Chapter One: Storm
They were calling her with the Big Horn. In the village the sound would be deafening. She knew she should come down quickly before anyone realized how far out of bounds she’d climbed.
But the girl lingered, straddling the topmost sturdy branch of her own birth tree—the tree that had been planted the day she was born and would be cut for her First Passage. One arm was wrapped tightly around the stalk, which grew yet higher but was too narrow to climb. Not far below, the fog nestled thick and creamy, pierced in ragged clumps by the slender tops of other beanstalk trees. Above her stretched the clear blue bowl of the sky, unbroken except for the sun blazing at its zenith. The air was dry and still. It cooled her skin, still warm from the climb.
Above the fog the sound of her name echoed pleasantly.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” she replied, though no one could hear her. “I am Queen of the Sky.” She waved her free arm in a sweeping gesture.
A few hundred meters away, an arm waved back. She was so startled that she almost lost her grip. Squinting, she made out a small child in a dark green outfit and cap, perched on a branch a little higher than her own. She herself had purple leggings on and stuck out like a ripe plum. How long had this kid been watching her, she wondered uneasily. Who was it?
“Hello?” she called.
No answer. An arm and a hand moved rapidly—signing. She followed with difficulty because of the distance. This must be little Rami, the only hearing-unabled child left in the village.
Don’t tell on me, he signed.
Don’t tell on me, either, she signed back.
They swore an eternal oath to this effect.
It’s not hard to get here, he bragged. I’m going to live up here.
Me too. It’s yak-shit soup down there.
It’s stink-stalk stew down there, he responded eagerly. It’s granddaddy-goat fartsville.
On they went, exchanging pleasantries and giggling into the clear upper air. Rami’s giggles were high and hoarse. His beanstalk trembled slightly.
Now she made out the brassy strident tones of Hildegaard de Bingen, loudest of all the Aunts.
“Come down at once, wherever you are,” commanded Aunt Hildegaard. “At once. A storm is brewing.”
Elsahar looked around at the immaculately blue sky and laughed.
They are looking for us, she signed.
For you, not me, he replied.
It’s because you can’t hear the horn; that’s why they’re not calling you.
No one is looking for me.
How do you know?
I know. I can stay as long as I like.
No you can’t. You can’t stay if it’s night.
Yes I can.
They stopped signing to each other. He was just a baby, Elsahar thought irritably. Then she remembered. He was the baby who had been deep-space frozen for twenty-five years. No wonder he was peculiar.
“Elsahar!” An unmistakably deep voice boomed up out of the fog. The Aunts had dragged the Dad out of his study, for earth’s sake. Why couldn’t they ever leave him in peace?
“Elsahar! Come home!” her father pleaded. She listened grudgingly. There was urgency in his voice, normally so patient and measured. “You must take cover, child. The East Wind blows through in a quarter hour. Take cover, Elsahar.”
She looked off to the east. Where the blue sky met a bumpy line of fog and beanstalk tips, she saw a small dark stain. It grew as she watched.
She signaled to Rami, but he was staring off in the opposite direction. Frantically she looked around for something to throw his way. A bean pod, anything. There was nothing. The wind picked up, ruffled the leaves. Then he felt it too and looked around. She waved and pointed.
Go down, she signed. A bad storm.
I don’t have to.
The wind will shake you off the tree! She repeated this three times, then added, Like Alberta Khalil and the Twenty Children.
Everyone knew this tragic story. It was the reason they were not supposed to climb above the red boundary lines. Elsahar looked at the black stain spreading out along the horizon.
Storm is real, she signaled hurriedly. Not pretend. Killer storm. Come down?
The boy was motionless, staring first at the horizon, then at her.
Come home with me, little brother, she pleaded.
With you? he responded at last.
He nodded and began the descent.
Fog whipped around her face, heavy and wet, funneling upward. It was so thick that, looking down, she could not see beyond her own feet. She shimmied quickly down the mossy knobs and branches, surefooted but wary. A violent gust bent the stalk in a dizzying arc, and she paused, clinging with both arms. It snapped back abruptly, but still she hung on, screaming in terror. The wind drowned her voice.
