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Beyond the Farthest Suns

The Complete Short Fiction of

Greg Bear

Volume Three

The Venging

I
wrote “The Venging” in 1973, while I was working at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater in San Diego, California. With this story, I created my first major female character, Anna Sigrid Nestor, and the first episode in a future history that would come to include two novels—Beyond Heaven's River and Strength of Stones
—
and three shorter pieces, the second being Perihesperon. “Hardfought” mentions a world also found in “The Venging,” Myriadne, but it much farther advanced in time.

In the late 1960s and early
'
70s, black holes—collapsed stars so dense that their gravitational field traps all light—were hot. Literally. (Well, warmer than the background of deep space, at any rate—but very popular, no doubt about that.) Stephen Hawking had just shown how black holes could radiate heat from their event horizons. The truly hip debated whether or not black holes had “hair,” whether there could be naked singularities—black holes without event horizons—and other weighty matters. Kip Thorne was speculating on time travel and wormholes, and lots of us were writing stories about this fascinating topic in physics.

I bought and read a copy of the monumental textbook
Gravitation
by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler, and managed to understand about a third of it. I read all the popular articles and books I could find on the subject. Somehow I absorbed much of the theory and proceeded to both paint portraits of black holes and write about them.

Here's a black hole story such as Jean Paul Sartre might have written, with no exit. I fancy there's also a touch of Jack Vance. The language is enthusiastically and unabashedly science fictional, and I was quite proud of it at the time.

And wrapped around it all is the tale of my first brush with Jim Baen, Galaxy Magazine, published hard science fiction, my opinions about living forever, and the Walt Disney Studios.

First the story, and then the aftermath.

 

W
altz the night away, woman,
Kamon thought, exuding a base undersmell of fury.
Your husband will be dead soon, and all your property scattered like seeds to hungry birds.
He coiled near the parapet, watching the dancers below execute their moves to strains of Ravel's
La Valse
. He focused on one dancer in particular, dressed in a simple, sheer blue gown, brown hair cut close to her head, thin arms graceful, delicate face lost in the ecstasy of the waltz: Lady Edith Fairchild.

Three small moons hung above the etched glass lamps surrounding the dance floor, one at the horizon above labyrinths of hedgerows, another to the west topping the Centrum Minara, and a third at zenith, the largest. The moonlight gleamed from the polished dance floor, shaded by swirling gowns and white breeches.

“Enjoying the view, I hope,” an old woman said. She had moved up quietly behind him. Kamon swiveled his head and regarded her through multi-faceted eyes, then turned back to look down from the parapet. The old woman wore a plain black robe, revealing by dress if not manner that she was an Abstainer. He recognized her, but he did not wish to release his fury yet.

“It is a bit limited,” he said, his words clipped by a non-human vocal apparatus.

“You can see the entire floor from here,” the woman said. Despite the ominous black in his skin, she would not leave him be.

“The
subject
is limited,” he clarified. “Their pleasures are mindless, don't you think?”

“When I was young I enjoyed such pleasures, and I wasn't mindless. Foolish, to be sure; very foolish.”

“I find it difficult to believe Anna Sigrid Nestor was ever foolish.”

“Kamon, you're getting old, too. You must be twice as old as I am. You know how foolish the young are. No awareness of death.”

“I have been aware of death since I was a few brief days old, Baroness. Do you forget that my kind have no way of reversing age—no
juvenates
, as you call them?” He turned one jewel-like green eye on her but kept the other on the dance floor.

“You'll probably still outlive me.” Nestor stepped up to the parapet and put her hands on the railing. “Keeping an eye on Edith Fairchild, or just dreaming of assassinations and seizures?”

“Your exalted status gives you no right to show me human sarcasm,” Kamon said. “You are not so strong you can feel secure against my kind.”

Nestor's face tightened and her wrinkles deepened. “You're a
wretch
, Kamon.” She turned to stare into his leathery face, dominated by the triangular mouth that articulated so many languages, human and otherwise, so well. Teeth like a lamprey, mind to match: vicious by design.

