Science Fiction & Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

Fireborn

Sometimes in January the sky comes down close if we walk on a country road and turn our faces up to look at the sky.

Onyx turned her face up to the sky as she walked with her friend Jasper beside a mule-cart on the road that connected Buttercup County to the turnpike. She had spent a day counting copper dollars at the changehouse and watching bad-tempered robots trudge east- and west-bound through the crust of yesterday’s snow. Sunny days with snow on the ground made robots irritable, Jasper had claimed. Onyx didn’t know if this was true—it seemed so, but what seemed so wasn’t always truly so.

You think too much, Jasper had told her.

And you don’t think enough, Onyx had answered haughtily. She walked next to him now as he lead the mule, keeping her head turned up because she liked to see the stars even when the January wind came cutting past the margins of her lamb’s-wool hood. Some of the stars were hidden because the moon was up and shining white. But Onyx liked the moon, too, for the way it silvered the peaks and saddles of the mountains and cast spidery tree-shadows over the unpaved road.

That was how it happened that Onyx first saw the skydancer vaulting over a mountain pass northwest of Buttercup County.

Jasper didn’t see it because he was looking at the road ahead. Jasper was a tall boy, two breadloaves taller than Onyx, and he owned a big head with eyes made for inspecting the horizon. It’s what’s in front of you that counts, he often said. Jasper believed roads went to interesting places—that’s why they were roads. And it was good to be on a road because that meant you were going somewhere interesting. Who cared what was up in the sky?

You never know what might fall on you, Onyx often told him. And not every road goes to an interesting place. The road they were on, for instance. It went to Buttercup County, and what was interesting about Buttercup County? Onyx had lived there for all of her nineteen years. If there was anything interesting in Buttercup County, Onyx had seen it twice and ignored it a dozen times more.

Well, that’s why you need a road, Jasper said—to go somewhere else.

Maybe, Onyx thought. Maybe so. Maybe not. In the meantime she would keep on looking at the sky.

At first she didn’t know what she was seeing up over the high northwest col of the western mountains. She had heard about skydancers from travelers bound for or returning from Harvest out on the plains in autumn, where skydancers were said to dance for the fireborn when the wind brought great white clouds sailing over the brown and endless prairie. But those were travelers’ tales, and Onyx discounted such storytelling. Some part of those stories might be true, but she guessed not much: maybe fifty cents on the dollar, Onyx thought. What she thought tonight was, That’s a strange cloud.

It was a strange and brightly-colored cloud, pink and purple, even in the timid light of the moon. It did not move in a windblown fashion. It was shaped like a person. It looked like a person in a purple gown with a silver crown and eyes as wide as respectable townships. It was as tall as the square-shouldered mountain peak Onyx’s people called Tall Tower. Onyx gasped as her mind made reluctant sense of what her stubborn eyes insisted on showing her.

Jasper had been complaining about the cold, and what a hard thing it was to walk a mule cart all the way home from the turnpike on a chilly January night, but he turned his eyes away from the road at the sound of Onyx’s surprise. He looked where Onyx was looking and stopped walking. After a long pause he said, “That’s a skydancer—I’ll bet you a copper dollar it is!”

“How do you know? Have you ever seen a skydancer?”

“Not to look at. Not until tonight. But what else could it be?”

Skydancers were as big as mountains and danced with clouds, and this apparition was as big as a mountain and appeared to be dancing, so Onyx guessed Jasper might be right. And it was a strange and lonely thing to see on a country road on a January night. They stopped to watch the skydancer dance, though the wind blew cold around them and the mule complained with wheezing and groaning. The skydancer moved in ways Onyx would not have thought possible, turning like a whirlwind in the moonlight, rising over the peak of Tall Tower and seeming for a moment to balance there, then flying still higher, turning pirouettes of stately slowness in the territory of the stars. “It’s coming closer,” Jasper said.

Was it? Yes, Onyx thought so. It was hard to tell because the skydancer was so big. Skydancers were made by the fireborn, and the fireborn made miraculous things, but Onyx could not imagine how this creature had come to be. Was it alive or was it an illusion? If it came down to earth, could she touch it?

It began to seem as if she might have that opportunity. The skydancer appeared to lose its balance in the air. Its vast limbs suddenly stiffened. Its legs, which could span counties, locked at the knee. The wind began to tumble it sidelong. Parts of the skydancer grew transparent or flew off like evanescent-colored clouds. “I think it’s broken,” said Jasper.

Broken and shrinking, it began to fall. It’ll fall near here, Onyx thought, if it continued on its wind-tumbled course. If there’s anything left of it, the way it’s coming apart.

It came all apart in the air, but there was something left behind, something small that fell more gently, swaying like an autumn leaf on its way from branch to winter. It fell nearby—down a slope away from the road, on a hillside where in summer wild rhubarb put out scarlet stalks of flowers.

“Come on, let’s find it,” Jasper said.

“It might be dangerous.”