She knew that the last blast of wind was but a prelude to the storm. Above her the fog was rising and converging with tumultuous black clouds. Where the boundary was she had no idea.
They had stopped calling her name below. Panic welled up. “Ground me, oh Gaia,” she prayed through chattering teeth. “And Rami too.” Rami couldn’t hear how bad the storm was, she thought; he could only see and feel it. She imagined a storm without sound, and it calmed her a little.
Down and down she glided and the wild rain with her, so that when, after an eternity, it seemed, her feet at last touched the ground, her clothing and hair were drenched. The upper branches were cracking and falling now. She must take cover. And Rami? He would have come down a few hundred meters or so away, but in which direction? She couldn’t see anything but cascades of water.
A shadow hurtled toward her. Rami! He grabbed one of her wrists and pulled her through the muck and fog. Branches were toppling all around them.
When he stopped abruptly, she collided with him, and they both fell into a muddy puddle.
“Where are we?” she wailed, but of course he couldn’t hear her.
Rami got to his knees and groped in the mud, then lifted what looked like a piece of rough-hewn beanstalk, slid it to one side, and dropped into a hole in the ground. He grabbed her arm and pulled her after him.
Chapter Two: Cave
Elsahar groped her way down a dirt tunnel in total darkness, on her hands and knees. Rami had pulled the cover back over the hole, leaving only a sliver, and that murky light was extinguished once they crawled around the first bend.
“Stop,” she pleaded, uselessly.
“Don’ b’ fray,” Rami said over and over, in the guttural dialect of the unhearing. “Foll me. Don’ b’ fray.”
The ground was dry now, but the narrow black space was as frightening as the storm. It smelled like rotting beanstalk, and she stumbled over the tangled roots. If it hadn’t been for Rami’s shallow breathing and the scrabble of his nails and sandals, she would have screamed.
Gradually the ground leveled off, and she sensed more space above her head. Rami stood up and took her hand, and she followed his lead, her panic subsiding. The walls of the tunnel were smooth here; no roots protruded. They were far underground. She felt more curious than frightened.
Rami slowed down again and stopped. He patted the tunnel wall with his free hand. She heard a creaking sound, as if a door were opening. They moved ahead. Yes, a door—she could feel the slimy old plastic. Rami let go of her hand, and she didn’t move. Then, a faint click.
Suddenly she was blinking in the subdued light of lamps inlaid in the floor.
“Great Gaia’s ghost,” she murmured, looking around.
They were in a small cave, a vestibule that opened into a much larger cave, and from there she saw several corridors branching off. The walls and floors were sheathed in seamless white stuff that reflected the light, with here and there translucent vertical strips like windows.
Rami watched her expectantly.
How did you know about this? she signed.
I found it myself. A smile put dimples in his cheeks. No one knows but us, he told her.
It’s our secret, little brother.
He seemed pleased.
How big is it?
He spread his arms wide. There are many rooms, hundreds. A maze. I’m afraid to go too far alone. He took her hand again. “Foll me. Show you,” he said, and his voice trembled in the stillness.
They traversed the large cave, which was empty except for an overturned table made of the same white stuff as the walls and floors. Rami paused before one of the vertical panes. Embedded in it was a faded graphic of a flower-studded meadow and green, rolling hills, something Elsahar had seen before only in picture wafers. Rami pressed something with his foot, and an oddly intense color flooded into the graphic. Strange insects and birds flitted around. The wild flowers stirred in a breeze. When he turned it off, the graphic was frozen in the new position.
Who lived here? she signed.
Hunters hiding from the Jabbersaurii! Rami had a story already made up. Hunters killed all the giant lizards. Then they moved out and built Port Town.
This seemed entirely plausible to her at the time.
