The Sea of Minos
Back when his parents took him on the big trip to America, Leon used to go down to the creek at the bottom of the yard. The first winter he watched the ice get thicker and wondered if it would bear his weight. One day he decided to try it, though his parents had strictly forbidden him to do so. It was a gray day, with more snow coming. Far off to the right, two or three properties upstream around the bend, he heard shouting. Maybe people were having fun sliding about or even skating. He didn’t want to be left out.
The ice was very clear, so he could see tree branches trapped in the ice a few inches down, their twigs moving in the current beneath. Suddenly he saw a white face under the ice, quite calm, moving gently downstream and turning as it was carried along.
Leon told me this story about his own childhood after he pulled me off a high ledge on Table Mountain where I had managed to get stuck.
“Was I a bad girl?” I asked him.
“No, you were a brave girl,” he said. “But I prefer a live girl.”
Everybody above the ice was probably dead, cooked alive by the broadband radiation from the giant planet above and the plasma torus that followed Io around it. The moonquake had brought down a berg of iron-hard ice upon the Umtali, wrecking its shields, bleeding off its warm internal atmosphere, trapping its occupants, and exposing them to the wrath of Jupiter.
But the quake had not damaged the Mole, one hundred meters below the surface of Europa. A few microsieverts seeped down the tunnel above, but the level was not dangerous. It was very, very dark out there. Leon felt a wave of terror, recalling his first adventure at the creek. Should he try to go back and save his companions? Their last despairing messages had made it clear that if they were not dead already, they would be before he could reverse the Mole and make his way into the wrecked ship. The Mole did not carry the heavy shields of the Umtali. Its builders, in an apparently sensible design choice, had opted to use the mass saved by minimizing the shielding to equip the Moby half of the giant machine with a lab and workshop, relying on the Mole pilot’s personal armor and the mass of the Moby behind to protect him until it was safely underground. But his personal armor would only provide enough protection for about an hour out on the surface. According to the Mole’s AI, by the time he cut his way to the corpses of his shipmates he himself would be a walking dead man.
The Umtali’s emergency beacon was still functional, broadcasting its distress signal. Somebody might come eventually; the Pan-African Space Administration, having already spent a fortune on this venture, would probably want to recover whatever human, informational, and commercial valuables that remained of their investment. Given water with a reasonable portion of dissolved salts, metals and volatiles, the Moby, with its thorium reactor, was self-sustaining for an indefinite period. He could melt the ice around him, eat, sleep, and wait. Or he could go on with the mission his friends had died for.
There was only one choice. He must go down into the greater darkness below him.
Mack was well on his way through his commandeered bottle of rachiu when Kadi showed up. To Mack, who at that time was an unreformed male chauvinist pig, as they used to say, Kadi was spectacular, even more so through the goggles of a half-liter of brutal Rumanian brandy. Lit from beneath by the tiny remote sun that crept across the black sky under the scuffed transparent floor, her legs and figure showed to particularly fine advantage.
“How did you get that stuff?” Kadi asked, sitting down opposite him. “I tried it in Constanta once and it bit me back.”
“Paddy makes it. You don’t think they ship it up here. Want some?”
Kadi waved it away and ordered a Manhattan. Paddy himself mixed it and brought it over, curious about this interesting apparition at his bar. Paddy’s wasn’t fashionable any more. Hektor’s barflies now gathered at the new place on the asteroid’s little concave lake in the aft lobe, far away from the loud grimy mining operations that were hollowing out the forrard lobe. Maybe if creatures like this amazing copper-colored amazon kept coming, his place would regain its days of glory.
Kadi lifted her glass and toasted Mack. “I hear congratulations are in order. You finally joined the noble order of the stiffed partner.”
“Have you come here to pick over the corpse?” Mack growled. “Or can you give me some real help? That bastard Papandreou must have made a legal mistake somewhere, if I can find it. Are you a lawyer? If not, what business is it of yours?” Mack stumbled a bit over “business is it,” and Kadi tried to guess whether the accent was Russian or Rumanian. Mack’s official name, Yermak Constantin, suggested both.
“Actually,” said Kadi, “I’ve come to ask for your help.”
“You’re telling me you came all the way out here to Hektor to visit me?”
“Well, this is an L4 Trojan, so it’s not much out of my way. You must get a lot of transiting people in here all the time, taking the cheap route. But yes, I did make a point of dropping by to meet you.”
“So what’s big attraction of me?” He grinned lecherously. “My magnificent masculine body?”
“We’ll have none of that. My name is Kadiatou Eleanor Bird. You may even have heard of me—I was second in command on PASA’s Ganymede Deep Drill Project. I’ve got another mission this time, further into Jupiter’s radiation belts and much more dangerous.”
“I thought PASA had already tried Europa and screwed it up,” said Mack nastily. “Anyhow, what has this got to do with me? And how did you find me?”
“Your fame precedes you,” Kadi said. “We are looking for a reckless, very experienced, and relatively indestructible expert on space mining, and your name kept coming up.”
“Reckless, da?” The “da” didn’t help Kadi identify Mack’s core ethnicity, since it means yes in both languages. Kadi, who was half Malinese and half New Yorker, prided herself on her slightly racist skills of ethnic detection. “Well,” he went on, “I can’t help. My rig, as you seem to know well, has been snaked out from under me by that Greek ublyodok.” Ah, Russian, thought Kadi. Or maybe he only swears in Russian because he hates them.
“We’re not going to need your rig. We’ve got a beautiful one of our own, or we will have. And your old ship might have been fine out in the Belt where the radiation is pretty mild, but where we’re going you’d poach like an egg.”
“Indestructible. Relatively indestructible, I think you said. I don’t like sound of that.”
“I thought I was talking to Iron Mack, the terror of the nickel-iron planetoids.”
Kadi’s smile took him by surprise. Suddenly she wasn’t just a beautiful nicely shaped piece of dusky lady-flesh, but a rather remarkable personage, someone who would take the mickey out of him if he wasn’t careful. “And you’re in charge? A fancy dama like you. You’ll ruin your makeup.”
“Like I said, we’ll have none of that.” Sexism in the late twenty-first century, losing its socio-economic bite, has morphed into a slightly nasty kind of gallantry.
She went on: “Here’s the thing. You guessed right: PASA is going back to Europa, better equipped and taking into account the bits of information we got from the first mission. We have evidence that at least one of the crew may still be alive, probably Leon Held, the drill operator/submersible pilot. We want to get him back, of course, and push on. That warm ocean under the ice is the least-known place in the whole of the solar system, and the place most favorable to life—“
“Yeah,” Mack said, intrigued. “That brown gunk around cracks in the surface. I’ve seen it. It looks like shit to me. Where there’s shit there must be shitter.”
Ignoring Mack’s rather crude interruption, Kadi resumed the lecture she had been giving for the last three months. “We know there are organic compounds in that stuff, we know there must be volcanic eruptions from the iron-silicate core under the seabed. But we don’t know about what’s in between.
“There’s more than twice as much water in that ocean than on planet Earth, which should get your attention, because Europa as a whole is a smidgeon smaller than the Moon. The water is about a hundred klicks deep. The tides should be enormous, and a huge source of energy in themselves. Some very strange electromagnetic conditions. Odd chemistry. So what’s down there? Life? Major biochemical treasures? A rich source of materials for the settlements on Mars and the asteroids? Industrial potential? –Nice light gravity, by the way, not much cost in delta-V getting stuff out of the gravity well.
“PASA’s budget has been under increasing attack. My birth-home, Mali, has the dubious distinction of leading the cost-cutting faction on the continent. They want to put the money into obsolete infrastructure instead. So PASA needs to show some paydirt, tangible economic assets. That’s why we’re looking for a miner.”
“Lucky for Leon Held there may be profit involved,” said Mack cynically. “Thanks for lecture. Most of it not new. But what’s in it for me?”
“With what we’d pay you, you could get a nice new rig of your own. And you don’t look in such good shape to bargain, as it is.”
“I’m not a charity case, lady.”
“Have it your way. I don’t have time to talk you into it if you don’t want to go. PASA is on my case. Their funding will dry up if we lose the momentum of saving the heroic survivor, and if he is still alive he may not be for long. We need to move.
“I’ll give you until rotation three—that’s um, twenty-one hours, right?—to make up your mind. I’m staying at the Sofitel. And no, I’m not giving you my room number; you can call the desk.”
Maybe I’d better introduce myself. The facts are all in my report to the PASA evaluation committee, but I decided to tell this story in the form of a yarn as well, because the facts don’t convey the real significance of our journey. There’s psychological stuff, and moral stuff, and philosophical and political, even spiritual stuff that can’t just be left between the lines.
I’m Clio Held. I know that there are rumors that I wangled my place on the second Europan Science Expedition because Leon Held was my father. But to tell the truth, I had no great love for him. He chose to abandon my mother Daliso just when she needed his help raising a very difficult daughter (me), because of his insane attraction to that poisonous moon. He’d already left her shortly after they got married. He went off to work with the mining experts of the leading-edge Pan-African space program in Johannesburg, while she stayed in the old house in Cape Town. He was away twice on shorter space missions. And he bailed on us both for the big Europa trip when I was just at that stage of girl teenagerhood where you worship Dad and want to do things with him.
And then my mother, who like all Chewa women didn’t take things lying down, turned right around and divorced him, and married my disgusting stepfather.
So in some ways if Papa Leon was in trouble, well, he brought it on himself. Basically, I wanted to go with the second expedition because I wanted to succeed where he had failed—or at least that was what I told myself at the time. And actually I’d been preparing myself since I was about seven years old to be a great explorer like Dad. I chose to specialize in communications, for two reasons, one public and the other private.
The public one was that every venture of this kind always relies crucially on its communications systems, and IT always evolves faster than any other kind of technology. So if I kept abreast of the latest stuff, I’d have the advantage when the time came for picking a crew. I had been editing my school newspaper and even doing columns for national broadcasters already, and knew how these things worked.
Of course I was a space cadet, in the figurative as well as the literal sense. But I had aced the math and information theory bachelor’s exams at the age of eleven, apprenticed myself as an unpaid intern at Pomegranate Inc–then the best data mining firm in the business–, took the Skyhook off-planet, and wrote my PhD dissertation at Chasma Princeton on Singularity Information Retrieval. Dad had wanted me to go to Witwatersrand, but I wanted to get as far as I could from Africa and my gross stepfather. Mars was maybe not far enough.
So I earned my chops. I can’t deny that PASA’s publicity department, always with an eye on Pan-African Congress support, made a thing of the daughter going up to save her father. I had to endure some pretty saccharine interviews, but gritted my teeth and was a good girl.
But I haven’t got to my private reason for getting into communications. Basically I was convinced, as Leon was, that there was intelligent life under Europa’s icy surface. It was a hunch, but if Europa had had an ocean as long as the Earth had, and if there was plenty of energy available to make up for the relative feebleness of the Sun at that distance—and there was such energy, in the massive tides that squeezed and stretched both the core and the ocean—then there was every likelihood that sentient beings would have evolved by now. After all, it only took about 3 billion years on Earth, most of it in the water, and Earth’s ocean was half the size of Europa’s. Earthly land-dwellers barely beat the water-dwellers to full technological civilization as it was.
And I was absolutely fanatical about wanting to find ways to communicate with those folks, if folks there were. I didn’t put that in my application essays after the first few years of my campaign—it would sound appealing from a little girl but might be a sign of unhealthy instability later on, so I kept it quiet. I took some linguistics courses too, as minors, but didn’t highlight them much in my CVs.
I got a job helping run the Mars/Belt network and waited for news of Dad. He’d been away six years helping to design the Mole, getting into orbit, doing the reconnaissance of the target, and making the descent. When I heard about the disaster I can’t deny that I felt a huge pang of grief for all those days we’d spent together doing science projects. Then I found out he might still be alive, and I started agitating to get on the rescue mission.
So when Kadi came and rattled my cage I was ready.
Jiamu was in a literal cage when Kadi tracked him down. He had tried to commit suicide while he was being held in the Kagoshima prefectural detention center in Tanegashima, and was under watch. It was a strange story.
As one of the top pilots at the Tanegashima Space Center, he was training pilots for the asteroid belt mining operation jointly owned by Mitsubishi and CASC, the Chinese aerospace corporation. He was also a fifth-degree black belt in three martial arts styles, with a special interest in Shotokan and its roots in Okinawa, a few islands down along the Ryukyu island chain. The new space college had a Shotokan club, and he was its chief instructor in his spare time. Their beautiful timber dojo overlooked the Pacific Ocean, and attracted people not only from the local towns but from neighboring islands. He had managed by pure accident to kill one of his karate students, not his fault at all, but he was dead set on ending it all.
“You bloody fool,” she said without preamble or introduction. “Cry for your student, yes, but you’re crying for yourself. I’ve seen your record: you are an excellent man, I know it and you know it. Damn Asian conscience, it’s ruined many a fine human being. Give yourself a fucking break.”
Jiamu had never been talked to like this. He was shocked, and yes, weirdly, even a bit amused. He decided to be angry. “So how is this your business?” he said, rather hoarsely because of his bruised throat. But the translator program he used didn’t get it because of the changed emphasis, and Kadi heard: “What is your business?” and took it to mean that he was asking about the line of work she wanted to hire him for.
Then she saw his face and realized the error. “It’s my business because I don’t want a suicidal prima donna for a pilot,” she amended.
“Pilot.” he paused. “No, you don’t want a homicidal pilot. Go away.”
“Look,” she said, with less mockery in her voice, “I’m giving you a chance to redeem yourself, if you insist on going on with this silly charade of being guilty. And it may be a suicidal mission I want you for anyway, if you’re all that set on suicide. The last one was. But if I have to get a less excellent pilot than you—which, I believe, means any other pilot—the trip will be more dangerous still. And if we go down, you’ll really have some lives on your conscience.”
“Clever,” said Jiamu.
“No, just the facts.”
“But I’ve already proven myself to be unstable and unrealistic, by your account,” he replied, willy-nilly joining in the game. “Why would you want a pilot who is so unreliable?”
“You’ve got a point, there,” said Kadi, “But I need somebody with a ridiculously large sense of responsibility more than somebody who puts the blame where it belongs. Anyone who comes with me is going to have to be a bit crazy anyway.” Kadi didn’t believe that Europa Deep Drill Attempt was as dangerous as she was suggesting, but she could see what would appeal to Jiamu. “Just postpone your suicide and use it for a good cause.”
“Why is it a good cause?”
Kadi hesitated. “Two reasons. I know you’re committed to space exploration. Europa is the frontier now, not spatially but intellectually, culturally, technologically. When Nigeria pulled out of the consortium after the first Europa disaster, the whole project of solar system exploration was threatened. That’s one of the reasons, along with the world recession, why you’re stuck earthside training pilots rather than up there where you belong.
“Well, we’ve cobbled together enough support from PASA, the Eurospace group, the new Sino-Japanese Solar System Administration, and SpacialMexico to go back to Europa. Even Mars promised some technical support. That’s why we’ve got such a polyglot crew—good thing too in my opinion, we can choose the best. The idea is that we will follow Leon Held down to the ocean–if that’s where he went–rescue him, and get a look at that great big mystery down there.
“But this is our last chance. Every hour we waste here may be the last one for your colleague Leon Held. Not to point out that if it doesn’t work out it may set back the space effort by a generation.”
“OK, I understand the politics,” said Jiamu. “What’s your other reason?”
Kadi unconsciously lowered her voice. “Some of us think there may be a whole alien civilization down there. We aim to find out. That’s what Leon Held wanted.”
As the media never tire of saying, Africa is the new China, as China was the new United States, and the US was the new British Empire. But African leaders, sitting on their huge lead in manufacturing, don’t want to make the mistake of the others. They want to be seen as champions of science, culture, moral philosophy. They don’t want to brand their new effort in space exploration as just an African thing.
So the rescue team Kadi was assembling had to be more international than any human enterprise in history. Among other things the expedition was going to be an experiment in how well humans of different nationalities can get on with each other and work together. So I’m going to be especially attentive in this story to the ethnic differences (and maybe commonalities) of our crew. As it turned out, this emphasis on different cultures and backgrounds might have a larger relevance.
Sylvie von Humboldt and Nephele Malaspina met at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and Oceanography in Hamburg, found that they both loved Greece, spent a summer break in the Mani and Crete, and became good friends. Nephele (“Nell”) was fluent in Greek, having spent half her childhood at her mother’s family olive grove near Vathia. French was Sylvie’s mother tongue, so they usually talked with each other in idiomatic but odd-sounding English, that still being the main language for oceanography, which they adored.
They teamed up. Both were working on seawater. Sylvie concentrated on the big picture, ocean currents, tides, weather, and atmosphere. Nell, using her training in crystallography and marine biology, was interested in the chemistry of water, especially water with plenty of impurities in solution and at extreme pressures and temperatures. Their names were together on lots of papers, and they had commented publicly on the data coming in from Ganymede and Enceladus.
Sylvie and Nell were a hoot. You’d think they hated each other. Sylvie was a large vague-looking blond woman, usually in baggy pants, whose intelligence and competence were almost invisible to the casual observer. Nell, in her scarlet lipstick, was tiny and dark, with her Mexican Dad’s curly black hair, black eyes, and Aztec vitality. When Kadi found them at the lab in Hamburg they were, as usual, complaining at each other.
“You talk with her,” said Sylvie. “You wasted so much of my time with the spectrograph that I’ll never finish the write-up.”
“It’s probably you she wants to talk to, anyway,” said Nell. “You publish in those glossy popular science mags. Maybe she’s a reporter. You’d like that.”
Sylvie, stung by this unjust accusation, went into passive aggressive mode. “Yes, sure, I’ll be your publicist, just as you want.”
This actually went on in front of Kadi herself, who stood by the door with a hard-won neutral expression, arms folded, turning her head from one to the other as they continued. She waited until they were finished, raised her eyebrows at each for permission to speak, and began.
“How would you ladies like a really big ocean?”
As the team came together it became clear that its very ambitious objectives would require major training for the whole crew, especially since the personnel complement was limited by the technological demands of life-support, and the overall cost. Everybody would have to pinch-hit for at least three of the others, and also get a decent acquaintance with fields that would not otherwise be professionally represented at all. The most interesting parts were when we trained each other—some of us were the experts in the field and were not going to let each other off easily. Indeed, a certain competition set in over which discipline would be most rigorously inculcated.
Training began on Mars, when we met the other members of the crew that Kadi had been recruiting. Mack, Sylvie, Nell, and Jam—our awful nickname for Jiamu—had all yielded to her blandishments. I was already taking notes.
So. Billy Babamboo was our biologist/ecologist/anthropologist, Aboriginal and British by descent, one of the sweetest fellows you could meet, easygoing, posed as fat and lazy but was actually quick and deft when he needed to be, kept his intelligence pretty quiet. Niccolo (“Nick”) Caproni, engineer, chemist, smith, and diver, Italian, was a colleague of Gillian O’Neill (“Jill”), our Celtic neuroscientist, armorer, and weapons expert, a genius at prosthetics and neuro-cyber interface technology. We had another neuroscientist, too, because neuro-engineering was to be a very important element in the trip, one we hoped would define its goals much better than the first expedition. His name was Barak Alfarabi, an elegant Arab—his fields included neurochemistry and evolutionary biology, especially epigenetics. And then there was Langa Smuts, “Smutty,” our big quiet South African diver, marine biologist, and hydraulics expert, half-Zulu, half Boer.
“In case you were wondering who’s going to be looking after our health on this jaunt,” said Kadi at the end of her welcoming address to us all, “Let me introduce Ike Hill, that is Dr. Isaac Hill to you, until you know him better. I managed to snag him at the last moment—he’s been helping contain the prion plague in Bengal. Ike is a true cyborg—you’ve surely met a few—he’s got the entire medical library up to date in his head, plus some cool prostheses that you’ll find out about.
“Yes, you could say that we’re all cyborgs to some extent, with software implants, nanobots in our blood, bone grafts and so on, not to speak of Smutty’s emergency gill and fingerwebs. But Ike isn’t just an enhanced human. As you’ll find out, his cyber-self is truly part of who he is. You’ve probably seen the reports: about how we expected cyborgs to be cold, emotionless, logical beings, etcetera, and how surprised we all were when it turned out that cyborgs tend to be more empathetic, compassionate, and friendly than normal humans. The theory is that for cyborgs work is easy and automatic, and doesn’t need the inhuman concentration and singlemindedness that it does for the rest of us: the emotions can be harnessed for personal and social concerns. But you’ll find out from him.
“By the way, he’s from Dickson County, Tennessee, and plays a mean fiddle. Mack and Sylvie, I know you’re musicians, so maybe you can get up a trio.”
Doc spoke up. “That’s probably more about me than you want to hear. I’ll be helping our neuroscience folks—Jill and Barak—wire us all up to see sound. This is going to take some getting used to. Y’all know that an implant isn’t worth shit unless it’s used and practiced. Baby humans take seven years to learn to use their bio hardware and software. It’s a craft, not a databank. We’re going to take seven months, including all our other training, and including our voyage time. But it should be interesting. Maybe a revelation.”
“See sound?” inquired Mack.
“We’re going to a place where it’s darn near totally dark all the time, but full of noise, we figure. Bats and owls and swallows and most fish see with their ears, whales and dolphins best of all. So when we get our next aging treatment we’ll also get the auditory nerves hooked up to the visual cortex. It’s safe the way we do it, and you’ll still be able to see, but with an acoustic overlay. You’ll also get a new little organ behind the ears connected to your palate, like a miniature version of a sperm whale’s sonar system. It will hook up to a powerful acoustic click generator, and your improved ears will pick up the reflections and turn them into vision. When you swim in the dark, you’ll have blind sight. Smutty and Nick are teaching you diving, and we’ll fit it all together as we go along.”
