I wait outside the speaking chamber, where the young Speakers learn to Hear and Speak. The walls and carpeted floor are purest white, the color of this God place and the Speakers who live here walk by, all dressed in white like the walls and the floor, their palms on the shoulders of their guides. They all look the same with their pale hair and pale eyes. Only their smell tells me who they are. I am a guide for my Speaker. Until she puts on the robe and is sent to another place to Speak between the worlds for the citizens. Then I will have a new pup to raise. I will miss this puppy. Her scent comes to me from beneath the door of the learning room, smelling of trying hard and not sure.
She is never sure, my she, not since I first came to her, when she was just small. I sometimes smell her silent tears at night and slip into her room from my cubicle to lie beside her. She strokes the fur on my head and shoulders and it comforts her. It is our secret—kept secret, I think, because she does not know if it is permitted for me to sleep on her bed at night. I, myself, do not know, even after all these years here. Never before have I slept beside a pup in my charge. Perhaps there is nothing wrong. Perhaps there is. But it is our secret and it binds us. When I sleep in her bed, I hear my litter-brother in my dreams and I like that. I miss him always.
I will miss her, when she leaves. Unless they finally send me with her, the way they sent my litter-brother with his Speaker. But they say I am good at raising puppies and they have not sent me with a newly-robed Speaker yet.
While I wait for her, I pull out my brother’s last mail to me. The tiny disk feels cool and hard in my palm. Disk-mail is not expensive, but it is slow. This disk traveled in four ships before it found its way here from the colony world where my brother now lives. But we guides are servants and servants are not entitled to use the Speakers; they are for citizens only. Perhaps they think that because we mostly smell to each other that we do not need to speak with words. But we cannot smell between the stars. I would like to speak to my litter-brother and hear his answer. I will never see him again, except on my she’s bed. There, he speaks to me, tells me how he misses me. We used to wrestle in the meadow around the school where we were raised, chasing each other into the creek, splashing and laughing. Sometimes it snowed and I still dream of snow, cold and white, stinging my palms and the soles of my feet, tingly as it melted in my fur.
There is no snow in the convent. Only spring, forever.
The door opens and I have been dreaming of snow and my brother. I am not ready. I leap to my feet, ears going flat.
“Siri? Where are you?”
Her hand goes out and I step beneath it so that my shoulder fur comes up against her palm. I feel the tickle of her mind finding my eyes and the white-walled corridor blurs just a bit as our minds share my eyes.
I wonder if that is how I speak to my brother when I sleep in her bed? “I had a mail from my litter-brother,” I tell her.
She understands litters. The Speaker puppies are born in litters of ten. We walk down the hall and I see that she is heading for the garden in the center of the convent. Sadness darkens her scent and I reach up to touch her hand lightly, wanting to make the smell go away.
“You don’t understand.” She shrugs me off but she does not smell angry. “What if I fail?”
Fail? The word chills me. My puppies to do not fail. Have never failed. We step out into sunlight, soft and gentle through the dome. Water trickles and the rich tapestry of dirt smells, the small beings that inhabit this space, the breath of the water itself make me dizzy. Most of the convent is clean of such smells. She sits on a bench covered with bright chips of color and I squat beside her, leaning lightly against her thigh because that comforts her. Her fingers slide into the long fur on the back of my neck and that makes me shiver. “Who said you would fail?”
“My Speaker-Mistress.” Her words are low and she smells sharp, unhappy. “The one who . . . trains me. I . . . Hear more than the voice I’m tuning to. I can’t shut the others out. But I don’t listen to them.” She smells distress and a tinge of anger. “I am good. I would not listen to any other voice. I would not Speak the God Words to another. Not ever.”
I wince—I cannot stop myself—because her fingers digging in hurt me. She lets go and covers her face with her hands.
“I am not trying to Hear them. I listen only for the voice that speaks to me. Too sensitive she said, the Speaker-Mistress.” Her voice is hard to hear, but she smells frightened. “She said it could not be, that my genes will not permit it.”
I shiver as if I am a puppy again and have played too long in the snow.
“Will they make me leave?”
She does not understand. Maybe none of them do. Speaking only the God Words, Hearing the God Words is all there is for them. Only Speakers live here in the convent. And we servants.
