Part 1 of 2
Planet of the Amazon Women. That's what Musa called it. He makes kinés, he has a keen sense of the ridiculous in art and history. When he found out I was on my way to Hippolyta he said nothing at first, only looked at me, black eyes serious in his dark face; looked at me, I think, until he was sure I was telling the truth. He covered my hand with his. Then, as if we had both said everything that needed to be said, he stood up abruptly.
"Come on, Sasha," he said. "Let's go dancing."
Musa. A chance meeting in the men's dormitory of an Erewhon orbital transit hostel. If I had met him when I was twenty he would have been the great love of my life.
That is probably how I will remember him, if things on Hippolyta go half-right. If I grow old on the Planet of the Amazon Women, and die there.
There is something about the crew of the S.P.S. Tenacious, the picket ship that the Erewhon Republic has stationed in Hippolyta's system to prevent any excursion from the Planet of the Amazon Women, that is both comical and touching. They take themselves very seriously, with their crisp white uniforms and their military ranks and their short haircuts. (Most of them are human, and most of the humans are men—boys, really.) They take their job very seriously, too, with a certain pride that they are the only ones in this part of the Polychronicon interested in the problem: the universe may be dangerous and chaotic and very poorly organized, but the Republic, and the Navy, are up to the task.
They're not, of course. The universe is so much more disorganized than these comic-opera astronauts could even imagine. That's what makes it so touching.
"And this is the Operations Center," Lieutenant Addison tells me. "Where we control the sensor platforms and the particle-beam satellites. We've never had to use them, thank God."
Addison looks at me, and I look at the room full of complicated equipment and focused young men and nod as if I knew what I was looking at. Already I am practicing my imposture, preparing myself for Hippolyta. This is a dance, and I am improvising it.
Satisfied, Addison turns to indicate the next point of interest, and I turn back to watching Addison. He's skinny and cute and can't be more than twenty-five. He doesn't know what to say to a civilian who's volunteered for a suicide mission, but he's trying.
A century ago on Hippolyta, something called Amazon Fever killed thirteen hundred million men and boys. Hundreds of millions of women and girls died as well, slain indirectly, by the chaos that came in the Fever's wake.
No one knows now who started the Fever, or what they were trying to do: whether it was intentional—an attempt at an attack, or a revolution—or accidental—an industrial mishap, or a probability experiment gone awry, or even an archaeological discovery. But when it came it came suddenly, sweeping across Hippolyta in less than a year, in its progress less like a disease than like a curse. It defied drugs and vaccines and quarantines, brushing past exploration-grade immune enhancements as if they were so many scented medieval nosegays. It seemed to be transmitted not only by the afflicted but by their possessions, not only by their possessions but by objects associated with them only distantly, or symbolically.
There were even isolated cases, reported but never confirmed, of the Fever appearing light-years away, in people who had never been to Hippolyta. Sometimes a connection to Hippolyta could be proved—years in the past, long before the first appearance of the Fever. Other times there was no apparent connection at all.
A diversion that most undergraduate mathematicians encounter is the idea—an easy one to demonstrate, logically—that given a single contradiction, one can prove the truth or falsehood of any proposition. The fall of the causality barrier has given us all the contradictions any mathematician could wish for. This is the one fundamental truth—and falsehood—of the universe.
Even if most of us, like the level-headed crew of the Tenacious, deny it—pretending we still live in a universe where one thing happens after another.
What I suspect, though it is not something anyone can ever prove, is that in those apparently unconnected cases, the connection lay not in the past, but in the future. In a potential future, foreclosed now by the Fever itself.
It's not strictly accurate to say that Amazon Fever killed all the men. To say that is to use an old-fashioned shorthand, a too-simple understanding of sex and gender. The proximate cause of death in cases of Amazon Fever was sudden, pervasive tissue rejection—the result of the molecules making up the body acquiring a new virtual history, at the Planck scale and unevenly. It wasn't just men and boys that Amazon Fever killed. What it killed was anyone or anything whose immune system was unable to recognize cells that no longer came—that, all of a sudden, had never come—from an evolutionary line based on sexual reproduction.
