Escha Maar, Thane's heir, lay on the elaborate antique, Victorian bed in her living chambers and dreamt sleepily of someday, somehow, and somewhere. Her long, straw blonde hair had tangled itself up in a frothy concoction of draped lace, but she was content with the restriction. The exhausted expression on her smooth, boyish eight year-old face was shadowed by the array of translucent canopies above her.
She had just finished a long game of pretend. She had been Guinevere to the computer's Lancelot, then Siegfried to the computer's Brunnhilde. As a finale, Escha had played Aphrodite rising from the computer's sea. Now, in the middle of the enormous plush lavender and pink caprte that covered the floor of her room lay a stack of discarded, multi-colored costumes.
At the sound of the computer's soft tinkle, announcing the presence of a servant outside her room, however, Escha moved off hurriedly, extricating her hair only after leaving bunches of it still attached to the bed's lace. She smoothed down her rumpled clothes, and sighing, called to the computer to restore the room's true appearanace.
The lace bed became black flannel and the canopies disappeared altogether. The costumes vanished as well, while the soft, feminine hues of her walls darkened into more somber marroon and navy versions of the same. As for Escha herself, her hair grew suddenly short, her purple dress grew into a plain, gray robe.
Escha didn't really mind the sudden transformation she was forced to go through. It was part of another game she had realized she was meant to play. The rules were simple. Whenever she was not alone, Escha was to pretend that she was a boy. The rest of the time, she was free to use the computer to the best of her ability to create whatever she wished.
When there were no more signs that the frivolous playthings of a young girl had once occupied her room, Escha called for the computer to open her door.
A page stepped inside her room and she noticed enviously the soft satin blue ruffles that adorned his uniform. He knelt before her, and waited for her to acknowledge him.
"Yes?" Escah inquired politely, not noticing the flicker of resentment in the raised eyes of the page. At twice her age, he was still shorter and slighter than she, his body boyish in comparison to hers.
"The Thane requires the presence of his heir in his chambers," the page responded, lowering his eyes finally, in a combination of respect for the Thane's heir and shame at his own envy.
"My father," she whispered excitedly, more to herself than to the servant.
"I thank you for your message and for your service," Escha dismissed the inferior with the ritual words and stiff nod of her head that she had learned from her father.
"It is I who am thankful to serve the Thane and his heir," the page said as he bowed again. Eyes still lowered, he exited the room as quickly as he had entered it.
Escha restrained herself from bouncing all the way to her father's quarters, down the dimly lit underground corridor and to the left. It had been more than a week since their last visit and she was always happy to see her playful father. Her made the game seem ever so much more real than the computer could.
At the familiar black door, Escha stopped and waited. Normally, it simply slid open. But htis time, something was wrong. Nothing had happened.
Puzzled because her father's door had always been open to her before, she searched for the manual bell. Eventually she found the small red light and flashed her hand across it.
"The Thane requires the presence of his heir in his chambers," the computer intoned, then displayed a map of the underground palace complex before her eyes. A bright green light marked the path rom where she stood to the other side of the complex. It was nearly a kilometer's distance.
Hoping that sh ehad misunderstood the message, Escah tried to open the door to her father's chambers once more--with no luck. She flashed her hand again over the red light. No message this time. If her father meant her to follow the path the computer had displayed, he would not repeat his orders.
She shrugged and turned around to begin the trek to her father's new chambers, pretending as she went to make the time pass more quickly. She had just finished staging Napoleon's last battle in her mind when she reached the new door to her father's chambers. Pauding a moment to look at it, Escha noticed the door's new appearance. Rather than plain black synthetic steel, this new door was a darkly staned wood, nearly black, carved with scenes of death from history.
A better door, Escha thought, then stepped foward over the sensor. Again, the door did not open to her. Again, she flashed her hand over the red light that had been affixed, chest-high to the natural stone wall to the right side of the door.
"Wait," the computer commanded her. Escha waited.
When the door finally opened, Escha could not contain herself. She rushed into her father--and found tha the was not there. The room was entirely empty, at least as far as she could see. It was nearly pitch black inside as well, except for a small dais several yards away that was lit.
Seeing no other option, Escah moved towards the dais. The moment she crossed the outer line of the circle, a figure appeared inside the circle. The computer-generated image was about Escah's height, though he crouched closer to the ground. He was weightier than Escha, each ounce in added muscle rather than fat. In each hand, the image held a battle ax.
Intrigued by this new game of her father's, Escha moved cautiously forward to get a better look at the figure.
