Read The Best of All Possible Worlds Online

Authors: Karen Lord

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Space Opera, #Visionary & Metaphysical, #Literary

The Best of All Possible Worlds

The Best of All Possible Worlds
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products
of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2013 by Karen A. R. Lord

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of The Random House Publishing
Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

D
EL
R
EY
is a registered trademark and the Del Rey colophon is a trademark of Random House,
Inc.

“Golden,” the poem quoted in the chapter “
The Faerie Queen
,” is an unpublished work by Dvorah Simon and is used with the author’s permission.

eISBN: 978-0-345-53406-4

www.delreybooks.com

Cover design: Faceout Studio/Charles Brock
Cover photograph: © Bruce Talbot

v3.1

Contents
BEFORE

H
e always set
aside twelve days of his annual retreat to finish reports and studies, and that left
twelve more for everything else. In earlier times, he had foolishly tried retreats
within comm reach of his workplace, and that was not at all helpful. There would always
be some crisis, something for which his help would be required. As his salary and
sense increased, he took his retreats farther and farther away, until at last he found
himself going off-planet to distant temples where the rule of silence and solitude
could not be broken by convenient technologies.

This season, he had chosen Gharvi, a place with small wooden buildings scattered around
a huge temple of stone, all set within the rain shadow of a mountain range. An endless
ocean, both vista and inspiration, ran parallel to the mountains, and a beach between
the two offered long walks to nowhere on either side. A place of two deserts, some
said, for sea and land were bleak together—one boundless, one narrow, and both thirsty.

There was a place at home very like it, and that had probably influenced his choice,
but the sky was unique. The atmosphere was the cloudy bluish lavender of a recently
bioformed planet, and the sun was scorching bright. It was so unlike the cool, strong
blues and gentle sunlight of his home world that for the first few days he kept his
head down and his door closed till nightfall.

On the twelfth day, he took his handheld, replete with work well completed, and put
it in the box outside his hermitage door. He cooked and ate his evening lentils, slept
soundly through the night, and rose to prepare his morning porridge. There was a little
water left over from the day before (he was ever frugal), but to have enough for washing
he had to fetch the new day’s supply from the box. The young acolytes of the temple
always put sufficient water and food into each hermit’s box before dawn. It was enough
to stay clean, to fill the solar pot with porridge or pottage, and to sip and slake
the constant thirst that was the natural consequence of dry air and silence. The acolytes
would also take away his handheld and safely transmit its contents to his workplace.

But his handheld was still there.

He paused, confused by this disconnect in the seamless order of the temple’s routine.
He stared at the untouched box. He looked up and frowned in puzzlement at the squat
shape of the temple, vaguely visible through a haze of heat, blown sand, and sea spray.

Then he shrugged and went on with his day, a little dustier, a little thirstier, but
convinced that an explanation would eventually be made manifest.

The following morning, well before dawn, the sound of the box lid closing woke him
from a sleep made restless by dreams of dryness. He waited a bit, then went to bring
in the supplies and drink deeply of the water. His handheld was gone, and a double
ration of food sat in its place. He did not even peer into the darkness to catch sight
of the tardy acolyte. Order had been restored.

“Dllenahkh, with your level of sensitivity and strength, you must go on retreat regularly.”
So he had been told long ago by
the guestmaster of his monastery. “You are constantly looking to set things to rights,
even within yourself. A retreat will teach you again and again that you are neither
indispensable nor self-sufficient.”

Put bluntly, learn to stop meddling. Commitment is important, detachment equally so.
He congratulated himself on his developing ability to keep curiosity in check and
spent the next few days in undisturbed meditation and reflection.

One day, after a long morning meditation, he felt thirsty and decided to get more
water from his supply box. He stepped out with his glass drinking bowl in hand and
set it on the edge of the box while he tilted the half lid and reached inside. His
hands were steady as he poured water smoothly from the heavy, narrow-necked jug. Moving
slowly, he straightened and took a moment of blissful idleness, the jug left uncovered
near his feet, to squint at the sun’s glare on the desert beach and the desert ocean
and to feel the coolness of the water creeping into his palms as he held the bowl
and waited to drink. It was a child’s game, to hold a bowl of water and mark the increase
of thirst with masochistic pleasure, but he did it sometimes.

He brought the bowl to his mouth and had a perfect instant of pale blue ocean, bright
blue glass, and clear water in his vision before he blinked, sipped, and swallowed.