The Fever killed male cats, dogs, insects, birds, fish, gingkoes, date palms, malarial gametocytes. Wherever it struck, it destroyed the entire basis of sexual difference. Most observers—who by this point were doing their observing by remote, from twenty light-minutes away—expected animal life on Hippolyta, humanity included, to go extinct in a generation.
But it didn't.
On the real-time maps the Tenacious uses there is a blank place, in the northeast of Aella Continent—Hippolyta's second largest, and the place of oldest settlement. This I can read: the swirl of weather and the slow-moving lights of tracked targets giving way to static survey data, a century old and more.
"How close to here"—on a projected globe, my fingers brush the center of the discontinuity—"can you set me down?"
Lieutenant Addison looks embarrassed.
"Not very, I'm afraid," he says. "Our equipment doesn't function well that deep into the causal anomaly." He gestures at the globe. "You can see we don't have any current data for that area. No probes, since simultaneity channels don't operate across the probability boundary; and even passive sensors aren't reliable."
I nod, a little disappointed; but it's no more than I expected, or I wouldn't have brought the mules.
Addison scrutinizes the globe for a moment and selects a point on the southern coast, a few hundred kilometers from the center of the anomaly. In the Ezheler lands.
"What about here, near the coast road?" he asks. "You can make your way by native transport from there."
"That will certainly test my disguise."
Addison looks uncomfortable. He turns back to the globe.
"No," I interrupt. "The coast road is fine."
I will have to dance a little faster, that's all.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of the Hegira, before my ancestors came to Islam, they flirted briefly with Hegel. Perhaps in hoping, by resolving the contradictions of Hippolyta, to resolve the contradictions at the heart of the universe, I have fallen into that old heresy: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. If so, so be it. As a natural philosopher, I am expected to face up to the universe's hard truths. As a Russian, I am expected to be a fatalist and a romantic. As a Moslem, I am expected to place my faith in the All-Merciful.
To deny the contradictions—as Musa understood, and as I would never be able to explain to Lieutenant Addison—is not an option that is open to me.
In the little cabin I have stolen from some junior officer, I strip off my borrowed Republic coverall. There is no mirror, but a projector shows me a reversed image, shadowy, as if my double stood in a darkened corridor. I meet my double's eyes.
"Goodbye, Sasha," we tell each other.
Goodbye to Sasha Rusalev of Odessa, ballet cavalier and natural philosopher.
I am Yazmina Tanzikbayeva now, Ezheler muleteer and coca trader.
Hippolyta was already an old world when the Fever came, old with the kind of impossible age that is common out here, the kind that vigorous and serious young civilizations like the Republic worry about and that most of the rest of us ignore. When Hippolyta was terraformed and settled (if it was terraformed and settled—there are causality violations in Hippolyta's early history, too), a kaleidoscope of nations made it their home: cultures from every part of the Islamic 'umma and outside it as well, landing here and there, merging, fragmenting, trading, stealing, fighting little wars, making peace—millennia of history compressed into a few generations.
The Ezheler are nomadic herders who live in the southern mountains and high plains of Aella Continent. Chronically low fertility—a factor of distance from the center of Hippolyta's causal anomaly—keeps them nomadic, just as it keeps their richer neighbors, such as the Chinese speakers in Tieshan, from expanding into their territory. The Ezheler are Muslims, and speak a Turkic language influenced by Russian and Farsi.
I grew up in Odessa; Russian and Turkish were my native languages. A set of Consilium neural implants and a few months of study have me speaking the language of the Ezheler as well as any off-worlder ever will without living among them.
But the thing that really drew me to the Ezheler, when I was planning this, was their clothes.
I dress in cotton and leather and linen and silk. I have practiced this; it comes back to me now, like the steps of a dance. Cotton underwear, first, unbleached; red cotton trousers, much coarser; soft calf-high boots; white cotton blouse embroidered with red; and finally, the burka, the violet-dyed linen veil/robe that covers everything from hair to eyes to ankles.
