The gender war on Teichman Station was tense enough before Fritz Pathori brought a genetically engineered sex slave aboard . . .
In the Month of Athyr

The Trials of Women
Image: Aleksandr Prokopenko (ekina / 123RF Stock Photo)
In the month of Athyr      Leucis fell asleep.
— C.P. Cavafy, “In the Month of Athyr”
The argala came to live with them on the last day of Mestris, when Paul was fifteen. High summer, it would have been by the old Solar calendar; but in the HORUS station it was dusk, as it always was. The older boys were poring over an illustrated manual of sexual positions by the sputtering light of a lumiere filched from Father Dorothy’s cache behind the galley refrigerator. Since Paul was the youngest he had been appointed to act as guard. He crouched beside the refrigerator, shivering in his pajamas, and cursed under his breath. He had always been the youngest, always would be the youngest. There had been no children born on the station since Father Dorothy arrived to be the new tutor. In a few months, Father Dorothy had converted Teichman Station’s few remaining women to the Mysteries of Lysis. Father Dorothy was a galli, a eunuch who had made the ultimate sacrifice to the Great Mother during one of the high holy days Below. The Mysteries of Lysis was a relatively new cult. Its adherents believed that only by reversing traditional gender roles could the sexes make peace after their long centuries of open hostility. These reversals were enacted literally, often to the consternation of non-believing children and parents.

On the stations, it was easier for such unusual sects and controversial ideas to gain a toehold, and the Mysteries had made quite an impact. This was not surprising. The current ruling Ascendancy embraced a particularly repellent form of religious fundamentalism, a cunning synthesis of the more extreme elements of several popular and ancient faiths. For instance, the Ascendants encouraged female infanticide among certain populations, including the easily-monitored network of facilities that comprised the Human Orbital Research Units in Space, or HORUS. Because of recent advances in bioengineering, the Ascendants believed that women, long known to be psychologically mutable and physically unstable, might also soon be unnecessary. Thus were the heavily reviled feminist visionaries of earlier centuries unhappily vindicated. Thus the absence of girl children on Teichman, as well as the rift between the few remaining women and their husbands.

To the five young boys who were his students, Father Dorothy’s devotion to the Mysteries was inspiring, if not downright terrifying. Their parents were also impressed. Since his arrival, relations between men and women had grown even more strained. Paul’s mother was now a man, and his father had taken to spending most of his days in the station’s neural sauna, letting its wash of endorphins slowly erode his once-fine intellect to a soft soppy blur. The argala was to change all that.

“Pathori,” hissed Claude Illo, tossing an empty salt-pod at Paul’s head. “Pathori, come here!”

Paul rubbed his nose and squinted. A few feet away Claude and the others, the twins Reuben and Romulus and the beautiful Ira Claire, crouched over the box of exotic poses.

“Pathori, come here!”

Claude’s voice cracked. Ira giggled; a moment later Paul winced as he heard Claude smack him.

“I mean it,” Claude warned. Paul sighed, flicked the salt-pod in Ira’s direction and scuttled after it.

“Look at this,” Claude whispered. He grabbed Paul by the neck and forced his head down until his nose was a scant inch away from the hologravures. The top image was of a woman, strictly forbidden. She was naked, which made it doubly forbidden, and with a man, and smiling. It was that smile that made the picture particularly damning; according to Father Dorothy, a woman in such a position would never enjoy being there. The woman in the gravure turned her face, tossing back hair that was long and impossibly blonde. For an instant Paul glimpsed the man sitting next to her. He was smiling too. Like the woman he had the ruddy cheeks and even teeth Paul associated with antique photographs or tapes. The figures began to move suggestively. Paul’s head really should explode, now. He started to look away, embarrassed and aroused, when behind him Claude swore —

“— move, damn it, it’s Dorothy! —”

But it was too late.

“Boys . . .

Father Dorothy’s voice rang out, a hoarse tenor. Paul looked up and saw him, clad as always in salt-and-pepper tweeds, his long grey hair pulled back through a copper loop. “It’s late; you shouldn’t be here.”

They were safe: Their tutor was distracted. He looked behind him, past the long sweep of the galley’s gleaming equipment to where a tall figure stood in the shadows. Claude swept the box of hologravures beneath a stove and stood, kicking Paul and Ira and gesturing for the twins to follow him.

“Sorry, Father,” he grunted, gazing at his feet. Beside him Paul tried not to stare at whoever it was that stood at the end of the narrow corridor.

“Go along, then,” said Father Dorothy, waving his hands in the direction of the boys’ dormitory. As they hurried past him, Paul could smell the sandalwood soap Father Dorothy had specially imported from his home Below, the only luxury he allowed himself. And Paul smelled something else, something strange. The scent made him stop. He looked back and saw the figure still standing at the end of the galley, as though afraid to enter while the boys were there. Now that they seemed to be gone the figure began to walk towards Father Dorothy, picking its feet up with exaggerated delicacy. Paul stared, entranced.

“Move it, Pathori,” Claude called back to him, but Paul shook his head and stayed where he was. Father Dorothy had his back to them. One hand was outstretched to the figure. Despite its size — it was taller than Paul, taller than Father Dorothy — there was something fragile and childlike about it. Thin and slightly stooped, with wispy yellow hair like feathers falling onto curved thin shoulders, frail arms crossed across its chest and legs that were so long and frail that he could see why it walked in that awkward tippy-toe manner: If it fell its legs would snap like chopsticks. It smelled like nothing else on Teichman Station, sweet and powdery and warm. Once, Paul thought, his mother had smelled like that, before she went to stay in the women’s quarters. But this thing looked nothing like his mother. As he stared, it slowly lifted its face, until he could see its enormous eyes fixed on him: caramel-colored eyes threaded with gold and black, staring at him with a gaze that was utterly adoring and absolutely witless.

“Paul, come on!”

Ira tugged at him until he turned away and stumbled after the others to the dormitory. For a long time afterwards he lay awake, trying to ignore the laughter and muffled sounds coming from the other beds, recalling the creature’s golden eyes, its walk, its smell.

