Chapter 3


It takes two to speak the truth — one to speak and another to hear.

– A Week on the Concord and Merrimack rivers

Hello, hello,” said the boy. “Who is doing his talk, please?”

Spur struggled to keep his voice from squeaking. “My name is Prosper Gregory Leung.”

The boy frowned and pointed at the bottom of the screen. “Walden, it tells? I have less than any idea of Walden.”

It’s a planet.”

And tells that it’s wrongful to think too hard on planet Walden? Why? Is your brain dry?”

I think.” Spur was taken aback. “We all think.” Even though he thought he was being insulted, Spur didn’t want to snap the connection — not yet anyway. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

The words coming out of the speakers did not seem to match what the boy was saying. His lips barely moved, yet what Spur heard was, “I’m the High Gregory, Phosphorescence of Kenning, energized by the Tortoise of Eternal Radiation.” Spur realized that the boy was probably speaking another language and that what he was hearing was a translation. Spur had been expecting the censors built into the tell to buzz this conversation like they had buzzed so much of his chat with Leaf Benkleman, but maybe bad translation was just as effective.

That’s interesting,” said Spur cautiously. “And what is it that you do there on Kenning?”

Do?” The High Gregory rubbed his nose absently. “Oh, do! I make luck.”

Really? People can do that on the upside?”

What is the upside?”

Space, you know.” Spur waved an arm over his head and glanced upward.

The High Gregory frowned. “Prosper Gregory Leung breathes space?”

No, I breathe air.” He realized that the tell might easily be garbling his end of the conversation as well. “Only air.” He spoke slowly and with exaggerated precision. “We call the Thousand Worlds the upside. Here. On my world.”

The High Gregory still appeared to be confused.

On this planet.” He gestured at the hospital room. “Planet Walden. We look up at the stars.” He raised his hand to his brow, as if sighting on some distant landmark. “At night.” Listening to himself babble, Spur was certain that the High Gregory must think him an idiot. He had to change the subject, so he tapped his chest. “My friends call me Spur.”

The High Gregory shook his head with a rueful smile. “You give me warmth, Spur, but I turn away with regret from the kind offer to enjoy sex with you. Memsen watches to see that I don’t tickle life until I have enough of age.”

Aghast, Spur sputtered that he had made no such offer, but the High Gregory, appearing not to hear, continued to speak.

You have a fullness of age, friend Spur. Have you found a job of work on planet Walden?”

You’re asking what I do for a living?”

All on planet Walden are living, I hope. Not saved?”

Yes, we are.” Spur grimaced. He rose from the tell and retrieved his wallet from the nightstand beside the bed. Maybe pix would help. He flipped through a handful in his wallet until he came to the one of Comfort on a ladder picking apples. “Normally I tend my orchards.” He held the pix up to the tell to show the High Gregory. “I grow many kinds of fruit on my farm. Apples, peaches, apricots, pears, cherries. Do you have these kinds of fruit on Kenning?”

Grape trees, yes.” The High Gregory leaned forward in his throne and smiled. “And all of apples: apple pie and apple squeeze and melt apples.” He seemed pleased that they had finally understood one another. “But you are not normal?”

No. I mean yes, I’m fine.” He closed the wallet and pocketed it. “But… how do I say this? There is fighting on my world.” Spur had no idea how to explain the complicated grievances of the pukpuks and the fanaticism that led some of them to burn themselves alive to stop the spread of the forest and the Transcendent State. “There are other people on Walden who are very angry. They don’t want my people to live here. They wish the land could be returned to how it was before we came. So they set fires to hurt us. Many of us have been called to stop them. Now instead of growing my trees, I help to put fires out.”

Very angry?” The High Gregory rose from his throne, his face flushed. “Fighting?” He punched at the air. “Hit-hit-hit?”

Not exactly fighting with fists,” said Spur. “More like a war.”

The High Gregory took three quick steps toward the tell at his end. His face loomed large on Spur’s screen. “War fighting?” He was clearly agitated; his cheeks flushed and the yellow eyes were fierce. “Making death to the other?” Spur had no idea why the High Gregory was reacting this way. He didn’t think the boy was angry exactly, but then neither of them had proved particularly adept at reading the other. He certainly didn’t want to cause some interstellar incident.

I’ve said something wrong. I’m sorry.” Spur bent his head in apology. “I’m speaking to you from a hospital. I was wounded… fighting a fire. Haven’t quite been myself lately.” He gave the High Gregory a self-deprecating smile. “I hope I haven’t given offense.”

The High Gregory made no reply. Instead he swept from his throne, down a short flight of steps into what Spur could now see was a vast hall. The boy strode past rows of carved wooden chairs, each of them a unique marvel, although none was quite as exquisite as the throne that they faced. The intricate beaded mosaic on the floor depicted turtles in jade and chartreuse and olive. Phosphorescent sculptures stretched like spider webs from the upper reaches of the walls to the barrel-vaulted ceiling, casting ghostly silver-green traceries of light on empty chairs beneath. The High Gregory was muttering as he passed down the central aisle but whatever he was saying clearly overwhelmed the tell’s limited capacity. All Spur heard was, “War Memsen witness there our luck call the L’ung… .”

At that, Spur found himself looking once again at a shining green turtle resting on a rock on a muddy river. “The High Gregory of Kenning regrets that he is otherwise occupied at the moment,” it said. “I note with interest that your greeting originates from a jurisdiction under a consensual cultural quarantine. You should understand that it is unlikely that the High Gregory, as luck maker of the L’ung, would risk violating your covenants by having any communication with you.”

Except I just got done talking to him,” said Spur.

I doubt that very much.” The turtle drew itself up on four human feet and stared coldly through the screen at him. “This conversation is concluded,” it said. “I would ask that you not annoy us again.”

Wait, I —” said Spur, but he was talking to a dead screen.