tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Third Ring - Tamsin of Sky Village

The Third Ring - Tamsin of Sky Village


Urta was a verdant planet, but its most common proteins were toxic to humans. Colonists were genetically altered, so they and their descendants could thrive on Urta's native bounty. The scientists and engineers were supposed to be temporary residents on Urta. They were unaltered and survived there only because of the antidote they took every day.

Then came The Collapse. Communications with Earth ceased and the great ships came no more. The engineers and scientists knew that they would live only as long as their supply of antidote lasted, so they committed their remaining time to one purpose. They gave the colonists the knowledge and tools to sustain their culture. Then they were gone.

* * * *

Our ancient villages were lost in time. Most were buried under the streets and foundations of the cities they became, but the ruins of Sky Village still stand as a door to the time of Heroes. When I walked the empty streets high on that dry and lonesome rock, the voices of the villagers who lived there so long ago seemed to still echo between the crumbling walls. Children played. Women bartered in the market.

The ruined shrine to Tamsin of Sky Village stands at the highest point on the rock and towers over the valley below. Gather close, lest my old voice fail me, for it's Tamsin's tale I tell tonight.

Tamsin's story comes from early in the time of Heroes. In those old days the houses of Sky Village clustered on a rock ledge at the side of a broad valley. The village was safe above the floods that plagued the low lands, but it also was barren of trees and exposed to the brilliant sky it was named for.

Tamsin lived near the heart of the village because she wanted its noise and its energy all about her. She was a transport engineer, and her labors were often manual. Her hair was just long enough to tie back out of her work. Her arms were firm and muscular.

On the morning when her story began, Tamsin waited on the transport platform while colonists came and went. Doctor was easy to recognize when she stepped off the transport. She wore a neat Service uniform and carried a small journal. The colonists, as they came and went, steered a wide berth around her.

Doctor squinted against Sky Village's bright sunlight, and looked around without finding Tamsin. They'd met only briefly before, and Tamsin had since stopped wearing her Service uniform. Instead, she wore a simple tunic like those the colonists wore, but colored in yellow. Only her badge showed that she was a Service member.

Tamsin waved to get Doctor's attention, and when she had it she shouldered a heavy bag of tools and stepped through the traffic to greet her. "Ready for inspection, Sir." Tamsin said, and extended her hand. Customs on Urta changed quickly in those ancient days. Two years earlier Tamsin would have snapped a sharp salute, but there was hardly a need for that anymore.

Doctor's friendly laughter set Tamsin at ease. "'Inspection' sounds formal," she said. "I'm really only here to see how you're doing." She motioned about herself and said, "Sky Village is new to me. I've heard stories I'm not sure I should believe. Show me around, and we'll talk."

Tamsin led Doctor off the platform and waited for her to catch up before she asked, "How long are you going to stay with us?"

Doctor's answer surprised Tamsin. "Not long," she said. "I need to leave on the last transport tonight." You see, Sky Village was a long way to travel from Planetary Station for such a brief stay.

They walked a short distance before Tamsin said, "Nothing in the village is far from here. Sky Village was built around the transport station and Market Square, and it extends out along a few wide streets. It doesn't take long to learn how to get from place to place, but sometimes it seems like all paths go through Market Square."

Doctor's journal entries from her first visit to Sky Village were written by a woman charmed by what she saw. She walked with Tamsin to Market Square between homes built from native stone. Laughter and chatter, punctuated now and then by hawkers, filled the air with the sounds of women's voices. People greeted Tamsin with smiles as they passed, and children skipped beside her and called her name. As friendly as they were to Tamsin, they were as suspicious of Doctor.

"Have you eaten?" Tamsin asked. They walked through the market from stand to cart and picked through the fruits and vegetables.

"Not for hours," Doctor said, "And this is making me hungry." She was fast to stop Tamsin. "I won't impose on you. Can we stop in a café? I'll buy your lunch."

"I know a wonderful place," Tamsin said, "I'll just get a few things for later." She picked up a green globe and turned it in her hand to show Doctor its unblemished skin. "These are very nice," she said. "They're from the Dama trees that grow along the river. They're so rich that we eat them when others might eat meat."

