Under heavens bridge, p.1
Under Heaven's Bridge, page 1
UNDER HEAVEN’S BRIDGE
Ian Watson & Michael Bishop
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Also by Ian Watson
On the fifteenth of January, two weeks before Keiko’s eighth birthday, the Takahashi family travelled in to the centre of Kyoto on the electric railway from their home in the southern suburb of Fushimi Ward. Young Keiko was dressed in a particularly bright red and white kimono, which made her something of an exotic butterfly, untimely hatched in January.
She watched, agog, while the gold-tiled pagoda citadels of Momoyama Castle slipped into the distance, along with the adjacent funfair: space shuttles swinging round a high, cantilever-armed pylon. Then the tree-clad hill behind the Inari Shrine briefly loomed and receded, specked with drops of vermilion blood—some of the many lacquered stone gateways that climbed it, to be replaced as a landmark by the ugly spike of Kyoto Tower. Staring outward from the rocking, crowded train, Keiko ignored the myriad close-packed houses and workshops between the shrine and the tower. She had eyes only for her destination—while Mrs Takahashi had eyes only for her, in her butterfly array.
Keiko’s older brother and sister were wearing their ordinary black school uniforms today: soldiers in the army of education. Indeed, brother Okido was martially inclined, having already won a yellow belt in kendo though only twelve years old—which was the nominal reason why the Takahashis were travelling in to town, to watch the traditional archery contest that lasted from morning till evening in the grounds of Sanjusangendo, the long hall that measured out the range. They had been to see the contest the previous January, and Keiko, bored, had strayed away into the hall itself …
Each time the train went cluck-cluck over the rail joints Okido drew back his arm and, with a quick whoosh of breath, sent an imaginary arrow flying over the grey tiled roofs. Sister Etsuko, a rather fat girl, admired him blatantly. Mr Takahashi frowned, admittedly more as though he was judging each shot rather than rebuking the boy’s high spirits. When his glance fell upon Keiko though—their flower—his face would melt, and he would smile self-indulgently.
After leaving the train they walked the few blocks to Sanjusangendo where, in the white-pebble precinct, archers young and old—shoulders and breasts bared like Amazons’—pulled back their high bowstrings and let fly, again and again and again. The archers were watched in turn, and filmed, by four or five hundred spectators, busily holo-freezing hundreds of times the same ancient poses—just as, inside the hall itself, mused Keiko, was reproduced a thousand times …
She held her thought, as one holds a breath before plunging underwater into another world with inhabitants different from ours.
“The record for all times,” bragged Okido, “never bested since, was set over four hundred years ago—”
By a samurai who fired more than thirteen thousand arrows, more than eight thousand of which covered the full distance from one end of the hall to the other. Keiko shook her head. If you multiplied the numbers, had that famous samurai fired an arrow as far as the Moon? It meant nothing to her. The figures were an empty chant. Whereas in the hall itself … numbers were another matter.
Hwit! … Thuck! Another arrow flew, another, another. Holo-cameras pointed everywhere.
At this point a foreign man and his wife sidled up to the Takahashis through the crowd of spectators. The man was beefy-faced, with curly ginger hair—a kind of demon, dressed in a blue parka like an inflated tent. His wife, a stout black woman, wore bulky white furs against the January chill.
“Please,” said the man in phrasebook Japanese, atrociously pronounced, pointing a mittened finger at little Keiko. “Beautiful. Picture?” He was a monstrous gaijin—an outside person, an alien. The notion of aliens was speculatively in the news these days, now that humanity was heading out to the stars from Luna Base. Was this creature any less alien than some star-monster?
While Mr Takahashi wondered what the foreigner was saying, and Mrs Takahashi hid giggles behind her hand, nothing was said in reply. Not until Keiko herself piped up, in textbook English which she pronounced surprisingly well: “Please take picture, sir.”
As she posed, Keiko thought what a great thing it might be to speak to aliens. Why, she had just done so! Perhaps they might speak properly in their own languages, however preposterously they spoke Japanese.
The meaty, tent-clad gaijin beamed, showing what seemed like rows and rows of teeth. Mr Takahashi nodded, and the alien touched a button on its camera.
“Why, thank you, little girl!” the creature boomed.
Shortly after this, Keiko saw her chance and slipped away. For the moment she had forgotten about the red-faced alien waving its box of frozen memories.