No one leaves, except on a ship, to Hear and Speak in another place, so that the citizens can talk between the stars. The way my brother left with the new Speaker assigned to him.
I try to distract her. I can smell the vanilla orchids opening and she loves them. Even she can smell them with her poor dead nose and she loves the touch of their thick petals. So I take her to them. And she puts on a face that means she is happy. But she smells sad.
And I smell afraid.
She is my puppy. She was given to me to raise. And none of my puppies have ever failed.
If she fails, I will no longer speak to my litter-brother in my dreams.
I wake in darkness and smell her tears. I leave my cushion and pad across the carpet in the soft, warm darkness, slipping onto the soft mattress beside her. She puts her arm around me and buries her face in the fur that covers my shoulders. I can feel the wetness of her tears as they soak my fur, like the melting snow, so long ago. But warm. She reeks of sorrow but not fear.
How can she truly know fear?
I envy her that.
“Tell me about snow,” she says.
“It is frozen water. It falls from the skies.”
“Tell me more. Tell me about when you were a child.”
She is using her command voice and it’s hard, very hard, to say no to her, even though we do not speak of things outside. Not in here. The God of Speakers will be angry. The God of Speakers is only angry at you one time.
But if she has failed? So I shrug. What can it hurt now? “I was never a child.” The tail stub that doesn’t show under my coveralls wriggles in amusement. “But my litter was born in a place where winter—the cold time when snow falls—lasts a very long time. So we were old enough to play in it before we were old enough to be sent to our homes.”
“You were young. So you were a child.”
“We are not called children when we are young.” I flatten my ears, uneasy. Never has one of my young Speakers talked to me like this. I suddenly want to tell her. “Our people have forever served yours. Even as I serve you now.”
“I do not understand.” But she has stopped thinking about it and she smells wistful. “I keep wondering what type of world they will send me to. I dreamed of snow, you know. Snow. White, fluffy flakes falling from a gray sky. And two furry creatures chasing each other through humps of white. Was that you?” She smells happy. “Did I dream of you?”
I flatten my ears and nod.
“I hoped they would send me to a world with snow.” She buries her face in my fur again. “But will they send me anywhere now?”
My ears are tight to my head and my nose quivers. I want to point to the moon that I remember but cannot see here and want to howl.
I have not howled since I was a puppy far younger than my she. Instead I kiss her cheek and let her soak my fur with her warm-snowmelt tears and my howl fills my belly. When she is gone, my litter-brother will be gone, too.
I dream of my brother. We are playing chase in the snow and it glitters like stardust from a thousand frozen galaxies as he catches me and we tumble over and over in the cold, dry whiteness. Then we are curled together in our sleeping place, warm, dreaming. That was a long, long time ago, before we learned to be servants, before we left to guard the Speaker pups. I will never forget the smell of him. How can I forget you? He blinks green eyes in the darkness and his tongue curls over his white, white teeth. We dream together every night.
Once, in his mail, he sent me a map of the place where he is, a sweep of glittering stars with their silent planets. He had flagged the world he was on, a mote of darkness in that sea of light. You are younger than I now, could be my puppy, I tell him and nuzzle his ears. That is what happens when you sleep on the slow ships that carry living things.
You look like you always look, he says, and then we romp off to play in the snow.
My she stirs and wakes and stares up into the darkness. My dream is gone, my litter-brother’s voice is gone, and even when she finally falls asleep again, it does not return.
She is quiet this morning. I take her to the dining room, her hand on my shoulder. She is not using my eyes, is looking inward, walking in darkness, trusting me to guide her feet. I bring her breakfast and take my own plate to squat along the wall with the others like me. Their ears flick and flatten as I pass and they smell sympathy for me. Ah, well, we know before anyone else, always. I have no appetite for my roll this morning but I eat it. I am a good servant.
Each litter of young Speakers sits at its own table, ten together, the oldest and tallest near the front, the young ones with their servants close in the rear, near the big doors. The room is light and warm. I have made many trips across it over the years, moving from the door to the front of the room, then back to the door as my puppy assumes the Speaker’s gown and departs and I am assigned to a new puppy.
Now, my she sits at the front table with her litter, all identical, with the same, white-gold hair braided down their backs, the same white coveralls that mark them as Speakers-in-Training. The same faces and pale, lavender, unseeing eyes. Only the smell identifies them.
