Heart of Gold – Sharon Shinn

Nolan was nearly an hour late by the time he arrived at the Central Government Activities Complex, and even here his way was blocked. Throngs of tourists, lines of determined security guards, and pockets of news reporters clustered in front of every entrance to the huge red granite building that dominated the city skyline. Trying to be polite about it, Nolan edged his way past blueskin security forces, gulden spectators, and journalists of both races. This was one of the rare mornings he had to show an I.D. to enter the building. “Name?” the guard questioned while he fumbled for his badge. “Nolan Adelpho.” The guard checked a clipboard. “Adelpho. Indigo male,” he muttered, marking off something on his sheet. “Reason for admittance to the Complex?” Finally. In his left trouser pocket. Nolan pulled out his badge and handed it over. “I work at the Biolab.

” The guard scrutinized the I.D., examined Nolan’s face to make sure it matched, and waved him inside. Even the interior corridors were crowded, and the elevator was crammed with both indigo and gulden individuals. Nolan felt a sense of relief when he was finally able to disembark on the fourteenth floor—which, by eerie contrast, at first appeared totally deserted. Still, even the empty halls seemed electric with anticipation, and faint laughter floated to him from three rooms away. “Hello?” he called out, trying to guess where everyone was. “Here,” someone shouted. “Melina’s room.” He made his way through a maze of closed offices, open labs, and storage closets to the long, narrow room where Melina worked.

About twenty people were pressed against the window, heads craned down to see the street below. As in the elevator, the company here was mixed—five indigo men, five indigo women, six gulden men, and a trio of albinos. The indigo presented a range of skin tones from the darkest navy to the palest sky blue, though they all had black hair of a similar rough texture. The gulden, on the other hand, were almost uniformly the same deep gold hue, though they sported a variety of hair color that was amazing to Nolan—blond, red, orange, brown, silver, and bronze. The whitemen, who kept to themselves at the far end of the window, were harder to distinguish one from the other. Even after working with three of them for five years, Nolan sometimes had trouble telling them apart. Only Pakt turned to greet Nolan when he walked in the door. “You’re earlier than I thought you’d be,” he said with a grin. “I’d figured you couldn’t make it for another hour.” “I was beginning to think that myself.

The Centrifuge was so crowded that people were sharing ringcars with strangers. And once I got off at the gate, all the trolleys were packed. It was quicker to walk, so I did. What’s going on?” Pakt gestured at the window with one broad, golden palm. He was a big man, muscular, heavyboned, and powerful; his tarnished-copper hair was long and a little wild but beginning to show gray. He radiated competence, self-confidence, health, and zest; and he was the first gulden man Nolan had ever spoken to in a real conversation. It had been quite a shock. Blueskin men were much more reserved than this. “We’re expecting Chay Zanlan to arrive any minute,” Pakt said. “All the fools have lined up to gawk from the sidelines.

You’d think there’d never been a gulden man set foot in the city before.” “Chay Zanlan never has, has he?” asked Melina, briefly turning away from the window. “Not that I remember.” “Yes, he came to Jex’s graduation from City College,” said Colt, another gulden. “But that was ten years ago or more.” “And the spectacle was just as grand,” Pakt added. “You don’t remember it because you were living on your mama’s farm, learning the finer points of cruelty, bigotry, and the subjugation of men.” Melina favored him with one bright, impudent glance. “And learning them well,” she said before turning her attention back to the parade below. She was a high-caste blueskin with incredibly fine cobalt skin and the blackest imaginable hair, which she kept trimmed so close to the scalp that the shape of her skull showed through.

In her mid-twenties, she was the youngest engineer in the lab—and the most outrageous. Pakt, her supervisor, constantly needled her about her patrician background, and she would enthusiastically enter verbal battle with him at a moment’s notice. Everyone adored her, Pakt included. “So is he actually here?” Nolan asked, stepping forward and pushing between Melina and Colt to look out the window. All he could see were mobs of security forces and throngs of people pressing against a yellow cordon. “I don’t think I’d recognize him if I saw him.” “Can’t tell one gulden from another,” Colt said lazily. Like Pakt, he was a strongly built guldman, though younger, slimmer, and more athletic. His hair was a metallic yellow, shoulder length, and always carefully groomed. Nolan liked him, but Colt made him just a little nervous.

