“No. It’s dark in here. I’m not coming out.” Nan’s normally rich voice was high and thin like a child’s.
“Come out and play!” Blair decided to match her regression-induced fantasy.
“No, it’s safe in the dark.”
“Why is the dark safe, Nan?”
“Silly- the monsters don’t like the dark.”
Nan drifted back into deeper sleep, and Blair turned to the doctor in charge. “How many times can she be regressed? Is there an upper limit before the synapses give up and she stays in her dark space?”
Del, the senior officer, rubbed his stubbly gray jaw. “No one knows. Someone-maybe her monsters, maybe somebody else-did things with her brain and body that we don’t know how to do-though we’ve learned how to use her.”
“Listen, youngster, I’ve studied her since we found her, and I still don’t know. We figured out almost by accident how to operate her memory. We know how to play her back-visuals, verbals, all senses, every detail, whether she paid attention to it at the time or not, and input well above and below normal human frequency ranges. At the point where her coherent memories begin, she remembers running, hiding in the deep cave where we found her as an apparent adult at the very edge of Earthworlds space. But from before that, she has no memory of who altered her or what she experienced at their hands, so we figure they must also have known how to erase her. We don’t. Whoever they were, they turned her into a living ‘tell.’ We use her that way too, because there are enemies out there, but at least we . . . care for her.”
Eyes still closed in the medi-berth, Nan began to sing:
“You are my sunshine, my little sunshine,
You make me happy, when skies are gray . . .”
Blair shivered. “Why is she singing that?”
“It’s what her brain triggers when the regression has gone as far as it can with her-back to just before she was snatched, around age seven we think. If pushed farther, she goes catatonic.”
“Do you think that repeatedly regressing her to that child state keeps her child-like? Is that why she’s so interested in children? Why she’s such a good nanny?”
“Who knows? But her ability to bond with children-and, of course, her phenomenal memory-that’s why she’s so valuable to us. Nobody notices a nanny.”
“But why is she willing to gather intel for us?”
“I can’t answer you-yet. This was only her fifth mission-she usually stays on station about a year. This time-well, we got her back alive. She volunteered for this work, instead of going on as a research object for the rest of her life. She is unique.”
Under his breath Del whispered-”we hope.”
They’re not reptiles, Nan told herself, jumping across the narrow black abyss that served as a threshold in Sisspah homes-threshold and murder hole. These Sisspah are mammalian, like armadillos-green horn scales on the back, with soft, pale skin on the belly side, but upright walkers, like humans. Socially, they’re a lot like us. Right.
In the Encounter Chamber, Matriarch stood at the center, larger than any other Sisspah, half again as tall and broad as Nan. Husbands First, Second, Third, and Fourth stood to either side. At her feet sat First Daughter and Son (birth-mates, but Daughter already larger), of a subtle bearing Nan associated with late adolescence in humans. To one side sat Second Daughter and Son, smaller, with coltish limbs that seemed pre-teen among most mammalians. Third Siblings sat on the other side, small, chubby-limbed and round-faced. Matriarch’s two swollen mammaries and pregnant belly, bearing Fourth Daughter and Son, glittered with ropes of jewels; her only adornment-Sisspah needed no clothing in their always-cloudy-summer climate.
Nan, in lightweight tunic and trousers, dropped to one knee with her arms spread wide in the Sisspah posture of respect-attack from this position was supposed to be impossible.
She was fluent enough in Sisspah not to need a translator when the Matriarch spoke in hisses and rasps. “Arise, Nanny Human. We welcome you to our household. Come.” Matriarch turned, her spiked tail curving behind her. Husbands One and Two danced out of its way with practiced grace.
In the dining hall, individual tables bore jeweled trenchers of what looked like fruit and spiced raw flesh. Nan’s table held plain ceramic dishes. Clearly, she was not an equal of the family, but a hireling. Whenever she glanced respectfully about, she found First Son’s eyes upon her.
Blair stared through the monitor window at Nan’s unclothed body. Her breathing was shallow, her pale face and shoulder almost free of the massive bruising visible a few hours ago when she arrived and the berth began to warm her from slowsleep. Robot arms cleaned dried blood from her long, dark hair. Her green eyes opened, and then fluttered closed again. “You can almost see the bruises fading. Look-the swelling’s going down, too. They broke her shoulder and jaw, and they-how can she be healing so fast? I didn’t believe you when you said this would happen.”
“Son, you don’t want your equipment failing every time you drop it-or you accidentally space it=or even deliberately laser it! Whoever re-made her did their job well. Two things never got out among the rumors about her: she apparently has not aged beyond the point of about nineteen years, and she’s awfully hard to kill.”
Within a month, Nan knew her way around much of the sprawling edifice of House Hatha, as Matriarch’s clan was called. She fretted that she hadn’t gotten out into the wider Sisspah world, but at the moment, she fretted even more about First Son.
He had not joined them for cool drinks in this still, hot afternoon. The other young had just trooped off to go and splash in the shaded porch pool, but First Daughter lingered beneath the gentle draft of a cossa-leaf fan wielded by a small Sisspah servant. The fan’s fragrance, sweet as jasmine and heavy as clove, nearly dizzied Nan with each slow sweep.
