Jack Vance: The Asutra

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Jack Vance The Asutra
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Far to the south of the swampy middle region and beyond the ken of most of the people of Shant, lay Caraz, the wild continent, peopled by exiles, nomads and slave traders.

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Jack Vance

The Asutra

The third book in the Durdane series, 1974


The Roguskhoi and their dominant asutra had been expelled from Shant. Belabored on the ground by the Brave Free Men, tormented from above by the Flyers of Shant, the Roguskhoi had retreated south, across the Great Salt Bog into Palasedrans. In a dismal valley the horde had been destroyed, with only a handful of chieftains escaping in a remarkable red-bronze spaceship-and so the strange invasion of Shant had come to an end.

For Gastel Etzwane the victory brought a temporary joy after which he fell into a dour and introspective mood. He became aware of a vast aversion to responsibility, to public activity in general; he marveled that he had functioned as well and as long as he had. Returning to Garwiy he took himself from the Council of Purple Men with almost offensive abruptness; he became Gastel Etzwane the musician: so much, no more. At once his spirits soared; he felt free and whole. Two days the mood persisted, then waned as the question What now? found no natural or easy response.

On a hazy autumn morning, with the three suns lazing behind self-generated disks of milk-white, pink, and blue nimbus, Etzwane walked along Galias Avenue. Tape trees trailed purple and gray ribbons about his head; beside him moved the Jardeen River on its way to the Sualle. Other folk strolled along Galias Avenue, but none took notice of the man who so recently had ruled their lives. As Anome, Etzwane of necessity had avoided notoriety; he was not a conspicuous man in any event. He moved with economy, spoke in a flat voice, used no gesticulations, all of which made for a somber force disproportionate to his years. When Etzwane looked in a mirror he often felt a discord between his image, which was saturnine, even a trifle grim, and what he felt to be his true self: a being beset by doubts, shivered by passions, jerked here and there by irrational exhilarations; a person over susceptible to charm and beauty, wistful with longing for the unattainable. So Etzwane half-seriously regarded himself. Only when he played music did he feel a convergence of his incongruous parts.

What now?

He had long taken the answer for granted: he would rejoin Frolitz and the Pink-Black-Azure-Deep Greeners. Now he was not so sure, and he halted to watch broken strands from the tape trees drifting along the river. The old music sounded in his mind far away, a wind blowing out of his youth.

He turned away from the river and continued along the avenue, and presently came upon a three-storied structure of black and gray-green glass with heavy mulberry lenses bulging over the street: Fontenay's Inn, which put Etzwane in mind of Ifness, Earthman and Research Fellow of the Historical Institute. After the destruction of the Roguskhoi he and Ifness had flown by balloon across Shant to Garwiy. Ifness carried a bottle containing an asutra taken from the corpse of a Roguskhoi chieftain. The creature resembled a large insect, eight inches long and four inches in thickness: a hybrid of ant and tarantula, mingled with something unimaginable. Six arms, each terminating in three clever palps, depended from the torso. At one end ridges of purple-brown chitin protected the optical process: three oil-black balls in shallow cavities tufted with hair. Below trembled feeder mechanisms and a cluster of mandibles. During the Journey Ifness occasionally tapped on the glass, to which the asutra returned only a flicker of the optical organs. Etzwane found the scrutiny unnerving; somewhere within the glossy torso subtle processes were occurring: ratiocination, or an equivalent operation; hate, or a sensation analogous.

Ifness refused to speculate upon the nature of the asutra. "Guesses are of no value. The facts, as we know them, are ambiguous."

The asutra tried to destroy the folk of Shant," declared Etzwane. "Is this not significant?"

Ifness only shrugged and looked out across the purple distances of Canton Shade. They now sailed close-hauled into a north wind, bucking and sliding as the winch-tender coaxed the best from the Conseil, a notoriously cranky balloon.

Etzwane attempted another question. "You examined the asutra you took from Sajarano; what did you learn?"

Ifness spoke in a measured voice. "The asutra metabolism is unusual and beyond the scope of my analysis. They seem a congenitally parasitical form of life, to judge from the feeding apparatus. I have discovered no disposition to communicate, or perhaps the creatures use a method too subtle for my comprehension. They enjoy the use of paper and pencil and make neat geometrical patterns, sometimes of considerable complication but no obvious meaning. They show ingenuity in solving problems and appear to be both patient and methodical."

"How did you learn all this?" demanded Etzwane.

"I devised tests. It is all a matter of presenting inducements."

"Such as?"

"The possibility of freedom. The avoidance of discomfort."

Etzwane, faintly disgusted, mulled the matter over for a period. Presently he asked, "What do you intend to do now? Will you return to Earth?"

Ifness looked up into the lavender sky, as if taking note of some far destination. "I hope to continue my inquiries; I have much to gain and little to lose. With equal certainty I will encounter official discouragement. My nominal superior, Dasconetta, has nothing to gain and much to lose."

Curious, thought Etzwane; was this the way things went on Earth? The Historical Institute imposed a rigorous discipline upon its Fellows, enjoining absolute detachment from the affairs of the world under examination. So much he knew of Ifness, his background, and his work. Little enough, everything considered.

The journey proceeded. Ifness read from The Kingdoms of Old Caraz; Etzwane maintained a half-resentful silence. The Conseil spun up the slot; cantons Erevan, Maiy, Conduce, Jardeen, Wild Rose passed below and disappeared into the autumn murk. The Jardeen Gap opened ahead; the Ushkadel rose to either side; the Conseil blew along the Vale of Silence, through the gap, and so to South Station under the astounding towers of Garwiy.

The station gang hauled the Conseil down to the platform; Ifness alighted, and with a polite nod for Etzwane set off across the plaza.

In a sardonic fury Etzwane watched the spare figure disappear into the crowd. Ifness clearly meant to avoid even the most casual of relationships. Now, two days later, looking across Galias Avenue, Etzwane was once again reminded of Ifness. He crossed the avenue and entered Fontenay's Inn.

The day-room was quiet; a few figures sat here and there in the shadows musing over their mugs. Etzwane went to the counter, where he was attended by Fon-tenay himself. "Well then: it's Etzwane the musician! If you and your khitan are seeking a place, it can't be done. Master Hesselrode and his Scarlet-Mauve-Whiters work the stand. No offense intended; you scratch with the best of them. Accept a mug of Wild Rose ale, at no charge."

Etzwane raised the mug. "My best regards. " He drank. The old life had not been so bad after all. He looked around the chamber. There: the low platform where so often he had played music; the table where he had met lovely Jurjin of Xhiallinen; the nook where Ifness had waited for the Faceless Man. In every quarter hung memories which now seemed unreal; the world had become sane and ordinary… Etzwane peered across the room. In the far corner a tall, white-haired man of uncertain age sat making entries into a notebook. Mulberry light from a high bull's-eye played around him; as Etzwane watched, the man raised a goblet to his lips and sipped. Etzwane turned to Fontenay. "The man in the far alcove-what of him?"

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