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Sandi HallON HERA, war is unknown, and conflicts resolved perhaps vehemently, but always peacefully. Hera’s Wingwomen are known throughout their cosmos for their comprehensive knowledge of plants and plant productivity.

The young of Hera know they will become Pilots when they receive a living Globe as their education begins.

Star-going Pilots travel the universe to increase their botanical knowledge, and come to know well how other societies develop. But when an alien disease strikes at the heart of Hera, the first murders begin.

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Chapter One

               
Maladar

The machine whispered constantly in its work, a barely heard sibilance that lay at the periphery of audible sound. It received its instructions thousands of Ye-Ares ago:

               Select and recommend the genetic couplings that will
                                                     ensure the mental and physical survival and development
                                                     of the following species in these prescribed norms:

The addenda to the instructions were lengthy and detailed and the work of the machine was endless. But the machine was endless, and insentient. It was a machine.

Naj made a final adjustment to the seeper that fed nutrient along the line of plants and straightened wearily. Her headwrap slithered backwards, falling around her neck. With a hasty movement, she pulled it forward, cramming her thick hair under it until it was completely hidden. She looked about her but her co-workers had long departed, only two figures remained at the far edge of the growpools. Too far away.

        She walked between the slickly gleaming growpools, not wanting to go home, and not wanting to stay here. There was nothing to go home to since her birthgiver had Ended last year. Warm lights, smells of food, she thought and my birthgiver scolding me for being late. Why do I want that so much?

She skirted the edge of the growpools, inured to the stench that hung over them, and made her way to the broad walkway that led to the outskirts of Mardat and the single level dwelling that was her home. Above, the Ice was nearly black; strips of created light flickered against that vast cold reach.

        She was startled to see a figure standing by her front door and stopped to watch for a moment. The figure wore the long striped dress of a Messenger and stood patiently, waiting. Who could be sending her a Message? And one that could not come via the ordinary laughcomp? She felt fear like a punch to her stomach and a sudden desire for her birthgiver’s brusque self, who had always stood between Naj and the things that frightened her. Almost she could hear those blunt tones, calming her childish explosions when yet another of the youngsters at the learning centre had cruelly taunted her about her hair. “You were permitted by the Seedmaster and your genes are clear. No Deviation, Naj, you are not to listen to them.” But Naj was not so sure.

She put one foot reluctantly ahead of the other; at her motion, the Messenger turned to look at her. Naj clenched her fists under her long sleeves, willing herself to keep fear at bay. The Messenger watched as she approached, then cleared his throat and spoke to her while she was still some steps away.

        “You are Naj of Mardat, I hope? I haven’t got the wrong shelter?” His voice was cheery and eager. Her fear subsided slightly. She swallowed, trying to speak but her throat was tight and she contented herself with a nod.

        She opened her door and motioned him in, suddenly conscious of the stains on her clothing and the musty air inside her shelter. She touched the circulator into life and gestured to a seat.

        “May I offer you some sustenance, Messenger?” she asked, her voice breaking in her dry throat.

        The Messenger was about to decline but the nervousness bordering on fear in her face, easily readable from his long interaction with so many kinds of people, made his sit down and agree to a hot drink. He watched her as she made the beverage, seeing a short, stocky female not yet in the prime of her body. Nineteenth Ye-Are, he knew. He wondered what the Thinkers who summoned her wanted with her, and whether he would have any trouble taking her to them.

        But she offered surprisingly little resistance, asking no questions. She seemed numb, he thought, as they walked through the darkening night into Mardat, where the Thinkers’ Centre rose above the other buildings.

        He took her into the Centre and delivered her to the care of the Greeter, surrendering the pink plaque that had sent him to Naj. Whatever happened to her now didn’t concern him. But a quick scan of her face awoke some compassion in him. Whatever it was, he hoped it wouldn’t be unpleasant. The female looked as if laughter seldom curved the lines of her pale, full-lipped mouth.

        As she waited, Naj could smell the fear from her body. She felt no surprise at having been summoned. She had always thought that eventually her sign of Deviance would be noticed by someone and that she would have to be Ended. She only hoped it wouldn’t be painful. She hadn’t any idea how people who were Deviant were Ended, but she did understand that Maladar had survived its perilous past by strictly observing the physical norms. Her own work in the growpools had shown her how some plants could sprout two heads or develop ragged broad leaves where slender pointed ones were the norm. She had pulled out such shoots with a shudder of disgust. Now she thought that it was good she was alone, no bloodkin to disgrace by the discovery of her Deviant genes.

Slowly, she pulled her headwrap from her head, shaking out her thick white curling hair which came just below her ears. She ran her fingers through it, feeling its springiness, and took her shaper from her waistbelt. She pulled it savagely through her hair, then thrust it back into her belt. She straightened in her seat. I will not have to hide it any longer, she thought, and lifted her head, ready for whatever fate the Thinkers had decreed.

        The Greeter reappeared, carrying a small tray on which stood a steaming mug and a dish of tiny flat squares. He smiled at Naj as he came to her, drawing a little table forward to her side, placing the tray on it.

        “The Thinkers send both greetings and apologies,” he said warmly, smiling into her startled eyes. “Is there anything else I could bring you? Are you quite comfortable there? The hygiene rooms are straight through there, if you need them,” he added, pointing to his left.

Naj was overwhelmed by his attention and could only nod at him but he seemed not to notice her silence, making small adjustments to the position of the cup and tray and smiling at her all the while. Incoming calls from his desk took him back to it. He went at a run, throwing a swift smile to her over his shoulder, with an injunction to consult him about any little need she might have.

        Naj stared at the bowl and cup. Was this perhaps one way to End someone, give them killers in the food? Be friendly so she was unsuspecting, then take her unconscious body up to the Ice, where the icitars would soon detach every shred of flesh from her unidentifiable bones?

        “Good strong body,” said Sisella approvingly. “Well-knit.”
        “The hair is -- interesting,” said Edina, leaning forward to the viewer to stare more intently at Naj.
        “Are we certain that this is the one?’

        ‘Reasonably,’ replied Sisella, her eyebrows rising in mild surprise. ‘The tests are next. They have the final confirmation, of course.’

        ‘Mmm. Shall we go down?’ Edina asked after a short pause.

        ‘She looks relaxed enough,’ agreed Sisella, getting up.

        ‘Swayers have their uses,’ said Edina defensively as she moved stiffly to the door. ‘And their effect on the mind is beneficial.’

        ‘Ever taken one?’ Sisella asked as they went through the door, which soundlessly slid open in front of them.

        ‘Cer.’ Snapped Edina as the door shut behind them. ‘How would I know if I had not?’

        The Greeter came into the curved space where Naj lounged, idle. ‘The Thinkers wish you to know they are ready to Meet with you. They will be here directly.’

        Naj sat up quickly, then got to her feet. ‘Should I do anything?’ she asked childishly.

        ‘You’ll be right,’ said the Greeter cheerfully. ‘They’re easy to talk with, you’ll see.’

        He threw a look across the broad foyer, nodded rapidly at her and whipped across the space to stand in greeting a four people, all wearing long robes of black, came through the retracting door in the far wall.

        The next two hours battered Naj’s mind and emotions. She was introduced to two male Thinkers from Mardat, but more important seemed to be the introductions to Edina and Sisella, two female Thinkers from Coric. They asked her permission to accompany her through some tests she was about to take. The Mardat thinkers turned as one to her, hurrying to explain that she shouldn’t be frightened, but there was a need to identify her through her genetic coding. Naj wondered if that was because they worried about Ending the wrong person.

 
 
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