From here on out I’m going to tell two stories. One is the story of Leon, alone on an alien world, discovering it without other human help, and virtually blind. The other story, beginning over a year later, is the account of the rescue expedition. I’ve decided to juxtapose them though, so as to show how differently Europa was perceived by its first human explorers. So I’ll begin with Leon in the Mole.
Leon had got used to the booming of the ice, which would sometimes last for hours, a regular boom…boom…boom…, and then fade away, synchronized with the near approach of Io and the perigee of Europa when the tidal forces were greatest. The sound was transmitted to the Mole by direct contact at its complex drillbit and the guides that kept the lasers aligned with the pit walls. But there were other sounds that still made him jump—deep groans and howls, sudden ominous cracks and shrieks, and subsonic growls that made his head ache until he activated the noise-canceling device that a thoughtful engineer had built in to the communications system. Small moonquakes were more or less continuous. This new world was so loud! Utter darkness, and a whole universe of chaotic music.
The Mole had been melting and grinding its way down for thirty Earth days. Leon had made sure that the nanocarbon communications cable that linked the Mole/Moby assembly with the wrecked lander/escape module was intact; he would pay it out as he went down, like Theseus unrolling the ball of twine the witch had given him as he descended into the labyrinth. But though the emergency beacon was obviously operational, the communications transmitter on the surface, a separate system, was dead or cut off. He could no longer call home.
For the first week Leon had been so frantically busy checking out and activating the systems of the Mole and the Moby, monitoring the Mole’s progress, and observing and recording the characteristics of the ice, that he had not had time to think about anything else. Perhaps also something in him knew that he must not yet open that whole can of worms—his lost companions, his decisions, alternative scenarios, the ultimate purpose of the trip itself, his own ultimate purpose alone in this terrifying abyss. During his rest periods in the Moby, which he enforced out of habit from his training, he fled the situation assiduously, playing holo computer games with the AI, watching old movies, and talking recipes through to himself while he cooked.
But finally the time came for Leon to face what he had done, what he had not done, and what was left for him to do. Growing up in Capetown in an old and cultured Dutch-Jewish family of Anglophiles, he had as a boy discovered the fine library his great-grandfather—my great-great-grandfather!–had started, in the western wing of their white Cape Colony house. The view through the bay window—Table Mountain, blue-grey, and Lion’s Head, violet-dimmed green with purple shadows—was enough to turn any boy’s head to thoughts of desperate glory. He became an addict of nineteenth century British hero tales—Kipling, Rider Haggard, R. L. Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Conrad. Lord Jim was not his favorite, but it haunted him. So did the horrifying and tragic story of the Franklin Expedition, in which two splendid exploration frigates, the Erebus and the Terror, were lost with all their crews in the attempt to find the North-West Passage. Leon’s own surname (“hero” in both Afrikaans and Yiddish) became for him a kind of call or vocation. How, then, had he measured up?
Had he abandoned his companions? Had he jumped ship from the Umtali, as Lord Jim had jumped from his own Patna, the ship that was his responsibility as much as it was his captain’s? Was he like the cannibals of the Terror, who, near-frozen, insane from the lead poisoning that was killing and disabling the crew, dragging the ship’s boats southwards across the ice, had lost the last moral connection with humankind? Was he a kind of Kurtz, who, as the stolid Marlow puts it in Heart of Darkness, had kicked himself loose from the Earth—“Confound the man! He had kicked the very Earth to pieces”? Shouldn’t he have gone back and died with his friends?
How do I know all this? Three reasons. I’m his daughter, and I know him. You see, I too had read those books, and when I went into Leon’s background for this tale and found out about his own reading, I had a cascade of what I was sure was insight. But also—and this obviously is a bit of a spoiler—the reader must know that some kind of later contact with him was made, and this is what I construed from it. There’s always this struggle with any adventure story; the hero must go places no human dares tread, even to where there is no return. But what about the storyteller? Does she go too? How does she get back, when the hero fails? I alone am escaped to tell thee, as they say. Is the storyteller a hero? Or just a hanger-on to his coattails? A communications cable? But why do we need a storyteller at all if we’ve got the factual reports? Beyond the reports, which tell the how, maybe it’s for the storyteller to say why?
The ice was now beginning to soften, and there were even slushy spots, a dull reddish brown in the Moby’s lights. Leon guessed that these places had a much thicker solution of impurities, which would lower their freezing point, and he stopped, took samples, and set a stout nanocarbon tether into a mass of harder ice that would pay out as the Mole descended. He did not have with him the other crew members that made up the Moby/Mole’s designed complement—they were to join him after he had made the initial penetration, shielded by the descent vehicle–but they did not make it. They would have had the expertise to interpret the results from the gunk that Leon had carefully collected in the isolation chamber and treated according to the Moby AI’s instructions. Clearly the stuff was organic—no big surprise at this point but encouraging. Was it dead, or not yet alive? Maybe he could at least make a full account of his discoveries, both for the sake of science and as a guide for future explorers. Then he would return to the surface and beam it back. There would be time to do so up there before the radiation did him in.
But he had only started. It would not be long now before he broke through.
As we trained in the Marineris PASA facility under the faded orange walls of one of the lesser canyons, the shape of our little community began to become clear. At first all of us were suffering the initial effects of our three-day cerebral rewiring treatments, and were alternately sympathetic, brusque and grimly jocular with each other, like bright kids at a horrible inhuman school. We were disoriented, clumsy, occasionally astonished by our new powers, and too distracted to think much about each other’s lives and characters. The headaches were appalling, the pain medications numbing. Dendritic growth had been massively accelerated in several areas of the brain, and the synapses were recalibrating themselves. We still tried to get on with our mutual training, without much progress.
But in a sense the shared suffering was a kind of ante to the game, an unintentional ritual ordeal or hazing that drew us together. Particular friendships began to emerge, some with a slight erotic edge, as we got used to our new brains and senses. When Doc and Jill were prepping Jiamu for the nano they had to ask him about his suicide attempt, and Jill found herself quite moved by the story. Afterwards, as their wellbeing improved, Jill and Jiamu began to share their martial arts experience at exercise time. Jill was a leading figure in the Cuchulain School of Karate, a hybrid Celtic form developed a generation before by the athletics guru Aengus Cavanaugh, based on the psychology of the berserk state. Jiamu realized that his own Amok branch of martial arts was using the same basic research, and they started working out together. It was strange to watch them. They both wore their hair long, and Jill’s wild red ponytail would slap across Jiamu’s black mane as they clashed with unbelievable speed and apparent fury, and then stepped back in all good humor and bowed to each other.
The oddest thing of all was that on their fourth practice after the treatment, they decided to spar by ear—or “sear,” as they called it in English (it stuck). On that occasion Jiamu called a halt to the second bout.
“Jill-san, you’re right. I’m seeing you both ways now, and I think for kumité sear is better.”
“But I’m distracted by my eyes, Jiamu-san. Shall we try it blindfolded?”
This is, they tell me, a common exercise in karate kumité training, as we can react faster to a sound than to a sight—the auditory cortex is closer to its sense organs, and the processing system is simpler. Of course sight is otherwise a huge advantage–but here the stakes were changed. They were actually better with the blindfolds than without them.
Doctor Ike was very interested, and recommended that we all follow their example, using whatever sports we were used to. Sylvie turned out to be a monster at blindfold badminton—despite her size, she was deceptively quick. The squash fiends, Nick, Barak, Nell, and Smutty, set up a league. I like tennis, but lacking a court, enrolled in Jill and Jam’s karate class as a beginner, as did Kadi. Kadi was brilliant, got her green belt three weeks before I did. Billy taught us an Aboriginal dreamtime dance.
Jiamu was gradually being weaned away from the paralytic caution with which he had taken up his practice after the accident with his student. Jill had quickly intuited the nature of the trouble and wanted to show him by her trust how very much under control of himself he really was. I don’t think he was fully healed—it turned out later that he wasn’t, entirely—but healing happens at many levels, and if the body has ironed out its own cramps the soul can follow with its more intangible knottings.
Jiamu, being as intelligent as any of us, was well aware of what Jill was up to. How strange, he thought to himself. She must be a very good person. I’m no prize for a woman.
Mack was skeptical about all this gung-ho jock stuff. He had started a small mine where the cliff met the canyon floor: he’d brought his fancy ground-piercing mineral detection radar/sonar system, an amazingly compact device, and thought he’d seen a trace of platinum ore in the pocket of flood sediment that had accumulated under a rib of hard serpentine. It was the iridium he was after, still very expensive, which often accompanies platinum. So he got his exercise suiting up, hiking out there, and plying his massive laser pick.
One day he thought he’d try an experiment and contrived to listen with his sear directly to the echoes his sonar system was picking up. He was amazed. After a few minutes, eyes closed, he was able to interpret the buzzing, booming colors and shapes he saw, because he knew what he ought to see. But there it all was in three dimensions. Yes, there was platinum there in small quantities, to his seeing ear, his “sear,” a rich violet blue—and there, a speckling of deep black grains that might be iridium. This represented real money. But it was far too deep to get at in the time he had. For a moment Mack was tempted to jump ship. A bird in the hand is worth two in a bush.
But by now the strange chemistry of a good working group of interesting people—not to speak of the remote possibility of nailing Kadi—had got its net on him. So he staked a claim with the Robinson City placer claims registry office, resolving to come back afterwards and take it up.
The trainees gave him no mercy when he returned, telling him he should stay and work his claim. Who needs a big foul-mouthed miner? Or at least he should have sold his claim, since everybody knew we’d never come back. Then everybody hugged him, Mack getting in a special snuggle with Kadi (he had not given up). Nell, who liked Mack, claimed that it was a good omen—of course they’d surely come back now, because Mack would have to get his reward.
The trip out was surprisingly comfortable, at least at first. We transferred to Mars orbit on one of those cheap and frugal Mars airplane/orbital vehicles, which had the advantages of not only looking really cool with its wings and fins and streamlining, but also of lacking the whole fuss of ear-shattering noise and shaking that you get with a traditional rocket ascent. It was much faster than the crowded and bureaucratic Mars Space Elevator. We got great views out of the portholes—yes, portholes!–a huge tourist attraction. Marineris was on full view, with its green dome towns and patches of cloud.
Then we picked up the RACAT deep space module that would be our home for the next four weeks. For this part, Jiamu was technically in charge, though the flight was a pretty routine thing. The hard bit would come later, in the violent Jovian environment. RACAT is Resonant Anisotropic Cavity Thruster, and—for Earthies who don’t know—one of the neatest pieces of physics engineering we have. The whole problem with space travel isn’t finding a powerful enough energy source—we have very potent self-contained reactors that can put out a lot of energy for a long time. The problem is reaction mass, that is, the need to carry a lot of stuff that you can throw out of the back using your energy source, fast enough to push you forward according to Newton’s second law. Rocket fuel is both the energy source, via burning, and the reaction mass. So you’re throwing out your energy baby with the reaction mass bathwater.
RACAT is based on the insight that you don’t need to carry your reaction mass with you, because it’s everywhere already, in the form of Dark Matter—WIMPs, MACHOs, and Kaluza-Klein particles—just as the air is all around a jet plane in the atmosphere. Jet planes don’t need to carry oxygen to burn their fuel, because it comes for free through their intakes. Let light, driven by the ship’s power source, bounce about in a mirrored cavity at a frequency that can couple with the ambient dark matter, propelling it into violent motion. The light can’t escape the cavity and keeps bouncing about at random, but the dark matter can escape, and the RACAT chamber is designed so that it tends to escape in one direction only, providing standard Newtonian reaction force. The ship lives off the land, so to speak.
But the point is that the ship can accelerate continuously, not in those huge expensive self-immolating bursts you get with chemical rockets, but at a nice steady rate that also as a bonus gives you artificial gravity, the inertial force you feel when a car or plane or elevator speeds up. We were accelerating—and then decelerating after the flip at the midway point—at a comfortable 2/5th of a gravity, the same gravity that we’d felt during our six months training on Mars. So we didn’t need to spin the vessel and put up with that nasty little Coriolis effect when you turn round quickly. And with constant acceleration you can soon get up to seriously ridiculous speeds at turnaround time, and can pretty much go in a “straight line” without worrying about the need to get gravitational assistance from other planets and the Sun.
It would take us about twenty-five days to get into the neighborhood of Jupiter. There we’d pick up the pre-positioned ELERA 2 Europa Landing, Exploration and Return Assembly, including the descent module, Mole II, and Moby II, all redesigned in the light of the fate of the Umtali, the given name of ELERA 1. Both assemblies had been built in a wide, safe Jovian orbit using the abundant ring and moonlet material and labor from the Belter community.
So we went on training and getting to know each other.
Jill and Jam had become good friends. (She called him “Jiamu,” out of a mixture of special respect and as a way of singling him out from the general comradeship of the expedition.) Both were rather monastic types, either by temperament or by the demands of their professions. Pale, freckled, red-haired Jill, with her fighter’s grace, had endured plenty of propositions, and treated them more or less with contempt. She called her suitors “perves” for being so interested in that suggestive Celtic color scheme. Accustomed as she was to melding cybernetic and biological systems, she was well aware how mechanistic human motivation and attraction could be. Maybe the Irish Catholic tendency to a Manichean separation of the free soul and the driven body played a part, though Jill was thoroughly secular. In any case, those few sexual adventures she had been through in her past life turned out to be awkward and depressing. What she liked about Jiamu was that he was, if anything, even more of an emotional klutz than she. He had actually fantasized a bit about the schitzy girl he had ended up murdering (the word he used). Prior to that he had had some minor tendresses with women who were usually unaware of his interest and put it down to well-bred courtesy. But the poor guy was technically a virgin.
Not that I’m any great expert on the affairs of the heart myself, but some of the attachments that were formed in those first few months had important consequences later, when huge moral issues and decisions challenged our little community. So I’d better talk a bit about them. In the case of Jill and Jiamu I may even have an advantage—I’m rather the same type.
Those of us without immediate duties used to watch them spar in our little gym, and it was beautiful—if a bit incomprehensible—to behold. It was hard to know which had won a particular encounter. Much to their disgust, despite their attestations that they were trained not to harm a sparring partner, they had been commanded by Kadi to wear standard kumite skinsuits that would automatically absorb excessive pressure. It helped us, though. One could tell a score by the red glow that the suit obligingly presented for a few seconds at the point of impact. They were very fast and sweated through the almost invisible unimolecular smart fabric. At these times they were totally relaxed and at the same time very fierce.
After a while the rest of us took to leaving them alone when they sparred. So I don’t know how they first started talking personally. Here’s how I think it must have gone.
Jill (after a vigorous bout): We’d better go shower. I’m sure I stink.
Jiamu (embarrassed, but chivalrous): You don’t stink at all. You smell very nice.
Jill (laughing): Perve!
Jiamu: I didn’t mean it that way. Uh, anyway, I’m just as bad.
Jill: Oh, is it bad now?
Jiamu (in over his head): No, uh, you sweating is good, me sweating is bad.
Jill (more seriously): Why do you always call yourself bad?
Jiamu: I don’t know why you’re so kind to me.
Jill: Well, bloody hell, we’re friends and we have to look out for each other.
Jiamu (impulsive taking both of her hands and shaking them): Friends! (then, quite inappropriately) Thank you!
Jill (more seriously still, continuing to hold his hands): I don’t think I’ve had a real man friend before. I’ve had great co-workers like Nick, and I have a couple of cousins whom I hardly see. I was never really friends with my Da. He was Dad, and I was his daughter. Don’t even have many close women friends. I’m obviously not good at friends. –So you’re the one who’s doing me a favor!
Jiamu (drops her hands suddenly, as if burned, and steps back): What happened?
Jill: Yes, I felt something too.
Jiamu: It’s the sears. I saw your heart beating, and something moving in your midsection. As if I saw inside you.
Jill: Me too. Well, well, you’re more of a rascal than I thought.
Jiamu: I’m so sorry. I’m awful. I’ll go off and shower.
–Or maybe I’m just a romantic and like to think that’s how it happened, or something like it.
I mentioned that Nick was a friend of Jill. They had met when Nick was still studying for a Jesuit ministry, and their relationship had stayed on the level of Catholic raillery and implicit spiritual affection. But I think Nick was a bit put out by Jill’s interest in Jiamu.
Jupiter is enormous. As we got closer, bleeding off Delta-V every hour, it swelled and swelled in the 3-D screens. Some of us used sear to view the shattering cacophony of sound that the ship’s radio antenna brought in from the gas giant, and we claimed we saw a shape amid the roar of color. In ordinary vision it crawled with gigantic storms and looping fronts and spirals; chaotic paisleys and arabesques, mixing and smearing like multicolored oils, all the way from pale sky-blue to maroon, ochre, dark brown, orange, white. It had been doing that for hundreds, maybe billions of years, and what was the meaning of it? The Great Red Spot rode around the planet again and again, accompanied by a trail of turbulences, with their own accompanying frill of whirlpools. Why?
Jam tweaked us into close orbit around Ganymede, and for a while the grey-white plains of the big ice moon, laced with pale aqua grooves and brilliant starred craters, shielded us from its gigantic primary. Then we saw a sliver of white rise over the horizon, and presently Jupiter, bizarrely on its side, rolling towards us like a ponderous wheel, told us once again who was boss in this system. And now Io, like a scabrous malign fruit, made its swift passage across the face of Jupiter, trailing its minute black shadow, and immediately thereafter, slower but larger, with an identically-tilted crescent of darkness where the sunlight did not fall, there was our destination.
Shortly after that Jam raised our orbit to allow the lander assembly, ELERA 2, to catch up with us for docking. It was an ungainly thing in the viewports, the long cylinder of the Mole prolonged by the cylindrical housing of the Moby, topped by the lander/surface vehicle/return vehicle. Its four extensible legs would stably support the whole contraption on the surface until the Mole had drilled deeply enough into the ice, pulling the Moby in its housing along with it, so that the surface and escape assembly could sit directly on the ground. Then they would separate; the lower assembly would head down, the upper assembly would now burrow a few more meters into the hole the Mole had made, and its robots would cover it with a thick layer of ice to protect it from the radiation. We were supposed to be leaving part of the team there while the others continued on down, but already there were murmurings that nobody wanted to be left out and that the AI was quite capable of managing by itself.
Jam and Mack had helped the designers with many of the details, bearing in mind the fate of the Umtali, ELERA 1. It would take fancy piloting, because the descent engine’s thrusters were angled outward so that their exhaust would not damage the Mole/Moby hanging beneath it. Both human and machine intelligence would be needed, especially in the last-minute choice of a landing site. They would have to be near enough to the wreck of Umtali to have easy access to it, to recover the dead for their solemn return, conduct an investigation, and fetch out all pertinent records and evidence. At the same time they must pay close attention to the terrain, so that they would not be threatened by the massive tilted plates, bergs and pinnacles of this region. Umtali had picked an area where the geologists thought the ice would be thinner and easier to penetrate; but those areas were the most tectonically unstable and dangerous, as it had indeed turned out.
With delicate touches on the attitude thrusters the AI, supervised by Jam, nudged us up to the docking ring, and a solid clunk told us that full capture was made. The assembly was connected to the nose of our RACAT vehicle, which would push the whole affair into Europa orbit and then detach, to remain in orbit ready for our return, leaving us aboard our new home to descend to the surface.
Readers of this will have noticed how much of a lethal burden is the radiation environment and volatile geology of Europa. Why not drill into Ganymede?, you may be asking. It’s safer and more stable, and we already had scientific and corporate stations there who could be called on to help.
For a start, Ganymede’s ice sheet is nearly 100 miles thick, 15 times thicker than Europa’s. The ice was harder, as Kadi, who had been there, insisted. It would take forever to get down to liquid water, and the pressure would be correspondingly higher, especially since Ganymede’s gravity is much greater. And the promise of Ganymede for life was much less alluring. Ganymede’s energy input from tides is weaker, being further out from Jupiter and the other Galilean moons. So there’d be less energy for the use of complex lifeforms. Maybe most important of all, on Ganymede contact between the liquid water of the ocean and the silicate/metallic core is very unlikely, because high-pressure forms of solid ice at greater depths would bar any access. Its ocean would be sandwiched between our familiar Ice 1 and exotic Ice 3, the tetragonal crystalline form that water assumes at a pressure of over 300 megapascals. Theory told us that life would most likely originate at volcanic vents on the seafloor, but there would be little or no metallic and mineral material in those water-volcanoes to feed primary-processor living organisms. Just a look at the two moons would tell you that whatever is welling up from the cracks in the surface is reddish brown on Europa—shit-colored as Mack put it—while on Ganymede the color is a pure aqueous blue.
We broke out of orbit not long afterwards, at a much lower rate of acceleration because of our much greater mass. It was about what we’d feel on Europa itself, and we all began the more strenuous exercise routine we’d need to maintain our fitness. We felt out of breath. It would only be a few days more, and a distinct tension, a combination of impatience and apprehension, could be felt in the ship. Nell and Sylvie complained at each other more than usual.
“It would help us all, Sylvie, if you changed your clothes immediately after exercise,” said Nell.
“Yes, smelly fat old women are offensive,” Sylvie admitted. “Thanks for calling it to everyone’s attention.”
“Just an observation,” said Nell.
After an expectant pause, during which we all wondered what was coming next:
“At least it’s better than Archaebacter malaspina,” was Sylvie’s devastating reply. A. malaspina was a methanogen that Nell had bio-engineered in her little lab, that would survive in what was hypothesized to be Europa’s mix of ocean chemistry. Sylvie had named it in honor of her friend, Nephele Malaspina. Had she set up the double entendre? It had stunk up the ship for several days.
We all applauded this sally; it cheered us up and broke the tension, as Nell and Sylvie had probably intended.
By now Jupiter had more than doubled in subjective size, and we had to get very close to Europa to break the illusion that Jupiter was “down” and Europa was, like us, floating “up” here. The howls, shrieks and lightning-whistles from the giant planet had got louder and louder, until we begged Jam to shut off the feed from the antenna. We didn’t like to look at the radiation sensors—plasma from Io’s torus, accelerated by Jupiter’s colossal and violent electromagnetic force-lines, was sleeting across our shields. Finally Europa became “down,” and then Jupiter felt like an enormous massive nightmare beachball descending upon both of us.
