Friday, December 7, 2012

Jaydium - Chapter 23


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 23

Progress to the periphery of the city was slow, but gave them time to get a good look at it. Kithri recognized one structure after another. She wondered what had happened to the vibrant colors of Brianna=s city, and then corrected her thinking. This was the original and the other only a ghost transformed by some unimaginable process. If they were now in the far past, Lennart=s past, this planet might well be the point of divergence, the origin of both her world and Brianna=s. A disturbing thought snaked through her mind. Had the gastropoids had blown themselves up and was her Stayman with its alkali pits and dust-filled Plain the result?

She shivered in the warm air and wondered what would happen to Raerquel=s peace movement if it accepted its own annihilation as its inevitable future.

Will Eril tell them what their war will do to this planet, in the hope of getting them to keep talking instead of bombing? She was grateful the decision wasn=t hers.

At the edge of the city lay parkland, very much like the green stretch where she=d first set 'Wacker down. In the distance, a few gastropoids, their silvery hides gleaming in the sunshine, herded a flock of long-bodied, rat-tailed creatures who lifted their heads curiously and then returned to grazing. Kithri thought they might be furred, but couldn=t be sure.

At the very edge of the pavement, a row of flat, sideless vehicles hovered only a few inches above the milky-quartz threshold. Several gastropoids were in the process of disembarking.

"Hai, Raerquel Hath=djan, so those are your alien mammals!" boomed one of them. "You have scientific proof they are truly sentient?"

"I am seeing you, Suppbril Ad=herim. Any news from NewHome station?"

The other alien rippled enigmatically. Kithri watched Raerquel in sympathy. How would I feel if I had a bunch of intelligent aliens in my custody on the eve of Albion being blown into bits? Would I care--would I show them the consideration Raerquel=s shown us?

The other gastropoids undulated away towards the city. Raerquel slithered on to the platform, occupying most of the front portion. The four humans followed and seated themselves in the center and rear.

Kithri smoothed her hands over the platform, wondering where the control mechanisms were. The surface felt slightly yielding, not brittle like true glass. "This can=t be the same stuff the city=s made out of, even if it looks like it."

"Looks?" Raerquel asked. "Ah, to your eyes all water is appearing the same.

Raerquel telescoped down the erect portion of its body until it reached the platform with its lower appendages. Then it stroked the clear surface like the Port Ludlow guitar player Kithri had once seen coaxing a harmony from his battered instrument. In response, a series of bulbous-tipped knobs rose above the surface. As Raerquel manipulated them, the vehicle lifted slowly to a height of several feet and then began to glide westward.

"You mean this material looks different to you than the city buildings?" Eril asked.

"Functional optical molecular qualities are quite distinctive," the alien replied, finishing its stroking. "Underwater, these differences are enhanced. Here, in this dry place, there is little true light."

"You were able to construct buildings--like those--underwater?" asked Brianna.

Raerquel gestured with a delicate upper tendril. "Once all this was part of the sea of life, before the land changed. The mountains pushed upwards and Ocean-of-Home shrank. Much was lost as we adapted to dry living. We built new cities here, on the banks of the old seas, cities like the one we are now leaving, cities of working, dreaming, waiting..."

"To return to the water?" Kithri asked.

"Even now, we must. For eggs to hatch and water-breathing trochophore younglings to grow. The Flesh-Before-Naming. For the dying oldsters, for the sick in spirit. We adults are able to utilize gaseous oxygen, and our integument is tolerant to the dryness of land with the aid of the healing gel. Terrestrial adaptation, although unpleasant, is possible."

"Just because a thing is possible, doesn=t mean it=s good," said Lennart. Again, some bleak undertone in his voice stung Kithri.

"Wise you are, my human friend. These cities here," Raerquel gestured from the way they had come, "cities of light, and cities of darkness in the mountains, they are not enough for us. Who can say if our present desolation is beginning then, with the loss of our water home, and not with our estranged offspring planets?"


