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Authors: James Alan Gardner

Radiant

BOOK: Radiant
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James Alan Gardner
Radiant

 

To Bill and Veronica

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Thanks to the usual people: Linda Carson, Richard Curtis, Jennifer Brehl, and Diana Gill. Every writer needs good feedback, and yours has always been great.

Some readers may ask, "Why all the Buddhism? Are you preaching something?" Not at all. First, you'll see there are schemes afoot in the League of Peoples that are deliberately exploiting differences between Eastern and Western viewpoints. (Yes, that's vague but I don't want to give too much away.) Second, I thought it would be fun to confront Festina with a sort of mirror opposite, and "opposite" includes an opposing philosophical outlook. Third, I'm tired of melting-pot futures where all the cultural differences of our present day have been homogenized into some lukewarm vanilla snooze. As far as I can see, the future will continue to contain Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Neo-Pagans, agnostics, atheists, etc., as well as people who invent new belief systems, people who don't think about religion at all, and people who try to change the subject when conversation turns toward uncomfortable topics.

I'd like the League of Peoples books to reflect that multiplicity. Each story in the series shows a different slice of the universe by presenting a particular character's "take" on what's happening. All of the narrators are biased and fallible... but by showing the world from many different viewpoints, I hope to give readers a more varied, better rounded view of a complex future.

One last note: the narrator defines a number of Buddhist terms throughout the text. Most either come from Sanskrit or Pali, two languages used in the Buddha's day. Loosely speaking, Sanskrit was Northern India's "highbrow" language while Pali was a related language used by the common people (rather like the relationship between Latin and Italian). The Buddha generally used Pali because he wanted to be understood by the masses. However, the Sanskrit versions are often more familiar to English speakers (e.g., the Sanskrit "karma" as opposed to the Pali "kamma"). My narrator follows the fairly common practice of using Sanskrit for words that have already become part of English (karma, dharma), but Pali for less familiar terms.

 

CHAPTER 1

Anicca [Pali]: Impermanence. The principle that all things change over time and nothing lasts forever.

 

Seven days after I was born, my mother named me "Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl."

Such birth names were common on my homeworld—a planet called Anicca, first colonized by Earthlings of Bamar extraction. Wisewomen swore if you gave your babies unpleasant names, demons would leave the children alone. In Bamar folktales, demons were always gullible; a name like "Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl" would fool them into thinking the baby was so flawed and worthless, there was no point hurting her. Why bother making her sick or nudging her in front of a speeding skimmer? She was already an Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl.

Years later, when I'd learned the proper chants to protect against demons, I was allowed to choose a new name. It happened during the spring festival: girls and boys, nine years old, giggled with their first taste of adulthood as they officially discarded their baby names. We wrote our awful old names on bright red pieces of paper, then threw the papers into a ceremonial fire.

Bye-bye, Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl. Unless, of course, the name stayed stuck in everyone's mind.

Most of the other nine-year-olds immediately announced what new names they were taking. Only a few of us couldn't decide. We tried a succession of different names, switching every few days: trying this, trying that, until we found one that made everyone forget we'd ever been called anything else.

Or until we realized we'd always be Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl, and it was time to stop pretending otherwise. Just pick a name at random and stick with it.

I picked the name Youn Suu. Simple, meaningless, easy to pronounce: like Yune Sue. But it was a label of convenience, nothing more. Like wearing a particular shirt, not because it was comfortable or good-looking, but because it didn't have obvious rips or stains. I didn't feel like a Youn Suu, but I didn't feel like anyone else either. Just a barefoot girl, anonymous.

Part of me still fantasized I'd find a
good
name—a name that was
me
—but I tried not to think such thoughts. The Buddha taught that wishful fixations were "unskillful." Wise people lived life as it was, rather than frittering away their energies on pointless daydreams. My actions counted; my name didn't.

So I became Youn Suu.

Until I left Anicca, people called me
Ma
Youn Suu... "Ma" being the polite form of address for an undistinguished young female. Women of high prestige and venerable old grannies warranted a better title: the honorific "Daw." But I was sure I'd never be Daw Youn Suu. I'd never win prestige, and I wouldn't live long enough to become venerable. I'd die young and unimportant, because by the age of nineteen my full name had become Explorer Third Class Ma Youn Suu of the Technocracy's Outward Fleet.

At least, that's what it said on the ID chip burned into the base of my spine. In my heart, I was still Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl.

 

My ugliness had a story. My life had no room for other stories—no "How I Won a Trophy" or "My First Real Kiss"—because all my potential for stories came down to "Youn Suu Was Ugly, and Nothing Else Mattered."

Like all stories, the tale of my ugliness had long roots. Longer than I'd been alive. The Bamar are a tropical people, originally from Old Earth's Southeast Asia. The British called our homeland "Burma," their version of our tribal name. Burma = the Bamar... even though the same region held hundreds of non-Bamar cultures who raged at being left out of that equation.

But the story of Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl isn't about Old Earth history. It's about being beautiful.

Bamar skins are like burnished copper: red-brown protection against the sun. Even so, the searing brilliance of equatorial noon could still damage our exposed skin. Bamar women therefore developed a natural sunscreen from the bark of the thanaka tree—a paste that dried to yellow-white powder. It prevented sunburn and kept skin cool. Even men wore thanaka sometimes, slathering their faces and arms if they had to work in the fields on a blazing-hot day.

