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Stephen Goldin

Tsar Wars
Chapter 2: Le Vaudeville Galactique

Creation

The planet Turtello in Centaurus sector had only been settled within the last thirty years; it was not on the beaten trail and the population was still small compared to more established worlds within the Empire. On the one hand this was good; the people were starved for live entertainment and were enthusiastically appreciative of everything that came their way. On the other hand this meant there were no large theaters to play in; the stage of the largest theater was barely big enough to accommodate the full show, and the backstage facilities were--to put it kindly--provincial.

Even though he was one of the headliners, Judah Bar Nahum's dressing room was tiny. And worse, he had to share it with his cousin and partner, Eva, which made it difficult to pace back and forth. But Judah paced back and forth anyway. He was a pacer, a worrier. He did it on a grand scale, and he wasn't going to let a mere lack of physical space stay him from his appointed rounds.

At the moment there was more room to pace because Eva wasn't there. That wasn't entirely a good thing, though, since that was the reason he needed to pace: Eva wasn't there.

The company had arrived at the theater and Eva wasn't there. The doors had opened and Eva wasn't there. The music had started and Eva wasn't there. The curtain had risen more than an hour ago and Eva wasn't there. And, as usual, she refused to answer her pages.

Eva had been late before. Hell, he could scarcely remember a time she hadn't been late. And her performances were always perfect. The two of them made an ideal team; even he had to admit she was at least as talented as he was. But she cut everything so close to the edge. He looked to his wristcom for the time ....

"Thirteen minutes," Eva Bar Nahum said, walking briskly into the room. "Plenty of time. Hello, how are you, I'm fine, it's none of your business where I was last night, where did you put my costume oh there it is, how's the house?" She didn't even wait for answers before starting to strip off her clothes.

"Packed, as usual," Judah said. "Listen, we've got to talk--"

"Fine, just kvetch sitting down. If you keep walking back and forth you'll get in my way and make me late. There's a wonderful semi-comfortable chair over there. Park your tuchis and enjoy the view." Backstage etiquette was naturally in force; everyone was considered fully dressed no matter what they were or were not wearing.

Judah sat down, but hardly relaxed. He seemed to be vibrating on some undetectable frequency. "Why can't you be on time once in a while? You're endangering the show."

"We've had this talk before. I've never missed a cue and I don't intend to--unless, God forbid, I should die, in which case I may be a few minutes late." She was already out of her clothes and starting to wriggle into her costume.

"I suppose you were out somewhere drapping around again."

Eva paused a second to turn and give her cousin a big grin. "Of course. It's fun. You should try it sometime." And, as Judah opened his moth to respond, she added quickly, "I know, you're saving yourself for Vida--and she hasn't even asked you to. Even Ilya Uzi sleeps around." She turned back to the mirror and finished getting her costume on.

"He isn't engaged," Judah defended. "Well he was, once, in Red Star of Treason, but he wasn't unfaithful until after she died. But we're not talking about my reading habits--"

"Of course not. We're talking about hobbies. You like reading spy thrillers, I like sex." She finished getting the costume on and sat down in front of the mirror to apply her makeup.

"We're talking about punctuality. I don't care if you shtup half the Imperial Navy, but do you have to take so long?"

"When you're as good as I am," Eva said, concentrating on penciling her eyebrows, "you get curtain calls."

Judah let out a long sigh. "Eva, you're going to drive me crazy."

Eva finished her eyebrows and started on her lips. "Don't worry, bubbe," she said, careful not to move the lips too much. "As Shar would say, it's just a day trip. You'll be back before you know it."

"You take too much for granted. You should at least answer your pages. What if David broke his leg or Isaac got laryngitis and we had to rearrange the schedule?"

"You think that would keep those hams off the stage? I trust my colleagues. Besides, what does Ilya Uzi always say? 'Improvise.' You'd think of something brilliant. I have faith."

"I know I'd think of something. I have faith, too. But faith comes a lot easier when your partner's there with you."

Her makeup done, Eva stood up from the makeup table and walked over to her cousin. She took his chin in her right hand and raised it so he was looking directly into her eyes. "Look at me, Jude. I'll always be there, just as I always have. We're a team, and a damn fine one. The show will go on."

