That, was as flat a statement as any Gideon had ever heard. What Ardenai wished to know, Ardenai was about to find out. Gideon excused himself and went to take a quick bath. He had the feeling he was going to be sweating, and he’d discovered with a little coaching from the Equi, that bathing, even in a river using bark and herbs, could be a pleasant pastime.
Ardenai appeared, handsome and half smiling, sleeves cuffed to the forearms on a deep red tunic which softened his eyes to brown and made him look quite the ideal father to listen to a young man’s problems. He ordered breakfast for both of them, and as he was setting Gideon’s plate down in front of him, his arm brushed the boy’s in passing – and it was so warm – Ardenai himself, with his rich, ever powerful, ever patient voice, was warmth itself. Gideon stiffened, and Ardenai immediately stepped aside to give him space. “Is something the matter?” he asked.
“I just got the strangest feeling … I know it’s false, of course … but … I got the oddest feeling you’re not who you claim to be.”
“Why is that?” Ardenai asked, and his eyes said he was amused.
“You. You’re warm, you’re patient, you’re caring. You have a wonderful sense of humor. I mean, even your skin is warm …”
“Just like a real person?” Ardenai asked. He sat down across from Gideon at the table, and the laughter still danced in his dark eyes. “I’m not, you know,” he said in a conspiratory tone. “My brain is a computator, implanted at birth, and my blood is that pale blue color because it is mixed with oil to lubricate my artificial parts. Because I am descended from the ancient race of serpents, my skin is cold like a snake’s, and when the moons are full, I can kill unwary travelers by wrapping myself around them and squeezing them to death.
“When the time to mate is upon me, I go crazy. I lose my self-control. I become the dragonhorse, a brutal, raping monster. I mate with men, women and horses, and sometimes I kill and eat them afterwards. When I am not in heat, I am completely unarousable on any level.
“The High Equi do not mix with the Low Equi. They serve as our slaves and pay tribute to us. We High Equi do no work of any kind. We do not love our children, and if a woman bears more children than she is allowed, we drown her and her offspring. In some ways we are serpents, in some ways we are horses, but in no way at all are we human beings. Did I get the majority?”
“Yup,” Gideon sighed. “I guess you’ve heard them all. Including the one about Declivians being thicker than slime on a cesspit. Ardenai, I’m sorry. You’re just … too good to be true.”
“Or at least to be High Equi, hm?” the Firstlord chuckled. “No offense taken. I am an unknown quantity as far as you are concerned. I make no attempt to hide from you the fact that I am posing as somebody else and you did not know who I was in the first place. You have spent your whole life hearing the rumors about us, but you need to be prepared for the fact that behind every lie there is a grain of truth.”
The boy looked instantly on guard, and the Firstlord sighed to himself. This was going to be a process. “Go ahead,” he gestured, “Ask what you need to ask.”
Gideon looked embarrassed. “I … didn’t mean to be so transparent. It’s just that ….”
“You’ve learned to be cautious. What old wives tale did I rattle off that scares you?”
“Well, someone I worked with said that he knew somebody, who knew an Equi woman who got pregnant when she wasn’t supposed to, and they cut that baby out of her and threw them both in the river. Not that I believe it for a minute,” he hastened to add, “but … say a woman has more babies than she’s allowed to have. What do you do to her?”
“For one thing, it almost never happens, and two sets of twins is not unheard of, so two children is not hard and fast. However, overpopulation is the cause of nearly every war, and population control is part of every Equi’s basic mentality, has been for thousands of years. It’s taken very seriously, and it is part of our planetary ethos – like clean air and clean water – everybody contributes without even thinking about it. Women never act alone to produce a child, so we never consider them as a single entity. Responsibility for children comes at least in pairs, often in whole communities. But … by Equi law, a couple that wants a large family has two or three choices. They can have their quota and then foster children for the Great House, they can both be sterilized after a second set of twins or a third single birth and stay on Equus, or, if they choose to remain generative, and they want many children of their own, they may retain full rights of citizenship and move to an Equi tribute world which as yet has no birth quotas. Nobody is ever killed over it, and certainly never a child.”
“How many babies can a person have? You said just two?”
“As a general rule,” Ardenai said, arching his brows a little as he sipped his tea. “Two pregnancies. It’s the cultural norm and has been forever. Unless you are High Equi and a royal, then the rules change, but …” he shrugged and smiled, hoping Gideon wouldn’t sense a balk. He really didn’t want to go into the breeding programs of the Great House with an off worlder. They would sound like … something one did with horses; odd to alien ears. Gideon didn’t pursue it. His mind was elsewhere.
