Spring was always the hardest time: the air was laden with guilt. Arno breathed it in with the smell of sap rising. Spring was reddening the tips of the dogwood and swelling the ends of twigs with its promise. Arno felt its pull, sweet and sad, a time of things passing. He glanced towards the house. Its veranda remained empty. He had bought the place where the mountains met the desert because he had thought it would remind Melian of Lyria. The thought of the lavender planet made him glance at the sky in the direction where he believed the planet ought to be. He went indoors.
The sound of the news holo drew Arno to the lounge. Melian was standing in the middle of holo images of Elector Gogard pushing his way into counsel chambers through rival bands of protesters. Those draped in varying shades of lavender and violet were as muscular and vocal as the grey-clad followers of the Sanctified Path. Melian’s eyes glittered and his-her cheeks were flushed as if she-he was feeling spring after all. Then Arno noticed that the hermaphrodite’s elegant fingers were crushed into fists.
“We have to go to the capital.” Melian’s contralto could make ‘hello’ sound like opera. Now it raised goose-pimples on Arno’s forearms. She-he swept a gesture through the holo image of Intercessor Chell of the Sanctified Path. Arno had often felt like doing the same to the real man. His lip automatically twisted, but Melian shook his-her head.
“In this, he and I agree.”
As Arno concentrated on the news interview, for a moment the holo of the intercessor was overlaid on Melian’s features. The sensation was disturbing. Chell smiled at the interviewer. He could have been a bank manager turning down a loan application.
“See what contact with the decadent society of Lyria has already done?” The holo followed his gaze to the lavender-clad protesters. Arno snorted.
“Wait,” Melian said.
“If Government agrees to Elector Gogard’s demands for free trade with the planet, Earth would become ever more tainted… “
Arno exploded. “Free trade! Are they mad?”
Melian rolled his-her eyes, silencing him.
The interviewer put another question. “And what of Lyrian claims that we’re endangering their planet’s ecosystem?”
Arno wanted to take a wet dishcloth to the intercessor’s smile. Chell followed the elector into the counsel chamber and Arno cut the transmission.
“You see?” Melian said.
“I see the same bigoted greedy fools we’ve had to deal with ever since we came back.” Arno sighed. “Okay. We’ll go to the talks.”
“Thank you.” Melian put his-her hand on Arno’s arm and Arno covered it with his own.
“I could go on my own,” Arno said and immediately had a flashback of Lyria; the naked androgynous bodies of people swaying in the quickening breeze. He had thought it some kind of ritual greeting of his ship, not realizing that the lavender aura that swirled in the air, forming patterns he had been able to see even in orbit, was not clinging to their exposed bodies but emanating from them. How could he leave Melian with spring waking?
“The closed minds of the sanctified ones do not hurt me,” Melian said. “I came here to learn and teach.”
“I’d hoped you’d come to share life with me as well.” Arno felt guilty even as he said it. “You gave up everything. Why can’t these ‘sanctified’ ones see that? Everything.”
“I might never have borne fruit if I’d stayed on Lyria either. Not all of us do.” She-he put his-her arm around Arno’s shoulders. It was not depriving the Lyrian of offspring that caused his guilt but the fact that he was glad of it.
There was plenty of time for reflection during their journey to the capital despite frequent recognition by their fellow passers on the super-track. Arno had suggested hiring a personal flier but Melian had rejected the idea.
“How are we to tell what the people think if we do not go among them?”
Arno had acquiesced. If Melian was prepared to put up with the irritation of Earth’s dirt-laden air, he could tolerate people staring at the ‘hero of the Lyrian mission.’ Lyria had been a hazy arc wrapped in gauze through the window of the ship as he had begun his descent. Only the merest tremble in his breath as he had reported on his ship’s status had revealed his excitement. For the full length of the landing procedures, Arno had thought of himself as the hero of the Lyria mission, then he had stepped onto the planet. Pre-mature Lyrians had approached. He had turned to follow what he thought was their awe-struck gaze and saw it, the great rent his ship had torn in the violet swirls. Hero? Mass murderer, and yet they had treated him with courtesy and compassion. Maybe it was this that caused such disbelief. If a Lyrian had committed such an atrocity on Earth, there would have been calls to wipe out all of their kind. How could Arno have been forgiven if the violet dust was indeed the catalyst for Lyrian reproduction?
As if catching his thoughts, Melian said: “We will make them understand.”
