1 -- Nykkyo

Nykkyo Kyhana dreamed of a blue world. It was the same as he had dreamt for the past ten nights: The flash of a warp jump and he found himself looking down at a blue orb flecked with white and seemingly small enough to hold in the palm of his hand. He began to fall, accelerating toward the planet -- a lone, naked figure falling through the void. The sapphire sphere grew to overwhelming size as he fell, expanding to fill his field of vision...

He woke with a start, breathless and his heart racing. Beside him lay his wife Senta, her face turned from him and hidden by unruly locks of red hair. A shaft of golden morning sunlight streamed through the archway leading to the balcony.

Nyk arose, showered and dressed in a tunic and xarpa. He stepped onto the balcony of the apartment he shared with Senta, looked down 353 stories to the street and watched the orange sun bronze the city. It was 6636.031 APF, the 31st Floran day of the 6,636th Floran year after PlanetFall.

He turned from the balcony and stopped to regard a medallion hanging on the wall. It was a golden disk with a green stone set at its center and incised with three odd symbols. At the top was an upright with two crossbars. Next, clockwise, were two slashes tilted toward each other's tops. Clockwise again was another upright, bent to the lower left and crossed with a single stroke.

Nyk lifted the pendant from its hanger and cradled it in his palm. He noted a flaw where it had been bent and straightened. The disk was an artifact from the founding days of his world. He felt pride to hold it; and melancholy as he recalled how he had acquired it. It had belonged to his father.

Senta stood nude in the doorway to their bedroom. "You didn't sleep well last night," she said. "Your tossing and turning kept me up."

"You're right, korlyta," he replied. "I didn't. Thoughts of my transit tomorrow kept disturbing me." His gaze returned to the golden pendant and he traced the mysterious figures with his fingertip.

"Nykkyo Kyhana -- the keeper of the crest."

"Why do you mock me so? I'm proud of my Kyhana blood. For two hundred generations this pendant has been passed from grandfather to father upon the birth of the first grandchild. It won't be rightfully mine until you and I have a child. What are the odds of that, Senta?" Her eyes narrowed. "Stranger things have happened, I suppose. How do you think Dad would react to learn his son finally made something of himself?"

Senta folded her arms and sighed. "I don't understand how you can consider a one-year ExoAgency tour making something of yourself. You'll still need a career after you return."

Nyk ignored Senta's remark. He huffed moisture onto the pendant and buffed it on his tunic. "I suppose this should be in a museum. It is an object we know was crafted on Earth. By right, it belongs to all the Floran people. Maybe I'll donate it along with my translation of Koichi's journal, once I finish it."

He replaced the object on its hook, returned to the balcony and looked out. Floran City's urban landscape stretched before him to the horizon. He saw the streets filling with groundcars and foot traffic. Tubecars sped through the transparent, tubular roadways lacing together the city's mile-high skyscrapers, and skimmers flew from rooftop to rooftop. Senta stood beside him.

"The High Legislature is in session today," he said. "No doubt debating the wisdom of relocating the polity's capital to a colony planet. I understand the Deltans are making a case for the honor. I wish they would. It might relieve some of the traffic."

"Will you be stationed in a city?" she asked.

"In a small city. It's smaller than Sudal. The population's about fifty thousand."

"Come, I'll heat some breakfast." He followed her to the apartment's kitchen and began brewing a pot of green tea. She retrieved a pair of prefab meals, warmed them and plunked the trays onto the table.

Nyk sat across from his wife and regarded her as she ate. For an instant she seemed to him a stranger. He had married her eight Floran years ago -- shortly after the shuttle crash had claimed his parents. Like most Florans', his was an arranged marriage. Veska had insisted on it.

"I'll be home early today," Senta said, "to prepare for your farewell party."

Nyk was dreading the party. "I'm not looking forward to it," he replied.

"I don't know what's wrong with you -- why you're so adverse to having a little fun."

"Tomorrow I go offworld for a year. An Agency tour of duty seemed a good idea when I applied for it. Now the notion is beginning to daunt me."

"I wish you hadn't chosen that assignment. I rather you had signed onto a scout cruiser, instead. You might have served on the vessel that discovers our next colony planet."

"Might-haves don't count."

"You certainly wouldn't have gone through such arduous training and you wouldn't find yourself alone on a hostile world."

