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Authors: Sheri S. Tepper

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BOOK: Raising The Stones
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“Gods of the Owlbrit,” she said impatiently, which made the stage splutter at her in a tiny explosion of red and purple fireworks before the new listing floated by. Most of it was devoted to boring scholarly disputations filed in the Archives since settlement, and she didn’t want any of that. “Original accounts of,” she muttered, wondering why it always took her three or four tries to get anything. “
the Owlbrit,” she instructed, grunting with satisfaction at the appearance of the original interview with the Old One. He or she or it squatted in a corner in turniplike immobility, delicate legs spread like a lace frill at its rump, confronted by one pallid linguist and an Al-sense machine with an irritating squeal in one search drive. All in all, the interview wasn’t notable for either clarity or dramatic impact, but when she’d viewed it through to the end, she knew Birribat had been correct. Old One had said this God, Bondru Dharm, was the last. “Only the Owlbrit last,” said the Old One, giving the linguists something else to argue about.

From the interview alone, it wasn’t clear when the former Gods had been around. However, there were enough remnants of other temples in Settlement One—two of them squatting on high ground beyond the north edge of the settlement and two others clustered near the temple of Bondru Dharm—to answer that question. Since one of the temples north of the settlement was almost complete except for its roof, it was logical to infer at least one other of the Gods had lived in recent historic time.

Sal didn’t need the archives to tell her about the ruins. They had been a topic of settler discussion for years. Should they be razed? Could they be used for something else? Except for the most recent ruin, the rest were only tumbled circles of outer and inner walls, stubby remnants of radiating arches, a few fragments of metal grills, and a few square feet of mosaic. Even the most recent one had no roof, door, or windows, no seats in what must have been the assembly space, though the trough-shaped area wouldn’t have been at all suitable for any human gathering. It was a wonder, considering all the disputation about them, that the ruins had never been disturbed. The two at the center of the settlement certainly occupied sites that could have been put to better use. If Bondru Dharm actually died, the whole question would undoubtedly come up again.

Sal looked up from the frozen images in the stage to find her brother standing beside her, his face not saying much, which was rare for Sam. He usually either grinned or scowled at the world, furrowing his handsome brow and making a gargoyle of himself, managing to evoke some response from even the reluctant or taciturn. Still unspeaking, he sat down next to her, looking preoccupied and rather ill. She could hear many people moving out in the street. The shuffling of feet sounded faintly where there should have been no people before dusk.

“Sam?” she asked. “Was there an accident or something?”

He didn’t answer. She went to the window to see a silent throng gathered down the street, not precisely in front of the temple, more or less to one side of it: several hundred men and women and their children as well—virtually the entire population of the settlement. As she watched, they fell to their knees in one uncontrolled wave of motion. A cry rose in her throat and stayed there as she fell to her own knees, possessed by a feeling of loss so great that she could not speak, could not moan, could only kneel, then bend forward to put her head on the floor, then push out her legs until she was pressed to the floor, utterly flat, arms and hands pressed down, legs apart and pressed down, cheek pressed down, as though to imprint herself deep into the surface below her, knowing in some far-off part of herself that Sam was beside her and that out in the street the whole settlement was lying face down in the dust, possibly never to rise again, because Bondru Dharm had just died.

A day later
, when they came, more or less, to their senses, there was nothing left of the God. The altar, if it had been an altar, was empty and dust-covered by the time the first settler was able to get up off the ground to go look. Birribat was where Sal had left him, in the central chamber, except now he was curled on the floor, covered with fine black dust, dead.

Sam and two or three other people wrapped Birribat’s body loosely in a blanket and carried it out to the north side of town, near the ruined temples, even though the burying ground was nowhere near there. The burying ground was on a hill east of the settlement, but it seemed more fitting to those who took Birribat’s body that a One Who should be buried near a temple, even a ruined temple. They laid him in a shallow grave, and it wasn’t long before people were saying that when a God died, he took his interpreter with him.