There was a sharp rap on the door just as they heard their cue music starting. Eva let go of Judah's chin and grabbed both of his hands with hers. "And speaking of which, it's showtime. Come on." She pulled him up out of the seat. "You don't want to miss your entrance, do you?"

* * *

Le Vaudeville Galactique was a highly unusual, if not unique, institution within the Empire. Most theatrical companies remained planetbound; the sheer expense of traveling between worlds precluded most of them from touring, particularly when there were other, cheaper methods of promulgating their performances. If a company developed a reputation for excellence, it was far easier and less expensive to record a performance for tridee than to pack up costumes, props, sets, cast and crew and go hopping from planet to planet.

Some tours happened, of course. A renowned company might travel to nearby worlds to show off their wares. The best of the best always traveled to Earth, the center of the Empire. But the distances were too vast and there were too many local theater companies to make long interstellar tours economically feasible.

"The Ville," as its members called it, was unique because its people were unique. All were from the heavy-grav world of New Zion, with genetically-engineered strength, stamina and reflexes far beyond those of the normal Imperial citizen. As a result, its performers could not be replaced or imitated by any low-grav native; what they offered could not be seen outside the realm of this specific show.

Avram Bar Nahum, the company manager, compounded this uniqueness by carrying on the tradition of refusing to record the Ville's performances. Some called this arrogant, others called it short-sighted--but the only way to see Le Vaudeville Galactique was to attend a show in person.

It had taken years to build up a reputation, years of expensive traveling and small audiences, years of hardship and adversity. But, as the first manager had explained, the hardship and adversity were as nothing compared to what the Zionians had already experienced. Poverty and humiliation seemed insignificant after the years of degradation, slavery and torture that were the hallmarks of "the Metamorphosis."

The little show grew and thrived. No one had ever seen anything like it, and no one could imitate it. The show emphasized entertainment, with no message or ideology beyond that. It was sophisticated enough for the most intellectual tastes while still being accessible to any child's delight at the beautiful and unusual. Le Vaudeville Galactique now played to packed houses wherever it went, and tickets were always at a premium.

As was the case with its twentieth-century predecessor, the Ville was a collection of variety acts, each spellbinding in its own way. Unlike the earlier version, however, the show was not modular, but carefully scripted and tied together as a unified whole. The bill did not change because a given act was shuffled in or out of the lineup. Nor did the entertainment ever stop to announce a new act. Acts melted into one another with a stylish grace that was the signature of this special event.

Comedy merged into acrobatics merged into magical illusion merged into song merged into animal acts merged into dance, and the flow of entertainment never ceased. No particular act ever exactly ended; instead, it melded and morphed into the act that followed, often with small mini-acts bridging the gap. The entire spectacle presented a theme that carried over from one act to the next.

The major act before the Dance Masters of Space--Judah and Eva Bar Nahum--was primarily a performance of strength and agility, including tumblers, human pyramids and juggling volunteer members of the audience. Even before the act was over, a chorus of singers was wandering across the stage from left to right while a trio of fire-eaters crossed from right to left. As the acrobats disappeared, Sharona Leibowitz--the show's premier comic/clown/mime--re-emerged with a pay-off to the major routine she'd performed half an hour before. Sharona, too, had almost left the stage when the lights dimmed except for her follow spot and the music rose to cue the Dance Masters. Sharona did a sudden back flip and walked on her hands the rest of the way off, stage right.

The instant her spotlight went out a new one came on, stage left, and the pair of dancers entered. Both were in costumes that hugged their bodies without confining them. Judah wore a shirt with an open vee neckline down to his breastbone; the sleeves were just full enough not to exaggerate the well-developed musculature of his arms. His pants were tight at the waist and thighs, but flared gracefully from the calves downward--again, barely hinting at the muscles hidden within. The costume was white and red--the right side gleaming with purest white satin, the left side swirling with crimson material set with thousands of tiny rhinestones that glittered and flashed under the spotlight. His shoes were also red, and sparkled like Dorothy's ruby slippers.