“Do you ever kill people for any reason? Criminals, I mean?”
“Yes,” Ardenai nodded. “Any violent crime against a child – rape, murder, incest – is punished by death. Period. Tampering with regional or planetary computators to cause harm, carries a death sentence. If you are convicted, you die. There is no other sentence. We have a very low crime rate, so we don’t often have to deal with the consequences.”
“So … sex with children isn’t allowed on Equus?”
The Firstlord shuddered involuntarily. “No, of course not.”
The boy was quiet for a moment. “But you do have prostitutes, don’t you? I heard that because you all go kind of crazy when you go into heat, you have women, or men, who do nothing but … service people who need … you know ….”
“I’ll assume,” Ardenai chuckled. “This is at least a little more accurate that the one about the baby and the river. We do have heat cycles, and they can be very intense, especially every seventh cycle, which is called the Dragonhorse. Because we can’t always be home with our mates when these occur, we have what are called, hetaera. They are not prostitutes. They are carefully trained women and men who provide sexual release in a socially acceptable and discreet manner to those who need their services. They are highly valued employees of the Equi government, and highly respected members of our society. It’s a job, like teaching or designing computators or raising horses or hay.”
“And they don’t have any diseases or anything?”
“If you mean venereal diseases, no. Venereal disease is unheard of on Equus. The Equi just don’t … lend themselves to that sort of thing, I guess.”
“Is it true that a lot of Equi men are homosexual? Is that why you have male … Heter … what was that word?”
“Hetaera. Het-air-ah,” Ardenai said, watching the boy’s eyes. “Partly, yes, though some women also need their services. As a rule females don’t get as … overwrought as males during that time. But many Equi males do enjoy the sexual company of other males. It is accepted in our society. Nobody thinks anything about it. Many men and women enjoy the company of both sexes. That, too, is accepted. We have five recognized sexes on Equus, so this particular discussion can get very complicated. For now let’s just say that recreational sex amongst consenting adults … adult being the operative word here … is acceptable and enjoyable. It’s not required, and it’s not frowned upon. It’s an informed choice. Once a man, because that’s who we’re talking about … once a man chooses to marry, whether he marries a male or a female, he is expected to be monogamous. If he is away from home during a heat cycle, he is expected to avail himself of a hetaera.”
“What if he isn’t married yet?”
“If he is in a heat cycle, the code of conduct remains the same,” Ardenai said.
“And how do the women behave? Do they have a lot of sexual freedom, too?”
“If they choose,” Ardenai replied. He was sensing a growing uneasiness in Gideon, and it was making him equally uncomfortable. “As a rule, they choose not to exercise a lot of sexual freedom. A relative few have intercourse of a sexual nature before marriage, perfectly acceptable thing to do, and a very few are adventurous before marriage in the larger realm of copulation. However, they are expected not to conceive children. If they do, we are back to the baby and the river. Does this help?”
Gideon nodded, drew a deep breath, and forced himself to look at the Equi. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you for the information.”
“You are welcome. Now, tell me why you ran away from home, because that much is obvious, and why you were so determined to have that little ed-comp up and running.”
Gideon flushed all over with sudden, nearly uncontrollable panic. He’d prayed for a time like this all his life, for someone intelligent like this to take an interest in him, and now it was all going to be gone. Everything he’d heard in the last five minutes told him … it was all going to be gone. Ardenai was going to hate him. He might even be punished, or killed. He was terrified, and his skin burned like fire with apprehension.
He swallowed the lump in his throat, picked up his tea in trembling hands, sipped it, and swallowed again. “I …” The dreaded words would not come out. He couldn’t force them, couldn’t find them in his vocabulary. “I …” He pursed his lips as hard as he could, but they trembled anyway, and his eyes began to burn and fill up.
Something clicked, and the teacher in Ardenai turned to ice. He’d seen this before in the children of off-worlders, most especially Declivians and Tarkelians … the shaking hands, the downcast eyes. No matter what the boy actually said was wrong, Ardenai knew the truth. As always, he wanted to cry, to vomit, scream, kill somebody, but he did not move. He sat sipping tea, holding his cup firmly in both hands and eying Gideon through the steam. Letting him off the hook by creating an emergency and walking away, would do no good. Giving him the words, or saying it for him, would do no good. Telling him he didn’t have to say anything would do no good. The Equi screwed himself firmly to his chair and waited.
“I … oh, El’Shadai, please forgive me,” Gideon whispered, and his eyes overflowed. “Please forgive me. I … was a tyke-whore. I did filthy, unspeakable things with men. I never got to go to school ever. I’m sorry … I should have told you … now, it’s all ruined. I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” The weight of what he’d confessed crashed down on him and he crumpled under it, buried his head in his arms and sobbed like his heart would break.
