by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
In another part of the laboratory complex, Eril wrestled with an entirely different set of problems. Opposite him, just beyond arm=s reach, sat the gastropoid Bhevon, Raerquel=s assistant and clan-inferior, patiently going over its questions one more time. As he formed his answers, Eril tried to analyze each one critically and to keep his own curiosity under control.
Yet his eyes sometimes strayed to the glass instruments lining the walls and he couldn=t shake the feeling of relaxed well-being, as if there had been some euphoric drug in the healing gel. All traces of the pirates= handling, even the pain from his fractured ribs, had vanished completely.
To make matters worse, his chair, which had been sculpted to his individual dimensions, was so comfortable, it presented a constant temptation to relax. That was a luxury he could scarcely afford, now of all times. How he handled these questions was crucial, even if the gastropoids seemed friendly enough to begin with.
It wasn=t just his own impression that was at stake, but that of the whole human race.
What was his species? Terran human, technically Homo sapiens. He hoped the translator panel would make something coherent of the archaic terminology.
His individual name? Eril Jermaine Trionan. Colonel, Fifth Federation Space Service.
His phylogenic ancestry? Primates, and before that, mammals, and before that, some kind of reptile, he supposed, and before that... Well, certainly, they were all vertebrates, clear back to whenever animals developed internal skeletons.
By what means had he appeared in World-of-Home? That was a hard one. Some sort of time-space disequilibrium must have transported them. No, not across space, they were still on the same planet, except it was different. Either they=d gone back in time, or history had taken a different direction, or both. If the gastropoid thought this a preposterous explanation, it gave no indication.
How did his species differ from other animals? Why did they consider themselves human? At least, that was the word Brianna=s translator came up with.
What were they doing here? Who sent them?
Eril ran one finger along the edge of the translator panel on his chest, feeling the slick, slightly warm surface. He couldn=t judge his answers, since he had no idea what Bhevon really wanted, or what its values were. He might be a hot-shot pilot, but he was definitely not a diplomat with a gift for saying nothing in the smoothest way possible. He felt overwhelmed with his own ignorance, a child, alone as he=d been for so many years with only himself to rely on.
"You will be rejoining your comrades soon," the gastropoid said, its neck slits vibrating with each syllable, "waiting only for the resuscitation of the one most severely injured, yet there is a caution to be given."
Injured? Kithri... A vision rose unbidden in Eril=s memory--Kithri glaring at him across the shattered crystal garden--Kithri screaming defiance at the baldie leader, spinning a web of lies and courage--Kithri outraged that he=d risk her third-class, down-at-the-fins scrubjet for her very life.
"All four human specimens are given positive prognoses," Bhevon said. "Caution is with regard to your status as persons, not your physical well-being."
The memory of the pirates had wiped away much of Eril=s euphoria and reminded him that he was in the midst of an alien culture, cut off from his friends. The gastropoids could probably do anything they pleased with him. He certainly had nothing he could use in self-defense except his fists--for all the good they=d do against a creature that size, with no obvious vulnerable points--and his still-addled wits.
"Clan-superior Raerquel is asserting that, despite manifest differences, you posses other characteristics that qualify you for consideration as persons. It believes, in defiance of all tradition, that personness is not limited to those of proven--" the translator hesitated, "identicalness."
Personness? Identicalness? Had Brianna=s translator had gotten the words right?
"Raerquel wishes you to understand that its enlightened opinion is not endorsed by other clans."
Eril hazarded a guess. "You mean Raerquel=s willing to talk to us, but others might not be?" That might make an awkward beginning, but didn=t seem to be insurmountable. With time and communication, humans and gastropoids would learn how to relate to each other, respecting each other=s abilities and diversity.
"Talking to is but a minor example of considering personness," Bhevon answered. "Many beasts are capable of primitive, sound-mediated signalling. The mere production of noise patterns is not causally related to self-awareness or social conscience."
The gastropoid=s booming voice was as devoid of emotional nuances as ever, and Eril found himself wishing for some hint of its own personal opinions. For all he could tell, it was only cooperating with Raerquel=s orders because of clan loyalty. There was no warmth, no excitement, not even curiosity coming from its impassive silver bulk.
"Have you not in your own ecological system living entities that possess some degree of intelligence but do not qualify as social or moral equals?" Bhevon asked.
"Are you warning me that we=re apt to get treated as some sort of animals?"
"Yes, undesirable lower creatures. Vermin."
Eril closed his mouth.
The alien stirred, a faint ripple flowing from its blunted head section down the tapering neck. "You must understand that clan-superior Raerquel thinks far beyond tradition-honored wisdom. Identicalness has always been considered the most fundamental prerequisite for personness, since we share conscious identity only through our unity in Flesh-Before-Naming. It is inconceivable to consider personness co-existing with differences."
Eril found his voice again. "But surely you can recognize that we=re intelligent. We may come from different phyla, but we can use language to communicate with one another. We can think, reason, solve complex problems. And our technology--you saw the >jet we came in. It didn=t build itself. The definition of intelligence is the ability to make and use tools, isn=t it?"
"Using tools is not the same as making tools," Bhevon replied. "Any moronically-minded, uncivilized offspring-of-degenerate-monotreme can use the tools it does not understand."
"We make the tools we use!" Eril protested. "From toothbrushes to starcruisers. In fact, on our planets, we=re the only species capable of it."
For a long moment, the gastropoid sat motionless. The clear light of the room glinted off its head discs. "A convincing argument this would be, if you can create the means to modify your environment. We had assumed that your mammalian origin would preclude this ability. Please to be demonstrating it."