At tutorial the next day Father Dorothy said nothing of finding the boys in the galley, nor did he mention his strange companion. Paul yawned behind the time-softened covers of an ancient linguistics text, waiting for Romulus to finish with the monitor so he could begin his lesson. In the front of the room, beneath flickering lamps that cast grey shadows on the dusty floor, Father Dorothy patiently went over a hermeneutics lesson with Ira, who was too stupid to follow his father into the bioengineering corps, but whose beauty and placid nature guaranteed him a place in the Izakowa priesthood on Miyako Station. Paul stared over his textbook at Ira with his corkscrew curls and dusky skin. He thought of the creature in the galley — its awkwardness, its pallor, the way it had stared at him. But mostly he tried to remember how it smelled. Because on Teichman Station — where they had been breathing the same air for seventeen years and where even the most common herbs and spices, cinnamon, garlic, pepper, were no longer imported because of the expense to the the station’s dwindling group of researchers — on Teichman Station everything smelled the same. Everything smelled of despair.

“Father Dorothy.”

Paul looked up. A server, one of the few that remained in working order, lurched into the little room, its wheels scraping against the door. Claude snickered and glanced sideways at Paul: The server belonged to Paul’s mother, although after her conversion she had declared it shared property amongst all the station women. “Father Dorothy, KlausMaria Dalven asks that her son be sent to her quarters. She wishes to speak with him.” Father Dorothy looked up from the monitor cradled in his hand. He smiled wryly at the ancient server and looked back at Paul.

“Go ahead,” he said. Ira gazed enviously as Paul shut his book and slid it into his desk, then followed the server to the women’s quarters.

His mother and the other women lived at the far end of the Solar Walk, the only part of Teichman where one could see outside into space and realize that they were, indeed, orbiting the moon and not stuck in some cramped Airbus outside of New Delhi or one of the other quarantined areas Below. The server rolled along a few feet ahead of him, murmuring to itself in an earnest monotone. Paul followed, staring at his feet as a woman passed him. When he heard her leave the Walk he lifted his head and looked outside. A pale glowing smear above one end of the Walk was possibly the moon, more likely one of the station’s malfunctioning satellite beacons. The windows were so streaked with dirt that for all Paul knew he might be looking at Earth, or some dingy canister of waste deployed from the galley. He paused to step over to one of the windows. A year before Claude had drawn an obscene figure in the dust along the edge, facing the men’s side of the Walk. Paul grinned to himself: It was still there.

“Paul, KlausMaria Dalven asks that you come to her quarters. She wishes to speak with you,” the server repeated in its droning voice. Paul sighed and turned from the window. A minute later he crossed the invisible line that separated the rest of Teichman from the women’s quarters.

The air was much fresher here — his mother said that came from thinking peaceful thoughts — and the walls were painted a very deep green, which seemed an odd choice of colors but had a soothing effect nonetheless. Someone had painted stars and a crescent moon upon the arched ceiling. Paul had never seen the moon look like that, or stars. His mother explained they were images of power and not meant to resemble the dull shapes one saw on the navgrids.

“Hello, Paul,” a woman called softly. Marija Kerenyi, who had briefly consorted with his father after Paul’s mother had left him. Then, she had been small and pretty, soft-spoken but laughing easily. Just the sort of pliant woman Fritz Pathori liked. But in the space of a few years she had had two children, both girls. This was during an earlier phase of his father’s work on the parthogenetic Breeders, when human reproductive tissue was too costly to import from Below. Marija never forgave Paul’s father for what happened to her daughters. She was still small and pretty, but her expression had sharpened almost to the point of cunning; her hair had grown very long and was pulled back in the same manner as Father Dorothy’s. “Your mother is in the Attis Arcade.”

“Um, thanks,” Paul mumbled. He had half turned to leave when his mother’s throaty voice echoed down the hallway. “Marija, is that him? Send him back —”

“Go ahead, Paul,” Marija urged. She laughed as he hurried past her. For an instant her hand touched the top of his thigh, and he nearly stumbled as she stroked him. Her fingers flicked at his trousers, and she turned away disdainfully.

His mother stood in a doorway. “Paul, darling. Are you thirsty? Would you like some tea?”

Her voice was deeper than it had been before, when she was really my mother, he thought; before the hormonal injections and implants, before Father Dorothy. He still could not help but think of her as she, despite her masculine appearance, her throaty voice. “Or — you don’t like tea, how about betel?”

“No, thanks.”

She looked down at him. Her face was sharper than it had been. Her chin seemed too strong, with its blue shadows fading into her unshaven jaw. She still looked like a woman, but a distinctly mannish one. Seeing her, Paul wanted to cry.

“Nothing?” she said, then shrugged and walked inside. He followed her into the arcade.

She didn’t look out of place here, as she so often had back in the family chambers. The arcade was a circular room, with a very high ceiling; his mother was very tall. Below, her family had been descended from aristocratic North Africans whose women prided themselves on their exaggerated height and the purity of their yellow eyes and ebony skin. Paul took after his father, small and fair-skinned, but with his mother’s long-fingered hands and a shyness that in KlausMaria was often mistaken for hauteur. In their family chambers she had had to stoop, so as not to seem taller than her husband. Here she flopped back comfortably on the sand-covered floor, motioning for Paul to join her.

“Well, I’m having some tea. Mawu —”

That was the name she’d given the server after they’d moved to the women’s quarters. While he was growing up, Paul had called it Bunny. The robot rolled into the arcade, grinding against the wall and sending up a little puff of rust. “Tea for me and my boy. Sweetened, please.”

Paul stood awkwardly, looking around in vain for a chair. Finally he sat down on the floor near his mother, stretching out his legs and brushing sand from his trousers.

“So,” he said, clearing his throat. “Hi.”

KlausMaria smiled. “Hi.”

