Mary Rosenblum is the author of four science fiction novels, including her latest, Horizons , and The Drylands, which won the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. Water Rites —a compilation of The Drylands and the three novelettes that preceded it—is recently available from Fairwood Press. Her short work frequently appears in Asimov’s, but has also appeared in Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and has often been reprinted in Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction annual.
Under the name Mary Freeman, Rosenblum is also the author of four mystery novels. Lately, she has returned her short fiction roots, but is currently working on a young adult fantasy novel and an alternate history project.
Communication is power, and this tale is a story of communication on a couple of levels. But it also tackles one of Rosenblum’s favorite themes: Where does the boundary lie between human and non-human?
I wait outside the speaking chamber, where the young Speakers learn to Hear and Speak. The walls and carpeted floor are purest white, the color of this God place and the Speakers who live here walk by, all dressed in white like the walls and the floor, their palms on the shoulders of their guides. They all look the same with their pale hair and pale eyes. Only their smell tells me who they are. I am a guide for my Speaker. Until she puts on the robe and is sent to another place to Speak between the worlds for the citizens. Then I will have a new pup to raise. I will miss this puppy. Her scent comes to me from beneath the door of the learning room, smelling of trying hard and not sure.
She is never sure, my she, not since I first came to her, when she was just small. I sometimes smell her silent tears at night and slip into her room from my cubicle to lie beside her. She strokes the fur on my head and shoulders and it comforts her. It is our secret—kept secret, I think, because she does not know if it is permitted for me to sleep on her bed at night. I, myself, do not know, even after all these years here. Never before have I slept beside a pup in my charge.Perhaps there is nothing wrong. Perhaps there is. But it is our secret and it binds us. When I sleep in her bed, I hear my litter-brother in my dreams and I like that. I miss him always.
I will miss her, when she leaves. Unless they finally send me with her, the way they sent my litter-brother with his Speaker. But they say I am good at raising puppies and they have not sent me with a newly-robed Speaker yet.
While I wait for her, I pull out my brother’s last mail to me. The tiny disk feels cool and hard in my palm. Disk-mail is not expensive, but it is slow. This disk traveled in four ships before it found its way here from the colony world where my brother now lives. But we guides are servants and servants are not entitled to use the Speakers; they are for citizens only. Perhaps they think that because we mostly smell to each other that we do not need to speak with words. But we cannot smell between the stars. I would like to speak to my litter-brother and hear his answer. I will never see him again, except on my she’s bed. There, he speaks to me, tells me how he misses me. We used to wrestle in the meadow around the school where we were raised, chasing each other into the creek, splashing and laughing. Sometimes it snowed and I still dream of snow, cold and white, stinging my palms and the soles of my feet, tingly as it melted in my fur.
There is no snow in the convent. Only spring, forever.
The door opens and I have been dreaming of snow and my brother. I am not ready. I leap to my feet, ears going flat.
“Siri? Where are you?”
Her hand goes out and I step beneath it so that my shoulder fur comes up against her palm. I feel the tickle of her mind finding my eyes and the white-walled corridor blurs just a bit as our minds share my eyes.
I wonder if that is how I speak to my brother when I sleep in her bed? “I had a mail from my litter-brother,” I tell her.
She understands litters. The Speaker puppies are born in litters of ten. We walk down the hall and I see that she is heading for the garden in the center of the convent. Sadness darkens her scent and I reach up to touch her hand lightly, wanting to make the smell go away.
“You don’t understand.” She shrugs me off but she does not smell angry. “What if I fail?”
Fail? The word chills me. My puppies to do not fail. Have never failed. We step out into sunlight, soft and gentle through the dome. Water trickles and the rich tapestry of dirt smells, the small beings that inhabit this space, the breath of the water itself make me dizzy. Most of the convent is clean of such smells. She sits on a bench covered with bright chips of color and I squat beside her, leaning lightly against her thigh because that comforts her. Her fingers slide into the long fur on the back of my neck and that makes me shiver. “Who said you would fail?”
“My Speaker-Mistress.” Her words are low and she smells sharp, unhappy. “The one who . . . trains me. I . . . Hear more than the voice I’m tuning to. I can’t shut the others out. But I don’t listen to them.” She smells distress and a tinge of anger. “I am good. I would not listen to any other voice. I would not Speak the God words to another. Not ever.”
I wince—I cannot stop myself—because her fingers digging in hurt me. She lets go and covers her face with her hands.
“I am not trying to Hear them. I listen only for the voice that speaks to me. Too sensitive she said, the Speaker-Mistress.” Her voice is hard to hear, but she smells frightened. “She said it could not be, that my genes will not permit it.”
I shiver as if I am a puppy again and have played too long in the snow.
“Will they make me leave?”
She does not understand. Maybe none of them do. Speaking only the God words, Hearing the God Words is all there is for them. Only Speakers live here in the convent. And we servants.
No one leaves, except on a ship, to Hear and Speak in another place, so that the citizens can talk between the stars. The way my brother left with the new Speaker assigned to him.
I try to distract her. I can smell the vanilla orchids opening and she loves them. Even she can smell them with her poor dead nose and she loves the touch of their thick petals. So I take her to them. And she puts on a face that means she is happy. But she smells sad.
And I smell afraid.
She is my puppy. She was given to me to raise. And none of my puppies have ever failed.
If she fails, I will no longer speak to my litter-brother in my dreams.