I am not a bigot, but dear God, I despise his class of Aighors
, Anna thought. “Our pact compels my silence, but I weary of the support of your kind,” she said. “I'm here to rescind our agreement.”

“That will be of advantage no one,” Kamon said, skin assuming a dismal shade of gray-brown.

She took some satisfaction from his discomfiture. “Be quiet until I've finished. I'm disgusted that I've let self-interest blind me to your plans for so long. Disjohn Fairchild is my friend. He is a good man, perhaps a better human than I. I have a duty to such a man, Kamon. Among all of us, his kind is rare, You and I are proof of that.”

Kamon bowed elegantly, long upraised torso supple as a snake. “I will convey your message to the Administers. I am sure they will wish to alter the performance of the next auspices, knowing you are no longer a partner.”

Administers performed auspices—rituals of forward-seeing and propitiation—for dozens of species associated with the mercantile consolidations. Like the Romans of ancient Earth, they sought signs in the deeply imbedded patterns of nature. But none were as fanatically devoted to the practice as the Aighor members of Hafkan Bestmerit.

Anna abhorred judging other species by human standards. If the Aighors wished to sacrifice the most perfect of their young and seek signs in their bowels, so be it. Human considerations meant nothing to them. But she had once attended such a ceremony, and the memory still sickened her.

“Hear me,” she said, drawing herself up. She was pitifully small compared to the Aighor. “I deny the support of Hafkan Bestmerit, and rescind the oath of non-interference. I will do everything I can to prevent your kind from stripping Fairchild of his life and holdings. I will defend him with all my power. That's no small force, Kamon.”

“The Baroness is influential,” the Aighor acknowledged, resorting to third person now that the honorable relationship had been formally ended. He bowed and swung the anterior half of his body into a coil. “But she is not omnipotent. Her weapons are registered. She must answer to the Combine, as all of us do. This makes an interesting challenge.”

Anna fumed at the reminder. “Hafkan Bestmerit wishes to establish stronger ties with United Stars, my allies. Strike against me, and you offend them. You're perched on the horizon of a very dark singularity, Kamon. Beware falling in.”

She walked off, leaving the Aighor to resume his scrutiny of the dance as it came to a close. His three lips pressed tight over forty-eight needle-sharp teeth, an expression of thoughtful concern.

After the final dance, Lady Fairchild made her way through the throngs with a nod here and a word there, smiling to all, face flushed, deporting herself as if in a Jane Austen novel or a scene from Imperial Russia. As soon as she was off the dance floor, however, her demeanor changed. She looked around like a bird, head moving nervously, jerk, jerk, jerk. Her hands trembled. Tiny rivulets glistened on her neck and cheek as she entered the gilded elevator. Her shoulders slumped.

In the upper reaches of the hotel, she climbed a flight of stairs edged with malachite, and at the top, found the door to the Fairchild suite and spoke her name. The door opened.

Inside, she reached to pull up the hem of her gown and sat on the padded bar ringing the sleep field while she undid her shoes. One finger prodded the sleep field button. The bed hummed and she fell back, hair fanning.

Disjohn Fairchild stood over her, his entrance quieter than the sleep field. “What's wrong?” he asked.

“I saw the Aighor,” she answered. “He watched me from the balcony above the dance floor.” Her voice quavered with anger. “They could at least have the decency to hide themselves while they scheme!”

“They're too honest and aboveboard for that,” Disjohn said, sitting beside her. He frowned at the ceramic wall mural, then at his shelves of old books—all as familiar as his own hands. He had no official connections with the Centrum, but his value to them was such that he had used this suite and his billet on the Centrum world for twenty years. It was more than home; it was the repository for his life's work.
Christ,
he thought.
It's my world and all I am, and it can't save me.

But what was there to be afraid of in the short term? The Aighors would not do anything drastic now. They would wait for weeks, months, even years, for a time when he was offworld and away from all his protections. Likely enough they would strike when he went to Shireport to deliver his personal lectures.

