is awkward, but I require confirmation and you are the only one from whom I believe I can get it.”

“Confirmation?”

“I’ve just been informed that the Trishti mission is abandoning us. Leaving. Do you know anything about this?”

The Trishti was silent for several seconds. Then, “Yes. I know.”

“Can you tell me why?”

“Your need is no longer great. Trishti may now leave without fear of impeding you.”

“I don’t quite understand, Merish-zol. What need are you referring to?”

“Your ship.”

“I see. So your government believes that we have a working starship and that we no longer need you?”

“It is no longer necessary to maintain a sizeable commitment to you. Soon, you will call on Trishti. Intercourse may resume then as equals. You are to be welcomed, to establish a mission of your own among Trishti. That is our position, as it has always been.”

Metic’s mouth opened and closed silently.

Lerin said, “When you asked me about our capacity to lie, was this on your mind?”

“Yes.”

“You know, then, that we are not ready.”

“I so feared.”

Lerin let go his breath. “It would be best if your mission remained. We still require—”

“I am afraid that will not happen. Not now. They are going. Leaving.”

“But—”

“I have no leave to speak further on this subject.”

“I see. Merish-zol, you said ‘they are leaving.’ Aren’t you going with them?”

“No. Explanations will be made later.”

“Thank you for your time.”

Lerin broke the contact and looked up at Metic.

“That was a breach of security,” Metic said, his voice flat. “But . . . under the circumstances . . .” He shuddered. “That ass! Why would they believe him, though? It was all politics! They know what our progress is!”

“Do they? Has Dem been honest with them?”

Metic looked uncertain, troubled. “I honestly don’t know. If he hasn’t . . . but so what if he hasn’t? They would know, wouldn’t they? Their own technical advisors would be able to tell.” Metic fell into a chair and moaned. “Now what?”

Lerin waited. Other than the call he had just made, he could think of nothing else. His creativity had run out, too quickly. He knew he should be panicking, but Metic was here, he could not afford to let go in front of him.

“He said he’s not leaving.”

“Hmm?” Metic said. “Who?”

“Merish-zol, just now. He said he is not leaving. I doubt he’d be the only one to stay. Evidently some Trishti know better. We may be able to use that to work with the others.”

“It’s a thought.” Metic got ponderously to his feet. “I have to talk to the prime minister. Keep this entirely to yourself until we speak again.”

“What about the department?”

“Department?” Metic shook his head briefly, then looked out the glass wall at the nearly empty desks beyond. “I’ll get some of your people back. Proceed as usual. Maybe some of them have guessed the truth, but don’t confirm it. Not until I talk to the prime minister.”

“Of course.”

Metic paused at the door. “Breach of security or not, that was good work, Olva.” He nodded once, decisively. “I’ll be in touch.”

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2022.The Jazz Age by Mark W. Tiedemann

Back To Top
0
    0
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop