Wheat Rust

by Benjamin Crowell

Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, September 2010.

The men picked an inconvenient time to fall out of the air. I wasn't being paid to play my fiddle that day, and I'd intended to spend it philandering. Well, a bad impulse thwarted is twice as bad, because then you're left with all the guilt but none of the fun to make up for it. I don't mean guilt in a prudish way, but even to someone with my underdeveloped capacity for remorse, it was clear that Anuradha wasn't the type to keep the right sense of perspective about a love affair.

I was navel-gazing, which is especially enjoyable when the navel belongs to someone as young and beautiful as Anu. My head rested on her bottom ribs. These days my eyes don't see so well up close, and the blur helped to make the gentle mound of her belly into a kind of magical panorama, with the knot of her sarong like the gate of a mysterious temple in the distance.

The fantasy landscape heaved, and my face hit the sand.

“What is that?” she said in her one-of-a-kind voice. She had a contralto like a fast, deep river: exhilarating, but not the type that gets the showy parts.

I wiped the grit off of my lips, propped myself up on one elbow, and looked around before answering.

We were abovedecks at my favorite love-nest by the edge of the Consul's hunting reserve, on the shore of a lake so big that you could see the upward curl of its surface to left- and right-spin. I had access to the spot because of my connections at court. The lake was on the down-axis frontier, and the groundskeeper told me that whenever the Consul came here she brought bodyguards to watch out for Sinhal assassins on the far shore.

“What's what?” I asked.

She was looking away to left-spin.

“Those, Rui!” She pointed up at an angle.

The glare of the glow-tubes made it hard to see. As the landscape curved up into the distance, the dark green pines turned suddenly into crowded villages and fields of rye. Finally my eyes picked out motion: two black spots in the air.

“Crows?” I asked, standing up.

“No, they look like people. You can't see?”

“My eyes aren't as good as they used to be,” I admitted, “but it can't be people.” But as I squinted I saw that they did seem to have human shapes. I realized that my squinting wasn't what was making them easier to see; they were coming closer. Now I could tell that they were angling down sideways with the kind of Coriolis you see when a hawk makes a dive at a rabbit. One looked limp as a glove, but the other had his arms spread out like a bird. I barely had time to register any of this before they plunged into the lake at an angle, first one and then the other, close to our shore. The slaps when they hit were like timpani crashes, and the spray reached us on the beach.

Even if they'd been alive before they hit, it seemed obvious to me that after an impact like that they must be dead. I congratulated myself on not being smashed like a wine grape, which was what could have happened if they'd come in twenty meters up-axis. Even while I was thinking that, Anu dashed out into the water. (Anu was an illegal third child from a merchant family, raised by Christian nuns. If she came across a wild dog shaking a chipmunk, she'd probably box its nose and make it apologize.) I shook my head and waded in after her. We were in up to our thighs when the flying men bobbed to the surface on their own. They were jacketed from head to foot in something black, with bulbous helmets. Space suits? That couldn't make sense, but it was true that they were riding high in the water, as if the suits were full of air.

A dozen strokes brought me to the nearer one, who was floating face down. When I uprighted myself the water was only up to my neck. I managed to get him turned over on his back, but the tinted visor on the helmet made it impossible to see his face.

“Tow him to the beach,” I yelled to Anu, and went on to fetch the other one, who'd surfaced face up. He surprised me by moving his arm, but he still seemed dazed, so I got a grip on some of the equipment strapped to his back and started pulling him ashore.

“Rui, look out!” Anu shouted from the beach, just as an arrow plunged into the water in front of me. I twisted around and looked at the far shore. There was no beach there, just a steep ridge of exposed foundation material. At the top of the ridge a swarm of Sinhal solders were jumping off of horses, milling around, pointing, waving their arms, and brandishing weapons. At this point the sane thing to do would have been to let the second astronaut go on playing his assigned role in the target-shooting exercise. Unfortunately, as I've known ever since I was a pup, I don't act sane around beautiful women. I kept up my kicking and my one-armed side-stroke until I had him back on the sand.

By that time he was showing more signs of life, so Anu and I left him on his own and concentrated on slinging his dead or unconscious friend over a saddle. After what seemed like a long time messing around, while I imagined arrows sprouting from my back, we got both astronauts onto the horses. The conscious one had to sit on my rented mare side-saddle, because apparently it's not possible to ride astraddle in a spacesuit. Finally we led the horses up the trail into the forest, with me and the one who was out of action bringing up the rear.

Once the trees were around us, it suddenly got quiet. The astronaut said, “Gobble gobble.” Water was still dripping from the chin of his helmet.

“I don't think we speak your language,” Anu said. She was leading his horse by the bridle since he didn't seem to know what to do with the reins. “Do you speak Portuguese?”

Goo goo goo,” the astronaut said, and then a second voice came from his helmet, speaking funny Portuguese: “Muitíssimos agradecidos.”

“Don't mention it,” I answered automatically. “Ah, if you don't mind my asking, who the hell are you, why are you here, and why were those Sinhal devils trying to kill us all?”

“Is your comrade alive?” Anu put in. “Do we need to get him out of his suit to help him?” A faint voice inside the conscious one's helmet translated all of this into pig-grunts.

“Szemnik will be all right for now,” he said, bending down awkwardly to look at her. The translation sounded like an academician who was trying to talk and eat water-snails at the same time. “He was hit in the leg, but his suit's applying pressure to the wound. He was going into shock for a while, but his readings are stabilized now. He's getting a rich mix to breathe, and he's warm, so I think he's safer in the suit than out of it.” He turned to me and said, “I'm Hua, and that's Szemnik, as I said. We're here to survey your habitat. We were just supposed to fly along the axis in zero gee, a total of three thousand kilometers, and then climb down at the next set of support cables. As to why your neighbors shot us down, I wouldn't know. They seem to have obtained some proscribed technology, and I don't imagine they get many chances to fire it at a real airborne target.”

While his pedantic echo was giving the cosmological fairy-tale lecture, my horse had slowed down. I grabbed a pine branch and gave the horse a reminder on its flanks, even though I was already getting a side-ache myself.

Life would have been a lot simpler if Anu hadn't said what she said next. “While we were getting Szemnik on the horse, I saw you do something. You pointed your arm up at the ridge.”

There was a pause even before Hua spoke to his translator. “Did I?”

“Yes, you did,” she said. She couldn't see him stiffen in the saddle behind her. “One of the soldiers fell down, and there was a commotion.” She glanced up over her shoulder at him.

“Really?” There was something cautious about his muffled voice, but the translator sounded calm.

“I think you'd better trust us, stranger,” I said. “Anu has eyes like a demon's, and she knows what she saw.”

He took a breath and said “okay,” which turned out to be the same word in his own language as in Portuguese. “I'll tell you the situation, and then I'll strongly suggest that you keep this information to yourself.” If I'd had any sense, I'd have interrupted him and told him that three people were at least one too many when it came to keeping secrets. “The man on the cliff was setting up a smartrifle, probably the same weapon they used to shoot Szemnik in the air. Our mission here is peaceful and scientific, but we do have a little light defensive weaponry built into these suits. Those men probably knew that, and I think that was why they wanted to bring us down. If they'd caught us I think they would have very carefully peeled us out of the suits, tortured us for information on how to use them, and then slit our throats.”

Light defensive weaponry. By his standards, that meant a way to point at someone a hundred meters away and make him drop to the dirt (dead? unconscious?) without a sound.

“So you were trying to get across the border,” Anu suggested, “and land in our territory, where they couldn't get you.”

“No,” Szemnik said, “I was heading for an airlock that we could use to get out of the hab.” He said it casually, as if leaving the habitat was like walking out the door of his apartment in the morning. “Splash down in the river, go to the airlock, pop the hatch.”

“You aimed for the river, not the lake?” Anu asked.

“There wasn't supposed to be a lake, but in this style of hab, when they built an out-hull lock, it was usually at the lowest elevation in the area, to make it as close as possible to the outside. There wasn't any lake on the last survey, but water does tend to flow downhill.”

The Consul's groundskeeper had told me about that. There used to be a marsh, and the horses would always get stuck in it. They drained it and diverted the water into the lake. I felt sorry for the stranger in spite of myself.

The groundskeeper's cottage is also a semaphore station, and he'd already noticed the commotion from his tower. By the time we showed up, there was already a squad of cavalry prancing around. Officers started arriving and asking everyone questions, and when a higher-ranking one came, he would invariably chew out his predecessor for not handling the situation correctly, then start asking the same questions over again. It started to rain. I remember someone with epaulets and a gold-braided fez leaning over Szemnik, peering into his helmet visor, and tapping on it with his knuckles.

They sent for an ambulance for the two mystery men, and for me and Anu they even rounded up a spare mail buggy. It was fast, and strung as tight as an E-string, and the driver pushed his team harder than I'd have dared with a four-in-hand. It was dark by then and getting cold enough to make our teeth chatter even if it hadn't been for the potholes we were crashing over. I was shocked, shivering, jittery, and tired, but Anu shucked her wet sarong, pulled the lap rug around her shoulders, and asked if she could be invited over to my seat.

Anu and I got wreaths put around our necks, which raised some eyebrows because she was a Christian. Everyone was comfortable with a story involving the bloodthirsty Sinhala making trouble on our down-axis border, and they would have reacted just as satisfactorily if the propaganda event had been about the baby-killing, crucifix-kissing Vieghs on the up-axis side. But a Christian heroine taking sides against the Sinhals was confusing. They solved that puzzle by emphasizing that Rui, the nice, orthodox Hindu, was the one who brought Szemnik in while a “hail” of arrows (I only remember one) fell in the water around me. The newsmongers made it sound like Anu, the cultist, was my faithful servant, acting under my orders. What I'd found out was that she wasn't helpless or innocent — wasn't anything like I'd thought she was.

Szemnik got put in a private sickroom in the palace, and they shepherded me and Anu in for a carefully supervised ceremonial visit. He smiled and clasped my arm, but even though his grip was firm, I couldn't help noticing the smell from the infected wound on his leg. The Consul granted Hua and Szemnik titles, which was obviously a way of drawing them closer to herself.

My head was in a muddle that week. I saw an augur, but he didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. I'd never had so much trouble managing a simple love affair — or the end of one, which should have just meant that it was time for the rooster to chase after a new hen. I'd been off my game ever since the strange experience at the lake. I was like the card shark who reads a pile of sutras, and from then on he misses every trick because he's too busy thinking about the thirty-one planes of existence.

Szemnik's leg eventually had to be amputated, but after that he seemed to get better.

I saw a lot of Anu during the hubbub about the Outsiders, but I didn't get a chance to see her alone until a rehearsal for a long program of Brahms songs, which the Consul's husband loved. Kid stuff, especially compared to the symphonies, but the Consort loves his sentimental late-romantic bon-bons, and our patrons call the tunes. The night before the rehearsal I couldn't sleep. I felt as nervous as if the rehearsal was a big audition. In the morning I splashed water on my face and studied my receding hairline in the mirror. Was I making a fool of myself with such a young woman?

It's four or five kilometers from my quarters to the hall, and normally I'd take a cyclo, or even a hansom if I was in a hurry, but I was up so early that I decided to walk. When the public corridor opened up into the dizzying cavern of the Plaza da Constituição, I felt like a little boy showing up with his slate for his first day at school. No matter what I think about the musical tastes of the ruling class, the building always reminds me why they care so much about preserving culture — and making sure everyone sees them do it. When you see the way they maintain a file cabinet full of Pergolesi scores, you know they'll also do a good job of maintaining the lower-tech parts of a creaky old space habitat, so you can go on breathing in the style to which you've become accustomed. I waved to the guard in his twentieth-century tuxedo, walked through the gates, and set my violin case down on the steps of the giant Rhinemaidens fountain, intending to have a good long smoke to calm my nerves. The glow-tube light filtering through the skylights was just beginning to brighten. It was bitterly cold, which suited my mood.

A fly landed on the steps and spoke to me.

“Rui Santos? Don't smash me; I have a message for you.”

I took my pipe out of my mouth, and then I must not have said anything for a while, because it asked again, “Are you Rui Santos?” The voice was high pitched, just like you'd expect from a fly.

“Yes, I am.” I looked around to make sure there wasn't someone in the plaza playing a trick on me. “You're from one of the Outsiders.”

“Szemnik.” Every time it talked, its wings buzzed up and down in a blur.

“Are you really a fly?”

“No, I'm a machine. I was supposed to be used as a stealthed nonsentient air-to-ground vehicle, but Szemnik decided he needed a sentient agent. I'm his partial Kurzweil. I booted up this morning. I have limited volition, and part of his knowledge from his most recent upload, which was last year — plus information that he transmitted to me verbally after he made me.”

“I don't understand.”

It cocked its head at me. “I'm a machine that knows the most important things he knows, and I think more or less the way he would. I have to tell you some things that Hua and the Consul don't want you to know.”

Of course I knew better than to believe that it was a machine. Szemnik must have thought the Republic was a bunch of cave-men, if he thought I'd accept that. It's true that we don't have the amounts of metal that we'd need for building our own factories and spaceships, but that doesn't mean we're ignorant savages. I'm no academician, but I know that a machine has certain limits. Our orchestra's grand piano is an amazing machine, with a small fortune worth of steel in its harp and its hundreds of strings, but it can only play eighty-eight notes, and it can only play the notes the pianist tells it to play. But in any case the fly did know things that only the Outsiders knew, so I had to accept that it did and knew the things it did and knew, without knowing what it really was.

Hua had lied, the fly told me, when he said that he and Szemnik were on a survey mission — or at least he'd left out part of the truth. There'd been an earlier survey mission, forty-six years ago, carried out by a “probe” — which was another kind of golem like the fly, but much bigger. The probe saw that one of our glow-tubes was dead — like it has been for centuries, which is why we don't live in a steam bath like the Vieghs and Sinhala. It went on up-axis into Viegh, and it saw that their crop patterns had changed. Their wheat fields weren't producing as much wheat anymore. It landed to collect a sample (and I pity any farmer, even a Viegh farmer, who was there to see the thing come down out of the sky).

When the probe got back, the Outsider academicians analyzed the sample. The wheat was infected with some kind of mold or fungus called a wheat rust. The rust liked the warmer temperatures in Viegh better, so it was only slowly spreading into the Republic. There was a debate about it in the Outsider senate. (Yes, the Outsiders apparently had a republican form of government just like ours. The way the fly described it, the senate actually made the decisions, but I assume that was either because the creature was naive or because it was afraid it would be punished if it described the way a republic really works.) Their senate decided that it would be too expensive to fix our Republic's broken glow-tube any time in this century, but they could get rid of the wheat rust more cheaply, by releasing a kind of yeast that would kill it off. That was the main reason for Hua and Szemnik's mission.

“Why is Hua keeping all of this secret?” I asked the fly.

“Hua's gone native, and he's in bed with your government,” the fly squeaked. “I know Hua. He wasn't happy before. Now he's got his title, obsequious servants ... goes hunting all the time, chases women. Your government doesn't want the yeast to be deployed, and that's okay with Hua.”

“Why don't they? It seems like the cure would be a good thing for us. The Vieghs already have the rust, and if the crud spreads to our fields, maybe we'll get short on food too. We'd be in a worse position than we're in now, and right now it's all we can do to keep the Vieghs from crossing the border, burning our cities, and raping our women.”

“Yes, but it's the Vieghs who are infested right now, and if the cure works, they're the ones who will benefit. No more famines.”

“Huh — and they win the next war.”

“The humane thing to do is to release the yeast. Anything else is just delaying the inevitable final equilibrium while increasing the amount of suffering. The rust is spreading into the Republic, just not as quickly, because of the colder climate. It'll get here in fifty years, maybe a hundred at the most.”

“Well, I don't know about humane ... these are Vieghs we're talking about here.” How had I managed to get into a debate about ethics with a talking fly?

“This isn't just about Viegh and the Republic. It will spread everywhere eventually, and there are half a billion people in this hab.”

“All right, my moral sense is quivering. So you're here to ask for help finishing up the mission, right? Hua's gone fishing, and Szemnik's a cripple, so it makes sense that Szemnik needs help. I'm not even saying I'm on your side, but anyway, why did you — I mean, why did Szemnik send you to talk to me in particular?”

“He thinks that if you pick a random person off the street, usually you'll get someone who's good and honest. But he and Hua aren't surrounded by random people off the street. Access to them is carefully controlled. Everyone is looking for a way to exploit the situation. For instance, the military suspects there are technologies in the suits that would be useful to them.”

“Oh, really?”

“We already contacted Anu.”

“Did you tell her there were kittens and fuzzy ducklings to be rescued?” Why couldn't these garlic-asses leave her out of this?

“I think she might be willing to help, but I don't think she and I can do it alone. Before Szemnik nanofabs the yeast, we need an up-to-date genomic and proteinomic sample of the rust. The infected fields are hundreds of kilometers away, and I don't have that kind of on-the-wing range.”

I resisted the temptation to ask what the science-magic meant. I'm sure there were academicians in the Republic who would have understood a lot of it — excluding, of course, the parts that the Builders considered too dangerous to allow us to know. I'd never really worried about such things, being more interested in getting a good edition of the Kreutzer Sonata than in cooking up a bug or a bomb that could make our habitat not-inhabitat-able.

Third morning bells rang. Pretty soon people would start arriving for the rehearsal, and as they walked through the courtyard they'd probably be wondering why I was talking to myself.

“The border with Viegh is closed,” I pointed out.

“Right, so we have to use the emergency exterior monorail system.”

“The which?”

It explained. What took me a while to understand was the part about “exterior” — which meant outside the hab itself, dangling down into outer space.

It kept on talking and talking, as if I was actually interested in its crazy, useless plan. At least a normal fly has the courtesy to buzz without words. Finally the piano player came through the gates, looking hung over as usual, and I took that as an excuse to escape the blathering bug.

At first the inside of the hall had its usual effect of calming me and helping me to focus. It's a perfect replica (including acoustics, they say) of the ancient Vienna Musikverein, from the velvet seats to the swan-riding cherubs on the ceiling.

But all through the rehearsal my eyes kept wandering over to Anu, and I embarrassed myself by missing a repeat on one of the numbers. The organs at both ends of my spine started to feel like the two lit ends of a juggler's fire torch.

Finally I cornered her in the hallway at the tea break.

“Anu!”

“Oh, hello, Rui” — a girlish smile — “I've missed you” — good! — “How have you been?” — but did that sound more like I was an uncle she'd forgotten about?

“I've taken up taxidermy. Would you like to try it sometime?”

I'd been hoping for a giggle, but all I got was a sad smile that made her look like Joan of Arc. They don't heat the building for rehearsals, and she had a thick wool dupatta wrapped around her head. “I have a pine wreath that I probably should have taxidermed,” she said, “but I think it's too late. It's dropped all its needles.”

