Monday, June 23, 2008

Hyacinth's Light by Augusta Li and Eon de Beaumont

The cart's descent into the canyon, if nothing else, at least impeded the barrage of swirling dust that had assailed the travelers for days. Trevor's tailbone knocked against his hard plastic seat as the solar-powered vehicle bumped down the steep, rocky path. Grit permeated everything: hair, pores, clothing, and fingernails. He felt it in his nose when he inhaled and between his teeth when a sudden lurch of the cart made them clunk together. He'd given up on attempting to wipe the reddish grime from his glasses and tried to adjust to seeing the world through a blood-colored smear.

Finally the journey neared its end. Not far below, sheltered by walls of rock, lay the town of Phocis. Trevor had been summoned to investigate, and hopefully cure, a mysterious illness spreading among the residents. Those who knew the ancient healing arts were few on earth, and an absolute rarity on this remote planet. Besides himself, Trevor had only met one other doctor in the two years since his boots first touched the scarlet surface of Delphi 3. He detested traveling in the slow-moving, open-top cars. He preferred the quiet of his small room where he could test the healing properties of the alien flora. But people were dying and there was no one else.

After an almost vertical drop that made Trevor clutch the bar of the roll-cage beside him, he and the driver reached the town's gate. The box canyon narrowed at either end like the neck of a bottle, and the citizens had blocked off both entrances to the town with a lattice of copper-colored piping, probably scavenged from the ships that had brought them to this world. Four men stood watch, their clothing caked with dirt the same hue as the landscape. When the cart stopped a few hundred yards in front of them, they straightened and squinted in the late morning light. Trevor stepped out of the vehicle and pushed his spectacles up the narrow bridge of his nose. His oilcloth trenchcoat flapped around his ankles. The guards' heads inclined toward one another. They smirked and whispered, their big, calloused hands rising now and then to conceal the motion of their lips.

Trevor knew what they were saying. He knew they reacted to his thin frame, large, full-lashed hazel eyes, wavy, dirty-blonde hair and pink, pouty lips. Not for the first time Trevor watched as his beauty made the rugged pioneers judge him as weak, inexperienced, or both. Upon first glance they'd view him as a liability, someone they'd have to waste valuable time and resources to protect, rather than an asset. Waves of annoyance rose from them like heat from the red rock. He brushed his thick fringe away from his eyes and cleared his throat.

"My name is Doctor Trevor Wainwright," he said. "Your Mayor Grey is expecting me."

One of the men, the leader from his carriage, stepped forward. His round belly protruded over his belt, but his chest and shoulders were broad and powerful. He looked past the young physician as if he'd never spoken and focused his eyes on the cart. "You're in from the Capital," he said, addressing not Trevor but the driver. The men who worked transporting goods and people had to be capable of protecting both. "Any supplies come in?"

The driver, who resembled the guards much more than the doctor, shook his head. It had been close to a year since a supply ship had delivered fuel, solar cells, building materials, seeds, or medicine from earth. Though they watched the landing pad in the center of the Capital with anticipation, many of the planet's settlers had given up hope. With no means of communication, they had no way of knowing what had halted the flow of desperately-needed goods. Another war, another viral outbreak, or another devastating natural disaster on their home planet; any one of the things they'd traveled into the stars to escape could stop the ships from launching. No one knew when, or if, they would return. In the mean time, the people scraped out the most primitive of existences from the hot, dry land.

"Any word?" the guard continued.

"You know there ain't," the driver grunted sympathetically. "Brung some bolts of cloth and this young fella, but that's it."

The two older men looked at one another and then at Trevor, and pity passed between them. Trevor sensed an apologetic shame from the driver at having to hand off the babysitting of the pretty-boy to the guard. Being an empath helped him immensely in his work, but Trevor had discovered that the skill made most people uncomfortable and had learned to keep it secret. He smiled and pretended to be unaware of the older men's opinions.

"Well, we ain't got much," the guard continued, motioning to his men to open the gate. "Nothing really grows 'round here but corn. We'll fix you up with a meal and a drink, though."

"Could you please direct me to the Mayor's house?" Trevor asked the guard again.

"End of the street," was the older man's only response, so Trevor lifted his bag from the floor of the cart and started off down the dusty main road.