Arno shook his head. “It’s not in their interest to.”
Melian smiled at something beyond his shoulder and Arno sighed: another one! A saucer-eyed boy sidled up to his seat and held out a marker pad.
“Can I have your print please?” He spoke to Arno, but his stare was for Melian.
Arno handed the pad back to him.
The boy hesitated. “Are you male or female?” He finally blurted at Melian.
“Don’t you use the ed-interface?” Arno said.
The boy nodded. “But the news holos say Lyrians tell us their planet’s covered in baby dust to keep us out.”
Melian tried to hide a grin. “Well, now you have seen me. What do you think?”
“I think you’re beautiful.” The words tumbled out and the boy made a dash back to his seat.
“Baby dust!” Arno shook his head, but the boy was right about one thing: Melian was beautiful. His-her wheat-colored hair had a sheen and his-her long limbs had recovered their fluid grace. The Lyrian had been growing sere little by little. Arno had not realized it until now. He gulped down panic and tried to concentrate on their destination.
They almost made it up the steps to the counsel chamber unnoticed. Melian’s height and gliding grace should have caught people’s gaze anywhere, particularly here, where so many had gathered with opinions on his-her kind, but they arrived as Intercessor Chell emerged, and the violet-clad protesters were too busy chanting against him and his followers to see anything else. A shriek warned Arno and Melian that they had been spotted. There was an immediate cloud of lavender-hued chiffon as the ‘haze’ users began waving their arms in an imitation of the quickening.
“There we see the cause of this orgiastic filth that’s degrading Earth society!” Intercessor Chell’s voice was muffled by the cloth he bundled in front of his mouth and nose.
The tilt of Melian’s head and his-her half smile warned Arno. He grabbed the Lyrian’s arm before she-he could turn back to speak to the Intercessor.
“Not now. Let’s see how the land lies first.”
Inside, they found the discussions were in recess. Groups of delegates stood in knots or mingled, flowing between one and another, forming and reforming alliances and obligations like grains of sand swirled in a pail of water. Melian and Arno drifted among them. Whenever the Lyrian appeared in public, people assumed that Arno would be at his-her side, and did not look for him elsewhere. It made it easy for him to wander away and eavesdrop. He lingered by a table laden with soft drinks and energy bites where two delegates were discussing the morning’s proceedings while hesitating over the platters.
“Come on, Jameson, download. I know you’ve had a ship orbiting Lyria for the past cycle. What is it? Black-market Lyrian metals?” said one around a mouthful of something pink.
The other delegate continued loading his plate.
Arno caught the look that passed between the delegate and Elector Gogard. Put Arno and the elector side by side and no one would be in any doubt that it was Gogard who was the hero. Yet there was something in his smile, which never penetrated beyond skin depth, that made Arno uneasy. Seeing that smile shared with the trade delegate gave his uneasiness a sour taste. The elector must have felt Arno’s look. His gaze shifted to the former astro-explorer, and the insincere smile grew wider as he approached with hand outstretched.
“So, our ‘hero’ has come to keep an eye on us.”
Arno would have ignored the hand, but Melian had glided away from a group of the curious and came to stand beside him.
“Melian.” Elector Gogard hesitated then bowed. Humans could still only see things as either-or. Even the elector felt awkward in face of and-both.
“You didn’t think we would miss such important discussions, surely.” Arno gave the elector’s hand a firm shake, and was gratified to see Gogard wince.
“The country air suits you, Melian. You’re blooming. Naturally, since your retirement from public life no one believed you would want to come, otherwise I would have ensured that you and your… er… partner were invited.”
Arno glanced at Melian to see if she-he felt the sting of the compliment. His-her smile remained serene. She-he shook his-her head at Arno’s anxious expression. “The time is long past,” she-he said. Yet Arno could still smell spring.
A ripple of muttering spread from the doorway.
“Ah, the intercessor returns. Time, I think, to find our seats again.” Gogard signaled a steward. “Make sure our guests have places on the dais.”
There they would be in full view, honored guests or exhibits. Arno did not like it, but there was no time to argue. Intercessor Chell swept past, a trail of grey acolytes in his wake creating eddies of disturbance that started a flow of delegates back into the counsel chamber. They took their places. As Elector Gogard recapped the meeting so far, Arno’s gaze skimmed over the audience. When Arno had returned to Earth with Melian, the looks that she-he drew might have been full of fear or respect but there was always awe as well, even on the faces of the followers of the Sanctified Path. Arno searched for it now and in many faces it was missing. The trade delegates, in particular, tended to whisper and grin as if she-he was a party doll. Arno tried to breathe in the remembered calm of Lyria. Melian sat at his side with hands folded in his-her lap as if listening to music that no one else could hear.