They explored some of the rooms that opened off the central corridor. A few were blocked by immovable doors; others had doors that were open or knocked down. Each of the accessible rooms opened into more rooms, like the complex of an entire clan. Some walls were cracked and stained, and dirt had oozed in. Here and there they found serving ware and pots, shattered or intact, and more overturned tables and seats.
We could live here, Rami suggested. There are plants to eat in the forest. No one would ever know.
Excited, she clapped her hands together. They righted a table and seats, sat down, and pretended to be an Aunt and a Dad.
Do have some hot kvass, my dear. She poured imaginary liquid into an imaginary flagon.
Most excellent, old girl. He smacked his lips and giggled.
But this reminded Elsahar of her mother and the Dad. And the Gramps and Grams, too—they would really miss her. Maybe even the Aunts.
We can’t stay, Rami.
We can come back and play. It’s our secret cave.
She placed a hand over her heart and promised. Friends forever.
When they emerged from the tunnel, the storm had passed. Rami pulled the cover over the hole and covered it with twigs and moss. The forest was brilliant green and gold. New shoots were springing up from the loam, and small rodents skittered away at their approach. Cookeroos expanded their dazzling wings. They climbed over fallen trees and branches snapped off by the wind. She still didn’t know where she was. Rami guided her home.
They couldn’t sneak back in. Everyone in the village was out in the commons, after hunkering in their cellars through the storm.
Little Mari Aballabad was the first to spot them. “They’re here!” she screeched, pointing.
Elsahar’s mother rushed to her, picked her up, and hugged her tightly. Her face was damp and haggard.
“I’m sorry, mama,” Elsahar whispered.
“Thank Gaia, they’re safe,” the de Bingen Aunts chorused.
Aunt Ishtar Aballabad signed clumsily, Where were you, bad boy? You worried us sick. “I know he was climbing trees when I told him to stay inside,” she said sharply. “He never listens.”
“Be thankful he’s home,” the Dad admonished.
The de Bingen Aunts stared at the Aballabad Aunts, who looked away uneasily.
“How did you do it?” Mari piped up. “Is it a miracle?”
Now everyone turned to the two mud-stained children, puzzled. A search party for their remains had just been organized.
We fell into a deep hole, Rami signed.
A lucky accident, Elsahar added.
Two Ninedays passed before the Dad summoned Elsahar to his study. She looked forward to these visits. She liked to gaze at the curved shelving stacked with scholarly wafers and ancient texts.
“Tell me about this hole you fell into,” he said.
“It was a mucky old hole with stinky beanstalk roots,” she answered reluctantly.
“How deep was it?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. It was like our root cellar. But not as nice.”
“Did you notice if it went farther on from where you fell?”
“It was too dark and scary,” she said, looking away. She’d never been a good liar.
He regarded her thoughtfully. “I’ll tell you what I want to know, Elsa. There’s a legend that the first settlers from Terra lived in caves in this region. The caves have never been found. But everything I’ve read indicates they could be here.”
“Why do you want to find them?”
“A good question. First of all, for the pure joy of learning about it. Imagine finding out how the pioneers actually survived. Something like our own story, eh?”
She nodded doubtfully.
“The discovery itself would become part of the story. And the discoverer part of the legend.”
“The story of the Bridge Burners. The people who left Terra behind and flew into the Void, never to return. The story of the original Novabotny pioneers. How fitting it would be if one among us, who are also survivors of a traumatic migration, could unearth that ancient history!”
“Rami is a first-generation survivor, you know,” he added. “Re-animated after twenty-five years in warp-space cargo ships. This is unprecedented, so far as I know. One day he’ll be honored among us, mark my words.” The Dad stroked his beard. “Meanwhile, he’s not having an easy time of it, is he?”
“He told me no one cares about him,” Elsahar blurted out. “But I’m his sister now, and I promised.” She stopped in time.
“You promised what?”
“To be friends forever.”
“Would you like to help your friend?”
“Finding the caves would benefit our community economically,” he told her. “We would then have the credits to send Rami to Port Town to restore his hearing.”