I solemnly studied the snaggletooth that somehow made her even more irresistible. “I want to see you,” I said.

“You're seeing me right now.”

“You know what I mean. I've never —”

“Rui, we've attracted a lot of attention. There's no way for us to get any time together alone.”

As if I hadn't spent the whole night thinking about that! Anu still lived at the convent where she'd been raised. The sisters said she could stay as long as she liked, even if she never felt the calling. They always had too many nuns who were old and feeble, and not enough young ones to handle all the work. I'd already imagined a few dozen dramas that began with Enter Rui, climbing over the convent's wall.

“A fly was buzzing around my room,” Anu said.

“One bothered me recently, too,” I said. “What a nuisance! It took me forever to get it to go away.”

She stared at me and frowned. It seemed like she was waiting for me to say more. When I didn't, she turned on her heel and stalked off without another word.

When the rehearsal was over, I loosened my bow with the kind of twists you'd use to wring a chicken's neck. I wiped the rosin off of my instrument, wadded up my handkerchief, and threw it in the case with a curse. Everyone would expect me to go to a teahouse now and be my usual laughing self. I walked fast out a side exit, through the gates, and out into the plaza.

I walked for a long time, stepping over beggars, dodging oxcarts, and pushing through market squares that I didn't recognize. After a while I noticed that my hand was hurting, and I loosened my grip on the handle of my violin case. My leg muscles were complaining too, and I was out of breath. I was at the intersection of two narrow corridors littered with trash. An old man was tending a water fountain, and a crowd of dirty boys was kicking a rock around as enthusiastically as if they'd eaten twice as much that day as they really had. A slowly oscillating wind synced to a tired, ultrabasso wheeze told me that there was a recycling lung somewhere nearby.

I gave the toothless old man a milli for a drink, then put my case against a wall and sat down on it. I spent some time making a comprehensive list of my weaknesses, and then a man sat down next to me on my case.

“Get off,” I said. “This isn't a public bench.”

“I need to talk to you, Rui Santos.” He reached into his tunic and pulled out a leather policeman's badge.

“What do you want?”

“You seemed to be in quite a hurry.” He was big, and spoke softly in a gravelly voice.

“That's not against the law, is it?”

“What's in the box?”

“My violin.”

“Anything else?”

“What's this about?”

“Who are you meeting here?”

Confused and angry, I stood up, and then, as if it had been a prearranged signal, two more men materialized. The big one slowly got off the end of my case. I'm not much of a spy, and I'm sure my thoughts played across my face like a magic lantern show. One: Why are they hassling me? Two: I have nothing to hide. Three: Actually, I do have something to hide — my knowledge of the weapons built into the suits.

The big man stepped up to me and took my hand like he was going to ask me to marry him. I was held like a horse on a short tether. One of the others came up behind me and felt for weapons under my clothes, then emptied out my pockets. The boys and the old water seller had all disappeared.

“You're the boss violin-player at the palace,” the big bruiser said. “Work with your hands, don't you?”

He started to bend my wrist backward. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see one of his men systematically searching through my case.

“You work with your hands?” he repeated. It felt like the little bones inside my wrist had turned into a bag of broken glass.

“Yes, I do. What do you want? I don't know what this is all about.” The assistant goon turned my violin upside-down and shook it to see if he could get anything to fall out through the f-holes.

“Why were you in such a hurry?”

“I wasn't in a hurry.” He twisted harder on my wrist, and I hissed through my teeth.

“Tell me the truth.”

“I wasn't in a hurry,” I insisted, trying to keep my voice from squeaking. “I was just upset. I ... my lover was singing at the rehearsal. We aren't as ... close as we used to be.”

The flunky finished his search. “Nothing here, boss.”

The big one looked at me carefully like he was choosing a cut of meat at a butcher's shop, and then he let go of my hand. “I want you to think this meeting over, Santos. Think hard about it.”

I did plenty of thinking that night. The first thing I had to admit to myself was what should have been obvious. When the Head Bone Crusher had told me to tell the truth, I had: I wanted Anu, and I was making myself suffer because of it. I wasn't just temporarily discombobulated, wasn't just trying to judge whether it was time to move on. I was like a man who's been able to drink in moderation for his whole life. Then one day he goes on a tear, and within a month he's stopped showing up for work, and he's saying things like I drink because I like the taste, or I can take it or leave it. And the worst part was that I knew now, with a hollow feeling in my gut, that Anu scorned me, thought I was a contemptible coward.

The next morning, the fly was waiting for me outside my door, and I let him in.

“I need a sort of a fake alibi,” I said.