My she smells sad.
And this morning . . . afraid.
Perhaps, even among the Speakers, the news is spreading. Perhaps even they, with their nearly-dead noses, can smell failure.
The litters rise together at their tables, the youngest first, to return to their meditation where they can learn to Hear the words of God across the space between the stars. One after another, we rise as we smell our puppy and we follow. And it occurs to me as they pass—identical hair, identical pale, sightless eyes, identically curved spines and graceful fingers—that they are as created as we are.
That is a blasphemous thought because we are taught that citizens are not created. Servants are. I rise to join my she and I feel her arm brush against my shoulder. Secretly. I smell sympathy from the other servants, and think that she is like us.
I should not think it, but I do.
After breakfast we go to the room where she learns to Hear the God words. But when she gets there, an old one like she waits for her, wearing the full robe of a Speaker. Her servant flicks his ears at me then flattens them slightly and my own flatten in return. I want to squeeze against my she and comfort her. She lowers herself before the Speaker, like any pup. Respectfully. But her fear stings my nose and my ears flick back and forth.
“Your presence is requested at Council.” The Speaker offers a hand.
“The DNA analysis came back?” My she doesn’t move.
I take her hand, place it in the Speaker’s hand. It feels dead, heavy without life.
“Yes.” The Speaker closes her hand around my she’s and then releases it, walking away with her hand on her servant’s shoulder.
The Council room is white but the table and the chairs are brown, made of dead trees from the Home World. I was not born on the Home World, I know. That world is at the far end of the stars, too far to visit, farther even than my litter-brother. But the Speakers can Speak there. They can Hear a whisper on the far, far away world.
I am proud to be a servant to Speaker pups.
But the scent of the room keeps my ears flat and the others along the wall smell sympathy for me as we come in. Three Speakers wait at the table, their robes all around their feet, their faces creased and wrinkled like a pile of clothes that has been slept on. They smell very old. And of power.
The fur on my neck stirs and rises even though that is not permitted here. I flatten my ears but I cannot make my fur lie down. I sit along the wall with the others.
“The power to Speak is all,” they murmur, all together. “The power to Hear is all.” They bow their heads. Except my she. She has seated herself but her eyes are on the far wall.
“The Speaker is a pure being.” The Speaker who smells oldest, the one who made my fur stand up, speaks. “In a thousand years, the purity has been maintained. Only those of that purity can Speak between the worlds with the words of God. What is the holy trinity?”
She speaks command and my throat wants to answer her.
“A pure life, a pure mind, and a pure body.” My she’s voice is so soft even I can barely hear it.
“You have never compromised the purity of your life, nor of your mind.” The powerful Speaker whispers on. “But even in the sanctity of the convents, purity must be defended. Always.”
“How can I be impure?” My she rises, smelling of anger now. “I came into being here. I have nine siblings. They are pure. You cannot have found anything wrong.”
“It is a tiny mutation.” Another of the powerful old ones speaks. “A small thing. It occurred late in gestation, after our final test pre-decantation. We will expand our testing after this and we have alerted the other convents.”
“I can block out the other voices. I can concentrate on the one I’m supposed to Hear.”
“Communication is the neurosystem that holds our civilization together. Flesh and blood, impure as we are, we must emulate the purity of electronics. Interpretation, alteration, destroys purity.”
“But I don’t . . .”
“The quantum effect is doubled by the mutation. That is why you Hear more than the voice you tune to.”
“But I can—”
“Communication must be pure, perfect. Private. There is no room for impurity.” The old-smelling, power-smelling one stands.
Even her standing is a command. The others stand with her and their servants leap into position. My she does not react as I reach her side, refusing my sight, keeping her face turned to the wall as the others file out. The last one out the door, the one who came to summon her, smells sad. Only she.
We stand there for a long time after the others have left. My fur no longer stands up, but my ears are still flat to my head and the howl that has troubled me has returned to knot in my gut. Finally, she stirs and the room shimmers as she takes my sight. She strides out of the room and I have to almost trot to stay with her. It is dinner time and my stomach growls as we pass the corridor that leads to the dining room and the scent of fish stew wafts out. But my she marches on past servants like myself moving floaters piled with laundry or stacked with goods that came in as tithe from the citizen communities around the convent. We pass into the old hallways in the center of the convent, the ones that were built long ago, perhaps before my gene-line even existed, when my ancestors still ran on four feet and ate from the floor. I know where she is going. We come here, sometimes. And she always smells thoughtful. It is after these visits that she often wants me to creep onto the bed with her.