By the time my ancestors left Old Earth, science had created much better sunscreens; but that didn't mean the end of thanaka. Thanaka was a symbol of our birth culture—our birth
world.
On an alien planet like Anicca, people clung to such symbols ferociously. Female Aniccans who didn't wear thanaka were thought to be rejecting their Bamar heritage. They might even be trying to look
European...
which was enough to get little girls slapped and grown women labeled as whores. On Anicca, decent girls and women wore thanaka.

The makeup was brushed on in streaky patches thin enough that one's underlying skin showed through the brushstrokes. A specific pattern of strokes was deemed "correct Anicca style": a single swipe of the brush on each cheek, another swipe across the forehead, and a fine white line down the nose. Thicker coatings all over the face might have provided more protection than localized daubs, but that would have defeated thanaka's
other
purpose. Thanaka makeup, shiny yellow-white on dark copper skin, was excellent for catching the eyes of men.

Far be it from me to criticize my ancestors. But there's something askew in your priorities if you keep your sunblock thin, risking serious burns, because a light dusting sets off your complexion better than an effective full-face coat. On the other hand, women have done much more foolish things in the pursuit of beauty than diluting their sunscreen and dabbing it on in dainty patches. Foot binding. Neck extension. The surgical removal of ribs. Compared to our sisters in other places and times, women on Anicca were paragons of restraint.

Even so: if a few pats of tree-bark powder hadn't become an indispensable element of beauty on my homeworld, "Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl" would have been just a childhood nickname instead of a life sentence.

Here's why. My mother was allergic to thanaka. She could never wear the tiniest beauty spot without rashes and bloating. She tried a host of substitutes, but found fault with every one. My mother refused to be satisfied—nothing but real thanaka was good enough. (Another of those fixations the Buddha called "unskillful.")

So my mother went bare-faced and became a social outcast. Or so she told me years later. How can a daughter know if her mother is telling the truth? Was my mother really treated badly for being different? Or did she just blame the normal disappointments of life on the way she looked?

As a girl, I had no patience for Mother's tales of woe. She wearied everyone she knew, demanding sympathy for the way her peers had ostracized her. At the age of fifteen, I finally had a frothing hysterical fit, screaming, "People don't hate you because of your face. They hate the way you whine! Whine, whine, whine, whine, whine. I hate it more than anyone. And I hate you. As if you know
anything
about being ostracized!"

I was more emotional back then. Subject to outbursts.

Now I've got past the rage. I've changed. But I'll get to that. At the moment, I'm explaining about my mother.

She thought her lack of thanaka had ruined her life. And before I was born, or even conceived, she decided to create a corrected version of herself, a daughter who would be beloved and popular, never suffering social rejection.

My mother found a man reputed to be an expert gene-splicer... even though human-engineering was illegal on my home planet and every other planet in the Technocracy. For a fistful of rubies (passed down as a sacred inheritance through ten generations and never touched until my mother spent them all), this DNA doctor promised to produce a perfect daughter who was smart, fit, and beautiful. Extremely beautiful. In particular, she would have vivid
permanent
thanaka-like beauty patches on her cheeks, forehead, and nose.

You can see where this is going, can't you? But my mother couldn't. For a woman who claimed to know suffering, she'd never learned much about the universe's love of irony.

 

It's no challenge to create a baby who's intelligent, robust, and exquisite. The technology is well established. Building better babies has always been the driving force behind bioengineering, even if proponents pretend otherwise. Since the earliest days of gene-splicing, scientists have muttered about "improving agricultural stock" or "facilitating medical research," but those are just side issues. The primary target was and is the production of superbabies; any other result is a lucky offshoot. Never mind that manufacturing überchildren has been banned for five hundred years. Laws or no laws, money continues to change hands to create gifted progeny who'll outshine their peers. DNA technicians have all the equipment and expertise needed to produce smart, athletic, attractive offspring...

...provided one keeps to conventional notions of brainpower, fitness, and beauty. That's what the black market does well. If, on the other hand, you make a special order—such as yellow-white streaks in specific regions of a little girl's face—then the gene-engineers have to improvise.

They have to try untested genes and histones. They have to wing it.

Therefore:

I was born adequately bright. In the ninety-ninth percentile of human intelligence.

I was born an adequate physical specimen. Small but strong. Thin but not scrawny. By my teen years, I excelled at five forms of solo dance. I even performed, to great acclaim... at least in Anicca's yein pwe dances, where all the dancers wore masks.

I had to wear a mask because I was
not
born adequately beautiful. My hair was black and lustrous, my skin resembled feather-soft silk, and my body had tastefully generous curves. But I was still an Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl.

Sometime before birth, the yellow-white pigments intended to adorn my face congealed into a single palm-sized blob glaring from my left cheek. A leprous puckered livid spongelike weeping mass of tissue.

Mostly, it wept a thin, oily ooze. If I told gawking strangers the fluid was just sweat, they said they believed me. But it
wasn't
sweat. I obsessively studied biochemistry till I could determine the fluid's exact chemical composition... then obsessively fell into the habit of listing those chemicals under my breath, reciting their names like a chant that could drive away demons. (I'd recite them for you now, but I've given up being neurotic.)

The fluid from my cheek stank of gangrenous pus. At least it did to me. Others assured me they couldn't smell a thing, so perhaps I just imagined the stench. A psychosomatic olfactory delusion. It's possible.

It's also possible people were lying when they said there was no putrid reek of necrosis. I accused them of that many times, shrieking, "Admit it, admit it, admit it!"

As I've said, I was more emotional back then. Subject to outbursts.

Occasionally, when I was under stress or drank too much caffeine, my cheek wept blood. I still told people the fluid was sweat; then I glared, daring anyone to contradict me.

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