Recollection of Merit



#48
Past crumpled metal, dying smoke, and cries, we hurtle
to our own mehrit,
Upon the glass between us
lands a tiris.

—Tenda


(My translation—not, I’m afraid, a very good one.)


#


You’d have to be a history buff to remember why Rian was closed off in the first place.


#


A tiris is a minute Rianin flying reptiloid, something like a butterfly. It symbolizes rebirth and the search for enlightenment, but also betrayal, probably because of its quirky life cycle.


#


When the Mercantile Confederation made first contact with them, the Rian had opened up happily enough, traded technologies as enthusiastically as any other planet. Then the Rian changed their minds. Fine, said MercCon, you call us; they probably expected to wait a couple of years, as usual—not over a hundred. Trade with MercCon is generally agreed to be highly desirable.


I was alone in the middle of the third largest city on Rian trying to focus on the map in my hands. We were supposed to travel in groups but my tovs from the Red Sirius Consortium tradeship Wolchow Clipper didn’t want to waste their precious shore leave trying to find the Tenda Inn, so they left me with many good luck, Gupta!’s and a few can’t believe you don’t want to antique with us, Nellen!’s. Along with an on a planet that’s only just opened up? or two.


My parents were right to insist on a degree in ship’s electrical systems; it does mean time to pursue poetry on the side and more than enough access to inspiration. And there is a pleasing aesthetic to the clean precision of the work. Maybe though, if I’m frugal, when I’ve served out my contract, I could study writing or teaching. I think I would enjoy teaching others.


But there are so many beautiful things; for example, I love looking at the little plique-a-jour vase in my bunkroom as much now as the day I bought it. I love beautiful things, feelings, words. I love Tenda enough that I learned Rian so I could translate him from the original. Or her; no one is sure. Next to nothing is known about Tenda outside of Rian.


If I could safely cross the whirling melange of century-old flitters and modified negehauls flowing around the Fountain of the Three Hills—it was a good landmark, I knew roughly where I was on the map—then somewhere to my right was a narrow street along a canal, and there I could claim my reservation for three days at the Inn.


I began to suspect Rian writing had evolved somewhat in the past century. I had assumed a canal would be near a river, easy to find, but all six of the wide boulevards leading from the traffic circle evinced the distinctive hump of Rian bridges. The uniformly majestic public buildings that lined them, with their ranks of pale orange or lemon-colored colonnades glowing in the diffuse light, however grand, were unfortunately uniform, and not much help.


"Lost?" Her voice had a musical lilt, like all of those around me.


I was too short, too wide and too plainly dressed to be mistaken for anything but a tourist. Not that I’m especially short, wide or dull; it’s just that Rian aren’t any of those things.


Slender fingers held the shimmering fabrics of her dress gracefully, a sophisticated mix of mostly muted reds, ashy plum and one dark green. Large, liquid brown eyes, like pumpkin velvet, looked back at me questioningly and I couldn’t speak.


Texts had said the Rian were "appealing." They were stunning.


"Genarrin Canal?" I asked in my best Rian, although I had none of the music of a native speaker.


"Ah, Tenda," she cooed. "You are a lover of poets. Are you a writer of poems?"


"No," I protested. I don’t think she believed me. She smiled, took my arm and plunged into the traffic. I don’t know by what miracle we reached the other side alive; apparently Rian regarded daily miracles as their birthright. They all crossed that way and none of them died.


#


A mehrit is a place to get away to, an escape. The closest word might be rendezvous but it doesn’t translate to the right pattern of syllables. Not that many words do.


#


I sat in the window of my room, looking down over the canal. You could see what it had been, where the stonework hadn’t crumbled and fallen in. On the far side, past the flowing water, stone walls held in the banks and formed pleasant railings under the large spiky ferns that passed for trees. Elegant pots held exotic plants that spilled over the rails, to be reflected as patches of bright color.


On this side, the bank had collapsed, the path was now dirt and you could see sandy shallows, studded with the stones that had once made up the walkway. The nearest tree was leaning toward the canal, half its roots held by nothing but air. If the neglect continued, the water could erode up to and undermine the Tenda Inn.


