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A Million Open Doors

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A Million Open Doors

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Author: John Barnes
Publisher: Millennium, 1992
Series: Thousand Cultures: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Galactic Empire
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(31 reads / 13 ratings)


Nou Occitan is a place where duels are fought with equal passion over insults and artistic views alike. Giraut--swordsman, troubador, lover--is a creature of this swashbuckling world, the most isolated of humanity's Thousand Cultures.

But the winds of change have come to Nou Occitan. As the invention of the "springer"--instantaneous interstellar travel, at a price--spreads throughout the human galaxy, the stability and purity of no world, no matter how isolated, is safe. Nor can Giraut's life remain untouched. To his wonder, his is about to find himself made an ambassador to a different human world, a place strange beyond his wildest imaginings.



We were in Pertz's Tavern, up in the hills above Noupeitau, with the usual people, ostensibly planning to go backpacking in Terraust and actually drinking on Aimeric's tab. With fires due in a few weeks, we thought we might see the first herds of auroc-de-mer migrating to the banks of the Great Polar River, beginning their 1700 km swim to the sea. Aimeric had never seen it and was wild to go. For the rest of us, the pleasure was in watching his excitementlike his bald spot, it was always there to be made fun ofand in the red wine that flowed freely while he bought.

"Perhaps on the last day we can spring to Bo Merce Bay and see the first ones head out to sea. They say that's really a sight. Last chance for twelve stanyears, we shouldn't miss it, m'es vis, companho." Aimeric laughed, looking down into his wine. The bald spot was bigger than ever. I enjoyed pitying him.

Aimeric slid his arm around Bieris, his entendedora of the time, and pulled her closer to him. She raised an eyebrow at me, asking me not to encourage him.

Garsenda, who was my entendedora, squeezed my arm and whispered in my ear, "I think he really means to go. Are you going to?"

"If you wish, midons. My father took me when I was nine. I wouldn't mind seeing it again."

"Giraut's seen it," Garsenda said, very loudly. "Giraut can tell you all about it."

Everyone stopped talking and looked at us. If Garsenda had not had long, thick blue-black hair, bright blue eyes, and big heavy soft breasts over a taut belly, she'd never have been my entendedoraI surely hadn't chosen her on her personality. Sometimes I thought of getting rid of her, but she so impressed my companho that it was worth tolerating her many lapses. I only wished that the laws of finamor did not demand that I think of her as perfect.

She giggled when she realized they were staring, and rubbed my thigh in a long stroke under the table. "I thought we were talking about going backpacking to the South Pole," she said. "You know, to see the aurocs-de-mer turn their legs to flippers or whatever it is they do."

"Yes, we were," Raimbaut said. He was grinning, enjoying watching my entendedora embarrass me.

I grinned back. Since he had none of his own, if he wanted to get insulting, I held trump.

"Have you actually seen it?" Aimeric asked.

Bieris hit him on the shoulder, giving him her don't-encourage-Garsenda glare.

"Ja, my father took me the year before you got here, Aimeric." I took the carafe and helped myself to another glass of wine; Aimeric flagged old Pertz, behind the bar, who started to pour another. I had lost count of glasses, and didn't care. "And what actually happens is that they have these pockets that their legs and flippers fold into. They just disjoint whatever they're not using and tuck it up into the pocket is all. The toszet who designed them must have been a real geniusnot just having the organs, but having the instinct to do that, is really something." I sipped the wine again, and noticed I had everyone's attentionmaybe they really did want to go. "But let's just go and see them get into the river. The going out to sea doesn't look like muchjust a lot of big gray-brown backs in the water. Not nearly as impressive as the levithi you can see from Bisbat Head."

Aimeric said, "Giraut, you could make a dance on the clouds on gossamer wings sound like going down the hall to spring your laundry to the cleaners." Raimbaut and Marcabru both laughed a lot more than it was worththey were as drunk as I was.

Marcabru, who rarely went out of the city if he could help it, said "But I'd like to see the whole thingas Aimeric says, not for another twelve stanyears"

Raimbaut nodded vigorously and refilled his glass.

Aimeric beamed at them. "Consensus is against you, Olde Woodes Hande." That was the nickname he had given me when I was twelve and he was new to the planet, on the many family trips my father had taken him on. "I think we should stay the extra days."