They said nothing else for several minutes. Paul squirmed, trying to keep sand from seeping into his clothes. His mother sat calmly, smiling, until the server returned with tea in small soggy cups already starting to disintegrate. It hadn’t been properly mixed. Sipping his, bits of powder got stuck between Paul’s teeth.

“Your father has brought an argala here,” KlausMaria announced. Her voice was so loud that Paul started, choking on a mouthful of tea and coughing until his eyes watered. His mother only stared at him coolly. “Yesterday. There wasn’t supposed to be a drop until Athyr; god knows how he arranged it. Father Dorothy told me. They had him escort it on board, afraid of what would happen if one of the men got hold of it. A sex slave. Absolutely disgusting.”

She leaned forward, her long beautiful fingers drumming on the floor. Specks of sand flew in all directions, stinging Paul’s cheeks. “Oh,” he said, trying to give the sound a rounded adult tone, regretful or disapproving. So that’s what it was, he thought, and his heart beat faster.

“I wish to god I’d never come here,” KlausMaria whispered. “I wish —”

She stopped, her voice rasping into the breathy drone of the air filters. Paul nodded, staring at the floor, letting sand run between his fingers. They sat again in silence. Finally he mumbled, “I didn’t know.”

His mother let her breath out in a long wheeze; it smelled of betel and bergamot-scented tea powder. “I know.” She leaned close to him, her hand on his knee. For a moment it was like when he was younger, before his father had begun working on the Breeders, before Father Dorothy came. “That’s why I wanted to tell you, before you heard from — well, from anyone else. Because — well, shit.”

She gave a sharp laugh — a real laugh — and Paul smiled, relieved. “It’s pathetic, really,” she said. Her hand dropped from his knee to the floor and scooped up fistfuls of fine powder. “Here he was, this brilliant beautiful man. It’s destroyed him, the work he’s done. I wish you could have known him before, Below —”

She sighed again and reached for her tea, sipped it silently. “But that was before the last Ascension. Those bastards. Too late now. For your father, at least. But Paul,” and she leaned forward again and took his hand. “I’ve made arrangements for you to go to school Below. In Tangier. My mother will pay for it; it’s all taken care of. In a few months. It’ll be fall then, in Tangier; it will be exciting for you. . . .

Her voice drifted off, as though she spoke to herself or a server. “An argala. I will go mad.”

She sighed and seemed to lose interest in her son, instead staring fixedly at the sand running between her fingers. Paul waited for several more minutes, to see if anything else was forthcoming, but his mother said nothing more. Finally the boy stood, inclined his head to kiss her cheek, and turned to go.

“Paul,” his mother called as he hesitated in the doorway.

He turned back: She made the gesture of blessing that the followers of Lysis affected, drawing an exaggerated S in the air and blinking rapidly. “Promise me you won’t go near it. If he wants you to. Promise.”

Paul shrugged. “Sure.”

She stared at him, tightlipped. Then, “Goodbye,” she said, and returned to her meditations in the arcade.

That night in the dormitory he crept to Claude’s bunk while the older boy was asleep and carefully felt beneath his mattress, until he found the stack of pamphlets hidden there. The second one he pulled out was the one he wanted. He shoved the others back and fled to his bunk.

He had a nearly-new lumiere hidden under his pillow. He withdrew it and shook it until watery yellow light spilled across the pages in front of him. Poor-quality color images, but definitely taken from life. They showed creatures much like the one he had seen the night before. Some were no bigger than children, with tiny pointed breasts and enormous eyes and brilliant red mouths. Others were tall and slender as the one he had glimpsed. In one of the pictures an argala actually coupled with a naked man, but the rest showed them posing provocatively. They all had the same feathery yellow hair, the same wide mindless eyes and air of utter passivity. In some of the pictures Paul could see their wings, bedraggled and straw-colored. There was nothing even remotely sexually exciting about them.

Paul could only assume this was something he might feel differently about, someday. After all, his father had been happy with his mother once, although that of course was before Paul was born, before his father began his work on the Breeders Project. The first generations of geneslaves had been developed a century earlier on Earth. Originally they had been designed to toil in the lunar colonies and on Earth’s vast hydrofarms. But the reactionary gender policies of the current Ascendant administration suggested that there were other uses to which the geneslaves might be put.

Fritz Pathori had been a brilliant geneticist, with impressive ties to the present administration. Below, he had developed the prototype for the argala, a gormless creature that the Ascendants hoped would make human prostitution obsolete — though it was not the act itself the Ascendants objected to, so much as the active involvement of women. And at first the women had welcomed the argala. But that was before the femicides, before the success of the argala led Fritz Pathori to develop the first Breeders.

He had been an ethical man, once. Even now, Paul knew that it was the pressures of conscience that drove his father to the neural sauna. Because now, of course, his father could not stop the course of his research. He had tried, years before. That was how they had ended up exiled to Teichman Station, where Pathori and his staff had for many years lived in a state of house arrest, part of the dismal constellation of space stations drifting through the heavens and falling wearily and irretrievably into madness and decay.

A shaft of light flicked through the dormitory and settled upon Paul’s head. The boy dove beneath the covers, shoving the pamphlet into the crack between bedstand and mattress.

“Paul.” Father Dorothy’s whipered voice was surprised, shaming without being angry. The boy let his breath out and peered up at his tutor, clad in an elegant grey kimono, his long iron-colored hair unbound and falling to his shoulders. “What are you doing? What do you have there —”

His hand went unerringly to where Paul had hidden the pamphlet. The shaft of light danced across the yellowed pages, and the pamphlet disappeared into a kimono pocket.

“Mmm.” His tutor sounded upset. “Tomorrow I want to see you before class. Don’t forget.”

His face burning, Paul listened as the man’s footsteps I padded away again. A minute later he gave a muffled cry as someone jumped on top of him.

“You idiot! Now he knows —”

And much of the rest of the night was given over to the plebeian torments of Claude.

He knew he looked terrible the next morning, when still rubbing his eyes he shuffled into Father Dorothy’s chamber.

“Oh dear.” The tutor shook his head and smiled ruefully. “Not much sleep, I would imagine. Claude?”