She made her way round to the entrance of the hall, well out of arrow range. Her father might be annoyed, but he would forgive, and very quickly too. She went in. Here was what she had been waiting for a year to see …
She had the idea that what had attracted her to Andrik Norn, their party’s outspoken xenologist, was the intensity with which he lived. Although fast approaching forty, he ignited new enthusiasms daily, like a pyromaniac teenager—or a phoenix, perpetually rising from its own ashes. Andrik bur
Sometimes it seemed to Keiko that Andrik had attained the sort of false spiritual liberation that comes from ignoring rather than transcending the self, but even this peculiarly Western aberration, in Andrik, appealed to her—it was so at odds with her own upbringing and values. Leaning down to kiss the sleeping man’s forehead, she realized that she loved him.
Still, she was empty of desire.
And why not? Less than an hour ago Andrik and she had sated the demands of the flesh in each other’s arms.
Her want of desire had another cause, however. A rather frightening cause. While caressing her lover’s shoulder blades, wide-eyed in animal appreciation of the immemorial act, she had suddenly begun to believe that her fingers were moving over … not flesh, but hot metal. A small, sick fear had automatically tightened her belly and womb. It was as if one of the clockwork-mannequin Kybers that they had been trying to study here on Onogoro had come out of its death-sleep long enough to possess Andrik’s body in order to possess hers.
A wicked, maybe even unnatural, analogy for her to draw. But the xenologist’s love-making, usually passionate and adept, had tonight suggested to her the mechanical rather than the carnal.
She forgave Andrik this not uncommon masculine failing, of course, but she could not help wondering if some unholy transubstantiation of flesh to metal were taking place in him because of the sheer intensity of his commitment to researching the Kybers. Notwithstanding his many minor and peripheral interests they were, after all, his overmastering enthusiasm—by personal choice as well as by mission directive. Inasmuch as she, too, had already played an indispensable role in puzzling the enigma of the aliens, maybe her own imagination was to blame for seeing her lover as a machine. Was it possible that her newfound love of Andrik had prompted in her a corrosive jealousy of an entire alien species?
Keiko Takahashi shook her head and smiled. No, certainly not. She was the least likely of all of them to nurture a stupid jealousy of the Kybers. Her fear came from … well, the latent anxiety that just being around such mysterious intelligences produced in everybody. The strangeness of living on another world was also a factor, and the research/reconnaissance party from the transnational light-skimmer Heavenbridge had been surfaceside for better than two Earth-standard months now, inhabiting the great prefabricated Expeditionary Platform erected for them by the engineers of the exploratory vessel that had discovered the planet a year ago.
It was an unsettling thing, Keiko reflected, having to lie down on a collapsible bedstead in an inflatadorm atop an immense, five-legged scaffold on a world as totally other as Onogoro. Even after nearly fifty-five of the planet’s long local days, time in which to become reoriented, it was still a disconcerting and anxious-making experience. And now that Onogoro was swinging out of its orbital ellipse around Dextro-Gemini (the nearer of its two suns), falling temperatures and weirdly discoloured skies heightened the strangeness. Even the most stolid expedition members had shown signs of tripping brain-over-butts into neuroses. If Keiko’s only symptom to date was having briefly taken Andrik’s pistoning body for that of a Kyber, well, she was lucky, wasn’t she?
Her kiss had not awakened the man. He slept on, not with a baby’s deep peacefulness but with a fitful succession of squints and grimaces. What could he be dreaming about, anyway?
Keiko—homesick for Earth, for Kyoto in the spring—eased herself away from Andrik and off the narrow bedstead. Despite the sun-bulb in the ceiling and the heat vents in the walls, the dormicle was chilly. Keiko pulled on a thigh-length robe rather like an abbreviated kimono. Cool air continued to massage her legs, and this not unpleasant stimulus reminded her that there was something in her dresser-file she wanted to take out and examine—but Andrik’s descending seed forced her to grab up her discarded singlet and press it to the inside of her thighs.
The word—even the substance itself—was reassuring. It absolved Andrik of any taint of mechanicalness. Machines, after all, represented in their bloodless design, manufacture, and function the very opposite of what Andrik’s semen meant. Surely in matters of love it was not wrong to be a Luddite. No woman—nor man, either—wanted to embrace a robot.
And yet Keiko remembered that before setting out on this expedition she had spent several days in her own country making nostalgic pilgrimages to the shrines and temples so important to her in her girlhood. Was metal truly devoid of sensation? Was gold genuinely inanimate? Her desire to rummage in her dresser-file for a memento of her youth had arisen from a vivid mental picture of the interior of Sanjusangendo, the renowned Buddhist Hall of Mercy in her native Kyoto.
That temple—a national treasure even in these days of uneasy transnationalism—housed in serried ranks a thousand wooden statues brilliantly alchemized by gold leaf and haloed with radiating aerial spikes. Avatars of Kannon, bodhisattva of Mercy and Compassion, they were important now because she had always felt the utmost awe and reverence in their presence … even though it was only lifeless statuary.
