I first became associated with Xinthia because of an absurd incident.
A curious feature of inter-gender relations during the present era is hand-concealment. In this case, there is no doubt at all that the origins of the practice go back to the time of the Amoeba Plague. The bacillus responsible for the plague was very easily transmitted and one could catch the (fatal) disease simply by shaking hands with someone. Consequently, fam in particular took to wearing gloves at all times in mixed company since mefam were far more susceptible to the disease. And so, inevitably, the sight of the naked female hand — simply because it was so rare — became invested with erotic significance and aroused mefam much as the sight of naked breasts does in your era.
These attitudes are, to some extent, still with us today, even though the Ameoba Plague is now no more than a distant species memory. Young fam, especially those from the select clusters, still conceal their hands when in mixed company, though the custom is not nearly so widespread as it once was. And if a subdominant deliberately shows her bare hands to someone when they are alone together, this is to be interpreted as an invitation to intimacy. Otherwise, when in the presence of mefam, subdominants wear arm-guards, sort of long gloves reaching almost to the shoulder and which often include wrist-fans, circlets of lace or plylth enclosing the wrist and which can be inflated or deflated rather like the crests of certain lizards. Many subdominants wear large and highly ornate wrist-fans which they embroider themselves with the insignia of famous devilion-fighters or Sky-tracers, or again with their own initials or those of a current admirer. Most arm-guards are not all of a piece, so that it is possible to slip off the lower section, including the wrist-fan, while leaving the upper section in place. More serious fam or those beyond a certain age do not wear this type of arm-guard.
If, during one of the Festivals, a young fam slips off her wrist-fan and throws it at the feet of a passing mefam, this means that she has an interest in him, though it is not quite a direct proposition to exchange (our term for intimate relations). Usually, though not always, the owner of the wrist-fan disappears at once into the mêlée, and the recipient has to try to find her even though he may well not have seen her features. Fam wearing only one wrist-fan are conspicuous but the recipient has to run the gauntlet of approaching the wrong person and receiving a sharp rebuff. Mischievous subdominants simply replace the discarded wrist-fan with an identical spare one; but such behaviour is regarded as bad form and, if discovered, is penalised by the Arbiters of Etiquette of the Festival — the offender might be barred from attending further Festivals for a certain period, for example. The recipient of a wrist-fan is supposed to go around minutely examining the design of all single wrist-fans until he thinks he has come across one that matches, and all this without making it too obvious what he is doing. As one can well imagine, the custom affords a good deal of amusement, at any rate to young fam.
It is in general extremely easy to commence a relation with a fam subdominant at Festivals (but not otherwise) since fam today are subject to a seasonal, rather than a monthly, cycle of arousal, and many subdominants attend festivals in places like Lunkod and Gabellyia precisely for this purpose. Also, since fam currently vastly outnumber mefam on Sarwhirlia (our name for the Earth), cynics have even suggested that the purpose of the whole wrist-fan ritual is simply to give unattractive subdominants ‘a sporting chance’.
Once one has identified the owner of the wrist-fan, one is not obliged by the Rules of Good Conduct (which are posted up in various public places) to pursue the matter to the point of exchanging unless this is mutually desired, but the mefam in question is expected to nonetheless accompany the subdominant to some event and generally to make himself agreeable to her for the space of an evening or afternoon. The whole business becomes extremely tiresome and time-consuming if one’s principal motive for attending the Games is not exchanging but straylkha or Sky-tracing, and the Straylkha Confederation has been lobbying for years to get the practice stopped.
Perhaps I should not have visited Lunkod at all during the year that followed my strayll-sri, but, drawn back by bitter-sweet memories of my triumph of the previous summer, I did put in an appearance at the Winter Games though I declined to participate in any contests much to the relief of my team since a player under darstillya as I was is supposed to bring bad luck to his fellow competitors. ‘Darstillya’ is a concept almost impossible to translate into your language but, very roughly, it has the contradictory connotations of ‘extreme distinction’ and ‘mischance’. This is not so illogical as it doubtless appears to you since, in our intensely conformist society, anything or anyone that differs from the average or the norm tends to be regarded as undesirable or even ‘wrong’.