They would declare a cultural insult, announce the terms of the vendetta, commandeer his ship if they could, and do away with him cleanly—in deep space. There wasn't a thing Dallat or United Stars could do about that. Complex diplomacy was involved, and Fairchild was not so important that his friends and allies would risk the anger of the Centrum to defend him.

Of course, if he could reach Shireport safely, there were Crocerians who might consent to go with him—paid, say, in data trade preferences for two years. The Aighors wouldn't touch his ship from Shireport to Ansinger with the Crocerians aboard.

When he delivered his lectures at Shireport, he would apply for United Stars zone protection to Ansinger. Ansinger was the largest USC stellar province, ten systems. He could transfer his funds and data banks—those parts he could mobilize and take with him—convert his lands and holdings to transferrable commodities, perhaps yet more data, and establish himself on a terraformed world in undeveloped Ansinger. Buy a continent on Kresham Elak. Set up a school for diplomats' offspring. “Get the hell
away
!” he shouted.

Edith flinched.

He apologized and stroked her long, silky hair. “Thinking about alternatives.” But going to Ansinger meant the loss of most of what he had accomplished here, the subtle nets of interpersonal relations; he would not be able to return to the Centrum world, ever. His wife's life would change, as well.

“Why are they so vindictive?” Edith asked. “You did such a simple thing, so …
innocuous.
You meant no harm or insult. Why go after you, personally? Why not just ask you to remove the station?”

He shook his head. “Not so simple from their point of view.” That had to be their reason; that he had pioneered and promoted the construction of the Precipice Five station. He could think of no other.

The station studied black hole emissions from the Pafloshwa Rift. The Aighors called such emissions
thrina
, and had constructed extensive religious rituals around them. In some way the station had violated tabu—who could know what human words applied, if any?—and the Aighors held Disjohn Fairchild accountable.

“They can't destroy the station,” he said. “It's under United Stars jurisdiction now, thanks to Anna Nestor. If they attack USC personnel, the Centrum has to intervene. That would result in severe restrictions. But I'm under Dallat protection, and Dallat hasn't yet signed a full agreement with the Centrum…. Still a renegade consolidation. Until an agreement is signed, the Aighors can resort to pre-human law and call a cultural vendetta.”

With their early half-understanding of human tongues, the Aighors had called it a “venging.”

“Their laws are so damned complicated,” Edith said, staring at the night-sky ceiling.

“Not really, once you've been around them for a while.”

“You almost make it sound just.”

“Their laws kept interspecies conflict to a minimum for a thousand years before we arrived,” Disjohn said quietly. “Roger Bacon was messing around with crude lenses when the original pacts were established.”

Edith stood up from the sleepfield and unhitched her gown in the back, letting the folds pile themselves auto­matically into a tight, square pile. At fifty she wasn't doing at all badly, he thought, and without yet relying on juven­ates.

As if she were reading his mind in part, she said, “They don't have any way of staying young.”

“So?”

“They don't have any way to prevent death. Maybe that's why they cling to old religions and rituals. It means per­sonal survival after death, or whatever their equivalent is.”

“You mean, what I've done blocks their chances of immortality?”

“They bury their dead in black holes, don't they?”

“Yes, but
before
they die. Pilgrim ships of old and sick.”

“Maybe studying the thing takes it out of religion and puts it into science. Science still says nobody survives after death. Maybe the intellect can't accept what the subconscious—”

“That's archaic,” he said. “And they aren't human, besides. Their psychology is nothing like ours.”

Edith shrugged and lay back on the bed. He crawled in beside her and the lights automatically went out.

What if his actions
had
condemned the Aighors to eternal darkness? He shuddered and closed his eyes tight, trying not to think; above all, not to empathize with his enemies.

Kamon looked across the message spheres on the floor be­fore him and crossed his eyes in irritation. This gave him a double view of the opposite sides of the octagonal room—
gepter
knives hung ceremonially on one wall, over the receiver-altar which periodically reproduced the radio noise of the Thrina as sound; wooden tub next to another wall, filled with mineral water smelling of sulfur and iodine salts.

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