Elsahar was astonished. “You mean he’d be able to hear?”
“Yes. Just as your mother does. She’s had the same procedure. Everyone in her age cohort has the cochlea implant now except Rami.”
“Cohort?” Elsahar stared at her father, bewildered.
“Had he not been lost to us all those years,” he explained, “your little brother would be your mother’s age.”
She considered this. “But he’s not really,” she said firmly. “And why hasn’t he got the implant like everyone else?”
The Dad looked uneasy. “It’s very costly. We had to feed our children first and build the Vibronatory to earn more than was possible from farming or lumber.”
This was all too deep for her. What mattered was that if she broke her promise to Rami, he would be able to hear. Would he forgive this betrayal? Should she ask him first? But he just might say no, he was that stubborn.
On a sudden impulse she whispered, “Rami found the caves.”
Chapter Three: Homecoming
It’s her best passage yet. Everything but her mind seems to vanish—the massive ship, her mates, the buffer she is strapped into and her none-too-solid flesh—as she plummets through the darkness between the stars.
“Ensign de Bingen? Are you all right?” The squad commander shakes her gently.
Elsahar blinks. The operations cube comes into focus. She releases the transit buffer and stretches. “Couldn’t be better, Commander.”
No headache, no bad stomach, and maybe no bad dreams. She is warp-jump capable at last, and not a light second too soon. She’s going home on furlough. By next Nineday, the Intrepid will be orbiting Novabotny. She needs to be on the top of her form.
Since this will be Elsahar’s First Return, Fleet regulations mandate a routine mindthop prior to disembarking. She has put off the procedure until the last possible appointment, and even now, seated alongside other crew-members whose heads are also encased in translucent tubes, she resists the gentle but steady intrusion. Her mind builds a protective wall as impervious as the shells around Port Town, which can be seen gleaming faintly in the ship’s scopes.
She’s been thopped before, of course. Fleet service requires vigorous mental health. Thopping renders her more cheerful than usual, mutes homesickness, and increases her appetite.
A vision of the endless beanstalk forest that is her home fills her mind, unbidden. Beanstalk grows wild and dense, choking out other vegetation, soaring through the clouds. The legacy of primitive terraforming, it dominates the still untamed landscape of Novabotny.
Suddenly her tube flickers, and a disembodied voice murmurs, “I’m sorry, de Bingen, your mindthop is aborted. Please report to Psych Ops to be cleared.”
The tube retracts, releasing her. Puzzled and relieved, she looks around the dimly lit clinic at the entubed and beatific faces.
The psych officer’s wry smile and boyish face remind Elsahar of Rami Aballabad, except that the PO looks older than Rami, and she suspects he’s a cyborg. His actions are too precise to be fully human.
Rami will be older now, too. Her closest childhood friend and first love will be thirty-five years to her twenty-five and no longer a boy. How strange will that be, she wonders.
“Some resistance is to be expected.” Major Milhem is tapping his wrist unit. “But there’s not even a surface scan in the report. Can you tell me what happened?”
She shrugs. “I don’t especially like thopping. Maybe I think I don’t need one downplanet.”
“Why not?” He taps the unit to request her history, which downloads and processes in the blink of an eye. Yes, he’s a cyborg, with a direct feed to the ship’s data. “You haven’t had any problems with it to date.”
She attempts to describe how uncomfortably detached she feels post-thop, as if her mind is out of sync or has divided into a kind of internal double vision. She is grateful when the effects wear thin. “I guess I prefer my natural, shaggy persona,” she concludes.
“The First Return can be traumatic without adequate safeguards,” he warns her. “Not only for you.”
She shrugs. “I don’t want to be somebody else when I go home.”
“You’re never somebody else. Thopping simply fine-tunes the psyche. Your family will see you as having matured, if that’s what worries you. You went away an unformed girl; you’ll return a woman of the worlds, a career spacer.”
“Well, there’s more to it than that.” She fidgets with her ring, set with a flat milky stone.