The transport platform floated above the parkland and began to circle the city. As they came around, Kithri caught her first glimpse of the spaceport in its living state, not deserted as it was in Brianna=s time. Row after row of teardrop-shaped ships filled the field. Some were slim and tight like the needle-jets Eril flew late in the war. They seated one, maybe two--she couldn=t be sure about the gastropoids. Other ships were clearly meant to carry more, including one massive vessel that must surely be a freighter. The trading ships she=d known on Stayman were squat, space-scarred buckets, not smoothly rounded crystal. She had a sudden vision of the ships lying broken on the cream-colored field like bits of shattered glass.

Beside her, the two men sat silently staring. The naked hunger in Lennart=s eyes made Kithri flinch and look down. She felt something hot and wet on her face, and scrubbed it away before the others could notice.


They angled along the vee-shaped pass and cut through the last green-cloaked hills. Something flashed before them, blinding in the sunlight. Kithri sat straighter, straining for a better view. She blinked, expecting at first to see the vivid green forest of Brianna=s world. Instead, as they started down the final slope, a vast shallow sea stretched before them and into the blurred horizon.

Brianna murmured something unintelligible and Lennart made a comment about this place being different, but Kithri ignored them. How could you make jokes when there was so much water out there? So big, and glassy calm beyond the narrow line of surf. The reflected light filled the sky and caught in her throat.

The coast curved inward to a little bay, with a cluster of sparkling buildings and a broad, low pier spun of moonlight-frosted glass like something from a fairy tale. Gastropoids jammed the strip of beach, spilling into the shallow water. A few swam out past the surf line, dipping through the waves like elongated pearls. On the beach itself, the bodies thronged together.

Raerquel lowered the platform until waves splashed against the sides. It cantilevered its upper body over the water until its delicate upper appendages skimmed the surface. Then it extended its dripping tentacles, rigid and unmoving.

She had never seen Raerquel so still before. The scientist=s extremities were usually in constant motion. A faint light glimmered over its skin as it slowly recurled its tentacles.

Kithri looked away, out across the sea, and took a deep breath. The air here tasted different from anything she=d known. She felt the moisture on her skin and inside her nose and throat.

Above them, a slender-winged flier hovered and dove, emitting an abrasive whine. Kithri wondered what it was. The shape seemed wrong for a bird, judging by Stayman=s desert-adapted scavengers.

"What was that?" Lennart asked. "A giant dragonfly?"

"Dragonflies don=t make noises like that," Eril said.

"Pseudo-avian," Raerquel commented. Kithri thought that wasn=t what it actually said, but only the best interpretation of Brianna=s translator.

The platform sped on, leaving only a shadow for a wake. Below them, the water was clear enough to reveal a sandy bottom. The ocean floor slanted gradually deeper and deeper, darkening to blue.

Kithri squinted in the brightness of the reflected glare. There was a mist ahead, low and close to the water. Its sharp boundaries struck her as peculiar, but what did she know about water vapor? She was a stranger to Stayman=s single hypersaline sea and Albion had been a world of lakes and rivers, not oceans.

When they were about a mile offshore, the mist resolved into detailed structures. Kithri stared open-mouthed at the outskirts of a gigantic crystalline city that dominated the center of the ocean. Much of it lay underwater, visible only as masses of glittering peaks interspersed with darker areas of red-brown and muted green. Causeways and platforms jutted skyward, spires and towers spaced by avenues, broad enough for the free circulation of water. Gastropoids dove through the waves, sleek and round, their heads emerging here and there to dot the surface like a constellation of pearly beads.

"Tell me I=m not seeing this," Lennart murmured.

"It=s so big," said Brianna in a high, breathy voice. "How do they deal with tidal currents?"

Kithri=s heart seemed to have crawled into her throat. She could barely breathe, let alone speak. Her longing for Albion=s beauty seemed no more than a mistaken hunger, when before her lay a feast. It was not her world, not her city, or even one that her kind might build. Yet something stirred deep within her, a longing that had been buried all those years beneath Stayman=s dust. She=d wept at the vision of the crystalline ships smashed into dust. Now she could not bear to think what might happen to this city.

They arrived at an elaborate complex built above the water, a pavilion of soaring buttresses and wide horizontal panels of transparent lace. Here Raerquel brought their transport to a halt. They climbed the ramp to the wide central stage, where a small group of gastropoids waited. Others moved into position around the perimeter of the platform, encircling them, while below the water teemed with silver bodies.

Sunlight filtered through the crisscrossed filigree of the high arched dome and dappled the glassy floor beneath Kithri=s feet. A breeze whispered through the open walls, bringing her the tang of seawater. 

Five massive gastropoids sat in a semi-circle. Kithri recognized one from the laboratory examining committee, the one on the far left with the iron-gray sheen to its head discs and the neck slits in an inverted chevron pattern.

After cautioning the humans to remain together and to speak only when requested, Raerquel pointed to each gastropoid and named it. "There is Fillo-'hip, leader-elect of the Council...Shuwash from the mountain cities, Nadilith...Ru-elliven of the scientific committee...and Eatonne."

As Raerquel spoke, ripples of brightness flowed over the latticework of the platform=s walls. Kithri craned her neck to watch the patterns of light flare up and then dim as Raerquel finished. The panels should be visible for miles on a day as fair as this one.

Its introductions finished, Raerquel undulated forward."Esteemed Council-of-Ocean and others," it gestured with one constantly moving tentacle towards the gastropoids floating in the waters outside. "I present to you a scientific marvel--intelligent mammalians."

"Whether these creatures are a marvel is remaining to be demonstrated," said the gastropoid Raerquel had named as Fillo-'hip, overriding the murmured reaction from the crowd below. It was a massive creature, easily the largest Kithri had yet seen. She found herself distrusting it intensely. The arrangement of its neck slits resembled sand-hen scratchings, and the motion of its lower appendages, so different from the flowing gestures of Raerquel, made her think of writhing worms. 

"We have studied your reports and the evaluation of the scientific review committee," Fillo-'hip continued. "In these, we find more questions than answers. We are here to find those answers, not to stare like witless hatchlings at your prize exhibits. What secrets have you been withholding from us, Raerquel? There must be an extraterrestrial origin for these creatures, yet your findings indicate the craft in which they were found is inadequate to the depths of space. Where is the explanation for this matter?"

"The discovery of another habitable world, one adaptable to our colonization, would be greatly altering the balance of interplanetary power," added another gastropoid.

"Perhaps Scientist Raerquel has failed in rigorous pursuing of this information for reasons having to do with the political consequences."

Kithri wasn=t sure which gastropoid had uttered this last statement. Some quality of the open space played havoc with her sense of sound direction. She scanned the neck sections of the Council before her, searching for any hint of motion. 

"No conclusive proof of the origins of these humans is yet available," Raerquel answered temperately. "The artifacts accompanying their sudden appearance are currently undergoing analysis. Ghembaya and others have speculated that, had invertebrates not dominated the evolution of life here on Planet-of-Home, some other group--perhaps vertebrate--perhaps mammalian--might have developed intelligence. This is what makes these creatures so miraculous! Listen to them and judge for yourselves if such an evolutionary development has not already occurred, on a world that is separated from ours not by space but by probability. A world in which the unfolding of life has taken this fascinating divergence!"

Raerquel pointed one graceful tentacle at Eril, who stepped forward. The Council came to a sudden halt, upper tentacles extended like frozen feathers. Kithri, standing behind Eril, saw him square his shoulders. A few of the Council members rumbled ominously. For a moment, she feared he wouldn=t be allowed to speak. Then they quieted, a semi-circle of fleshly gray monoliths, their expressions utterly unreadable.

One of them said, "This is irrelevant to the central point under discussion--the true motivations behind Scientist Raerquel=s treasonous opinions."

"Let us at least hear this argument," replied another. "We would not have it said we gave Raerquel no opportunity to present its...evidence."


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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