Friday, December 28, 2012

Jaydium - Chapter 26


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 26

Dawn came and the crystalline walls glowed with a faint iridescent sheen. Eril couldn=t remember falling asleep, just lying there, staring at the expanse of featureless luminescent gray. Wishing he could see the stars. Feeling the emptiness inside him. The not-caring that made his promises empty syllables and turned his life into one long bid for escape. He was human, he told himself, not hollow. He cared--about the Fed, about Raerquel and the future of its world. Yet something had gone out of him even before he jetted down to Port Ludlow in search of the brushie duopilot who was his only hope. Maybe in the bars and alleys of New Paris, one crazy scrape after another. Maybe as far back as Albion. 


Eril winced at the memory. Compared to Kithri, he=d lost nothing there.
He sat up, his hip and shoulder bones aching. When he reached his arms above his head and stretched, his spine popped. Next to him, close enough so she could easily have touched him in her sleep, Kithri lay on curled on one side. In the far corner, Brianna had tucked up in a fetal ball, her back to the others. Lennart sat and stared blankly ahead, his legs folded in a complicated and uncomfortable-looking arrangement. His hands open lay, palms up, on his knees.

Eril clambered to his feet and continued his stretching. Even making allowances for the unforgiving sleeping surface, he felt stiff. He didn=t like the thought of getting old. But at the rate they were going, they would none of them live that long.

None of us, he repeated to himself. Not just me, none of us.

A door opened in the wall and one of their unnamed captors sat outside, ready to escort them singly to a newly sculpted sanitary facility in an adjacent portion of the holding platform. When they=d all made the requisite trip and an attempt at morning greetings to one another, the door opened again and Raerquel slithered in.

"Come, my human friends," it said with its usual graceful gestures. "We must return to the laboratory to prepare my defense."

"I thought we were just laboratory specimens, impounded ones at that," Eril said. "And now they=re just going to let us go? What=s happened, have they dropped the charges?"

"Make no mistake, the charges are very serious and in no fashion dismissed," Raerquel replied. "It is for this purpose that I am allowed to utilize all my resources. You are the crux of my argument of alien personness."

"Wait a second!" Eril held up both hands. "You=ve been charged with mental contamination for just associating with us. And now you say you=re going to use us as part of your defense?"

"Of course." The alien paused. "How else would its validity be evaluated?"

"What a fascinating cultural--" Brianna began before Eril cut her off.

"Run first and talk later--before the Council changes its collective mind," he said, and shoved Brianna out the doorway after Kithri.


The whole trip back, Eril expected something to go wrong. In the city, he waited for silvery bodies to surround them, spewing forth liquid chains. Over the ocean, he watched for signs of pursuit. Maybe letting them go was all a ruse, so they could be killed "accidentally" while being recaptured.

Despite the empty expanse of sky, the gentle sunlight and breezes, Eril couldn=t stop worrying. If something went wrong, he didn=t know if he could pilot the platform. And if he, with his experience and training couldn=t do it, he didn=t trust any of the others to, not even Kithri. The only good escape route was one he found for himself...wasn=t it?

Raerquel, on the other hand, had been expansive, almost ebullient, from the moment they moved out of range of the mass-communication panels. As they flew westward, it pointed out the various divisions of the city--the shallow living areas, the vertical food-growing corridors and deep-water nurseries, divided into areas for each clan.

Gastropoid fertilization, Raerquel told them, took place in the deepest trenches of the ocean, since the ciliated trochophore larvae required the high pressures of the depths. Comparatively few survived the larval stage. Some fell prey to genetic or developmental defects, others were eaten by predators or couldn=t compete for the limited supplies of food and oxygen. All lived and suffered in the same anonymous preconsciousness. Only when the metamorphosis was complete and they made their way to the shallows were their nervous systems capable of self-awareness, let alone thought.

Eril, listening to Raerquel=s crisply scientific description of the process, contrasted the whole arrangement to his own family. Raerquel would have dozens of siblings instead of a single bossy sister. A large part of its family loyalty would come from what was loosely called "survivor solidarity." Eril had seen this bonding in battle, the intense comradeship that pulled him and his crew through more than one hopeless situation during the war. But eventually they=d be reassigned to different missions, die or retire or get promoted. Eril never let himself get too dependent on the others, not when they might be blown to bits or off to Hyades when he really needed them. Your best ally in a jam was always yourself.

Not so with these gastropoids. Their earliest consciousness would have been of their unity as they burst upward into the light. Having survived the same brutal beginnings, it was no wonder they regarded everyone else as potentially hostile. As rational beings, they could extend that concept of "us" to the other generations of their clan, and with trepidation to other clans that had shared their birthplace. But to other creatures, no matter how phylogenically related, which didn=t even come from the same water...

In his musings, Eril had missed a beat of the conversation. Raerquel had left the subject of reproduction for a description of its peace faction. Eril had heard self-styled "peacemakers" before, but usually what they wanted was really a tactical advantage,"Don=t bash us before we get so far ahead that we can bash you harder" or some version of, "Peace only on our terms."

But Raerquel didn=t care what it gave up--its scientific career, the status of its clan, its adult alliances--everything but the truth, the basic unity of the gastropoid race. It spoke of compassion being the true test of self worth, that any injury done to another sensible creature was an irreparable loss to the offender.

If the Fed leaders had such single-mindedness and dedication, Eril wondered, would we have ended up in splinters, held together by luck and hope?

"All that sounds great," Lennart said when there was a pause in the oration. "But we humans had the same ideals, and look what happened to us."

"Your time remained peaceful," replied Raerquel.

"Yeah, but theirs didn=t." He nodded at Eril. "They forgot everything we=d learned about peace."

Raerquel, with one of its characteristically fluid tentacle gestures, said, "Every day in which the bombs are not loosed is another day in which we can learn to avoid that catastrophe. Are you asserting that just because a thing has never been done that it is impossible? I cannot believe that of beings like yourselves, who have journeyed through the interdimensional nothingness of our possible future. Are we such hopelessly backward creatures that we cannot be learning from your example to dare something new? Are not your years of peace an accomplishment worthy of emulation?"

"You=re right," Kithri said passionately. "We want to help, to do whatever we can to stop this war."

"Are you all crazy?" Brianna asked. Her voice was thin and reedy, strained to the edge. She held on the low railing with white-knuckled hands. "Or is this some new melodrama-entertainment I=ve stumbled into? There=s nothing we can do except get ourselves killed first."

"Is that what you believe in your Dominion?" Lennart said. "Then you=re even more primitive than we were."

"What would our dying accomplish?" she retorted. "Even if we could act effectively, we=d be interfering with a culture we don=t even understand yet. Callous as it sounds, we must allow the gastropoids to solve their own problems. It=s the only ethical position available to us."

By this time they=d left the city proper and were now flying over the pleasantly warm ocean. The blue-gray water slipped along beneath the speeding platform. Eril took his eyes from the first shadowy lines of the coast and turned back to Raerquel. 

During the first days of their captivity, Raerquel and its team had refused to answer even the simplest questions. They=d been almost paranoid about avoiding 'cultural contamination=--or even its outward appearance. Yet now the gastropoid was talking freely, almost eagerly. It had gone out of its way to show them the nurseries, surely the most sensitive and vulnerable areas of the city. The description of the gastropoids= life there explained much about their psychology, their inbred xenophobia. But why was Raerquel telling them all this now? What was behind this change of heart? Had it decided that since the humans were expendable, it could perform any sort of bizarre sociological experiment on them?

"There is no discrepancy," Raerquel replied tranquilly. "Whether or not you have true, independently-developed intelligence or are merely mimicking what you have seen is no longer the point in question. Now, with these charges of mental contamination as the basis for treason, the greater the commonality of your behavior and gastropoid values, the stronger our case."

"That must be a world record about-face," Lennart said wryly.

"What good will that do?" Eril asked Raerquel. "The Council isn=t going to judge your guilt or innocence by how indoctrinated we are."

"Some of your Council members wouldn=t believe us if we quoted cosmic constants at them," Lennart added.

"For my experiment to succeed, any insight into the principles of gastropoid civilization that I can be demonstrating in you will be of immense value. I am now attempting to answer all your previous questions."

"Why?" Eril said.

"Council-of-Ocean is expecting my defence to be a complete denial of the treason charges. That way, even if they acquit me, they can use my words to discredit the cause of peace. They can say, 'See, even Raerquel Hath=djan denies opposing our firm handling of offspring planets!= Even if I am convicted, this must not happen."

"What are you going to do?" Kithri asked.

"Agree with the charges."

"What! And let them execute you?"

"I am not intending to sacrifice myself needlessly," the gastropoid replied. "I am placing my faith in the inherent desire of the Council members for peace and understanding. I will say to them, 'Yes, Raerquel is agitating for peace, but with understanding comes fellowship, and then peace cannot be treason.="

"That=s just so many words," Lennart said dispiritedly. "If they didn=t believe you then, why would they now?"

"Maybe there=s a way to convince them without words," said Kithri.

Eril felt suddenly cold. He didn=t like the tone of her voice or the set of her chin.

"What do you mean, without words?" Lennart asked.

"In my 'jet there=s a device--the encephalosynchron," she said slowly, looking steadily at Raerquel. "We use it in duoflight to link the pilot=s minds to shipbrain. That=s a computing device like an artificial mind. It--"

"Hold it!" Eril interrupted. "We=re talking about a third-class scrubjet here, not a psionics lab."

"But maybe we could adapt it for gastropoid brains, hook two of them up together. There=s no way they could posture around then. They=d share each other=s thoughts--they=d know how alike they are. Don=t you see? This might change everything for them!"

"You have a device that is permitting speaking like this--mind to mind?" Raerquel asked.

Kithri said "Yes!" and Eril said "No!" at the same time.

"Of course!" Brianna exclaimed. "Computer-mediated telepathy!"

"My human-friends," said Raerquel, curling and uncurling its upper tentacles rapidly, "if this could be possible--to tie the minds of our Planetary and offspring leaders in this way--we could be resolving our differences without prejudice or misunderstanding. All would be agreeing on the necessity for peace. We would swim through one water, be illuminated by one light. War--war would become unthinkable. This can be done, this linking of minds?"

"I don=t know," Kithri said. "It=s just an idea. We=d have to modify the apparatus, reroute the morphoplex lines, maybe reprogram some of shipbrain. But we have to try."

Eril realized she might actually be serious. "The duoapparatus wasn=t meant for telepathy," he said uneasily. "And that=s assuming you can modify it for whatever kind of brains Raerquel=s people have. They=re not even in the same phylum as us--there=s not a comet=s chance in hell you=ll find enough similarity to know where to start!"

They had now come to the first of the low hills separating the shoreline from the inland city. The platform rose in gentle waves over the lumps of land and Eril=s body swayed with it. Sunlight gleamed on the dent in Kithri=s nose.

"I know that!" she said. "You know that! But don=t deprive these people of hope just because they don=t know that!"

"Even if it were possible to modify the equipment, we=d have to test it on a human-to-gastropoid link first," Eril said, trying to sound calm and rational. "Who=s going to be the experimental volunteer, you?"

"Damn right! Who else is qualified to test it? It=s my apparatus, my brain--"

"Your brain that gets fried! Kithri, I won=t let you do it!"

"You won=t!" she flamed at him. "What makes you think you have anything to say about how I risk my dustball brain?"

"It=s completely unreasonable!" The proposal wasn=t unreasonable, and he knew it. It was foolhardy and hazardous, but not unreasonable. What was unreasonable was how horrified he was at Kithri participating in it, how desperately he wanted not to lose her.

"So what is reasonable about anything that=s happened to us?" she said. "Lennart popping out of thin space, the Cerrano Plain turning into a goddamned forest, Brianna=s city--and now this! This is reasonable?"

"Will you stop it!" Brianna screamed. "Here we are on the brink of annihilation, and you two start a lovers= quarrel! Eril, the least you can do is help Kithri make the equipment work safely."

"I thought you were against our interfering in the gastropoids= affairs," Eril retorted. "Let them work out their own destiny, you said."

"I was! I still am. But improving their communications is not the same as dictating our own solutions to their problems. It might even enhance their own cultural processes. And besides, I didn=t say I agreed. I don=t know enough about it to have formed an opinion. I said that if you were determined to engage in the experiment at all, you ought to do it properly."

Lennart, still pale and quiet, added, "As has been said before under slightly different circumstances, we haven=t got anything to lose, heyh?"

"It=s a stupid, comet-crazy thing to try," Kithri said in a quiet, intense voice. "Nine chances out of ten it won=t work at all. Or else it will, as you put it, fry my brain. Probably along with whichever leader is wired up to me, which will start the war for sure. But we=ve got to do something, and I don=t see any other possibilities."

They were right, all of them, damn them. He understood, he just didn=t like the feel of the whole thing.

Kithri shifted on the platform so she was facing him, almost brushing against him. Eril realized how rarely she ever touched anyone and when she did, it was deliberate and controlled. All except for that time after their first duo flight when something had broken loose inside her.

Behind her, the waves slipped by in hypnotic rhythm. Eril noticed them only peripherally. Her eyes were huge and dark, bruised-looking in the shadows of her lashes.

"In case it hadn=t occurred to you," she said, "I can=t rewire the damned thing by myself. You=re the only other person who knows anything about the duoapparatus. I...need you. Or are you just pissed," she added savagely, "because you didn=t think of it first?"

Shaken, Eril turned away, eyes blindly scanning the horizon. Her words stung as if she=d physically struck him. Thoughts rushed through his mind like poisoned memories.

Whenever there=s trouble, you never let anyone else make decisions for you. You live--or die--by your own mistakes... The only good escape route was one you found for yourself...

No wonder he couldn=t find a duo partner for Eades=s Courier Corps. It was the pattern of his whole life, depending on himself and no one else, because every time he did...

Sun and sky reeled around him. The gently lapping waves roared in his ears and the warm air turned to the chill of space.

He depended on himself because he=d had to. First his father, then Weiram...gone in an instant. They might all be gone tomorrow, blown to powder in the gastropoids= war.

Now he couldn=t promise Kithri a damned thing. And anything he did to dissuade or protect her would only expose all of them to greater risk. If she could make a difference, then by all the powers of luck and space, so could he. He had to let her try.


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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