He waits patiently.
“I’m from Nova Rogdl,” she says, as if that explains everything. But the PO is puzzled. He queries the wrist unit again, this time on speaker.
It replies in a sultry voice: “Refugee settlement on planet Novabotny established by the ROGDL ca. 2935 Terra Standard.”
He queries ROGDL.
So we’re not the center of the universe, Elsahar thinks. We’re not breaking news.
The speaker sounds weirdly sexy. “Reformed Order of the Greening of the Desert Lands. Migration through Charybdis Wormhole decimated this non-warp-capable population, killing many of the males and rendering some survivors insane.”
PO Milhem regards her with unconcealed curiosity. “I’ve yet to come across an actual case of warp mania. How were these survivors treated?”
She shifts uneasily in her seat. “Nothing was ever done to cure them. My people are fanatically opposed to any form of thought manipulation or fine-tuning of psyches. Among other things.”
“I’ve made my peace with it. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“I see,” he says. “I can get you a waiver on religious grounds.”
“Really?” Elsahar looks doubtful. “I’m not religious. If I were, I’d still be downplanet.”
“All right, here’s what we’ll do instead. I’ll prescribe a mindstim. It’s safe and portable, easy to use in an emergency.”
“Am I required to use it?”
“That’s up to you. Use it if you become unusually anxious or depressed. It’s less powerful than a thop, so you’ll have more control. Usually it’s administered by a psych officer, but it’s also being used in the field now.”
Elsahar still feels unconvinced. “How accurate are thops and stims, really? Would it have been possible to heal my grandparents?”
“I can’t tell you that. I only know the technology has improved substantially in fifty years. The brain is a marvelously resilient organ, and we’ve mapped most of its functions. Just about anything is possible now.”
The cargo pod arcs down over tall forests toward the luminous shells of Port Town. Elsahar peers through the scopes. The capital city appears to have sprouted new outcroppings of domes. She doesn’t recall it being that large.
The other passengers are a trade delegation from Abatron and some Intrepid crew on furlough or with downplanet missions, among them Alicante Dubai, whom she’s known since they were cadets at the Academy. He’s been assigned to escort the delegation because he too is from Abatron.
Alicante drops into the seat next to Elsahar’s and whispers in her ear. “You know a good shmoo dealer?”
“I never lived in Port Town, Ali, only visited. Just go to the outdoor market in the old quarter. You’ll find anything you want.”
“Anything?” He waggles his eyebrows.
“It’s pretty wild down there by Terran standards, but I suppose it can’t compare to Abatron.”
Alicante snorts. “You need to lighten up, sweetie.” His big hand comes down on her knee, fingers delicately tickling. “Are you hopping the next shuttle to the old sod, or can you overnight here with a friend? We can blow out all the stops.”
She considers the offer. Alicante is a superb erotic partner, a Class 1 Adept. He was good even as a gangly new cadet. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, with full sensuous lips, and he can always make her laugh.
“Not tonight,” she says. “I need to keep my mind clear.”
“And your body a temple?”
“Oh, just that maybe there’ll be an old flame at your homecoming.” His eyes take on a dreamy look. “It happened to me. She’d grown older, wiser, and incredibly adept. A glorious furlough, that one.”
“And then you left her behind, you dog.”
“She had plenty of options.” He sighs. “The next time I go back she’ll be a grandmother.”
“That could be incredible too,” Elsahar points out.
“Absolutely.” He eyes her. “How about we overnight when you get back to Port Town?”
There have never been any listings for Nova Rogdl before on the planetary Valve, so she’s almost shocked to come across an advertisement for the Aballabad Lodge. “Enjoy a rustic holiday in a uniquely beautiful beanstalk village,” the ad says. “Visit ancient Pioneer Caves and a one-of-a-kind Vibronatory. All meals provided.”
She hesitates before selecting the comm-link. The screen blips, and then a familiar face swims into focus. She thinks at first that it’s Aunt Teslime Aballabad.