Many times afterward, when he tried to recall, his mind would stop at that vivid memory—the
neatly nested colors, the soothing coolness of the glass—and not wish to go any further.
It was not long after that, not very long at all, that the day became horribly disordered.

A man walked out of the ocean, his head darkly bright with seawater and sunlight.
He wore a pilot’s suit—iridescent, sleek, and permeable—that would dry as swiftly
as bare skin in the hot breeze, but his hair he gathered up in his hands as he approached,
wringing water out from the great length of it and wrapping it high on the crown of
his head with a band from his wrist.

Recognition came to Dllenahkh gradually. At first, when the figure appeared, it was
a pilot; then, as it began to walk, it was a familiar pilot; and finally, with that
added movement of hands in hair, it was Naraldi, a man well known to him but not so
well known as to excuse the early breaking of a retreat. He opened his mouth to chide
him.
Six more days, Naraldi! Could anything be so important that you could not wait six
more days?
That was what he intended to say, but another thought came to him. Even for a small
planet with no docking station in orbit, it was highly uncommon for a mindship to
splash down so close to land that a pilot could swim to shore. Although he knew Naraldi,
they were not so close as to warrant a visit at this time and in this place.

The pilot slowed his step and looked uncertainly at him with eyes that streamed from
the irritation of salt water.

“Something terrible has happened,” Dllenahkh said simply.

Naraldi wiped at his wet face and gave no reply.

“My mother?” Dllenahkh prompted to break the silence, dread growing cold and heavy
in his stomach.

“Yes, your mother,” Naraldi confirmed abruptly. “Your mother, and my mother, and … everyone.
Our home is no more. Our world is—”

“No.” Dllenahkh shook his head, incredulous rather than upset at the bitterness and
haste of Naraldi’s words. “What are you saying?”

He remembered that he was still thirsty and tried to raise the bowl again, but in
the meantime his hands had gone chilled and numb. The bowl slipped. He snatched at
it but only deflected it so that it struck hard on the side of the water jug and broke
just in time to entangle his chasing fingers.

“Oh,” was all he said. The cut was so clean, he felt nothing.
“I’m sorry. Let me …” He crouched and tried to collect the larger fragments but found
himself toppling sideways to rest on one knee.

Naraldi rushed forward. He grasped Dllenahkh’s bleeding right hand, yanked the band
from his hair, and folded Dllenahkh’s fist around the wad of fabric. “Hold tight,”
he ordered, guiding Dllenahkh’s left hand to clamp onto his wrist. “Don’t let go.
I’ll get help.”

He ran off down the beach toward the temple. Dllenahkh sat down carefully, away from
the broken bits of glass, and obediently held tight. His head was spinning, but there
was one small consolation. For at least the length of time it took Naraldi to return,
he would remember the words of the guestmaster: he would not be curious, he would
not seek to know, and he would not worry about how to right the tumbled world.

THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS

I
remember when the
Sadiri came. We gathered at the port to cheer their arrival and, frankly, to gawk
a bit. The Sadiri consider themselves to be the pinnacle of human civilization. Imagine
them settling on Cygnus Beta, a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees! Well,
these ones apparently were willing to break the mold—but then again, a lot of things
had been broken past repair, and sometimes it makes more sense to create something
new.

They looked almost Cygnian—eyes, hair, and skin all somewhere on the spectrum of brown—except
for the bright iridescence of the hair and a subtler sheen to the skin that was only
noticeable in full sunlight. As it was the dry season, there was plenty of that. They
looked up into the sun and appeared relieved at the heat. Don’t tell me they weren’t;
that “impassive Sadiri” stereotype is a load of crap. They have body language. They
have expressions. Just because it’s not their way to yell their emotions out like
most people doesn’t mean they don’t have them.

Parliamentary representatives welcomed them formally but briefly, and they were taken
to their homesteadings in fine diplomatic style. Everyone felt sorry for the Sadiri
in those early days, and maybe we were all a little bit overproud of ourselves for
hosting them. Cygnus Beta isn’t a rich colony by any means, but we understand fleeing
disaster and war and disease and struggling to find a place where you’re wanted. A
lot of people act like misfortune is contagious. They don’t want to be exposed to
it for too long. They’ll take you in and make all the right gestures and noises, but
when the months wear on and you’re still in their house or their town or their world,
the welcome starts to wear a bit thin.

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