Chapter 6

 

It requires nothing less than a chivalric feeling to sustain a conversation with a lady.

– Journal, 1851

Although it was cooler in the shade of the hover, Spur was far from comfortable. He couldn’t help thinking of what would happen if the engine failed. He would have felt more confident if the hover had been making some kind of noise; the silent, preternatural effortlessness of the ship unnerved him. Meanwhile, he was fast realizing that Memsen had not wanted to meet him in order to make friends.

Let’s understand one another,” she said. “We’re here very much against our will. You should know, that by summoning us to this place, you’ve put the political stability of dozens of worlds at risk. We very much regret that the High Gregory has decided to follow his luck to this place.”

She was an upsider so Spur had no idea how to read her. The set of her shoulders flustered him, as did the way her knees bent as she stooped to his level. She showed him too many teeth and it was clear that she wasn’t smiling. And why did she pinch the air? With a great effort Spur tore his gaze away from her and looked to Ngonda to see if he knew what she was talking about. The deputy gave him nothing.

I’m not sure that I summoned the High Gregory, exactly,” Spur said. “I did talk to him.”

About your war.”

Constant Ngonda looked nervous. “Allworthy Memsen, I’m sure that Prosper didn’t understand the implications of contacting you. The Transcendent State is under a cultural — ”

We grant that you have your shabby deniability.” She redirected her displeasure toward the deputy. “Nevertheless, we suspect that your government instructed this person to contact the High Gregory, knowing that he’d come. There’s more going on here than you care to say, isn’t there?”

Excuse me,” said Spur, “but this really was an accident.” Both Memsen and Ngonda stared at him as if he had corncobs stuck in his ears. “What happened was that I searched on my name but couldn’t find anyone but me and then the tell at the hospital suggested the High Gregory as an alternative because our names are so similar.” He spoke rapidly, worried that they’d start talking again before he could explain everything. “So I sent him a greeting. It was totally random — I didn’t know who he was, I swear it. And I wasn’t really expecting to make contact, since I’d been talking to bots all morning and not one was willing to connect me. In fact, your bot was about to cut me off when he came on the tell. The High Gregory, I mean.”

So.” Memsen clicked the rings on her fingers together. “He mentioned none of this to us.”

He probably didn’t know.” Spur edged just a centimeter away from her toward the sunlight. The more he thought about it, the more he really wanted to get out from under the hover.

Ngonda spoke with calm assurance. “There, you see that Prosper’s so-called request is based on nothing more than coincidence and misunderstanding.” He batted at a fat orange needlebug that was buzzing his head. “The Cooperative regrets that you have come all this way to no good purpose.”

Memsen reared suddenly to her full height and gazed down on the two of them. “There are no coincidences,” she said, “only destiny. The High Gregory makes the luck he was meant to have. He’s here, and he has brought the L’ung to serve as witnesses. Our reason for being on this world has yet to be discovered.” She closed her eyes for several moments. While she considered Spur’s story she made a low, repetitive plosive sound: pa-pa-pa-ptt. “But this is deeper than we first suspected,” she mused.

Spur caught a glimpse of a head peeking out of the hatch above him. It ducked back into the hover immediately.

So,” Memsen said at last, “let’s choose to believe you, Prosper Gregory of Walden.” She eyed him briefly; whatever she saw in his face seemed to satisfy her. “You’ll have to show us the way from here. Your way. The High Gregory’s luck has chosen you to lead us until we see for ourselves the direction in which we must go.”

Lead you? Where?”

Wherever you’re going.”

But I’m just on my way home. To Littleton.”

She clicked her rings. “So.”

I beg your pardon, Allworthy Memsen,” said Ngonda, tugging at the collar of his shirt, “but you must realize that’s impossible under our Covenant… .”

It is the nature of luck to sidestep the impossible,” she said. “We speak for the High Gregory when we express our confidence that you’ll find a way.”

She had so mastered the idiom of command that Spur wasn’t sure whether this was a threat or a promise. Either way, it gave Ngonda pause.

Allworthy, I’d like nothing better than to accommodate you in this,” he said. “Walden is perhaps the least of the Thousand Worlds, but even here we’ve heard of your efforts to help preserve the one true species.” A bead of sweat dribbled down his forehead. “But my instructions are to accommodate your requests within reason. Within reason, Allworthy. It is not reasonable to land a hover in the commons of a village like Littleton. You must understand that these are country people.”

She pointed at Spur. “Here is one of your country people.”

Memsen!” shouted a voice from the top of the ramp. “Memsen, I am so bored. Either bring him up right now or I’m coming down.”

Her tongue flicked to the corner of her mouth. “You wouldn’t like it,” she called back, “it’s very hot.” Which was definitely true, although as far as Spur could tell, the weather had no effect on her. “There are bugs.”

That’s it!” The High Gregory of Kenning, Phosphorescence of the Eternal Radiation and luck maker of the L’ung, scampered down the ramp of the hover.

