Nancy Kress - Crossfire 02 (7 page)

BOOK: Nancy Kress - Crossfire 02
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6

MIRA CITY

Y
ou’ve accomplished an amazing amount, sir,” Julian Martin said to Jake. “For fifty years, it is impressive.”

“Thank you,” Jake said, and Alex thought,
Jake doesn’t like him.

The thought made her angry. There was no reason not to like Julian, nor the other Terrans, nor this party, which everyone else thought was wonderful.

The party was held in the Mausoleum, in the large empty space on the first floor used for whatever rare event couldn’t be held outdoors. Siddalee had done wonders in a short time; her efficiency was, in Julian’s favorite word, impressive. Of course, she’d had a lot of help. Everyone wanted to meet the Terrans, aid the Terrans, attend the party for the Terrans. Ashraf’s assistant had been in charge of the invitation list, and by now the poor man had the ground-down, besieged look of a trapped frabbit.

Some giggling Arab girls had hung so many wildflowers on the Mausoleum’s plain foamcast walls that it looked like a temporary garden. The park’s heavy tables and benches had been moved inside and draped with wraps in a rainbow of bright colors, emptying many people’s wardrobes. The tables were covered with little cakes and cookies in baskets woven of tangmoss vines; the baskets gave off their own spicy fragrance. Sturdy glasses of plant-based plastics held fruit ades, bennilin tea, and Terran coffee, which had needed only a little genetic modification to flourish on Greentrees. A music cube, still in working order after fifty years, played bright tunes. Everyone had dressed up, tying their wraps in interesting and, among the young, daring styles. All in all, Alex thought, nobody could offer a more elegant party, even on Terra.

Julian and Alex sat on a bench beside Jake’s wheelchair. The old man was wrapped in a blanket; the night had turned unexpectedly chill. Julian said, “My people are overwhelmed with your kindness in housing all of us so promptly. You spared us months in inflatables.”

“I remember living in those,” Jake said, not smiling. “All your people are downstairs?”

“All but the few on the
Crucible
with your physicists. They requested a thorough grounding in the drive and weapons, you know, and of course we’re happy to comply.”

There,
Alex smirked at Jake behind Julian’s back. Jake had drawn up a private list of his “requirements” for the Terrans, and unfettered access to the ship had been one of them. Jake ignored her.

While still aboard the
Crucible,
Alex had questioned the Terranss about their ship. She’d tried to be brisk and professional to these intimidating aliens. “We’re interested, of course, in an exchange of resources, Commander Mar… uh, Julian. What we have to offer you are all the biological adaptations we’ve made of Greentrees flora and fauna to human needs. We can save your geneticists decades of experimentation. And in exchange…” She’d waited expectantly.

“In exchange, my people will gladly see what can be adapted from the
Crucible
to Mira City’s needs,” Julian said, beckoning to a woman to step forward. “This is Lt. Aliya Mwakambe, my chief engineer. She’ll be aiding you.”

“Hello,” Alex said. Lieutenant Mwakambe, almost a head taller than Alex, had rich brown skin and eyes even more beautiful than Julian Martin’s, brilliant gold genemod eyes flecked with silver. Alex felt drab beside her but plunged ahead anyway. “Lieutenant, we can use—”

“This can wait, I think, Alex,” said Ashraf, with his timid but unfailing courtesy. “Our guests haven’t even arrived downstairs yet!” Everyone had laughed.

Now Alex spotted Lieutenant Mwakambe across the crowded room, but a party didn’t seem the right place to grill her, either. Alex turned again to Julian. “And is everyone who’s downstairs here at the party?”

Julian glanced around. Knots of Terrans, immediately noticeable for height, beauty, and their sleek uniforms, stood talking to larger groups of admiring Greenies. Alex had met most of the scientists, but she couldn’t yet keep them all straight.

Julian said, “My brother has not yet arrived. He’s housed with Governor Mah, whom I also don’t see.”

There were two hundred people jammed into the Mausoleum. How could Julian know who was there and who was not? Yet Alex didn’t doubt that he did.

She said, “I didn’t realize your brother came with you! Is he a scientist?”

Julian smiled. “No. He’s not a scientist.”

Jake said, with sudden aggression, “This party must look pretty paltry to you, compared with diplomatic entertaining on Earth.”

“On the contrary, it has a refreshing simplicity.”

Simplicity? Alex looked again at the bright tables, lavish food— why, there were even “candles,” newly reinvented and marketed by Chu Corporation. The pretty scented things weren’t necessary for lighting, but they looked so festive! How was this party simple?

Jake said, “What are your plans, Commander Martin? Will you return to Earth with your research about the Furs, since Terra no longer has quee capacity? Or are you colonists here?”

Alex blinked. Colonists?

Julian said quietly, “We aren’t yet sure of our plans, sir. Certainly some of the scientists, at least, will want to return, although of course they will be bringing data to a world a hundred years older than they left it. Some of us may remain on Greentrees. You are open to colonists, I assume?”

“Of course!” Alex said warmly.

“And now, if I may ask a few questions?” Julian was clearly addressing Jake.

“Go ahead,” he said ungraciously.

“I look around and I see much purple vegetation. Yet you named the planet ’Greentrees.’ Why is that?”

Alex laughed. “The First Landing named it before they got here. They had probe reports that a rhodopsin analogue was the dominant photosynthesant, but they called it Greentrees anyway.”

“I see,” Julian said. “Pure planetary perversity.”

“Something like that,” Alex said. She was delighted with his alliterative phrase, but Julian was still addressing Jake, not her.