Paul nodded.

“Would you like some coffee?”

Paul started to refuse politely, then saw that Father Dorothy had what looked like real coffee, in a small metal tin stamped with Arabic letters in gold and brown. “Yes, please,” he nodded, and watched entranced as the tutor scooped the coffee into a silver salver and poured boiling water over it.

“Now then,” Father Dorothy said a few minutes later. He indicated a chair, its cushions ballooning over its metal arms, and Paul sank gratefully into it, cupping his bowl of coffee. “This is all about the argala, isn’t it?”

Paul sighed. “Yes.”

“I thought so.” Father Dorothy sipped his coffee and glanced at the gravure of Father Sofia, founder of the Mysteries, staring myopically from the curved wall. “I imagine your mother is rather distressed —?”

“I guess so. I mean, she seems angry, but she always seems angry.”

Father Dorothy sighed. “This exile is particularly difficult for a person as brilliant as your mother. And this —” He pointed delicately at the pamphlet, sitting like an uninvited guest on a chair of its own. “This argala must be very hard for KlausMaria to take. I find it disturbing and rather sad, but considering your father’s part in developing these — things — my guess would be that your mother finds it, um, repellent —?”

Paul was still staring at the pamphlet; it lay open at one of the pages he hadn’t yet gotten to the night before. “Uh — um, oh yes, yes, she’s pretty mad,” he mumbled hastily, when he saw Father Dorothy staring at him.

The tutor swallowed the rest of his coffee. Then he stood and paced to the chair where the pamphlet lay, picked it up and thumbed through it dismissively, though not without a certain curiosity.

“You know it’s not a real woman, right? That’s part of what’s wrong with it, Paul — not what’s wrong with the thing itself, but with the act, with — well, everything. It’s a geneslave; it can’t enter into any sort of — relations — with anyone of its own free will. It’s a — well, it’s like a machine, except of course it’s alive. But it has no thoughts of its own. They’re like children, you see, only incapable of thought, or language. Although of course we have no idea what other things they can do — strangle us in our sleep or drive us mad. They’re incapable of ever learning, or loving. They can’t suffer or feel pain or, well, anything —”

Father Dorothy’s face had grown red, not from embarrassment, as Paul first thought, but from anger — real fury, the boy saw, and he sank back into his chair, a little afraid himself now.

“— institutionalized rape, it’s exactly what Sofia said would happen, why she said we should start to protect ourselves —”

Paul shook his head. “But — wouldn’t it, I mean wouldn’t it be easier? For women: If they used the geneslaves, then they ’d leave the women alone. . . .

Father Dorothy held the pamphlet open, to a picture showing an argala with its head thrown back. His face as he turned to Paul was still angry, but disappointed now as well. And Paul realized there was something he had missed, some lesson he had failed to learn during all these years of Father Dorothy’s tutelage.

“That’s right,” his tutor said softly. He looked down at the pamphlet between his fingers, the slightly soiled image with its gasping mouth and huge, empty eyes. Suddenly he looked sad, and Paul’s eyes flickered down from Father Dorothy’s face to that of the argala in the picture. It looked very little like the one he had seen, really; but suddenly he was flooded with yearning, an overwhelming desire to see it again, to touch it and breathe again that warm scent, that smell of blue water and real sand and warm flesh pressed against cool cotton. The thought of seeing it excited him, and even though he knew Father Dorothy couldn’t see anything (Paul was wearing one of his father’s old robes, much too big for him), Father Dorothy must have understood, because in the next instant the pamphlet was out of sight, squirreled into a cubbyhole of his ancient steel desk.

“That’s enough, then,” he said roughly. And gazing at his tormented face Paul thought of what the man had done to become an initiate into the Mysteries, and he knew then that he would never be able to understand anything his tutor wanted him to learn.

“It’s in there now, with your father! I saw it go in —”

Ira’s face was flushed, his hair tangled from running. Claude and Paul sat together on Claude’s bunk poring over another pamphlet, a temporary truce having been effected by this new shared interest.

“My father?” Paul said stupidly. He felt flushed and cross at Ira for interrupting his reverie.

“The argala! It’s in there with him now. If we go we can listen at the door — everyone else is still at dinner.”

Claude closed the pamphlet and slipped it beneath his pillow. He nodded, slowly, then reached out and touched Ira’s curls. “Let’s go, then,” he said.

Fritz Pathori’s quarters were on the research deck. The boys reached them by climbing the spiral stairs leading up to the second level, speaking in whispers even though there was little chance of anyone seeing them there, or caring if they did. Midway up the steps Paul could see his father’s chambers, across the open area that had once held several anaglyphic sculptures. The sculptures had long since been destroyed, in one of the nearly ritualized bouts of violence that periodically swept through the station. Now his father’s balcony commanded a view of a narrow concrete space, swept clean of rubble but nonetheless hung about with a vague odor of neglect and disrepair.

When they reached the hallway leading to the chief geneticist’s room, the boys grew quiet.

“You never come up here?” Claude asked. For once there was no mockery in his voice.

Paul shrugged. “Sometimes. Not in a while, though.”

“I’d be here all the time,” Ira whispered. He looked the most impressed, stooping to rub the worn but still lush carpeting and then tilting his head to flash a quick smile at himself in the polished metal walls.

“My father is always busy,” said Paul. He stopped in front of the door to his father’s chambers, smooth and polished as the walls, marked only by the small onyx inlay with his father’s name engraved upon it. He tried to remember the last time he’d been here — early Autime, or perhaps it had been as long ago as last Mestris.

“Can you hear anything?” Claude pushed Ira aside and pressed close to the door. Paul felt a dart of alarm.

“I do,” whispered Ira excitedly. “I hear them — listen —”

They crouched at the door, Paul in the middle. He could hear something, very faintly. Voices: his father’s, and something like an echo of it, soft and soothing. His father was groaning — Paul’s heart clenched in his chest but he felt no embarrassment, nothing but a kind of icy disdain — and the other voice was cooing, an almost perfect echo of the deeper tone, but two octaves higher. Paul pressed closer to the wall, feeling the cool metal against his cheek.