A slash at Escha's head with the left battle ax was the figure's response. Escha ducked, then turned to see the ax crash against an imaginary wall that had arisen around the perimeter of the dais. She inched a hand out towards the lit edges of the circle, trying not to arouse the sleeping monster, and felt that the wall existed for her, too.
It was a fight, then. Another part of the game that her father had arranged. Escha had never been in a fight before, but her father had told her about his battles often enough and the computer had generated sequence after sequence for her to practice. Of course, when she programmed the computer, she had always provided herself with a weapon, something her father seemed to have forgotten in this case.
Her mind would have to be her weapon. Escha's father had always told her that the computer could never compete with the human mind in combat.
Taking her advantage while she had it, Escha's lefs swung out at the figure's unprotected abdomen. He took a step back and winced in pain. His left arm, and battle ax, moved down to protect the area from a second attack.
Escha attacked again while the figure was still recovering. Swinging in the opposite direction, she let her legs go directly at his left arm. The grip on the axe loosened just enough for Escha to grab it as she grab it as she stepped back and allowed both competitors to relax.
She was pleased with herself. In only two moves, she had evened the oods. Now holding the same weapon as her opponent, she would easily beat him.
But she did not even have time to slow her breathing to normal. Suddenly vastly more vicious than before, the computer-generated image threw himself at her again. Escha did not move quickly enough to completely evade the headward blow. She felt blood trickling down into her eyes from her forehead and something else, something she had never felt in a simulated battle. Pain.
Angry, Escha tried the same maneuver on her opponent. He quickly countered, then brought his ax down on her arm as she passed. Blood welled again, and pain with it, but Escha stubbornly refused to look down at the wound. She focused her mind completely on the battle, on her next move, and on his next move.
Anticipating an attack on her weak side, Escha turned sideways to protect herself. She guessed wrong. The figure had moved to the far side of the circle as she had been busy thinking. He ran towards her, battle ax held high, and fell fully into her. He knocked her down with his weight and broke open her skull with his ax. Then he disappeared.
But Escha remembered nothing for a while. When she awoke, her father stoof before her. The dais had dsiappeared, the lights had come on brightly, and she could see the expression of diappointment on her father's face without a problem. She also saw clearly the scars his face bore, scars of honor against honorable enemies, unlike hers. She saw his mountainous grandeur in comparison to her slight child's body. And she wondered consciously for the first itme how this man, this Thane, could have fathered her.
Ignoring the pain in her arm and head, she stood up and came to attention. He did not return her salute.
"The computer was programmed for level one. You failed," he told her instead.
Escha swallowed and said nothing.
"Computer, called the Thane. "Replay seconds ten to fifteen."
The dais and Escha's oppponent reappeared, as well as an image of Escha herself. Escha watched her embarrassingly sluggish movements with her father.
"Play again," the Thane said coldly. "Erase the second image." Escha watched as her father stepped into the ring and without a weapon, easily defeated the opponent who had nearly killed her.
"Again," he said, then demonstrated a second method that would have beaten the computer's program. His fluid movements needed no thought. They came instinctively to him.
"Again," a third method.
A fouth, a fifth.
Ten methods later, Escha was desperately trying not to sway on her feet with the loss of blood and pride. But still she watched as her father did everything right that she had done wrong.
When he was finished, the Thane turned away from his heir. He said nothing more to her, though Escha wished fervently that he would forigve her, that he would tell her she could try again and do better. He did neither.
Escha waited then for dismissal, but he gave none. Emboldened by her disgrace--surely she could do no more wrong--she stepped towards him and asked him formally, "My father, my Thane."
He gave no response to sanction continuing her question. Escha continued anyway. "My father, my Thane, why are we apart?" she asked, though there were a hundred more important questions to her.
Still, the Thane did not answer her. Back still towards her, he moved further away, towards the view screen in his chambers. He communicated with the computer instead, pretending to be occupied with the state's business.
But Escha knew that it was a pretense. Her father had not forgotten that she was there. She could tell by his silent, averted eyes. When her father was deep in thought, he was transported to another world. His regal, pale blue eyes roamed his chambers freely, staring and devouring the imaginary scenery. He spoke softly to himself in contemplation, only slowly coming back to the real world after he had found the elusive answer and shouted it rock the skies.
She asked the question agian, wondering as she spoke if this was her father and her Thane. He seemed suddenly to have become a man she did not know.
Only silence answered her.
Finally, Escha crossed the distance between them to reach the stern, black field of her father's back. She touched him lightly and felt a strange trembling beneath her fingertips. And she asked the question for the third and last time.