The late afternoon meal was held in a stone-walled courtyard, away from the street. That you helped yourself from a long table along the back wall and took a seat at one of the smaller ones had been explained to me. The etiquette for joining strangers in the process had not. There weren’t many strangers, and those there were all seemed to know each other.


Except one. I was trying not to stare at him. Or her. I wasn’t sure. I thought him, although I didn’t know humanoids could have eyelashes like that, or such—beauty. His/her clothes were a melange of cold grays with a touch of white, like some mythic, immortal bird.


Instead, I tried to stare at the fountain while I ate. The food had a kind of slimy feel; we had been advised to expect that. I found it bland.


After a while, I left my table to examine the fountain. I had seen all you could from across the room: that it was a boulder, with water trickling down and splashing onto gravel, and that there was writing under the flowing water. It was Tenda #48, one of my favorites. I was trying to reason out the purpose of sticks stuck into the gravel, with brightly colored beads strung on them; they seemed gaudy compared to the rest of it.


The stranger had joined me.


"Tokens of respect." He/she gestured at the beads, then the poem. "Do you read Rian?" The voice could have been either gender.


"Somewhat."


"And you read Tenda?" He/she seemed surprised by this.


"He’s taught in school. The anthropologists who came here when Rian was open before brought him back, and his popularity spread. I’m sorry, I said him, we don’t know." I didn’t mention that some of the critics regard his work as trite esoterica, or that most of the popularity is among adolescents—mostly girls. You’re supposed to outgrow it.


"Mostly him, when writing. Sometimes Tenda chose to be female, just a matter of mood." He/she shrugged, as if it were no matter. This had not been in the briefings. "And what does this tell you, this poem?"


"It’s about passing an accident. Reminding us that we should not be complacent about the things we cherish, they can be taken from us at any time. Only by enjoying the moment without concerning ourselves with what cannot be controlled can we be happy."


He/she seemed to be trying to read through me. Finally he/she looked up at the sky and said, in a voice that had finally settled into masculine, "I don’t suppose it matters. I am already dead. Step closer to the fountain. They can’t record over the sounds of water."


I did.


"Consider the possibility that it describes a time of violent unrest, a time when to be too open about your thoughts could be fatal."


I did. I could see it. I considered #61 and #123, other favorites I had memorized. I could see it in those too. I told him so. And added, "Thank you. I want to understand Tenda; I deeply appreciate your kindness in telling me this."


"I didn’t tell you," he said firmly. "Are you staying in this inn because of him, then? Rather than the more comfortable options the government recommends?"


"Yes."


"Tenda was born in this house. Did you know that?"


"No."


"It was nicer. Better times, although he wouldn’t have thought so. Would you want to see the places he knew?"


I had tears spilling over and it clearly alarmed and confused him.


"There’s no offense if you don’t want to." He looked ready to back away.


"No! Nothing would make me happier." I dabbed at my eyes. "I’m Nellen Gupta." I held out my hand and he took it without shaking.


"I’m glad we chose to speak, Nellen. I am Lon—" He followed it with a series of syllables which I couldn’t quite follow. I wish I could duplicate the little lilt he gave his L’s.


I couldn’t tell you what we talked about after that, not if I had to. Nothing much and everything. What he knew about that statue. Why I had joined MercCon’s techs. We walked for miles under those vast colonnades, like gods in a palace, gliding through the throngs, stepping aside only for the Ormen, the local constabulary, as everyone else did. We had a thick, bitter and sweet drink at one of Tenda’s favorite haunts. We saw the building that had housed his first publisher, before it was repurposed as a station for the Ormen.


Despite our rocky start, we never stopped talking. We passionately debated the meaning of every Tenda verse that either one of us could recite—and that covered most of them. We rode water-taxis under foliage-draped bridges all the way home and he helped me up the riverbank. It was late when we returned to the inn and I suppose I violated every safety regulation for shore leave in the book except the one about getting entangled in local politics. I slept well.


#


When I came down to the courtyard for breakfast, I was pleasantly surprised by the impression Lon was looking for me. There was a cover pulled out over the tables; the generally overcast lavender sky was drizzling.


"Do you like museums?" he asked.


"Love them." I startled myself by beginning the day with an understatement. I hoped I was right as to how we’d spend the rest of it.


