Friday, December 14, 2012

Jaydium - Chapter 24


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 24

Eril stood quietly, hands at his sides, facing the semi-circle of giant silvery bodies. He took a deep breath, his shoulders rising and falling. Then he began to speak.

"We greet you in peace and friendship," he said. At his words, brightness shot through the platform wall panels, leaping with energy. "We represent two star-faring empires, the Fifth Federation and the--er, Dominion. We welcome you with open--er, with eagerness. In all our settled worlds, we have never encountered intelligent life like yours. You are unique, and we would like to have you as friends and...allies."

It could be worse, Kithri thought, even if he did sound like a pompous diplomatic ass. He was doing a whole lot better than she would have in his position. And it couldn=t be easy for him, knowing how much rode on his words. Sweat plastered his black hair to his neck and tension roughened his voice. Despite this, he held himself erect and graceful. The wall lattices danced with light in response to his words.

As Eril spoke, the giant molluscans of the Council began slowly shifting their positions. At first, they swayed from side to side as if they were restless or bored with his speech. Then Kithri realized that they were actually creeping across the platform, back and forth in a complicated weaving pattern. No matter how she tried to concentrate on Eril, her eyes were draw to them. As they moved, the rhythm of their rocking became more apparent and more disturbing. She caught a faint, hypnotic pulsation of light in their bodies.

I=m seeing things... That must be it.

"Raerquel told the truth," Eril went on. "We did not travel here across space. You already know our jet is capable of surface transportation only. We came here across a time-space discontinuity, but the planet we left is a desert, no more than a minor outpost of the Federation. There=s no indigenous intelligent life, no cities--just a few settlements around the spaceport. Brianna=s world, where the--where history diverged from ours, is green and fertile like this one, but there=s forest here instead of ocean, and your city--" he pointed back towards the shore, "--is a single, brightly-colored ruin."

Don=t posture, Eril, they=ll think it=s a made up speech you learned from Raerquel. Kithri fought against the dawning certainty that the hearing was merely a formality, like the grant applications her father said would never be seriously considered. The damned slugs kept moving around, as if they were engaged in a ritual dance. For god=s sake, weren=t they even listening?

"We are convinced these two worlds represent divergent possibilities, of which yours is the precursor," Eril struggled on. "My world may well be the future in which your civilization destroys itself. In Brianna=s, some other catastrophe might occur, one that turns this ocean into a forest floor.

He took another deep breath, as if gathering himself. "Scientist Raerquel told us you=re on the brink of an interstellar war. If this actually happens--and either of our worlds are the consequence--"

"Dangerous it is to be listening to this primitive vertebrate performance!" Ru-elliven interrupted. "As dangerous as giving credence to the heresies of NewHome and Tomorrow. I warn you, once we allow it, then our own thoughts will become polluted beyond repair!"

During Eril=s speech, the gastropoids had intensified their bodily pulsations. The reflections glinting off their silvery skins now made Kithri disoriented and nauseated, much as the light displays in the laboratory had. During the moment of silence that followed Ru-elliven=s outburst, she glanced up at the glittering towers. Something flooded up behind her eyes, the same something that had roused at the sight of the crystalline ships. She saw the sky darken to the emptiness of space. The spires and towers fractured into a million bits, scintillating in the light of a massive fireball. Wild, anguished wailing lanced through her mind -- a name she did not recognize--and then she was staring at the intact lacework panels as another gastropoid voice boomed out.

"--Scientist Raerquel=s sympathy with the NewHome degenerates is clearly stemming from its perverted fascination with sub-sentient animals--"

Brianna pushed forward, jerking away from Lennart=s restraining hand. Crimson had risen to her cheeks, leaving the rest of her face waxen pale by comparison.

"You cannot dismiss us like this!" she said. "I am not some degenerate animal, I am a trained scientist! I don=t give an untranslatable about your adolescent politics. My sole loyalty is to the truth. If you only let us, we can--we will--demonstrate all the attributes of a civilized species. Language. Abstract symbology. Time-binding. Complex social interactions. The ability to modify our natural environment."

She calmed down as she went on, sounding less irate and more rational. Her face regained its natural color. "Even if you reject our oral arguments, you must still consider the evidence of our vehicle. My people have colonized fifty planetary systems to your three, and studied a hundred more. How can you possibly deny our technological achievements?"

"If this is true, the creatures are deserving a deeper investigation," said one gastropoid. Nadilith, maybe.

It actually paid attention to what she said, Kithri realized. Maybe there=s some hope here after all.

"Association is not proving origination!" Ru-elliven insisted, barely pausing in its undulating movement. Its resonant voice filled the platform space.

"Then where did they come from?" Nadilith said. "Not from Planet-of-Home, or they would have been discovered centuries ago."

"It does not matter where they are coming from! What matters is Raerquel=s attempt to brainwash this Council using pseudo-scientific trickery!" Ru-elliven said. "You have all received my committee=s report."

"Your committee," Raerquel interrupted, "is having its collective cerebral ganglia embedded in fixative before consideration of actual data. If I were to train mammalians to mimic the characteristics of personness, surely I would choose some less preposterous history for them."