In orbit, and weightless, we moved in to the lander assembly, manhandling our stuff through the airlocks. Weightless, but not massless—it took as much of a push to stop a crate or hold-all that was cruising through the gap as it had taken to get it moving in the first place. Once everything was stowed Jam powered down the RACAT, closed the airlocks, and disengaged the latches. With a few tiny puffs from the attitude thrusters we drifted apart, leaving RACAT, our temporary home, cold and dark, to orbit until our unlikely return.
Kadi called us in to the common-room shortly before breaking orbit, an unusually official thing to do. In free fall, the hollow feeling of vertigo was indistinguishable from the pit-of-the-stomach sensation of anticipation. Of course we did the irreverent democratic zero-G spaceman thing, which is to unconsciously arrange ourselves in every possible orientation except that of the speaker—upside down, sideways, or the favored confusing angles of half past four and seven-thirty. “You’re not the boss of me,” so to speak—it was a tradition. But Kadi was pretty good, I thought, and after a while we ended up all at pretty much the same angle as our fearless leader. She was right—we felt an anxious sense that something should be said, marked and settled and made explicit at the edge of the absolutely unknown. Like an initiation, an investiture.
“Guys, we’ve been puzzling over what we’re going to call ourselves. ‘Most Expensive Suicide Squad’ is a nice acronym, but perhaps a bit pessimistic. I guess we’re on a salvage operation, so some have suggested ‘The Salvagers’—but others wanted something with a bit more zing. Clio, who is kind of literary, has suggested ‘The Salváges,’ which is ingenious, and seems to have some support. It’s the name of a bunch of dangerous rocks off the mouth of the St Lawrence, a mispronunciation of ‘Les Trois Sauvages,’–‘The Three Savages’–and the poet T.S Eliot used them as a symbol of salvation.
“I needn’t point out how appropriate this title is to our generally savage demeanor, but it seems to me it also points out some features of our mission that maybe we should make explicit. Of course we’re here to save Clio’s dad, if he can be saved. And we’re in the profitable salvage business. And perhaps we’re trying to find personal salvation one way or another.
“And there’s something else. We’re all hoping to find aliens down there. Look at our history of encountering others. It’s not pretty. I’m half African, Billy’s half native Australian, Jam is half Chinese, Nell is part Indio, Smutty—we’re all a mix, conquerors with conquered. Maybe, just maybe, our species needs a bit of salvaging. Do it right this time.
‘Shall we have a vote on the name?—show of hands, OK?–and don’t put each other’s eyes out.” This last was by now unnecessary, as we were no longer as akimbo as we were.
It was unanimous.
Kadi went on. “Salvages it is. But let’s not be savages to whatever lifeforms there may be down there. We’ll observe all our contamination protocols, and we’ll try to interfere as little as possible, and bug out if we are messing anything up. If there’s anyone sentient down there, the Prime Directive rules. Doc has some things to say about this.”
Doctor Ike continued. “Let’s do what our Dear Leader says. But we shouldn’t be too anxious. The radiation all around us has already sterilized our exterior better than any procedure we could come up with. And in any case the most recent theory about alien biota is that we’re extremely unlikely to either infect them or be infected by them. Each of our ecosystems—assuming Europa has one at all–has had over 4 billion years of separate brutal competition to produce organisms that are armed to the teeth against the best that their evolved environment can throw against them. Our bacteria will be amateurs against their immune systems, and theirs would be hopeless against ours. We’d probably register to each other just as odd chemistry; the idea that our DNA or RNA could splice itself into theirs or be spliced by theirs is as unlikely as a bit of English spliced into a poem in Tagalog making sense. And how would they even splice–the procedure is hellacious complicated. They’d have to be able to learn each other’s languages and translate before they could do any harm at all.
“But you never can tell. So let’s be careful down there.”
Shortly afterwards Jam initiated the series of little burns that would allow us to descend slowly, looking for the beacon that marked the Umtali. It was still calling out its position and its last despairing message. Over the blue-white horizon, riven by cracks exuding rust-brown frost, interspersed by more recent smooth resurfacings, and punctuated by mesa-like horst-blocks and crazily tilted ice-plates, finally the wreck appeared. It was like a large insect crushed by a chunk of concrete, and already powdered over with a light dusting of pale-blue oxygen snow.
Jam had by now reversed the vessel, orienting its base toward the surface. At last he found a relatively flat area, not threatened by overhanging cliffs, perhaps a kilometer from the ridge of tumbled terrain where Umtali had met its end. Very delicately he and the AI, using the main engines, slowed the descent to a stop as the assembly spread its wide legs. There were two slight bumps and then a harder thump, and we were down on Europa.
Anyone with a biological background, looking at us from a few hundred meters above, would be reminded of the way that a spiky little virus locks onto a cell, hundreds of times its own size, and prepares to shoot its packet of DNA into its new host. Or the way a mosquito positions itself for its meal. Or perhaps if the viewer were a doctor, it would be like a nanobot inserting a healing gene-splice into a sick leucocyte. Did we come to infect an enemy, suck out the stuff of life, or rescue a friend? Or were we a bee entering a flower? An impregnation?
Nine months earlier, Leon had finally broken through into Europa’s enormous ocean.
He awoke one “morning” with a shock in an entirely different sonic environment. The drill had shut down. He could no longer hear the booming of the ice. Instead he heard what sounded like a jungle—a cacophony of croons, clicks, rumbles, clangs, tinkles, fluting wails racing up and down the spectrum, and drumlike thumps, occupying every audible octave and making, together, something like a strange complex melody. He was reminded of Balinese gamelan music, which he had heard on a visit with his father to the Ubud palace long ago. He realized that the Moby’s living quarters had rotated, as they were designed to do, and that the assembly was now horizontal, tied up stern-first to the tether and stabilized by the attitude tanks.
The AI greeted him with “Good morning. We broke through two hours ago, but I thought it best you get a good night’s sleep. We’re going to be busy.”
“You should have woken me up!”
“You didn’t tell me to. The procedure was all automatic. You had already given your orders. Any human interference would have compromised the maneuver.” The AI sounded a bit snippy, like an old-time GPS Navvi, though he knew it was his imagination.
“Next time anything happens—anything!—you tell me.”
He turned on the exterior lights. Unidentifiable shapes vanished into the murk. Leon had not yet absorbed the implications. He fell back on his machines. “Assessment?”
“We have entered a liquid water environment. As expected, chlorides of sodium, potassium, and magnesium, like Earthly seawater, as in the observed surface plumes. Temperature -2 degrees Celsius, strong brine with many impurities: peroxide, dissolved oxygen gas, sulfates, silicates, carbonates, metallic oxides.…”
“Yes, yes, I can see! But what are those sounds? And those things that darted away?”
“Unknown. Estimate, 95% positive: unidentifiable mobile biota.”
The AI had certified that their earlier gunk samples, though they were not alive, might once have been, given their chemical ratios. These ratios were different from those of earthly biomass, but close enough to be suggestive. So intellectually the news that Europa was populated by what seemed to be fairly advanced forms of life did not come entirely as a surprise. But emotionally it was stunning.
Whatever was out there had disappeared; evidently it was afraid of or hurt by the floodlights, and the gamelan racket was now a little blurred and remote. Leon turned off the floods. Though he never drank in the “morning,” he poured himself a quick shot of brandy, brewed a cup of coffee, and tried to get to grips with this shattering success.
Gradually the noises increased again. One sound in particular caught his attention, a series of clicks that got louder and then, according to his passive sonar, began to move about in the vicinity of Leon’s vessel. He ventured a couple of pings, which fuzzily showed a large torpedo-shaped object. It immediately sheered off. The thing was a quarter of the size of the Moby itself. But it returned after a minute or two, and the clicking resumed. Then there was a silence, followed by a sudden complex pattern of sounds. Another silence.
Alarms rang. A very powerful electric shock had struck the Moby, deflected easily by its Faraday cage, which after all had stood up to Jupiter’s colossal electromagnetic flux. Leon flipped on the lights. There was a shriek, a distinct swaying movement of the Mole/Moby as by a sudden rush of water, and the thing disappeared.
Leon had met humanity’s first alien lifeform. As animals, we were not alone in the universe. He would be famous. And he did not care.
He felt a sudden unaccountable wave of love for these new neighbors, and an insatiable curiosity. But how could he get to know them? They were only murky presences that fled the moment he actively tried to perceive them. The observer problem itself, in the macrocosm. Leon wished his daughter Clio were there—she had always fixed his hardware and software when they failed to function, and he needed a communications expert. He was not qualified to take on this enormous responsibility.
He now had a crucial decision to make. Clearly this news ought to be sent off to the human world as soon as possible. He could burrow back up to the surface, following the tether and then the communications cable, and there try to contrive a safe way of repairing the lander’s powerful transmitter or boosting the Moby’s radio to get through the interference of Jupiter. But what did he have to communicate? The animal that he had scared off had not behaved in any way that would have distinguished it from an Earthly marine predator. He had no clear picture of what it looked like, except big, streamlined, and equipped with a propulsive tail as any free marine animal would be. He would clearly have to collect samples and make what he could of their anatomy and biochemistry.
And as he had been told in his briefings, this part of Europa’s ocean, right at the boundary with the ice shell, would be quite atypical. The frozen water on Europa’s surface is continually being bombarded with radiation powerful enough to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. The lighter hydrogen, swept by the powerful forces of the area, rapidly disperses, and the oxygen remains, to form a thin atmosphere that soon freezes and falls as snow. Thus the surface of the moon is saturated with oxygen. The continual tidal violence drives Europa’s crustal plates over each other, subducting them under the surface where they are melted in the water. So the water near the surface is full of dissolved pure oxygen, a potent corrosive, and more oxygen in the form of hydrogen peroxide. This was probably why Leon’s gunk samples had been well and truly dead, oxidized like rust or ash.
But at the bottom of the ocean the situation would be completely reversed. Hydrothermal vents would be creating “black smokers” that would be pouring methane, sulphur, ammonia, carbon, hydrogen, metals, and strongly alkalizing substances into the ocean. Here the conditions would be reducing, not oxidizing. The strong chemical energies that would be created by the interaction between the two environments would power the formation of new compounds that would in turn be available as feedstock for living organisms as tidal currents and convection mixed the higher waters with the lower.
But this meant that where Leon was at present was an extreme environment, populated by extremophiles adapted to a highly reactive medium. To get anything like an idea of what the range of life was like on Europa, he would have to travel, and descend deeper.
Leon was aware that he was rationalizing but couldn’t stop. He knew that the safest thing for the knowledge he had was to carry it back up and send it off. It would multiply the risk to go deeper. But to go on was the only way he could assuage that ache of remorse and survivor guilt. He’d like to complete as much of his companions’ mission as he could and send back something that was worthy of their deaths. So he decided to collect samples where he was, and then go on. He told the AI to deploy the Moby’s nets and prepare a tank of local water for the catch.
The samples were fascinating. He was not a biologist, but he could see that the water in the tank was full of life. There were three or four mobile animals a few inches long, one like a jet-propelled shrimp with tentacles, and three that were more fishlike. These were semitransparent, and dull grey in color. They were, of course, eyeless, but they possessed a pair of involuted organs, like odd musical instruments or flowers, on retractable stalks protruding from the leading part of the animal. Leon decided to call it the “head” of the animal, risking the assumptions of the term. A third, smaller organ, of the same general shape, was incorporated into the lower fin at the rear. On examination, the pseudoshrimp showed itself to possess an analogous trio of organs—probably ears or sonic projectors of some sort, Leon thought, and maybe a general feature of the Europan body plan. He looked closer, with the powerful non-invasive magnifiers the tank provided. It was not a shrimp–more like a segmented mollusk with peculiar armor that looked more like silicone than either chitin or shell. Perhaps nature on Europa had combined the Crustacea with the Mollusca, thought Leon as he checked his sources. Or rather evolved a phylum of its own that had the advantages of both. The “heads” of all four had a pair of rounded protrusions next to the base of the earstalks.
Two of the fishlike organisms were apparently of the same species; the third was quite different, being apparently boneless, while the others had a bony cage much like that of an earthly fish. The boneless specimen possessed a large circular mouth lined with needle-like teeth, like a lamprey. Leon noticed from the instruments that it sported a slight electric field, and the other animals tended to avoid it.
Under the microscope the water was a kaleidoscope of microorganisms. The AI told him that the archaea and other prokaryotes—which it confidently identified as such with its pattern-recognition software–were quite similar to earthly forms. There were plenty of single-celled organisms like eukaryotes—but the more complex they were, the more they differed from anything on earth. There were no protophyta, no cyanobacteria, no phytoplanktons, as expected—without light, there was no need to develop chloroplasts and chlorophyll, and green would not be an important living color down here. No plants. And though all cells contained organelles that seemed to harvest energy, they were unlike any earthly mitochondria. There were plenty of multi-celled organisms, too, but they behaved more like colonial animals, shifting shape according to circumstances. Lots of small animals resembling zooplankton, spores, krill, jellyfish, salps and other tunicates.
Sulfur was even more important than it is on Earth, and the AI said that it had identified three more new sulfur-based amino acids besides the cysteine and methionine found on Earth. And harder structures all seemed to have a sort of silicone base—so here was a biotechnology that the Earth had not adopted, but could serve instead of bone, shell, and chitin. The “shrimp”’s armor, the “lamprey”’s teeth, and the “fishes”’ bones were all variations on it.
Leon did not understand much of this, but the take-home seemed to be that life here was DNA- RNA-ribosome-based, as on Earth (though with larger archival roles for RNA and the ribosome), and that convergent evolution had produced many complex structures in the higher organisms that were closely analogous to those found on Earth. Just as the anteater, the pangolin, the aardvark, and the echidna—with vastly different ancestry—converged in body plan to be good at eating ants, and both mammals and marsupials produced almost identical wolves, so if you are a free-swimming oxygen-powered marine organism, you are going to adopt a fishy shape, gills, and fins.
The other standout factor was the huge variety and quantity of what the AI took to be coral eggs, sperm, and larvae, and free-swimming haploid versions of these. Many of these were dead—perhaps in these shallow acidic low-pH waters they would not fare very well—but they indicated the possibility of massive reefs somewhere, and the AI doubted that they could be at the bottom of the ocean. So where were they? One clue seemed to be that each of the coral microorganisms contained a tiny rigid sac filled with oxygen gas.
Leon knew enough about exobiology—up to now a purely imaginary science!—to know that a really big issue was involved here. It looked as if life here and on Earth had the same basic chemistry, but had evolved in very different directions. So did this mean that life always begins the same way, independently and fairly easily, given the right water environment? Or that cosmic impacts by meteors or asteroids had ejected chunks of early Earthly life and seeded Europa? Or that life had evolved first on Europa, and was transferred by that mechanism (which rejoiced in the name of “lithopanspermia”) to Earth? In which case we were all already Europans by ancestry! If life here and on Earth did have a common root, it must have been around four billion years ago, since the divergence between the two separate evolutions seemed to have started at the level of the prokaryotes, in what biologists called the Hadean period. Perhaps in the Late Heavy Bombardment era of the solar system when asteroid impacts in the inner planets were commonplace.
Leon recorded all of this, together with his own awed commentary, and left a copy with the Mole’s computer as well as the Moby’s. He was now consumed with curiosity and could not wait to go deeper. The Moby, which was an effective submarine by itself, would be crippled by the Mole, so he began the process of separation. He moved the few things he had left in the Mole’s tiny control compartment into the Moby, transferred the two cables to the Mole, sealed up, and broke the connection. He ordered the Mole to winch itself up snug to the ice roof of this world, set up safety systems, and power down.
An anxious voice told him that he would be parting from the whole of his world now, but he ignored it. After all, he’d have no trouble getting back. The Mole had a powerful automatic sonar beacon, which would both broadcast its location and keep curious beasties away. Its range, taking into account the noise interference of this new world, would still be over 60 kilometers, and he would surely not go any further away than that. 50 kilometers would get him halfway down, and he’d have a chance to see a good proportion of the upper ecosystem of the moon. All he’d have to do is lock on the beacon and be back within a “day” or two.
Or so he thought.
The Salvages began to fire up Mole 2 as soon as our status checked out. Our designers had included a small heavily armored surface crawler with the Mole module, so we had to unlimber it first. Its first job was to salvage from Umtali whatever could be found. The radiation-protected cabin only had room for two, so Kadi picked Mack and me to go—Mack because of his long experience with low-grav vacuum surface work and expertise at machinery and destruction, me because of my knowledge of information systems and AI. We were hoping not only to recover the bodies of the first expedition, but also to obtain as much of its information as had survived.
It was a short bumpy and slithery trip to the wreck. The bouncy, gliding motion of the crawler–low weight and high momentum, often off the ground–was a bit unnerving. Combined with the weirdly short horizon and the baby-blue carpet of oxygen snow, it produced a sort of sinister dreamlike state of mind, both beautiful and horrible. Jupiter hung fixed and huge over that odd horizon. We were on the leading face of Europa in relation to its direction of motion around the giant planet, which gave us some protection from the ion flux, but not enough for our predecessors and not enough for us if we made the least mistake.
The fatal iceberg loomed up over the crushed shell of Umtali. We were both in bulky spacesuits, themselves as stoutly armored against the invisible torrent of charged particles as was consistent with movement. They would give us an hour or so of exploration before our bodies had received the maximum allowable dose of radiation. A slim, silent ice-plume wavered off to the East, foreshortened, its source vent hidden by the curvature of the moon. We felt the faintest vibration through our feet as we got off the crawler.
We worked fast. Mack, who had memorized the specs, found the lander’s airlock at once, overrode the still-functioning mechanism, and let us in. Here the radiation level diminished significantly, because the bulk of the ascent stage and the iceberg partially protected us. So we’d have a bit more time.
We were looking for nine bodies, and found eight of them together in the command deck, in space suits. They had joined hands together around the chart table, and the slight rigidity of the spacesuits in the near-vacuum had kept them from slumping down when they died. It had a weirdly festive air. And looking through the faceplates we were shocked: they were perfectly preserved–except for what looked like a slight sunburn on the faces of the lighter complexioned ones. The air within the suits had maintained its pressure, so there had been no explosive decompression, and no bacterium could have survived the storm of radiation any better that its hosts. Three of them had their eyes open: Kajinakaji from Zambia, Lavoisier from France, and Botros from Egypt. Their names were on their helmets. Marie Lavoisier looked like me, only much more beautiful. I will never forget it.
The ninth body—Tom Bowie’s–was in the ascent stage. He had evidently climbed up into the wreckage—where the radiation was heavier—to try to access the computer and get a message out. He had been able to make sure the automatic beacon was operational, but the main system was down and he had died before he could get back to the others. I confirmed that the quantum core of the system was totally destroyed but brought out the zip files he had recorded to send. I also checked the lander’s subsidiary systems, downloaded all I could into my own computer, and began beaming it back to ELERA 2 in case we ourselves didn’t get back.
Mack had been hauling the bodies back to the crawler and loading them on its large roof rack. The hardest part was not carrying them—they weighed very little here—but prying their gloved hands apart. I pitched in, glad to have something physical to do to hold off the violent mixed feelings of grief, horror, solidarity, and a kind of exalted admiration and pride in our species. Mack and I had to cooperate to maneuver Bowie’s corpse through the partly-blocked airlock between the modules. Mack stopped to smash a ruptured panel that had nearly ripped my suit as I squeezed through. When they were all tied down on top of the crawler, we headed back toward ELERA 2 as fast as we could, arriving just as our time ran out.
We had all known vaguely that Nick and Billy were religious, though in very different ways. Billy was a sort of shaman in one of the new Aboriginal cults that had sprung up in the mid twenty-first century, a dreamtime guide. This work sat comfortably beside his keen objective anthropologist’s curiosity, and he made fun of himself about it. Nick had been a Jesuit, but with his superior’s consent he had laid down the duties of his ordination. We didn’t know why, but it involved some quixotic and chaste commitment to a woman. But once a priest or shaman, always one. Together they organized a little ceremony for the dead explorers before we committed them to the cold storage of the cargo hold, to await return to their families.
Two of the things they said particularly struck me. One was Nick’s remark that for us humans, it was not enough that we simply maintain a moral world. “Our imagination, and our capacity to risk ourselves for what we think more important than ourselves, require that we extend the moral world, and this is what these heroes did. We thank them for being human and for their moral victory over death.”
The other remark was Billy’s. “When we go walkabout, which is what we’ve been doing this last two million years, we don’t just go from place to place. We make places, and we make them with stories and names. As we’ve agreed, we call this place ‘Bowie’s End,’ and that will be its name as long as there are human beings in the universe.”
After this makeshift and preliminary funeral, we had a little feast—not exactly a wake, because we hadn’t, for the most part, known the dead personally. And the next “day” the Salvages prepared to go down after the sole survivor of Umtali.
Leon spiraled gently downward in the Moby, observing what he could with passive sonar supplemented by brief surveys with the floodlights and some bursts of active sonar and radar. Radar seemed to have the same effect on the local fauna as did light: though eyeless, their skins were as generally sensitive to light and radio waves as ours are to heat. With the lights off Leon could often see different colored sources of bioluminescence, apparently used as a weapon or warning by some species, and, he guessed, as a mating signal by others. The robust presence of both diploid and haploid organisms argued that sexual reproduction was as prevalent here as on Earth. It would be hard to think of a simpler way of controllably and quickly generating variation that could then be tested by selection, and Europa had apparently pursued the same logic.
The cacophony—or was it a euphony, as his ears got used to it?—increased as he went deeper. He continued to take samples at different depths, and the variety of species increased. The mystery of the corals continued to plague him, and he was beginning to wonder whether there were any higher forms of life.