“I understand from Alex that you have been the most prominent voice in urging strong preparations to defend Greentrees against a possible Fur attack. I’ve been told the history of Greentrees, Vines, and Furs, and I think you are completely in the right. May I ask what you think we can do to help?”

Jake’s face changed. Surprise, suspicion, triumph—emotions, flitted across his wrinkled features with the defenselessness of the old. “You agree that a stronger defense is needed?”

“I think it should be Mira City’s overriding priority. I recognize that I speak as a military man, but I can see it no other way.”

Jake burst out, “I told you, Alex!”

She said to Julian, “You’ve made a friend.”

“Friendship isn’t my aim, and I doubt Mr. Holman’s is to be bought that easily,” Julian said gravely. “But I am intensely interested in his views on this.”

“Ah, but dear Julian is interested in everything,” said another voice, and Alex turned and stared.

The man who stood beside the bench was the most fantastic figure she had ever imagined. All over the room people had stopped talking to gape at him. Unlike the rest of the Terrans, he stood about five foot ten, and his eyes lacked their agate, catlike brilliance. They were gray, the color of Alex’s own, and his hair was an unremarkable dark brown, worn long and tied back at the nape. But his clothes! He wore a jacket of some red material like animal fur, except it was not animal fur, padded at the shoulders and sewn with inserts of shiny white cloth. Tight white pants revealed everything about his genitals. Tall black boots, a short black cape, and some sort of hat with, of all things,
a feather
in it, like a Cheyenne only larger and more flamboyant. And gloves, although no one but Jake thought the Mausoleum was cold.

Julian said, “Alex, Mr. Holman, may I present my brother, Duncan Martin. Duncan, this is Jake Holman, organizer of the first expedition to Greentrees, and Alexandra Cutler, second consul of the triumvirate of Mira City.”

“Consuls and triumvirates! Oh, Julian, I see that you have indeed come to the right place!”

Alex had been intending to say hello, but at Duncan Martin’s voice she forgot. She had thought Julian’s deep voice beautiful—it
was
beautiful—but Duncan’s sounded scarcely human to her. It was musical not only in its inflections but in a sort of background chords, a harmony to the spoken tones … human vocal chords couldn’t do that, could they? Was it genemod? The double tones somehow echoed in her ear, each syllable both distinct and resonating, a tenor vibrato of enormous power.

Duncan smiled at her and bowed. “My dear Madame Consul. And you, sir.”

Jake said flatly, “Falstaff?”

“Oh, no, no! How could you think so? Mercutio, of course.”

“Or a satire on Mercutio.”

“Is there any other way to play it, really?”

Alex had no idea what they were talking about. She looked at Julian, who said expressionlessly, “My brother is an actor.”

“Eternally,” Duncan said. “All the world, and all that. You are a thespian, Mr. Holman?”

“No.”

“A fan?”

“No.”

“Pity. Well, we must take our audience where we find it. You, Madame Consul, must enjoy the theater.”

“We don’t use titles like ’consul,’” Alex blurted. “And we don’t have a theater on Greentrees.”

“Not as yet,” Duncan said, and smiled at her so richly that she was once more robbed of speech. What was he? A joke? Or did he consider them to be a joke? But why should he want to laugh at Mira City, and why should Julian let him?

Julian was watching her. “My brother is always like this, Alex. In that he told the truth: to him the world always
is
a stage. If he were not so good an actor— when he isn’t mocking himself, of course—someone would have murdered him long ago for his aggressive self-promotion.”

“And who else should promote me?” Duncan asked. “Or the company I will found in Mira City? I assure you, Madame Cutler, that when you hear me give my King Lear, you will forgive me any small excesses.”

“Unfortunately for public decorum,” said Julian, “Duncan is right. You will forgive him anything.”

Jake said nothing. Alex, at a complete loss how to reply, was saved by the arrival of Lau-Wah Mah. The Chinese man’s calm was not even dented by the weird figure of Duncan Martin.

“I am Lau-Wah Mah, Commander Martin. Welcome to Greentrees.”

“Thank you. We are delighted to be here. May I present my brother, Duncan Martin, who was just going to bring me a glass of tea. Would you care for one?”

“No, thank you. Hello, Mr. Martin.”

“And farewell. I search in vain, I see, for the sweetest fruit of the royal grape.”

All four people watched Duncan walk away, stop at another group, and introduce himself. Alex said, “What’s a grape?”

“Terran fruit,” Jake said, “often fermented to produce intoxicating beverages.”

“Well, I can get Duncan a fizzie, I think. Or some Blue Lion. They’re not officially offered at the party, of course, but I think that—”

“The last thing Duncan needs is more intoxication,” Julian said. “Governor Mah, Alex has been showing me around. What your triumvirate has accomplished here is impressive.”

Lau-Wah studied Julian. “We don’t officially use the term ’triumvirate.’ It just originated as a joke of Jake’s. Ours is a pretty informal society.”

“As ours is not. I’m sure you all perceived that. I suppose that manners, like everything else, go in cycles. When I left Earth, good society had gone formal again.”

Good society? What was that? wondered Alex, aware that all her life she had essentially known only one society. But that wasn’t right, was it, in light of what Lau-Wah had told her two weeks ago. Greentrees had more separate, and separated, societies than she had been aware of.

She said to Julian, “Why did your brother say that you came to the right place when he heard the words ’consul’ and ’triumvirate’?”

“I have an interest in the history of ancient Rome.”

“In the empire,” Jake said flatly.

“No, more in the military movements of the republic.”

Lau-Wah said, “I’m afraid you will find each successive generation on Greentrees less interested in Terran history than the one before. For our young people, Earth is so remote.”

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