"It's hardly that. It's different, but it's not hostile. I don't mind working alone. My Agency training is more than adequate. I'm sure I'll survive Earth."

Nyk's gaze focused on the coin-sized tattoo on Senta's right deltoid -- the marriage crest binding her to the Kyhana line. The design was identical to the one on the pendant, and he wore her family emblem on his right upper arm. The same Kyhana insignia had adorned the shoulder of Nyk's mother.

He recalled his cultural training. On Earth -- or, at least in the corner of it where he was headed -- brides and grooms selected each other on the basis of love. He wondered if the Earth adage was correct -- if a man married a woman similar to his mother. If it were so, he mused, then what about Senta would remind him of his mother? They certainly didn't look alike. His mother had been a large-framed woman with the sandy hair and blue-grey eyes she passed on to her son -- round, soft -- attractive, in a matronly way.

Senta frequently was mistaken for a girl half her age.

He scooped a spoonful of his breakfast and wondered if it worked the other way around. Would an Earth woman choose a husband who reminded her of her father? What about himself was similar to Veska? One similarity he did recognize -- toward the end, his parents had been incapable of beginning a conversation without it degenerating into an argument.

"You know," Senta said without looking up, "ExoAgents have died there. Some were burned alive."

"That was hundreds of years ago. We've had no problems with Floran Agents on Earth for generations. The Agency is a critical arm of the Service. I'll be making a valuable contribution to the health and welfare of our people."

"Think what you like."

"The Agency is how we obtain fresh genes to keep our food and fiber crops healthy. As a geneticist you must appreciate the importance of that." Nyk scooped another spoonful. "I wish you hadn't planned this party. I'd prefer to have a quiet evening alone with my thoughts." He sipped his tea. "And with you, korlyta."

"I think you'd rather have a quiet evening alone in your study. You'd probably prefer a quiet lifetime in there. Why can't you see tonight as a last chance to have some fun before you start your assignment?"

"Senta, I know tonight's event is really for your enjoyment. You're well aware I don't like these occasions and I never feel comfortable at them."

"You're inhibited, Nyk. It must be that provincial upbringing of yours. You're in the City, now. You should regard tonight as a chance to get it out of your system. You'll be on Earth a long time. Indulging at one of these parties in no way diminishes what you and I have. I've invited some very beautiful men and women. The Arodsu twins will be here. They were flirting with you at last year's lab party, I recall. Aren't you the least bit curious about them?"

"Curious, perhaps... a little," he said.

"Then, use this as an opportunity to satisfy your curiosity. The party is in your honor. No one would refuse you."

"I don't like making intimate with strangers, and I hardly know them. I'll bet I'll hardly know anyone."

"If you would've given me the names of some of your amften, I'd have invited them, too. Oh, I forgot -- you don't have any. How can you have friends to invite if you can't take the trouble to make a few?"

"Let me see the guest list, korlyta." Senta handed him a datacel. Nyk inserted it into a vidisplay and scanned the list with a frown. "I was right. I hardly know anyone. How many of these number among your conquests?"

"Why does my social life bother you so?"

"It doesn't, Senta -- it amazes me."

"It must, or you wouldn't keep bringing it up. We do have our understanding."

"As you like to remind me." He looked into her green eyes. "I'm sorry -- thoughts about the mission have put me into an odd mood." He returned his gaze to the vidisplay. "Are any of the women on this list fertile?"

"No -- none have applied for birth licenses."

"Good. Then we won't have to worry about any accidents. Did you invite Aahhn and his wife?"

"Yes, but they declined."

"I'm not surprised. Aahhn's too busy now with his responsibilities at the clinic." He continued to peruse the list. "Zander Baxa is coming?"

"So -- you will know someone. He's the only dear friend of yours I could think of."

"I haven't seen him in years. He and I were best friends as boys in Sudal, and he's the one who first interested me in the ExoAgency. He'll bring his trophy wife. You know she's an ax'amfin."

"I hope you won't use that word in front of her, Nyk. She'll be our guest."

"Would you rather I called her ax'amfa?" Senta glowered. "How about ax'amorfa?" She looked daggers at him. "You know how I feel about the ax'amfinen. You can sometimes see them on news broadcasts, consorts to colonial officials looking so ... so stuffy and snooty. That whole institution's an abomination. We should abolish the genetic counselors that create them and the finishing schools that train them. I can't believe our society permits it."