Doctor could not have been ready for the bright light in Sky Village. She shaded her eyes from the sun to see the fruit in Tamsin's hand then said, "I'll need to find shade soon."

"We'll get you a hat after lunch," Tamsin said. She took two of the Dama fruit, paid with coins, and lead Doctor down a side street where a café sign jutted out above a door. The café was cool and dark compared to the heat and sunlight on the street.

They stopped inside—you know how it is when your eyes need to adjust—and when Tamsin could see again she found a small woman about Doctor's age seated at a corner table. She sipped her drink and listened to the younger women around her. "You must meet Beatrice," Tamsin said.

Beatrice stood to give Tamsin a hug then scanned Doctor from head to foot. It wasn't a very friendly look, but it passed in a moment, and Beatrice smiled. "A friend of Tamsin's must be a friend of ours," she said.

Doctor talked politely with Beatrice, and then Beatrice motioned for Tamsin to lean down. She whispered into Tamsin's ear, and Tamsin straightened her back and smiled. She told the older woman. "Of course, Bea. For you."

They found a table of their own before Doctor asked, "What was that about? Or am I prying?"

"Bea asked for a favor," Tamsin said. "Social standing here decides who may ask for favors, and who must grant them. Beatrice is one of the three clan leaders, and she can ask favors of anyone. I'm not a villager; I could refuse. But it's an honor to be asked, so I'll do it for Bea."

I think that Doctor grew to like Tamsin that day. They spent the afternoon walking the village lanes, and they stopped late in the day at the edge of town. Doctor's journals describe how she held her new, wide-brimmed hat on her head so the breeze wouldn't send it sailing over the valley. The rocky landscape baked around them, and men burdened with their harvest climbed the path from the irrigated fields. "I've seen a village of women and children," Doctor said. "Where do the men fit in?"

Tamsin shrugged. "Where they like," she said.

You see, Sky Village took a path different from most colonies on Urta. The women owned the shops and houses, and the women were the head of their families. There was no marriage in Sky Village, but good men could trade their work for respect, sex, and shelter. Mothers encouraged their sons to stay at home and help support their family, but eventually they always found their way alone.

Tamsin watched a young man climb the path toward them with two baskets loaded with fruit. She stopped him at the top of the trail with a smile and a gentle hand on his shoulder. She said, "Doctor, this is Beatrice's grandson, Michael." She turned back to Michael and asked, "Would you come to my bed tonight? After you clean up, and after the late transport leaves?"

Michael's face lit with a grin, and Doctor hid her surprise. When Michael was gone Tamsin explained, "That was the favor that Bea asked of me at the café. Michael is old enough to leave his mother's home. Bea tries to keep him there by arranging sex for him, and I'm willing to help."

Are you surprised? That wasn't the way things worked in the Service, and Doctor didn't know what to think. Tamsin was trading sex for status. "The colonists might love you for adopting their ways," she said, "But most of us justify ourselves by teaching."

Tamsin laughed, but Doctor heard tension in her laughter. "I entered the Service to explore," Tamsin said. "My first love and my training were in geology and biology, but the Service had too many people like me. They sent me to transport school, and I've done my duty to the Service ever since.

"Now I teach." Tamsin said. "I teach every morning. One morning I have six young women learning how to build, maintain, and operate the transports. The next morning I teach kids about the world around them. That's why the children all know me, and more-and-more that's what I live for."

Tamsin shouldered her heavy bag, smiled at Doctor, and the afternoon sun sparkled in her eyes. "Besides," she said, "The sex is no burden. Michael is a generous lover."

Tamsin led Doctor to her home in the middle of the village. "What's this?" Doctor asked when they stepped through the door. She gestured to a wall of projections that lit the darkness in Tamsin's house.

"It's my personal seismic lab," Tamsin said. "It satisfies the geologist in me. Little quakes shake Sky Village all the time. That's why our walls are thick and solid, and our roofs are light. I installed seismic sensors on bedrock all around the village, and I collect the information here."

Tamsin touched a console and a diagram appeared in front of her. "This is a three-dimensional view of Urta around Sky Village. It shows the deep layers and the faults that constantly shake us." A sequence of lights traveled through the diagram, and Doctor felt the ground shudder. "And there was another one," Tamsin said. "Sky Village is slowly rising. I guess that watching it rise is my hobby."