Most of the Muslims of Aella follow the customs of hijab, to a degree: they wear the khimar in public, and some wear the abaya. But the Ezheler are among the few who wear the full burka, and only among the Ezheler is it never removed, even among family.
I straighten the burka, trying to find the position that lets me see the most through the lace-bordered veil. My muscles are alive with false memories, a combination of generic feminine movements and simulated Ezheler kinesthetics created from Consilium ethnologists' AV recordings.
There are technologies, readily available, with which I could have rebuilt myself completely, from the chromosomes upward—making part of my disguise impenetrable, no longer deception but the truth. (Undoubtedly there are women on Hippolyta today whose ancestors, in the first days of the Fever, did just that.) I could preserve not only my disguise, but my life.
But in doing so, I would prove nothing. If it were enough to test my hypotheses with equations and proofs, I could have done it from the safety of my rooms in Petersburg. I must test them with myself.
Besides, as my old ballet master used to say, for a swan there is no art in being a swan.
It helps that my audience will not expect me to be anything else.
Four hours later Lieutenant Addison is belting me into the capsule that will take me to Hippolyta. The capsule is made for inserting Marine commandos behind enemy lines, or something similarly exciting and dangerous. It seems to me that for landing on Hippolyta, the capsule is overkill—especially since it will have to be abandoned, and perhaps destroyed. But Addison is feeling guilty that he can't take me exactly where I want to go, and his people have seemed to enjoy themselves so much—programming the capsule's camouflage, plotting a course to minimize the chance that someone will see me entering the atmosphere—that I haven't the heart to object.
There is supposed to be room in the capsule for a half-dozen armored Marines and their equipment, but except for the medical equipment, my gear isn't built to Republic specifications. After it has all been packed in around me, Addison, to shake my hand, has to lean awkwardly over a plastic-wrapped bale that might hold rice or dried apricots or coca leaves.
He looks around the cramped capsule one more time, the trade goods, the medical pods, the two mules in their cocoons, the half-felt presence of the quantum inference engines. Then he looks down at me.
"Well," he says, with a helpless shrug, "good luck, then."
Then he leans back, and the hatch closes, and the capsule swings out on its track, and at last they let me go.
The capsule is three days and fifty kilometers behind me, camouflaged and buried at the bottom of a dry creekbed, when I pick up the road to the coast. The coast road is older, harder than the narrow dirt track I have been following out of the dry hills: concrete laid down before the coming of the Fever and cracked now into broken slabs by a century of summers and winters. The grass of the shoulder is brown, tramped down into a footpath, and I guide the mules along that softer way, to spare their hooves and ankles. I can see the tracks of others before me, in the dirt.
A simultaneity channel links the medical pods, buried with the capsule, to telemetry implants laced through my body, and tells me that so far I am healthy, sore muscles and saddle galls aside. This is Republic technology, simple and reliable, and the pods will probably survive me, whatever happens. The inference engines, more delicate and abstract, I carry with me. They were made in Damascus, and their existence is largely mathematical; it is not likely they will be noticed by anyone who does not know to look for them. For now they are quiet, their transformation of local phase space still undisturbed. I am a kink in the braid of improbability that makes Hippolyta what it is, a bubble of reality suspended in the medium of the unreal.
Now that I am here, with this gritty earth under my feet, this warm wind that smells of sage and dry grass whistling by me, it is hard to have the same confidence I had when I planned this in my rooms back in Petersburg. It has taken all three days for me to stop obsessively checking the medical monitors and the inference engines, trying to find in their numbers and images the first symptoms of the Amazon Fever that will most likely kill me.
By the time I crest the last of a range of low hills, though, and catch my first glimpse of the sea on the eastern horizon, the confidence I felt in Petersburg has returned. I am less worried about Amazon Fever than about being unmasked.
I have been two days on the coast when I see my first Amazon.
The architecture of the caravanserai is an eclectic mix, imperishable prefabricated sections that predate the Fever joined to adobe and brick and cement, roofed with sheet metal and encircled by a waist-high fence of driftwood and wire. I am not the first traveler to stop here tonight. Two tethered mules and a horse, hobbled, graze in the shade of a stunted live-oak, tugging at the dry grass with a kind of resigned persistence. On the other side of the yard are a pair of open-topped trucks, scratched and dented, their cargo beds piled high with crates and bundles, the tarpaulin awnings over their passenger areas patched with many colors.
A woman is perched on top of one of the trucks, wearing a sheepskin jacket and blue trousers with sandals. She looks to be about forty, Tieshanese, with a strong jaw, close-cropped black hair and narrow eyes under a blue-and-white striped headscarf.
My first Amazon. I sketch a greeting, hand to heart, and get no response. She shifts slightly and I notice then that there is a long-barreled pistol on the tarpaulin next to her, inches from her hand. I turn away with a show of nonchalance, and lead my mules to where the others are tethered.
The inside of the caravanserai is dark, lit only by the hand-lanterns the travelers have brought; the yard smelled of the ocean, but here it smells of smoke and sweat and kerosene. There are about a dozen women and girls here, three of them Ezheler, the rest Tieshanese. Two of the Ezheler, a mother and daughter both named Amina, are traders like me, returning to their clans after visiting the market town of Haiming; the mules are theirs. The other, Maryam, the horsewoman, is a doctor traveling north in hopes of buying medicines.
The Tieshanese truckers keep themselves to themselves, and a suspicious eye on us, and their children close. The Ezheler have been known to steal children.
"We should steal something of theirs," Amina-the-daughter says. She is fifteen, this is her third trip to Haiming she's coming back from, and though her expression is invisible behind the veil I can guess at it. She knows the Tieshanese don't like her, and because of that she doesn't like them.
Behind my own veil, I smile. Teenagers must be the same everywhere.
I had hoped not to encounter any Ezheler on the road—hoped to ride into Haiming a stranger. I stay quiet, concentrating on the steps of my dance. But neither Maryam nor the Aminas ask me any questions, only share their coffee with me and give me some advice on the Haiming markets. Eventually I relax enough to ask a question.
"Do you know a coca broker named Mei Yueyin?" I ask.
Amina-the-mother and Maryam, the doctor, both nod.
"For a city person she is quite honest," Maryam says.
"She speaks Ezheler," volunteers Amina-the-daughter. "It's creepy."
"You shouldn't speak ill of her while you're still eating the candy she gave you," her mother says mildly.
For some reason I glance at Maryam, and I see that she is looking at me. I wish I could see her face.
Mei Yueyin works, or worked, for the Consilium Ethnological Service. She has been on Hippolyta for seventeen years, five of them among the Ezheler. Her last report, the one that mentioned she was working as a broker in Haiming, was nine years ago. I'm glad to hear she's still alive and still there; even with her ties to the Consilium cut, she's the only contact I have.
Young Amina gives me some of Mei Yueyin's candy. It's rice candy, the kind that comes wrapped in edible paper. While I go to check on the animals I chew it, thoughtfully.
I give the animals—Maryam's horse and my mules and the Aminas'—some water and some dried apricots. They pick the apricots daintily from my fingers with their mobile lips and great chomping teeth, and I'm glad to see my fingers are steady.
The medical monitors have my temperature a shade over thirty-seven; my immune system shows no sign yet of turning against itself. We are no closer here to the center of the Fever, that blank spot on Addison's maps, than where I landed, but the border between consensus reality and Hippolyta's causal anomaly (what Lieutenant Addison—inaccurately—called the "probability boundary") is fluid, fractal, and it has timelike components. So far, though, the inference engines are quiet. So far my predictions are validated.
This far out, I expect, my machines could keep me alive indefinitely—long enough, at any rate, to die of something other than Amazon Fever. I pat the shoulder of Maryam's mare and toy, briefly, with the idea of staying here.