I was having tea at a street table with Gaithri Gomes, the principal violist. We'd once had quite a fling, until she cut it off. Now she was married. Gaithri was from a rich family, and she was at least my age, but she managed not to look matronly in spite of her classy evening shift and nipple rouge.

Gaithri's eyebrows went up. “Oh?”

I tossed a milli into a monk's bowl and succeeded in making him go away. “Well, maybe not so much an alibi as — to convince some people that I'm in a certain place, when actually I'm not. Of course I understand if you ...”

“Is this about a woman?” A sad smile. And was that a hint of pity on her face?

“No, it's — well, there is a woman involved, but — actually it's worse than that, which is why maybe you'd rather not ...”

“Worse in what way?”

“Political,” I admitted, feeling sure that my ears were glowing like hot coals.

The eyebrows shot up again, and then she let loose with a laugh like a war-whoop.

The next day, Gaithri and I made ourselves look tipsy on the way to her posh abovedecks apartment. Her husband was inspecting one of his plantations, and wouldn't be back for two days. I nearly shed my skin like a snake when Gaithri pulled me to a halt outside the courtyard and rubbed my crotch for verisimilitude. We went inside and were instantly sober. Twenty heartbeats later I was climbing out a window and slinking off through the bushes. The whole charade felt natural and familiar to me in a way that probably should have been embarrassing, but what I mainly remember is praying hard to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva that the goon squad had dug deeply enough into my scurrilous reputation to be easily convinced.

Anu and I met on horseback at the edge of the hunting reserve, and as we headed in through the trees the fly scouted by air to help us avoid the groundskeeper.

The fly had made the next part sound easy. The airlock was “only” three meters below the surface of the lake. Our spinning habitat “only” made half a standard gee worth of gravity. The water would press down on the hatch, but the amount of force holding it shut would be “not too great.” Two healthy adults should “easily” be able to lift it. (These Outsiders all had a way of sounding like smarmy academicians, even when they were incarnated as bugs.) The plan was for Anu and me to lift the hatch, flooding the airlock with water. Then Anu swims down with the fly sealed in a winebottle, closes the hatch above her (much easier than opening it, without the water pressure to fight against), and keeps on holding her breath while the airlock cycles, filling itself with air. Then she and the fly ride the monorail car north to take their sample, while I lead the horses back to the stable and let myself back in through Gaithri's window. Anu gets a do-gooder vacation out beyond Viegh, and I get back in Anu's good graces (and maybe her sarong, too, although I had to admit to myself that I was so far off my usual form that that wasn't the main thing on my mind).

It all sounded like a good plan.

We put on an impressive show for the coots and egrets. Anu and I dove, surfaced, treaded water, and dove again. Fly, are you sure we're in the right place? Oh yes, straight down from where you are. Dive, fumble, come back up. Fly, did your no-doubt-extremely-rigorous calculations take into account the fact that the bottom of a lake is usually covered in a layer of mud? Dive again.

We came back to the beach and sprawled out, whipped as mules. Never in my life have I lain naked on a warm beach, with such a beautiful woman lying naked next to me, and felt so little in the way of healthy lust.

More dives in the underwater nightmare-twilight, more gasping rests on the sand. Finally my hand found a handle under the muck. Then the real torture started. Have you ever tried to lift a heavy weight — a very heavy weight — while holding your breath underwater? We came back up to the beach to rest so that next time we'd be fresh and ready to give it our best pull. The glowtubes were dimming.

“Anu? Rui?” I wished that one of the birds would snap the fly out of the air so that I wouldn't have to hear his squeaky buzz of a voice anymore.

“What?” Anu gasped, lying on her side and shading her eyes with one hand.

“The groundskeeper is coming this way.”

“We're going as fast as we can,” I said. I felt like using the winebottle as a flyswatter.

“I know,” the fly said, “but I've mapped out his routine. At this time in the afternoon he always comes along the shore of the lake. I didn't think we'd be here anywhere near this late.”

Moans from the two humans.

Someday I'm going to set up the Rui Santos School for Spies, and as a prerequisite I'm going to enforce an apprenticeship in adultery. How else does the aspiring skullduggerer prepare himself for this kind of situation? The husband comes home while you're in bed with the wife. What to do, the earnest pupil asks? Well, obviously, my boy, you don't walk back out the front door. We hadn't planned on my coming along on the expedition, but now there was no other choice.

You'd be amazed what the threat of arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution can do for your motivation. We pulled hard and finally got the hatch open.

The underground chamber let out a big air bubble. I couldn't see well through the dark, dirty water, but I could sort of feel this bubble, big enough to be a burp from Varuna's crocodile. Anu grabbed me by the wrist and tugged me down into the airlock as if maybe I didn't know where to go. It didn't occur to her that I might be discovering a sudden preference for breathable air.