Tamsin made dinner for Doctor from the fruit she bought that morning. Over their meal Doctor asked, "Did you know Sandoval very well?" Doctor watched Tamsin carefully because, as you know, we can't always tell what people feel by what they say.

Tamsin answered with a cautious tone, "I knew him well," she said. "Sandoval didn't respect the colonists or their ways, and they hated him for it. You probably noticed that they haven't been very friendly to you." Tamsin reached out to pluck at Doctor's sleeve. "It's because of this. They see Sandoval when they see the Service uniform. That's why I don't wear mine."

Sandoval had been the administrator for the Service at Sky Village, and after The Collapse he was one of the first to go—or so they thought.

It was a hard time, but one the Heroes all faced. When Urta lost contact with Earth, the pharmacy at Planetary Station had only enough β-TA—the antidote the Heroes all needed to survive on Urta—to last for three years. That could never be enough time to teach the colonists what they needed to know, or to build the industries they needed to sustain their culture.

The colonial leaders and the Service command both felt they had no choice. Each year they reduced the number of people who were given the antidote so the Heroes who were most important to the colonists could survive long enough to finish the transition. The others? They died.

Doctor waited until later to mention Sandoval again. They stood on the station platform under the yellow light of the great rings, and she said, "Almost half of us died with Sandoval after that first year. It wasn't possible to know them all or to guess why they weren't important enough. It sounds to me like Sandoval may have died only because he was unpopular in the village."

"That wasn't the main reason," Tamsin said. "He was an administrator in a government that barely existed. He was unhelpful and unpleasant, but that wasn't as important.

"Sandoval flew into a rage when he got the news, and he threatened to kill everyone in the village—it was no more or less than people expected of him—and then he disappeared. He probably died, but he didn't die here. Sandoval had a place in the mountains. He may have gone there, but we don't know."

Doctor saw lights appear in the dark far down the valley, and moments later the transport glided to a stop at the platform. She extended her hand to Tamsin and told her, "You know how to reach me. Talk to me if you need help, or just need company.

"There's one last thing I need to tell you. I've been telling everyone." She waited until the few people who stepped from the transport were gone then said, "Someone—or maybe more than one person—is stealing β-TA. I guess it was inevitable, humans being human, but it's murder more than it is just theft. Keep it in mind. Keep yourself safe."

Doctor's journal was a blank page when she found her seat, so it was easy for her to record what she saw, and how she felt. She watched Tamsin through the window while she greeted Michael. He stepped from the shadows and leaned close to her ear. He stroked his hand over her hip and Tamsin laughed at something Michael said. She tucked her hand around his elbow, and they slipped into the shadows together. To Doctor there was something very gentle about Sky Village, something her thoughts returned to over and over.

The seasons at Planetary Station were changing from summer to fall before Doctor saw Tamsin again. Tamsin's image appeared above Doctor's desk. She seemed nervous and looked tense. "I saw Sandoval this morning," she said.

That was hard for Doctor to believe, but there was no doubt in Tamsin. "It's been more than a year," she said. "No one lives more than a week without β-TA."

Tamsin nodded. "I feel like I saw a ghost," she said. "I took the kids down to the river this morning for a biology lesson and found a camp by one of the oxbow ponds. I didn't recognize him at first—not until he called my name."

"He's changed," Tamsin said. "Sandoval's always been a big man, but now he's turned into a monster. I had to look close because he was wearing an open robe with a hood over his head. His face was wide, his hands and his chest were huge, and his skin was pale.

"I answered him by name and he smiled back. He threatened to kill us all, Doctor, and that suddenly seemed more real. I brought the kids back to school and called. I thought you needed to know."

"I have to examine him," Doctor said. She stood from her desk and called her assistant. "Try to keep him there, or find out where he's going. I'll be there tomorrow, and I'll bring security with me."

It was late morning when Doctor stepped off the transport with two Colonial Guards behind her. Imagine what she thought when she found Tamsin on the platform. Half of Tamsin's hair was still in her pony tail, and the rest was tucked behind her ears or hung loosely around her face. Her yellow tunic was soiled and her shoulders slumped with fatigue.