“It might,” said Jasper, who was not afraid of the possibility of danger but all the more inclined to go get into it. They left the mule anchored to its cart and went hunting for what had fallen, while the moonlight was bright enough to show them the way.

• • • •

They found a young woman standing on the winter hillside, and it was obvious to Onyx that she was fireborn—perhaps, therefore, not actually young. Onyx knew the woman was fireborn because she was naked on a January night and seemed not to mind it. Onyx found the woman’s nakedness perplexing. Jasper seemed fascinated.

Though the woman was naked, she had been wearing a harness of cloth and metal, which she had discarded: It lay on the ground at her feet, parts of it glowing sunset colors, parts of it twitching like the feelers of an unhappy ant.

They came and stood near enough to speak to the woman. The woman, who was about Onyx’s size but had paler skin and hair that gave back the moonlight in shades of amber, was looking at the sky, whispering to herself. When she noticed Onyx and Jasper she spoke to them in words Onyx didn’t understand. Then she cocked her shoulder and said in sensible words, “You can’t hurt me. It would be a mistake to try.”

“We don’t want to hurt you,” Jasper said, before Onyx could compose a response. “We you saw you fall, if you falling was what we saw. We thought you might need help.”

“I’m in no danger,” the woman said, and it seemed to Onyx her voice was silvery, like a tune played on a flute, but not just any old wooden flute: a silver one. “But thank you.”

“You must be a long way from home. Are you lost?”

“My devices misfunctioned. My people will come for me. We have a compound on the other side of the pass.”

“Do you need a ride, ma’am? Onyx and I can take you in our cart.”

“Wait, that’s a long way,” Onyx said. Anyway, it was her cart, not Jasper’s, and he shouldn’t be offering it without consulting her.

“Yes,” Jasper agreed, “much too far for an undressed woman to walk on a night like this.”

Onyx considered kicking him.

The fireborn woman hesitated. Then she smiled. It was a charming smile, Onyx had to admit. The woman had shiny teeth, a complete set. “Would you really do that for me?”

“Ma’am, yes, of course, my privilege,” said Jasper.

“All right then,” the woman said. “I might like that. Thank you. My name is Anna Tingri Five.”

Onyx, who knew what the “Five” meant, gaped in amazement.

“I’m Jasper,” said Jasper. “And this is Onyx.”

“You should put on some clothes,” Onyx said in a small voice. “Ma’am.”

Anna Tingri Five twitched her shoulder and blinked, and a shimmery robe suddenly covered her nakedness. “Is that better?”

“Much,” said Onyx.

• • • •

On the road to the fireborn compound, as the mule cart bucked over rutted snow hard as ice, the three of them discussed their wants, as strangers often do.

Onyx was expected at home, but her mother and father and two brothers wouldn’t worry much if she was late. Probably they would think she had stayed the night in Buttercup Town, detained by business. Onyx worked at the changehouse there and was often kept late by unexpected traffic. Her parents might even hope she had stayed late for the purpose of keeping Jasper company: Her parents liked Jasper and had hinted at the possibility of a wedding. Onyx resented such talk—she liked Jasper well enough, but perhaps not well enough to contemplate marriage. Not that Jasper had hinted at any such ambition. Jasper wanted to sail to Africa and find the Fifth Door to the Moon and grow rich or immortal, which Onyx imagined would leave him little time for wedding foolishness.

Anna Tingri Five perched on a frozen bag of wheat flour in the mule cart, saying, “I am, as you must suppose, fireborn.”

No doubt about that. And how astonished Onyx’s parents and two brothers would be to discover she had been consorting with the fireborn! The fireborn came through Buttercup County only on rare occasions, and then only one or two of them, young ones, mostly male, riding robots on their incomprehensible quests, hardly deigning to speak to the townspeople. Now here Onyx was right next to a five-born female—a talkative one!

“Was that you in the sky, dancing?” Jasper asked.

“Yes. Until the bodymaker broke.”

“No offense, but you looked about five miles tall.”

“Only a mile,” said Anna Tingri Five, a smile once again dimpling her moonlit face.

“What’s a skydancer doing in Buttercup County, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Practicing for the Harvest, here where there are mountain winds to wrestle with and clouds that come high and fast from the west. We mean to camp here through the summer.”

Without so much as a by-your-leave, Onyx thought indignantly, though when had the fireborn ever asked permission of common mortals?

“You mean to dance at the Harvest?” asked Jasper.

“I mean to win the competition and be elevated to the Eye of the Moon,” said Anna Tingri Five.

• • • •

The Eye of the Moon: best seen when the moon was in shadow. Tonight the moon was full and the Eye was invisible, but some nights, when only a sliver of the moon shone white, Onyx had seen the Eye in the darker hemisphere, a ring of red glow, aloof and unwinking. It was where the fireborn went when they were tired of living one life after another. It was what they did instead of dying.