Now, I have during my fairly short life spent some unforgettable moments in the sumptuous Hymen-bowers (sort of hotel suites for inter-gender couples) that are available free of charge at Lunkod to anyone who requires one, but after my strayll-sri of the previous year I did not feel any desire to get involved in intimate relations with the opposing gender, at least for a certain time. I was thus more annoyed than flattered when a purple and white wrist-fan — white and purple are, remember, the strayll-sri colours — fluttered in the air and fell at my feet as I walked up the magnificent spiral staircase towards the Straylkha Suites. A band of very young subdominants was walking away, tittering slightly I fancied, but they were all hiding their hands so I had no means of knowing who the owner of the fam was. Before I could follow them, they quickened their pace and disappeared into a Face & Figure Room (which no mefam is allowed to enter.)
I examined the wrist-fan carefully. It was of a rather unusual type, much larger than the normal ones and was beautifully embroidered with what looked like initials in dark violet on white lace. It clearly belonged to a subdominant from one of the select clusters.
I decided to start trying to find the owner of the wrist-fan immediately so as to get the matter over and done with. After considerable trouble I did espy a small, very young subdominant with a mane of flaming red hair stiffened with lacquer talking and laughing excitedly with a group of other subdominants in a dining-suite, and she seemed to be taking pains not to show her left hand. Moreover, her right wrist-fan, seen from a distance at any rate, seemed to match the one I held.
I could not decently approach her while she was amongst friends according to the rules and had to waste my time waiting for the group to split up instead of going to watch a devilion contest that vaguely interested me. I observed the young subdominant from a neighbouring table without making it too obvious what I was doing. The group was speaking Lenwhil Katylin which showed they were from one of the more exclusive clusters, and the red-haired subdominant seemed to be holding forth on the subject of straylkha. She was, I decided, one of those pretentious hot-house products of the elite clusters who take a passing interest in the game without knowing the first thing about it. I cursed my luck as I would doubtless have to accompany the wretched creature to some straylkha contest and put up with her fatuous comments on the style of play.
After keeping me hanging around for most of the morning, the red-maned subdominant minced off to the Lynstol (W.C.) and did not reappear — presumably she used the exit on the other side. This was really too much and I was tempted to simply get rid of the wrist-fan — one can sometimes barter it with some mefam who is smitten by the fam in question, or even hand it in at the desk, but by doing this one risks an enquiry. Moreover, once one has gone through the wrist-fam procedure and spent some time with the relevant subdominant, one has the right to wear a badge which effectively makes one exempt from the obligation to accept any further offers, so I kept to my original plan of going on to the bitter end. I scoured the sort of places where I expected young subdominants to be and eventually found the person in question sitting with a different uni-gender group on the south shore of the Mintar Lake. Once again she seemed to be concealing her left hand. At one point her companions moved off a little, leaving her alone, and I took this to be my cue. I came forward, inclined myself slightly as etiquette demands and formally presented the wrist-fan which seemed to match perfectly the one she was wearing on her right wrist. She looked up at me with a haughty expression and without saying a word took out her left hand from under her stole and held it in front of me. It was enclosed in a full arm-guard complete with wrist-fan. Her companions, noting my arrival, hastened back as if she were being annoyed by someone, and this naturally added to my discomfiture.