His wonderings were cut off short by his first storm. His original point of entry was a relatively calm region of Europa’s ocean, sheltered on two sides by the upside-down valley of thinner crust that Umtali had hypothesized must be there, and had aimed for. As he left this “bay,” he encountered more and more pockets of strong currents, often changing direction, that betokened whirlpools of turbulence. His engines fought to maintain his speed and direction in these little squalls. But now, suddenly, his klaxons sounded as he ran right into one of the gigantic tidal flows that were common a few kilometers below the surface.
It swept the boat violently sideways, until he got it facing the current and his gyroscopes stabilized. The current must be at least twenty knots—nearly as fast as his submarine itself. Then new vortices came ripping down, and the boat was tumbled over and over—Leon was bruised and bloody, despite being strapped in. The little “bridge” at the nose of the Moby, where he had established himself, was a mess.
He blew the tanks and started to rise. As he got out of the main current he managed to regain control, but now, in full active sonar mode, he spotted a ridge of upper seafloor rapidly approaching above him. All he could do was to avoid it and stay in control. He decided to dive and run with the storm. It would not do to be trapped against some unmelted plate of subducted ice, a lee shore.
The current increased. For several hours he held on, trying to keep between the storm and the upper “shore.” Unable to sleep, grabbing quick bites of leftovers to keep him going, he kept up a running debate with the AI as to the best course to take.
Finally the storm began to abate, as whichever moon whose close approach had occasioned the tidal rush, Ganymede or Io, receded around the bulk of Jupiter. Was he lost? The thought terrified him. The Mole’s sonar beacon was silent. But so far the inertial guidance systems, though strained to the limit, had been able to keep rough track of where he was—maybe two hundred kilometers north-east of the Mole, and fifteen kilometers deep. The pressure outside must be increasing already, but the Moby’s hide was in effect a single carbon atom and could take it.
Leon needed sleep. He turned his vessel back toward the Mole and handed over control to the AI (but with a command to tell him at once about anything unusual). And before he drifted off he made three resolutions: get back into shelter, figure out a way to predict the storms, and name his boat and his AI. He was realizing more and more the foolish risk he had taken, and the danger of his own ignorance in the absence of his crew. He could no longer be a passenger. He would have to master and command what resources he had—his ship, his AI, and himself—if he was to survive and complete his mission.
He thought of calling the Moby Clio, after his daughter, but some obscure anxiety about potentially embarrassing her if he ever got back prevented him. So he called her—with her AI– Alice, after Clio’s favorite character when she was a little girl. If any vessel had ever been down the ultimate rabbit-hole and through the looking-glass, it was this one. With this thought he slept.
Mole 2 was faster and better equipped than Mole 1, but basically the same design. Everybody had elected to come; to remain on the surface, even with the lander’s shielding, and a planned burial of the whole assembly, would add to the radiation load of any remaining sentinel. So it was a little crowded in the Mole-Moby assembly, though comfortable enough under the circumstances.
Right at the stern of the Moby was the reactor, as far away from the living quarters as possible. Though most of the rest of the boat was arranged according to the VM (virtual matter) program, the normal configuration was as follows. Next to the reactor were the engines, highly effective turbines, then the stores, life-support systems with accelerated racked gardens and protein vats, electronics and EVA and diving gear, two mini-subs for longer excursions, a closed pinnace with a miniature life-support system for three, and even some minor weaponry including small torpedoes and hand arms. The matter printer could build more serious stuff if needed. Next, on two decks, were the living quarters, shower, small gym, galley, head; then the big common room and the tiny cabins, and the command bridge. Buoyancy and attitude tanks were at several points around the hull. The hull itself was of nanocarbon weave in a virtual-matter matrix: very strong indeed, very light, and quite “intelligent,” with integrated sensors and automatic deployable defenses against kinetic, chemical, and electromagnetic threats. Our skinsuits were thinner versions of the same material. The Mole had a basic life-support system of its own, as a backup; Mack and Smutty, with their engineering background, spent some time in there monitoring the descent. They had to wriggle through the airlock link between the two linked vessels.
As we descended we unreeled a fiberoptic cable connected to the powerful antennas of ELERA 2. This was our informational umbilical cord to human civilization, or to be more exact, to PASA Europa Control in Johannesburg. Our reports would go through them to reach Solar System press outlets, though we were sure wonk hackers were monitoring our transmissions and maybe even breaking the encryption. PASA Control was supposed to consult with the relevant Pan-African congressional committees about what got released to the public. “Control” was something of a euphemism, though. We were about 40 light-minutes away from Earth, so any remark would have to allow 80 minutes to get a reply. It had been agreed from the beginning—Kadi had made this conditional on her appointment—that PASA would not micromanage, and that only the biggest strategic decisions would get referred to base. Since Kadi was supposed to decide what was a big strategic decision (and since she liked a fairly democratic style of command), we had pretty much a free hand.
We were lucky in the course we chose, as we encountered only a few kilometers down a large freshwater ice-lake, highly oxidated and very sour and clear. We could swim down much faster than by drilling. We later hypothesized that the slushy patch Leon had drilled though was the margin of that little sea.
Here we made our great discovery—which, unbeknownst to us, Leon had already made. There were living organisms here—obviously highly stressed extremophiles, like the ones in Antarctica’s ice lakes, or like the bacteria that survive above the boiling point of water in dark thermal vents. The microorganisms in the first sample were clearly alive. Nell and Sylvie were so excited that they rose to new heights of mutual insult. They insisted on an EVA, and Smutty went too to keep them, as he said, from harming each other. All of us were by this time trained divers, having practiced at Mars’s big domed lake in Hellas.
But there was not much to see out there. No fish or even mollusks.
“I think they were scared by the whale,” said Nell on their return, referring to Sylvie in her drysuit.
“Or by the crab,” said her friend.
Even when they closed their eyes, turned off their lights, and used their sears, there was only a vague mix of colors—with a few weird tinges—and the distant loom of the ice-ceiling above.
“Wait, Doc,” said Nell, noticing that Dr. Ike looked a little glum about their account of the view provided by their sears. “There wasn’t much there above the size of zooplankton, but what there was, we saw very well.”
“Yes,” said Smutty, “The ship was as clear as crystal, much better than by eye. And we could see what was going on inside.”
“I saw Mack and Kadi scraping out the protein racks,” said Sylvie. “But there was something else, and we wanted to raise it in case it’s a problem. We saw colors that aren’t there.”
“What do you mean?” asked Doc, lighting up with hope.
“It was like there were two more primary colors out beyond violet,” said Sylvie. “One was like a dull itch, the other like a strong itch, a bit painful, but sort of nice, like lemon juice. They were just misty wisps, probably bacterial traces.”
“And there were two more lower down, beyond red,” said Nell. “The one that merged into red was like oil being rubbed into your skin. The furthest one out was sort of heavy and thick, like that bruisy feeling in an orgasm.”
“And thanks for that insight into your reproductive system,” Sylvie said under her breath.
“That was the way it felt to me too,” said Smutty, at the same moment.
“What was that you said, Sylvie?” asked Nell, who knew perfectly well.
“Just an observation,” said Sylvie, echoing an earlier remark of Nell’s.
Nell apparently changed the subject. “We could see inside each other,” she said. “Sylvie, for instance, had closed her sphincters and was shivering.”
“Ladies, ladies,” said Doc. “Birds in their little nests agree. But this is interesting shit. I was hoping we might be learning to see different sonocolors. Being in the water, where the sound conduction is so much greater in those thin skinsuits, must have triggered it.”
When they examined what was in the sample tank they were ecstatic. Elegant adaptive solutions, using the three new sulfur-based amino acids. An amazing use of enantiomers—complex identical molecules of opposite chirality or handedness. Woodlike cellulose polymer structures. And grains of organic silicone in the Europan equivalent of diatoms. The latter fascinated Sylvie, who spent hours locked in the lab with the X-ray diffractometer trying to figure out how biogenic silicone could be selected for on this planet, how hydrosilanes could be stable at these temperatures, and what were the crystal and polymer structures she was seeing. The seawater beaded on their wetsuits and in the tank had a nostalgic oceanic smell, with a not unpleasant touch of hydrogen sulfide.
Nell maintained that she was actually asleep in there. “The poor thing gets low blood sugar and tries to hide it.”
When Sylvie emerged and heard about Nell’s slur she pointed out that it was a pity Nell’s expertise in currents and water dynamics were so remarkably useless in this calm lake. “Must be boring for you here. Perhaps you should take up popular science instead,” she suggested. “I can explain the chemistry for you, and then you can write something brisk for the networks,” she added sympathetically.
We were, actually, thinking about the impact of this news on Earth. We would be famous. This plainly was a matter Kadi would have to bring to NASA Control. Should we go on? Should we establish a base? Or should we, as Arthur Clarke suggested long ago, leave this moon untouched, to develop its own history? Or should we just observe? We would have been crushed if we had been told to leave; scientific curiosity is almost irresistible. I’m not sure we would have complied—after all, what could they do about it at this range?
In a way we were lucky that our first encounter was with life so primitive that alarm bells did not go off at PASA, and only the most radical Greens in the public had real objections to our continuing the mission. There was much hemming and hawing at the other end of the line, as we expected, and after an agonizing pause of many hours we got the go-ahead. It was accompanied by a bundle of headline reports from the interplanetary press, with videos of each of us and interviews with what families we had, friends and mentors. They wanted to interview each of us at length, but the 80-minute lag mercifully protected us. We allowed three questions each and gave the standard modest gee-whiz aw-shucks team-effort spaceman spiel.
And then we dove rather clumsily toward the bottom of the lake, and renewed our grinding, booming descent.
Alice felt her way south-westwards on her inertial guidance system. Leon hoped to pick up the Mole’s sonar beacon in a couple of “days.” Though the fauna outside looked remarkable to the clumsy senses he had at his disposal, he did not stop to study it. He noticed one thing, though, that seemed important. He was playing selections from the ship’s rather splendid collection of music. I know what he must have been playing: everything from ancient music to some of the “postmoderns.” When he played certain pieces, the ambient noise around the ship quietened, and passive sonar showed that a shoal of variegated fishlike organisms had gathered in the vicinity of the ship and kept pace with him. They had definite favorites: Lawes, Bach, Mozart, some 60’s music, Ladysmith Black Mombaso, some sitar ragas, contemporary Chinese slow-dance. On an impulse, he played them whale-song, but they were unimpressed. He noted that when he tried Schoenberg and Stockhausen on them, they swam away.
He was beginning to regain his calm when his intermittent sonar pings gave warning of a vast solid mass below him—not above him! At first he thought it might be a plate or berg of subducted ice that had become detached from the roof above. Or a huge school of “fish.” But the sonic signature did not look like ice, or the organic material he had already encountered—it was more like wood or stone, the AI insisted. He steered upward to avoid it, and ate a very meditative sandwich. This was all getting very odd. At least the coral mystery might have been solved—but they were over 80 kilometers above the solid core of Europa. Could this be the tip of an 80 kilometer high seamount? None of the space-based gravimetric and electromagnetic data had suggested anything of the kind.
Shortly after leaving the reef, or whatever it was, he began getting odd patterns of clicks from time to time. They were different from the usual cacophony of the Europan ocean. None of the usual torpedo-shaped “fish” or cruising jellies or parasquids or segmented jet-propelled beasties that he could see were making these sounds. He had heard such clicks before, but these seemed to have a consistent rhythm and style, denoting a single source that was keeping up with him. That source was distant and invisible to his own sonar. A predator? He decided to ignore it until he could get back to his base and do a thorough analysis with the help of Alice’s AI.
Alice was not designed with military uses in mind. She did not have on hand a cloaking device, or a towed sonar/radar array, or special silencing, which would have taken a while for Alice to construct and which would limit her performance. She was more or less blind to objects directly astern, because of the turbulence of her fairly traditional propulsion system. Leon’s neglect of this in particular led to the next devastating interruption of his planned retreat to the Mole.
Three hours after his encounter with the “reef,” the frequency and complexity of the unusual clicks he had been hearing increased substantially. Out of the murk on his port side a shape appeared some distance off, most likely the source of the clicks; he decided not to antagonize it or flee but continue slowly on his way and see what would happen next. His heart was in his mouth: this looked like intelligent behavior, and if it was, he had just made about the most important discovery in human history. He didn’t want to screw it up.
This, however, was not a good idea. A great impulse from behind suddenly flung Alice forward and sideways, and now his passive sonar showed an enormous vertical ring-like shape behind him, traveling swiftly with steady unhurried surges in his direction. The impact was the bow-shock of something inconceivably vast. He snapped on the lights, the radar and active sonar, and the form out on his port side quickly disappeared, while continuing to send out trains of clicks. But the shape behind him, undeterred, was still driving forward. He pushed Alice to her maximum speed. He saw that dozens of sea-creatures around him were scattering in panic, some almost keeping pace with him in their evident terror. They were even more afraid of their gigantic pursuer than of him, he noticed, despite his lights and radar and high-volume pings. Maybe they knew something he didn’t.
The ring, it now appeared, was only the leading edge of a gaping hollow at the bow of what was obviously an enormous structure. By now his pursuer was much closer. If he fled directly away, he could not see it, so he changed course at enough of an angle to where he could make out its bulging flank, hoping it would miss him. But it was now gaining on him. The sonic signature was very much that of living matter.
Just when it looked as if he might escape the thing that was bearing down on him, the whole ship experienced a massive electric shock, and a shattering hammer-blow of sound. Leon was deafened, despite Alice’s noise-cancelling system. For a few moments all of the ship’s functions were disoriented, and had to reboot. And suddenly the ocean around him was silent, and all around Leon’s ship inert animal forms drifted immobile, paralyzed or dead. But Alice had survived so far. Wisely, the builders had anticipated violent electromagnetic disturbances in that mysterious ocean; the carbon Faraday cage had deflected most of the charge, and it did not take long before control was established.
Perhaps it was not too late. Maybe he could slide by and escape. But now he saw the stunned or dead creatures that were closer to the monster suddenly accelerate towards it, and then he felt an irresistible current that snatched Alice and drew her straight into the maelstrom of its maw. Some unimaginable bellows within the thing must have opened to drag its prey into its belly. After the indraught, a rippling sphincter quickly closed upon the creature’s catch. And Leon was now a sort of literal Jonah.
What should he do? He felt the clutch of claustrophobia, combined with a distinct sense of the absurd. He had come all this way to be eaten–or even just browsed, he thought, as he went over it in his mind.
He tried to ram the place where the sphincter had closed: but it was like a mountain of rubber. An attack on the side had similar results. He flashed the lights and the radar, and sent out a series of powerful pings, all to no effect. He suspected that if he fired one of his small torpedoes it would be similarly ineffective, and felt a certain compunction for the poor vast unconscious thing. And if he did manage to kill the monster he would be trapped in its enormous corpse forever.
Some time afterwards the Alice’s sensors warned him that the pH in the belly of the thing was rapidly decreasing. The water was turning to a bitter acid. And now a slow churning began, driven by spasms in the stomach-wall. Alice’s engines hummed to keep the boat on an even keel. He was being digested, or rather indigested, he thought with a slightly mad sense of comedy. The boat’s skin was tougher than the beast had reckoned, or would have reckoned if it had noticed at all that it had swallowed a stranger. But he could see the bodies of other items of fodder shredding away, the fish or squid or giant jellyfish shapes decomposing and falling apart.
Suddenly he found he was laughing, but he did not like it. Now he knew how krill felt. With an effort he shut the laughter down, but it was followed by a wave of horror, and on the heels of that a feeling that he had, surprisingly, kept at bay all this time: an aching loneliness. He was utterly lost. And completely insignificant.
He strove to get some scientific objectivity on the situation. Though Leon had immediately christened it “megacetan,” it was actually more like a basking shark or whale shark than a member of the cetaceans, the whale family. It evidently cruised the ocean with its cavernous mouth wide open, digested what was to be digested, and passed the rest on through. He calculated that it must be roughly a third of a kilometer in length, with a diameter of about fifty or sixty meters and a gape slightly wider still. Two Mobys, end to end, would not quite span the ring. It was as if a lady at a cocktail party had popped a baby carrot in her mouth. Leon banished the image from his mind, fearing that it would bring back that nasty manic feeing of uncontrol.
But maybe eventually he would be excreted, and all he could do was wait, as his parents had waited for the reappearance of the button that he, as a small boy, had once swallowed on a dare. How long would it take, though? And where would the great explorer be when he was so unceremoniously deposited?
I’ve mentioned some of the ingenious features of the Mobys used on both expeditions, but maybe I should explain a bit more. Obviously, space and mass were all-important—we had to hump everything half a billion miles and then squeeze it down a hole we must make for ourselves, all this on a budget controlled by an NGO overseen by a dozen suspicious national and corporate sponsors with sharp pencils. Our Moby was obviously more advanced than Leon’s, but some of the same principles applied to both.
I’ll just describe some special features of ours for those of you who haven’t yet followed the new fashions in architecture and interior design, and who are not that familiar with VM. Basically, most of the ship’s interior was made of VM, that is, matter without nuclei. Matter behaves as it does in the world we experience because of its complex patterns of electrons, which make it feel hard or soft, strong or weak, hot or cold, wet or dry, sound conducting or silencing, green or blue, and so forth. Though the devices we use to create those patterns in virtual matter are made of “real” matter and have mass, virtual matter itself is almost weightless. It can also be turned on and off, projected, removed, transformed and so on according to the programs of its projectors.
So we could use the limited space inside the Moby very flexibly, rotating floors according to whether the sub is vertical or horizontal, providing chairs and tables and cookware and scientific apparatus and sports equipment and suchlike on demand. We had little concerts in our break times. Mack turned out to be quite a talent at guitar and harmonica, and Sylvie had been playing renaissance jazz on her electronic viola da gamba since she was a girl. We could even stretch to a squash court for the addicts of that game, though it was a pain to set up and take down. Of course our food and clothing were “real,” and so were many of our personal items, which tended to get forgotten and lost when we went through one of our major remodelings.
Clearing the decks for action–and reconstituting a vessel after action–was actually a fairly ancient practice. Naval ships of the Napoleonic era, with their numerous well-trained crews, could strip a ship’s insides, cabins and all, shifting bulkheads and banishing furniture to the hold in minutes. They would run out the guns, take down the topmasts, create barricades, and then, after a sea battle, would efficiently restore everything to its place. We had neat devices to do the same sort of thing for us, but the idea is the same.
Individual privacy is thus possible on a small ship, but at the same time rather fragile, and dependent on remembering to program it. Privacy for two or three would be a slightly marked event. This, combined with the highly professional obsessions of the crew, and their rather geeky embarrassment about personal sharing, made romance as such pretty much impossible; but it also nurtured some special friendships and secret affections among all of us. And I was privy to quite a bit of this; so to understand how things developed later, and how the fairly benign politics of our ship played out later, maybe I should make some notes about our personal dynamics. To be fair, I should start with me.
I have to admit that I nursed a certain tendresse for Mack. Seeing the tears on his face behind the faceplate as he loaded the corpses of Umtali really shook me. He was in all other respects the matter-of fact irreverent spaceman, stacking them and tying them down with bungees, and humming an old Rumanian tune. He had on both physical and psychological armor, and though I had seen through it for a moment, I was a bit afraid of him too, and kept things professional.
In any case, his half-serious pursuit of Kadi continued, and I knew that by comparison with her I was a rather mousy little coffee-colored geek. To my shame I watched them, though. I saw Kadi’s initial distaste and flattered amusement turn to a certain embarrassment about reconciling her leader role with his not entirely unwanted attentions, and then to a definite joshing relationship that the crew found hilarious. It was not that Mack disrespected her, but he was one of that new-old breed of prospectors who thumb their noses at all authority in general, and he was also fighting what I’m sure was a real admiration for her.
I’ll try to find a time later to talk about Kadi—she’s amazing. One example for now. I think she sussed me out about my thing for Mack and gave me an assignment to make me feel better. We had been talking about what we were going to call the Moby, because from time to time someone would be talking about Leon’s Moby, and someone else, overhearing, had thought it was about our own Moby. Confusion could be dangerous. Naming—that was almost the core of our work. So Kadi asked me if I would choose a name for our Moby, since I was Leon’s kid. I thought back at that moment to our trip to Umtali, the last place I had stood where Leon had stood. I remembered the face of the astronaut who I thought looked like me, and said at once: “Thanks, Kadi. How about the Marie Lavoisier? Marie for short.” Kadi tried this out on the others, and they all liked it, especially Nick, who remembered the old Latin confusion of “Maria” the blessed virgin, with “maria”—“seas.” Our boat would be the star of the seas. So Marie it was.
I think you’ve probably already got a sense of Sylvie and Nell, and their appalling game. Were they lovers? Depends what you mean. They’d die for each other, I knew, though I’m not sure how I knew I knew. Maybe if you can put up with that kind of treatment from someone, you’d have to love them. Or maybe the insults were a form of absolute trust, and maybe their sharing that trust with us, and the outrageous comic entertainment it provided, was a form of trust in us. Or maybe I’m taking the whole thing too seriously.
Barak and Billy Babamboo began talking about religion after the little wake or pre-funeral funeral we had for the heroes of Umtali. Barak was one of that new generation of Arabs who had looked back in horror at what some of his people had done in the previous century. He had refused to forgive them on the grounds of their brutal and disrespectful treatment by the West, and had decisively rejected Islam and theism itself. He was more western than westerners, more liberal than liberals, more secular than seculars. He had been pleasantly surprised by how little religious stuff there had been in the eulogies of Nick and Billy, who were supposed to be holy joes. Billy especially was a bit of a mystery to him. How could a distinguished anthropologist, an expert in the human sciences, aware of the whole range of totally contradictory things that people of different religions believed in, take that dreamtime stuff seriously? He broached it with Billy one time. They’d been speculating about possible alien intelligences in the ocean below them.
“OK, Billy, suppose they have religions down there. What do you think they’d be like?”
“Search me, mate,” said Billy. “But I think they would have religions of some sort, and that’s the biggest reason why I came.”