For several more minutes they listened, Paul silent and impassive, Claude snickering and making jerking motions with his hands, Ira with pale blue eyes growing wide. Then suddenly it was quiet behind the door. Paul looked up, startled: There had been no terminal cries, none of the effusive sounds he had heard were associated with this sort of thing. Only a silence that was oddly furtive and sad, falling as it did upon three pairs of disappointed ears.

“What happened?” Ira looked distressed. “Are they all right?”

“Of course they’re all right,” Claude hissed. He started to his feet, tugging Ira after him. “They’re finished, is all — come on, let’s get out of here —”

Claude ran down the hall with Ira behind him. Paul remained crouched beside the door, ignoring the other boys as they waved for him to follow.

And then before he could move, the door opened. He looked up and through it and saw his father at the far end of the room, standing with his back to the door. From the spiral stairs Claude’s voice echoed furiously.

Paul staggered to his feet. He was just turning to flee when something moved from the room into the hall, cutting off his view of his father, something that stood teetering on absurdly long legs, a confused expression on its face. The door slid closed behind it, and he was alone with the argala.

“Oh,” he whispered, and shrank against the wall.

O,” the argala murmured.

Its voice was like its scent, warm yet somehow diffuse. If the hallway had been dark, it would be difficult to tell where the sound came from. But it was not dark, and Paul couldn’t take his eyes from it.

“It’s all right,” he whispered. Tentatively he reached for it. The argala stepped toward him, its frail arms raised in an embrace. He started, then slowly let it enfold him. Its voice echoed his own, childlike and trusting.

It was irresistible, the smell and shape of it, the touch of its wispy hair upon his cheeks. He opened his eyes and for the first time got a good look at its face, so close to his that he drew back a little to see it better. A face that was somehow, indefinably, female. Like a child’s drawing of a woman: enormous eyes surrounded by lashes that were spare but thick and straight. A round mouth, tangerine colored, like something one would want to eat. Hair that was more like feathers curled about its face. Paul took a tendril between his fingers, pulled it to his cheek and stroked his chin with agonizing slowness.

His mother had told him once that the argalae were engineered from human women and birds, storks or cranes he thought, or maybe some kind of white duck. Paul had thought this absurd, but now it seemed it could be true — the creature’s hair looked and felt more like long downy filaments than human hair or fur. And there was something birdlike about the way it felt in his arms: fragile but at the same time tensile, and strong, as though its bones were lighter than human bones, filled with air or even some other element. Paul had never seen a real bird. He knew they were supposed to be lovely, avatars of physical beauty of a certain type and that their power of flight imbued them with a kind of miraculous appeal, at least to people Below. His mother said people thought that way about women once. Perhaps some of them still did.

He could not imagine any bird, anything at all, more beautiful or miraculous than this geneslave.

Even as he held it to his breast, its presence woke in him a terrible longing, a yearning for something he could scarcely fathom — open skies, the feel of running water beneath his bare feet. Images flooded his mind, things he had only ever seen in ’files of old movies. Small houses made of wood, clouds skidding across a sky the color of Ira Claire’s eyes, cream-colored flowers climbing a trellis beside a green field. As the pictures fled across his mind’s eye, his heart pounded: Where did they come from? Sensations spilled into him, as though they had been contained in too shallow a vessel and had nowhere else to pour but into whomever the thing touched. And then suddenly the first images slid away, the white porch and cracked concrete and saline taste — bitter yet comforting — of tears running into his mouth. Instead he felt dizzy. He reached out and his hands struck at the air feebly. Something seemed to move at his feet. He looked down and saw ripples like water and something tiny and bright moving there. A feeling stabbed at him, a hunger so sharp it was like love; and suddenly he saw clearly what the thing was — a tiny creature like a scarlet salamander, creeping across a mossy bank. But before he could stoop to savage it with his beak (his beak?), with a sickening rush the floor beneath him dropped, and there was only sky, white and grey, and wind raking at his face; and above all else that smell, filling his nostrils like pollen: the smell of water, of freedom.

Then it was gone. He fell back against the wall, gasping. When he opened his eyes he felt nauseous, but that passed almost immediately. He focused on the argala staring at him, its eyes wide and golden and with the same adoring gaze it had fixed on him before. Behind it his father stood in the open doorway to his room.

“Paul,” he exclaimed brightly. He skinned a hand across his forehead and smiled, showing where he’d lost a tooth since the last time they’d met. “You found it — I wondered where it went. Come on, you! —”

He reached for the argala, and it went to him, easily. “Turned around and it was gone!” His father shook his head, still grinning, and hugged the argala to his side. He was naked, not even a towel draped around him. Paul looked away hurriedly. From his father’s even, somewhat muffled, tone he could tell that he’d recently come from the neural sauna. “They told me not to let it out of my sight, said it would go sniffing after anyone, and they were right . . .

As suddenly as he’d appeared he was gone, the metal door flowing shut behind him. For one last instant Paul could see the argala, turning its glowing eyes from his father to himself and back again, lovely and gormless as one of those simulacrums that directed travelers in the HORUS by-ports. Then it was only his own reflection that he stared at and Claude’s voice that he heard calling softly but insistently from the foot of the spiral stairs.

He had planned to wait after class the following morning to ask Father Dorothy what he knew about it, how a mindless creature could project such a powerful and seemingly effortless torrent of images and sensations; but he could tell from his tutor’s cool smile that somehow he had gotten word of their spying. Ira, probably. He was well-meaning but tactless, and Father Dorothy’s favorite. Some whispered conference during their private session and now Father Dorothy’s usual expression, of perpetual disappointment tempered with ennui, was shaded with a sharper anger.