“Gideon,” Ardenai said firmly. “Gideon, look at me.” The boy did so, sobbing and gasping, tugging at his hair with claws for hands, trying to get hold of his emotions. “Don’t do that. Let yourself cry. You’ve earned it. Listen to me. Nothing is ruined between us, and nothing is different. If you would like me to hold you while you cry and get this out of your system, I would be more than happy to do that, and it’s what I want to do, but I don’t want to touch you if it will make things worse.”
Gideon’s chin came up just a little too high, and he caught his breath and said, “Never, in all my life, has anybody ever held me while I cried, unless they were having sex with me at the time. I … don’t know … but … I would very much like … to try. I just need somebody, you know?”
By that time Ardenai was out of his chair and around the table. “Come here,” he said, and gathered the young man into his arms. Gideon wept uncontrollably against his neck, and Ardenai rocked him gently and stroked his head and rubbed his back, and made comforting sounds with no meaning until finally the terrible, wrenching sobs quieted to a shuddering series of hiccups. Then the Equi led him to a comfortable chair, eased him down in it, and got him a warm, wet towel and something soothing to drink.
“You’re very good at this,” Gideon said, trying to smile.
“I’m a husband, and a father, and I teach five-year-olds. I’ve had lots of practice. Are you feeling a little better?” Gideon nodded. “Then let’s start again. The computator?”
“Ardenai Firstlord, I cannot … read or write. I never got to go to school.”
“Tell me the story,” Ardenai said quietly, and Gideon did.
His father had been a Coronian-Terren merchant cruiser, his mother, cordial to one and all. No brothers. No sisters. One made that sort of mistake only once. His earliest memories were of hitting, and hatred, and indifference, and fear, and pain. His earliest desire, to escape from Declivis and never be touched again by anyone. That, all praises to El’Shadai, had ebbed with the years. And, with the years, and a stature which belied his age, had come the chance to escape. At fourteen he had gone to work cleaning bars. At fifteen, he’d lied about his age and gotten his flying papers, signed on to an ore freighter going to the sister planet, Demeter. There, he had seen clean skies, flowers, animals. He’d drifted from farm to farm, and then found himself drawn to the horses on the plantation. Squire Fidel had seen the broad shoulders without … seeing the rest of it…
Ardenai gently but firmly cut him off. “The rest of what?” he asked. He was stretched out in the easy chair next to Gideon, long legs stuck out in front of him, hands folded across his chest, and in his mercy he was looking at the Equi countryside moving in projection across the wall rather than the youth. “What is there to see?”
Gideon choked. Said nothing. Ardenai persisted. “Tell me. Get it over with.”
“The … patterns of my past life, I guess,” he said at last, weighing each word. “It must show, somehow.”
“I don’t see it.”
“You’re not a … holer. Fidel was. I’m sorry. I know it’s acceptable on Equus.”
“We’re not talking about Equus. So, you mean, one can spot another, as the old saying goes?”
“I guess,” he shrugged.
“Then why did that bastard think he had a chance with me? He …” Ardenai stopped and shuddered graphically.
”Makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it?” Gideon muttered. “Well, I’m just like him. I was for sale at two, in my prime at eight. By twelve I was so diseased no one would use me, so my mother checked me into the ward they have for such things on Declivis. Needless to say, there will never be any little Gideons. When I got out, instead of running away, I went back to her, and that place.”
“Did you have to go back to doing … what you did?”
“No. You see, Declivis isn’t as forward-thinking as some of the other planets. When you’ve been a prostitute or a tyke-whore on Declivis, and you’ve had certain diseases … they brand you. Which is the reason I didn’t want to get into the pool with you last night. I have …” he stood up and began to unfasten his trousers.
“You don’t have to do that,” Ardenai whispered, stricken, and Gideon, now the soul of calm, said,
“Yes, I do. You said to get it over with, so ….” He let his trousers and briefcloth fall to the floor. “This, is what they do to you.” He had a freeze-brand below his navel, but above his pubic hair, that was a combination of letters and numbers a full inch tall. “It tells potential customers what diseases you’ve had, and where you’re registered as unclean. In case all your work is done through the back door,” he turned and showed Ardenai the brand on his right buttock, “they get you on both sides. This, is why Fidel left me alone, not because he couldn’t see what I am. The first night I was there, he called me up to the house on some pretext, and when I got in, he and his lover jumped me. They got just to the naked part, and, boy, did they come to a screeching halt. I guess he was ashamed of what he’d done, because he let me stay on.” He pulled up his pants and sat back down in the chair with an angry thump. “I worked for Fidel for several months, and then … along came a man who talked to horses.”