We closed the hatch over our heads, sealing ourselves underwater in a dark coffin. A layer of air appeared underneath the hatch, as the fly had assured us it would. The pressure felt like kebab skewers in my eardrums, but if it was forcing the water out, I was in favor of it. We only had to tread water for a few minutes until the water went down enough so we could stand.

The body of the gondola was made of something like glass, so that when we let the fly out of his wine bottle, it was as if we were only giving him a promotion into our own, bigger bottle. The glass should have given us a view of outer space all around us, but the little ship was so dirty inside that we had to use up some of its supply of drinking water to clean a patch on one wall and see out. The fly spoke some magic words in high-pitched English, and the capsule started moving — faster than a galloping horse, he claimed.

“That's the sun,” he told us as a tiny disk of light slowly swept across the window-within-a-window. He flew over and landed on the glass, like a dragonfly basking in the light of the glowtubes.

“Very impressive,” I said, but it was actually disappointingly dim. It must look much brighter from the inner solar system. I didn't mind so much that the gondola was dark inside (I don't look my best when I'm baby-naked and covered in muck), but a little more heat would have been good.

“Can we see Earth?” Anu asked, so on the next rotation the fly told her how to search for it, covering the sun with a finger and looking on one side or the other. She thought she might have picked it out, but she couldn't be sure.

“The cradle of the species,” the fly buzzed wistfully, and I held back an urge to ask him if he meant flies or humans.

“Graveyard, you mean,” Anu said.

They started debating like academicians. It turns out that a fly can ponder cosmology, abstract morality, and the infinite. I pondered the shape of Anu's hips, silhouetted in the sunlight, and also the weighty question of whether I'd ever get another roll in the hay with her before she discovered how unworthy I was. Probably the reason it had ended so badly for Earth was that there were too many people like me, only interested in fucking like rabbits.

There was a crash. Not a very big crash, but enough to make me slip in the mud puddles that my dripping feet had made in the sepulchral dust. I yelled. Well, actually I screamed. Not a very big scream, but enough to announce to Anu, the fly, and the surrounding cosmos that I was scared.

There was a lot of hubbub from the two humans, and everything inside the gondola rattled as if the vessel was a drum. Our big tutti must have drowned out the fly's solo for a while, because it seemed like a long time later when I finally noticed he was repeating something over and over in English. Once Anu and I shut up, the spirit inside the gondola heard him. Everything swayed, and the percussion section reluctantly scuddered to a stop as if it hadn't noticed at first when the conductor stopped waving his stick.

“Everyone okay?” the fly asked. “I think we must have hit some micrometeorite pitting on the track.” He was back on the clean patch of the glass.

“I'm all right,” I said sheepishly.

“Me too,” Anu said. “What's micro- ...?”

“A speck of dust is flying through outer space at very high speed, and it hits the outside of the hab and makes dents.”

“‘To dust you will return,’” Anu said, “but I was hoping it wouldn't be quite so literal, and I'd rather it didn't happen today.”

“This does bring up some issues,” the fly said. “Anu, I explained about collecting the sample. The plan was for me to do it, since you might be noticed and ... apprehended if you came out through the hatch. But if I'm unable to do it, do you think you understand what's needed?”

“It should be easier for me than for you, shouldn't it? I can just pluck a whole ear of wheat. But I don't understand what this has to do with the dents. Why do you think you might not be able to do it?”

“It's not safe to run the gondola at normal speed. They've obviously been cutting corners on maintenance, the same as with your country's dead glow-tube. I think we need to do the rest of the trip at something like fifty kilometers an hour. You two will be fine. There are plenty of consumables for life-support.”

“But you won't be fine?” I asked.

“I'm powered by light. The sunlight out here in the Neptune Trojans is ten thousand times dimmer than earth-normal, and the gondola's internal lamps are shot. I'm not getting any useful voltage level on my photocells. I'll stop functioning before we get there.”

“So when we get there,” Anu said, “we just put you outside the hatch in the light of the glowtubes, and you'll wake back up. Will it be daytime when we arrive?”

“It doesn't work that way,” he buzzed back. “All my memory is volatile. Once my power goes out, that's it.” If he could have snapped his fingers, I think he would have. “It's not important. When someone makes a partial Kurzweil of himself, you don't expect him to keep it running forever.”

“Well, I don't expect to live forever, either,” Anu retorted, “but as I said, I'd like the end to come later rather than sooner.”

“And if I disappear for days and days,” I said, “the cops will be sure to put the thumbscrews on Gaithri.”

“Let's just turn around and make a second attempt later,” Anu said. “We've found the hatch and gotten some of the mud off. Next time it'll be easy.” The sun came up above the edge of the clean spot on the glass and cast our unnaturally sharp shadows on the wall.

“I'm not so sure that's a good idea,” I said. “Our luck might not hold a second time.”

“I'm replaceable,” the fly said.

“Rui, we can't do that. It would be murder!”