Indeed, they were pertinent now because in several disquieting ways the statues of Kannon reminded her of the stilt-walking Kybers of Onogoro. A strange equation …
Keiko crossed her dormicle, knelt before her plastic dresser-file, and searched its bottom drawer for the folder containing her modest holofiche collection. Finding it, she smiled in anticipation. Then she went to the desk near the bedstead, inserted the proper card in her holofiche projector, and turned the machine so that the microimages on the card would spring to full-blown life in the holoniche opposite her bed.
A moment later, having slid past several exterior shots of the temple and its grounds (the grand hall, the hanging lanterns on the walk, the rock gardens), Keiko was gazing across ten staggered rows of the beautiful gilded statues of the bodhisattva. Her dormicle, miraculously transmuted, was now as spacious and serene as the fabled Hall of Mercy itself.
Overcome, Keiko wept.
Keiko Takahashi was the mission’s linguist and data specialist, in which latter role she functioned as both librarian and archivist. This yoking of specialties had influenced her selection to the research/reconnaissance team taking passage aboard the Heavenbridge from Luna Port and heading out to the Gemini system and the anomalous little planet orbiting Dextro. Officially the world was called, altogether unimaginatively, Dextro-Gemini II, but soon after the arrival of the Heavenbridge, in a friendly competition with her colleagues, Keiko had successfully championed Onogoro as the planet’s name.
So far, however, she had made her greatest contribution to the expedition with an extraordinary feat of applied linguistics—though she was bitterly aware that it was a feat with feet of clay.
After xenologist Andrik Norn and cyberneticist Betti Songa, accompanied by the floater pilot Farrell Sixkiller, had made contact with the Kybers and persuaded a solitary representative of their kind to return with them to the Onogoro Expeditionary Platform, Keiko had taught that alien—whom Andrik had designated the “septa-prime” of one of their innumerable “families of seven”—first the rudiments and later the niceties of Translic, the pan-global tongue spoken by all expedition members.
In the inflatable knowledge centre atop the Platform, these tutoring sessions had taken place for nearly fifty of the local days, for the Kyber was punctual in its habit. It arrived at dawn every morning and ascended via the elevator inside the Platform’s central riser to the knowledge centre; at sunset it descended by this same conveyance to the mist- and stone-carpeted rubble comprising the plains and amphitheatres of the Onogorovan landscape. Between times, sweating like a stevedore beneath her singlet, Keiko drilled the Kyber in fundamentals and marvelled at its quickness. She relished her work. Thrilled with each new breakthrough, she secretly prided herself on the fact that, seemingly alone among her colleagues, she was making spect
The creature learned rapidly. Keiko shared with it Translic versions of Greek poetry, ancient Vedic literature, anthologies of haiku and other Oriental poetic forms, Elizabethan and Restoration drama, Sufi teaching parables, scientific monographs, the lyrics of popular songs from a dozen different cultures, and a large amount of dust-dry technical manuals and philosophical treatises, both ancient and modern. By its fifth week of instruction the Kyber could communicate with expedition members as eloquently as any word-drunk poet or university don, even to the point of trotting out sophisticated double entendres and cunningly apropos snippets of Japanese, English vulgate, and scholastic Latin. It absorbed and processed vocabularies as if its mind—its watch movements of concept and reason—were specifically geared to a universal grammar still more or less opaque to human understanding.
A grammar literally universal, Keiko often reminded herself: a grammar programmed into the very data of which the cosmos was composed.
Toward the end, in fact, Keiko had found herself regarding her great alien disciple with a real sense of awe. The Kyber was her student saint, a messenger of the Hidden Ineffable, and that she should be its mentor rather than it hers went against a basic premise of the natural order. She spent more and more of her teaching time staring raptly at the Kyber and trying to fathom its thought processes. It knew, she felt, what humanity could only guess at. …
Physically, the “septa-prime” who came to her for language lessons looked more like a Giacometti sculpture than a human being. Even when they sat face to face at the circular table in the knowledge centre, the alien towered over her. Although its torso seemed to be basically organic, invested with a papery sort of flesh reminiscent of a mummy’s unravelling grave-cloths, its limbs glinted like new chrome and its head reared above its body like a mahogany mask backed by a big, carven halo. (It was the Kyber’s circular crest, along with its metallic gleam, that belatedly reminded Keiko of the statues of Kannon in Sanjusangendo.) The creature’s face was something turned on a lathe, only the mouth moving flexibly. When the Kyber spoke, Keiko half believed that its melodious, feminine voice issued from a recording unit concealed in the cavity behind its breast bone.
by Ian Watson / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes