Planet of the Amazon Women
By David Moles
23 May 2005
Part 2 of 2
"You can sleep on the couch tonight," Liwen says. "I will get you some sheets. The bath house is out back, if you want to clean up."
"I am sorry about Yueyin," she says as she tidies up the tea set. "What you have to understand is that for her, it is not enough that on Hippolyta we, women, can live without men. That Hippolyta is a place where men cannot come is also important." She glances at the piled cloth next to me and smiles. "For Yueyin the Fever is the perfect hijab."
"And for you?" I ask.
She shrugs. "Yueyin, she chose to come here. As for me, I am happy here—but it is where I was born. If I had been born elsewhere, probably I would be happy there."
She is quiet for a moment, as if debating whether to say more.
"I think you do not know what you are getting into," she says.
"What do you mean?"
"You are right, the Fever is just a side effect of some kind of causality violation. Whatever its origin, the center is up there, in Erethea."
"That's why I'm going," I tell her.
She sighs and looks down, tracing invisible pictures with a finger on the tabletop.
"I have been up there three times," she says. "Not all the way." She looks up. "How can I explain it? You know the tombs you saw on the way into town, at the south end of the island, the Men's Cemetery?"
"You will find Men's Cemeteries, tombs like that, all over the south. But not in Erethea. In Myrine—that is the first big city, up the river—in Myrine all they have is a cenotaph. Nobody knows what happened to the bodies. In Themiscyra they do not even have that; when they talk about men it's like they're talking about a metaphor, or a myth."
I smile. "Maybe that's healthier."
A laugh escapes Liwen's lips, and she shakes her head.
"Maybe it is," she says. "Tell me—why are we worth dying for?"
"I don't expect to die."
"But you know it's a possibility."
I look away. This is the question everyone danced around—my teachers, my apprentices, the Physics Guild, the Irrationality Office, the Republic's military attaché in London. I distracted them with good manners and mathematics, and let them fill in their own answers, from altruism to neurosis.
"In the early days of Western psychology," Liwen says, "for someone to be attracted to one of her own sex was considered a symptom of an inability, on her part, to distinguish between the Self and the Other. Like an infant who does not yet understand the difference between her toys and her own limbs—and puts both of them in her mouth. If that were true. . . then altruism might be very close to narcissism."
I look back at her.
"Yueyin was right not to believe me," I tell her. "I'm not here because I want to help you. I'm here because I'm the kind of person who can't look at a knot without wanting to untie it."
"There is a verse from the Tao Te Ching," Liwen says. "It is ambiguous, of course, especially in Arabic, but one reading would be: 'The perfect knot leaves no end to be untied.'"
"I wouldn't be here if I thought this knot was perfect," I say. "If what's happened on Hippolyta can happen once, it's probably happening all the time—it's just that most causal anomalies don't have measurable effects. And when one does, the Phenomenological Service—or someone like them—covers it up, locks it away. If I want to untie that knot—Hippolyta might be my only chance."
"And for this you are willing to die."
"If it comes down to it, yes." I shrug. "We live in an acausal universe. Isn't that enough justification for anything?"
"Another verse might read: 'Who distinguishes herself from the world may be given the world,'" Liwen says. "'Who regards herself as the world may accept the world.'"
She finishes her tea, and stands up.
"You are crazy," she says, looking down at me. "I respect that in a scientist. Good night."
"Thank you," I say. "Good night."
The ferry, the Jing Shi, has a smell that is somehow both sweet and cold, like metal and poison. The exhaust from the two big engines smells like burning plastic.
I hoped to talk more with Mei Yueyin about Hippolyta's geography and demographics, to get more of a sense of the causal anomaly's macroscopic effects, but when I awoke this morning, she was already gone. Probably just as well.
I place my brown hands on the sweating white-painted rail, feeling the engines' vibration, and look out across Haimingdao Channel at the complex of lights and smokestacks and tanks and buildings, the tall gantries that will lift up Liwen's rockets.
Lift them, and launch them to certain death at the hands of Tenacious and its particle-beam satellites. I wonder what Lieutenant Addison and his sober-minded brother officers would see in all this.
They'd admire the mad bravery of it, I expect. The madness whose mirror Liwen saw in me. And then they'd shoot to kill.
North. The Jing Shi advances stubbornly against the stiff current, like a peasant grandmother bent under a bundle of sticks. I'm sick, according to the medical monitors—my temperature's a degree above normal, and my white blood cell count is elevated.
It might be the onset of the Fever. It might just be something I picked up at Yueyin's dinner table.
The inference engines are agitated, murmuring to themselves, but they seem to think my little bubble of reality, pushing back Hippolyta's intrusion, is intact. I speak to the ship's nurse and get a bottle of antipyretics, fat white pills with a sour taste that stays in the mouth a long time after they're swallowed.