"They're such beautiful women," she replied, "so striking, with such light blond hair and white skin."

"I suspect she's the reason you invited Zander."

"I've wanted to meet one." Senta sipped her tea. "I have some curiosity of my own. Promise me you'll make her feel welcome in our home."

"I promise, korlyta. I can't understand what Zander did to deserve one of those women. I've never heard of a mere mortal like him being assigned an ax'amfin. He's no colonial chancellor. He's a mid-level functionary -- an ExoService career man."

"Your father earned such a reward. He could've had a finishing school companion."

"My father did something much more sensible. He had the house in Sudal built."

"That's not my point," Senta replied. "It is possible for an ordinary citizen to accomplish something and be granted a boon. Finishing school companions are frequently so awarded."

"It's not right to make a human being the reward for accomplishment."

Senta placed her empty tray and cup into the waste reprocessor. Nyk dumped his utensils, walked to his study and sat at his desk. He picked up a metallic cylinder and turned it over in his fingers. A polymer tray held a number of similar objects. They were the data capsules containing the journal of Koichi Kyhana.

Nyk slipped a datacel into his vidisplay and contemplated the screen. Senta stood behind him. "I can't make any sense of this."

"Those are the old Roman characters," he replied and touched the screen. "This is the same text in Floran characters."

"That hardly helps."

Nyk flipped the screen to the Roman characters and read a paragraph in the original Esperanto. He translated the passage -- one in which Koichi lamented the loss of his wife Sarah the year before. "Koichi wrote that about twenty years after PlanetFall. Such pathos. Do you see what a sensitive journalist he was? And, Esperanto wasn't his first language -- English was."

"You know, Nyk, if you had applied yourself toward your studies with half the diligence as learning Esperanto, you might have that Food Service position today."

"That job was nothing but data pushing. Estimate this, plan for that, measure productivity, invent lame slogans for incentive programs. I have no interest in that sort of work, and you know it."

"You'll need some sort of career." She headed from the study. "I'm going to get dressed."

Nyk laced his fingers behind his head and regarded the screen of Esperanto. He had read some of the other material dating from the founding of his world. The Floran's log was preserved and translated, as were shipboard diaries kept by Captain Ty Davis and other crewmates. Nyk knew of the mission, launched in the opening years of Earth's twenty-third century. It was that world's first attempt to form a colony on a planet orbiting Beta Centauri, a star so close as a stone's throw in interstellar terms.

Something went wrong when the Floran's warp coil was triggered. The vessel was thrown two hundred lightyears off course and five thousand Earth years into the past. It was Koichi Kyhana who discovered the colonists' only chance for survival -- the planet they named after their vessel. It was the world Nyk and a billion and a half others now called home. Nyk touched the vidisplay and brought up a photoimage.

"Is that Koichi?" he heard Senta ask from behind him as she laced her sandals.

"Yes."

"He looks nothing like anyone on this world."

"Our family originated in an Earth region called Japan. Koich's features are typically Japanese. Note his black hair, the shape of his eyes and his yellow-brown complexion. You can see a trace of his features in my eyes."

Senta looked at him and laughed, "Think what you want, Nykkyo, but your eyes look like everyone else's."

"Exactly. Interbreeding in the early years eliminated the racial diversity of the original settlers. Now, Florans come only in shades of blond. You're a bit of an oddity with your red hair. Floran eyes retain a hint of Asian influence and your eyes have it, too." He leaned back. "Oh, how I wish I could experience Earth as Koichi describes it. It's two hundred years yet before his time." Nyk returned his attention to the vidisplay. "I would give anything now for a bowl of my mother's miso soup," he translated. "I wonder what miso is."

"Nyk, I'm headed to the lab," Senta said from the living room. "My skimmer will be here any moment. Don't forget the drugs for tonight's party."

He stepped from the study. "Of course not."

"Here's the list." She handed him a datacel. "Thank you, Nyk. I'll see you this afternoon."

Nyk saw the skimmer approach and hover adjacent to their balcony. He glanced at the Food Service emblem on its side -- a stylized agridome within a wreath of wheat stalks. A wide door swung upward and a stairway dropped to the balcony floor. The pilot stepped out and stood by the open door.