“Why would they have religions?”
“As an evolutionary scientist I’d say that intelligence is basically social—we evolved big brains to run the game-theory calculations about coalitions, trust, betrayal, and signaling that help you survive in a political environment, and that enable you to analyze and control yourself so you don’t screw things up on impulse. That means we need a bond, some conception of what is more important and valuable than any individual, to hold us together, otherwise it’s just dog-eat-dog– everybody except one gets voted off the island and the one that’s left dies of starvation.
“Perceived kinship, by blood or pair-bonding, provides some of that glue, and that’s where ritual starts. God is love. We start having marriages rather than matings, and burying our dead and mourning and trying to live up to their example. But that only works in groups up to about two hundred people, and that’s already pushing the brain’s capacity to remember everyone and their relations with everyone else. Markets and money can create larger networks of cooperation, wealth and culture, but sooner or later some clever folks—bandits or politicians–realize that it’s easier to take or beg other people’s stuff than make or trade for your own. City-states can create a sort of artificial kinship, and with good propaganda and a law code and a police force you can hold a nation together for a while.
“But religions—and quasi-religions like Confucianism and Marxist class theory and Nazi race theory and democratic natural rights–can do even more. Laws will only be made and obeyed if people basically want to obey them, and that ‘wanting to’ is what religions provide. So then you can have societies of millions of people, and lots of specialist niches and efficient division of labor, and a cool pyramid to model the hierarchy, and large accumulations of capital and land and labor so you can do the big things like dams and roads that create civilization.”
“But this doesn’t sound very much like religion at all,” said Barak, slightly shocked by Billy’s rather cold-blooded pragmatism. “You make it sound like a collective illusion, cynically contrived to keep us all on the same page. But different religions have different pages, and if religion is more important than family and trade and self, then you are duty bound to kill anyone who’s not on the same page. And if it’s a way to keep peace among the tribes, couldn’t you argue that lots of little football-matches with a few deaths and injuries are better than jihads and crusades and class struggles and race wars that kill millions of people?”
Billy grinned bitterly. “Who said it was an illusion? You’re a neuroscientist, you know better than I do that your self is more important than any of your limbs and even senses. It’s an emergent entity. If you lose a leg, or just poop some of yourself out of you, you’re still you. You’re bigger than any part of you. And in turn you participate in all sorts of very big things, like your natural language and the marketplace and your national culture and nature itself, all of which you have little control over, and that seem to have lives of their own. Doesn’t it make sense that there’s something bigger still, bigger and more conscious, some emergent mind-brain in which we’re just neurons?
“We find our friend’s souls—OK, minds, selves, personalities if you like—much more important, more beautiful, than their limbs and even their whole bodies. All that gorgeous religious architecture, music, painting, sculpture, dance, ritual—that’s our way to try to say what that bigger thing is that we’re the limbs of.
“In the twentieth century they came up with the idea of the ecosystem, and extended it to the whole planet and beyond. And derived all kinds of moral rules and ritual practices and beautiful art out of it. At the time it was science. Now we know it was the birth of a religion. But the science was mostly quite sound. It’s only when religions get old and forget the science they were based on that they begin to sound like mumbo-jumbo. They fall in love with the pictures and poetry their ancestors made of the divine world, rather than what the pictures and poetry were about—and then they acquire bureaucracies, and turn into profitable corporations and pseudo-nations. Which will sooner or later start killing each other.”
“I knew an old imam who said some of the same things,” Barak mused. “I think he must have been a Sufi. But his vision of the divine world didn’t bear any relation to the religions I saw out there in the world.” He paused. “Is dream time the same idea, then?”
“Maybe one way of putting the same idea,” said Billy. “Oh, we Abos have codifiers and theologians and authorities too—already!–we’re only human. I get into trouble with them sometimes.”
“So that’s your game, Billy. You’re here to see if the Europans—IF they exist—have religions, and if they’ve managed it any better than we did.”
After this Barak’s mood lightened for a while. He’d always been a bit of a brooder, though he was unfailingly kind and polite. But I think in some ways the conversation isolated him even more. He wasn’t a Muslim any more. And now his atheism began to feel a bit like blinders. Who, or what, was he? Even the rebel role wouldn’t help. So he hung out a lot with Billy, hoping that maybe some of Billy’s disposition would rub off on him. He recalled the mission, and his part in it: the attraction of a whole new potential field of neuroscience, alien species, what they would have for brains, would they even need them?
Leon spent a few more hours in the first stomach of the beast, during which the vast sphincter would open from time to time, the walls would expand, and a new indraught of fodder would come rushing in. But then something new seemed to be happening. A series of spasms spread across the murky cavern, now rich with decomposing organic matter, and a new sphinctered mouth, opposite to the one by which he had entered, opened up. Immediately, the whole stomach relaxed, the pressure dropping. And like the rest of its contents the Alice was sucked into a new chamber, a bit smaller than the first.
Here he remained for only a few minutes. The second sphincter closed, and now a third opened up, and over the next hour the contents were gently pumped into a truly enormous space, where everything seemed to stop. The acidity began to drop as invisible vents poured more alkaline reducing fluids into the mixture, together with an astonishing variety of organic juices, rich with molecules of staggering complexity. The whole place fizzed with reactions, and the temperature rose. The top of the chamber began to fill with gas, which was now and then allowed to escape through a line of fleshy openings—perhaps in the form of colossal farts, Leon realized with a hysterical laugh. Much later, when we ourselves studied the megacetan, we figured it out. There were seven chambers altogether: the mouth, the acid stomach, the muscular bellows stomach, the enzyme stomach, the bacterial stomach, the anal chamber, and the anus passage itself. He was now in the enzyme stomach, it seemed.
And there he stayed for what must have been at least a week. His scientific objectivity and staunch anglophile courage dropped away piece by piece. His sleep became erratic and he lost his appetite. His dreams, which he did not remember, were horribly oppressive. He knew he was beginning to lose his mind. And now, for the first time, he could no longer avoid thinking about his daughter and his ex-wife.
He had met Daliso in Pretoria, where they were both studying at the new technical institute for admission to the PASA Jupiter program. Daliso, my mother, was from Lilongwe, in Malawi. Her family was well off: Lilongwe was one of those Free City enterprise zones that had flourished in post-industrial Africa using Chinese and Indian capital, and Grandma and Grandpa—“Agogo” and “Gogo” in Chichewa—had done well as entrepreneurs in solar energy and banking. They had a country place—actually the ancestral home—on Lake Nyasa, which Dad and I had spent some very lovely summers in.
Leon still yearned for Daliso, and now, in the belly of the beast, he realized what he had lost. When I came along, they decided to keep me, which meant that Daliso had to quit the program. Grandma and Grandpa were furious, so Daliso brought me up in Cape Town, at the old Held house. Later, when Agogo and Gogo got to know me and fell in love with their grandchild as people do, they let us stay vacations at the Nyasa beach house. I was doing very well at SACS in Cape Town and they didn’t want to take me out, so Mum and I settled in there. But when it became clear that Leon was more interested in being the first explorer on Europa than being a full-time husband and Dad, that was it. Mum went back to Lilongwe and married my horrible stepdad.
Leon missed me quite as much as he missed Mum, I like to think. And as he obsessively renewed his observations in the belly of Leviathan, or dropped everything in an escapist torpor, he began to want to die. His mind went back to his comrades in Umtali, Habte, Tom, Marie, Musona, the others. He had indeed abandoned them. He should have gone back and died with them. To die was something. Now he was nothing.
The Salvages broke through into the Europan ocean eight days after we left the ice-lake. It was a miracle, a revelation.
Although we’d hoped, in a sort of science-fiction way, that there’d be sentient life down here, the sheer abundance and variety of it was overwhelming, and we were shocked both by its resemblance to terrestrial ecosystems and by its strange and radical differences. Later we found that by comparison with the wild profusion of life deeper down, the ecosystem here in the extreme chemical stress of these shallow waters was relatively skimpy. But after the disappointment of the ice lake we were more than satisfied already.
We anchored to the icecap, took a quick look at our surroundings, and had a meeting.
Of course, the first order of business was to check the position where ELERA 1’s Mole (and Moby?) would be anchored. We had heard the ping from Leon’s beacon as soon as we emerged, but there was no response when we pinged back, except some commotion among the local fauna.
I was not surprised, but still insanely anxious. It was my private opinion that Leon would have continued with the mission by himself—Leon being Leon—but suppose he was sick, or dead, or had indeed gone on, returned, and came to grief afterwards? I had to know. So, of course, did the rest of the crew. Should the Marie break off from the Mole, go over, and link up? There was some discussion. We didn’t know what dangers here might require us to escape to the surface in a hurry, so we decided to send a rescue party and keep Marie coupled to our Mole. Smutty and Sylvie, both divers, together with Doc (in case Leon was there and in trouble), were chosen to go. I insisted on going with them, arguing on practical grounds: I was trained to handle the vital IT systems of the Moby and get the information we needed.
We decided to report our findings to NASA Control at once, before we had more detailed information about the ecosystem we had broken into. We wanted to forestall any move to tell us to stop. We stressed the urgency of our need to reach Leon’s ship, in case he needed rescuing—one of the prime stated goals of the trip–and put our expedition together before we got a reply. Yes, I know it was a bit irresponsible; it was like Admiral Nelson putting the telescope to his blind eye and saying truthfully that he saw no French ships. But at that time our excitement was so high that we had no second thoughts. As it turned out, PASA was basking in its success and had suppressed any dissenting voices in its own organization, so we shouldn’t have worried. But much later, some of us would begin to doubt the wisdom of our course.
We took the two minisubs. These were not pressurized; they were open to the water but with water-tight storage space. The intelligent carbon skinsuits and top-of-the-line rebreathers were quite adequate, and we loaded the subs with anything in the way of medications and supplies that Leon might need.
Events showed that we were rather foolhardy. We had already noticed that the organisms in this sheltered part of the ocean did not like radar, sonar shocks, and light. We had also noted their use of bioelectric discharge to stun their prey. The faraday cages woven into our skinsuits, which made us invisible to animals that orient toward their prey by electrical sensors, could also be used to protect the diver from external electric shocks, so we felt relatively safe. But had not yet encountered the use of sound as a weapon. And we had not yet encountered what we later called a banger.
And we were too much amazed and dazzled by the glory of what we saw once we were embarked and the native element of Europa swam about our heads to worry about danger. It was a vast, brilliant, and shockingly colorful world that revealed itself to our sears. We could “sear” far further and in more detail than we could see. When Nell and Sylvie had ventured into the ice-lake, the only reason that they were not similarly overwhelmed was because there was little to sear. Here there was a whole universe, it seemed, all brightly lit and exquisitely defined.
I remembered Coleridge’s lines in The Ancient Mariner:
“We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea”—
But this sea was not silent at all, it was the loudest place I had ever been, a loudness of color and illumination to our sears.
It was on this trip that we named the four new colors of the Europan sonic spectrum. The highest, itchiest one was “screal,” the next one down was “ript,” then the acoustic analogues to the seven main tints of the visual spectrum beginning with violet, and then, below red, was “vond,” and deepest of all was “hunder.” The new four, as we learned to sear them, were as distinct in mood and association as the known seven. What we saw was a sphere three or four kilometers in radius around us, filled with every imaginable form of marine life in movement, most of them emitting sonar, communication cries, and probably song. We could not sear more than a couple of klicks, but this was only because the ocean was so full that anything further away was obscured by closer stuff.
The other thing was that we could sear inside of the animals we seared—and inside each other, as Nell had tactlessly pointed out earlier. And there was another effect, that I will try to describe. Because we were searing everything in terms of the reflected soundwaves from everything else, as well as being dazzled by the many noisemakers among them, any object was lit and highlighted by multicolored sources, with a kind of hyper-real presence. It was a delight so great that it gave us a headache, and we amped up the noise-canceling feature in our skinsuits.
Which was just as well. A pair of the big lamprey-like fish had been pacing us for a while, and must have decided that the sound of our motors and our bodies was not dangerous. They were about the size of a great white shark, with circular mouthparts, cousins probably to the giant version that, ten months ago, had swallowed Leon’s ship Alice–but these were evidently predators in habit rather than simple browsers like the megacetan. They suddenly accelerated toward us. They were both a dull aqua in color, but as they closed on us and camouflage was no longer possible, great streaks of yellow, ript, and dark hunder rippled along their flanks like the iridescence of the hummingbird. Their three sears glowed bright screal.
We prepared to defend ourselves—we had extensible stunners and spearguns—but before they reached us we were all shocked and deafened by two massive blows of sound, one from each attacker. It was like being blinded by a flash grenade. We couldn’t sear anything. Doc realized what the problem was. “Open your eyes!” he yelled. We had all closed them so as not to distract ourselves from what we were searing. Sylvie flipped on all the lights, and I keyed on maximum sonar and radar and shouted: “Turn up your noise-cancelling!”
The “bangers” screamed and spasmed, but by this time they were so close that if Smutty had not shot out of his seat with the stunner and caught the bigger one on the sear, I think one of us might have been killed. The smaller one, confused, actually hit Smutty, enclosing his leg in its hideous fanged circular maw. Then it was gone, and so was the bigger one, rather pathetically weaving as it went. Probably its sear had been incapacitated—damage we hoped was only temporary.
“Smutty! Are you OK?” asked Doc anxiously.
“I’ll live,” said Smutty, still gasping into his rebreather.
He recovered his breath. “The skinsuit wasn’t penetrated, but I’ll have a fancy bruise. Same thing happened to me at the beach in Wind Hoek, a Great White, almost the same place on my other leg.” He thought a minute. “The suits are great, but they won’t protect you from the predator’s shake. They’ll flip you to and fro and break your bones. My little friend was upset and forgot to do it. We’d better be careful in future.”
“Look!” Sylvie said. “There’s Leon’s Mole!”
It was moored to the ice-roof, still—to our recovering sears—broadcasting its homing signal, and intact. As we expected, the Moby was gone, which meant that Dad was somewhere down below. But the Mole would, we hoped, give us some clue where.
We cruised over to the airlock and keyed in the code. We entered, blew out the airlock, checked the air, broke our helmet seals, retracted our flippers, and stamped off some of the brine that streamed from our suits. “Smells a bit musty, but like home,” said Doc.
We had been unwinding a fiber-optic line as we came, and I plugged it into the Mole’s computer system. Now we were in contact with the Marie. And now my work began in earnest. None of us got more than an hour or two of sleep at a time for two Earth weeks.
Alice was finally ejected from the enzyme stomach into the bacterial stomach, which was larger still. Leon of course did not know how many stomachs the monster had, and so this particular change was a shattering disappointment. He was not out. And even if he were, he was not out from under the ice, which had now become his only goal.
And now I have to get into a place that is difficult in many ways. I don’t think we can really understand the events that followed unless we realize the terrifying psychological journey Leon—Dad—was making. It’s difficult literally; I am working here with what Leon eventually left with us, his dictated log that turned into a sort of nightmare journal, and it’s not very coherent. It’s difficult personally, because as you must surely have noticed I was and am very ambivalent about the guy, and it’s hard to sort out what is a clear picture of his character from my own biases and wishes, positive and negative. And it’s difficult too, in that the journey that you take with someone mentally breaking down is an extreme stretch of the empathetic imagination. It’s even dangerous. Hold onto my hand, reader, as I’m trying to hold on to his. It’s a quicksand, and at its center almost any movement draws you deeper. The more powerful in mind and spirit the victim is, the more hazardous is the attraction of where he’s going.
Why do adventurers go exactly where they are likely to be trapped or stranded? Because they want to repeat the experience of being born in the first place? Or get back where they started? Or is it macho—to prove once again the unprovable, which is that one is strong enough and lucky enough to survive anything, including death? OK, two-bit psychoanalysis, but I tried the theory out on Doc, who knows all that stuff, and he seemed to agree.
In between increasingly irregular bouts of furious work helping Alice’s AI collect, analyze and record everything possible about the megacetan’s gut environment, Leon took to watching the great movies of the last two centuries over and over. He was trying to avoid sleep, because he knew that he was having horrible dreams, even though he could not remember them. Finally he ran across the work of David Lynch through his failed version of Dune, but was intrigued enough to go on to Mulholland Drive, the director’s masterpiece. And this, for good or ill, was what unlocked the gate between dream and waking.
A large part of the movie—the viewer doesn’t know it though—is a dream. Dreamed by a young failed actress about the ghastly murder of a former friend that she has paid a contract killer to commit. The dream attempts to cover up the dreamer’s culpability by rearranging all the events of the last few months, and so protect her from the truth. But the truth breaks through, step after terrifying step, a journey into an insane state of paralyzing terror.
So Leon dreamed. His long, circumstantial, and inescapable dream was full of false awakenings and sickening recognitions that he had not awoken. It was set in the West Hollywood 1990s world of Lynch’s movie, but somehow transferred to the Johannesburg megacity of Leon’s professional life. Although Leon left a rambling account of the dream, it won’t mean much to you unless I write a whole book about Leon’s career in the sometimes cynical and corrupt world of African space science finance. But the key bit of it involved one of those old metal 1950s Coca-Cola signs that were once everywhere in Africa on village stores and rundown petrol stations, even deep in the bush. Many of them made their way into the “kasies” or shanty townships around major cities, becoming architectural features of the jerry-built shacks that spread across the high veldt around the city.
Leon’s dream took him again and again through a dreary industrial landscape of abandoned warehouses and garbage dumps, under howling highway overpasses, totally lost, trying to recognize some landmark that might help him find his way home. Dream memory is horribly brief—dreamers can’t read maps, and nobody can read more than half a sentence before forgetting how it began. And the dreamer sometimes, panicking, recognizes the awful change in his mentality and the utter untrustworthiness of his own personal existence.
Deeper and deeper he went, the place almost deserted but for a few people he half-recognized before they disappeared around a corner. The whole dream was in that flat high-albedo inland African sunlight. He kept coming back to the same battered shack whose wall included the Coca-Cola sign. In the end he just huddled against it, his back to the dried mud and lath and vinyl wall. But there was a creeping feeling in his shoulder blades, and he half-turned and looked over his shoulder. The Coca-Cola sign, with its curling C’s and loopy o’s, was writhing and squirming, and would not stop. His heart hammered and hesitated. He was in extreme terror, and paralyzed, head over his shoulder, and yet somehow terrified by how wearisomely boring and unterrifying it was, how apathetic he had become, so that he had no motivation to escape.
And when he did awaken, the flavor of the dream remained.
We found Leon’s log and final message fairly quickly. He had given the bearing of his planned expedition and the date of his intended return. That date was nine Earth months ago. Something had happened, clearly. We decided to download everything in the Mole’s data banks and then follow him cautiously, analyzing the information—ours and Leon’s—as we went.
Now Sylvie’s expertise really came into its own (much to Nell’s apparent disgust). Sylvie had caused something of a stir in the field of ocean moon studies by insisting on the importance of currents, tide-races and turbulence. In many fields scientists had assumed a fairly quiet and placid environment under the ice of Enceladus, Ganymede, Europa and the others. The models most geologists had used were of plumes, diapirs, hotspots, convection and crustal motion, by analogy with Earthly plate tectonics. But water currents were a billion times faster than the slow upwellings of mantle plumes, and they would be acting at the same rate as the tidal flows that racked these mysterious oceans, and interacting with them. A better analogy would be the deep and turbulent atmospheres of the gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. These contained regions of unimaginable violence with wind-jets of over 600 kilometers per hour, but also surprisingly robust areas of calm. Sylvie had been fascinated by the apparent universality of the Great Red Spot phenomenon, the existence of very long-lived turbulent systems slightly south of the middle latitudes of almost any rotating spherical fluid layer. The other gas giants had similar enduring whirlpools, and the same thing could be modeled in simple lab experiments. This observation led her deep into the math of turbulence and the emergence of stable dynamical systems with periodic cycles of change. Meteorology had been driven by the needs of weather forecasting to better and better chaotic models of the atmosphere, and the old theories of damped, driven nonlinear dynamical systems began to fit better and better.
Sylvie had already got some precise measurements of the diurnal/annual motions of the local ocean, its downdrafts and updrafts, its Hadley Cells, its temperature and pressure fronts. Fitting this data into her provisional model of Europa’s violent and squirming oceans, she concluded that we had better be very careful—there would be storms lower down, once we were out of the long bay that sheltered us. We took her warnings seriously.
She also added that her model predicted very large domains of relative stability, doldrums or Sargasso Seas, where not much would be happening and enduring ecosystems might take root. And such ecosystems, she hypothesized, might in turn preserve themselves by pretty complex feedback mechanisms, regulating the temperature, pressure, and motion of the water—especially if large stable solid structures, like coral reefs, could form. Our observations of silicone-based structures in almost all of the organisms we had examined confirmed that a dense silicone-like building material was part of the repertoire of life on this world, often paired with more familiar cellulose or woody materials. Sylvie thought that big solid reef-like islands, with controlled buoyancy, might be down there in the calmer waters between the cyclic tide-races and convectional storm-systems.
And Sylvie turned out to be largely right. As we worked our way along the course Leon had presumably taken, Sylvie and our AI provided a running series of predictions based on the information we got from our sensors about our local thirty cubic kilometers of ocean. And we managed to avoid the kind of storm that, unbeknownst to us, had driven Leon off course.
Our biologists—Barak, Billy, Smutty and Nell–were, if anything, even more excited than Sylvie was about the glut of information we were sucking in. Europa’s evolutionary history was becoming clear. Because of the plentiful oxygen in the ocean from the beginning, Europa’s evolutionary journey was at first much faster than Earth’s. It did not take long to move from the most primitive life-forms, the anaerobic archaea and bacteria that had presumably emerged around the deep-sea volcanic vents around five billion years ago, to prokaryotic life, multicelled organisms, and sexual reproduction. But here the evolutionary process slowed. The planet lacked plants, and the innovative biochemistry they developed out of photosynthesis. After the first explosion of life further ecological leaps and punctuations could not happen. Europa being largely protected by its thick shell of ice and water, collisions like the Chicxulub asteroid impact would not have the same effect of forcing radical evolutionary change. But slowly this Jovian moon had followed the same trajectory toward complex social species that Earth had. And with its earlier start it had in some ways got further along. It had not needed the belated “Oxygen Catastrophe” that jump-started the evolution of higher Earthly lifeforms.