This resembled every other frontier town Trevor had ever visited. Modest houses scrabbled together from pieces of metal, bits of the ships, and scant amounts of lumber that had arrived before the supply freighters stopped coming lined the wide, dirt road. Only stunted trees barely taller than a man grew on Delphi 3, so wood became precious. Many officials proposed quarrying the abundant red stone, but the lack of fuel and machinery slowed the process. Trevor passed by the general store and noticed windows empty of provisions. He passed the tavern, where two haggard-looking whores nodded at him in greeting. One of them rested her bony bottom on the porch railing, and Trevor noticed a crooked leg, probably broken but never set, dangling down. Other people marked his passing: women plunging worn dresses into buckets of dirty water, old men sweating on rocking chairs, grandmothers trying in vain to coax beans or tomatoes from patches of vermillion dust. A few of the citizens looked up at Trevor, but none spoke to him. He felt from them mild interest dulled by despair or resigned apathy. Not even the prostitutes could muster any excitement for the pretty youth.

Directly overhead Hyacinth, the red dwarf star that lit the planet crimson for twenty hours of each day, was about to be joined by Phoebus, the closer, cruel white sphere that raced across the sky in half the time. When both suns burned side by side, they produced a heat and light too intense to be tolerated, and the population retreated indoors. The first visitors to Delphi 3, intent upon creating a moralist society based on an ancient religion, had dubbed this time An Hour of Prayer and Meditation. The time was to be spent reading texts thousands of years old even before the wars and plagues had leveled earth's population. Subsequent residents found a better way to pass the hottest part of the day, though, and the daily respite became known as Love Hour.

Trevor arrived at Mayor Grey's house during the first few minutes of Love Hour. His shadow huddled close to his feet, and he felt his fair skin burning even through the planks of the mayor's long, narrow porch roof. White glare reduced the details of the manor to washed-out shapes, but he could still notice the luxury. Large logs formed all three stories of the rectangular structure, and intricately carved columns supported the two balconies above him. Cool blue stone, unlike anything to be found on the planet, shingled the roof and decorated the ground beneath his feet. A tiny, brick-colored lizard skittered across Trevor's toe to stretch its belly on the chill rocks. Four yellow eyes regarded Trevor with, if anything, more interest than the human inhabitants had shown. Glass glittered in every window. Most impressive of all was the ornamental bushes with waxy green leaves that dotted the property's perimeter. Trevor shook his head when he thought about how much water must be wasted to maintain them. Compared to the shanties he'd passed, the mayor's home seemed positively palatial. Enough lace to clothe the entire town had been squandered as drapery, and priceless pine made into benches and tables to adorn the decks. Most people gathered around large spools that had once held wire or cable to take their meals. Even one piece of actual furniture was a treasure.

When he rapped on the heavy oak door, Trevor was greeted by a huge bald man with a long scar stretching from his left eyebrow to the corner of his mouth. The top of the doctor's head barely reached the man's shoulder. He leered at Trevor, emanating both lust and a palpable desire to hurt. Though Trevor encountered this reaction as often as the dismissal the guard had shown, the force of the man's craving, combined with the way his thick tongue mopped his few teeth, made the younger man clutch his pack defensively in front of his chest. When he introduced himself, he tried and failed to sound confident and unafraid.

The man stood so long smirking that Trevor wondered if he might be deaf. Sweat darkened his dirty blue shirt at the armpits. Finally he said, "Right then. The mayor's taking his tea. Follow me."

Trevor pushed his wide-brimmed hat from his brow. It swished behind him and lay against his back, held by a string around his neck. As he followed the man through the dusky rooms of the grand house, Trevor tried to remember the last time he'd tasted a cup of tea. Being originally from New Albion, he was quite fond of it and missed it acutely sometimes. He hadn't thought a leaf was left on all of Delphi 3.

They reached the parlor at the back of the house. Mayor Grey sat on a chair in front of another finely carved table. He was an ordinary looking man, with a patch of slate-colored hair on the back of his head and rounder than he had a right to be when so many went hungry. The big man with the scar stopped just outside the room and said, "This here's that doctor from the Capital, sir."

The mayor looked up from his delicate little cup and regarded Trevor. A wave of disappointment washed over the young physician. The mayor had been expecting something else, perhaps a sage-like older man or a seasoned pioneer, anything but the too-pretty youth before him. Even so, the mayor dabbed at his lips with a cloth napkin and stood up. Extending his hand, he said, "Pleased to meet you. I'm Thaddeus Grey, Mayor of Phocis."

"Doctor Trevor Wainwright."

"This is my son, Quentin."