I shrugged. "It's a little more dangerous. While we're there, I'll show you some of the graveyards. The auroc-de-mer only usually beat the fires to the river. Each year some of themsometimes a lot of themburn to death, piled up in box canyons or at the foot of bluffs. Then after the snowfields form and melt, the charred aurocs-de-mer get swept into streams and piled up along some of the river beaches in meters-thick banks of white bone and black carbon. You shouldn't miss the sightbut I don't want any of us to become a permanent part of it."

Marcabru smiled at me. "Very prudent of you, Giraut. You're getting old. Hey, Garsenda, you want a fresh young toszet when Grandpa Giraut gets tired?"

It was nothing of coursemere banter between old friendsbut then a big brawny Interstellar, sixteen or seventeen and far-gone drunk, bellowed from the next table, "You're a coward."

Every table in Pertz's went instantly quiet.

Ragging among friends is one thing, but in Nou Occitan enseingnamen is everything. I slid sideways away from Garsenda. "This won't take long, midons."

"You're a coward, Redsleeves," the young lout repeated. From his voice, I guessed he had stood up. I glanced at Marcabru to make sure the young turd wasn't about to rabbit-punch me as I stood, a trick that was very popular among the Interstellars, as anything low, dirty, or ne gens tended to be.

Marcabru raised and slowly lowered an index finger, so I kicked the bench backward hard and spun into the space where it had been. Beside me, Marcabru's epee uncoiled into rigidity with a sharp pop, its neuroducer tip almost in the face of that young clown. Between the flickering glow of the neuroducer in his face, and the slam of the bench against his shins, he took a big leap back, giving us a moment to assess the situation.

It didn't look good. Five young Interstellars, all dressed in the navy-and-black style patterned on Earth bureaucratic uniforms, sneered at the four of us. All of them were big and muscular, and none were hanging back. Probably they were all dosed on a berserker drug.

The smart thing, if possible, would be to avoid a fight.

On the other hand, I detested Interstellarstraitors to their culture, imitators of the worst that came out from the Inner Worlds, bad copies of Earth throwing away all the wealth of their Occitan heritage; their art was sadoporn, their music raw noise, and their courtesy nonexistentand spirit and style were everything. Anyone could be graceful with nothing at stake. Here was a real test of enseingnamen.

Everyone speaks Terstad everywhere you go in the Thousand Cultures, but it doesn't offer the powerful, compressed imagery of Occitan, so it was that in which I insulted him; a few musical, rolling syllables sufficed to point out that his father had dribbled the best part of him onto the bathroom floor and he needed to wash his face of the stench of his cheap-whore sister. It was a fine calling-out for spur of the moment and half-drunk.

Aimeric and Raimbaut rose to their feet, applauding with harsh, ugly laughs to make it clear that it was everyone's fight.

"Talk Terstad. I don't understand school talk."

He was not telling the truth, since all instruction is in Occitan after the fourth year, but it was a point of pride with Interstellars to speak only Terstad, because they were determined to reject everything about their own culture and tradition.

"I should have expected that," I said. "You look stupid. All right, I'll translateplease let me know if I'm going too fast. Your father (that's one of those drunks your mother called customers,' though god only knows which one) dribbled the best part of you"

"I don't give a shit what the Octalk meant. I just want to fight you."

His epee banged out into a straight line pointed at me. Mine replied. There was a fast flurry of pops as all those involved extended epees, and crashing and scrambling sounds as everyone else in Pertz's fried to get out of the way.

He grinned at me and glanced at Garsenda. "After we get done with all of you, me and my underboys will share your slut."

It was a dumb adolescent trick, which probably worked pretty well on dumb adolescents. I drew a sharp breath and dropped my point a hairsbreadth, as if he had actually broken my focus. He lungedstraight onto the point of my epee, which tapped his exposed larynx, bending like a flyrod under the force of the collision.

He fell to the floor, bubbling and grasping his throat. The neuroducer had made solid contact, and it would require sedation and several days' slow revival to convince him that he did not have blood gushing from a hole in his throat. We all stood watching him as he quickly hallucinated himself dead and went into a coma.

I sort of hoped I had actually bruised him with the force of the blow, but they'd be able to fix that too. On the other hand, a really good zap with a neuroducer is almost impossible to erase with anything but time, so probably a decade from now his throat would spasm hard enough to choke him every now and then.

The situation was satisfactory as far as I was concerned. "An apology, on behalf of your friend, would settle this," I said.

Copyright © 1992 by John Barnes


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