At last we reach it, the center of the old convent, the room with eight sides and the old, dark screens that once, my she told me, offered information the way a holographic window does now. And in the very center of that center room stands the statue. She stops in front of it.
It is of two women standing palm to palm. I don’t know what it is made from—none of the materials in the convent smell like it and I never smelled anything like it when I was a pup. Even the taste, when I once licked it, is strange. But it is smooth and milky and the eyes of the two women seemed to gleam with faint light, the same pale lavender as the Speakers’ eyes, as my she’s eyes.
“Once upon a time, more than a millennium ago, a pair of identical twins were born. They were born disabled because at that time, people couldn’t read DNA well enough . . . to fix it.” Her words stumble here and her smell of sadness makes me want to kiss her cheek, but when I lean gently against her, she steps away.
“No one else could do what they did so they . . . preserved the gene-line. And thus was the origin of the convents. Purity of thought, word, and deed. You must not know the words you Hear, you must only repeat them perfectly, and only to the one you are tuned to.”
Her face is dry but she smells like crying. I want to press against her, but I stay still.
“I am impure.” Her voice grows softer, deeper. “Perhaps my DNA has betrayed me, but my mind betrayed me first. Making me wonder why. Why can we not know history? Why can we not know the world outside the dome? Why can we not simply Speak when we choose? To whom we choose? Why only here, only the words that are given us, without understanding what those words mean?”
She smells angry again now. And I flick my ears forward and back, fighting an urge to crouch low.
“The convents exist on every inhabited planet.” Her face looks strange and tight. “And there are no Speakers other than at the convents. Communication is . . . valuable.”
I don’t understand, but her angry smell makes my neck fur rise, wanting to protect her.
“How can I think such thoughts?” She clenches both her pale hands now. “No wonder my DNA betrayed me. My impure thoughts must have warped it. Where will I go now? What can I do if I cannot Speak to the stars? Who will I Speak to?”
The howl knotted in my gut nearly escapes, but I flatten my ears and crouch in spite of myself, forcing it down. Even when she uses my eyes she cannot see me without a mirror, and for that I am now grateful. There are no mirrors here and if she looked in my eyes she would see the truth.
“Perhaps I’ll end up a servant like you.” Her shoulders droop. “Cleaning the gardens or cooking in the kitchen. I’ve never seen one of our type as a servant before. Not many fail, I suppose.”
Not many fail.
I shiver, glad that she is not touching me to feel my crouch, my shiver, glad that she cannot smell.
I am old, but the Speakers that smell old tell me that I am a good puppy raiser. Will they give me a new small one tomorrow? Next week? Then I will sit at the table nearest the door with my small puppy while she learns how to eat, and walk, and Speak. Will I ever need to slip onto her bed at night? Will she ever wet my neck fur with warm snow-melt tears?
Will I ever speak with my litter-brother again, nested in our dreams?
Perhaps she is right and she is impure.
We are all impure, us servants here. We cannot Speak and we know far too much for purity. Perhaps my dreams have made her impure.
“We’ve missed dinner.” She gropes for me finally and I place myself beneath her palm. “Take me to the garden and then you can go to the kitchen and get food. I’m not hungry but I want you to eat.”
They are waiting for her, in her room or in the garden. I smell the traces of tension in the air circulating through the room, the smell of distress like bitter smoke in my nose. We always know. She starts forward, knowing the way to the garden without my eyes. I step in front of her and she bumps into me, smelling surprised, stumbling back a step.
“Siri, what happened? What’s wrong?”
“Not to the garden,” I tell her.
They will be gentle. They will be kind. The way they are when we grow too old for our duties. That gentleness will come to me sooner rather than later. I am gray now; I have traveled the room many times from back to front. “No Speaker leaves the convent, except to a new world,” I say and the howl in my gut thickens the words.
“What do you mean? That I’ll be servant here?”
I do not answer and I do not need to. She knows that none of her kind serve here. I smell her sharpening fear.