There,” he said, “I did it, so now don’t tell me to go back.” He was wearing green sneakers with black socks, khaki shorts and a t-shirt with a pix of a dancing turtle, which had a human head. “Spur! You look sadder than you did before.” He had knobby knees and fair skin and curly brown hair. If he had been born in Littleton, Spur would’ve guessed that he was ten years old. “Did something bad happen to you? Say something. Do you still talk funny like you did on the tell?”

Spur had a hundred questions but he was so surprised that all he could manage was, “Why are you doing this?”

Why?” The boy’s yellow eyes opened wide. “Why, why, why?” He stooped to pick up a handful of the blackened litter and examined it with interest, shifting it around on his open palm. “Because I got one of my luck feelings when we were talking. They’re not like ideas or dreams or anything so I can’t explain them very well. They’re just special. Memsen says they’re not like the feelings that other people get, but that it’s all right to have them and I guess it is.” He twirled in a tight circle then, flinging the debris in a wide scatter. “And that’s why.” He rubbed his hands on the front of his shorts and approached Spur. “Am I supposed to shake hands or kiss you? I can’t remember.”

Ngonda stepped between Spur and the High Gregory as if to protect him. “The custom is to shake hands.”

But I shook with you already.” He tugged at Ngonda’s sleeve to move him aside. “You have hardly any luck left, friend Constant. I’m afraid it’s all pretty much decided with you.” When the deputy failed to give way, the High Gregory dropped to all fours and scooted through his legs. “Hello, Spur,” said the boy as he scrambled to his feet. The High Gregory held out his hand and Spur took it.

Spur was at once aware that he was sweaty from the heat of the day, while the boy’s hand was cool as river rock. He could feel the difference in their size: the High Gregory’s entire hand fit in his palm and weighed practically nothing.

Friend Spur, you have more than enough luck,” the boy murmured, low enough so that only Spur could hear. “I can see we’re going to have an adventure.”

Stay up there,” cried Memsen. “No!” She was glowering up the ramp at the hatch, which had inexplicably filled with kids who were shouting at her. Spur couldn’t tell which of them said what.

When do we get our turn?”

You let the Greg off.”

We came all this way.”

He’s bored? I’m more bored.”

Hey move, you’re in my way!”

But I want to see too.”

Several in the back started to chant. “Not fair, not fair!”

Memsen ground her toes into the fake forest floor. “We have to go now,” she said. “If we let them off the hover, it’ll take hours to round them up.”

I’ll talk to them.” High Gregory bounded up the ramp, making sweeping motions with his hands. “Back, get back, this isn’t it.” The kids fell silent. “We’re not there yet. We’re just stopping to pick someone up.” He paused halfway up and turned to the adults. “Spur is coming, right?”

Ngonda was blotting sweat from around his eyes with a handkerchief. “If he chooses.” He snapped it with a quick flick of the wrist and then stuffed it into his pocket, deliberately avoiding eye contact with Spur.

Spur could feel his heart pounding. He’d wanted to fly ever since he’d realized that it was possible and didn’t care if simplicity counseled otherwise. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to be responsible for bringing all these upsiders to Littleton.

So.” Memsen must have mistaken his hesitation for fear. “You have never been in a hover, Prosper Gregory of Walden?”

Call him Spur,” said the High Gregory. “It doesn’t mean you have to have sex with him.”

Memsen bowed to Spur. “He has not yet invited us to take that familiarity.”

Yes, please call me Spur.” He tried not to think about having sex with Memsen. “And yes,” he picked up his kit, “I’ll come with you.”

Lead then.” She indicated that he should be first up the ramp. Ngonda followed him. Memsen came last, climbing slowly with her small and painstakingly accurate steps.

As he approached the top of the ramp, the coolness of the hover’s interior washed over him. It was like wading into Mercy’s Creek. He could see that the kids had gathered around the High Gregory. There were about a dozen of them in a bay that was about six by ten meters. Boxes and containers were strapped to the far bulkhead.

Now where are we going?”

When do we get to see the fire?”

Hey, who’s that?”

Most of the kids turned to see him step onto the deck. Although well lit, the inside of the hover was not as bright as it had been outside. Spur blinked as his eyes adjusted to the difference.

This is Spur,” said the High Gregory. “We’re going to visit his village. It’s called Littleton.”

Why? Are they little there?”

A girl of six or perhaps seven sidled over to him. “What’s in your bag?” She was wearing a dress of straw-colored brocade that hung down to her silk slippers. The gold chain around her neck had a pendant in the shape of a stylized human eye. Spur decided that it must be some kind of costume.

He slung his kit off his shoulder and set it down in front of her so she could see. “Just my stuff.”

It’s not very big,” she said doubtfully. “Do you have something in there for me?”

Your Grace,” said Memsen, putting a hand on the girl’s shoulder, “we are going to leave Spur alone for now.” She turned the girl around and gave her a polite nudge toward the other kids. “You’ll have to forgive them,” she said to Spur. “They’re used to getting their own way.”