This time I really was tempted to throw the wretched wrist-fan into the lake, but it was as if a hidden hand had reached out to stop me — I simply could not get rid of the object. Much later, during the same day, I came across by chance a subdominant of about the same height as the earlier one but with short-cut black hair instead of red and once again she seemed to be concealing her left hand while wearing a right wrist-fan that matched the one I was holding. I was absolutely sure this time that I was not mistaken and I also noted that she was ensconced in a window alcove and was waving her hand to some acquaintance in a manner that suggested she wanted to be alone. I went through the whole performance once again, presenting the wrist-fan at a suitable moment. The subdominant looked up enraged and revealed her left arm which, as before, was enclosed in a full arm-guard. I was so infuriated that I slung the wrist-fan half-way across the room and, turning aside, began to break into tears — in our era it is perfectly acceptable for mefam to relieve their feelings in this way though it remains fairly uncommon nonetheless. I am someone who is very sensitive to being made a fool of in public, and I was particularly incensed since, as stated before, I had not the slightest inclination to exchange with this or any other subdominant at this particular moment.
The subdominant — who was of course the same as the earlier one, the red hair being a wig — must have decided that the joke had been taken too far, for she followed me at once as I left the suite, and even gripped my arm with her right hand which was now bare (for she had torn off her wrist-fan and glove). I shrugged her off but she kept her grip.
‘Excuse,’ she said, ‘I Ryaltia niece. Summer last Yilkin ignore Xinthia. Xinthia no-like. Demand punition! Now overmuch. Forget please.’
I should perhaps explain that those who normally speak Lenwhil Katylin, which is a very condensed language without articles or tenses somewhat like your Mandaryn, tend to speak Andirax in this extraordinary fashion which is variously regarded as ridiculous, charming, erotic or maddening.
I pushed Xinthia away so hard that she actually fell over, but she got up and followed me, now herself in tears and in her exasperation tore off her second wrist-fan as well, hurling it to the ground. We had by now attracted a good deal of unwelcome attention from passers-by, most of whom, seeing a young and pretty subdominant in tears with her hands bare following someone who pushed her away roughly, at once assumed that I was the criminal in the situation. Xinthia, however, angrily told everyone to mind their own business and left me to exit alone. By the standards of our society this was a dreadful humiliation for a high-ranking subdominant as she clearly was and in the normal way of things would have earned me a sanction. I did, in fact, receive a reprimand from the Arbiters of Etiquette the following day, though they added that, since no formal complaint had been registered, no action would be taken on this occasion.
As far as I was concerned this was the end of the affair. I saw Xinthia once or twice at the Games in passing but she no longer made any attempt to contact me, except to look briefly in my direction with a contrite expression on her round face. I noted that she was always alone. I now remembered who she was, namely Ryaltia’s young niece to whom I had been presented the previous summer, and I had to admit that my conduct had not been faultless though her reaction was, to say the least, excessive. Added to this, I was myself becoming a little curious about her but I did not see how I could meet up with her now without appearing even more foolish.
Around the middle of the (shorter) Winter Games period, a straylkha player friend passed me on to me a photo-message. The missive had on the outside the same purple and black symbols that had been embroidered on the wrist-fan, and I realised that they were decorative initials, namely X-L-R. Opening the message I read:
‘Xinthia demand see Yilkin. Possible? Xinthia leave Games morrow. Year next Xinthia no-come, perhaps never. Test Interdominant. Wish see Yilkin one time. Go south pagoda Mintar noon 4 today. Trust come. Xinthia.’
At the bottom was a photo-signature, a round face with piercing green eyes and a sad expression.
* * * * * *
Intergender relations are so different in our era that you would find them scarcely comprehensible — but yours appear equally strange to us. Most people today live in uni-gender clusters and one’s essential bond is to one’s cluster, and not to an individual of the opposite gender. Family life as such does not exist. Also, fam within the Major Conglomerate do not become fertile naturally: they have to undergo treatment if they wish to have personal offspring and in principle must obtain permission to do so from their cluster. However, if they travel to the natal orb, Naroube, which most subdominants do today, the doctored atmosphere makes them fertile at once. Reproduction has long since ceased to have anything to do with inter-gender exchanging — except, of course, in Majentia. In the normal way, all offspring are at first brought up by the (fam) single parent in her cluster though there is a complicated system by which a mefam can become the ‘adoptive father’ of a mefam child who has exceeded a certain age. In such a case the adoptive offspring spends a certain part of the year with the ‘father’ in the latter’s cluster. The system works tolerably well though it obviously does not suit everyone.