It might have been the longest and shortest day of my life. At first, we were chagrined at how often we were both attracted to the same object in a case or the same painting in a room. It became comical even as it led to intense conversations as to why the attraction was there.


Late afternoon, we went to a little place he knew, where the food was good and hot and the books were not tablets of text but ancient style books of paper. They had the most wonderful smell and feel and they weren’t museum pieces—the Rian still wrote with ink. You could handle them. I felt as though I had walked back into history.


The drizzle cleared off and took the clouds with it. We walked around until very late, amid crowds of other Rian, admiring the rare view of a starry night. I fell asleep wrapped in the warmth of the memory of his hand on my arm and a wistful parting in the dark hall.


I overslept a little, but he did too. He was only coming into the courtyard as I was. The clouds were patchy.


"Do you still want to show me around, or have you had enough?" I asked. It occurred to me that I had never asked what he did, or whether he had to be somewhere. I’ve never seen the look he gave me before, but I would swear it was the look of someone who could never spend enough time with you.


"I leave tomorrow," I added.


"Then, we should make the most of this day." It gave me a sort of flutter in my chest to notice that he sounded regretful.


#


We sat on benches that seemed as though they were woven from the enclosing trellises of vines and looked at a pool. I listened to Lon explain that the pool didn’t look like this when Tenda sat here and I noticed the patterns made by the leaves in the water, that suggested a poem about the impermanence of things. Perhaps, when I returned to the ship. He explained that the tiles with images of fluttering tiris were added in Tenda’s honor. I noticed that one of the—for lack of a better word—trees, in the distance, looked dead.


Everything else was so perfectly groomed. Death stood out against all the color, the way color would stand out against black and white. I wanted to go over and see it. There were Rian gathered around the shattered trunk, and a river of glowing colors flowed from its base in flame-like swirls over the mossy ground.


I pulled free of Lon’s hand and found my way to the tree. I could see a white thing, a paper, fastened to it, and the Rian were reading it, and murmuring. They were memorizing. I moved towards the tree as if in a dream. The river of color was made up of the thick wires stuck in the ground, with beads strung on them, a dense bed of them, like flowers. Lon called me but I pushed forward and read the paper.


#


#33
Her covered eyes are saved from pain, safe from knowing. A vine
trails up her arm unbound, unbindable.

—Tenda


#


I knew Tenda #33. This wasn’t the poem I knew. Lon had my arm and he dragged me back to the hidden pool.


"We don’t want to be here when the Ormen come," he urged.


"Why? What makes you think they will?"


"They always come. And I don’t know if not being one of us would be enough to save you or not." He was almost running, pulling me along, and he didn’t stop for my questions until we were seated again, with his arm around me, as if we’d never left.


"Speak quietly. We don’t want to attract attention," he said.


"I don’t understand. I know #33. Why are they memorizing the wrong poem? What are we afraid of?" Because, I realized he was afraid of something. I heard a shout and Lon closed his eyes in horror.


"To answer your questions"—he spoke very quietly—"although Tenda died three centuries ago, work is still circulated in his name. It was on that tree he would post his writing."


There was more shouting, and screams. I twisted enough to see that the Ormen had arrived and that people were running from them. With good reason: the Ormen were beating everyone they could catch.


"Work which still criticizes the government, but why? This is such a beautiful place. Everyone seems so happy."


"Look around you. Are the buildings majestic? Or crumbling? Are the people slender? Or thin? and how—" There was a strain in his voice now. "How do we resist a government which keeps us that way if they are now supported by your people, in return for an exchange rate which favors you and beggars us even further? We were near to defeating them, or did you think it was sheer coincidence that they chose to open up now?"


I was hurting with him. "I don’t know. I’m sorry. There is nothing I can do."


"If you truly believe there is nothing you can do, then you do not understand Tenda."


I believe I knew why he entered the courtyard late that morning and I thought I knew who wrote the new poem. Because I suspected I might be the subject.


"What will happen if they catch you?" I wanted him to know I was onto him. He was stroking my hair, thoughtfully. No passersby would think we had our minds on politics.


"You won’t be here. Let’s be grateful for that."


I wasn’t grateful; I was thinking.