Since Anna Tingri Five had divulged an ambition, Onyx felt obliged to confess one of her own. “I’m nineteen years old,” she said, “and one day I mean to go east and see the cities of the Atlantic Coast. I’m tired of Buttercup County. I’m a good counter. I can add and subtract and divide and multiply. I can double-entry bookkeep. I could get a city job and do city things. I could look at tall buildings every day and live in one of them.”

Spoken baldly into the cold air of a January night, her desire froze into a childish embarrassment. She felt herself blushing. But Anna Tingri Five only nodded thoughtfully.

“And I mean to go east as well,” Jasper said, “but I won’t stop in any city. I can lift and haul and tie a dozen different knots. I’ll hire myself onto a sailing ship and sail to Africa.”

He ended his confession there, though there was more to it. Onyx knew he wanted to go to Africa and find the Fifth Door, which might gain him admission to the Eye of the Moon. All the world’s four Doors, plus perhaps the hidden Fifth, were doorways to the moon. Even a common mortal could get to the Eye that way, supposedly, though the fireborn would never let a commoner past the gate. That was why Jasper dreamed about the hidden Fifth. It was his only hope of living more than one life.

Skeptical Onyx would have bet the Fifth Door was a legend without any truth at the heart of it, but she had stopped saying so to Jasper because it made him irritable. Lately he had begun to guard his ambition as if it were a fragile, secret possession, and he didn’t mention it now.

“This is my fifth life,” Anna Tingri Five said in her silver flute voice, “and I’m tired of coming through the juvenation fires with half my memories missing, starting out all over again with nothing but the ghosts of Anna Tingri One, Two, Three, and Four to talk to when I talk to myself. I want to live forever in the Eye of the Moon and make things out of pure philosophy.”

Onyx didn’t comprehend half this peroration, but she understood the yearning in the words of Anna Tingri Five.

“Both of you want to leave this place?” Anna Tingri Five asked.

Yes. Both.

“Come into our encampment then,” said Anna Tingri Five. “It’s warm inside. Let me repay you for your interesting kindness.”

They came to the place the fireborn had made for themselves. No one in Buttercup County had seen the fireborn arrive, and their camp was over the rim of a hill where no one went in the leafless winter. But the camp itself was not leafless. A mortal commoner passing by, Anna Tingri Five explained, would see nothing unusual. Some ensorcellment kept the campground hidden from casual glances. But Anna Tingri Five allowed Onyx and Jasper to see the place and pass inside its perimeter. Inside, the fireborn had undone winter. In their enchanted circle it was a pleasant summer night. The trees were leafy, the meadow plants flowering. Vast silken pavilion tents of many colors had been staked to the fragrant ground, and hovering radiant globes supplemented the pale moonlight. It was late, and Onyx supposed most of the fireborn were asleep, but some few were still passing between the tents, talking in unknown languages, as lean and tall and perfect as flesh can be. Supple robots moved silently among them, performing inscrutable robot tasks. Onyx marveled at the warmth of the air (she shrugged out of her woolen coat, loosened a button on her hempen shirt), and Jasper’s eyes grew big with awe and eagerness.

“Spend the night with us,” said Anna Tingri Five.

• • • •

Anna Tingri Five had never been out of contact with her compound even after her bodymaker failed; at the first tickle of a wistful thought a robot would have flown her home through the January sky. But she had been intrigued and interested by the helpful commoners who appeared out of the darkness. She had met few real commoners and was curious about them. She thought this pair might be worth keeping. That was why, a few days later, she offered them jobs in the encampment and a free ride, come the end of summer, to the continent’s great Harvest Festival.

Onyx’s parents begged her not to accept the offer. Her mother wailed; her father raged; but they had known they were raising a rover ever since they named their restless baby girl Onyx. And they had two stout and unimaginative sons who were bound to remain in Buttercup County and lead useful and sensible lives.

Jasper’s father had milled grain all his life, had continued to mill grain after the death of his wife ten years ago, and would mill grain until the day he died. He had once harbored his own ambition to see the world outside Buttercup County, and was pleased and terrified in equal parts by the prospect of his son’s departure. “Write me letters from foreign places,” he demanded, and Jasper promised to do so. When father and son said goodbye, both wept. They knew that life was short and difficult and that, as a rule, commoners only lived once.

• • • •

It was soon obvious to Onyx that the fireborn had no real need of hired help. It was not that she and Jasper did no work—they did—or that they were not paid for their work—they were, in genuine copper dollars. But the carrying of water and the serving of food had previously been conducted by robots, and Onyx felt embarrassed to be doing robot work, even for generous wages. The fireborn said please and thank you and smiled their thin, distant smiles. But we’re pets, Onyx complained to Jasper one day. We’re not good for anything.

Speak for yourself, said Jasper.

It became increasingly clear that Anna Tingri Five favored Jasper over Onyx.

Onyx assigned herself the task of learning all she could about the fireborn. The first thing she learned was that there were greater and lesser ranks among them. Some of the fireborn in the skydancer camp were firstborns, who had never passed through the rejuvenating fire and who had trivializing Ones attached to their names. As old as some of them might seem, the first-borns were novices, junior members of the troupe. They watched, listened, kept to their own circles. They were not skydancers but apprentices to skydancers; they managed the small incomprehensible machines that made the dances possible.