The animals the bio-geeks had already observed and sometimes collected, studied, and released all showed obvious signs of social intelligence and some adaptations for ritual behavior. The pattern of three sonic organs they all possessed was, essentially, their “sears”, and their wide separation from each other was for the purpose of pinpointing the exact location and 3-D details of what they perceived. Each sear had its own noisemaker and echo-receiver. Sears themselves showed signs of adaptation for social display and the expression of emotion, as did the astonishingly varied forms of sexual genitalia. As on Earth, the primary producers of organic compounds were autotrophs, but lacking plants, Europan ecologies had evolved several phyla of browsers on the rich chemical soup of the world ocean. These in turn were preyed on by a wide range of predators.
One time we saw on the far horizon (our term for the blue-purple-hunder haze that blocks one’s sight about four klicks away) three enormous shapes, like elongated whales. The aqueous perspective swallowed them up in a minute or two. We wondered of some kind of mirage effect had magnified them to our senses.
As the Marie dove deeper, the biologists among the Salvages began to notice some very strange anomalies—features that their predictive model of this world’s evolution had not included. Smutty was especially excited about the corals, which had obviously gone far beyond those of the Earth. Large clumps of free-floating coral, porous and spongy, but with harder extensions and internal organs, were obviously superorganisms of their own. Each cell had what looked like its own primitive nervous system. Groups of cells formed gas pockets, mostly pure oxygen, that acted as both swim bladders or buoyancy controls and as fuel storage. Some clumps even had manipulators, like tentacles reinforced with bonelike silicone and cellulose stiffeners, for what purpose we did not know.
Another anomaly was that some of the samples showed DNA that Barak swore had been adaptively forced in geologically recent times—the last ten million years—as if by domestication. Many Earthly prey species show similar genetic forcing, so nobody was jumping to any conclusions. But the odd thing was that in some cases the DNA had begun to revert to its “wild” state, as if a domesticated animal had been allowed to go feral and its descendants had reflected the change in environmental conditions.
Nell and Billy were fascinated by the manipulative organs that some of the specimens possessed. There were the obvious tentacles, some reinforced like Smutty’s corals. Many of the jawed, fishlike organisms had front fins that had shifted to become cooperative grippers, whether to grasp their prey or to carry material for later use. Did they have nests? In what? The molluskoids had clawed grippers that were surprisingly deft. The lamprey/shark type cartilaginous species sometimes had odd bunches of tentacles that could be extended from their gill-slits, and were evidently adapted from gills or food-sifters. These too gave manipulative capacities to marine animals that were largely lacking on Earth.
And FMRI scans of their brains, usually located where the heart would be in an Earthly species, showed remarkable structures that set off much discussion. Generally the sear system had taken over large areas of the more primitive ancient brain of predecessor species, and then developed it into an association matrix and, judging from the neural extensions to the muscles, a decision-making center. The Europan brain in general appeared to be trilateral in structure rather than bilateral as on Earth, with a fourth system beneath, based on more primitive structures, resembling the human brain stem.
It became clear after a while that we were being followed or paced—we hesitated to say “monitored”–by a half-dozen larger fish, either bony and equipped with jaws, or sharklike with cartilaginous skeletons and circular mouthparts. We got sonar scans of them, as no doubt they did of us. Barak had some background in comparative anatomy, and he and Nell were intrigued by the circular maw of the “sharks.” Instead of closing by a hinged jaw, it evidently gripped and injured the victim’s flesh by closing inward like a sphincter, whereupon a thorny tongue ripped out the insides of the prey. But what was most interesting was that the “bonys” and the “sharks” were plainly cooperating, though one would have thought them natural enemies.
I wish I could describe the feeling of scientific excitement that kept everyone in the Marie awake, a mixture of exultation, agonizing curiosity, urgency, and desperate self-restraint. As trained scientists, our first commandment was not to jump to conclusions. But how could we not?
And there was another feeling, a deep moral foreboding that people sometimes repressed, sometimes blurted out. Had we any right to be doing what we were doing? The debate over the Prime Directive—a term that Doc, something of an antique media buff, informed us was not originally coined by the General Space Accords of the ‘60s but by an old TV show—continued on the Marie. Should we be there at all? Before we landed, we could legitimately claim that we did not know whether there was any kind of sentient life down here. But now, it seemed, there was not only life but at least primitive social life. If there was a culture to disrupt, then maybe we should turn back.
But the debate had become much more sophisticated and nuanced as it had gone on in the universities, the law schools, and the press. What right had a civilization with great gifts and knowledge and liberating technology to deprive another culture of those goods? Shouldn’t they be available to all intelligent species? The Bantustans in Africa, in which white South Africa had attempted to confine and “protect” native Bantu culture back in the colonial past, were admittedly a shocking argument against the Prime Directive. Was the Prime Directive a recipe for apartheid? Indian reservations? Likewise the American policies of racial and cultural segregation, from the Reconstruction through Jim Crow to Affirmative Action to identity politics. Is scientific enlightenment a particular political tool of one group of people, or the proper possession of all people, an achievement by all of us, whose particular discoverers were heroic representatives of all sentient and thinking beings?
If a prescientific community were being destroyed by an epidemic, shouldn’t a medically advanced civilization intervene with vaccines? What if that community’s religion forbade artificial medical interventions of that kind? Should major genital mutilation, as practiced in the past on males and females, often with gruesome results—or for that matter the routine castration of talented young singers in many European countries as late as the Nineteenth Century—be allowed to go on if it can be prevented? Footbinding? Hysterectomy? American football?
Do we commit a crime by teaching an illiterate community to read, and thus wrecking an oral tradition? Imposing racial and sexual equality on racist and patriarchal societies? Were Copernicus and Galileo criminals for dismantling the beautiful cosmology of Ptolemaic Christianity? Was Lincoln a monster in imposing Yankee morality on dear old Dixie? Is the desire to preserve pristine cultures a utopian and sadistic impulse, a zookeeper’s fantasy? “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone,” said Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.
But then again, history was undeniably littered with the corpses of beautiful old languages, cultures, economic systems, and religions, and still burdened by the walking wounded of demoralized and easily exploitable post-colonial communities. Did we want to add to that list?
So the Prime Directive had become one pole of a continuous moral debate. That debate continued on the ship, and would soon come to a head.
Leon had never been particularly religious, but now, as he felt himself slipping toward madness, he realized that in a vague way his heroic identity had always been supported by a sort of tacit faith in a general benevolence. But now, piece by piece, the noble superstructure was cracking and breaking away. All that Captain Scott stuff, the breezy optimism of Franklin’s last messages from the Erebus, the condescending chivalry of Allan Quartermain, the self-conscious understatement of Churchill and Livingstone and Rhodes, the heroics of Omdurman and Rorke’s Drift—all that now seemed to him to be recklessly amateurish, shameful, transparent.
He had failed as a husband and as a father, the most important things in a man’s life. Years of political maneuvering in Johannesburg’s over-funded technological ministries and go-getter space corporations had eroded any sense that one could keep one’s integrity in the practical world of means; but was the end, the purpose, even worth it? He was a turd in the gut of some organism that wasn’t even aware of his existence, in a world he did not understand but had rushed into like a fool. And now, what about that basic undertone of existential confidence? Was that, too, a corrupt illusion?
But, he reflected, it was too late to be healed of his disease of heroism. As Leon waited to be released, he gradually exhausted the bitterness that he felt towards himself and his inheritance. There was a point, not marked until later, where suicide no longer presented itself as a quietly plausible alternative. If he was nothing, he had nothing to lose. If he was helpless, he was at least along for the ride.
Gradually the volume of the bacterial stomach diminished as thousands of valved vents drew out the nutritive broth that remained. The hard and indigestible parts, including a mass of silicon-based coral, claws and teeth, fish skeletons, and an alien vessel, were slowly surrounded by a sort of jelly lubricant. So when he was suddenly ejected into the anal chamber, together with much other flotsam and jetsam, it was not entirely unexpected. Only a few hours later, Alice was rushed down the anal canal upon waves of peristalsis.
When he emerged, they were waiting for him.
Marie had up to now been cruising in what, in Earthly terms, one might call a fairly open prairie or tundra. Kadi decided, on consultation with Sylvie, that the Salvages ought to go deeper, crossing the violent band of storms and tide-races that Sylvie’s model predicted. At this latitude two flat toruses of current raced round the planet; the lower one, warmer, less acidic, and faster, slid past the upper, accompanied by ferocious eddies and whirlpools at the front between them. At this point in time the Jovian ephemeris showed no sign of trouble; Io and Ganymede were comfortably distant, and Europa’s orbit was neither at perigee or apogee, so things would be a bit calmer for the crossing.
Calmer, of course, being a relative term. Even though we had battened everything down including ourselves, none of us came out of it without a few bruises, and Barak sprained his wrist. As we approached, cautiously blowing our tanks and observing the growing turbulence beneath us with our sears, we began to see flashes of sonic “light” and bursts of violent color, rippling up from blue into violet, screal, and ript, against a wild rolling background of vond, hunder and massive black. Then we were drawn into a vast cavernous wave that thrust us round and round, like a kayak caught in the eddy under a boulder. Lumps of broken coral thumped against the hull. We accelerated to our full twenty knots and escaped into a long flow whose lower edge crackled with static discharges. On the crest of a parallel crest of water, we saw a school of golden fishes expertly riding the tide and darting from time to time at a fragment of animal tissue impaled on the shattered coral.
A sudden cross-current spun us head over heels into the next level of the storm below us, but now, in the gaps, we were able to see a calmer seascape beyond. I was reminded of those lines from Paradise Lost where Satan, having passed through the storms of the primal chaos, begins to see the dawning frontier of Paradise:
But now at last the sacred influence
Of light appears, and from the walls of Heav’n
Shoots far into the bosom of dim Night
A glimmering dawn; here Nature first begins
Her farthest verge, and CHAOS to retire
As from her outmost works a broken foe
With tumult less and with less hostile din,
That SATAN with less toil, and now with ease
Wafts on the calmer wave by dubious light
And like a weather-beaten Vessel holds
Gladly the Port, though Shrouds and Tackle torn…
(Apologies, dear reader: this is the penalty for having a reporter with a literary education and a childhood in a library.)
Yes, the oceanic weather got calmer lower down; but as we put ourselves to rights and began to assess our damage, we noticed coming towards us a new clamor of turbulence, of a very different kind. It was approaching very fast, and like the storm above us it was full of “lightning” bolts, but here the resemblance ended. The bolts were more frequent, and more patterned and localized; and they were accompanied by explosions, shrieks, and shattering blooms of light—we opened our Earthly eyes to see them and beheld a vast arena lit up by the blasts.
Soon we were able to make out, at least partially, what was going on. An echelon of enormous blue streamlined organisms swept past, much pitted and scarred. Each bore a nine-pointed gold star on its nose. They were fleeing a pack of swift green and screal attackers, about the size and shape of killer whales, accompanied by three groups of what?—apparently submarines about our size!–with a cloud of red-vond fish that were projecting lightning-bolts and explosive missiles against their gigantic enemy. They in turn—there were five of them—were responding in kind and with massive blasts of light. One of these blasts, accompanied by a piercing crash—our AI said it was the collapse of cavitation bubbles—destroyed a whole squadron of pursuers, but the others regrouped and renewed the assault. All the individual attackers seemed to be equipped with metallic harnesses and equipment for combat. As we watched, one of the giants turned aside, revealing a great gash along its flank, and we realized the whole thing was not a live organism, but a vast silicone/metal/cellulose ship, out of whose wound was pouring a mass of broken machinery, with dozens of octopus-like corpses.
The other blue ships now emitted a stream of individual fighters, some with jet-propelled mounts, others, sharklike, propelled only by their fins. Some managed to take on and disable two of the attacking vessels, but in the process the blue ships had to slow down, and new attacking forces were moving up to join the hunt.
We had walked straight into a war.
The moment Alice emerged from the belly of the megacetan, it was surrounded by an organized party of sharklike organisms, and by four moderate sized vessels made of what looked like silicone with bright metal and dark cellulose attachments and inlays. There was also a pair of open boats apparently manned by odd lobster-like forms, like tenders to the larger closed vessels. Leon had switched his motors, lights and radars on as soon as he came out, and though his hosts (or captors) flinched, they stayed in formation.
Leon was flabbergasted. It was like a Buck Rogers scene from an old movie—he wondered if he was dreaming. He laughed, a little hysterically. He was feeling an extreme version of what we all felt inside Europa—that we were as shocked and disoriented as much by its familiarity, even its clichés, as by its surreal surprises and difference from all expectations. Evolution creates fantastical variations, but it also gravitates again and again to the anatomical and technological sweet spots that the physics and chemistry of nature dictate. If a group of cooperating organisms wants to move safely together through a liquid medium, it will need something like a ship, and to do so efficiently, it will need to be streamlined and to have some sort of propelling device.
Hosts, or captors? Or executioners? Or a post-mortem? Clearly they were waiting for him. It had not been his imagination that he had been warned just before his engulfment. His would-be savior must have sent a message to its fellows, and a welcoming committee must have been convened. They were obviously not afraid of the megacetan, which had by now almost disappeared on its leisurely course. They had not attempted to harm the animal by extracting him, which meant that they must value it. They had waited patiently for his arrival; but they were plainly taken aback by his immediate actions—the water was deafeningly full of what were surely messages to each other, and they made no attempt to approach. Perhaps they had not expected him to be alive—a reasonable supposition, considering the fate that had befallen all his original companions in there.
Leon dimmed his lights and radars, and idled his motors. He had a sudden inspiration. He remembered how the wildlife he had encountered enjoyed music.
“Alice. Play them Mozart’s forgiveness scene, you know, the one in Act IV of The Marriage of Figaro. Loud so they can hear it. That’s about the best that humans can show for all we’ve done.”
Our own first encounter with the intelligent life of Europa was also completely confusing. We were not, obviously, the center of attention, though we had clearly been noticed and scanned the moment we emerged from the storm. It was as if a camel had suddenly appeared during an assault on the Western Front, or a Volkswagen was spotted at the battle of Agincourt. But we were not an entirely unexpected Volkswagen, it seemed, since there was no attack upon us—which would have been expected if they had assumed, as they well might, that we were some kind of secret weapon deployed by the enemy.
As the battle moved on along the edge of the storm-front it became clear that the five (now four) giant blue vessels were attempting to escape into the storm where they could perhaps be hidden, or stand a better chance of survival than their smaller attackers. The attackers in turn were trying to cut off their escape. The whole mass of fighters moved rapidly on.
Kadi ordered us to stand down, cut the motors, and dowse our active sensors. “Let’s give them no excuse to hit us. In all this excitement there may be some trigger-happy fellow.”
Unlike Leon, a year earlier, who was functionally blind in this world without artificial help, we could see with our sears, and could do so even from inside the ship. But the picture was blurred and distorted by the hull and the air within. Our best form of perception was when our sears had contact with the water. We had rigged up a wet room open to the ocean where, in our skinsuits, we could observe what was going on in dazzling color and detail. We took turns there, reporting events to the others. After a while we noticed that six of the smaller vessels had broken off the pursuit and were approaching us. They came to a drifting halt maybe thirty meters away.
And then, to our utter astonishment, we heard a voice. It was a sort of enormous moan, but it was plainly forming English words.
“Hoomahnn.” “Good uss.” “Love uss.” “Come uss.” “No fiiight.”
And at the same time a picture appeared in the minds of the four of us in the tank (me, Barak, Doc, and Nick). It was a pair of stylized figures, cartoons reminiscent of the exaggerated proportions of Mayan codex illustrations. But it plainly depicted a stiff and awkward human beside a graceful mollusklike being like an enormous lobster. And one of the lobster’s delicate grippers was entwined in the human’s hand. They had directly projected to our sears the same wave-pattern that enabled them to see in sonar, but with their own editorial and artistic additions. Or were they simply thinking this vision as they fumblingly tried to communicate, humming it, so to speak, under their breath?
We tried to respond in kind. We told the Marie’s AI to rebroadcast via our active sonar system the pattern of sound waves that we were receiving from the ship closest to us, a picture of them from our point of view, followed by a sound-picture of Marie herself. They drew back a little. Maybe we were too loud?
“Singgg,” said the nearest ship. We didn’t understand; later, when we knew Leon’s story better, we realized that they had been asking us to play Mozart. The ships hesitated, then repeated: “Come uss.” They set off slowly downwards, stopped, and then continued as we followed them. And as we gently dived into deeper and warmer waters, we began the strangest conversation of our lives.
The next picture we got was of an eel-like animal with a circular mouth that seemed ready to swallow a miniature version of Marie.
“Holy mackerel!” said Mack, who got it first. “That’s not us, that’s Leon’s boat! Look—its motor housing is different.”
“That fish must be nearly half a kilometer long,” breathed Smutty, who had some first-hand experience of large hungry sea-creatures.
“It’s telling us that Leon was swallowed by a whale—a really big one,” said Kadi. “Is this a metaphor? Or is that the end for Leon?” She took my hand.
The voice from the Europan ship came again:
We didn’t get this. Then another picture: the ship was emerging from a vast aperture near the rear fin of the monster. And now we recognized it. It was one of those leviathans we had seen on the horizon.
“Megacetan-born,” said Sylvie.
I suppose I’d better take a leaf out of Melville’s book and provide an account of megacetan biology and habits, and the importance of the monster for the Europans. We pieced all this together a lot later with the help of Leon’s notes, but some hindsight now may help to decipher some of the strange events that Leon and we went through in our first blunderings on that alien world. I’ll explain some of the terms I’m using later—talking about Europa is like someone trying to explain the rules of cricket. You can’t understand the big picture without knowing the details, and the details are meaningless without the big picture. “LBW” requires a knowledge of the importance of the wicket, and what “out” means, but LBW means “out”, though several other things, like a catch at silly mid-on, also mean “out”. So I’ll explain “Carks” and “Lusks” and “Pisks” and “Coros”, etc, as we go on.
Wild megacetans come in several species and subspecies, all of them rather smaller than the domesticated animal that swallowed Leon. But they are all huge. They are browsers, sucking anything from the abundant krill of the Europan ocean to giant fish, piskine or carkine, that are unlucky enough or inattentive enough to get in their way. We already know about their digestive system; more interesting for us, and for the Pisks that first tamed them several million years ago, are their eliminative and sexual systems.
The Europan oceans are a highly reactive environment. Full of dissolved metals, metal oxides, and even radioactive nuclides, and varying in chemical composition from one latitude and level to another, they have forced their living inhabitants to evolve complex biochemical systems to avoid being slowly poisoned. Megacetans, with their enormous appetites and indiscriminate feeding habits, have developed an elaborate system for identifying and ejecting toxins. Mere excretion is not enough. All along the ventral axis—the centerline of its belly—there is a row of huge zit-like protrusions that receive the poisonous metal and oxide solution from what passes for their lymphatic system, keeping different compounds apart to avoid further dangerous reactions. From time to time these are vented into the sea.
The giant animals we came to know are actually the females. The males are small free-swimming eel-like fish, with the characteristic circular retracting maw. We saw many of them without at first recognizing their kinship to their enormous mothers and lovers. Megacetans are marsupial in their reproductive habit. Males are hatched as eggs in apertures in the rear dorsal area, and the fry are kept in pouches until they mature. Hundreds of males may be produced in a season, but male life-expectancy in Europa’s teeming ecosystem is very short.
A megacetan mother carries only one female smolt, or juvenile, at a time; it hatches from an egg about the size of a house and gestates in a large elastic pouch along the forward dorsal ridge. It is fed on a rich creamy liquid secreted by the mother and gestates over a period of about two Earth years. The birth from the gestation sac is quite dramatic: I saw it happen once. During mating season the cow megacetan emits hormonally charged pheromones, which create a chaotic mating frenzy as the males compete for access to the rear male-egg vulvas and especially for the much more wildly fragrant female vulva above the cow’s heart/brain.
Their sperm, which they produce in gallons, is very nutritive for most Europan species. Like the milk, it is not harmful to humans; I have tasted both, and they are quite pleasant, like oyster fluid or sea-urchin paste; but the different chemistry makes them of no use to human metabolism and can bring on mild diarrhea. The megacetan cow possesses a truly amazing system for sampling and refining the mixed sperm she gets from her lovers, essentially a natural DNA CRISPR assay, and she picks the sperm that will best complement her own DNA and the genetic needs of the local environment.
Megacetans were at first hunted by Pisks and Carks as they evolved higher intelligence and cooperative behavior and learned the art of the explosive harpoon. The giant females are easily controlled with ankuses or goads located at the beast’s three very sensitive sears. Their early adoption as food animals was one of the most important factors in the development of Europa’s ancient civilizations. Europan expertise in genetics and chemistry was both a result and a cause of the rapid emergence of the domesticated form. Luskine scientists found that they could use the megacetan gene-reading system for all kinds of species, giving a huge boost to husbandry and the breeding industry. Coros use it to certify the gene-lines that are their basic currency. Almost as important, a megacetan can be selectively bred into an efficient ocean smelter, refining metals and other elements into forms that can be easily extracted and worked by Carkine smiths and Luskine chemists; the ventral toxin sacs are harvested from time to time by piskine cowherds. It was one of these cowboys that attempted to warn Leon before he was engulfed by the brute in its care.