I know I won't, though.
The Tieshanese guard I saw earlier, the one I fancifully called my first Amazon, is gone. Her replacements are a pair of older women who squat in the dust, playing dice by the light of a fluorescent lamp. One of them smiles at me, but it is like the careless smile of a statue. They look as though they could squat there forever.
The next morning the doctor, Maryam, indicates in a roundabout way that, as we are both bound for Haiming, I would be welcome to travel with her. I don't know why this startles me, but it does, and before I really know what I am doing I have accepted.
After the morning prayer we make breakfast together—griddle cakes and rice porridge, with dried fruit and coca tea from my trade bales—and share it with the Aminas, before seeing them on their way south. As we ourselves are leaving, the sun is coming up over the hills, and the Tieshanese travelers are starting to rise. Two of the women have daughters who are very young, not more than four or five, and I see Maryam looking at them—wistfully, I think, though it is not easy to tell through the veil.
"I was just a child when I had my daughter," Maryam tells me. We are three days from the caravanserai, riding side by side along a road now lined with twisting pines, and Haiming is only two days away, a petrochemical smudge on the northeastern horizon. "Fourteen. A child." She glances at me. "I was a mission girl, you see. When we graduated they took twenty of us up the river, to Themiscyra, in Erethea." She looks out into the distance, beyond Haiming's haze, as if trying to see into the past. "I don't have the words to describe the north, Yazmina." She shakes her head in frustration. "I left the words there. . . when I came down the river again.
"But it was very beautiful. I remember that."
She glances back at me.
"Even that far north the odds of a spontaneous conception are very low—perhaps one in a hundred, if that." She gives a small laugh. "I was lucky, I suppose, or unlucky." She turns in the saddle to face me directly. "How old are you, Yazmina?"
"Twenty-one." It's a lie, by seven years, but a twenty-eight-year-old Ezheler could never be as ignorant as I am.
Maryam turns back to the road. "My Rabiah would be twenty-two this year."
Making Maryam thirty-six. I look at her, what I can see of her through the burka, the straight back and thin shoulders, the small weathered hands with their long surgeon's fingers loose on the reins. The lie about my age feels like less of one, all of a sudden. There's a wide gap between my life and the life this woman has lived, and eight years aren't enough to measure it.
"What happened?" I ask.
She shakes her head.
"It doesn't matter."
We ride quietly for a little while, the silence broken only by the distant surf and the slow, plodding hooves.
Quietly, without turning—almost as if she is alone—Maryam says:
"I hope you will be happy here."
She says it in Arabic, not Ezheler. Her Arabic is classical and very pure, the accent of a judge or a hadith scholar.
Then she spurs her horse ahead, ten, twenty meters. It is several kilometers before she lets me catch up to her again.
The old road is broken only once, where the sea-cliffs suddenly give way to a narrow gash of an inlet, perhaps a kilometer across. To the east the valley extends indefinitely, its path improbably, mechanically straight.
There is nothing like this on my pre-Fever maps. Closer, though, and inland, where the water is shallower, the reason becomes clear. A hump of charcoal-colored material runs straight down the center of the valley, rising from the sand and water like the back of some submerged serpent.
"A ladder to heaven," Maryam says, looking out into the valley. "That's what it was, once." In her voice there is some emotion that I can't identify.
She turns to me, obviously sensing my mystification even through the veil.
"A space elevator," she says dryly, using the modern, bazaar-Arabic words.
Now I understand. I nod, and look down at the gray ribbon. A piece of skyhook cable, some fragment of the forty thousand kilometers of cable that once connected Hippolyta to the stars—cut when Hippolyta's equatorial ring station was destroyed to enforce the quarantine.
If I am successful here, people will have to come to terms with the painful knowledge that many millions might have been saved—if outside powers like the Consilium and the Erewhon Republic had, instead of that quarantine, devoted themselves to evacuation. But I can't help that.
We have to detour many kilometers inland before the water becomes shallow enough to ford.