As if some day Colt’s sardonic calm would explode into ferocity over some insult so slight Nolan would not be able to reconstruct it. “Well, Chay Zanlan’s got bright red hair, and yours is a sickly blond, so that’s how I tell you two apart,” Melina answered instantly. “Otherwise, you know, you’re dead ringers.” “Chay Zanlan also has a more regal bearing than our friend Colt,” Pakt said, earning a sideways smile from the other guldman. “At any rate, Chay Zanlan appears to be nowhere on the streets,” Melina said. “When is he supposed to arrive, anyway?” Others at the window offered their guesses. “By now, I thought.” “I heard noon.” “He probably came in last night, but they kept it a secret.” “Well, how much longer can we stand here looking out the window and wondering?” Melina asked.

“No longer, I hope,” drawled a new voice from the doorway, and in one convulsive movement, they all turned to face the speaker. Cerisa Daylen stood there unsmiling, her long black hair pulled back severely from her aristocratic face, her long thin fingers tapping against her crossed arms. Every inch of her bespoke her Higher Hundred heritage, from her rich blueskin tone to her contemptuous expression. She was head of the lab, the most gifted biologist of their century, and every one of them hated her without reservation. “Time to go back to work,” Pakt said in a pleasant voice, and everyone except Melina sidled for the door. Cerisa stepped to one side to allow them room to pass, but she kept her reproving gaze on Pakt. The guldman smiled back at her, unimpressed. “It’s a special event,” he said. “Everyone wants to see.” “There’s a plague killing children in the albino slums,” she answered without inflection.

“I’d say that’s a little more important than watching Chay Zanlan disrupt an entire city.” “Indeed it is,” Pakt answered. “And we’re all working on it. And we’ll let you know the instant we discover anything worth reporting.” If Cerisa made a reply to that, Nolan didn’t hear it, having escaped far enough to shut out the sound of voices. He was inside his own lab in moments, a pristine, orderly environment that smelled of chemicals, books, and electronics. Technically, the job of isolating the albino virus would fall to Hiram, one of the other blueskin researchers, but all of them would try their hand at it until someone came up with a vaccine or a cure. That had been Cerisa Daylen’s great breakthrough, twenty years ago: a cure for a virulent disease that had scarred, damaged, or killed indigo and albino children for decades. Mysteriously, the corrigio plague had had no effect on the gulden race, not even in milder symptoms. Cerisa Daylen had made her name on that discovery, but it was only one of many of her contributions to medical research.

She had concocted a variety of antibiotics to combat a wide array of major and minor illnesses, she had led the battle for universal and mandatory inoculations against specific diseases—and she had fought for the continued funding and operation of the Biolab. Nolan had first come across her work in the journals he studied back in-country, when he was still convincing his mother that he wanted to become a biologist. He had read everything he could find about Cerisa Daylen, studied her experiments, replicated them as best he could in the inferior conditions of his homemade lab. When his scientific test scores outpulled those of every student in every upper school in-country, male and female, his mother reluctantly agreed to let him study medical research at Inrhio State University. Upon graduation, he applied in secret to Cerisa Daylen, asking for admittance into her talented group of researchers. As far as he knew, no one who had not attended City College had ever been chosen for such an exalted position. He had been shocked when he received her letter. “Come to me no later than next month. We have a lab ready for you and work piled up. If your mother objects, I will persuade her.