But that was after everyone in the settlement lay idly about for eight or nine days, unable to do anything. People started for the fields and then found themselves back in their clanhomes, looking at the walls. People started to cook meals and then found themselves lying on the floor. Mothers went to look at their kids and never got there, and the kids slumped in logy groups, not moving a lot of the time. Even the babies didn’t cry, didn’t seem to be hungry, scarcely wet themselves.

About the tenth day, however, whatever-it-was began to wear off, and someone had enough energy to call Central Management. Within hours there were med-techs and investigators swarming over the place, hungry babies were yelling, and hungry, grumpy people were snapping at each other.

“Has it happened anywhere else,” Sam wanted to know, rubbing his itchy beard and scraping gunk out of the corners of his eyes, feeling as though he’d slept quite badly for about a week. Sam had been in the habit of meeting with a private and personal friend every two or three evenings, rather late, and he had just realized he hadn’t seen his friend since this event began. This made him even more snappish and apprehensive. “Has anything like this happened elsewhere?” he repeated, snarling.

“This is the only settlement built on the site of an Owlbrit village,” the harried med-tech in charge told him as she took a blood sample. “All the other Owlbrit ruins are up on the escarpment. So, no, it hasn’t happened anywhere else.”

“Any ideas about what caused this … this depression?” He could remember feeling depressed and inexpressibly sad, though right now he just felt edgy and annoyed and his legs jumped as though he wanted to run away somewhere.

“One theory is that the thing had some kind of field around it that you’d all gotten used to. Chemical, maybe. Pheromones, possibly. Electromagnetic, less likely. Whatever it was, when it was shut down, you had to readjust.”

“That’s all?” It hardly seemed an adequate explanation to Sam. He was of a mood to be belligerent about it, and only common sense and long experience as a Topman, who had learned more by listening than talking, kept him quiet.

“Isn’t that enough? It’ll keep some of us busy for some little time.”

Sam couldn’t let it alone. “Did the initial Clearance Teams find any kind of field? I mean, nobody objected to the settlement being put here in the first place, did they?” The idea that some carelessness might have taken place only increased his feelings of annoyance. He took a deep breath and controlled himself.

The med-tech was getting a little annoyed herself, and her snappish tone reflected that fact. “Topman, nobody had any reason to. We’ve called up everything available from the Archives and found nothing. Nobody found anything strange at this site except for the thing itself.”

Sam growled wordlessly.

She went on, waving her finger at him. “Since it was sacred to the Owlbrit, the decision was made high-up not to bother the thing except to test for radioactivity or harmful emanations, and there weren’t any. By the time the last of the Owlbrit died, your village seemed to have adopted the God as a mascot, and Central had more important things to deal with than investigating some animal, vegetable, or mineral which wasn’t bothering anyone, which might resent being investigated, and which was, so far as we knew, a unique phenomenon. Until ten days ago, nobody found anything weird about anything.”

Sam shrugged, his best approach to an apology.

The tech sighed. “Speaking of weird, I understand you buried a body elsewhere than in the approved burying ground. That’s a public health matter, and it ought to be reinterred.”

Sam vaguely remembered Birribat had been buried, but he couldn’t remember who had done it, or exactly where, and after a brief and aimless search for the grave, the health people gave up on that.

“You think we’re over the worst?” Sam asked the woman in charge finally, having run out of everything else to ask.

“You’ve been mourning,” the med-tech said. “The psy-techs say the whole settlement had all the symptoms of grief. Even though you didn’t know what you were mourning about, that’s what you were doing. It’s pretty much over, I’d say. The biologists are pissing themselves for not having investigated earlier, but except for that everything is on its way to normal.”

The medical person could be forgiven. She spoke as medical people have often done, out of a habit of authority and reassurance, in a tone that admitted of no doubt or exceptions or awareness of human frailty. She was, as many medical people have always been, dead wrong.