Ardenai appraised him in silence for a few moments. “Gideon, when you went home to your mother, were you sorry you could no longer serve as a catamite?”
The boy gave him a look askance. “No, of course not!”
“And when Fidel and his lover didn’t take their chances and have intercourse with you anyway, were you disappointed?”
Gideon didn’t answer, he just stared.
“I am fond of you, you of me. You find me an attractive older man. I find you an attractive younger man. Shall we …”
“Stop!” Gideon cried. “Why are you doing this? You’re scaring me to death!”
“I do it because you said you were like Fidel. I told him no, and he was most unhappy. When I was sitting in the corner of that house, with my hands chained, and a chain around my neck so I couldn’t stand without strangling, I was terrified. Before he left for town he kissed my mouth, and … touched me at some length, which is why he didn’t hear you crashing in the shrubbery, and he said he would be back, and even though I wanted to kill him, I could not. If he had come back …” Ardenai shuddered, and turned at last to look at Gideon. “He’d have had me, one way or another, and I would have been helpless to do one thing about it. Would I then be like him?”
“No, of course not,” Gideon said. “You’d be a victim. It wouldn’t be your fault.”
“You see how simple it becomes when it is removed from your own frame of reference? There is as much difference between a male prostitute and an abused child as there is between night and day. You were a prisoner. You are free. You bear the scars of your bondage as all of us must. You are no better, no worse than any man or woman who has suffered at the hands of others. What you do not have to deal with any longer, is a lack of education. I am no different than anyone else who has expected something from you. I expect you to learn. At worst, I expect you to learn what I teach you. At best, I shall expect you to learn to ask questions. In that respect you are well on your way.”
“You … would teach me?” Gideon asked, and the words were sweet on his tongue. “I’m already sixteen years old. Can you really teach me?” It was too much to hope for. He could feel his heart, pounding in his throat.
“Perhaps you’ve missed the dozen or so times I’ve said I am a teacher. And I’ve taught Lycee, not just Creppia Nonage, so you’ll get more education than the average five-year-old. That’s what I do. I teach people things. All kinds of things. This ship will fly itself, and we have five more sectors to meander across. We shall have more leisure time than we know what to do with, and I can bathe just so much, and you can eat just so much, and then, we shall need something with which to fill our time. I suggest we begin exploring the wondrous order of things.”
And so they did. Day after day Gideon practiced reading and writing. He learned to construct sentences, and spell words. He learned how to recognize sounds in print. He learned to write topic sentences and then whole paragraphs of organized thought. His penmanship improved, and his skill with a keyboard. He began to learn about science and literature, history and mathematics. He and Ardenai discussed philosophy and political science and theology. They shared art, poetry, and music. They discussed nutrition, and gardening, and the breeding of fine horses, and in all of it, Gideon discovered that he knew far more than he thought he did, and Ardenai was amazed with the young man’s progress and sparkling intelligence. He began teaching him the rudiments of intergalactic navigation, and the time came that when Ardenai leaned across Gideon’s back to point at something, Gideon did not flinch away.
They discussed Declivis, and Declivians, as Ardenai had said they would, and Gideon allowed that, yes, those who passed for modern Declivians were every bit as decadent and dishonorable as they were purported to be. Declivis had been a dumping ground for human and Coronian waste for hundreds of years – criminals, prostitutes, terrorists – until the alliance had caught on and put a stop to it. The native population had been wiped out to a man; those beautiful, golden-eyed farmers who had beaten their plowshares into swords too late, and whose blood survived only in the dominant gold eyes of modern Declivians. Ardenai assured him that the beautiful ones still lived, in spirit if not in flesh, that many of the fine minds in the SGA were Declivian and that Gideon would be among them.
“We are here,” Ardenai said on their seventeenth day out, and his finger came to rest near the Gutterman latitudes in sector two. “By this time tomorrow, we shall be here,” and his finger moved. “Calumet. Our final destination. As we have done every couple of days, we shall reduce our speed and allow ourselves to be seen.”
“Calumet?” Gideon echoed, squinting up at him. “Nothing works on Calumet, does it?”
“Nothing mechanical, no. Nothing electrical in nature, nothing dependent on any kind of wave or signal. A singularly odd phenomenon.”
“So … why Calumet?”