Eril glanced around the room, seeing only the banks of unfamiliar instruments lining the walls. There was no furniture other than the seat he occupied, and that had been sculpted for him by Bhevon. He dredged his memory for the survival tools he=d been taught in the Academy. They didn=t assume much, just wood, cleavable stone like flint and plant fibers. In theory he could kill and cook his own dinner or sabotage an Alliance installation, using only materials found on any habitable planet.
Now he spread out his hands and asked, "With what?"
"What could you possibly be needing to make tools? Are external substrates necessary for generating the mammalian equivalent of therine?"
Eril very nearly snapped, "What the hell is therine?" Instead he said slowly and calmly, "I can=t make tools out of empty air. I have to have raw materials and something to work them with."
Another ripple went down Bhevon=s body. Eril had the feeling that, given its wish, it would have gone humping away from him in disgust. After a long pause, it said, in a monotone that he found infuriatingly pedantic, "Raerquel=s scientific explorations are advancing the theory that personness should be re-defined as the capacity for both altruism and individual initiative, which require intelligence as well as self-awareness. It believes you humans fulfill these theoretical requirements. However, many scientific colleagues will be challenging this premise and rejecting our evidences. Why, they will surely ask, should they extend serious consideration to specimens that fail to share the most basic skills with us?"
Eril squashed his immediate impulse to get up and do something drastic. Adrenalin crept along his nerves, but no familiar thrill. His belly twisted as if he=d swallowed a bucketful of ice. What would we do with an unknown animal? Probably put it in a zoo, if we didn=t slaughter and dissect it first... Is that what=s in store for us?
Bhevon took Eril down the ramp to the big underground laboratory. When he stepped through the doorway, Brianna greeted him enthusiastically, followed by Lennart, who hugged him and slapped his shoulders as if they were long-lost cousins.
Only Kithri hung back. After their sense of connectedness during their ordeal with the pirates, Eril was surprised how opaque she was to him. Her eyes jumped around, never still, although otherwise she looked fit enough. Her skin was clear and unbruised. As she walked toward him, the silky gray tunic outlined the muscles of her shoulders and thighs. By contrast, Brianna=s opulent curves seemed flabby.
Kithri reached out and touched him hesitantly, as if needing to reassure herself that he was solid flesh. She wouldn=t meet his eyes, and yet in that brief contact, he felt an unexpected intimacy with her. His skin tingled where her fingertips brushed against his arm. Feelings rushed over him, things he wanted to say to her, things he had no words for.
Then the moment was gone and the four of them gathered around the table, comparing experiences. They argued a bit as to whether they had any privacy. Eril thought they did, because the gastropoids seemed to require direct visual contact with the light translator panels. There had been several instances during his questioning when he=d turned away and Bhevon hadn=t been able to see the panel. It had to ask him to repeat what he=d said.
Brianna pointed out that the light panels were still operative, ripples of brightness covering them with each sentence. The gastropoids could easily watch the conversation.
"If they=re going to spy on us, there=s not a lot we can do about it," Lennart said, making swirling patterns with his fingers on the smooth table surface. "What are we going to do, stop talking to each other--or invent a common sign language? We still don=t know if we=re guests or prisoners or what."
"I don=t think they=ve decided that yet, themselves," Eril said. "The next move=s theirs."
"Running us through their tests to see if we=re worthy of, how did you put it? personness?" said Lennart.
"And if they decide we=re not?" Kithri said, half-bitter, half-anxious. "What happens then? Do we get stuck in a cage for the rest of our lives?"
Eril remembered the therine incident with Bhevon. Being able to exchange abstract ideas, use recorded language to bind time, manipulate tools--all the measures of intelligence he was familiar with--none of these might count if the aliens= standards for "personness" were truly that different. But he couldn=t bring himself to say it aloud, to feed Kithri=s mood. She had good cause to be uneasy. They all did. They=d been separated, questioned and kept in suspense about each other. After their ordeal with the pirates, that was more than enough to erode even the most optimistic spirits.
"You can sit around feeling incompetent if you want to," Brianna told Kithri, "but I=m not going to join you. It takes time to understand any new culture, and time is what we=ve got. Besides, Raerquel, the chief investigating scientist, is already our advocate.
"Which reminds me," she paused, gesturing with her hands, "I need of some sort of recording medium. There=s only so many details I can memorize before they all start to run together--"
Lennart laughed and told her she was incorrigible.
"What=s the point of keeping notes, when we might be trapped here for the rest of our lives?" Kithri said. "We could die here, alone, prisoners. Don=t you even care?"
"What would you do if you could break out?" Brianna said waspishly. "Go running off to the hills like you did before?"
Kithri drew in a quick breath and clamped her lips together. Her hands curled into fists, the muscles of her shoulders bunching.
"It=s too early to be making plans," Eril said. "Not until we know what our situation is. The slugs could turn out hostile, or they could just as well become our allies. Maybe we=ll find a way back to Brianna=s world, or Lennart=s, or our own. Or a way of traveling between all three. Who knows?"
Kithri swiveled on the bench to look him full in the face, her eyes like pools of still water. The dent in her nose stood out sharply. For a moment, Eril saw her as a wild young thing, bewildered and alone. Brianna was in her element here, and Eril couldn=t deny his own hopes for dealing with the aliens. Lennart seemed as relaxed and good-natured as usual, but where was there a role for Kithri? Here there was no jaydium to run, no scrubjets to pilot...
Was that what she was thinking?
"We=re all in this together." It was a stupid platitude, but the best he could come up with at the moment. The expression on her face had left him awkward and unsure.
She looked away and said in a voice that tore at his heart, "If you say so."
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