I wanted to say that it would only be murdering a fly, but of course she was right. The problem was that when I tried to imagine getting up my nerve to do the whole expedition again, I couldn't. I had a hard time believing I'd even done it the first time. If I was asked to do it again, I'd make an excuse, or just not show up for the gig. And then Anu would never want to see me again. Oh, she wouldn't hate me. I think the supply of hatred in her heart was small enough that she had to save it up for very special occasions. But she'd be disabused of the illusions she'd had about my character, and that would be enough.

“Rui is right,” the fly said, and I could tell that he wouldn't hate me either, and that made me feel even worse. “I won't allow you two to risk your lives unnecessarily.”

I temporized. “Fly, regardless of what we end up deciding to do, I think you'd better teach us the magic words to start and stop the gondola, in case you're out of commission.”

“He already told me how to stop and start,” Anu said, “but I wouldn't mind a refresher, and I think I'd better learn a few more commands, like how to speed up and slow down.”

The fly gave us our language lesson, and while he did it I located the faint glint of the wine bottle in the murky room. After we'd learned all the commands and said them to our teacher's satisfaction, I cupped my hands over him where he sat on the window.

“Rui?” I heard him say, faintly, from inside my hands, and then I felt him on my palm. I took him in the cave of my hands and crouched down carefully over the bottle.

“What are you doing?” Anu demanded.

As gently as possible, I forced him through the mouth of the bottle and plugged it with my thumb.

“Gondola,” I said in English, “Half speed forward.” It obeyed, and before there was time for Anu to second-guess me, or for me to lose my nerve, I said, “Gondola, full speed forward.” I heard the fly protesting from inside the bottle, but the sounds were too faint to make out.

There were more sections of damaged track, but our galloping barrel got through them at half speed without breaking a bilge hoop. Anu and I huddled together in a corner for warmth, miserable and afraid. When we finally opened the hatch into trans-Viegh, there was a blast of hot, dry air. The hatch was surrounded by a cairn, and situated in a little canyon wooded with oaks, with a creek flowing through it. A cow was drinking from the stream, which I took as a good omen. We didn't want to risk getting waylaid by going out to search for a wheat field, so we negotiated a parole with the fly. He was allowed out of the bottle to find a sample, as long as he promised not to try to take back control of the hijacked gondola on the way home. If the locations of the wheat fields hadn't changed in the last forty-six years, it would take him about an hour to get back.

Anu was obviously feeling pretty good — the resilience of youth. I was feeling like a filthy villain. We bathed in the creek, and she asked me to scrub her back. I could tell where that was leading, and considering that I'd just risked three people's lives for another chance to get between her thighs, you'd think that I would have been happy to go along. Instead, I broke one of my two cardinal rules. A dedicated womanizer should never brag, and he should never confess.

“I need to tell you something,” I said.

“Yes?” She looked back over her shoulder at me, smiling, and one of her nipples came out of the water.

“I'm a fraud. Ever since the beginning of this whole thing, I've only done any of it because of this crazy damned wish to please you. I never would have tried to fish the outsiders out of the lake, or paid any attention to the fly, or ...”

“Yes, my sweet.” She turned back away from me, which was a good thing, because I felt like I was about to cry. “I've always known. Now will you scrub my back? Please? I feel like I've been rolling around in a crypt.”

“But don't you...”

She turned back around and drew me against her. “Men are so silly. Whenever men do brave things, why do you think they do it, and who do you think they do it for?”

The fly flew in through my door.

“Anu's been arrested.”

“What? Why?”

“I don't know. You know they interrogated her last month, before the sampling trip.”

“They did?”

“She didn't tell you? We thought it was going to be all right. She just kept telling them the whole truth, except for the part about the weapon on Hua's suit. You didn't tell them anything about the weapon, did you?”

“No,” I said, “of course not.” I pounded my fist into my palm. Anu was sure to be the least convincing liar in the hab.

“Maybe she didn't do a good enough job of covering her tracks, and they found out about the trip.”

“Maybe they figured out that Szemnik was up to something, smelled yeast in his closet or something.”

“Maybe. They haven't arrested him, though — haven't even questioned him.”

A herd of deer browsed in the muddy meadow outside the stone wall of the prison yard. I loitered behind a big redwood, wearing a spacesuit's gauntlet on my forearm. Thirty meters back in the trees, two horses waited, with a bag of yeast in one horse's saddlebag.

The fly came around the tree and landed on the trunk. “She's there. Walking around.”

“All right, I'm ready.”

I started walking through the muck toward the wall, with the fly riding on top of my head. The deer scattered. A guard appeared at the battlement. To my eyesight, he looked like a fuzzy blob.

“You there, stop!”

I pointed the gauntlet at the guard. “Targeting ...” the fly said. “...firing.” The guard dropped out of sight. I sprinted toward the wall.