Nyk accompanied his wife to the balcony. Senta kissed his cheek and headed toward the skimmer. "Good morning, Dr Kyhana," the pilot said. He nodded at Nyk. "Mr Kyhana."

"Rez, I'll be coming home early," she said to the pilot, "It'll make a short day for you."

"Thank you ma'm," he replied as he helped Senta into the skimmer. He gave Nyk the two-finger Floran salute, climbed aboard and shut the door. Nyk watched as the skimmer disappeared into the distance.

Nyk returned to his study and worked on the journal until he began to feel hungry. He selected a sweet bean paste and rice cake and opened a bottle of an effervescent blue liquid. The time on the vidisplay caught his eye -- if Senta returned and he hadn't procured those drugs, there would be trouble. He washed down the last of the rice cake and deposited the empty packages into the waste reprocessor.

The lift took him to tubecar platform on the 100th level and he approached a kiosk. He pressed his right wrist to the scanpad. It chirped as it read his personal identification code from a microchip implanted in his metacarpal bone. "Good afternoon, Nykkyo Kyhana," a synthesized voice came from the kiosk. "Where do you want to go today?" A list of destinations appeared on a vidisplay.

"Arcade, two-fifty-seventh street." The vidisplay showed an image of the mall. "Confirmed."

The fare for the ride was computed and deducted from his Central Admin spending account. "We apologize for the delay in our service," said the voice from the kiosk. "Have a good day."

He paced around the platform. Overhead, the sky was a deep, lapis lazuli blue and constellations of brighter stars were visible in broad daylight. The bullet-shaped vehicle rolled onto the platform and its transparent cowl slid back.

Nyk climbed in and settled into his seat. "Car, go," he commanded. The cowl slid forward and the car accelerated into a transparent tube suspended high above street level. It slid, propelled by its inertial sink, along the tube. The vehicle slowed and veered into a two-lane tube, then accelerated. The car joined others in a ballet choreographed by Central Admin transportation computers.

The tubecar arrived at the mall. Nyk climbed out and walked into the drug store. He reviewed Senta's list on a handheld vidisplay he carried tucked in his xarpa. He began selecting items from the array of intoxicants on sale in the government-run shop.

The shop attendant called to him, "Have you seen this? It's brand new. This will double a woman's endurance." Nyk picked up a few of the new product. He gathered a collection of inhibition-relaxant and euphoriant inhalers, psychedelic tabs and some injectibles. He paid for his purchase with a press of his wrist to the scanpad.

Nyk proceeded down the mall concourse to the food store and began selecting refreshments. He reviewed the list and loaded a polymer shopping bag with packs of beverages. On his way toward the self-service checkout he picked up a package of snack wafers.

He decided to walk home. His mind wandered to his Agency training. He recalled the intensity of it. His trainers were given two years to instill flawless facility in the language and to teach Earth customs and practices. The instruction had been augmented with subliminal induction and mind-expanding drugs.

Nyk remembered the language training. Actually, he remembered none of the training proper. He had lain in a coma for ten days as the subliminal inducer programmed the neurons in his brain. He remembered vividly awakening from the coma -- the crippling headaches and debilitating nausea. It was three days before he could keep food down. But, he emerged from subliminal sleep with a native-born American's fluency.

One lesson in particular had been drummed into his head. "Above all, we must avoid temporal interference," an instructor had lectured. "The act of placing Agents on Earth puts us at risk of creating a temporal paradox. Our civilization grew from the failed Centauri mission, five thousand Earth years in our past. However, the mission is yet two hundred years in that planet's future.

"If those on Earth were to learn of the upcoming fate of the Floran, the mission might not be launched. Without that mission the Floran hegemony -- twenty-four billion men, women and children -- would cease to exist. This is the risk of an Agency assignment. Tread carefully on Earth. Think of the lives, the cities, the colony planets and the civilization we've built over six thousand Floran years. Think of your own life. Tread carefully..."

Nyk headed down a side street. At about mid-block, he was approached by a gaunt man several years older than he, barefoot and wearing a stained and tattered tunic without a xarpa. His beard showed several days' worth of growth. An orange triangle tattooed onto the man's forehead marked him as an incorrigible. Nyk realized he had no way to escape an encounter.