Eva's costume was a trifle more subdued, but no less impressive. The colors were pastels, blue and gold, with gold shoes. None of it sparkled, but none of it needed to--her vibrancy sparkled enough for the entire ensemble. Her dark hair, barely shoulder-length, framed her lovely face. Her powder blue leotard with the gold swirls emphasized the luscious curves of her torso, while her full, floor-length skirt--gold with blue highlights--seemed to flow around her with a liquid grace as she moved. Even from the back of the balcony without opera glasses, anyone could see she was breathtakingly beautiful. Only Judah's consummate skill and grace prevented her from eclipsing him.

The couple entered the stage to the applause for Sharona and the strains of a lively polka, spinning about as they took large, energetic steps. The music increased its pace as they danced, and Judah whirled his cousin around so decisively that her feet only touched the ground once every other revolution. Although she didn't appear to be making any effort to jump, Eva was pushing off the ground each time she touched it, launching herself in a controlled leap guided only by Judah's powerful arms. The music increased faster and faster, and Eva's contact with the ground grew less and less frequent.

Before the audience realized it, the rapid polka had evolved into a flamenco rhythm, and Judah was now using his cousin as much like a prop as like a partner. He twirled her behind him and around his shoulders the way a flashy matador might twirl his cape. Eva let go of Judah's left hand with her right, leaving him to twirl her one-handed. She, meanwhile, reached down to her waist and detached her skirt, twirling the gold and blue cloth around her body even as Judah twirled her around his. The stage lights came up slowly and the spotlight faded as the audience gasped at this breathtaking display of color, strength and grace.

The whirling fabric of the skirt eventually seemed to take off on its own, fluttering up into the flies like a beautiful mammoth butterfly. As it did, the music slowed dramatically and Judah took both his partner's hands and gave her one last spin that brought her down to the ground and facing him.

Now the music was slow, stately, romantic as the couple began a balletic pas de deux. Eva went en pointe on her right foot, and Judah took her by the waist and lifted her straight into the air over his head. He held her there for three heartbeats, then, to a collective gasp from the audience, he casually tossed her in a high arc halfway across the stage. As she flew through the air Eva remained perfectly rigid, perfectly composed; meanwhile Judah made two extended leaps across the stage to the spot where her arc descended. His foot touched the floor from the second leap at the same instant she came within his reach, and he caught her in the same exact pose as when he'd thrown her. To the wild applause of the crowd he pulled her in towards his body as she put her arms about his neck and slid slowly against him to stand on the floor.

The music changed again, this time to a sultry tango. The cousins slithered together across the stage, moving as though they were a single body with eight limbs. Sometimes they would move slightly apart, but they never broke contact. Their eyes were locked to one another's; Eva might do a precise spin, but her head and eyes always came back to the original position, focused solely on Judah. The atmosphere in the theater seemed to heat up as the steamy, seductive movements of the tango caught the audience's rapt attention.

The tango evolved into a French-style apache dance, but with a unique twist. It was Eva who assumed the traditional male role of the aggressor, flinging Judah over her shoulder or dragging him along the ground. Despite her apparent diminutive stature, she had no trouble carrying and flinging her partner's slightly larger frame through the acrobatic maneuvers the dance required.

For a full ten minutes they held the stage alone. The audience's attention never wavered, and they broke into applause over and over again at each new and sometimes seemingly impossible move the dancers made. Some members of the audience were flabbergasted that any human bodies could do the feats they'd seen here today. The more knowledgeable of the spectators knew the truth, for Le Vaudeville Galactique, while never hiding the fact, made no attempt to advertise that all its members were Zionians.

The settlement of New Zion arose out of the darkest chapter in Imperial history. One of only a small handful of high gravity worlds that could even remotely be called habitable, the planet possessed a wealth of heavy elements in high demand throughout the Empire. But mining these assets was a near impossible task. Human beings were not adapted to the two point six gee gravitational field the world--called Goliath at the time--had to offer. Lungs strained at the higher atmospheric pressure; hearts and other muscles aged rapidly fighting against the gravity. Because objects fell faster, even a slight stumble could be fatal, and human reflexes could not compensate adequately.