For long moments, Escha was certain that her father would ignore her yet again--perhaps forever now that hse had failed him. She was frightened of him, not because he had never been angry with her before, but because she had never seen him show his anger with this silent shaking. He was the Thane and did not need to hide his emotions.
In the end, the Thane answered her, though his answer came not from his beloved, scarred face, but from his cold, black back. "Because my son, my heir," he said, his voice hoarse, broken, and infused with a pain hidden so deeply that Escha had never caught a glimpse of it before. "Because I cannot risk you, as well."
He said no more than that, but Escha knew that she was to leave. For the first time, she was glad to go. Despite her wounds, she practically ran the entire distance to the safety of her own warm, soft chambers.
Looking around her at the girlish chambers, she suddenly hated them. She hated the softness of the purple, the happiness of the blue, and the lightness of the pink because she knew that they were false. They were not colors that existed in the real world.
Escha instructed the computer to activate the view screen in her room, to fill it with a picture of the outside world she had never glimpsed. She gazed on both sides of the forbidding planet's surface. The side facing the sun was swollen with its gravitational attraction, a parched desert, sun-bleached of color and life. The other side, the dark twin, was a punctured balloon of frozen blackness, as sterile as its brother, and as forbidding. She knew then, as she had always known, that the misshapen, unmoving asteroid planet called Exile was her prison. It was also her only home, for the ship that had been made to bring the exiles from Earth had crash-landed and long since been cannibalized for parts. She could as easily leave the aritficial air that kept her alive far beneath its surface as she could leave her body, or her father's presence.
The room that had once been her playhouse was an anathema to her now. There was no place for her pretense in her world anymore.
Rampaging, Escha incinerated the bright, vibrant colors of her walls. She ripped and tore at the plush carpet beneath her feet until it was little more than a ball of ragged threads. She erased the computer's program for her stuffed toys and the imaingary friends she had made of them. Finally, she destroyed all the stories she had once told herself through the computer.
Then at last, Escha allowed herself to cry a storm of bitter tears. She knew it was for the last time, for tears also would have no place in her new world. Tears were for those who had a hope of something better. Tears were for those who could still pretend.
Escha cried and for the last time, allowed herself to fantasize. She wished that she might have been different, that her father might have been different, that her world might have been different. For the last time, she allowed herself to think that life was not fair. And then she accepted it. And then she grew up.
Escha Maar, Thane's heir, looked out at eighteen years of age onto the misshapen, unmoving asteroid planet its inhabitants called Exile. The planetary rainbow of grays, displayed in the computer's view screen on the far sid eof Escha's room, was reflected in the harsh, dull pallette of colors with which she had chosen to decorate her surroundings. The tile beneath her feet was an even, matte black. The bed in which she spent five hours daily, sleeping restlessly, was an unremittingly square block of synthetic metal. The chair on which she sat before the bared chips of the faintly humming megacomputer was ram-rod straight, uncushioned, and colorless as the rest.
But Escha Maar was no stranger to sterility, to hostility, or to isolation. They met her everywhere she went. And she had come to love them as she loved the starkly simple beauty of her room and her planet. She needed no refuge, no respite. She needed no forgiving fantasy world of the mind to insulate her from the real one. She needed only truth and pain.
Escha was still sitting, looking at the view screen, when she heard the page approaching with the awaited summons from her father. When the serrvant had requested entrance, she simply instructed the computer to open her door. And remained on the floor, in the dark. She was the Thane's heir. If he wanted the silence broken, he would have to do it himself.
"The Thane requires the presence of his heir in his chambers," the page announced at the door of the dark and silent room. Silhouetted by the faint light source outside the room, he lowered his eyes and knelt, properly obeisant, in the general direction of the room's royal occupant.
She did not respond. There seemed nothing Escha could say. The page's statement was blatantly false. Her father, the Thane, required no one and nothing. Certainly he did not require her. Demand her prehaps, command her even. But he did not require her, his only, insufficient heir.
"Lights," Escha called to the computer instead, then watched, cynically amused, as the page watched her. She found a kind of comfort in guessing his reactions before he made them. Her father's subjects seemed to react to her in monotonously predictable ways.
First came the envy. Dressed in the blue satin of his station, the page could not help but wished for the unadorned royal black robe that Escha wore in imitation of her father. Then came the awe. Inside his boyishly small body, he looked up at Escha's giantish height and bulging muscles reverently. Third, the assessment. His face smooth and unmarked, he carefully catalogued the score of scars on Escha's face, trophies of battles fought against the computer. Fourth, worship. In his eyes, she was the Thane, and he idolized as earnest and fervent as he would have idolized the Thane in her place.