” He had made no mention of his mother in his letter of application, but Cerisa Daylen, of course, was bone and offspring of that select, unyielding, tradition-bound indigo matriarchy. She would know without being told how reluctant any woman would be to send her son off to such questionable work in the city. Indeed, Nolan was positive that only the fact that Cerisa was a Higher Hundred indigo woman permitted him to be at the Biolab today. Had she been a mid-caste woman or even a highcaste man, his mother would have refused to allow him to go. Had the lab been run by a gulden of any rank or gender, the move would have been out of the question. So Cerisa Daylen had been his heroine, until he actually met her. Then, like everyone else who worked for her, he hated her, resented her, rebelled against her, and learned from her every single day. In the past five years, she had allowed Nolan to develop his own area of expertise, which was, rather unexpectedly, the gulden immune system. He had first become intrigued by it when studying Cerisa Daylen’s papers on the corrigio plague which only affected the white and blue races. Why not the gulden? What was different about their bodies and their blood? There were hundreds of other diseases to which they were susceptible; why not this one? He had conducted thousands of experiments to answer just these questions, and he had been the one to discover two potent antibiotics that shut down ill-natured bacteria that favored the elderly gulden.

To date it was his proudest accomplishment. Though he had not shared the news with his mother. Indiscriminately saving the lives of guldmen would not be something she considered a particular mark of achievement. In any case, she was merely counting the days till he came back to Inrhio and married his fiancée, Leesa, when all the world, as far as she was concerned, would be back in its proper orbit and continuing on its preordained course. But that would not be for some time yet. Not today, at any rate. Nolan shut himself into his office, flicked on his computer, and began the new day’s chores. * * * During lunch hour, most of them crammed back into Melina’s office to watch the street theater again. As far as they could tell, Chay Zanlan had not yet arrived, or else the crowds on the street were hanging around hoping for a glimpse of him when he reemerged. “So why exactly is he here?” Melina asked, directing the question at Pakt.

She, Nolan, Colt, Pakt, and a blueskin woman named Varella were sitting around her desk, sharing food and idle conversation. The others kept watch at the window. “To visit his son, Jex, who is in jail,” Pakt said, stating the obvious with exaggerated patience. They all knew Jex Zanlan was in jail. He had been arrested three months ago after setting off a bomb that had destroyed a medical compound near the West Two gate of the Centrifuge. “And a damn good thing Jex Zanlan is in jail,” Melina retorted. “But does Chay Zanlan expect to negotiate his release with Ariana Bayless?” “Ultimately,” Pakt said. “But I think Mayor Bayless and her council will make him sweat it out a little longer.” “Why would she ever release him?” Varella asked. She was a paler, frailer version of Melina, not as smart, not as beautiful, not as lively.

But likable nonetheless, Nolan always thought. “This gives her more leverage over Chay Zanlan than she’s ever had, and she’s within her rights to keep him. I mean, he did try to blow up the building.” “Exactly. So if she gives him up, she’ll be able to expect a powerful return gift from Chay,” Pakt said. “And any number of gifts spring to mind,” Colt added. “Foremost being rights to the Carbonnier Extension.” “But not far behind is her desire to add a new ring to the Centrifuge,” Pakt said. “Chay could make her a gift of the construction stone, since it’s quarried in Geldricht. For that, Ariana Bayless just might release Jex Zanlan.

” Melina was shaking her head. “I will never understand politics,” she said. “How you can balance lives against commerce will always elude me. I could never make such a bargain.” “Fortunately, Ariana Bayless is not so squeamish,” Pakt said dryly. “Chay, I am sure, is counting on it.” “You keep calling him ‘Chay,’ ” Varella said a little irritably. “Do you actually know him?” Colt was grinning. “It’s a gulden habit,” he said. “We have a very personal stake in our leader.

We like to feel we could walk up to him any day and have a serious conversation with him, man to man.” Melina gave Varella a significant look. “Not woman to man, you’ll notice.” Colt gave an exaggerated shrug and spoke in an arrogant tone that was meant to annoy. “No gulden woman, no matter how schooled, would ever know as much as her husband, her brother, or her father.” “Whereas my husband, brother, and father, all sitting together in one room, pooling their limited intellectual resources, would never have the ability to make a worthwhile decision in Inrhio,” Melina said loftily. Pakt sent an amused sideways glance at Nolan. “Poor emasculated fools,” he said. “Letting their women cut them off at the balls.” Nolan smiled back a little uncertainly.