“Because nothing works there,” Ardenai grinned. He leaned over, punched the appropriate commands into the console, and the clipper began to ease back toward standard speed. Almost immediately a warning blast came from the navi-psi, an alarm went off in the navigational console, and the craft yawed sharply to port. Ardenai fell hard with Gideon on top of him. The clipper rolled onto its back and plummeted toward a planet looming horrifyingly near.
Ardenai grabbed for the bridge rail and dragged himself hand over hand toward the console, then, one hand on the manual helm, one gripping the bridge rail, he began to pull, cords standing out in his neck, teeth clenched to grinding against the sensation of being torn in half, until the clipper had her nose level again. Another tug, and she was upright with her main drive dead, and Ardenai collapsed in a sweat-soaked heap on the floor. “Gideon?” he croaked, swallowed, and called, “Gideon, are you all right?”
There was no answer. Ardenai got his elbows under him and looked around. Gideon was motionless where he had fallen. Ardenai staggered to his feet, blowing on his blistered palms, and by the time he’d gotten to the boy, Gideon groaning his way back to life. Ardenai reached under his arms to haul him up and said, “I thought I told you, don’t play with the shiny buttons.”
“Yeah, well, I thought you said you knew what you were doing. Was this part of the plan? Because if it is, I don’t like it much.”
“Are you hurt?” Ardenai chuckled.
“Nothing a hot soak won’t cure, and now I understand perfectly why the bathing pool has a cover on it. Are you … Ardenai, your hands look like raw meat! Raw … blue meat.”
“Another reason I’m a vegetarian.”
“Don’t they hurt?”
“Now that you mention it, yes.” He slumped into a chair and gloomily surveyed the gaggle of red lights flashing on the navigational console. When he looked up, Gideon was standing over him with a small silver container.
“Put your hands out,” he said, and sprayed the Equi’s hands with copper integument. They watched it soak in, and the skin began to regenerate and lose its angry look. “So, what do you suppose happened?”
“I would suppose, we have traveled far enough and fast enough to cause a fusing somewhere in the navigational console. It is a prototype. Bound to be some bugs in it. Anyway, without navigational computators, we don’t even have light speed, much less TimeWhip.” He reached over again and tugged on the manual helm. “It will be extremely difficult to work with the craft yawing over every few seconds. We have standard power and manual navigation. I propose we set down and try to get it fixed.”
“Count me in!” Gideon exclaimed. “I’d like nothing better than to find my feet on solid ground.”
“Put you off flying, has it?” Ardenai murmured. “Pity. It’s a long walk home.”
He went aft and checked the damage, then engaged standard power. Slowly, carefully they angled toward the planet below. Hector, it was; part of the Pegasus configuration, and the largest of those fifteen planets. Immediately west was its nearest neighbor – Calumet.
“Might as well be in another galaxy,” Ardenai said. “If we try getting over there at standard speed, we’ll be picked off in an instant.”
“You still haven’t told me,” Gideon asked. “Why Calumet? Absolutely nothing works on Calumet, not weapons, not machinery, not anything. The only power they have is steam. They don’t do anything there but raise sheep, and mine cleomitites.”
“Not exactly correct,” Ardenai said. “Culturally, Calumet is one of our sister worlds. There is a good deal of research in archaic and ancestral agricultural practices that goes on under the auspices of the Amish and the Mennonites who first settled the western continent. Like Demeter, Calumet is what we refer to as a tribute world. It’s an old term. We haven’t collected tribute in thousands of years, but the planet does belong to the Great House of Equus. We raise horses there. Certain bloodlines.” He glanced sideways at Gideon. “It is one of the proving grounds for the Equi cavalry, from which the Horse Guard is drawn. My wife and I went there on occasion. We’d ride in the woods and swim in the rivers and the hot springs, and cook on a wood stove and read paper-paged books by gas lamps, and consider it relaxing.”
“And … this is where you hope to lure Sarkhan … or whomever it turns out to be?”
“Um hm, but not quite so soon. Brace yourself, the craft may buck entering the atmosphere.”
Ardenai scanned the surface of the planet, looking for a remote spot. The ice caps were definitely out. Desert was best, but too visible. He settled for a wilderness of shale and sandstone cliffs, hiding the small craft in the bottom of a shallow ravine which had narrow sides and some overhanging rock formations. He shut down the power, opened the door, and turned to Gideon. “Let’s stretch our legs and look around before we get started,” he said. “This could be a bit of an ordeal.”
Check back next week for the next chapter in this exciting serial from the Dragonhorse Rising universe. To learn more about Dragonhorse Rising and the world of the Equi, go to: http://www.dragonhorserising.com . You can also follow them on the Dragonhorse Rising Facebook page.