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The Merchants of Souls

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The Merchants of Souls

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Author: John Barnes
Publisher: Tor, 2001
Series: Thousand Cultures: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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The sequel to A Million Open Doors and Earth Made of Glass

Special agent Giraut Leones, betrayed by his superior and closest friend, swore he would never work for the Office of Special Projects again--but now he must. A new movement on Earth seeks to use the recorded personalities of the dead as helpless virtual reality playthings, and to the worlds of the Thousand Cultures--where the reborn are accepted as normal citizens--it's a monstrous crime. If Giraut cannot stop Earth from ratifying its plans, the tenuous structure of interstellar human civilization will collapse.

Complicating matters, Giraut's brain now hosts a second consciousness-the revived mind of his long-dead friend Raimbaut. Together, Giraut and Raimbaut must confront their shared past while struggling with a deadly present.


Part One

So I Rode This Way


On Söderblom, there is almost never a still puddle, however small, because waves form so easily in the low gravity. That, and the never-ceasing winds, make the sea restless beyond any other in human space.

The waves are big and slow. It makes some people ill to watch. Me, I thought the waves were soothing.

The bright light of two of Söderblom’s moons, both high overhead, and the scattered light from the warm sea, erased all but the brightest stars. I could have read by that light, easily. I could have sat there all night, comfortably—sand, air, and water were all at room temperature, and in low gravity, buttocks don’t tire from sitting in the sand. I could have undressed and walked into the sea for a swim, unashamedly. In Hedonia, nobody would have cared, or noticed. I could do almost anything here.

I sat on the low rise, looking across the silver-gray beach at the big black waves. They marched onto the shore like a slow procession of idiotic monsters.

Self-pity is an unattractive emotion that leads to unfortunate behavior. It can cause me to drink heavily, pick quarrels, go to bed with the first willing partner, or sit on a beach feeling sorry for myself.

It was the night after the afternoon of my divorce. Like most divorces, it had been overdue, and had involved betrayals of trust, not all of them by the married people. Shan—my friend, boss, nearly a second father—had not only known of Margaret’s affair; he had ordered her to continue it, because the Office of Special Projects had been gathering intelligence on her lover.

And it had all been for nothing. Despite dozens of OSP operations, Briand had been the first world ever totally lost to the rest of humanity. If anyone was still alive there, it would be decades before we could contact them.

Set against the total loss of a planet, Shan’s failure as a friend didn’t look so big.

Well. I wouldn’t be seeing Shan for a while, anyway. I was on a stanyear’s paid leave. Margaret and I had come to Hedonia, here on Söderblom in the Eta Cassiopeia system, to try to heal our marriage. We had struggled along for about forty unpleasant days, some promising, most not, until the day just past, when, still sullen and angry at breakfast, we had talked idly about what we might do that day, taken a walk on the beach, stopped for lunch … and at lunchtime, Margaret had said, emphatically, that she was now sure nothing could be worked out. “It’s just time, high time, so let’s get it over with, Giraut.”

We agreed that I would stay on in the house we were renting, and arranged a room in a hotel for Margaret. After tonight, she’d be springing back to Caledony to visit her family for a while.

We hired an adjudicator to divide the common property, which took him something like ten minutes—like any people who value convenience, Hedons take care of their bureaucrats and reward efficiency. The adjudicator’s settlement gave the common property to whoever bid the highest for it and the cross-compensations came out about even. We hooked up to a brain reader to prove we weren’t crazy or lying. Then we signed the papers and shook hands. One hour after lunch, it was all done.

If I didn’t go near Margaret’s hotel till sometime tomorrow afternoon, I could avoid running into her. It was cowardly, but at the moment I wasn’t worrying about fine points of gratz and enseingnamen.

With two nearly-full moons overhead, and the other one close to new, the tide was unusually high. Each wave seemed to lay up onto the beach, then drag itself down, in a swirl of rasping white noise.

This might be a good place to bring a woman for a long conversation about life and art and meaning, perhaps with a bottle of Hedon Gore, the local deep-red wine. I was slightly, distantly pleased that I was thinking of bringing a woman here. Perhaps my first sign of life?

I watched more waves. The two moons sailed farther down the slate night sky, toward the sea in the west, leaving a belt of blackness, jeweled by the few visible stars, along the tops of the trees that lined the eastern horizon behind me.