So that was pointless. Paul could scarcely keep still during class, fidgeting behind his desiccated textbooks, hardly glancing at the monitor’s ruby scroll of words and numerals when his turn came to use it. He did take a few minutes to sneak to the back of the room. There a huge and indescribably ancient wooden bookcase held a very few, mostly useless volumes — Reader’s Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual, Robert’s Rules of Order, The Ascent of Woman. He pulled out a natural history text so old that its contents had long since acquired the status of myth.

Argala, Paul read, after flipping past Apteryx, Aquilegia, Archer, Areca, each page releasing its whiff of Earth, mildew and silverfish and trees turned to dust. Adjutant bird: Giant Indian Stork, living primarily in wetlands and feeding upon crustaceans and small amphibians. Status, endangered; perhaps extinct. There was no illustration.

“Hey, Pathori.” Claude bent over his shoulder, pretending to ask a question. Paul ignored him and turned the pages, skipping Boreal Squid and (Bruijn ’s) Echidna, pausing to glance at the garish colored Nebalia Shrimp and the shining damp skin of the Newt, Amphibian: A kind of eft (juvenile salamander). Finally he found the Stork, a simple illustration beside it.

Tall stately wading bird of family Ciconiidae, the best-known species pure white except for black wing-tips, long reddish bill, and red feet, and in the nursery the pretended bringer of babies and good fortune.

. . . you hear me?” Claude whispered hoarsely, pinching his ear. Paul closed the book and pushed it away. Without a word he returned to his desk, Claude following him. Father Dorothy raised his head, then went back to explaining the subtleties of written poetry to Ira Claire. Paul settled into his seat. Behind him Claude stood and waited for their tutor to resume his recitation. In a moment Father Dorothy’s boyish voice echoed back to them:

. . . I make out a few words —
then again “TEARS,”
It seems to me that Leucis
. . . “SORROW,”
must have been dearly beloved
. . .

Paul started as Claude shook him, and the older boy repeated, “I have an idea — I bet he just leaves it alone, when he’s not in the room. We could get in there, maybe, and sneak it out. . . .

Paul shrugged. He had been thinking the same thing himself, thinking how he would never have the nerve to do it alone. He glanced up at Father Dorothy.

If he looks at me now, he thought, I won’t do it; I’ll talk to him later and figure out something else . . .

Behind him Claude hissed and elbowed him sharply. Paul waited, willing their tutor to look up; but the man’s head pressed closer to his lovely student as he recited yet another elegiac fragment, wasted on the hopeless Ira —

A poet said, “That music is beloved
that cannot be sounded.”
And I think that the choicest life
is the life that cannot be lived.


Paul turned and looked at Claude. “We could go when the rest are at dinner again,” the older boy said. He too gazed at Ira and Father Dorothy, but with loathing. “All right?”

“All right,” Paul agreed miserably, and lowered his head when Father Dorothy cast him a disapproving stare.

Trudging up the steps behind Claude, Paul looked back at the narrow plaza where the sculptures had been. They had passed three people on their way here, a man and two women, the women striding in that defiant way they had, almost swaggering, Paul thought. It was not until they turned the corner that he realized the man had been his mother, and she had not acknowledged him, had not seen him at all.

He sighed and looked down into the abandoned courtyard. Something glittered there, like a fleck of bright dust swimming across his vision. He paused, his hand sliding along the cool brass banister.

On the concrete floor he thought he saw something red, like a discarded blossom. But there were no flowers on Teichman. He felt again that rush of emotion that had come when he embraced the argala, a desire somehow tangled with the smell of brackish water and the sight of a tiny salamander squirming on a mossy bank. But when he leaned over the banister there was nothing there. It must have been a trick of the light or perhaps a scrap of paper or other debris blown by the air filters. He straightened and started back up the stairs.

That was when he saw the argala. Framed on the open balcony in his father’s room, looking down upon the little courtyard. It looked strange from this distance and this angle: less like a woman and more like the somber figure that had illustrated the Stork in the natural history book. Its foot rested on the edge of the balcony, so it seemed that it had only one leg, and the way its head was tilted he saw only the narrow raised crown, nearly bald because its wispy hair had been pulled back. From here it looked too bony, hardly female at all. A small flood of nausea raced through him. For the first time it struck him that this really was an alien creature. Another of the Ascendants’ monstrous toys, like the mouthless hydrapithecenes that tended the Pacific hydrofarms or the pallid bloated forms floating in vats on the research deck of Teichman Station, countless fetuses tethered to them by transparent umbilical cords. And now he had seen and touched one of those monsters. He shuddered and turned away, hurrying after Claude.

But once he stood in the hallway his nausea and anger faded. There was that scent again, lulling him into seeing calm blue water and myriad shapes, garnet salamanders and frogs like candied fruit drifting across the floor. He stumbled into Claude, the older boy swearing and drawing a hand across his face.

“Shit! What’s that smell? —” But the older boy’s tone was not unpleasant, only befuddled and slightly dreamy.

“The thing,” said Paul. They stood before the door to his father’s room. “The argala . . .

Claude nodded, swaying a little, his dark hair hiding his face. Paul had an awful flash of his father opening the door and Claude seeing him as Paul had, naked and doped, with that idiot smile and a tooth missing. But then surely the argala would not have been out on the balcony by itself? He reached for the door and very gently pushed it.

“Here we go,” Claude announced as the door slid open. In a moment they stood safely inside.

“God, this is a mess.” Claude looked around admiringly. He flicked at a stack of ’files teetering on the edge of a table, grimaced at the puff of dust that rose around his finger. “Ugh. Doesn’t he have a server?”

“I guess not.” Paul stepped gingerly around heaps of clothes, clean and filthy piled separately, and eyed with distaste a clutter of empty morpha tubes and wine jellies in a corner. A monitor flickered on a table, rows of numerals and gravid shapes tracing the progress of the Breeders Project.

Not,” a voice trilled. On the balcony the argala did not turn, but its bright tone, the way its vestigial wings shivered, seemed to indicate some kind of greeting.

“All right. Let’s see it.” Claude shoved past him, grinning. Paul looked over, and for a second the argala’s expression was not so much idiotic as tranquil, as though instead of a gritty balcony overlooking shattered concrete, it saw what he had imagined before, water and wriggling live things.


Claude’s tone abruptly changed. Paul couldn’t help but look: The tenor of the other boy’s lust was so intense it sounded like pain. He had his arms around the argala and was thrusting at it, his trousers askew. In his embrace the creature stood with its head thrown back, its cries so rhapsodic that Paul groaned himself and turned away.

In a minute it was over. Claude staggered back, pulling at his clothes and looking around almost frantically for Paul. “God, that was incredible; that was the best —”

Like what could you compare it to, you idiot? Paul leaned against the table with the monitor and tapped a few keys angrily, hoping he’d screw up something; but the scroll continued uninterrupted. Claude walked, dazed, to a chair and slouched into it, scooped up a half-full wine jelly from the floor and sucked at it hungrily.

“Go on, Pathori, you don’t want to miss that!” Claude laughed delightedly and looked at the argala. “God, it’s amazing, isn’t it? What a beauty.” His eyes were dewy as he shook his head. “What a fucking thing.”

Without answering Paul crossed the room to the balcony. The argala seemed to have forgotten all about them. It stood with one leg drawn up, staring down at the empty courtyard, its topaz eyes glittering. As he drew near to it, its smell overwhelmed him, a muskier scent now, almost fetid, like water that had stood too long in an open storage vessel. He felt infuriated by its utter passivity, but somehow excited, too. Before he knew what he was doing he had grabbed it, just as Claude had, and pulled it to him so that its bland child’s face looked up at him rapturously.

Afterwards he wept, and beside him the argala crooned, mimicking his sobs. He could dimly hear Claude saying something about leaving and then his friend’s voice rising and finally the snick of the door sliding open and shut. He gritted his teeth and willed his tears to stop. The argala nestled against him, silent now. His fingers drifted through its thin hair, ran down its back to feel its wings, the bones like metal struts beneath the breath of down. What could a bird possibly know about what he was feeling? he thought fiercely. Let alone a monster like this. A real woman would talk to you, afterwards.

To complain, he imagined his father saying.

. . . never enjoyed it, ever, his mother’s voice echoed back, and Father Dorothy’s intoned, That’s what’s wrong with it; it’s like a machine.

He pulled the argala closer to him and shut his eyes, inhaling deeply. A wash of yellow that he knew must be sunlight: Then he saw that ghostly image of a house again, heard faint cries of laughter. Because it was a woman, too, of course; otherwise how could it recall a house, and children? But then the house broke up into motes of light without color, and he felt the touch of that other, alien mind, delicate and keen as a bird’s long bill, probing at his own.

“Well! Good afternoon, good afternoon . . .

He jumped. His father swayed in the doorway, grinning. “Found my little friend again. Well, come in, come in.”

Paul let go of the argala and took a few unsteady steps. “Dad — I’m sorry, I —”

“God, no. Stop.” His father waved, knocking a bottle to the floor. “Stay, why don’t you. A minute.”

But Paul had a horrible flash, saw the argala taken again, the third time in what, half an hour? He shook his head and hurried to the door, face down.

“I can’t, Dad. I’m sorry — I was just going by, that’s all —”

“Sure, sure.” His father beamed. Without looking he pulled a wine jelly from a shelf and squeezed it into his mouth. “Come by when you have more time, Paul. Glad to see you.”

He started to cross to where the argala gazed at him, its huge eyes glowing. Paul ran from the room, the door closing behind him with a muted sigh.

At breakfast the next morning he was surprised to find his mother and Father Dorothy sitting in the twins’ usual seats. “We were talking about your going to school in Tangier,” his mother announced, her deep voice a little too loud for the cramped dining hall as she turned back to Father Dorothy. “We could never meet the quotas, of course, but Mother pulled some strings, and —”

Paul sat next to her. Across the table, Claude and Ira and the twins were gulping down the rest of their breakfast. Claude mumbled a goodbye and stood to leave, Ira behind him.

“See you later, Father,” Ira said, smiling. Father Dorothy waved.

“When?” said Paul.

“In a few weeks. It’s nearly Athyr now” — that was what they called this cycle — “which means it’s July down there. The next drop is on the fortieth.”

He didn’t pay much attention to the rest of it. There was no point: His mother and Father Dorothy had already decided everything, as they always did. He wondered how his father had ever been able to get the argala here at all.

A hand clamped his shoulder, and Paul looked up.

“— must go now,” Father Dorothy was saying as he motioned for a server to clean up. “Class starts in a few minutes. Walk with me, Paul?”

He shook his mother’s hand and left her nodding politely as the next shift of diners filed into the little room.

“You’ve been with it,” the tutor said after a few minutes. They took the long way to the classroom, past the cylinders where vats of nutriment were stored and wastewater recycled, past the spiral stairs that led to his father’s chamber. Where the hallway forked Father Dorothy hesitated, then went to the left, toward the women’s quarters. “I could tell, you know — it has a —”

He inhaled, then made a delicate grimace. “It has a smell.”

They turned and entered the Solar Walk. Paul remained at his side, biting his lip and feeling an unexpected anger churning inside him.

“I like the way it smells,” he said, and waited for Father Dorothy to look grim. Instead his tutor paused in front of the window. “I love it.”

He thought Father Dorothy would retort sharply, but instead he only raised his hands and pressed them against the window. Outside two of the HORUS repair units floated past, on their interminable and futile rounds. When it seemed the silence would go on forever, his tutor said, “It can’t love you. You know that. It’s an abomination — an animal —”

“Not really,” Paul replied, but weakly.

Father Dorothy flexed his hands dismissively. “It can’t love you. It’s a geneslave. How could it love anything?”

His tone was not angry but questioning, as though he really thought Paul might have an answer. And for a moment Paul thought of explaining to him: about how it felt, how it seemed like it was showing him things — the sky, the house, the little creatures crawling in the moss — things that perhaps it did feel something for. But before he could say anything, Father Dorothy turned and began striding back in the direction they’d come. Paul hurried after him in silence.