"Excuse me, sir," the man said, "I see you've been to the food store. Could you spare a miserable felon a bite to eat? I've exhausted my food credits for the period and I haven't eaten in two days."

Nyk reached into the shopping sack and retrieved the package of snack wafers. He handed it to the man, who ripped it open and began devouring them.

"You're looking at what becomes of a criminal," he said between bites. "Economic incarceration, it's called." He held up his right wrist. "My ID's been marked. I cannot purchase anything, save subsistence food. I must travel on foot. Even use of the vidphones is denied me. I must sleep in a shelter. I'm a prisoner on the streets of this city." He muttered as he ate.

"I committed no crime. I was convicted of homicide, of murdering my amfin in a crime of passion. I did not do that, I could never do that. I loved her. I was convicted on circumstantial evidence ... They called me a societopath ... I volunteered for truth drug interrogation, but Internal Affairs convinced the magistrates even that testimony couldn't be trusted." He looked into Nyk's eyes. "I ask you, does this look like the face of a societopath?"

Nyk thought it might.

"In fact, they've no proof she's dead. They never found the body! I've lost everything, my home, my livelihood and my family." Nyk's gaze strayed to the man's right arm. It bore a solid black circle where the wedding crest would be. "I've served half a fifteen-year sentence. In two years, my sentence is up for review. I might be granted parole. I'll go down to Tinam and do some crop tending. Or maybe to one of the colonies. I'll enter a mining camp on T-Delta and start over, there..."

The man finished the pack of wafers. "Thank you, sir. Thank you for taking pity on this wretch." He crumpled the empty package and began to toss it on the sidewalk.

"I'll take that." Nyk took the wrapper. The felon gave him the two- finger Floran salute and walked away. Nyk hurried toward his apartment building. He tossed the empty package into the waste reprocessor at the entrance and rode the lift to the 353rd floor. A press of his wrist against the scanpad opened the door. Senta was at the lab, but he expected her shortly. He set the drugs and groceries on the kitchen counter and headed for his study.

Nyk heard the sound of the skimmer door. He walked into the kitchen. Senta was examining his purchases. "Is this new?" She held up an injector cartridge.

"Yes, it's a new female endurance enhancer."

"Well, I want to try that tonight."

"You hardly need it, Senta."

She examined the groceries. "You didn't get the snack wafers?"

"...No ... I can go out now and get some."

She scowled. "No, don't waste a trip. We'll manage without them. I put them on the list because I know you like them. I swear, Nyk, you're determined not to enjoy yourself tonight." She opened a cabinet door, withdrew a stack of polymer fiber baskets and began filling them with the inhalers and injector cartridges.

"I want to do some more work on Koichi's journal until it's closer to the time of the party. It may be a while before I can get back to it".

"Take these on your way to your little sanctuary. Please, Nykkyo, try to enjoy yourself tonight -- and try to think first of the needs of our guests. Is that too much to ask?"

He took the baskets, plopped them onto a table and headed to the study, pulling the door shut behind him. There, he picked up a datacel containing Koichi's journal. Nyk had not translated the journal in a systematic fashion. He had started with easier passages and worked his way to the more difficult ones as his grasp of the ancient Esperanto language improved. Now he was struggling with an entry from early in the journal. He translated:

5.001 APF

Today begins our sixth orbit around the orange star we now know as our sun. We have agreed on some conventions for the recording of the passage of time. Our year has now been accurately measured to be 251.724 Floran days long. We have agreed the first day of each new year shall be marked by the conjunction of our sun and the star Deneb, which is bright enough to be seen in daylight.

When both Deneb and our sun are simultaneously at the zenith, it is a new year. Every fourth year will be shortened by one day to accommodate the nearly three fourths of an extra day in the revolutionary period -- analogous to the practice of Leap Year on Earth, except our Leap Year shall be shorter by one day, rather than longer. As for marking of time during the day, we have agreed to split each day into two meridians, the Zenith meridian, marked by the sun being at its zenith, and the Nadir meridian. Each meridian shall be divided into eight segments, and each segment into one hundred divisions. We have deliberately avoided the use of Earth terminology of hours, minutes, seconds, months and weeks. So far, there has been scant interest in carrying forward Earth holidays....

The study door slid open. "Nyk, our guests will be here any moment. Please get ready for the party." He saved the text of his translation and switched off the vidisplay.