My com chimed. I pulled it out of my pocket. “Yes.”

“Giraut, this is Paxa Prytanis. Piranesi and I ran into Margaret, and she told us the news. We were wondering how you’re feeling and if you’d like to come by our place in the next few days for a Service of Consolation.”

The Service of Consolation is the Hedon tradition of marking the end of a relationship with a quiet evening in which the friends of the grieving person feed him a good meal and fuck him silly. I had heard that, normally, Hedons only did a Service of Consolation for a close friend, and we’d really only known each other since the Briand mission. But maybe because Piranesi Alcott and Paxa Prytanis were married OSP agents, they understood and wanted to help. Or maybe the Hedon definition of close friends was as elastic as their concept of marriage, which specifically disavowed monogamy.

I had been not-answering for a long time. “Uh, it’s just that it’s terribly soon for me to think about it, but it’s a very kind offer, and I’ll call you back in a day or two.”

“Don’t fret about it too much. Just accept. There’s no sense being primitive and feeling bad for one second more than you need to.”

“Primitive” is a dirty word to Hedons. They sometimes say it where I’d say “moral,” sometimes where I’d say “self-defeating.” To them, all three concepts are the same.

“Well, then, I accept. I think I might like it very much.”

“We’ll do our best to make sure you like it very much.” She didn’t purr it seductively, as a woman might anywhere else. Being Hedon, she used the same tone she’d have used to assure me that she had a good recipe for duck a l’orange, or that the guest room bed was comfortable.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, “really. And it made me feel much better that you called. We’ll get together for something or other within a few days. Que merce, que gratz.”

She laughed merrily. “I already invited you to a Service of Consolation,” she said. “You don’t need to seduce us with your sensual language. Though I suppose any Occitan is incorrigible, about his language and about seduction.”

“That’s what makes us Occitan,” I agreed. “Thank you, again, for calling.”

Then Piranesi got on the com, and I had much the same conversation with him that I’d had with his wife, perhaps with somewhat less sexual undertone. After I hung up I noticed I really was feeling better. I walked along the beach in the double moonlight—so bright I could see colors—casually looking for mimic-seals, the Hedon contribution to engineered wild species. They’re highly intelligent perpetual pups, bright as chimps, madly playful, and genetically wired to be very affectionate to people. I thought I might enjoy throwing a stick for one, but none turned up.

Not long before dawn, I climbed a dune and sat looking out over the deep-green salt marsh to the east, with the sea at my back, to watch Eta Cassiopeia rise.

If I wanted, I could stay in Hedonia forever, drifting from one meaningless amusement to another. I was a wealthy man, even for our wealthy age. In addition to the ordinary standard living allowance from my home culture, I had two ample pensions: I had put in something more than twelve stanyears’ service with the Council of Humanity, as an artistic affairs diplomatic specialist, which had been my normal cover, and exactly the same amount of time with the office of Special Projects, my covert job for Shan.

Since the Briand disaster, the existence of the OSP was now public, and there was talk of abolishing it, publishing its records, and perhaps inflicting various punishments on its past agents, but I doubted that I had done anything that would merit more than a few minutes of neuroduced pain or fifty standays in the dullhouse. Even if the Council repudiated all of the OSP’s former obligations, my Council pension alone would still be more than I could spend.

Aside from my three regular checks, I had royalties from my music. As part of my cover in artistic affairs, I had performed and composed all over the Thousand Cultures. My composing and performing careers were still reaping the benefits of all that free travel and publicity. Many recordings and songs were still earning very nice piles of money, and if I wanted to return to it, I could probably restart my musical career, get back to composing regularly, and—after enough practice—back to performing. Even though my last few releases had sold mainly to completists and eccentrics, every new release pulled the early, popular recordings back into vogue. I might pick up a concert booking or two, or even a small tour, on my own.

I could have a perfectly nice life drifting back and forth between Hedonia and Nou Occitan, composing and touring if I wanted to, or pursuing little affairs with Hedons (who had a wonderfully rational ability to know the difference between fun and love), or just getting drunk every night.

Or I could try to collect on the promise that I had extracted from Shan, and go back to work for Shan’s organization, one of six sections of the OSP. So far as I knew, the OSP did the only interesting work in all the Thousand Cultures: by whatever means available, they held humanity together, all 1228 cultures on thirty-three extras...

Copyright © 2001 by John Barnes


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