Then, inevitably, the servant's eyes drifted over her again and noticed, finally, the strange softness of her chest. There on her man's body, grew the unmistakeable sign of womanhood: two small, rock-heavy breasts. Escha did not try to hide them. Rather, she pushed them out, eager for the final moment of recognition to come.
And come it did. Suddenly, the envy, the worship, and the awe that had surrounded Escha with a palpable warmth, disappeared.
But Escha did not turn away from the condemning gaze. She had come to count on it over the years. It have her a sense of stability. In the face of this man's disgust, she knew without a doubt who she was. She could not deny it.
A moment later, as if the page had just then remembered who she was, and what she could have done with him if he offended her, the page choked out a reponse.
"Your glory," he said, but could not suppress a shudder at the same time, that he should call woman by that title, and this woman at that, who was so ugly, so utterly unfeminine that she ought not exist.
Escha did not wait for him to regain his control, though she knew he blamed her for losing it. She knew he thought that no man could withstand such a test. But Escha would have. She would never have betrayed herself so clearly in the eyes of one she feared and hated and loved.
Then again, Escha was not a man. Much as she might wish to be one. She was a woman in all the ways that counted to men, and in none of them. She would never be either Thane or Thane's consort. THe titular "Thane's heir" meant nothing other than that her father's council had been willing to indulge him this once. That same, unindulgent father who had just summoned her to him.
It was a long walk to her father's rooms. The Thane's chambers were on the other end of the palace. She had best begin quickly.
Escha hurried towards her father instead, moving swiftly through the cold, stone corridors of her wing. Because her wing was nearly empty, her footsteps echoed as she went, and the footsteps of the page behind her. Escha occupied all of the dozens of rooms in her wing, but each was as sterile as the next. Each contained only what was absolutely necessary.
A hundred steps alter and the corridors widened and lightened. Between her wing and her father's were the women's quarters. Escha did not doubt that he had purposely placed them here so that she would have to bear the torment of passing examples of the perfection to which she could never hope to aspire. It was another of his tests, to prove to himself that his daughter was worthy to be Thane after all. The fact that she had to prove it so often, everyday, had only proved to Escha that she was not worthy to be his heir. Which was no doubt the conclusion he inevitably came to after each of her less than completely successful examinations.
Of course, it was also convenient for Escha's father to have the women stationed here, and as the Thane he deserved that sort of convenience. It might even have been convenient for Escha, were she the kind of person who took pleasure in pretending. For a few minutes each day, at least, she might have been a man in a woman's arms. But short-lived fantasies were less than useless to her. She had learned long ago that the pain after the fantasy was over was not worth the momentary pleasure of the fantasy itself.
Besides, Escha seriously doubted that the women would have been willing. Even those who did not scruple to bed other--beautiful-- women would not have come to her. She was a fatally flawed man, too soft and pliant. Yet she was a monstrous woman, not soft or pliant enough.
And Escha could not force the women to come to her either. Because women were powerless in the Empire, they were also beyond the Empire's power. Though they had their own power in a way, indirectly through the powerful men they bedded.
Which was another reason they would not have come to her. Though Escha wore the trappings of power, women seemed to know even better than men that she had held none of her own, not even the kind of power women held over men who loved them.
Escha could have offered nothing to woman who was willing to put aside her scruples for her. So why would she?
The first chamber Escha came to in the women's quarters, consciously slowing her steps now becayse she did not want to seem to be hurrying them, was Sianna's. All of the women's quarters were elbaroately decorated, some in golds and browns, some in silvers and blues. Sianna's was white, pure white, with no variations on the shade. It seemed to fit her.
Sianna was half of Escha's towering height and less than a fourth of her weight, with melon breasts and a cherry waist, perfect golen hair and skin dyed to match. Her clear, light blue eyes were matched by soft, delicate features--nose, ears, forehead. Her room was equally small and soft, the chairs almost miniature and the carpet pure, finely threaded angora.
Sianna was the final proof that the Empire's policy of eugenics was right, and that Escha should never have benn allowed to live. Men were bred for strength and power and intelligence, women for softness, beauty, and grace. Those who did not live up to society's standards were killed at birth, or if the defect did not appear until later, whenever it showed itself clearly. The law's strictness was not cruel, but merciful--and merciful to everyone involved.
Strangely, though, much as Escha hated herself, much as she had come to believe in the law which demanded that she did not, could not exist, she did not wish to die for it. At least the human will to survive was pure in her, if nothing else. At least that one thing her father had passed on to her.