On Sarwhirlia separation between the genders is considered normal and there is little mixed socialisation outside festal occasions ― though like practically everything else it is not expressly forbidden. Indeed the close proximity of opposed genders in your society appears to us bizarre and ‘unnatural’. At places like Lunkod varied exchanging is not in the least disapproved of, provided it is carried out in private — but this, of course, does not mean that admirers of a particular fam or mefam are necessarily immune to jealousy. Beautifully decorated locales known as ‘Hymen-bowers’ with the usual trappings such as mirrors, aphro-acclimatisers, tiled bathing areas and so forth are available to any pair that desires them: in this respect our society is egalitarian enough.
A few vastly successful sporting or artistic figures sometimes succeed in maintaining ‘stables’ of young fam subdominants in great cities like Lunkod, but any fam who agrees to be a member of one is deemed to be lacking in distoya and is treated with disdain by members of her own gender. Such a person will most likely never find a cluster that will accept her again. Even apart from co-habitation, excessive dependence on specific mefam is disapproved of though selected Adonises are sometimes paraded around in fam clusters as living sculptures. The term ‘l*v*’ is never applied to relations between adults: in certain contexts it has been replaced by the Katylin term erloyll which means much the same thing but has a far stronger connotation of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’. The word ‘erloyll’ incidentally designates on the one hand the state or feeling and the afflicted person or persons: this is typical of words borrowed from Katylin since the latter, as I have explained, does not have any very clear separations between grammatical categories such as ‘nouns’, ‘verbs’, ‘adjectives’ etc. which are such a feature of Andirax and related languages — Andirax is based on your English.
Erloyll between genders is discouraged and feared, though at the same time intensely desired: this attitude is by no means as unreasonable as it doubtless appears to you, for we live in a society where adhesion to the social group is the important thing, whilst erloyll pairs care nothing about the group or society in general. Also, we, in the Age of the Parthenogens, belong to an order where crimes of violence are extremely rare and we are prepared to put up with a fair number of inconveniences in order to maintain such a state. As it happens, the greater part of the violent crimes actually committed in the Conglomerate are carried out by erloyll who consider themselves rejected or otherwise slighted, with the result that the underlying emotional disturbance is regarded with widespread suspicion and distaste. At the same time it is clear that there is something in the neural make-up of our species, especially that of the mefam gender, which inclines it to fatal passions.
In practice our society’s attitudes towards erloyll are contradictory — but so they seem always to have been. An erloyll pair will experience severe difficulties if they insist on living together, but of course such difficulties will, in a sense, be precisely what is required since it is well known that obstacles increase motivation. No cluster will accept such a pair and they will have to go voluntarily to frontier regions where criminals are sent, or migrate to the new pleasure cities such as Lunkod or Gabellyia where social mores are more relaxed. Out of season these cities are rather desolate and tend to become the haunts of disreputable individuals, those precisely who have been excluded from their clusters or have found none that will accept them. Erloyll pairs often find themselves obliged to live in run-down vicinities and carry out menial tasks to survive. But social attitudes are not rational: though subject to serious inconveniences which might even be classed as mild persecution, erloyll pairs are at the same time greatly admired precisely because they have voluntarily opted for a more demanding and intense way of life. In fact erloyll are not so much debarred from clusters because they are disapproved of as because they are thought to bring with them darstillya or ‘bad luck’, a concept very prominent with us. I have already noted that strayll-sri players are given a wide berth, at least for some time, for much the same reasons.