The old city of Haiming is a long green island, topped with white and blue, set in the middle of a wide brown river. The Otrera flows north to south for two thousand kilometers, before taking a left turn, just south of here, and emptying itself into Hippolyta's eastern ocean. On the east side of the river, in Tieshan proper, the shore is lined with ironworks and concrete, and the horizon is smudged with smoke.
Here on the west side, the market side, the buildings are low and brown and poor—all of them seemingly either made of clay, and very old, or made of wood, and very flimsy. The effect should be depressing, but the rooftops are lined with flapping colored banners, the air smells of earth and river water and spices, and the streets are filled with people, shouting and laughing and dickering in Ezheler and Arabic and Chinese.
I leave Maryam at the ferry terminal, where the north-bound boats stop before heading upriver.
She lingers on the gangway. "This is probably my last chance, you know," she says.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm thirty-six," she says. "I don't have any other daughters, or granddaughters. That's why I'm going north."
Into Erethea. Into the blank space on the map, the center of the causal anomaly. Where my goal has been all along.
I don't know what to say, except:
"I'm sure you'll be successful," I tell her, "God willing."
"God willing," she echoes.
"Perhaps I'll come north myself, some day soon," I say.
She laughs, and, unexpectedly, puts her arms around me, pressing her veiled cheek against mine.
"You're too young, little daughter," she tells me. "Live for yourself first."
The boat's whistle blows, and she draws back. She takes a pen and a bit of paper from one of her bags and scribbles a name and an address. She hands it to me, and I read:
Dr. Aysun Orbay, 23 Marpesia 4, Themiscyra.
"My friend," she says. "In case you are too foolish to listen to me."
Then the boat's whistle is blowing again, and she is gone, leading her horse up the gangway.
A Tieshanese mule trader named Zhou Xiling buys my animals at what would be a vicious discount, if I'd ever paid for them. Mules, their hybrid histories stripped from them, breed better on Hippolyta than they do anywhere else, or the Aminas would never have had their two beasts; but in Aella's southern highlands, far from the center of the anomaly, they breed no better than human beings do. In this relationship women like Zhou, who can import stock from farther north, have all the power.
I lift the bales of coca onto my shoulders. I am not tall—Maryam, for instance, was taller than I am—but I am taller than most of the women in East Haiming's streets. As I carry the bales to the coca market, the crowds give me a wide berth.
Mei Yueyin has hardly said twenty words since I identified myself to her in the coca market. She stalks a little ahead of me—walking quickly, as if she would like to leave me behind, or at least make her unwilling association with me less obvious.
It's no use, though; I'm the only Ezheler on the bridge to Haimingdao, and I can't help but draw stares.
The bridge is wide, and lined with ancient gingko trees; the sidewalk under our feet is strewn with their fallen leaves, golden green and soft as flower petals. Eddies from the passing motor traffic stir the humid air, and the swirling of the leaves is like some exotic danse de caractère.
"What's that?" I ask, pointing ahead to the island, where at the southern end the blue and white of the city gives way to a broad green hill dotted with gray structures. At its crest the low evening sun winks off something gold.
Yueyin glances in the direction I've indicated.
"That's where they buried all the men," she says.
She doesn't want me here.
I don't know what gave me away. Something about my voice, my walk, something about the shape of my body, even merely hinted at through the folds of the burka. Perhaps nothing more than the fact that of all the women on Hippolyta, Mei Yueyin is the only one to have seen a man with her own eyes.
I stop, suddenly.
Yueyin continues a few steps, then stops and turns.
"Listen," I say, in Arabic. "I'm not here to get you in trouble. I'm not here to threaten you. I'm certainly not here to drag you back, if that's what you're worried about. I just want a little information. And if you won't give it to me, I'll do without."
She gives me a long, level stare. In her face, something softens for a moment—then hardens again.
"You're here to threaten everyone on this world," she says. "You do that just by being here."
Then she turns away, and starts walking again.