Other methods were tried. Heavy machinery was sent down to the planet's surface, to be guided by telepresence--remote controlled instruments--from people in satellites orbiting the world. But there were problems making the machines flexible enough to perform the necessary tasks yet sturdy enough to withstand Goliath's harsh conditions. Equipment was constantly breaking down, and the crews who manned the satellites were in a perpetual state of discouragement.

This was the unhappy state of affairs when Kyril II came to the throne, and he promptly proceeded to make it unhappier. In the checkered history of the Empire, replete with examples of harsh despots interspersed among the truly great rulers, Kyril stood out as being by far the most cruel, the most vicious, the most heartless. He hated everyone and everything, and his mind was ruled by paranoia--justifiably so, for after only a short while into his reign of terror there really were people out to get him. Despite being hated by his people, he was so ruthless that he managed to remain in power for eighteen years and cause untold grief and hardship for all but the privileged few.

When confronted by the problems of mining the planet Goliath, Kyril's twisted mind--abetted by his equally demented boyare--hatched a cruel and oppressive scheme. Hating and distrusting anything that was too different from the norm, Kyril decided that Goliath would be the perfect place to dispose of people and groups he disliked. Principal among these were Jews, Romany and members of a radical and rapidly growing Christian fundamentalist sect called God's Purgers. Within the space of a month, virtually all members of these groups were rounded up and shipped off to serve in Goliath's deadly mines.

These new slaves began dying from the harsh conditions just as quickly as the previous miners had--faster, in fact, because few concessions were made to alleviate their situation. In itself this caused Kyril little concern, since he didn't care for these people anyway--but there was still the problem of who would do the mining once these groups were all gone. The solution the Emperor's boyare came up with was to genetically engineer human beings adapted specifically to the high-gee environment.

The slaves were subjected to long and involved series of "experiments"--most of them little more than pseudo-scientific excuses for torture--to determine the specific characteristics the new breed would need for survival. Genetic material from the different groups was used, and a race of heavy-gravity natives was bred. These new humans were stronger and had greater physical stamina to withstand the high gee forces. They were slightly shorter and had a lower center of gravity, to keep them stable and help them avoid stumbling. They had quicker reflexes to deal with a world where objects fell at a much faster rate. They had denser bones and stronger hearts and lungs. In an attempt to breed better slaves, Kyril had unwittingly bred a new subgroup of super humans.

The problem with breeding humans, of course, was the long maturation period. Virtually all the unmodified slaves had died and the oldest members of the new breed--who'd been started in the mines as six- and seven-year-old children--were barely fourteen when Kyril was finally assassinated. The program continued for a couple more years under Kyril's successor, Nikolai IV, largely through inertia and because the program had remained strictly secret.

Once the facts became public knowledge, there was an Empire-wide backlash against the horrors. The slavery was immediately ended, and Nikolai proclaimed an immediate and permanent ban on all human genetic manipulation. That left the Emperor with two major problems: reparations to the survivors of the period that the Jews were already starting to call (with barely concealed cynicism) "the Metamorphosis," and the ongoing problem of how to mine the metal-rich high-gee planets. There were long and spirited debates, and for one of the few times in history the oppressed peoples themselves were actually given a voice in the decision.

The former slaves who traced their heritage back to the Romany were the most bitter about what had been done to them. Their people had always been clannish and independent, and they followed in that tradition. They asked for and were given a small fleet of ships so they could leave the confines of the Empire and seek their own world elsewhere among the stars. For over eighty years nothing more was heard of them--until an explorer ship for the ever-expanding Empire stumbled across the heavy-grav planet Newforest and its Romany inhabitants. The imperial feelings of guilt had cooled considerably by this time, however, and the world of Newforest was absorbed into the Empire--though not with the entirely willing consent of the planet's citizens.

The descendants of God's Purgers continued to adhere to their sect's fundamentalist beliefs. They spurned as much contact as they could with the material world, and wanted as little to do with temporal authorities as possible. Unlike the Romany, they didn't want to break away altogether, since part of their duty was to present an example for other people to follow. The imperial government ceded them a different mineral-rich high-grav planet to mine, a world its inhabitants called Purgatory. These people paid nominal homage to the tsar and, as their prime export, traded the valuable ore, but otherwise had little contact with the rest of humanity.