Doctor touched each guard and said, "This is Oren and this is Ham. I brought them to help if we need them." She took Tamsin's hand and tried to ignore her unwashed scent. "What happened to you?" she asked.

Tamsin had no time for Doctor's question. "Come to my shop," she said. "The short story is that Sandoval isn't here. When he comes back you probably shouldn't be here either."

Tamsin's students were hard at work over what looked like heavy metal plates. Images appeared in the air over their work sites and showed the intricate circuitry within each plate while they guided tools to change the tiny details inside.

Doctor watched the students for a moment and asked, "What are they working on?"

Tamsin's answer surprised Doctor. "Booby traps," Tamsin said. "Those plates are the gravity dipoles that make the transports run. When they're working, anything on the gray side of the plate is heavy and anything on the white side is light. We're modifying them to work beyond their normal operating range—something they'll do for only a few seconds before they fail."

Tamsin dropped into a chair and leaned on the table. Doctor took the seat across from her and, while Oren and Ham stood and watched the students work, Doctor listened to Tamsin's tale.

"I went back to Sandoval's camp," Tamsin said. "You needed me to keep him here, and I needed him to answer my questions. The sun was getting low and I worried that he would already be gone.

"I rustled through the underbrush, so I wouldn't surprise him, and he watched me walk into his camp. He told me, 'I've been waiting for you,' and I believed him. His camp was almost all packed onto his rider. He was getting ready to leave.

"He sat down beside the pond, motioned for me to go to him, and I did. I sat beside him and tried to read his expression and his gestures while we talked. I asked him, 'What happened to you?' and he answered, 'You look as fit as ever.' I asked, 'What are you doing here?' and he said, 'The days are getting shorter.' I wasn't getting answers.

"The light seemed to bother him. The sun dropped behind the trees before he pushed the hood of his robe back and let it fall off his shoulders, and I could really see him for the first time. As distorted as his features were, his power fascinated me. He leaned over me and inhaled my scent. I let him, Doctor. I let him do what he wanted.

"Doctor, I didn't tell you before—because the Service wouldn't approve—but Sandoval was my lover when I first came to Sky Village. That was before I knew what he was. It was easy for me to relax into his touch again. It was easy to let him explore me and arouse me.

"Sandoval pulled my tunic up around my waist, and pushed my knees apart. I did nothing to stop him—I was excited as a girl. He tasted me on his thick fingers and said, 'You'll come with me.'

"I went with him," Tamsin said. "Maybe I was too aroused to say no. I had questions that needed answers, but the answers weren't coming. I needed him to talk to me like a lover, to talk without thinking."

I hear murmurs among you. In our careful world today, Tamsin would seem reckless, but those were different times. The Heroes and the colonists had to take risks, so maybe for them what Tamsin did wasn't unusual. And, had she been too afraid to go, our story would be very different.

"The sky was clear last night," Tamsin said, "The rings were bright, and it was easy for me to see where we went. I sat on the back of Sandoval's rider with his hips between my legs, and we skimmed over the river's twists and turns. We followed it up into the mountains and past the cascades where the spray made the air cool and wet. We turned away from the river above the cascades to a small house among tall trees, and that was where we settled down.

"Sandoval threw the door open and left it open, so the forest's autumn air flooded the kitchen. The house had little furniture and no decoration. I asked him, 'Do you have food here?' It was the first question he really answered.

"Sandoval had full pantries, but the food was simple. He sat and watched while I cooked him a dinner of sausage and steamed grain. 'What were you doing at the village?' I asked, and it was the second question he answered.

"He said, 'It's been more than a year. I went there to see how things changed.'

"I set his plate in front of him and asked, 'What did you see?'

"He said, 'I saw men leave for the fields in the morning and return in the afternoon like they always did. The transport runs on the same schedule. The same three women scheme to control everything that happens. It's the same place. They're the same people.'

"He finished his dinner, and when I finished mine I asked, 'What have you done to yourself?' He didn't answer that question—not really."

"Sandoval leaned back in his chair and asked me, 'Do you think I'm grotesque?'

"I told him, 'Yes, in some ways, but I think you're fascinating in other ways.' I touched his hands that had so excited me, and I ran my fingers across his chest. I knelt between his knees and stroked my hand over the bulge between his legs. 'Your chest, your huge hands, and this,' I said.

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