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Earth Made of Glass

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Earth Made of Glass

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Author: John Barnes
Publisher: Tor, 1998
Series: Thousand Cultures: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Welcome to the Thousand Cultures--in which humanity's hundreds of settled worlds are finally coming back together, via the recently invented technology of instantaneous travel. And in which Giraut and Margaret work as professional diplomats, helping to finesse the stresses and strains of so much abrupt new contact among wildly diverse cultures.

Now, however, their task is to bring in the terrifyingly hostile world of Briand, a planet of broiling acid oceans whose only habitable portions are Greenland-sized subcontinents that project out of the abyssal heat of the planetary surface into it stratosphere.

But Briand's physical hostility is nothing compared to the venom its two human cultures bear toward one another. Into this terrible world come Giraut and Margaret to try to do the right thing by the Cultures, by the inhabitants of Braind, and by one another.


It was hard to believe that Rufeu had been killed nine years ago. As he sat with us over a glass of wine, he barely looked six years old today. "It's honestly getting better," he said. "In this last year I've finally gotten some fine motor control, and as the corpus callosum grows in, I've begun to be able to think more coherently. Still, puberty's a long way away."

The joyous obscenity of his grin made me glad we'd taken the trouble to visit. The travel time was literally nothing—you stepped through the springer, and there you were. But Margaret and I got so few vacations from our work for the Council of Humanity that usually all we wanted to do, during the weeks between assignments, was to go to ground at the home of any tolerant relative, spending our time sleeping and loafing, seeing no one but our families and not going out for anything.

The last time we had been back to Nou Occitan, two stanyears ago, Rufeu still had not been downloaded from his psypyx into his clone-body; instead, I had talked to Johan, who was wearing Rufeu's psypyx, by com every day.

I suppose I felt responsible because I had been there when Rufeu died, on a climbing trip up in Terrbori during the long vacation home that Margaret and I had taken, just after our first mission as full-fledged Council of Humanity diplomats, so the time from his death to the present virtually spanned our careers; he had started on this long journey of his, back to physical adulthood, at the same time we had passed our probation and begun our careers of wandering from one trouble spot to another around the thirty-one settled planets of human space. We had seen sixteen of humanity's twenty-five suns while he had sat in the back of Johan's mind, waiting for his new body to finish growing.

"It must feel like a big hole in your life," Margaret was saying sympathetically.

"That pretty much describes it," he said. "Could have been worse, of course—they say if you die when you're fifty or so, you can still be trying to get everything back off your emblok when you're thirty. Memory only moves so fast and the more of it there is, the slower it moves. As it is, they say I'll be off this thing in less than five stanyears more." He fingered the black knob, no bigger than the nail of his little finger, behind his ear, from which all the copied memories of his first lifetime played back slowly into his child's brain; till he had reincorporated all of them into his brain structure, when he needed to recall something of his first twenty-five years, he had to reach across the interface and pull it in from the emblok. "But really, I'd rather not spend our whole visit talking about my, er, medical problems, eh? I know you don't stay in touch with the old crowd—"

"Just you," I said. "And I kept in contact with Johan while he was wearing your psypyx, because we both thought it was important for you to stay in touch with as many people as possible, but…well, he's always blamed me for Marcabru's death."

Rufeu nodded. He looked like a six-year-old pretending to be grown up. I squelched that thought. He didn't want to talk about his situation, but it was pretty hard not to think about it.

At last he said, "Well, I never blamed you. Marcabru was a depressive drunk. He was going to either kill himself or find someone to do it, and all that drinking made such a mess out of his psypyx recordings that there was no way he could reconstitute."

"I'd been, uh, thinking of asking—" Margaret said, looking pointedly at Rufeu's wine.

"I take scrubbers," he explained, finishing his glass and signalling for another round. "I can get drunk, then come down off it fast and clean. No damage to my tender young brain, as far as they can tell." He raised his glass to us and said, "Atz fis de jovent."

"Atz fis de jovent," we agreed, and drank with him. It could mean "to the death of the young man," but it was more likely he meant another of its senses—"to the end of youth."

"It does get all of us, doesn't it?" I said.

"It does, Giraut. Though I was hoping that an occupation like yours would be different—"

Margaret snorted. "Go ahead, Giraut, tell him about the romantic way you and I spend our time out among the stars."