“There’s no way out.” Her eyes are round now, reflecting the dim light in the room. “Where would I go if I could escape? What would I do?”
I take her hand, firmly. The corridor on the far side of the statue smells like old air and long-dead small things. We know everything, we who serve. She shuffles after me, clinging to my hand and I hurry, because if I go slowly, the fear will fill her and she will stop. At the end of the corridor is a narrow space, one that brought air, perhaps, or heat, or some kind of small cargo. We have to crawl and she can only touch me briefly so she loses her sight. But she hurries, perhaps afraid that I might leave her. If she could smell, she would know that I would never leave her. But she cannot smell, so I harden my heart against her fear and hurry. Fear of being left behind will keep her moving.
At the far end of the small corridor, an old, corroded screen gives way reluctantly, tangled in green vines that fill the air with the sweet-sharp scent of their injuries, a shout that fills the night air. But the Speakers have no nose and none of us will tell. I emerge and stand, helping her up. The two moons of this world—small and strange, one blue, one reddish—float against a blazing ceiling of stars.
“Where are we?” she gasps.
I take her hand, pull her. The door is small, not one for cargo, but for the people who must come and go. No one can get in. But the Speakers see no need to lock it from this side. You only go through a door if you have permission.
I do not have permission.
Terror rises up out of my bowels like a black snake, filling me as I place my palm against the door, and I reek into the night air. I wet myself and almost, almost turn and flee, releasing that knotted howl into the safe darkness of the convent.
But she has shared my dreams and brought me to my brother. I place both palms against the door, although pain sears me as if it is red hot. It swings open, silent, and I stumble through, falling to my knees. I feel her hands on me and I smell her worry. She is afraid for me. Not for herself.
“I am all right,” I tell her, standing up. My whole body shivers with reaction. But her arms around me, her worry for me fills me with strength. None of my pups have ever worried about me.
The convent sits in the middle of the city. It has many needs and many of us fill those needs every day. And we all share. So I know the city even though I have never walked it. And it frightens me, how easily we left it. But then, none of them try to leave. Only this one, the puppy who shares my dreams. It is warm this night but her clothes—the white coverall of a Speaker-in-Training—seem to shine like the midday sun. The narrow alley that leads to this door opens into a wide street. I see lights and shops and eating places and smell people, happy and angry and hungry and full. I smell my own kind, too. We servants are everywhere. People have always had servants.
Garden grows along the wall surrounding the convent, like the garden within, but smelling of people and city and no vanilla orchids. I take her to a bench in the deeper darkness against the wall. Her clothes still shine like the moon I remember or the snow my litter-brother and I rolled in. But she will be hard to see from the street. She smells fear, but more than that she smells curious.
“I hear things. I smell food. What is it like—let me see?”
But I am afraid. “I have to find you clothes. So that people don’t see you and know what you are.”
“What are we going to do, Siri?” The fear smell gets briefly stronger.
I don’t know. But I don’t want to say that. “I will be back. Stay here and be quiet and you will be safe.”
I hurry down the narrow alley to the main street, but there I stroll, sorting the thick woven fabric of scent for what I need. People don’t see me, they don’t really see any of our kind. Their eyes skate over us and past, as if we live on the other side of an invisible wall, as if we all live within a convent.
I smell my kind, a strong home smell, and I follow it, unraveling it from the tapestry of food and people-lust, of happy smells, and sad smells. It leads me to an alley that opens to another like it, a courtyard of clean paving surrounded by the back side of tall house-buildings and shops. Small apartments line the walls of this small courtyard along with shops lit dimly or not at all, unlike the shops on the main street.
One smells open. I sniff the doorway, smelling food, herbs, dust, invitation. The shopkeeper pricks his ears at me and smells a question. “I need clothes,” I tell him in the common tongue, although it is forbidden for me to speak it. I am not supposed to know the common tongue because the Speakers cannot know the words they repeat.
But of course, we servants know everything.
His ears flick another question at me, and he smells surprised. Because, of course, the simple coverall I wear in the convent is quite good. Not worn at all. “Not for me.” I flatten my ears in quick apology. “For a friend. A people friend.”
Now he smells wary.
“A friend of us.”
And he smells truth, so he shrugs and rummages in bins behind his small counter, smelling doubtful, because he does not sell to people, just to us. But he drags a long cloak out into the light and shakes it. I smell old dust, insect wings, and summer and sneeze. I have seen a few cloaks on the street on my way here, enough like this that she will pass and it will hide her convent-whiteness.
He wants money, of course.
I have no money. As the servant for a Speaker-in-training, I have no time of my own to trade with others in the convent, so have not amassed the coins that we use among ourselves. I flatten my ears in apology and smell need for that cloak. Now his ears flatten and he smells thoughtful and crafty.
“Bring your people here,” he finally says. And he reeks now of curiosity.
I cannot hide the smell of my relief and that makes his ears prick again. We servants love a good story and clearly I am going to have one to show him, never mind tell. I take the cloak, roll it tightly, and run down the narrow alley-of-us to the main street where I once again stroll—invisible to those people-eyes—to the garden. My ears are flat with worry by the time I reach the convent alley, even though I have been gone a short time. They may be looking for her. Someone may have wandered into the night shadows to see her whiteness.
But she is there, her sightless eyes turned upward, her hands palm up on her thighs. She no longer smells afraid.
I touch her, inviting her to use my eyes and see the cloak and the garden shadows.
“There is no place for me out here.” She smells peace as she says these words, but a whiff of darkness lurks behind that peace and it makes the hair on my shoulders bristle.
“We will find you a place,” I tell her. And I drape the cloak around her shoulders.
She raises a fold to her nose. “It smells like you. Where are we going to go?”
“To a place.” To pay for the cloak that smells of us. “I do not think the convent will look for you there.”
I am sure of it. The hair on my face is gray and I have lived all my life among the people in the convent. They will not think that the servant led her. We are eyes only, a tool to use. They will look for her among the people of the city.
I take her hand. People do not walk with their hands on our shoulders, the way they do in the convent. Out here, they have their own eyes. But all she needs is a touch to use my eyes. I feel the effort she makes to walk easily on this strange street and she smells fear even though she does not show it. I am full of pride for this puppy. She is much stronger than any other pup I have raised. She is . . . different.
Perhaps it is not my fault. Perhaps I have not contaminated her after all.
I lead her past the shops and through the crowds of people who see only a slight woman wearing a cloak, walking hand-in-hand with her servant. The food-smells make my stomach hurt because it has been a long time since I ate my breakfast roll. But I have no coins and I fear to take her into a shop where someone might speak to her.
Her head tilts and her steps begin to drag. She smells . . . shocked.
“They are speaking Words,” she whispers to me, almost too low to hear. “The God Words.”
“They are speaking the tongue that everyone speaks,” I tell her softly. I want to kiss her cheek, to comfort her. “They are only God Words to you.”
Now her feet stumble and I pause, smelling fear so strong that for a minute I think that even the people with their dead noses might notice.
“What are we?” she breathes.
My blasphemous thought comes to me, that she is as created as I. Only now, I think that she is more created than I. I have been created to be a servant, but she has been created to be a machine.
I relax a bit when we reach the darkness of the alley. By now, the convent must guess that she has left. They probably record our traffic in and out of the small door and now they will know that she left with me.
They will not look for her here. They will not even know that here exists.
The shopkeeper’s eyes widen as we enter his shop and her hair catches the light from beneath her hood. He reeks curiosity now. “Welcome,” he says and flattens himself almost like a puppy in front of her.
“She doesn’t understand, any more than she can smell.” I shrug. “She has run away.”
His eyes narrow and his ears flick nervously, but he smells thoughtful rather than afraid. “Why did you bring her here?”
“She speaks to my litter-brother.” My ears flatten in spite of myself and I cannot keep my lips from drawing back from my teeth. “He is on a star a long ship-travel from here. When I sleep next to her, I speak with him.” I know my teeth are showing now and his eyes burn bright in the dim light of the shop. My she was wrong when she thought that speaking-across-the-stars brought the convents money.
It brought them power.
“They can speak for us, too.” The words sound deep in my throat. Like a growl.
His eyes gleam in the darkness and I think for a moment that I can see the moon of my puppy-hood reflected in them. Only citizens can speak across the stars.
“She can speak for us.”
© 2009 by Mary Rosenblum.
Originally published in Federations,
edited by John Joseph Adams.
Reprinted by permission of the author.