“So, there it is. For fifteen years we’ve respected the Lyrian restrictions on trade with the planet. We’ve done everything they’ve asked—and now they’re claiming that we’re threatening the future of their species.” Before Gogard could sit down there were shouts from the floor.
“How are we supposed to make a living?”
“They just want to push the prices up.”
Intercessor Chell rapped his fist on the arm of his chair. “Leave them to their corruption and foul practices. Their metals are bought at too high a price. All you need to do is step outside to see how their unholy ways are tainting our youth. It’s Earth’s future that’s at risk here, not Lyria’s. There are those among you,” he pointed accusingly and the audience squirmed, “who trade in their filth…”
“And why not?” Gogard interrupted without raising his voice. The intercessor’s shock gave him the silence he needed. The elector produced a phial from his pocket. “I have here a sample of this so-called quickening catalyst, known to our lavender-dressed users as ‘haze.'”
Arno was half out of his seat. Melian took his hand. The Lyrian’s eyes glittered and she-he sighed. Arno had seen that hunger before and it was not on the faces of the users outside.
Intercessor Chell sat further back in his chair as if simply being close to the dust could pollute him.
“Don’t worry, Intercessor,” Gogard said, shaking the phial. “The container’s sealed, and even if it wasn’t there’s nothing to fear. I’ve had the dust analyzed, and you know what? Our poor deluded youths have been breathing in nothing more harmful than amino acids and traces of minerals. Reproductive catalyst? Lyrian sweat.” He sat back enjoying the uproar.
“Liar! Tricks!” Someone threw a glass at Melian and the meeting erupted. Arno held his breath, ready to get between Melian and the crowd.
“They’ve robbed us!”
Melian’s eyes remained fixed on the phial of dust.
Gogard rose once more. “Not liars—mistaken, perhaps. The Lyrians sincerely believe that dust like that in this phial is an essential part of their reproductive process. I’m sure once we enlighten them, they’ll remove all their restrictions.”
“And how do you propose to do that?” Arno was on his feet. “With battle-liners and strike teams?”
There was a low rumble from the audience that could have been a growl of consent.
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary.” Gogard’s tone was fatherly, but he brandished the phial as if it was a trophy. “No, the Lyrians will see sense, especially with missionaries from the Sanctified Path there to persuade them of their mistake.”
Intercessor Chell’s tirade against the politician’s outrage stopped mid-flow. Elector Gogard was offering him a chance to convert the population of a whole planet—to his glory or God’s, it was all the same—and in the process avert a war. Earth would probably bow down and adore him too.
Except that there could be no war. The Lyrians had no missiles and could not launch them if they did—not without destroying the very thing they were trying to protect. The first attack by Earth would disrupt the weather patterns, burn the dust… It might take a generation but then Earth, without directly killing one Lyrian or setting foot on the planet, would have an empty world to take over. Greed and prejudice; both were unknown on Lyria, where the catalyst parent might have come from a few feet away or the other side of the planet. There were no bloodlines or races. All Lyrians were valued equally, for who could say with certainty from whose heritage they sprang? Arno glared at the faces around him, seeing only prejudice and contempt.
“How can you believe him?” he demanded.
“Ah, Arno speaks, the ‘hero of Lyria’ with his alien lover. If you want proof, it sits right there.” Gogard pointed at Melian, who sat with eyes half-closed and his-her breath coming rapidly. “In all the years it’s lived here, has there been even a hint of it quickening?”
Arno felt his own breath becoming more rapid. He wanted to mash the elector’s face against the table. He turned helplessly to Melian. His-her eyes met Arno’s. There was no other way.
“We have no one’s word for this except Elector Gogard’s. How can we even be sure that it’s Lyrian dust in that tube?”
“Is that your best argument?” Gogard held the phial up to the light so that the contents seemed to glow.
“There’s only one way we can all be sure: give the dust to Intercessor Chell and let him have it tested.”
“Yes.” The intercessor’s face was exultant. His fingers were already twitching to hold the phial as he approached the elector.
Arno turned to Melian and she-he nodded.
“Ridiculous! The intercessor has a vested interest.”