First Daughter answered Nan’s question lazily, her eyes still on the account she was checking. “First Son seems distressed by your presence, you say? Well, he is at this time, of course, nearly delirious with mating lust.”
First Daughter had spoken as casually as if she’d been talking about First Son’s laundry, but now she raised her head and peered at Nan. Her bearing took on her mother’s regal authority. Nan was used to it by now-her young charges were also her superiors.
First Daughter set aside her reading. “First Son is betrothed to First Daughter of House Szasheera, one of the oldest and most honorable houses. Szasheera held the First Tradership before our own Matriarch took it with her bold strategy for increasing trade with other species, including humans-the reason you are here to teach us your tongue. Our marriage between Firsts restores Szasheera’s Countenance and averts a Combat. In lesser Houses, a betrothed Son could satisfy himself with an underling, but among the noblest, First Daughters expect their Husbands never to give their fertility to another. Our First Son has waited for the Szasheera for a year after his first lust, and at this season his maleness is nearly intolerable-but we expect him to bear it nobly.”
Nan had seen nothing noble in First Son’s look this morning. She had not been prepared for interspecies leering on this mission. Though Sisspah reproductive features remained inside their bodies until needed, humans and Sisspah had otherwise similar mammalian anatomy. Maybe he thought an adventure with a hireling human wouldn’t count in the eyes of his high-born betrothed. First Daughter looked quite self-satisfied. “Perhaps you saw the jeweled coach in the carriage-yard?” “Yes, First Daughter. It is stunning.” Nan could hardly have missed it, gleaming with platinum and rubies, lifters purring in hover-park. “It is not only his marriage coach, but also our House Hatha bride gift to his new family. Szasheera has nothing like it. They will be honored and abashed in exactly the right balance. “
Even wedding gifts were weapons here, Nan thought. She decided that, with so much invested in this marriage; she ought to keep out of First Son’s sight as much as possible-she was, after all, an underling. But if gifts were the Sisspah’s weapons, bits of intelligence like this were Nan’s.
First Daughter resumed her reading. Nan withdrew quietly and turned downward toward the pool to find First Son waiting in the stairwell. His form nearly filled the space. Going on seemed safer than lingering, so she sidled by. Her belly and breasts brushed against him and she felt much too close to the surprising Sisspah body heat. Once past, she turned away at once and strode on, head down. He caught up in seconds.
“When the Issith High Trader comes, Nanny, I shall buy you a ruby and have it set into a belt for you. It will look well on you at the Moon Mating, the date of my marriage.” His eyes swept down to her waist. “The Issith have the best gemstones for trade. All the rubies on my wedding coach are theirs-and a high price they extracted for them, too. The High Trader himself will bring the crownstone for my coronet as a gift, but his company will have others, smaller but equally fine. One will be yours.”
By now Nan knew better than to protest such regal declarations. She half-turned, half-bowed, and kept walking. She was vastly relieved to hear Third Daughter’s young voice from around the next corner, along with the patter of feet as the child burst into view.
The youngster was handling the unfamiliar Ns of the human word fairly well now, but she switched to hissing Sisspah in her excitement.
“Come and see me dive! I can do a somersault!” First Son rumbled in annoyance.
It was late that night before Nan had a moment to think about rubies and traders. Her status in the nursery meant that she was not privy to any of House Hatha’s business dealings, though she had picked up a fair amount of information from casual references, like First Son’s talk of the Issith jewel trade. Who were the Issith? Why did her gut tremble when she thought of their arrival?
A great cry shuddered through the house. Nan leaped from bed and ran toward the long groan that followed.
Matriarch lay in her own chamber in a shallow pool. Small servants hovered around the room’s stone walls, darting at the least suggestion. First, Second, and Third Daughters all hovered anxiously, and adult Sisspah females bustled about, one kneading Matriarch’s belly. The sharp smell of a stinging herb hurt Nan’s nose, not fully covering the iron odor of bleeding. Why was birth so hard for big mammals on every planet? Shouldn’t evolution or science have solved those problem eons ago?
Nan stroked her own belly, sensing the life inside it-Nan had no child. Why did she feel . . .?
A Sisspah servant darted amiss and spilled a steaming bowl over Matriarch’s hand, which fisted and struck in an instant. The bloodied huddle of flesh that flew and fell against the far wall did not move again.
Matriarch’s hissing was strained and hoarse. “Tell me a tale, Human, a tale from another world such as you tell the Young. A tale to keep my thought away from my pain.”
Nan breathed deep in, slow out. She began the first tale that popped into her head. “Matriarch, upon a world far away, there once was a girl who had shoes made of ruby.” Rubies were much on Nan’s mind tonight. She could hardly remember the story, but between Matriarch’s moans, she saw how she could use it. “The rubies were not so fine as those on First Son’s jewel coach, of course.” Nan thought she saw a smile of satisfaction cross Matriarch’s huge face before a new moan began. “And this girl lived long ago, long before trade was possible with the-you call them Issith?”
“Issith-yes. Those pale, fingery excuses for sentients can-Oooooh! “
Nan shivered, not knowing why. “A great and powerful ruler craved this girl’s ruby slippers.”