Looking up, Trevor saw a young man standing by the window, looking out through the cleft in the curtains. His shirt matched the parchment color of the lace, and Trevor hadn't noticed him when he'd first entered the parlor. Quentin's arms crossed in front of his chest, and he didn't turn to greet Trevor until his father cleared his throat. Quentin looked much more suited to frontier life than Trevor: deeply-tanned skin stretched over an impressive amount of lean muscle. Chestnut hair, painted by the suns with streaks of red-gold and burgundy, tumbled in loose curls around his shoulders. He had high, chiseled cheekbones and a strong chin. But he also had night-blue eyes a little too large for his face and an upper lip that formed a perfect bow, and Trevor discerned at once that the mayor's son also knew how it felt to be a little too beautiful to be taken seriously. The doctor also couldn't help noticing the way the fabric of Quentin's tight trousers hugged his long legs or the patch of sparse hair visible at the V of his shirt collar.

To Trevor's shock, he sensed an odd emotion when Quentin looked at him: appreciation. He knit his eyebrows together as he tried to define the cause. It seemed impossible, but it was as clear to Trevor's enhanced perception as the light of Phoebus. Quentin found him attractive. The sensation struck him and passed in seconds, like a shiver shook the body when a lover's fingernail traced the spine.

Feeling suddenly conscious of the dirt coating his body and what he smelled like after days on the road, Trevor said, "Perhaps we should get right to work. Can you tell me the nature of the illness?"

"Of course," the mayor said. "Sit down and join us for a cup of tea."

Unable to refuse, Trevor peeled off his overcoat and hat and draped it on the back of one of the wooden chairs. Behind him, the big man's beefy shoulder leaned against the frame of the door. Hunger that had nothing to do with the plate of muffins dotted with bits of dried fruit wafted from him like an odor. Mayor Grey's faded eyes met those of his servant, promising all of his appetites would be sated, and the scarred man turned and left, his boots echoing in the spacious halls. The mayor filled a cup for Trevor. They even had a dish of sugar cubes!

"Quentin, won't you join us?" the Mayor said, noticing his son had turned his back to them and his attention to the window again. Reluctantly, the attractive young man crossed the room and slumped into a chair. He made no pretense of hunger or thirst, but gazed over Trevor's shoulder toward the door.

After draining and refilling his cup, Trevor asked, "What sort of symptoms are the victims of the illness displaying?"

"Weight loss, lethargy and pallor, accompanied by a high fever," the Mayor said. "Most can't or won't eat, and even those who do waste away regardless. Most are dead in two weeks, no matter what we do."

"Does your town have a medical facility, Mayor?" Trevor asked.

"We've set up a hospital in the Town Hall. Phocis is really quite a progressive city, Doctor Wainwright. We have our water pumped from an underground spring. I was in the process of providing plumbing to all of my citizens when we ran out of energy cells to power the pumps. I've started to lay tracks for a solar bullet train that will connect to our nearest neighbor, Clarus. I assure you, Doctor, in a few years this will be a finer place to live than the Capital, provided I receive what I need to complete my projects."

To Trevor's mind, all of the Mayor's bragging only wasted valuable time. It offended the young doctor that Thaddeus Grey's concern leaned so much more toward building schemes than to his dying people. The idea of completing a railroad was as grandiose and ridiculous as proposing people be transported by unicorn-drawn, gold-plated chariots. On Delphi 3, the settlers devoted every ounce of their energy to producing food. More often than not, they fell short. That Mayor Grey would waste effort on such foolish endeavors was even more irresponsible than his ludicrous mansion. But the man clearly wanted a monument to himself and his rule: the Thaddeus Grey Pan-Delphic Railway, he'd likely christen it.

Beside Trevor, Quentin radiated hatred and disgust. Certainly his father was uncompassionate; possibly a megalomaniac, but the force of Quentin's loathing made Trevor suspect some more personal slight.

Steering the conversation back to the sick, Trevor said, "Do you know how the disease is spread?"

"No, but it seems to affect mainly the young," the Mayor answered.

"Children?"

"Some, but mostly people about your age, Doctor. Our young husbands and new mothers. If we don't stop this plague, we'll have no one left but the elderly."

No one to build your aqueducts and lay your train tracks, Trevor thought. "I'd like to see the patients," he said.

"You'll want to rest up first," the Mayor responded.

"Actually," Trevor said, standing and pushing his chair in, "I'd like to see them as soon as possible. Now, if that would be all right. Which way is the Town Hall?"

"I can take you," Quentin offered.