"The Empire was founded on purity. With purity, the Empire conquered. Only with purity will the Empire stay strong." Escha had heard the words said, like a mantra, often enough by her father's consellors. They never dared to say them openly, of course, for fear of offending her. But she had long since learned how to use the computer to eavesdrop on conversations in the palace. It was one of Escha's ways of finding the truth. Coming to the women's quarters was another.
Sianna did not move to the door as Escha passed. She didn ot bow in humility. She did not acknowledge Escha's presence at all, because for Sianna, Escha did not exist. Neither man nor woman, Escha had no place in Sianna's picture of the world. She deserved neither the deference Sianna reserved for men nor the competitive appraising she reserved for women. It was as if, where Escha stood, Sianna was blind, when she walked, Sianna was deaf.
But that was what Escha loved about Sianna and the other women here. It have her a kind of pleasure to come here and hear the truth from them. Unlike any of the men she had met, always conscious of her position, women had no reason to lie to her, to pretend that she was something other than the bearer of an abominable and meaningless title. She was nothing to them, or less than nothing, and they were not afraid to tell her so. The kind of absolute truth women got from mirrors, Escha got from these women, though she did not use it to cover or enhance the image, as they did. She simply listened and watched and felt the truth. And loved it.,P> "Medusa," called out Iri, then ran to the door of the chamber to spit at Escha as she passed. Escha did nothing to wipe the wet kiss of truth away. She wore it gladly.
Somia next, who grew so red in the face with disgust that she could say nothing with her tongue, but spoke eloquently enough with her hands, making ciolent gestures to describe the only sexual act that Escha, both man and woman, could do alone.
Third came Allyn and Backa, twin beauties, who capitalized on their equally radiant perfecitons by dressing the same cultivating the same gestures, and speaking simulatenously. But for once, when Escha walked by, they could not act in concert. Her hideousness overpowered their two-fold beauty.
Allyn simply screamed hoarsely in horror, mouth gaping in theatrical terror. Backa shut her eyes mutely and turned away.
Loisa was the last of the row and Escha's favorite. Like Sianna, she said nothing as Escha passed, but unlike Siann, Loisa did not ignore Escha as a nonentity. Nor did she scream at Escha in fear as did the other women. Instead, as Escha walked slowly by, Loisa turned fully towards her. Her mismtached eyes, one green, one brown, looked at her evenly. Escha knew that if she could be said to have a friend, that friend would have been Loisa.
Loisa's room was everything Escha had once imagined her room would be. Filled with real wood chairs, soft and warm, draped with silks of blue and purples and red, the colors of sunset, Sianna's room was the mature version of Escha's childhood room. The same colors, the same warmth. Only for Loisa, the room was not a facade meant to compensate for what Escha herself was missing. If anything, in comparison with Loisa's beauty, the red and purple silks faded to pink and the dark maple chairs to gray.
Yet as much as Escha would like to have stayed and talked with the one woman who did not hate her, she did not allow her steps to slow as she crossed from the edges of the woman's quarters to the final corridor which would lead to her father's room. She felt strangely reluctant to leave their authenticity in favor of her father's fiction. Not to face her father, however, would have been a fiction of her own.
Escha signaled her father's computer to annoucne her, her last truthful act before entering her father's presence. Then she braced herself for the lies to begin. Lies, it seemed to her, were the fabric of her father's government-- or perhaps only the thread which her father, the great weaver of lies, had drawn together into the beautiful tapestry which was his Empire.
While she was with her father, Escha always pretended--and pretended. She pretended to be his son and heir. She pretended to listen and respect him and each of his advisors in turn. She pretended that she was not pretending. And that she did not notice that everyone else was pretending.
Perhaps, in fact, Escha had often thought, they pretended so often and so well that they had forgotten they were pretending. Perhaps they had forgotten what reality really was.
And that was why Escha cherished the truth so much when she had the luxury of surrounding herself in it in her rooms and on her own time, when she did not have to please her father. She feared sometimes that she would forget, as her father and his counsellors seemed to have, how to recognize the truth. It was what her nightmares were made of, forgetting the truth. At night, she would dream that she played her father's diplomatic games so willingly that she became an expert at them. She dreamed that the games went on forever, never stopping--not even when she was alone. Worst of all, she enjoyed the games then, in her dreams. And though she was asleep, she knew she was dreaming and wished that she would never awake to reality.
Sleeping, Escha loved her dreams. Awake, painful as it was, Escha knew the truth and kept its sharp, barbed hooks next to her heart.
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