The milk of the megacetan is part of the staple diet of all the intelligent species on Europa. Megacetan eggs are prepared at great banquets, and the sperm is valued for all kinds of culinary and cosmetic purposes. But, like the Hindu sacred cow, there was more to the beast than a useful animal servant. For over a million years the most important deity in Europa’s wildly colorful pantheon had been the Hatcher, the Birthgiver, the living image of the Center Herself, that is, the volcanic core of Europa from which all life came. Even now, in the more abstract and philosophical religions of the great Coro cities, elements of the old religions still surface in ritual and celebration.
Leon Hero was basically browsed by a cow! But then again, to be born of a god…
To be swallowed by a megacetan was not particularly remarkable: but to survive and be born again was definitely something.
“I think they are trying to communicate with us,” said Alice’s AI. There were all sorts of sounds, some discrete and complexly patterned, some like large symphonic shapes of sound.
“Any sense of what they mean?” Leon asked.
“Not yet.” Without the subjective experience of sear vision, it had not yet occurred to either Leon or Alice that some of the sounds might be pictures. Leon thought that they might be playing their own music to him, though he was not impressed with it as music. He played them some more Mozart, then the Bach organ toccata and fugue. They plainly listened, and waited. Then there was a burst of confused conversation, followed by a sharp louder pattern of sound from one ship.
Leon’s welcoming committee quieted down. There seemed now to be a dialog between two of the ships, with some interpolations by the others. Then they fell silent, and the whole group moved slowly away, and stopped.
“Follow them,” said Leon. Alice did so.
They shifted further on, a little quicker, and stopped again. Alice started to move, and the Europan ships continued.
“OK,” said Leon. “They’re going to take us to their base.” Alice set off after their hosts. Or were they captors?
The journey took two or three Earthly days. They passed through a belt of violent turbulence, where things changed: as they went deeper the life around them, dimly perceived by Leon’s passive sensors and occasional flashes of sonar and light, became more diverse and apparently more organized. Finally a vast wall of coral loomed up, with huge towers and spires projecting from it. It didn’t look like the reef Leon had seen earlier during his attempt to return to the Mole. His guess, that this was some kind of dwelling-place, turned out to be accurate. He called it “Camelot,” because of the towers.
Here they were met by a small flotilla of boats and individual animals whose silhouettes were complicated by what looked like fabrics and metals—Equipment? Clothing? Weapons? Insignia? They escorted Leon’s group though a vast opening in the wall, which vaguely reminded him of the entrance of a beehive (we later started calling Coro cities “hives,” as being a more accurate sociobiological description). From here they passed through into a cavern crowded with living beings and machines, which drew aside to let them pass. Other passageways opened up from the main cave on all sides. To Leon, with his monochrome images on the screens, and glimpses through the portholes with the occasional flashes of dim light he allowed himself, it looked like a gloomy place. He thought of Venice, but it was the Venice of Piranesi’s dungeons, not that of Canaletto.
As we were led deeper and deeper into the more temperate zones of Europa’s enormous ocean, we continued our halting conversation with our hosts. I was stretched to my limit, trying with Marie’s AI to parse the mixture of pictures, glyphs, ideograms, indexical markers, colors, and tonal combinations that made up their sonic language. This was of course only one language out of the many thousands we were told are spoken across the planet. But our ability to sear gave us a huge advantage over our heroic predecessor. In Leon’s case, his hosts had had to learn human language.
Bit by bit, over the succeeding months, we pieced together a rough picture of the complex history we had intruded into. In order for this account to make any sense I am going to have to jump the gun and forgo putting the reader through the same groping bewilderment that we experienced sorting it all out. The facts, as far as we can take them, are in the official report; I’ll summarize and contextualize them here. But we originally went into the situation pretty much blind, trying to find language to describe Europa’s planetary history, assessing the reticence and bias of what we gleaned from our hosts, devising ways to get them to reveal things that they did not want to communicate or that they did not know that they knew, and looking for some kind of ethical line that we should take about it all. We argued for hours about the meaning of what we learnt and about the contradictions between the various accounts we got. At first the discussion welded us together into a research team; but as the moral implications began to emerge, divisions began to appear; divisions that were sometimes heartbreaking.
The war we had seemed to get embroiled in was as yet barely a regional one, though it seemed to be spreading. The had obviously met Leon already and were half-expecting us. So to our horror we began to suspect that we humans—or Leon in particular—were partly to blame for the bloodshed.
Gradually the general political situation, at least, began to become clear. But the local state of affairs remained murky, and we thought this was deliberate on the part of our hosts. I emphasize “local”, because it is important to realize how huge is the dwelling of intelligent life on this moon, or rather planet, of Jupiter. “Huge” may be surprising, given that the diameter of Europa is only about 1,900 miles, versus the Earth’s 8,000. But active Earth life is smeared out over a surface only about a mile thick, while Europa’s dwelling-place is sixty miles deep, layer upon layer, each with a different set of currents, climate, and ecosystems. And the aqueous medium changes space subjectively and practically in all kinds of ways that are hard to imagine for an air-dweller. You can travel by air at up to a couple of thousand miles per hour, but the quickest underwater vehicle can’t go faster than about 100 knots. So subjective distances are quite different. We regularly circle the earth in a day of air travel; it would take 20 days for an advanced vessel to get around Europa, more like 40 for normal transportation. So Europa feels about as big as what the Earth might have felt in the age of steamships. And without long-range radio transmission, messages take many times as long to reach their destination. They do have cables, but these are expensive and dangerous short-range obstacles needing frequent repair. Europa’s distant locales feel very exotic to Europans, the writ of a political unit effectively runs only a few hundred miles, local cultures have breathing space to develop in their own way. Mass media are local, not global. There are probably even now plenty of places on Europa that have never heard of us.
Europa’s history, like its ocean, is very deep. And very slow. Certainly life had emerged earlier than on the Earth. Protected by its icy rind from the ballistic and radiational catastrophes of the early solar system, Europa had in the first billion years undergone its own Cambrian explosion, two billion years ahead of Earth’s. But then, without air to move freely about in, plants to convert sunlight, and those very astronomical challenges that spurred Earth’s later development, things slowed radically. Carbon, with its ingenious structural versatility, was relatively less available. Fire was very rare, with its radical thermal and molecular transformations. Movement, as we’ve seen, was slow.
So Europa took its time. Even so, with its early head start, it achieved civilization long before we did. But it was a very slow civilization, very traditional, and at first hampered by the fact that it had ended up with four highly intelligent human-level species, not one. Beside the problems of aquatic slowness, lack of fire, and the absence of any incentive to invent the wheel, Europan civilizations were also slowed by the relative abundance of their home. It’s so fertile that you can swim about with your mouth open and survive.
Nevertheless, there are lots of ways Europans are ahead of us. They have turned cavitation—the tearing of water to make bubbles, and the harnessing of their explosive collapse—into the equivalent of fire as a tool of chemical, dynamical, and electromagnetic analysis. Many of their weapons use it. There is a Pisk guild, represented worldwide in a sort of freemasonry, that is expert in ultrasonics for welding and space heating. In the very high ambient pressures of the Europan deeps, different forms of water with unique atomic topologies can be produced, with important industrial and military uses. The physics of sound for chemical and atomic transmutation is further along with them than with us, as you might expect. The Europans have a natural genius for the use of pressure, jets, and heat, and once they mastered the creation and use of gases, and then fire, their technology began to move faster. I have seen a small bright scarlet block of oxygen at 20 gigapascals in a deep-water Lusk lab, one of the most powerful explosives on that world. They were trying to compress it to where it becomes superconductive.
Sorry to get even more parenthetical, but here’s an important note. If you’ve run up against biocomputation theory, you know that nature can’t, without technological aids, produce anything much smarter than humans or Europans. Any smarter, and we overthink, we second-guess ourselves, get crazy, autistic, or suicidally depressed. Becoming much smarter than that limit is like trying to go faster than the speed of light, it’s a natural law. And the artificial aids we use to enhance our intelligence and memory are subject to another natural limit, when they’re more trouble and distraction than they’re worth, and infractions against the rules of honesty become easier to bring off than honesty itself. –As we found out in the social media crisis and the Trump Truth Catastrophe. So Europans didn’t get any smarter than we did, but they do have the advantage of having a wider range of smartness, given four very different version of it.
I’ve heard various versions of Europan history from different political actors, but here, roughly, is what I gathered.
30. (History, part 2)
About a billion Earth years ago a kind of dim collective intelligence and awareness had already evolved in the vast coral communities that surge in shoals through Europa’s enormous sea. The corals here had early developed the use of gas pockets for buoyancy, an adaptation first found in the planulae, or free-swimming haploid larvae, spawned by the sedentary diploid live polyps that dwelt around the deep volcanic vents on the seafloor. Generation by disposable generation these swimmers learned to create floating coral communities. Electrochemical communication among the larval cells was strongly selected for, and hive intelligence began to override individual survival instinct.
Altruism was born, driven by both inclusive fitness and by cooperation-favoring hormone systems. In the violent currents of primordial Europa these communities developed the first glimmerings of local hydraulics, the shaping of the coralline collective body so as to exploit and defend against the tides and currents of their habitat. A coral hive would seek out the regions between sargasso-like calm and cyclonic mayhem where nutrients like krill and zooplankton would be gently conveyed to their tentacles. An implicit spatial map and a system for modeling and predicting the stable planetary convection regimes were strongly selected for, and corals became dimly brainlike,
But Coro intelligence was always more distributed than individual; today there are emergent individualities, called moieties, but they are a recent development in evolutionary terms, and a moiety personality is always in psychological danger of reabsorption into the hive. Hives are the true individuals of the Coro world.
Coros have limited ways of actively manipulating their surroundings, except for their extraordinary powers of swift and directed growth. They can grow the equivalent of hands, polyp extensions of the multicelled body, but they are comparatively weak and clumsy; in the past they used their Lusk commensals as slaves to do their manual work.
About 215 thousand years ago different coral hives learned to cooperate, especially in building very large structures that would not only exploit the existing currents and tides but actively channel them. Regions of relative calm could be created, where long-term planning, herding and cultivation would be possible. This was the Europan equivalent of the Earth’s Neolithic revolution, the origin of farming, but over 200,000 years earlier.
The revolution was made possible by two things: the harnessing of Lusk labor and their emerging manipulative intelligence for engineering and communications, and the construction of the Coroan calendar clock. The Great Clock systematized the observed cycles of the Europan tides into a single complex mathematical model. The belief was that this cycle was the breathing, the gill-strokes, of the Great Mother, the Birthgiver, the central core, and that it regulated all life in the entire universe—all the way up to the universe’s great ice wall. The principal cycles were, as we know but they didn’t, the orbits of Io (1.8 days), Europa itself (3.6 Earth days), and Ganymede (7.2 days)—in a harmonic ration of 1:2:4–and the longer cycles of opposition (which included distant Callisto’s longer cycle of about 17 days). The basic Europan cycle of 3.6 Earth days I have recorded here as “cycle,” uncapitalized.
A Great Cycle, capitalized, was from one lineup of all four moons to the next, about 3 ½ Earth years, but varied in a pattern that the chronologists accounted for by a mass of epicyclic adjustments. By necessity Fourier analysis came very early in Europan history, but it took many millennia to isolate the various waves of tidal forces. Mastering these cycles and their interaction with the convective and rotational forces of the Europan currents gave Coro builders the ability to control the flows of the planet as a whole. When “Cycle” is capitalized, I mean the Great Cycle.
Coros build by giving birth. They had already been rather haphazardly guarding and selecting beneficial or innovative gene lineages for hundreds of thousands of years. Their birth system was essentially by cell cloning, with viral transfers of DNA and RNA. Now, using the genetic assay techniques that the Pisks and Carks had borrowed from the megacetan reproductive system, the Coros were enabled to turn genetics into an exact science, and design new generations according to need and fashion. And the codes of cell lines became the fundamental staple of their economy and backing of their currency. This period saw the beginnings of industry, a huge expansion of trade, and a flowering of art, science, and religion.
Meanwhile the Coros had domesticated the primitive Lusk populations as defenders, transporters, messengers, cleaners, and farmers. Lusks were descendants of a very ancient genus of seafloor black smoker dwellers, fibonnaci-shelled legged animals that fed on the abundant zooplankton of early Europan life. One of the descendants of these original organisms evolved into a free-swimming jet-propelled nautilus-like predator. They were commensals with the corals over eight hundred million years ago. When Coros attained collective intelligence, the Lusks became slaves of the Coros, controlled by access to the food that Coros grew and provided. Gamlegh the Messiah, the Liberator, was a Lusk: more about her in due course.
A contemporary Lusk has a fibonnaci spiral head/thorax, four legs, and four working arms whose lower pair are also used for fast or obstructed movement. The lower arms have powerful grippers, the upper pair delicate three-fingered manipulators, with a couple of tentacles at each “wrist.” Their bilateral sears are at the center of the spiral at each side, and the third sear is at the end of a single robust antenna. They are to our sears strangely beautiful, and come in a range of textures, that show up as from pink to teal, with iridescent vond shadows and screal highlights.
Selective domestication of the early Lusks led to rapid changes: the juvenile form, more easily tamed and more open to innovation, was preferred by the Coro communities and offered food and shelter. Physiologically the Lusks became master-manipulators, with their combined grippers, rotators, and tentacles. Mentally they became highly individuated, original, and clever. Lusks can live up to 200 years, and many of the Lusk elders, though slaves still, began to form art and research groups, and develop the first glimmerings of religion, psychology and political philosophy.
Lusks invented experimental science in the stable environment of the Coro hives. Emotional, creative, and energetic, they were selected both by their Coro masters and by themselves for talent in music, poetry, and logic. Lusk religion began as an ethic of absolute obedience to the Hive, which they regarded as a god. But as they became more and more aware of the free-swimming Pisk trading combines and the Carkine paladin confederations, they began to speculate about the virtues of individuality.
Let’s talk about Pisks. To us, Pisks are the most familiar of the Europan races. Having evolved from what an Earthly anatomist would instantly classify as jawed bony fishes, they look much like coelacanths, with lobed fins whose forward pair have developed into effective six-fingered hands with two thumbs. The rear pair double as feet for moving about and gripping in solid environments such as floating reefs and Coro communities. They have powerful tails and are swift swimmers. Pisks are egg-layers, and construct elaborate floating nests to hatch and nurture their young. They have several different breeds, ranging from large powerful barracuda-like fellows capable of tackling an adult Cark, to elegant gracile specimens skilled in crafts and negotiation.
Early Pisks evolved shortly after the Coros began their hydraulic planoforming of Europa, as traders along the calm currents and predictable sea lanes that were beginning to open up. The mathematics they later developed for market transactions, especially the nonlinear theory of the Invisible Hand, proved useful in the beginnings of their physics and chemistry, and in their transportation and manufacturing technology. They domesticated several species early, as draft animals and food sources, and borrowed from Cark herders the arts of megacetan husbandry and water-mining. We all liked Pisks—Mack especially—and enjoyed their sense of humor and optimism, though Jill, Jam, and Nick found their lack of higher principle, their tendency to haggle, and their unpoetic and unheroic pragmatism, a bit disappointing.
We soon got to see what Pisks can do. On our way down to the island base of our hosts we joined an extraordinary highway of travel and trade. Perhaps like the Thames estuary at the height of the British Empire, or like the Grand Trunk Road of the old Raj in India, all of Europan life was on display, in brilliant color to our sears, and in a cacophony of music, yelled communication, flashes of multicolored light, gunfire-rattle of sonar and traffic-direction signals. For half a day we goggled through our viewscreens and took turns in the tank to watch and listen to the amazing procession. Pisks were in charge—we began to recognize the uniforms of the official traffic controllers, and the advertising displays of the various booths and concessions along the route where Pisk merchants offered their wares. One odd building—or vessel, or skip—was beautifully embossed with translucent corals and sinuous harmonic veins, some making pictures in themselves, others combining together to form a green nine-pointed star. A shrine? Half a dozen large elegant jellyfish pulsated about it, and the current of trade slowed down and calmed. Then came what seemed like a traveling theater-wagon, with performers relaxing between sets. A powerful current bore everybody along—the return route was probably below us or to one side, on a counter-current. We saw plenty of Lusks, usually in open vehicles, either drawn by draft fish or self-propelled. We also saw a few big, impassive and rather menacing Cark guards out on the margins of the torrent of civilian life, obviously well-armed, and the occasional armored vessel on a quick patrol. The ordinary travelers gave us a wide berth, as a significant military force on official business.
One time the whole cavalcade was halted, and we saw something utterly amazing. It was the season when the local megacetan herd was being driven from the warmer pastures below to the cooler and wilder grazing above. There must have been two or three hundred of them, vast blue forms with fins shading to gold, and a row of crimson and screal rosettes along their backs. The long strokes of their flukes were indescribably graceful. They were accompanied by a dozen busy Carks, whose clicks and whistles could be heard over the dull murmur of the admiring crowd.
But I digress—not hard to do, on the endlessly fascinating subject of Europa. Pisk history was always interwoven with Cark history, and to Carks I now turn. Carks evolved as an intelligent species from the great Europan phylum of the cartilaginous fishes with circular maws, which includes a wide variety of lamprey-like parasites and shark-like predators. I’ve already mentioned the structure of the maw, their hunting habit, and their largest cousin, the megacetans–and the peculiar emergence of handlike manipulators from mutations in their gill structure.
As hunters they developed an extended pack society, with a cooperative intelligence built on an ethic of clan loyalty, hierarchy, and individual honor. They became herders and stock breeders around the 800th millennium before the present, about the time the Pisks became a trading species. At first Carks preyed on Pisks and Lusks, but as time went by Pisk caravan masters hired free mercenary clans of Carks as guards and sometimes private armies in trade disputes. Coro cities adopted the practice, using Carks as gendarmerie and police, and even bringing talented Cark leaders into their decisions of state; inter-city warfare was usually provisioned by Pisks, armed by Lusks, and fought by Carks.
Carks live as knightly clans, with sheikh-like leaders who are chosen by the chief figures of the group. Discontented groups within the clan are relatively free to go off on their own, an important check against tyrannical rule. Both males and females carry arms, and females sometimes fight even when they have young in their marsupial pouch.
31. (History, part 3)
Shortly after the global engineering revolution of circa 215,000 B.P., an event occurred that triggered what was arguably the most important religious and cultural change in Europan history. One of the Lusk philosophical/scientific confraternities, on Vond Island, adopted a strange young Lusk who had been the subject of genetic experiments by her Coro masters, and had been rejected by her mother as damaged goods. We called her Gamlegh—one of us, I forgot who, invented this name for her, as Europan language cannot be transliterated into Earthly spoken languages. In most Europan tongues the associations of her name are of courage, woundedness, crippledness, playfulness, love, and sorrow.
Unlike most Earthly mollusks and crustaceans, Lusks evolved a birth system analogous to that of placental mammals, and carry and deliver live young. They lovingly care for and educate their young, so Gamlegh’s rejection by her mother was unusual and tragic.
Under the tutelege of the Vond Island Philosophical League, Gamlegh had studied the traditional customs of the Pisks and Carks and wondered at their ability to combine their efforts without an overall wise authority. She was only in her thirties, very young for a Lusk, when she saw a group of senile Lusk slaves being ejected from a lower gate of the Vond Island hive, to meet a waiting school of primitive predatory fish. Shortly thereafter she composed her Book of Imaginary Laws, like all traditional writings a porous chunk of dead coral incised so as to project the sounds and images of Europan speech when drawn through the water. The book was a secret cult classic among the Lusks, and was rapidly circulated in many copies, often corrupted, around Coro islands across the planet. Pisks got hold of it and realized that its contractual laws could also apply to the regulation of commerce and the solution of trade disputes. Carks loved it because of the common-law concepts it inherited from Cark informal clan tribunals, and used it as a test in their own appeals courts. But it was, of course, for many in all four races, a deeply revolutionary and subversive document, undermining many traditional practices of patronage, coercion, and paid protection.
Gamlegh’s work, though she never actively proselytized it, was immediately recognized among Lusks as a declaration of the individual rights of sentient beings and a condemnation of slavery. As such it was a directly subversive document and became the bible of a liberation movement that spread like wildfire. Lusks throughout Vond Island, then a major Coro city with over three million inhabitants (counting Coro moieties as individuals) created confraternities to interpret and seek to realize the imaginary laws. There were strikes in many of the services, and demands for wages on the Pisk model, freedom of employment, expression, and choice of mate, and a dignified retirement for Lusks rather than mere disposal.
The Coro community of Vond was appalled and astonished. Coro wisdom, which had undergirded so much of their world’s progress, was under threat. They increased their market license fees, residence taxes, and tolls on commercial and individual passage, beefed up their Cark police and contracted for a militia with a feared Cark clan. They knew that on the auspicious day when all three of the major cycles were aligned (which we know as the perihelion of Europa and the conjunction with it of Io and Ganymede), there would be a general strike and gatherings of dissidents all over the island. So on the eve of the festival, they struck.
They met with nonviolent resistance, which unnerved the Cark gendarmes, and at first drove them into a frenzy of violence. They had come expecting a fight and the chance of earning honor. It seemed to them spiteful that their enemies denied them a fair battle. There were three massacres of unarmed Lusk gatherings. The dead included almost all of the members of the Philosophical League, and thousands of copies of the Imaginary Laws were destroyed by acid.
Sickened by slaughter, and increasingly impressed by the courage and commitment of their victims, one-third of the Cark mercenaries now refused to fight. This was unheard-of—that a Cark brigade would break a solemn battle-contract. When the warriors returned to the reefs of their native school, the deserters were formally executed, as they knew they would be. But the story became the subject of the great Cark epic, The Tale of the Loyal Traitors.
But the Cark loyalists could not find Gamlegh. Her closest followers had forced her to hide with them, so that the prophet would be able to complete her mission and speak her message to the massed slaves of the world. But when she heard about what had happened, she fasted for twelve whole cycles in silence, and then finally had her revelation on the next Conjunction Festival. She broke out of her hiding place, evaded her protectors, and went to the main market, mysteriously hidden from the guards at every junction of the avenues. With nobody to lead them, most of the inhabitants had gathered in the marketplace instead of at the Birth-Mother’s temples and the other cult shrines. There at the market Gamlegh revealed herself and surrendered herself to her enemies, giving as her only condition that her followers would be spared. Her words on that occasion were recorded by hundreds of the four species gathered in the marketplace for the tidal conjunction day. Together with volumes of accumulated commentaries they survive to this day, as The Testament of Gamlegh.