It was thus with some misgiving that I eventually went to the proposed rendez-vous, for I realized that the image of Ryaltia’s niece was having a disquieting effect on me. I had more or less managed to avoid erloyll in my life so far, doubtless in part because of my intense commitment to straylkha. Moreover, to judge from the meagre data given in Xinthia’s letter, I could hardly have chosen a less suitable person to get fixated on, since by all accounts she was shortly to undergo the Higher Technical Controls and was thus a candidate for Interdominant status. Interdominants live entirely apart from everyone else and take vows to have no relations with the opposing gender.
Xinthia was sitting alone on a block of stone beside the Mintar Lake. She was wearing a very simple dark blue dress, had a violet shawl over her shoulders and wore long arm-guards without wrist-fans such as older fam wear. Sitting there like that she did not look at all glamorous: her round face gave her a somewhat comical air, like that of a clown, and, on arrival I burst out laughing. This was taken as a sign of truce and her expression changed immediately. I sat down on another block in silence. There was no one around as the day was overcast and there was some important event taking place which everyone was attending, I forget what exactly. Looking at me enquiringly, she unlaced her arm-guards and took them off completely with a shy expression. She had beautiful small white hands which she crossed on her lap.
It soon started to get chilly and we returned to the city itself, Xinthia replacing her arm-guards. We went directly to one of the large buildings that offers Hymen-bowers. I selected one at random: the number was, I think, 153. The fam behind the desk looked at us both very strangely.
Once inside Xinthia appeared so nervous that it actually crossed my mind that she was staryll but, reading my mind, she smiled and said it was not that. It seemed out of the question to commence relations at once, so I suggested we go to the bathing area at the back of the lavishly decorated suite. In the steam-bath area there were highly erotic coloured murals as there often are in such places, this one representing centaurs and satyrs disporting with pubescent nymphs. Some of these mosaics are off-putting — one can choose the sort of décor one wants in advance by consulting a tableau but I had not bothered to do this. The mosaic here was, however, prettily done; it amused us and provided a diversion. Xinthia pointed at certain details, giggling.
All the same I found that this mosaic had a rather negative effect on me. These half-animal figures, satyrs and centaurs, revelling in the life of the senses had a sort of splendour about them and their partners, charming pubescent nymphs, retained grace and ‘innocence’ even as they adopted the most lascivious postures. But why were we not rolling around on the grass of one of these woodland glades instead of looking on at tiled paintings in the heart of the vast, anonymous city of Lunkod? Of course, I told myself, it had never been like that even in ancient times: woodland glades would have been full of snakes and annoying insects — these mythological scenes were from the very beginning fantasies, just as artificial as the virtual realities of today, I told myself. Yes, but this remained a completely unsatisfactory conclusion…
I should explain to you that in my era it is no longer possible to simply opt out of society and take to the woods even though there is no law forbidding one to do so (we have very few laws). Apart from the intricate web of social customs and approved behaviour there are more serious constraints: today the atmosphere on Sarwhirlia is, in most areas, still not capable of sustaining human life and erloyll pairs who wandered off in search of ‘the primitive life of the senses’ would simply expire through lack of oxygen. Apart from this, uninhabited areas of Sarwhirlia are full of mutant animals and insects, monstrous creatures thrown up by the vast climactic changes of the period we know as the Abyss (and which you are very soon to enter). ‘Nature’ is a word not much used today in Andirax and it has been largely replaced by the term Svaroya which has a much sterner sense — what you call ‘Nature’ has become something essentially menacing and hostile to human life. Even in protected clusters like my own, one often hears the baying of scryclores, repulsive beasts the size of your elephants but with fangs like wolves. These new species, which have less need of oxygen than the wild animals of your era, do not appear ‘natural’ even to us who are to some degree accustomed to them. Indeed, many of us, especially I think mefam, have a deep-rooted nostalgia for a long-lost ‘state of nature’ before all these aberrations and deformities came into existence, even though such a state in reality most likely never existed. But I must stop following down this train of thought, I told myself. I ought rather to respond ‘naturally’ to the present moment, to the delightful feminine form glimpsed through the clouds of aromatic steam.