At Myrine the rivers come together, the Ortigia from the west emptying into the Otrera. The Jing Shi will continue northeast up the Otrera to Themiscyra, but it will stop overnight here, taking on fuel, exchanging one cargo for another.
I spend the day ashore, taking a rattling electric tram from the port into the oldest part of the city.
In a street café I watch the sparrows that hop from ground to table to chair, alert for crumbs. All are female, of course, their heads small, their plumage uniformly brown.
Myrine is cleaner than Haiming, and quieter, though still bustling with prosperity. The streets in this neighborhood, narrow, built for pedestrians, with their quaintly modern pre-Fever buildings, are cheerful and filled with color, crowded with small bright shops and their customers, young women and girls with brown or blonde hair, chattering in a Turkish-German creole that I can almost understand.
The shaded square the café looks out onto is an island in the middle of all that, an island of muted colors and quiet. In the center of the square is the Men's Cenotaph. I am not sure what I expected—some phallic obelisk or pillar, perhaps, topped with a muscular and well-endowed statue in classic European style?
What there is, instead, is a circular arrangement of dark slabs and broken walls, very stark, radiating grief. From a distance the stones look as though they might be inscribed with names. But close up, the letters dissolve into abstraction.
I return to the Jing Shi at evening, boarding in the bustle of new passengers coming aboard. Most of them are Tieshanese, immigrants or expatriates; a few are Erithean, those who don't have the money for the trains or the fast hydrofoils, and who don't mind a little adventure.
One of these is a young woman who shares my cabin, an economics student from Antiope—one of the cities beyond Themiscyra, in east Erethea—going home for the holidays. She is thin and muscular and dark. At night she takes off her khimar, revealing hair that is black and tightly curled and very short, like Musa's. In certain lights she looks like a boy.
The bunks have curtains, but I do not close mine—the two small portholes let in little enough fresh air as it is. Neither does my student. She doesn't know what to make of me, hidden behind my burka, with my Ezheler accent and my rough-spun saddlebag that smells of mules and spices. To her I am exotic and dangerous and, I think, a little exciting.
As a European I am the product of a culture—a history, oral and written—which constructs my particular sexuality in a certain way. In the early days of that history the love of women was by many considered an inferior but still marginally acceptable substitute for the love of men.
Perhaps for some it still is, but not for me. And, even if it were—probably there are a few women on Hippolyta, here and there, who lie awake at night dreaming of the men they have never seen. But to expect this boyish student to be one of them—how stupid would I need to be?
At night, by the dim glow of the emergency lights, I look across the cabin at the back of her sleeping head, and I try to remember what it felt like to run my fingers through Musa's hair. Whatever the young woman in the other bunk wants, her desires and mine are at right angles.
I am glad of the burka. Beneath it I am not sure whether I want to laugh or cry.
I leap up and slam my head painfully against the ceiling. The inference engines are howling for my attention —
There is only silence.
I ask the engines for a deliberate report, making them take their time about it. Everything is smooth and quiet, quieter than it's been since I landed, to the limit of the inference engines' precision. The bubble of reality around me seems to have expanded to the horizon. It's almost as if I weren't on Hippolyta at all.
Did I imagine the alarm? The inference engines' logs admit to nothing.
We're still a day from Themiscyra. I settle back into my bunk, not needing the medical monitors to tell me how fast my heart is pounding. My head aches, not just where I struck the top of it but all the way through. Beneath the burka a rash has raised itching red bumps on my forearms and the backs of my hands, on my ankles and the tops of my feet. I feel the student's eyes on me and turn my face to the bulkhead.
In the morning the inference engines are still annoyingly calm; smug, even—unwilling to admit the existence of any boundary between Hippolyta's divergent history and my own.
The medical monitors, on the other hand, are gone.
Coincidence? Or did the ferry cross some threshold in the night, some line drawn across space or time or probability, cutting the monitors' simultaneity channels?
My head hurts. I should have a theory, but I don't. I borrow a pencil from the purser and doodle graphs and formulas for a little while, but Hippolyta is not something that can be solved with partial differential equations, and before long I lose interest. I spend the day sitting on a bench on the deck, in the shade, watching the eastern shore crawl slowly by: six, eight, ten shades of green, with here and there the white or yellow or blue of a house peeking out. I drink lukewarm barley tea, and every three or four hours I take one of the antipyretics I cadged from the nurse.
What could I do—turn around? I knew when I came that there was no way back. If the inference engines have truly broken down, run up against some flaw in the equations, then even returning to Tieshan, or beyond into the Ezheler lands, would not save me. And if it did, I would still die someday, still not knowing the truth.
I feel as though I am on the verge of understanding something. That soon it will steal up to me, like a wild animal in a field, if only I sit here quietly enough.