"Well, there's filling out forms," I said. "And asking questions so you know the answers to fill out the forms. And asking questions so you understand the answers that you need to fill out the forms. And—"

"Stop, stop, I need to retain some romantic illusions about you two. I prefer to imagine you spend all your time standing down local tyrants, rescuing hostages, getting rescued by the CSPs, maybe meeting intriguers and plotters in back alleys—"

"Absolutely," I said. "We tell the local tyrant that he hasn't filled out his permission for despotism form properly, we get the names and com codes of all hostages and fill out the request for rescue forms for them and the CSP—"

Rufeu laughed; not as if things were funny, but more in appreciation for a quick response. That killed the conversation for the moment, so I sat back and looked out over the broad terrace.

Rufeu lived on the east coast of Nou Occitan; I had grown up on the west coast. The cities over here were newer, so they showed some significant Interstellar influence in the architecture—excessive practicality here and there, the occasional spire, arch, window, or door not quite carried to the extreme conclusion that we Occitans had reveled in, before Connect. I liked my very excessive and Extreme hometown, Elinorien, better, but still any Occitan city was a rest for the heart and eyes. Villa Guilhemi was not a bad place at all.

We were on the seaside edge of town, and the restaurant where we had met Rufeu looked across the beach down to Totzmare, the great world-ocean that encircled Wilson, We had been fortunate here, we Occitans, for we had gotten a whole planet to ourselves. Most cultures were jammed together, scores to a planet. But on Wilson, Nou Occitan was the only permanently habitable piece of land large enough for a colony; the two small polar continents, driven by the steep axial tilt of the planet and its slow, twelve-stanyear orbit, alternated between being burning deserts and glacial wastes, and were beyond the possibility of being made permanently habitable.

Hence Nou Occitan was the only culture that looked up to the tiny dot of Arcturus as our sun, its brilliance forever shielded and reddened by the vast amount of fine carbon dust in our upper atmosphere. Beyond the edge of the terrace, the soft white sand sloped down to the dark-green sea, which was gentle today, and warm as it always was in these equatorial waters. Children played in the shallows; further out, a yacht race was in progress, or perhaps it was some elaborate game of tag the sailors were playing.

For the thousandth time I wondered why I had ever left.

"Well," I said, "absent friends and old days."

Margaret looked at me a little strangely, but Rufeu raised his glass, I raised mine, and she joined us in drinking off the rest of the toast.

Of the friends of my jovent, Rufeu probably was the only one I really wanted to be in touch with, or could be. David was a professor now and as dull a pedant as I'd ever seen. Raimbaut had died in a dueling accident not long before I first set off for the stars, and since his personality had not been transferable, his psypyx was still stored in the Hall of Memory, waiting for the improved technology that could bring him back. Marcabru had died unrecorded. Aimeric was now the prime minister of Caledony, a culture on Nansen, six and a half light years away. Excepting Rufeu, all had gone into death, personality storage, or adulthood—the one true grave of youth.

And as for the donzelhas, well, a young Occitan worshipped women, but he avoided knowing them. My last entendedora, Garsenda, had by some twist of fate become Margaret's friend, but she was generally offworld these days, pursuing one business deal or another as head of Nou Occitan's largest trading house, and when she and Margaret visited each other they only rarely invited me.

It wasn't the absent friends, really, that I was drinking to or missing; it was the time of my life when I had thought they were my friends, and that I was theirs, and that that would always matter. So Rufeu and I drank and chatted away the afternoon, talking about times long gone and what had become of people we used to drink and chat with, and Margaret politely sat there and drank along with us. Finally as it turned toward supper time, and the sun began to sink behind the mountains, I shook hands with Rufeu again {he didn't get up—but then if he had, he'd have had to jump down from the chair), and we said we mustn't let it be nine years again, even though for my part, anyway, I didn't care much whether it was another week, or forever.

Neither Margaret nor I spoke as we walked back to the springer station. Villa Guilhemi was very much a provincial town, and it was already settling in for the evening, the few who cared for it going out to sit in the cafés, the rest sitting out on terraces and balconies to enjoy a fine evening. It was so quiet, I could hear Margaret's full skirt rustling, and the light crunch of my boots on the brick street. When we got to the springer station, the first star, Mufrid, was just visible.

"Look," I said, "home."

It was an old in-joke between us. Just as Mufrid, the sun of her home planet of Nansen, was the brightest star in Wilson's sky, Arcturus was the...

Copyright © 1998 by John Barnes


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