Raerquel shuffled forward into the open space between the Council members. "Set aside what you think of my political affiliations. They are not the issue. Look at these creatures! They are mammalians, true, but highly evolved, gifted with conscience and awarenesses that rival our own. Forget their outlandish skeletal shapes and trichotiferous integuments. Listen to the meaning of their words, the universality of--"

"This Council is already sufficiently acquainted with your delusions!" bellowed out another voice.

"Too long have we tolerated Raerquel=s dissident political views and unnatural dabblings with lower life forms, for the sake of its honorable Clan." This was Eatonne, Kithri was sure, standing just to the right of the giant Fillo-'hip. "Many warnings we have given you of the dangers of deviant social thought."

"Thought of choice is the right of all persons, regardless of Clan or rank!" Raerquel rumbled, withdrawing from the eye of the circle. "It is unethical to conduct scientific investigation to the bigotry of molluscan superior-morality!"

Fillo-'hip undulated forward, still keeping well within the group=s subtly circling pattern. "This is not a simple matter of thought freedom, but the derangement of a once brilliant scientist."

Another gastropoid spoke, "Unusual researches can be tolerated only so long as the behavior of the investigating scientist remains within proper ethical boundaries. Now, with regret, this Council has discovered positive proof of the criminal actions of Raerquel Hath=djan."

"Neither this Council nor anyone else can be discovering what is not existing!" thundered Raerquel.

"Evidence will be presented at your trial," said Ru-elliven.

"Trial! On what charge?"

"Mental contamination," answered Fillo-'hip. "I am sorry of this necessity, my old colleague, but the second and more serious charge is treason." 

Raerquel humped forward, then drew itself up to a tower of silver flesh. "Injustice! This opposition to my mammalian experiments is merely a ruse to silence my attempts to achieve peace with our offspring planets!"

 The gastropoids had extended the range of their movements so they almost surrounded Raerquel and the humans. The pulsation of their bodies grew brighter, echoes and intensified by reflections from the wall panels. The rhythms built like a sea-storm. Kithri felt herself drowning in it, dissolving, breaking into a thousand helpless pieces. The individual patterns of light blended, merging into a single, battering wave and there was no way she could stand against it. The air in her lungs became thick and impenetrable, the dappled sunlight on her shoulders ice-edged.

Raerquel stood in front of her, erect and immobile, a pillar of defiance. Kithri kept her eyes locked on Eril=s steel-straight back and tried to keep breathing.

The Council halted abruptly in its circling movements. Every second or third gastropoid from the perimeter of the platform slithered forward. The four humans and their scientist ally were completely encircled.

Kithri drew in her breath, mentally cursing herself for not having seen this development earlier. No matter what Brianna said, the Council clearly considered them as Raerquel=s specimens--or, worse yet, evidence of its treachery. And evidence would be disposable once a verdict was rendered.

"You will now be surrendering yourself and your specimens pending your trial," said Fillo-'hip.

The gastropoids began closing in, and the mindless revulsion Kithri had first felt at Raerquel=s first approach returned in full force. Whatever happened, she did not want those things touching her.

"Do not be provoking retaliation by assaultive behavior," Raerquel said.

"Tell that to them," Eril muttered.

The circle of gastropoids grew tighter. "Control your research animals, Raerquel Hath=djan!" Shuwash called out.

"Scientist Raerquel," said a calmer voice, the gastropoid to the far right. "If you cooperate with us, we are prepared to suspend the usual procedure of euthanasia for dangerous specimens, pending your trial. If not, you will be endangering their lives as well as your own legal defense. They themselves will confirm the charges that they led you into violent anti-civilized actions."

Kithri felt something snap inside her, like a rupturing balloon. It was the pirates all over again, only this time she had no promises of jaydium to throw at them. Here they were, in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by hostile slugs. But she couldn=t just sit there and let herself be taken prisoner. Every second she delayed, she lost more options.

She darted forward, hoping that a quick shove would be enough to unbalance the nearest gastropoid. Then to hustle Raerquel down to the transport platform and run for it--

A faint hissing sound was all the warning she got. The two closest gastropoids uncoiled their appendages so quickly that all she saw was a blur between the feathered tips. Jets of clear liquid shot out from those delicate strands with such force they criss-crossed over her head. A moment later, the stuff thickened, falling across her like a net. Its first touch was icy cold before the heat of her body warmed it. Then she was held fast, like an insect in an arachnid=s web.

The net hardened instantly. Kithri thrust against it with the full power of her shoulders and thighs, toughened by her years in the jaydium tunnels. There was no give in the net and no way to gain leverage against any individual threads. Only the gentle draping around her torso gave her enough space to breath

"You are not helping by generating antagonism," pleaded Raerquel. "The best chance for all is convincing the Council of your capacity for personness, even as I was convinced."

With a sense of blissful relief, Kithri felt the strands around her soften. They did not fall away entirely, but relaxed enough to permit her slow movement. When she pushed against them with more than the lightest force, they instantly became rigid again. She turned around to see the others. They too were caught in webs of gleaming crystal, no more able to move than she was. Eril met her eyes, but she read no censure in them. As for Raerquel, it had disappeared in the crowd of rounded silvery bodies.


If you can't wait to find out what happens next, you can download the whole thing from Book View Cafe (And the files will play nicely with your Nook or Kindle, as well as other devices). If not, come on back next week for the next episode...

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