Strictly speaking, crew members were not supposed to find berths for acquaintances among the dores who load and unload the ship. Strictly speaking. It so happens, on a freighter that may take years to make a run, with so much space—and uncertainty—along the way, that crew do favors for one another. Crewmen, especially dores, jump ship sometimes to a planet that appeals. Crews come up short. It’s not practical to ask too many questions about the guests who fill their bunks.


"Let me ask around. I might be able to get you a berth on the Wolchow. You might have to work until the next port in return, but you could correct what people think they know about Rian."


He snapped his face away from me so sharply, focused now off into the distance, that I was certain I had insulted him somehow, until I heard his voice, very soft and very hoarse.


"Is that even possible?"


"Yes. It happens all the time."


"But your government would, of course, restrict me if mine complained."


"Um, no. The league between planets doesn’t really have that kind of power. MercCon sees to that; it’s bad for business."


"But to leave my people now, when we were so close and being pushed back down so hard? Someone has to give them hope."


"Isn’t there anyone else whose writing could do that? Because off planet, you could speak out, start a movement to pressure MercCon to rework their terms. It would take a lot of effort; it would probably take a lot of time. It doesn’t work very often but it has happened." It didn’t happen very often at all—but it might and he would be safer. I didn’t volunteer that information.


"It would be a small price, having to work my passage, if I could achieve all that," he said slowly, turning back to me, stroking my face and watching my response. "But not if it could cause trouble for you."


"It can’t." Also not, strictly speaking, true. If the powers that be needed to make an example, I could be bounced out of the service and lose all of the benefits I had earned. More likely, if there was trouble, they would simply dock me a hold’s worth of pay. But what I risked was nothing compared to what he had been risking all along. I am already dead, he had said the first day we met. Thinking of that, I risked the truth.


"I want to work with you; I want to help you find the kind of people who might make a difference. For Rian. At least let me ask."


His lips were pressed thin with the effort, I realized, of holding back his own tears. I looked around and saw the beauty that enveloped us and after only a few days I didn’t want to leave either. He had never even been off-world and I was inviting him to a possibly permanent exile in the unknown. I didn’t really know his story, his family, his friends.


"I’m so sorry."


"Ask."


#


We returned to the streets, walking close, acting like happy lovers. A child could have followed the directions he gave me to the port and back.


All the way to the ship I wondered how I could have failed to see the cracked walls, the beggars in the corners and the fear in the way Rian moved to avoid the Ormen. I saw them now.


My repairs partner happened to be a strapping out-worlder mech named Marfy, who happened to be dating a dore. This meant she was not only already sympathetic to unconventional relationships—mechs usually don’t date dores—but she also had the connections I needed.


"I heard. An’ I heard he’s worth it. What? You think nobody saw you?" she asked. I suppose I looked as shocked as I felt.


"Go on. Check your bunkroom for messages and meet me behind the loading bay canteen."


#


There was a Rianin dress laying on my desk and a note next to it, held in place by two beaded respect-sticks:


We couldn’t resist getting you one. Have you noticed how cheap stuff is here? And couple of sticks for your hair; everybody is wearing them. You should get some more.


P.S. You can pick them up out of the ground!


Your Tovs


P.P.S. Make it a night to remember. We expect details.


Urgh.


I shoved it all in a drawer. There were no important messages; I didn’t have any lift duties.


Marfy passed along a bag with the necessary papers and a dore’s uniform.


"And watch yourself," she added, but she didn’t try to dissuade me.


#


Lon was waiting in the courtyard. I indicated the bag and, since it was late afternoon, sat down to eat. I didn’t sit with him because I didn’t know if that would be more or less suspicious. I’d been worrying about acting suspicious since leaving the Wolchow. He joined me. We talked about the park, I think.


The mood of the room changed and Lon was paying more attention to the table and less to me. I heard voices but picked up the hint not to turn around. A pair of Ormen were going from table to table, asking questions in very low voices.


"We apologize for interrupting you, Rianin Guest Electrical Engineer Nellen Gupta. We hope you are enjoying your stay?"


"Mmm" and a nod were all I could answer.


"We understand you were in Maiyerin Park today."