As they turned down the last hallway, Father Dorothy said, “It’s an ethical matter, really. Like having intercourse with a child, or someone who’s mentally deficient. It can’t respond; it’s incapable of anything —”

“But I love it,” Paul repeated stubbornly.

“Aren’t you listening to me?” Father Dorothy did sound angry, now. “It can’t love you.” His voice rose shrilly. “How could something like that tell you that it loved you!? And you can’t love it — god, how could you love anything, you’re only a boy!” He stopped in the doorway and looked down at him, then shook his head, in pity or disgust Paul couldn’t tell. “Get in there,” Father Dorothy said at last and gently pushed him through the door.

He waited until the others were asleep before slipping from his bunk and heading back to his father’s quarters. The lights had dimmed to simulate night; other than that there was no difference in the way anything looked or smelled or sounded. He walked through the violet corridors with one hand on the cool metal wall, as though he was afraid of falling.

They were leaving just as he reached the top of the spiral stairs. He saw his father first, then two others, other researchers from the Breeders Project. They were laughing softly, and his father threw his arms around one man’s shoulders and murmured something that made the other man shake his head and grin. They wore loose robes open in the front and headed in the opposite direction, towards the neural sauna. They didn’t see the boy pressed against the wall, watching as they turned the corner and disappeared.

He waited for a long time. He wanted to cry, tried to make himself cry; but he couldn’t. Beneath his anger and shame and sadness there was still too much of that other feeling, the anticipation and arousal and inchoate tenderness that he only knew one word for and Father Dorothy thought that was absurd. So he waited until he couldn’t stand it anymore and went inside.

His father had made some feeble attempt to clean the place up. The clothing had been put away and table tops and chairs cleared of papers. Fine white ash sifted across the floor, and there was a musty smell of tobacco beneath the stronger odors of semen and wine jelly. The argala’s scent ran through all of it like a fresh wind.

He left the door open behind him, no longer caring if someone found him there or not. He ran his hands across his eyes and looked around for the argala.

It was standing where it usually did, poised on the balcony with its back to him. He took a step, stopped. He thought he could hear something, a very faint sound like humming; but then it was gone. He craned his neck to see what it was the creature looked at but saw nothing, only that phantom flicker of red in the corner of his eye, like a mote of ruby dust. He began walking again, softly, when the argala turned to look at him.

Its eyes were wide and fervent as ever, its tangerine mouth spun into that same adoring smile; but even as he started for it, his arms reaching to embrace it, it turned from him and jumped.

For an instant it hung in the air, and he could imagine it flying, could almost imagine that perhaps it thought its wings would carry it across the courtyard or safely to the ground. But in that instant he caught sight of its eyes, and they were not a bird’s eyes but a woman’s, and she was not flying but falling.

He must have cried out, screamed for help. Then he just hung over the balcony, staring down at where it lay motionless. He kept hoping that maybe it would move again, but it did not, only lay there twisted and still.

But as he stared at it, it changed. It had been a pale creature to begin with. Now what little color it had was leached away, as though it were bleeding into the concrete; but really there was hardly any blood. Its feathers grew limp, like fronds plucked from the water, their gold fading to a grey that was all but colorless. Its head was turned sideways, its great wide eye open and staring up. As he watched, the golden orb slowly dulled to yellow and then a dirty white. When someone finally came to drag it away, its feathers trailed behind it in the dust. Then nothing remained of it at all except for the faintest breath of ancient summers hanging in the stale air.

For several days he wouldn’t speak to anyone, not even responding to Claude’s cruelties or his father’s ineffectual attempts at kindness. His mother made a few calls to Tangier and, somehow, the drop was changed to an earlier date in Athyr. On the afternoon he was to leave they all gathered, awkwardly, in the dormitory. Father Dorothy seemed sad that he was going but also relieved. The twins tried to get him to promise to write, and Ira cried. But, still without speaking, Paul left the room and walked down to the courtyard.

No one had even bothered to clean it. A tiny curl of blood stained the concrete a rusty color, and he found a feather, more like a furry yellowish thread than anything else, stuck to the wall. He took the feather and stared at it, brought it to his face and inhaled. There was nothing.

He turned to leave, then halted. At the corner of his eye something moved. He looked back and saw a spot on the ground directly beneath his father’s balcony. Shoving the feather into his pocket he walked slowly to investigate.

In the dust something tiny wriggled, a fluid arabesque as long as his finger. Crouching on his heels, he bent over and cupped it in his palm. A shape like an elongated tear of blood, only with two bright black dots that were its eyes and, beside each of those, two perfect flecks of gold.

An eft, he thought, recognizing it from the natural history book and from the argala’s vision. A juvenile salamander.

Giant Indian stork, feeding upon crustaceans and small amphibians.

He raised it to his face, feeling it like a drop of water slithering through his fingers. When he sniffed it, it smelled, very faintly, of mud.

There was no way it could have gotten here. Animals never got through by-port customs, and besides, were there even things like this still alive, Below? He didn’t know. But then how did it get here?

A miracle, he thought, and heard Father Dorothy’s derisive voice — How could something like that tell you that it loved you? For the first time since the argala’s death, the rage and despair that had clenched inside him uncoiled. He moved his hand, to see it better, and with one finger stroked its back. Beneath its skin, scarlet and translucent, its ribs moved rapidly in and out, in and out, so fine and frail they might have been drawn with a hair.

An eft.

He knew it would not live for very long — what could he feed it, how could he keep it? — but somehow the argala had survived, for a little while at least, and even then the manner of its dying had been a miracle of sorts. Paul stood, his hands folding over the tiny creature, and with his head bowed — though none of them would really see, or understand, what it was he carried — he walked up the stairs and through the hallway and back into the dormitory where his bags waited, past the other boys, past his mother and father and Father Dorothy, not saying anything, not even looking at them, holding close against his chest a secret, a miracle, a salamander.

This story copyright © 1992 by Elizabeth Hand. Used by permission. All rights reserved.