“Elsahar?” The woman looks as if she’s seeing a ghost.
“In the flesh,” Elsahar replies cheerily. “I’m at the Hub in Port Town. I’ll be home tomorrow on the shuttle. Can you get a message to my mother and the Dad?”
“Of course.” The woman peers at Elsahar’s face and the skin-clinging uniform. “Anybody else I should tell?” she asks.
With a start, Elsahar realizes that this is Aunt Teslime’s daughter, Marianna, who married Rami, nominally her first cousin. Because Rami had been adopted by the Aballabads, however, no one made a fuss. And now, according to Elsahar’s mother, they are separated.
How much does Marianna know about Rami and me, Elsahar wonders. The bold stare convinces her that she must know a lot.
“Anyone you like,” Elsahar says lightly.
A Map of the Mind projects technology and culture a thousand years into the future, when humans have settled in far-flung galaxies and consciousness can be charted and modified. The lifeline that binds these settlements and planet Earth together is the Confederated Planets Galactic Enterprise Consortium, or “the Fleet,” a centuries-old, probably corrupt agency, and the “spacers,” who live out their long lives aboard the Fleet’s ships. On average, spacers live twice as long as the planet-bound people they serve. Some of them (“Tribals”) are bred in labs to survive wormhole jumps, which can cause unprepared travelers to go mad.
The novel explores the conflict between government-mandated mind control and voluntary (beneficial) therapeutic treatment, as well as the cultural tensions between spacers and the planetbound humans they visit (or are born among and leave behind). Many of the planetbound believe that spacers are licentious and immoral, especially the lab-born, who are easily recognized and discriminated against.
A related theme is the usually illegal smuggling on Fleet ships (as well as on private ships) of Shmoo bud or Shmoob, which may be a sentient plant. Named for the Shmoos in the 20th-century comic strip Li’l Abner, this plant can survive being imbibed to grow again; it can’t be destroyed. It is also a consciousness enhancer and tastes like whatever anyone desires. Sometimes it is an effective therapeutic tool, but the down side is that it’s addictive. People who consume Shmoob continually may be nonproductive—if that is what they wish to be. In some sectors of the galaxy, possession of or trading in Shmoob is punishable by a “brainscrub.” One of the characters in the book devotes her life to establishing communication with this life form, believing it to be highly advanced. Her work will become critical when political tension escalates around trade and smuggling issues.
The novel opens early in the life of its main protagonist, Elsahar, on her home planet of Novabotny, the first exo-planet to be terraformed and settled by humans. Her people are a fringe group—an anarchist, back-to-the-land, matriarchal settlement in the jungle. They are the remnants of a once wide-spread movement on Earth in the 22nd century, when, largely as a result of a terraforming technology that greened the Sahara Desert, the women of the Middle East rose up and established a neo-pagan movement, the Order of the Greening of the Desert Lands. The new Reformed Order (ROGDL) are refugees from persecution on New Liberia, a super-controlled, rigid, and conservative planet with spy drones everywhere and mandated mind therapy.
The arc of the novel mainly follows Elsahar’s life, loves, sorrows, and passions, all the way to the spacer retirement colony on New Wagadugu, a moon at the outer edge of human habitation. Here is where her political and personal conflicts will be resolved.
Jo-Anne Rosen, originally from Toronto, has spent most of her time since 1969 in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently lives in Petaluma, CA. Her literary fiction has appeared in Other Voices, The Florida Review, FlashQuake, The Summerset Review, Pithead Chapel, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and other journals. She publishes an online literary journal at www.echapbook.com and is co-editor of the Sonoma County Literary Update. Some of her stories have been performed in local readers’ theaters and at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood, California. What They Don’t Know: Selected Fiction (2015) is her first short-story collection. See www.joannerosen.us for details and links to publications. She is presently completing a second, thematically linked collection of stories and novellas. This sci-fi novel is the next project up.
Embark, Issue 1, July 2017