He was clearly the outsider in this group, the only member of the team who did not come from a racial or sexual power base. In Inrhio, women controlled the wealth, the land, the succession—everything. Inheritances passed through the hands of the mother; she chose who her daughters would marry and bargained with her neighboring matriarchs for brides for her sons. In Geldricht, though, it was the men who had absolute power. The women were, as far as Nolan had been able to observe, shamefully abused and degraded. He could not imagine what honor accrued to a man who beat his wife or mistreated his children. Among the indigo, although the matriarchy controlled the pattern of life, men were cherished and valued. And children were considered a treasure past price. “Not emasculated,” Nolan said gallantly, “gratefully admitted to a wide circle of fascinating and elegant women.” The women cooed and clapped their hands; the men were loudly derisive.

Melina patted him on the shoulder. “Does Leesa know what a sweet boy you are? Does she appreciate you?” Colt pointed at Nolan. “What’s to appreciate? He’s exactly as he was bred to be by you and all the rest of you women. He’s no different from any other downtrodden blueskin man I’ve ever met.” “Well, if you think that, you haven’t met that many indigo boys,” Varella murmured, and Melina added a heartfelt “so true.” Varella added, “Nolan is sweet, you know. A lot of the blueskins back incountry are—agreeable, let’s say—but there’s something special about Nolan. He means it when he says things like that.” “No one could mean it,” Colt informed her. Nolan turned to Pakt.

“This happens to me all the time. People talk about me when I’m sitting right here.” “Doesn’t happen to me,” Pakt said with a grin. “I guess I’m a little harder to overlook.” “Harder to like,” Melina said. “But then, you don’t much like any man,” Pakt responded, “no matter what his color or attitude.” Melina laughed. For the past six months, she had been living with a female lover, a jahla girl, as the indigo called it. Varella, Nolan, and the other blueskins had treated the news with the mild, courteous interest they showed in the rotating love lives of all their fellow workers, but the guldmen had been repelled and outraged. Melina and Colt had had a huge fight about it, in fact, a screaming match that had made stupefied coworkers come running down the halls in time to see Melina hit Colt in the chest with her balled-up fist.

To which Colt had replied with a slap across her face that sent her stumbling four feet back into the wall. Pakt had dashed between them before either could strike again, muscling Colt back toward the door, holding Melina off with one imperious hand. “You—will—not,” he had stated in the dead-cold fury they had all learned to fear, “move—or speak—either one of you!—until I say you may. Nolan! Clear everyone out of here. Shut the door behind you. You two. Sit. I said sit.” And that was all any of the rest of them had been privileged to witness, though they milled about in the halls for the next half hour, whispering over what they had overheard. It still astonished Nolan that anyone could care one way or the other if one woman chose to love another.

Among the indigo, jahla girls were common; even married women often preferred the company of a jahla partner, relying on their husbands only for financial advantages, social connections, biological contributions to pregnancy, and, sometimes, companionship. On the other hand, Nolan was revolted at the male homosexuality he had heard of among the guldmen. The only proper object of love for a man or a woman, or so he had learned from the cradle, was a woman. For a man to love another man was unthinkable, gruesome, actually sickening. He did not know any homosexual guldmen, of course; he did not think he would be able to force himself to look such a man in the face. He might work up the nerve to ask Pakt about it some day. Pakt was the most broad-minded person Nolan had ever come across, male, female, blue, gold, or white. If Pakt could not explain society to him, no one could, for Pakt understood everything and everyone. Pakt had calmed down Colt and Melina on that violent day, though it had been weeks before the two were reconciled enough to speak civilly to each other. Even now there was an edge between them much of the time, a pointed banter that was not nearly as playful as the teasing that Pakt and Melina tossed to each other.

Yes, Nolan was sure of it, one day Colt would explode, and there would be no telling how far that destructive blast would blow them all. “I like men,” Melina was saying now to Pakt. “Not you and Colt, of course, but some men. Nolan.” “Hiram,” Colt said with a sneer. Hiram was a small, nervous, and apologetic light-skinned indigo; he was difficult even for the other blueskins to love

.

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