The Jews were another matter entirely. They had survived so many pogroms and purges over the past several millennia that they were more philosophical about it. While they could neither forgive nor forget the horrors of the Metamorphosis, they could put the past behind them and think about the present and future. There was still life to be lived--and they were in a unique position from which to live it.

Just as God's Purgers were ceded the planet of Purgatory, the Jews convinced the tsar to cede them the planet Goliath, which they promptly renamed New Zion. As they proudly said, this was the second time the Children of Israel had defeated Goliath. In return, the Jews agreed to keep the mines open and supply the Empire's ever-growing need for the heavy metal ores. New Zion became the first undisputed home the Jewish people had had since the days of the ancient Roman Empire.

But the Zionians realized they had another resource at least as valuable as their planet's ore--themselves. They were stronger and could react faster than any normal person, giving them an extraordinary advantage in situations that required physical skill. They were barred from competing against unmodified humans in professional sports--although there were some all-Zionian leagues whose games were breathtaking to behold--but that still left them a wide range of possibilities. In the hundred and thirteen years since the end of the Metamorphosis, they'd become very popular--and expensive--as bodyguards and in private security services. And as Le Vaudeville Galactique demonstrated, they made first-rate entertainers.

Even those spectators who knew the vaudevillians were Zionians didn't feel cheated. It didn't matter to them that the entertainers had been genetically modified; they were still extraordinary people performing extraordinary feats. The audience was being treated to a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, and they were duly appreciative.

As the Dance Masters of Space reached the climax of their act, including leaps through ever-higher spinning rings, the stage seemed to explode with people. Performers dropped from the flies on ropes, bounced up out of trapdoors and somersaulted in from the wings, the pit and the back curtain. All the entertainers who made up this incredible show bounded onto the stage in what could easily have been a chaotic mess, but instead was precisely choreographed to show off each act in turn. Singing, dancing, juggling; fire, lights, miming; acrobatics and prestidigitation; a mind-numbing finale to remind the audience--in the unlikely event that anyone forgot--what a masterful spectacle they had witnessed here today.

And the audience responded by leaping to its feet with a roar of applause that shook the very walls of the theater, with whistles, with cheers, with the clapping of hands and the stamping of feet, with every conceivable form of enthusiastic appreciation. They had been bedazzled, amused, astonished and, above all, entertained. They had spent an evening in the theater they would never forget, an evening they would brag about to their friends for years to come.

Curtain calls went on for ten, fifteen minutes. At last the house lights came on again and the stage was as bare as when the show began. The audience, feeling both exhilarated and drained, slowly began shuffling out of the theater with a loud buzz of conversation, each person remarking to his neighbor about his favorite moments in the show.

Backstage the atmosphere was no less exuberant as the performers reveled in the addictive high from the applause. Drenched in sweat but deliriously happy, Judah and Eva hugged their colleagues and one another, their spat of just a short while before totally forgotten. Yet another audience had been conquered. Was that not cause for celebration?

Avram Bar Nahum, the Ville's manager, Judah's father and Eva's uncle--though he'd been her de facto father as well for most of her life--came up to them with a broad smile on his face. He was a man near fifty, once as trim as Judah himself but now going ever-so-slightly to a paunch. He waved his left hand at them--the artificial one that replaced the natural one he'd lost years ago. He had a broad smile that even his neatly-trimmed full beard couldn't conceal.

"Yet another stunning performance!" Avram exclaimed. "A few hundred more like that and I'll be forced to consider giving you a raise."

"Such compliments will turn a girl's head," Eva said with a drawl.

"I only said I'd consider it," Avram replied. Then his face turned suddenly serious. Not the serious of discussing the show's management, which he never took lightly; this was a somber expression that the dancers seldom saw on his features, and it warned them that something unusual was happening. "Could you both come to my office now?"

"Is there time for a shower first?" Judah asked.

"No," the older man said. "There's someone I want you to meet ... and I don't think she'll be offended by a bit of shvitzing."


Chapter 3

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