After that, I didn't really expect Yueyin to hide my identity from her partner, and sure enough, when we reach her house—an aged but clean two-story block tucked behind a vine-covered wall, in some neighborhood of narrow alleys on Haimingdao's east side—her first words to her partner are:
"Liwen, we have a visitor. He's from Earth."
She says this in Arabic. The pronouns of spoken Chinese have no gender.
"Yazmina Tanzikbayeva," I say.
"That's not your real name," says Yueyin.
"It is now," I tell her.
Yueyin's partner is tall, probably taller than I am, and thin, with high cheekbones, and braided hair that goes to her waist. There is a little girl in her lap, six or eight years old, who looks shyly up at me—whether Yueyin's or her partner's I can't tell; at this age she is all eyes and elbows and knees. They are playing some game with colored tiles like dominoes.
"Peace be with you," the woman says. "Welcome to Hippolyta." Her Arabic is strongly accented, much more than Yueyin's.
"My partner," Yueyin says. "Fu Liwen. She's a rocket engineer for the Tieshanese government."
A rocket engineer.
I miss the little girl's name, and the rest of the introductions. I give distracted answers while Yueyin mechanically makes tea and Liwen sends the little girl upstairs.
A rocket engineer.
"You know they haven't forgotten you, out there," I tell Liwen, as Yueyin sits down. "There's a battleship at L2, waiting to kill any of you who try to leave." Calling the Tenacious a battleship feels like a lie. But to Liwen's industrial-age rockets, the Republic's little picket, with its quaint collection of lasers and particle beams, is just as deadly as a Consilium stabilizer-swarm.
Liwen shrugs. "I understand how they feel," she says. "If we leave Hippolyta, hundreds of billions might die. If it were the other way around, if we were out there, and the men were trapped down here—we would do the same thing."
"But you're building rockets anyway," I say.
"Because I don't want my daughter to grow up in a prison," Liwen says, taking a sip of tea. She puts down the cup with a determined finality. "Sooner or later, they will forget. And when they do, we'll be ready."
To kill hundreds of billions, I think. But I don't say it. The truth is that I don't think this—the fear of the Consilium and the Republic—is likely, that the Amazon Women would carry with them whatever makes Hippolyta what it is, and spread it. I think the universe is much more likely to make Hippolyta like itself, sooner or later, than the other way around. If I didn't think that I wouldn't be here.
But I could be wrong.
I'm glad it's not my decision.
"Take off your veil," Yueyin says, suddenly.
"You're not Ezheler," she says. "You're not even a woman. I want to see who I'm talking to."
It's not a simple as that, of course. I have to take off the burka, pulling my arms out of the sleeves and lifting fold after fold of cloth over my head. Even though I still have my blouse and trousers and boots, once the burka is completely off—a sad puddle of violet cloth on the couch next to me—I feel naked. I understand suddenly why the women of Hippolyta continue to wear hijab, why it was so horrifying when the men of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century secular governments tried to abolish the veil by force.
I feel stripped.
And, what's more disarming, I feel like Sasha Rusalev again.
I see that Liwen is studying me, her gaze lingering on my hands, my face, my throat. There is nothing intimate or erotic about that look, only a kind of focused concentration, and in a flash I understand it for what it is: the careful, clinical attention of a naturalist, trying to record in her memory this one specimen of a species she will never see again.
Yueyin is studying me, as well.
"Younger than I thought," she says. "And handsome." It sounds more like an indictment than a compliment. "At first I thought you were here to live out some colonialist harem fantasy, but now I don't think so." She pauses, and then asks: "Gay?"
"Yes. And before you formulate your next hypothesis, I'm not here because I think Amazon Fever will make a woman of me, either."
Yueyin shrugs. "It does happen. Once since I came here, two or three other times in Eth Service records. Mystics who don't believe in gene therapy or reconstructive surgery. The Fever kills them just like any other man. But you're not a mystic, are you?"
Now it's my turn to shrug. "I'm a natural philosopher, and I was trained in the Caliphate. Sometimes the line is hard to draw."
"Let me guess," Liwen says in her accented Arabic. "You think you have a cure for Amazon Fever."
"More or less," I tell her.
"That also happens," Yueyin says. "Every decade or so the Republic will land an automated lab with a cage full of male gerbils, to test the latest medical miracle."
"The Fever kills them, too," Liwen says.
"That's because the Fever's not a medical problem," I say. "It's just a symptom of a causality violation effect."
"You say that as if it meant something," says Liwen.
"It does to me." I take a sip of tea, and then as I set the cup down, an analogy comes to me. "Look," I say, pointing to the cup. "The Consilium—the Phenomenological Service, I mean—they think the universe is like the water in this teacup. The leaves are Hippolyta's causal anomaly. And the Fever is what happens when you put them together—the Fever is the tea."
"And the blockade is there to keep the tea from diffusing any further." Liwen lifts her own teacup and swirling it around. "You are here to take the leaves out."
I start to answer, but Yueyin cuts me off.
She looks me in the eye. "If you could cure the fever," she says, "you'd be destroying the basis of Hippolytan society. Not just the society, but the whole ecology. There's only one male organism on this planet, and he's sitting on my couch."
"I said the Phenomenological Service thinks that way. I didn't say I do."
"You're not with the PS?"
"I'm not with the Consilium at all. I'm sponsored by the London Caliphate's Irrationality Office, but for all practical purposes, I'm on my own."
Yueyin looks skeptical. "What are you here to do, then?"
I sigh. "This is where the metaphors start to break down. Say the universe is a cup of water. Perhaps the anomaly is like a bundle of tea leaves—in which case the Fever, the diffusion, is irreversible. No one knows how to reverse entropy on that scale. And if it isn't contained, it will spread.
"On the other hand, perhaps the anomaly is like a pebble dropped in the cup. Perhaps the Fever is only a ripple on the surface of the water, dissipating the energy of the splash. When the energy is gone, so are the ripples."
"In which case we're doomed anyway." Yueyin says. "But I don't believe it."
"Tell me," I say. "Spontaneous fertility in the Ezheler lands—at the edge of the anomalous region—is it increasing, or declining?"
"There's no hard evidence either way," says Yueyin, looking uncomfortable. "Anecdotally—"
"Anecdotally, it's declining. Isn't it?"
She looks away. "It might be."
"Look," I say. "I'm not here to destroy your society. I'm here to liberate it. You said you don't want your daughter to grow up in a prison."
Yueyin says, "We don't want her to grow up to be some man's wife, either."
I shake my head. "This is not just about you. Hippolyta is one world. There's half a trillion women out there." I wave an arm at the ceiling, trying to encompass the whole Polychronicon. "Don't you think they deserve a chance to have what you have?"
In Liwen's face I see understanding dawn. "You are not trying to eradicate Amazon Fever," she says. "You are trying to control it."
"I still don't understand," Yueyin says.
"I told you this was where the metaphors break down," I say. "I can't describe it with teacups."
"Without teacups," Liwen says.
"Without teacups?" I take a deep breath. "I'm hoping to use a Caliphate mathematical technique to establish a metastable equilibrium that allows convex regions with real and virtual histories to coexist in four-dimensional space-time, while remaining both topologically distinct and contiguous in five-space."
Yueyin rolls her eyes. "Never mind what you're doing," she says. "What does it mean? To us?"
"It means, if I succeed, that your daughter will be able to choose how she wants to live. Your daughter"—I gesture outward again—"and everyone else's."
"Why should we believe you?"
I shrug. "Does it matter? I'll be out of your way tomorrow in any case. I'm going north, to Erethea." I take a sip of tea. "If you want to stop me, I'm sure it won't be difficult."
Liwen says something to Yueyin in Tieshanese. Conversations in the Chinese languages always sound like arguments to me, but in Yueyin's reply I hear not just disagreement, but scorn—and yet, a sort of resignation.
She gets up, then, and goes upstairs.