Themiscyra. The city comes on us at dusk, the trees backing away from the banks, revealing fields, pastures, gardens, roads, buildings. There are other boats on the river; their wakes slap against the ferry's hull, and a distant noise of traffic begins to rise, in counterpoint to the rhythm of our engines.
As I fall asleep lights are coming on, all along the bank.
The purser shakes me awake.
"All ashore that's going ashore," she says, smiling.
I shiver and try to smile back, forgetting for the moment that she can't see my face. By the time—after I stand, with help from the railing, and with some effort get my bag onto my shoulder—that I remember this, and turn to thank her out loud, she is gone.
The city is all around now. The boat has docked in the shadow of a bridge, wide and solid, metal perhaps colorful by day but now black over black water, hiding the night sky. I am almost the last passenger to shuffle down the gangplank and onto the quay, turning only at the end to look up and down the river. Both banks are lined with lights, ribbons and arches and towers in a hundred architectural styles, shining crystalline against the night, reflecting in the dark water, for all the world like Petersburg or Baghdad or Ho Chi Minh Ville—except that a tower is just a tower, here, and an arch is just an arch. It's larger and more prosperous than I expected. A wide pavement runs along the bank, crowded with women of every age and color and language.
It's true that, in some sense, the idea that a history could differ so many billions of years ago as to completely change the evolution of multicellular life, and yet produce this present—a present in which these women, indisputably human, walk through the streets of this city, like any human city I have known, speaking languages I learned from men—is, to an approximation of many, many decimal places, simply impossible.
But the impossible often has an integrity that the merely improbable lacks.
I've come this far; too much is irreversible now.
I stop a slim, dark young woman with Central American cheekbones and professional black and white clothes, and in Arabic I ask her if she can tell me which way is north.
"That way," she says, pointing. "Up the stairs."
Ahead the bank rises steeply, and there is a broad stone staircase that leads in flights up the slope next to the bridge.
I realize I have been hoping she would point up or down the river. Something of this must be showing in my posture, because the woman smiles apologetically, and gives a helpless shrug.
"Where are you going?" she asks.
I look up and down the river, and back at the boat, and up the stairs, and back to the woman.
"I'm not sure," I tell her. "It's my first time in Erethea."
"There's a visitors' center in Khawlah Road," she offers. "Up the stairs, then left—that's Ste.-Jeanne Street—then right at the first roundabout. It's got signs in five languages; you can't miss it. They can find you a hotel."
It's as good an idea as any.
"Thank you," I tell her.
Up. The stairs are small, built to a shorter stride than mine, and in other times I might have taken them two or three at a time. Now I shuffle under the weight of the bag and the fever—the Fever, I mean; I can't pretend any more that that isn't what it is. The chills come in waves. The air is warm, little less warm than down in the delta, and gravid with the nearness of the river, but I am remembering my second year of university and a walking trip in the foothills of the Pamirs, hunched against a bitter wind, my boots slipping on the first ice of autumn, my steps measured in centimeters and in the mounting fear that the next one will send me sliding into the kilometer-deep abyss beside us; measured in the certainty of death.
Somehow I survived that. Somehow I survive this, too, and come out at the top of the stairs, shaking with exhaustion and with the latest wave of chills. I come out, and have my first glimpse of the sky.
"God." The word is involuntary, forced out of me through chattering teeth.
Beyond the street lights, beyond the ordered stars of the towers it rises, a slender ribbon of moonlight-silver becoming burnished gold where it rises above the shadow of the horizon, tapering almost to invisibility but refusing even in my blurred and shaking vision to disappear. At its apex, at right angles, it meets another ribbon, a ring of gold.
A space elevator, and an equatorial ring station.
The ring is an arch that extends from horizon to horizon. There is no possibility that I could have missed seeing it before. I would have seen it from the Tenacious. I would have seen it from Haiming. From any point on Hippolyta it would have been the brightest thing in the sky.
(Somewhere in the back of my mind, the mental model of the causal anomaly that I have spent ten years constructing suddenly expands wildly, acquiring three, four, five extra dimensions. . .)
My resolution dissolves. I tear my gaze from the impossible ring and suddenly I am running, back toward the river, away from the sky. Behind me, women's raised voices, startled or angry or concerned.
The burka constricts my vision to a narrow slit. No peripheral vision. The bridge. I'm on the bridge. I can't find the stairs.
I turn and look back and the ring is still there.
Hallucination. Delirium is one of the symptoms of Amazon Fever.
"Delirium is —" I brush up against someone, and I turn to explain "— one of the symptoms —" Who am I talking to? I can't see anything through this damned veil. I stumble, and look down into the face of a sturdy blonde matron, dressed in red, looking exactly like the Queen of England, when we danced The Once and Future King for her at Glastonbury.