Lon spoke for me. "I have already explained that occurrences like that are not at all common and do not reflect the true feelings of most loyal Rian."


"You have been acting as her guide." The Ormen addressed Lon only by his last name. "It would be a good idea to avoid such places." He meant anywhere there was unrest.


"This is my last day of leave. I reboard my ship tomorrow," I said.


"We hope you leave with the pleasantest memories, and return soon, Rianin Guest," said the Ormen.


You could feel it when they left the building.


I went upstairs alone and waited, until Lon followed me up. We went to his room. I showed him the papers, the name I had truncated out of his, for simplicity’s sake. He’d get through faster that way. He examined the uniform. I needed someone to hold me, after all of that.


There are a lot of theories about the fact that there are bipedal races all over that are so similar. Not just the same number of limbs and features, but the same habits of ingestion, gestational lengths within a few months, etc.


There are other qualities. That when we are attracted we all move closer. That a hand brushing up an arm and down a back causes shivers in both. That we focus on faces, looking into eyes, brushing against lips, nuzzling necks. I never made it to my own bed.


#


I surprised myself the next morning. Even in the early light, I could see that Lon had shifted mostly feminine.


"My default mode," he/she explained.


I loved her just the same.


The only thing sweeter was the knowledge that once we were shipboard, we could rendezvous again. We could have a life, maybe. Lon shifted masculine; dores tend to be male. I helped him put on the dore uniform. I was a little self-conscious, now that he was dressed and I wasn’t. But he looked as elegant as ever, even in a workman’s coverall. Of course we kissed again.


I threw on my downclothes and ran down the hall to change to full reg uniform. I’d forgotten he’d never seen me in it, which felt odd because most of the time, I lived in a uniform. My bag was ready in an instant. Maybe my appearance took a little longer, even though the common washroom was open and available.


Back in his room, he had a package for me.


"A gift," he said.


"Give it to me when we’re on board." I was nervous.


"They will expect you to have bought something."


I sprinted back, and packed it without looking. I was still nervous. We couldn’t put off leaving. Marfy and her dorey boy met us outside the port in a cafe. I went on ahead with her and they followed. Less noticeable, we hoped.


I knew the officer checking passes. We were waved on through and I wondered if I shouldn’t have stuck closer to Lon. When I saw the Ormen coming up alongside the line, it was too late to go back.


They tried to pull Lon out of line. I could hear the officer and Marfy’s friend telling them the ship had a legal right to hire hands. The Ormen announced loudly that he was a wanted criminal.


"Is he a criminal?" asked Marfy.


"No."


"Are you sure?" She caught my hesitation.


"I think it’s political."


Lon looked at me and I had never seen that look on a face before, but I knew that look: it was the look of goodbye. I could feel Marfy gripping me, to hurry me along. I saw one of the Ormen raise the staff he carried and I saw him bring the staff down on my first and only lover’s head and he fell. I cried out but Marfy’s hand was over my mouth and she moved us along with the line. I saw one of the Ormen kick Lon’s fallen form with a thud.


"You can’t help," Marfy growled into my ear. "You know the regs about interfering in local politics. You get pulled in and we can’t get you out again." There was another kick and another thud. I thought I heard a groan. I was bundled into the shaftpod, to a seat where I couldn’t see. She wouldn’t let go of me and she had help. I heard another thud, and another. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t feel. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I only knew his face and that I heard thuds until we lifted.


There were disjointed words about calling a medie; I guess they did because, two blue-coated forms helped me to my bunk room. I wasn’t sure how long I lay there, shaking and crying.


When I got up, the lights were dimmed for lightsdown, the ship’s synthetic night.


The gift was a book of poetry by Tenda—except, the poems weren’t the ones I knew by those numbers. This was a book of the new ones under the old numbers. Bound behind it was a ribbon-wrapped packet of blank Rian paper, and pen and ink. In between was a thin slip of writing. No number. No author.


#


This one may never stand in breathless dark to cry out my love to every
open ear.
Let this gesture remind you that I would.


#


The paper was thick and creamy and smelled of Rian and smelled of Lon. I had to hold it away, to see it, to keep my tears from ravaging the surface.


And it was perfect, I realized, because Tenda—


—had only begun to write.




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