We left the bathing area and returned to the bed-chamber. But there remained a feeling of mutual anxiety and tension. Tacitly, we decided to abandon the attempt to take things further for the time being and actually got dressed ― Xinthia even laced on her arm-guards. She began to question me closely about my day to day life in the cluster, the sort of work I did, my friends, straylkha and so on. She asked me what the cluster was primarily concerned with and I replied that until recently it had been a solar energy station but that at present it was being converted into a DETP Research and Refuelling Station. She started when I said this and asked me if it was not the Y-57 cluster? I said that it was. She fell silent after this and paid no attention to what I said from then on, so much so that I gave up the attempt to talk altogether and, somewhat put out, poured myself out a glass of skihl from the wall-hold.
A little later she insisted on looking into my eyes. Some people in our era, as I think also in yours, believe they can tell the future by examining the iris, though I was rather surprised that someone from a highly intellectual select cluster went in for that kind of thing. I told her not to tell me what she saw, that I preferred not to know. She asked me if I had the opportunity of going to another cluster. I replied that like anyone else I could put in a demand for a transfer but that meant I would have to find another cluster that would accept me. I added that though I did not especially like where I was, I felt sure I wouldn’t be much better anywhere else while I would have the trouble of getting myself accepted all over again. So on the whole, when thinking about the issues, I always ended up concluding that I might as well stay where I was.
I offered the latter day Cassandra a glass of skihl which she declined. Instead of drinking it she asked me whether I had ever been to Mortalysium. I was by now getting sick of this interrogation but I did admit that I had been once to the mortuary orb to attend the withdrawal rites of my exemplar, Sambord, and did not aim to go again if I could possibly help it until I was myself on the point of becoming an unconscious floating essence. Xinthia asked me solemnly to promise that if I were given the chance to go there during the coming year I would take it. I said I couldn’t possibly do that but, to keep her quiet, I eventually promised I would consider the idea if and when such an offer was made.
‘Go! Leave immediate!’ said Xinthia, suddenly standing up and pointing with her right arm (still encased in its black guard).
‘Go where? Leave what? My cluster, you mean?’
‘No. Leave now here! Go! Xinthia big danger Yilkin. Soon too late.’
She collapsed on the bed of crylth muttering something like ‘No-able say’.
But then, before I could take her at her word, she clutched my arm.
‘No-go. Xinthia need someone. No-leave Xinthia now.’
I cursed myself for having got into this absurd situation. The wretched subdominant was clearly demented: I even thought of ringing for a Psychic Health Attendant straightaway.
Added to this, Xinthia kept fidgeting about with her arm-guards, alternately taking them off and putting them on again. Looking up, I noticed with annoyance that the Aphro-acclimatiser was at Position 4 and I turned it to zero without making it too obvious what I was doing. But the scent in the chamber was already having a strong though rather unhealthy effect: I have a distaste for such artifices at the best of times since they affect the quality of the experience.
‘Listen,’ said the Xinthia tearing off both her arm-guards, rolling them into a ball and hurling them across the chamber. ‘Know Yilkin think Xinthia shilly-silly. Go quick find other subdominant. Xinthia give last warning – GO! Xinthia now enter steam-bath once gain. Advise Yilkin leave, depart, no-see Xinthia ever. Finish. BUT Yilkin still here Xinthia back come, choice you.’
With that she flicked her hands open in a gesture that clearly meant that she disclaimed all further responsibility and strode into the steam-bath area, pulling across the screen.
She left me plenty of time to make an exit — but I stayed. Why? Nascent erloyll? A desire to see things through? Who can say — maybe just curiosity to see what would happen next.
When she returned she was in an entirely different frame of mind. ‘Good. Know Yilkin stay. Now begin.’
She spoke as if she were talking about starting a meal that had been delayed because of a mistake in the order.