The dancers themselves were many-born: some Fives, some Sevens, a couple of Nines. And despite her reservations, Onyx loved to watch them dance. Whenever they danced, she would leave her unimportant work (folding ceremonial silks, crushing seeds to flavor soup) and study the process from its beginning to its end. The dancers’ apprentices helped them don the harnesses they called bodymakers, and in their bodymakers the dancers looked like some robot’s dream of humanity, perfect coffee-colored flesh peeping out between lashings of glass and sky-blue metal. But there was nothing awkward about the way the harnessed dancers moved. They grew buoyant, they stepped lightly to the launching meadow, they flexed their supple limbs as they assembled. Then they flew into the air.

And once they were aloft, still and small as eagles hovering on an updraft, the bodymakers made their bodies.

Onyx understood that the bodies were projections of the dancers’ bodies, and that the projected bodies were made of almost nothing—of air momentarily frozen and made to bend light to create the illusion of colors and surfaces. But they looked real, and they were stunningly large, one mile or more top to bottom as nearly as Onyx could calculate. Because they were insubstantial the bodies were not affected by even the most powerful winds, but they touched and rebounded and gripped one another as if they were real things. In the rondo dances, vast hands held vast hands as if air were flesh.

“I’ll bet I could do that,” Jasper said yearningly, on one of the mornings when they sat together at the edge of the flying meadow and watched until their necks ached with up-staring.

“Bet a copper dollar you couldn’t,” said Onyx.

“Someday you’ll die of not believing.”

“Someday you’ll die of dreaming!”

The greatest of the dancers—a category that included Anna Tingri Five—were rivals, and they danced alone or with single partners selected from among the lesser dancers. During the Harvest festivities a single Finest Dancer would be selected, and that individual would be offered transit to the Eye of the Moon. Only two dancers in the troupe were eligible to compete for this year’s Moon Prize: Anna Tingri Five and a man named Dawa Nine.

Both danced beautifully, in Onyx’s opinion. Anna Tingri Five danced as a blue-skinned goddess with bells on her wrists and ankles. When she flirted with the white clouds that climbed the sunlit mountains from the west, her bells tolled sonorously. Dawa Nine danced as an ancient warrior, with silver armor and a silver sword on his hip. Often in his practice he rose to impossible heights and swooped like a predatory bird to within a feather’s-breadth of the treetops.

But Jasper had eyes only for Anna Tingri Five, an attention the fireborn dancer enjoyed and encouraged, much to Onyx’s disgust. Jasper pleased Anna Tingri Five by befriending the apprentice who maintained her gear, helping him with small tasks and asking occasional pertinent questions. On idle days he folded Anna Tingri Five’s silk and poured her dinner wine. What he hoped to accomplish with this foolish fawning was beyond Onyx. Until it became clear to her.

One cloudless night in spring, when the fireborn were gathered under a great pavilion tent for their communal meal, Anna Tingri Five stood and cleared her throat (like the sound of a silver flute clearing its throat, Onyx thought) and announced that she had revised her plan for the Festival and that she would teach the commoner Jasper to dance.

The fireborn were startled, and so was Onyx, who nearly dropped the pitcher of wine she was carrying. Last month she had been given a device the size of a pea and the shape of a snail, which she wore behind her ear, and which translated the confusing languages of the fireborn into words she could mostly understand. In that startled moment the device conveyed a tumult of dismay, disapproval, disdain.

Anna Tingri Five defended her decision, citing examples of novelty dancers who had been admitted to tournaments in supporting roles, citing the elevation of certain commoners to near-fireborn status for certain sacred functions, citing Jasper’s fascination with the dance. A few of the fireborn nodded tolerantly; most did not.

Jasper had been training in secret, said Anna Tingri Five, and tomorrow he would make his first flight.

Jasper wasn’t present in the tent that night, or Onyx would have given him her best scornful glare. She was forced to save that for the morning, when she joined a crowd of the fireborn for the occasion of his ascent. She watched (he avoided her eyes) as Jasper was strapped and haltered into a bodymaker by Anna Tingri Five’s sullen apprentices. She watched with grim attention as Anna Tingri Five escorted him to the launching meadow. She watched as he rose into a mild blue sky, bobbing like a paper boat on a pond. Then he engaged his bodymaker.

Jasper became a mile-high man. A man dressed like a farmer. A flying peasant. An enormous gawking rube.

The false Jasper flexed its county-wide limbs. It turned an awkward, lunging pirouette.

Now the fireborn understood the nature of the dance: They laughed in approval.

Onyx scowled and stalked away.

• • • •

“It’s a silly custom,” Onyx said. “Skydancing.”

Perhaps she shouldn’t have said this—perhaps especially not to Dawa Nine, the troupe’s other keynote dancer. But he had come to her, not vice versa. And she guessed he deserved to hear her true and honest opinion.