“And you don’t? Proof should be left to those who are only interested in the truth and not financial gain.” Arno was aware of an angry swell of conflicting noise from the supporters of both groups. Chairs were being scraped back and scuffles breaking out. “He has no right to that dust. If it is real, he stole it. How can you trust the fate of two planets to a thief?” Arno gave the pot another stir, holding his hand out to Melian, who rose as if dazzled by the glow from the dust.
“Only the pure can do God’s work!” Intercessor Chell made a grab for the phial. Elector Gogard flung his arm back to keep it from reach. The phial slipped and his fingers tightened around it. There was a crunch as Arno stepped forward and wrapped his fist around Gogard’s, pressing it against the shards of glass. Gogard struggled to release his hand and Arno let go so that the elector’s arm swept up in an arc scattering a trail of lavender dust that leaked between his fingers. Intercessor Chell snatched his handkerchief in front of his face and fell back, but Arno was only dimly aware of the chaos in the rest of the room. His skin tingled where the dust touched him. Through a blur of tears he watched Melian let his-her robe fall to the floor and enter the cloud of lavender. She-he seemed almost to float in it, his-her arms and body as sinuous as plants in a slow-flowing river.
“Melian,” Arno whispered the name, knowing that she-he would not hear him now.
“Obscene! Obscene!” Intercessor Chell’s cry brought the rest of the room to a halt. Then even he fell quiet, mesmerized by the slow, graceful dance of the quickening. At first Arno was not sure that he was actually seeing the darker violet hue and that it was not merely an effect of the light, but then Melian’s swirling movements made it certain. Arno led him-her by the fingertips through the packed counsel chamber and outside where the spring winds joined Melian in his-her dance and took his-her dust higher and higher, hazier and hazier.
The haze users, the followers of the Sanctified Path, the news holo teams and the curious all saw and all were held by the quiet ecstasy of Melian’s quickening.
“Let any of them try to deny it now.”
Melian gave no sign of being aware of any of it. The Lyrian’s movements were gradually slowing as the moment Arno had dreaded for so long began to pass. He watched, clutching the robe she-he had discarded, ready to wrap the Lyrian in it as if it was a shield of love. At last Melian’s arms dropped to his-her sides. She-he shivered and took a deep breath, before raising his-her head and seeing Arno. He could say nothing.
She-he stroked his face. “All things pass.”
Arno draped the robe around Melian and he guided him-her away.
They went back to the desert and let the vibrations that Melian’s quickening had triggered ripple around the planet faster even than the Lyrian’s wind-borne dust. News holos of his-her dance of life were repeated on the hour, it seemed, for days afterwards. Arno recorded them, but could not watch: perhaps one day he would find release in the pain of seeing it again. Extremists and politicians of all shades demanded access to them; the hero of Lyria had become indispensable in devising the new accord between the lavender planet and Earth—and then came the polite enquiries after Melian.
“Blooming,” Gogard had said in the counsel chamber, and for a while she-he was. There had always been something of the tall stately flower about him-her.
Intercessor Chell came to their aid. “If I did not believe what my eyes saw, I would have to believe what my heart felt when… “
When Melian had given his-her life. At least the intercessor could now understand Arno’s guilt. Melian would have none of it, and Arno could never be quite sure exactly where the real sacrifice had been: avoiding the quickening or embracing it. Either way, Melian’s actions had been driven by love for him and for Lyria, but mostly for him. Looking at the rosy-cheeked fruit of the quickening, Arno could not doubt it. As Melian had begun to brown and wither, his-her hair crinkling and breaking like strands of old leaves and his-her movements becoming jerky as his-her limbs dried to old stalks, the newborn, at first as delicate as a lacewing, had wrapped tendrils of affection around Arno’s heart. It did not matter that Arno was not the fruit’s progenitor. She-he was Melian’s gift to him.
“Don’t grieve,” Melian had said, his-her voice like the rustle of dry grass. “She-he will love as I have loved.”
Arno had tried to promise him-her that he would take the fruit to see Lyria, that he would protect it, even that he would do as Melian asked and not grieve, but no words had come. Melian had smiled.
It was the same smile Arno saw now on the face of his-her offspring. They stood hand in hand and watched as the wind took the sere remains and scattered them across the desert while the intercessor read the service. Melian had always thought the words the most beautiful of all the human rituals: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
© 2012 by K.S. Dearsley
First published in Telescoping Time, for Earlyworks Press, 2012.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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