•     •     •

First time visitors
to Hobbs Land, at least those who came on official business, were usually subjected to an orientation session conducted by someone at Central Management. Production Chief Horgy Endure often got stuck with the duty since he did it very well, even though he called his presentation, with stunning unoriginality, “All About Hobbs Land.” On a particular morning not long after the death of Bondru Dharm (which Horgy had had no responsibility toward and had, therefore, ignored), he had a group of five to instruct: two engineers from Phansure (Phansuri engineers being as ubiquitous in System as fleas on a cat, and as itchy, though rather more benign) as well as the latest trio in Horgy’s endless succession of female assistants, three lovelies from Ahabar, not one of whom was actually brainless. The engineers, specialists in robotic design, were going out to Settlement One to meet with Sam Girat, and the lovelies were staying at Central Management to learn what Horgy could teach them. Two of them had already had a sample and longed for more.

Horgy had gathered the five of them in the Executive Staff Room around an information stage, which he had programmed to display eye-riveting visuals concurrent with his well-practiced oral presentation. Horgy enjoyed orientations. He liked the sound of his own voice, which was rich and warm and did not belie the sensual curve of his lips.

When they gathered, the stage was already showing a neat model of the System, the three tiny inner planets twirling in their orbits, then Thyker, Ahabar, the Belt, and finally Phansure. The truncated model included all of the occupied worlds and most of the occupied moons but not the outer planets, which didn’t fit the scale and weren’t important for orientation anyhow. When Horgy cleared his throat, the model gave way to actual holography of the Belt as taken from a survey ship, skimming past Bounce and Pedaria and a few of the other fifteen-thousand Belt worlds, the stage pointing out, unnecessarily, that though some of the Belt worlds were settled, some were merely named, while others were only numbered and not even surveyed yet. Belt worlds were tiny to smallish, by and large, a few with native life, some with atmosphere of their own, some with atmosphere factories, many of them with great light-focusing sun-sails behind them, gathering warmth to make the crops grow, farm worlds for the System.

“This world we now call Hobbs Land,” said Horgy, watching it swim up on cue, a tannish-green blob with an angular darker green belt, blue at its poles, fishbone striped by wispy clouds slanting in from the polar oceans to the equator, “was mapped and sampled by the unmanned survey ship,
Theosphes K. Phaspe
, some sixty lifeyears ago. About twenty years later, when the relative orbits of Phansure and the newly mapped planet made the attempt economically feasible, Hobbs Land was optioned for settlement by Hobbs Transystem Foods, under the direction of Mysore Hobbs I.”

“Mysore One died last year,” said the older of the two Phansuris to one of the lovelies. “Marvelous old man, Mysore. Mysore Two’s running things now.”

Horgy smiled acknowledgement without missing a beat. “Transystem headquarters on Phansure sent a settlement ship with parts for a continuous feed Door and the requisite technicians.”

The stage showed the technicians putting the Door together, leaping about like fleas. The newly assembled Door glittered with blue fire as construction materials, men, and machines began coming through on a continuous belt. Time-jump holography showed men and machines creating the Central Management structures—administration tower, equipment and repair, warehouses, staff and visitor housing blocks, and recreation complex—all of them sprouting from the ground like mushrooms. At the top of the Admin building, a sign flashed red and yellow:
HOBBS LAND, a Farm Settlement World of TRANSYSTEM FOODS.

Horgy went on, “Construction of the Central Management complex was already well underway when on-planet surveyors discovered that the world, which had been thought to be uninhabited, was actually the home of the Owlbrit people, a presumably ancient race, only twelve of whom were still living at the time of first contact.”

Visuals of tiny villages, tiny round houses, fat, turnip-shaped creatures dragging laboriously about on their fragile legs.

“Only twelve of them?” asked Theor Close, the older of the two Phansuri engineers, “Were there really only twelve?”

“Only twelve,” said Horgy, firmly. “That is, only twelve anybody could find. Plus three or four of their Gods, and all but one of them died immediately.”

“That’s sad,” said one of the female assistants, a willowy blonde with impossible eyelashes. “Even though they’re not very pretty.”

Horgy smiled at her, his meltingly adoring smile, the smile that had convinced whole legions of female assistants—Horgy never had anything else—that each of them was the most wonderful woman in the universe. “It was sad,” he admitted, his voice throbbing. “Though, you’re right, they weren’t pretty.”

BOOK: Raising The Stones
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