“You only say that because you’re jealous.”

Dawa Nine was a tall man. His skin was dark as hard coal, even darker than Onyx’s skin. His head was well-shaped and hairless. He had lived nine lives and that was enough for him. He aimed to dance his way into immortality, and the most immediate obstacle in his path was Anna Tingri Five. “I am not jealous,” Onyx said.

It was noon on a spring day and the sun was shining and he had come to her tent and asked to speak with her. Onyx had agreed. But what could Dawa Nine have to say that would interest Onyx? She cared very little about the fireborn or their ambitions. In five days the troupe would leave Buttercup County for the windswept granaries of the Great Plains. Onyx planned to leave them there and make her own way to the cities of the Atlantic Coast. She had saved enough copper dollars to make the journey easier.

“Be honest,” Dawa Nine said. His voice was not a flute. His voice was the wind hooting through the owl-holes of an old tree, and his smile was soft as moonlight. “With yourself if not with me. You came here with Jasper, and he was your everyday boyfriend, and now he’s flying with a beautiful fireborn dancer. What sane woman wouldn’t be jealous?”

“It’s not like I ever would have married him,” Onyx protested.

“In that case, you should stop paying him such close attention.”

“I’m not! I’m ignoring him.”

“Then let me help you ignore him.”

I’m doing fine in that department, thought Onyx. “What do you mean?”

“Work as my apprentice.”

“No! I don’t want to fly. I don’t want to be some dancer’s clown.”

“I’m not suggesting you learn to fly, Miss Onyx. But you can husband my machinery and harness my bodymaker. The boy who does it for me now is a mere One, and you’re smarter than he is—I can tell.”

Onyx took this for fact, not flattery. And—yes—Jasper would be gratifyingly annoyed to find Onyx working for Anna Tingri Five’s bitter rival. “But what do you get out of this, Old Nine? Not just a better apprentice, I’ll bet.”

“Of course not. You’re a commoner. You can tell me about Jasper. Who he is, what he wants, how he might dance—what Anna Tingri Five might make of him.”

“I will not be your spy,” Onyx said.

“Well, think about it,” said Dawa Nine.

• • • •

Dawa Nine’s offer was on Onyx’s mind as the troupe packed its gear and left Buttercup County.

The fireborn all rode robots, and robots carried their gear and supplies, and even Onyx and Jasper were given robots to ride. The troupe found and followed the road that ran through Buttercup Town, and Onyx was able to wave to her parents from the comfortable shoulder of a tall machine. They waved back fearfully; Jasper’s father was also present, also waving and weeping; and Onyx burned with the pangs of home-leaving as they passed the hotel, the counting house where she had worked, the general store, the barber shop. Then Buttercup Town was behind them, and her thoughts moved differently.

She thought about commoners and the fireborn and the Eye of the Moon.

Now that she had dined and slept and bathed with them, the fireborn were far less daunting than they had seemed to her in stories. Powerful, yes; masters of strange possibilities, yes; rich beyond calculation, surely. But as striving and envious as anyone else. Cruel and kind. Thoughtless and wise. Why then were there two kinds of people, commoners and fireborn?

Legend had it that commoners and fireborn had parted ways during the Great Hemoclysm centuries ago. But not even the fireborn knew much about that disaster. Some said the Eye of the Moon had watched it. Some said the Eye of the Moon had only just come into existence when the world began to burn. Some said the Eye of the Moon had somehow caused the Hemoclysm (but Onyx kept that notion to herself, for it was a heresy; the fireborn considered the Eye a holy thing).

Onyx cared little about the Eye. It was where the fireborn went after they had lived their twelve allotted lives—or sooner, if they tired of life on Earth and could claim some worthy achievement. In the Eye, supposedly, the fireborn wore whatever bodies they chose and lived in cities made entirely of thought. They could travel across the sky—there were Eyes, some claimed, on other planets, not just the moon. One day the Eye would rule the entire universe. Or so it was said.

As a child on a pew in Buttercup County’s Church of True Things, Onyx had learned how Jesu Rinpoche had saved wisdom from the Hemoclysm and planted the Four Doors to the Moon at the corners of the Earth. The story of the Fifth Door, in which Jasper so fervently believed, was a minor heresy much favoured by old pipe-smoking men. What was the truth of it all? Onyx didn’t know. Probably, she thought, nine-tenths of these tales were nonsense. She had been called cynical or atheistic for saying so. But most of everything people said was nonsense. Why should this be different?

All she really knew was that there were commoners and there were fireborn. The fireborn traveled at will and played for a living and made robots that mined mountains and cultivated harvests. The commoners lived at the feet of the fireborn, untroubled unless they made trouble. That was how it had been since the day she was born, and that was how it would be when she left the world behind. Only dreamers like Jasper believed differently. And Jasper was a fool.

• • • •

Jasper’s foolishness grew so obvious that Onyx gave up speaking to him, at least until they argued.