Matriarch burst out. “Oooooh! Great Mother’s Fist!” She snarled at the nearest servant-”You useless lump-drain this pool now-get me clean water-or I’ll sell you to the Issith for toolflesh!”
Nan felt herself go cold. Toolflesh-it meant . . . what?
The tale wore on, ending as Fourth Siblings were birthed. Matriarch’s face showed only exhaustion as First and Second Daughters washed and cradled their new siblings. The great eyes closed. Matriarch slept through the ministrations of her attendants, even through the First Suckling.
By the time Nan was cleared by the medi-berth’s many tests, Blair could see that the bruises had faded completely. “So she heals up, no matter what happens to her?”
“Well, she probably couldn’t regenerate a lost limb, and there are traces of traumas: healed fractures and skull punctures, a missing ovary, and internal scars suggesting she’s born several children and maybe the births weren’t easy. But she doesn’t remember them-and we’ve never told her.”
“Whoever the monsters are, they must have taken the babies-maybe even forced her to bear them, and then erased her memories. Can you imagine knowing you’d had children and didn’t even remember them? We need her to be able to go on living-working. Not going off on a hopeless search for children we have no idea how to find-if they’re alive. Or going after revenge-we tracked her DNA to a family of adults who left the protection of Earthworlds Net for Spirit Colony. One man was known to be a traditional singer, and DNA records show that he was Nan’s father. We think he sang that song to her. And, yes, Spirit was destroyed by unknown enemies forty years ago. Few children were born at Spirit, and fewer lived. But no children’s remains were found.”
“Gods, Del. They may have bred her and taken her babies to . . . to . . . but we don’t even tell her about them. Are we any better?”
“Yes, Blair, we are. “
Three days after the birth, all the Young were being readied to encounter the First Trader. First Daughter instructed Nan. “We wish you to attend in the Encounter Chamber when the Issith arrive. My revered Matriarch wants them to see you.”
Nan’s heart suddenly hammering, she nodded. She needed air. She backed away, turned, and fled. What was rising in her, squeezing her chest? It felt like an old nightmare, but she had no memory of it-just panic.
She collapsed into a stone alcove with windows overlooking the carriage yard. Sisspah servants entered below, in a nervous flurry, and then First Son appeared. Following him, three tall, thin figures emerged from the darkness of a deep stone archway, and two more lingered in the shadows. In the wan Sisspah sunlight, their white robes were all that gave them definition-their faces, hands, and feet seemed to be made of shifts and shadows as their skins hazily reflected the surroundings. It was hard to see their edges. The ones still back in the shadows appeared to glow. It was easier to see them in the dark. Of course-that’s why they avoided the dark! Wraiths. That was her childhood word for them, from her father’s old tales. Wraiths!
She felt her heart shudder to a stop. She thought that she ought to breathe. Her lungs didn’t move. Nothing moved. Her vision glided above the carriage yard as she drifted upward. She shrieked without voice. Anna! Anna!
Her hand jerked forward. She snapped back. Her eyes opened. Her lungs took in air. Had she dreamed? Had she died? Who was Anna?
A human girl, looking about fifteen, stepped from the dark archway and stopped beside the Issith in the yard. Her face showed no feeling. She simply gazed. Her long hair was dark, her skin pale, and her eyes green.
First Son was staring at the girl, “Nanny?” His spiked tail twitched nervously. His gaze wandered, and his eyes passed Nan in the window, “Nanny?”
The girl in the courtyard was Nan-or Nan’s clone, or …
Nan’s arms rose of their own accord and reached for her child-her hands remembered the baby’s silky hair. Her belly remembered the child curled against her in sleep. Her thoughts remembered nothing. But she knew who Anna was. She stumbled back from the window.
Minutes later, she was hiding in the dark servants’ access way to the dining hall, where the family would be assembling to prepare for staging themselves in the Encounter Chamber. When the Wraiths saw her, what would they do? Would Matriarch sell her back to them for toolflesh? Anna was toolflesh. She had to get away-to get Anna away from the Wraiths.
First Son approached the threshold. He hesitated. His head swiveled toward the access way. He had scented her. His reflective eyes turned on her in the dim light. His body followed.
His urgent embrace shocked her, his overwhelming heat, his great hands on her. She heard Matriarch’s unmistakable tread-and Nan knew that First Son had just made himself her weapon. As he leaned down to grasp her leg, she pushed hard toward the light. Off balance, they both tumbled into the Hall, Son snarling.
Matriarch’s scaly fist smashed Nan’s jaw and bounced her across the room. Nan’s shoulder broke with crackling pain against the stone bas-relief-a triumphal procession of winged demigods and dismembered vanquished.
I have got, Nan told herself, to find a better way to break a contract.
Blair and Del watched as Nan stirred and sat up.
“Wait, Son. Give her time to get oriented, get dressed, come fully back to us. She needs time-there’s something different about her in this regression. We’ll have to study the output. “
As Nan stepped into the curtained dressing-room, her deep, rich voice filled the empty recovery chamber . . .
“You are my sunshine, my little sunshine . . .”