"I was Lancelot," I tell her, no longer sure whether I am speaking Arabic or Turkish or Russian. "It was magnificent." I spin around, managing just one half-turn of a pirouette à la seconde before losing my balance.
The Queen takes my arm, frowning with concern. "You need help," she says, earnestly, and I don't need to know what language she's speaking to understand.
"It's this damned veil," I explain, apologetically. "I can't see a thing through it." I pull away from the woman's grip and start gathering the folds of cloth, trying to pull the burka over my head. "Why the hell didn't you stop wearing them when we died?"
I know that's unfair, the Queen of England wasn't wearing a burka—what was she wearing? A round hat, with flowers. I try to apologize, to tell her how much I like her hat, but the cloth is muffling my voice and I give up. "I give up!" I let the cloth drop, and turn to the Queen to let her know I give up.
Lights, in the corner of my eye, through the lace. I'm in the street.
"I'm in the street!" I yell. "These fucking veils!"
There is a screeching of tires. Someone grabs my arm, and I remember something from elementary school.
"The rate of pedestrian traffic fatalities in Kabul, in the fourteenth century of the Hegira —" I start to say, and all of a sudden, before I can finish, I am on my back, flat on the ground, the wind knocked out of me. Smell of bruised grass. City lights above me in the night. Women's voices, all around me.
"Is she hurt?"
"Someone call an ambulance!"
The lights rush in on me, expanding to fill all the world.
I can hear them, though I am blind.
"Temperature forty point five," the hospital's doctor says, sounding as though she's talking into a microphone. "Heart rate one-ten. Blood pressure. . ."
"Perhaps it's some kind of autoimmune reaction." Another woman's voice, a familiar one. Beautiful Arabic, like a scholar.
"Maryam?" I croak.
Her hand on my forehead, strong and cool. "Dr. Orbay called me," she says. "They found her address in your bag. Hush now, Yazmina. I'll take care of you."
The hospital's doctor is talking over her. ". . .one-fifty over eighty. If you're right. . ." I imagine the doctor shaking her head. "There's not much we can do here except try to get her stable. Maybe they can do something for her off-planet."
Through my closed eyelids I see the arch again. An accelerator ring, a jumping-off point for starships. Hippolyta's was destroyed at the start of the quarantine. But there it is. Not a place, so much as a gateway.
I think of Lancelot again, halted at the door of the Grail Chapel, granted a glimpse of what he would never touch.
The nurses strip me, wash me, wrap me again in what are probably soft felt blankets, though they feel like steel wool against my fevered skin. I wait for some reaction to my anatomy—shock? outrage? disgust?—but it never comes.
A needle pricks my arm.
I can almost sleep.
I was wrong to define my own history as real, Hippolyta's as unreal—to define mine as Self and Hippolyta's as Other. That is what the inference engines were trying to tell me.
There is no past that is not in some sense a lie. We see the past through the distortion of memory and imagination. We collaborate in its conscious distortion through history and propaganda. We see the laws of cause and effect violated not only each time a starship bends space-time but also each time we view the incomplete records of the past with our teleological modern eyes, imbuing them with presentiments of the future that is our own present, a thing which itself we never see or understand except as imperfect fragments. We tell ourselves that we search for truth when what we are concerned with is in fact nothing more than plausibility.
I called Hippolyta's history virtual, but that is semantics. Whether the causal anomaly created that history, or whether it only connected us to something that always existed, somewhere, somehow—is probably not even a meaningful question.
The women of Hippolyta have a story they tell about themselves, and it does not include men.
That I exist is enough to prove the story false.
That Hippolyta exists is enough to prove the story true.
I am the flaw in the calculation, the hidden assumption that invalidates the proof.
That is why I am dying. To balance an equation.
"Hush," Maryam says, in Arabic, as she lays a damp cloth across my forehead. I must have said some of that aloud.
"Not long, now," I whisper. When the end comes, it will come quickly.
I wonder what would happen if Liwen were to launch her rockets from here. Would Lieutenant Addison and the Tenacious still be waiting? If not—if the rockets, launched, would find themselves in some other space-time altogether, rotated through some set of higher dimensions—what would that mean? That Hippolyta is as much a Gordian knot from this side as from the other?
If the knot is ever untied, it will be untied from this side.
"Little daughter," Maryam says. "Hush."
And does that other side exist? Did it ever? How would I prove it?
I try to remember the name of the prophet in the Qu'ran, the one whose sister the Jews and Christians called Maryam. The name of the woman I met in the Erewhon transit hostel, the maker of kinés. She brought the Bani Israil out of Egypt, but died on the banks of the Jordan. If I was to take a name it should have been that one, and not Yazmina.
Maryam puts her hand in mine. I try to remember if she knows that I am a man.
"Hush, little daughter," she says again.
Son, I try to say, but the word is already slipping away from me.