The troupe descended in long robotic marches from the mountains to the hinterland, where the only hills were gentle drumlins and rolling moraines, and where the rivers rippled bright and slow as Easter ribbons. Some days the sky was blue and empty. Some days clouds came rolling out of the west like gray monsters with lightning hearts.

The road they followed was paved and busy with traffic. They made their camps by the roadside where wild grass grew and often stayed encamped for days. A month passed in this lazy transit, then another. Where the plains had been farmed, a vast green bounty mounded and grew ripe. The Harvest approached.

Jasper’s dancing skills improved with practice, though Onyx was loathe to admit it. Of course he wasn’t as good as the fireborn dancers, but he wasn’t supposed to be. He was a foil, as Dawa Nine explained to her: a decorative novelty. The theme of Anna Tingri Five’s dance was the misbegotten love of a fireborn woman for a young and gawkish commoner. It was a story the fireborn had been telling for centuries, and the tale was always tragic. It had been set to music many times, though Anna Tingri Five would be the first to dance it. Jasper was required only to clump about the sky in crude yearning poses, and to adopt a willing stillness while Anna Tingri Five beckoned him, teased him, accepted him, loved him, and forsook him in a series of highly symbolic set-dances. The rehearsals were impressive, and with her head turned to the late-summer sky, Onyx even felt a kind of sour pride: That’s our Jasper a mile high and another mile tall, she thought. That’s the same Jasper who walked behind a mule cart in Buttercup County ten months ago. But Jasper was as stupid and bemused as the peasant he portrayed in the dance.

And then, one night as she served wine, Onyx discovered Jasper with Anna Tingri Five in a dark corner of the fireborn pavilion, the two of them exchanging bird-peck kisses.

Onyx left the pavilion for the bitter consolation of the prairie night. Jasper guessed what she had seen and followed her out, calling her name. But Onyx didn’t stop or look back. She didn’t want to see his traitorous face. She went straight to Dawa Nine instead.

• • • •

Jasper caught her the next day, as she passed along a row of trees where a creek cut the tabletop prairie. The day was warm. Onyx wore a yellow silk skirt one of the fireborn women had given her, and a yellow silk scarf that spoke in gestures to the wind. The troupe’s lesser dancers rehearsed among clouds high above, casting undulant shadows across the wild grass.

“Don’t you trust me?” Jasper asked, blocking her path.

“Trust you to do what? I trust you to do what I’ve seen you doing,” said Onyx.

“You have no faith!”

“You have no sense!”

“All I want is to learn about the Eye of the Moon and how to get there,” Jasper said.

“I don’t care about the Eye of the Moon! I want to live in a city and look at tall buildings! And all I have to do to get there is walk toward the sunrise!”

“I’ll walk alongside you,” said Jasper. “Honest, Onyx!”

“Really? Then let’s walk!”

“. . . after the Dance, of course, I mean. . .”

“Hah!”

“But I owe her that much,” he said, not daring to pronounce the name of Anna Tingri Five for fear of further provoking Onyx. His big eyes pleaded wordlessly.

“She cares nothing for you, you mule!”

These words wounded Jasper in the tender part of his pride, and he drew back and let his vanity take command of his mouth. “Bet you’re wrong,” he said.

“Bet how much?”

“Ten copper dollars!”

It’s a bet!” cried Onyx, stalking away.

• • • •

The Harvest Festival came at summer’s decline, the cooling hinge of the season. The troupe joined a hundred others for the celebration. Onyx marvelled at the gathering.

There were many harvests in the world but only a few Festivals. Each of the world’s great breadlands held one. Prosaically, it was the occasion on which the fireborn collected the bounty of grain and vegetables that had been amassed by their fleets of agricultural robots, while commoners feasted on the copious leavings, more than enough to feed all the mortal men and women of the world for the coming year. That was the great bargain that had sealed the peace between the commonfolk and the fireborn: Food for all, and plenty of it. Only overbreeding could have spoiled the arrangement, and the fireborn attended to that matter with discreet lacings of antifertility substances in the grain the commoners ate. Commoners were born and commoners died, but their numbers never much varied. And the fireborn bore children only rarely, since each lived a dozen long lives before adjourning to the Eye of the Moon. Their numbers, too, were stable.

But the Harvest Festival was more than that. It was an occasion of revelry and pilgrimage, a great gathering of people and robots on the vast stage of the world’s steppes and prairies, a profane and holy intermingling. The fireborn held exhibitions and contests, to be judged by councils of the Twelve-Lived and marvelled at by commonfolk. Jugglers juggled, poets sang, artisans hawked their inscrutable arts. Prayer flags snapped gaily in the wind. And of course: Skydancers danced.

Several troupes had arrived at the site of the North American festival (where the junction of two rivers stitched a quilt of yellow land), but the troupe Onyx served was one of the best-regarded and was allotted the third day and third night of the Festival for its performances.

By day, the lesser dancers danced. Crowds gawked and marvelled from below. Warm afternoon air called up clouds like tall white sailing ships, and the skydancers danced with them, wooed them, unwound their hidden lightnings. The sky rang with bells and drums. Sunlight rebounding from the ethereal bodies of the avatars cast rainbows over empty fields, and even the agricultural robots, serene at the beginning of their seasonal rest, seemed to gaze upward with a metallic, bovine awe.

Onyx hid away with Dawa Nine, who was fasting and praying in preparation for his night flight. The best dancers danced at night, their immense avatars glowing from within. There was no sight more spectacular. The Council of the Twelves would be watching and judging. Onyx knew that Dawa Nine was deeply weary of life on Earth and determined to dance his way to the moon. And since the day she had discovered Jasper and Anna Tingri Five exchanging kisses, Onyx had promised to help him achieve that ambition—to do whatever it was in her power to do, even the dark and furtive things she ought to have disdained.

She could have offered Dawa Nine her body (as Jasper had apparently given his to Anna Tingri Five), but she was intimidated by Dawa’s great age and somber manner. Instead, she had shared secrets with him. She had told him how Jasper worked Anna Tingri Five’s gear, how he had learned only a few skydancing skills but had learned them well enough to serve as Anna’s foil, how he had mastered the technical business of flight harnesses and bodymakers. He had even modified Anna Tingri Five’s somatic generator, making her avatar’s vast face nearly as subtle and expressive as her own—a trick even Dawa Nine’s trained apprentices could not quite duplicate.

None of this information much helped Dawa Nine, however; if anything, it had deepened his gloomy conviction that Anna Tingri Five was bound to outdance him and steal his ticket to the Eye. Desperate measures were called for, and time was short. As the lesser dancers danced, Dawa Nine summoned Onyx into the shadow of his tent.

“I want you to make sure my bodymaker is functioning correctly,” he said.

“Of course,” said Onyx. “No need to say, Old Nine.”

“Go into the equipment tent and inspect it. If you find any flaws, fix them.”

Onyx nodded.

“And if you happen to find Anna Tingri’s gear unattended—”

“Yes?”

“Fix that, too.”

Onyx didn’t need to be told twice. She went to the tent where the gear was stored, as instructed. It was a dreadful thing Dawa had asked her to do—to tamper with Anna Tingri Five’s bodymaker in order to spoil her dance. But what did Onyx care about the tribulations of the fireborn? The fireborn were nothing to her, as she was nothing to them.

Or so she told herself. Still, she was pricked with fleabites of conscience. She hunched over Dawa Nine’s bodymaker, pretending to inspect it. Everything was in order, apart from Onyx’s thoughts.

What had Anna Tingri Five done to deserve this cruel trick? (Apart from being fireborn and haughty and stealing kisses from Jasper!) And why punish Anna Tingri Five for Jasper’s thoughtlessness? (Because there was no way to punish Jasper himself!) And by encouraging this tampering, hadn’t Dawa Nine proven himself spiteful and dishonest? (She could hardly deny it!) And if Dawa Nine was untrustworthy, might he not blame Onyx if the deception was discovered? (He almost certainly would!)

It was this last thought that troubled Onyx most. She supposed she could do as Dawa had asked: tamper with the bodymaker and ruin the dance Anna Tingri Five had so carefully rehearsed—and it might be worth the pangs of conscience it would cause her—but what of the consequences? Onyx secretly planned to leave the Festival tonight and make her way east toward the cities of the Atlantic coast. But her disappearance would only serve to incriminate her, if the tampering were discovered. The fireborn might hunt her down and put her on trial. And if she were accused of the crime, would Dawa Nine step forward to proclaim her innocence and take the responsibility himself?

Of course he would not.

And would Onyx be believed, if she tried to pin the blame on Dawa?

Hardly.

And was any of that the fault of Anna Tingri Five?

No.

Onyx waited until an opportunity presented itself. The few apprentices in the tent left to watch a sunset performance by a rival troupe. The few robots in the pavilion were downpowered or inattentive. The moment had come. Onyx strolled to the place where Anna Tingri Five’s bodymaker was stored. It wouldn’t take much. A whispered instruction to the machine codes. A plucked wire. A grease-smeared lens. So easy.

She waited to see if her hands would undertake the onerous task.

Her hands would not.

She walked away.

• • • •

Onyx left the troupe’s encampment at sunset. She could not say she had left the Festival itself: The Festival was expansive; pilgrims and commoners had camped for miles around the pavilions of the fireborn—crowds to every horizon. But she made slow progress following the paved road eastward. By dark she had reached a patch of harvested land where robots like great steel beetles rolled bales of straw, their red caution-lights winking a lonesome code. A few belated pilgrims moved past her in the opposite direction, carrying lanterns. Otherwise she was alone.

She stopped and looked back, though she had promised herself she would not.

The Harvest Festival smoldered on the horizon like a grassfire. A tolling of brass bells came down the cooling wind. Two skydancers rose and hovered in the clear air. Even at this distance Onyx recognized the glowing avatars of Jasper and Anna Tingri Five.

She tried to set aside her hopes and disappointments and watch the dance as any commoner would watch it. But this wasn’t the dance as she had seen it rehearsed.

Onyx stared, her eyes so wide they reflected the light of the dance like startled moons.

Because the dance was different. The dance was wrong!

The Peasant and the Fireborn Woman circled each other as usual. The Peasant should have danced his few blunt and impoverished gestures (Supplication, Lamentation, Protestation) while the Fireborn Woman slowly wove around him a luminous tapestry of Lust, Disdain, Temptation, Revulsion, Indulgence, Ecstasy, Guilt, Renunciation, and eventually Redemption—all signified by posture, motion, expression, repetition, tempo, rhythm, and the esotery of her divine and human body.

And all of this happened. The dance unfolded in the sky with grace and beauty, shedding a ghostly rainbow light across the moonless prairie . . .

But it was the Fireborn Woman who clumped out abject love, and it was the Clumsy Peasant who danced circles of attraction and repulsion around her!

Onyx imagined she could hear the gasps of the crowd, even at this distance. The Council of the Twelve-Lived must be livid—but what could they do but watch as the drama played out?

And it played out exactly as at rehearsal, except for this strange inversion. The Peasant in his tawdry smock and rope-belt pants danced as finely as Anna Tingri Five had ever danced. And the Fireborn Woman yearned for him as clumsily, abjectly, and convincingly as Jasper had ever yearned. The Peasant grudgingly, longingly accepted the advances of the Fireborn Woman. They danced arousal and completion. Then the Peasant, sated and ashamed of his weakness, turned his back to the Fireborn Woman: They could not continue together. The Fireborn Woman wept and implored, but the Peasant was loyal to his class. With a last look backward he descended in a stately glide to the earth. And the Fireborn Woman, tragically but inevitably spurned, tumbled away at the whim of the callous winds.

And kept tumbling. That wasn’t right, either.

Tumbling this way, Onyx thought.

It was like the night so many months ago when the January sky had come down close and Anna Tingri Five had fallen out of it. Now, as then, the glowing avatar stiffened. Its legs, which could span counties, locked at the knee. The wind began to turn it sidelong, and parts of the skydancer grew transparent or flew off like evanescent-colored clouds. Broken and shrinking, it began to fall.

It came all apart in the air, but there was something left behind: something small that fell more gently, swaying like an autumn leaf on its way from branch to winter. It landed nearby—in a harvested field, where copper-faced robots looked up in astonishment from their bales of straw.

Onyx ran to see if Anna Tingri Five had been hurt. But the person wearing the bodymaker wasn’t Anna Tingri Five.

It was Jasper, shrugging out of the harness and grinning at her like a stupid boy.

• • • •

“I doctored the bodymakers,” Jasper said. “I traded the seemings of them. From inside our harnesses everything looked normal. But the Peasant wore the Fireborn Woman’s body, and the Fireborn Woman appeared as the Peasant. I knew all about it, but Anna Tingri Five didn’t. She danced believing she was still the Fireborn Woman.”

“You ruined the performance!” exclaimed Onyx.

Jasper shrugged. “She told me she loved me, but she was going to drop me as soon as the Festival ended. I heard her saying so to one of her courtiers. She called me a ‘dramatic device.’”

“You could have told me so!”

“You were in no mood to listen. You’re a hopeless skeptic. You might have thought I was lying. I didn’t want you debating my loyalty. I wanted to show it to you.”

“And you’re a silly dreamer! Did you learn anything useful from her—about the Fifth Door to the Moon?”

“A little,” said Jasper.

“Think you can find it?”

He shrugged his bony shoulders. “Maybe.”

“You still want to walk to the Atlantic Coast with me?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

Onyx looked back at the Harvest Festival. There must be chaos in the pavilions, she thought, but the competition had to go on. And in fact Dawa Nine rose into the air, right on schedule. But his warrior dance looked a little wobbly.

“I crossed a few connections in Dawa Nine’s bodymaker,” she confessed. “He’s a liar and a cheat and he doesn’t deserve to win.”

Jasper cocked his big head and gave her a respectful stare. “You’re a saboteur too!”

“Anna Tingri Five won’t be going to the moon this year, and neither will Dawa Nine.”

“Then we ought to start walking,” said Jasper. “They won’t let it rest, you know. They’ll come after us. They’ll send robots.”

“Bet you a copper dollar they can’t find us,” Onyx said, shrugging her pack over her shoulder and turning to the road that wound like a black ribbon to a cloth of stars. She liked the road better now that this big-headed Buttercup County boy was beside her again.

“No bet,” said Jasper, following.

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Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson’s is the author of such science fiction novels as Darwinia, Julian Comstock, and the Hugo Award-winning Spin.  His most recent novel is Burning Paradise.  He lives outside of Toronto with his wife, Sharry Wilson.