Gamlegh was brought before the Coro tribunal, where the three Coro moieties who were then serving as consuls condemned her to death. Because, as they said, she had attempted to tear apart the very fabric of the world’s harmonic pattern, they chose that she would be executed in the most humiliating of ways: to be publicly torn into nine pieces by nine executioners, none of whom could be polluted by contact with her or individually blamed for her death. Nine Cark officers were given the task, or honor as they called it: one roped to each of her limbs, and one to the single antenna of her forward sear.
It was Billy, some time later in our journey, who pointed out that the sigil or glyph that we had seen on the blue ships in battle with our hosts—or captors—was a nine-pointed star, and that the odd geometrical sculpture that we saw everywhere, the triaugmented triangular prism, also had nine points. The TTP—we called it the teetip. It was the equivalent of a cross or crescent or eight-spoked wheel, a basic religious symbol. It thus represented the moment of Gamlegh’s sparagmos, her dividing and offering.
We had been trying to figure out what the battle we had witnessed was all about, and my attempts to ask our hosts, once I had some grasp of the language, had been met with responses that were incomprehensible or downright evasive. As we learned about Gamlegh from them, and had noted the reverential tone, we had at first wondered if the blue ships were anti-Gamleghans. But apparently not. Billy was thoughtful.
“It could be that we’re dealing with two versions of Gamleghism, like Sunnis and Shias, or Catholics and Protestants. The narcissism of small differences. Green teetip versus gold teetip.”
“A religious war,” put in Nick.
“In a way I hope so,” said Billy. “Because then our suspicion that the casus belli somehow involved Leon would be less likely, and that we humans, collectively, are not to blame.”
“There’s still plenty of blame if you’re looking for it,” said Smutty rather bitterly. As the son of a Boer and a Zulu, he had studied colonial history and intertribal wars. He knew how the Brits had divided the Indian religions against each other, how the European presence in the New World had triggered the wars of the Haudenosaunee, the Cheyenne, the Lakota, and the Tlaxcalans, how Malinese violence against the other tribes of Africa had been fomented by Arab and American slave traders. And how religious wars in Africa and the Mideast were triggered by the stress of Western modernism and commerce.
There was a silence after Smutty’s comment. At that moment the comradeship of our team seemed fragile—I think everybody felt a sinking of the heart, a chilly foreboding. Outside, remotely, the huge three-dimensional highway roared on.
It was a sort of prospective regret. As we had found out more and more about Europan civilization over the last few days since the battle, the arguments about the Prime Directive had become really intense and pointed. We each had something at stake. Almost all of us came from mixed ancestry or backgrounds that were historically pitted against each other. Jiamu, half-Japanese and half-Chinese, was by blood both an oppressor and an oppressed, both a colonizer and a colonized. It was he who asked the big question.
“What are we doing here?”
Everybody looked at Kadi. And here I must, as promised, make an attempt to assess our leader—not, as in the official report, as a record of her actions and decisions, but as a study of her remarkable character.
Kadiatou Eleanor Bird was born in Mali to an American father, a doctor, and the Malian journalist he married. Dr. Bird had been a leading figure in the Dengue 3 outbreak and had stayed on in his rural hospital near Bougouni after the epidemic had been nominally extinguished. Kadi’s mother Mariam had done a news story on him and also stayed on, as a speaker for Malian farming culture. When the troubles broke out they supported the pan-African forces that finally restored order, but they had lost the confidence of the local Sunni population. After death threats and some nasty incidents they felt that they could not risk their daughter’s life and future, and decided reluctantly to leave their beloved Sikasso Province and move with their tall pigtailed six-year old daughter to New York. Dr. Bird was eagerly recruited by the Columbia School of Public Health’s epidemiology center, and Mariam became a researcher for the Times’s Africa desk.
Kadi grew up in Manhattan, well north of the flood zone. She had always been a space science junkie, and got into Manhattan/Hunter Science two years early. She was a tough kid and liked to shoot hoops with the ballers at Rucker Park just across the river in the Bronx. But she would also dress up and go to lectures, not just on science but on political philosophy, economics, management, and even the humanities. She hung out at the receptions that often followed them, and asked awkward questions. She was so impressive that the lecturers often took her for a preternaturally young member of the local faculty. During a yearlong spat with her father, she stayed with a friend and worked for an illegal water-taxi service in the drowned streets of lower Manhattan.
Kadi was fascinated by her own ancestry and read deep into Malian history and myth. She had always identified with Sundiata, the hero of the national epic who defeated the evil wizard Soumaoro and liberated the people. But she had also taken aboard the ugly history of Mali as a slave-trading nation, selling captives from their many wars to Arab, European, and American slave-owners. She always knew that she was a leader, and she had early decided that her mission was one of liberation.
She had also found out about the Enlightenment concept of the Republic of Letters, and the idea that the only meaningful liberation was the liberation of the mind from partiality, self-interest, partisanship, and prejudice. All views were to be respected, and weighed by logic and evidence, and abandoned if they failed to meet the test. It was this quality, this ability to listen to opposing views and find common ground, that took her quickly to her doctorates in space science management and international funding studies, and thence to Ganymede. There she had held the team together in the disappointing deep drill mission. When Europa 1 had failed disastrously and Nigeria had pulled out, she had been a key figure in cobbling together the consortium that had mounted Europa 2. And she was in charge.
Kadi was now faced with a deep division in her team. As yet it was one that only had real enthusiasm on one side: the side that believed that we ought to get out as soon as possible and leave Europa to its own history and destiny. This was a moral imperative, underlined by our own brutal colonial history as a species.
“First, do no harm,” was how Doc put it, quoting the Hippocratic oath.
“Haven’t we done enough harm on our own planet?” added Nell hotly.
The other side, less passionate, was ready to wait and find out more. Nick, the former Jesuit, suggested that knowledge by itself can’t be evil.
Sylvie agreed. “What’s the harm if we exchange knowledge with them?”
“Whose knowledge?” flared Nell. “We know so much more than they do, they’ll be at our mercy. We’ll be as gods…” Nell’s father was a hijo de la Malinche—son of Malinche, the Aztec princess who betrayed her people by marrying the conquistador Hernan Cortez and founding the Mexican nation. Perhaps she was thinking of how Cortez had been taken for a god by Montezuma.
Jill looked at me, flushed a bit, and broke in. “Aren’t we forgetting Leon? Don’t we owe it to him to see if he is still alive and recover him if we can?”
“And then there are our sponsors back home,” sighed Kadi. “I have to say it. And through them, the human race itself has given us a mission to find out what’s down under the ice, and we have a duty to that mission.”
“Don’t we also represent the moral history of the human race?” asked Doc.
Kadi pointed out that we were already under the control of what seemed to be a legal authority, and that to try to break free and head for the surface might well trigger the kind of violence that we would want to avoid.
“Look,” she added, “the damage has already been done: Earth knows there is life down here, and surely they won’t leave it at that. And the Europans know about us and have obviously found out much more from Leon somehow. They can’t have failed to put two and two together and realize that we came from somewhere else.”
“That’s a ‘somewhere else’ that can’t theoretically exist for them,” said Billy. “Unless they think we come from under the seafloor, in Europa’s core.”
“Right,” said Mack. “They’ve probably never dug out onto the surface, and if any did, they’d be fried or vacuumed or both, and couldn’t get back to tell the tale.”
“Can you imagine the mayhem it would wreak on a closed acoustic culture to suddenly find out that there’s an outside world, billions of light-years across, where there’s no sound almost anywhere, you’re blind where everyone else can see, and it’s full of poisonous light?” Billy continued.
“But if we leave Leon, and he’s alive, they can find out all they want from him anyway,” I put in.
“Why would we try to keep them ignorant?” asked Barak.
Kadi was conciliatory. “Maybe our presence can prevent further damage and even repair some of what has already been done. We could wait to see if Leon is alive, ask for him back if he is, and negotiate. We’d seek permission to leave, apologize for our intrusion, and ask them what are their terms.”
“Strike a deal,” said Mack, with a gleam in his eye. “We could offer a lot of fancy tech and get some very nice patentable stuff from them for us to take home.”
“Isn’t that like putting a gun in the hand of a teenager?’ asked Jiamu, who had been silent since his first simple devastating question.
“So who’s the teenager, them or us?” Doc rejoined. “They’re a much, much older civilization.”
“All the more reason to learn from them,” said Barak.
“This is a voting situation,” said Kadi. “Secret ballot. ‘Yes’ says we stay, try to get Leon back, do what the Europans say, ask to leave, and if we make it back, present a big case at home for leaving them alone. ‘No’ says we try to slip away as soon as we can, don’t tell our hosts what’s out there, hope that Leon hasn’t told them, keep the Europans secret from our people, and try to discourage any further expeditions.”
“I propose an amendment,” said Sylvie. “If we manage to keep the existence of intelligent life here secret, there will be no ethical reason for humans not to come back. We have to tell the truth when we get back to Earth.”
“Yeah,” said Mack. “Earth knows there’s life here now, and that’s a goldmine in itself.”
Maybe he was thinking of those patents, that we could never take out if we were trying to keep it all dark.
“Everybody accept the amendment?” asked Kadi. There were no objections.
There were six ayes, three nays, and three abstentions. The motion carried, but not very comfortably.
“I have set out on an immense ocean of experience,” wrote Leon in his journal, “and I do not think I will ever return. I believe I have done a terrible thing, but I cannot undo it and must play out the story that it has created. I feel more lonely than any human being has been; but perhaps I am wrong in this, and what I feel is the condition of all conscious beings. And that makes me admire their courage, that they are each in an open boat on the endless ocean of time, and still they cheerfully sail on.
“Once Clio and I were sailing on Lake Nyasa, and we lost sight of the western shore. But by then the eastern shore, and the mountains of the Rift, were clear over the horizon. But for me now there is no further shore, and I lost my Clio many years ago.”
Alice was first conducted through a series of narrowing channels to a dock where there was a bustle of preparation going on. By now Leon had taught his hosts a few words of English, the first being “sing.” With the help of Alice’s AI he had set up a raster of musical tones that by variations on the expected value could display crude shapes like those in early arcade games. He played these to his escorts and associated them by repetition with English words. He was astonished by their scientific competence. He found that the Europans even recognized Alice’s diagrams of the atomic structure of hydrogen, oxygen, silicon, carbon, sulfur, and other elements. These became immensely useful in suggesting materials and properties. He and Alice were so close to realizing, as we had, that the sounds produced by the Europans were themselves pictures, the reproduced pattern of reflections from an object.
By less convenient means Leon was haltingly informed that they were making a chamber for him, and it would have gas in it like what was inside his vessel. They had obviously been able to sonically scan his boat and realize that he was that rarest of beings, a gas dweller. Later we found out that there were a few exotic species on Europa that had evolved to live in the volcanic gas tubes under the seabed, but these contained mostly methane and ammonia at high pressure. An oxygen/nitrogen gas mixture had been proposed by Europan fantasists as a possible environment for monsters of the deep, but no species of this sort had been actually discovered. So what had been fantasy was now a practical proposition requiring considerable technological ingenuity, an interesting engineering challenge.
Leon debated whether he would accept their invitation to visit them. He was terrified, of course. He would be putting himself completely at their mercy; he had no idea of their intentions; their notion of what constituted a living environment for a human being might be catastrophically flawed in some way that neither he nor his hosts had anticipated.
But he screwed up his courage, as they used to say in the old adventure stories. He was, after all, an uninvited interloper in their planet. They had tried to warn him of the megacetan and had treated him courteously since then. He was the first ambassador from the human race and must represent it. We prove our trustworthiness by trust; any sign of suspicion or even reluctance might be interpreted as a sign of ulterior or hostile motives. More basically, his recent ordeals of self-doubt and self-condemnation inclined him to value his life less highly than before. The exhausting barrage of moral questioning he could not silence might be silenced for him in a way that would at least be honorable. Might as well go for broke. So he agreed to meet them in their own space and in lodgings they had built for him where they could study him and communicate with him at close quarters.
Alice had to wait two Earth days before a suitable chamber and airlock were finished, tested, and stocked with the human necessaries Leon provided from his ship. Finally, in his official dress as an officer in the PASA research team, he stepped through the lock into the domain of Europan civilization.
His first breath produced a wave of unbearable nostalgia. It smelt exactly like the beach at False Bay, where the great kelp grew and the seals barked in the early morning.
It was a very strange room, lit rather harshly by improvised carbon filament lamps (they had had to improvise, and on Leon’s suggestion had used Edison’s simple technology). They had tried to imitate the rough dimensions of Alice’s great room, but the walls, built in haste by quick-growing coral, were shiny, uneven, and nacreous, with entirely unintended random iridescence in various colors. It was like being in a small mother-of pearl ballroom, with crude imitations of the virtual furniture in Alice’s inventory.
Two beings were waiting for him, both encased in transparent pressure-suits apparently designed to maintain Europan pressure at that depth and protect the wearers from the painful wavelengths of the light. Like him, they were wearing articles of some fabric, whether for modesty or ceremonial display he did not know, and various metal and silicone accouterments. One of them was like a giant lobster in various shades of dark blue, black, and green, a Lusk whose natural gracefulness was evidently unbalanced by the new unresisting medium. The other, even stranger in appearance, was shaped like a human being but was plainly a polyp, with a nubbled gelatinous surface, a sear antenna on its forehead, and sears in the place of eyes. It was bright fuchsia pink, like healthy naked flesh, and was connected by a thick umbilical cord of the same appearance running from its “tailbone” to a protuberance on the chamber wall. It was evidently still attached to the Hive, from which it had been hastily grown. Leon was touched by this obviously well-meaning attempt to make him feel at home.
Leon remembered from his studies with Billy that formal physical greetings in almost all human societies (and in many other Earthly species) involved a ceremonial gesture of submission and vulnerability. He bowed and clasped his right fist in his left hand. After a hesitation his hosts did the same. For a moment Leon felt a rush of sheer wonder and–yes–delight pass through him. Surely there had never been such a greeting in the history of either world. We were not alone. Others were helping us see the universe.
Leon’s tiny bone-graft implant computer was connected with Alice’s AI through the airlock, and the conversation that ensued was conducted with its help. The Europans, too, were relying on their own organic computational systems, the Coro though its umbilicus, the Lusk by means of a persistent quiet twittering sound from a hidden source.
“I am ********,” said the Lusk. The sound was unreproducible, so Leon, who had a certain poetic gift, christened it Tenebrae.
“I am the moiety *****,” said the Coro. “I am the ***** [singer?] of the city-island-person ******.” Leon called the being Orgrund; he had already named the city Camelot, and adopted it as a rough translation of the name his escort had provided.
“I am Leon,” said Leon, and stepped forward impulsively, taking the more delicate upper hand of the Lusk in his own. With a small jerk of surprise Tenebrae returned the pressure. So did Orgrund, the Coroan ambassador.
And the conversation began.
Leon’s journal gives us the gist of what followed in the next few months in the form of dramatic dialog. Clearly it is heavily edited, especially in the early days, since both sides must have struggled to get unfamiliar ideas and facts across to each other, and there must have been many mistakes and retracings when the mistakes were revealed. Leon does not seem to have made any effort to conceal the devastating truth that he came from beyond the Europans’ universe. A marginal note points out what we later realized too, that his very existence and nature could imply nothing else, and dissimulation or obvious evasiveness would only make things much worse. The fact that the Europans were so revealing about their world, including giving him a map of their planet, probably had much to do with his own obvious frankness and honesty.
If you wish, please tell us, Leon Megacetan-Born, where you come from, that we may help you home after your esteemed visit if you require it.
I come from outside this world.
Forgive this limited and ignorant one, but this world is where everything is. What is outside the world is where nothing is. One is not zero. Perhaps in your wisdom you are giving us a lively picture in words of something true, something about you that you wish to impart to us.
I came through nothingness to get here, a nothingness we call space, but I come from another world.
(For the conservative Old Law Europans among whom he had fallen there was evidently a huge problem of logic: there can’t be an outside of the outside. Leon was reminded of Galileo’s interrogators: the word “Earth” means that which does not move. When we say something “doesn’t move,” we mean “doesn’t move with respect to the Earth”. Unmovingness is the definition of Terra Firma. So Galileo’s proposition that the Earth moves is not only empirically false—look, the earth is not moving—but logically wrong, like a four-sided triangle or a square circle.)
TENEBRAE: Perhaps you mean outside of the World-Ocean? Then you come from the Core and must be a holy one of the Birthmother.
Yes, I came out of the Megacetan, but you know that I and my ship existed before I was swallowed.
(There is a sort of pun between “birthmother” and “megacetan” in the local dialect of Europan. Leon heard it as “megacetan.” Alice had not yet learned the inflexional cue that made the difference.)
That is not what I meant. I was speaking of the Birthmother. Dear guest, let us ***** at ourselves.
I think you mean what we call “laugh.” Yes, let us laugh at ourselves.
So you do come from the Core?
(After all, there are gas-breathers down there.)
Pardon my faulty teaching of our language. I do not come from the Core, but from the outside. I will try to explain later the shape of the universe as we see it.
(Perhaps the Europans were thinking something like this: Some of those New Law heretics, just to be annoying, like to suggest that there is another wall between everything and nothing, outside the obvious one, but that isn’t the point: Leon seems to be claiming that he came from the real outside, which would mean that he would have to be nothing, which plainly he isn’t. Is Leon mad, thought his questioners, or deluded? Clearly he believes his nonsense. Perhaps it was a metaphor, a symbolic statement, a parable or koan. Maybe “outside” means for him a moral or spiritual outsideness, like being unworldly. And maybe his denial of his core origin is also a spiritual statement. Modesty, a sense of unworthiness? Or fear?)
Perhaps you have already met apostles of the New Law, and they have told you things that are not. We are of the Old Law of Gamlegh, and it is safe for you to tell us your truth.
I will happily be instructed in the Old Law, if you would be so kind.
We will attend to that. Perhaps in return you will share with us your music, which we find to be of great power to calm and heal.
Meanwhile, can we assist you in your mission? Do you come here alone? Are you separated from your companions?
LEON: My companions all died at the edge of your world. I alone am escaped to tell you. We came simply to know, to heal our ignorance. I have seen your splendid works and know how much knowledge and wisdom is in them.
And perhaps we may trade together, and be friends. Our music is at your disposal. But if in any way my presence here is painful to you, or even a difficulty or a distraction from your concerns, I shall leave forever and never trouble you again.
Mother Gamlegh commands us in the Book of Imaginary Laws above all to welcome the stranger and love her/him, as we welcome a new addition to the family, a new moiety of the Hive.
As for the Salvages, we waited unhappily for our arrival at the island city to which our hosts were taking us. They gave us its name, which evoked an ancient Europan city, now defunct, that had once conquered a large empire on the third level of the great sea. We called it New Songhai, as a rough equivalent.
As our understanding of the local language improved, I repeatedly asked our hosts the four questions Kadi and the others had agreed were the most important.
Was Leon alive?
If so, where was he?
Could we see him?
What was the battle about?
On all four they were evasive, though very forthcoming on many other topics. When pressed, they finally insisted. “These things will be discussed when you arrive in the city. We are not authorized to speak of them, except to say that we know something of your friend the megacetan-born, and welcome you to our home.”
My heart lifted at this, for it seemed to confirm that my father was still alive. Or at least it did not deconfirm it. But my anxiety actually increased—perhaps we needed to act fast to save him.
We were, as I said, unhappy, but not because of the suspense of not knowing the answers. We were unhappy because we were divided. What had happened to Sylvie and Nell? Sylvie clearly felt that we must get out of the planet as soon as possible before we did any more harm. A daughter of two empires, France and Germany, who had been responsible for historic atrocities both colonial and nationalist, she was hyper-sensitive about being part of any tampering with cultural property. Nell was infuriatingly sanguine about cultural mixing. As a Mexican, she was a hija de la Chingara, daughter of Cortez and Malinche, the offspring of a marriage of the Spanish with their former enemy the Aztecs. As a Greek she was well aware that Greek civilization was the product of all the great cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Sylvie and Nell didn’t argue about it, by tacit consent. But they had started being really nice and considerate to each other, would make sure each got her favorite snack, and talked with professional respect about their findings. We chuckled a bit about this at first, but it left a bitter taste in our mouths. I saw them being sweet to each other one time, and found I was weeping. Ideological difference is a killer of loves and friendships. They could no longer trust each other not to take real offense.
We are not products of our history, but we are products of our own arguments with our history. At this point in our journey we had realized that we were now at an axial point in the history of two worlds, and with no precedents for how to think about it and take an appropriate moral course, we had to fall back on our own national and cultural histories for analogies and examples.
Jill and Jiamu, too, found themselves at odds. St. Brendan, the great Irish explorer, was a favorite of Jill’s, and despite her passionate support of underdogs in general and colonial peoples in particular, she couldn’t bring herself to accept an ethic that forbade the discovery of new lands and the encounter with new peoples. Ireland had survived the British occupation, and she agreed with Yeats that it had been the better for its participation in the great British cultural adventure. So she was not squeamish about the possible consequences of cultural mixing.
The effect on Jiamu was quite radical. In one of his training bouts with Jill, she noticed that his timing was completely off. He had been depressed for at least a cycle. She sat him down and looked him in the eye.
“You’re thinking about that student and the accident again, aren’t you? What brought it on?”
“I don’t know,” said Jiamu, “But it had something to do with all our disagreements.”
Jill had been curious about the story of the dead student and Jiamu’s suicide attempt, but out of consideration had not probed further. But now desperate measures were called for. Finally she wormed it out of him.
One of Jiamu’s best students was a rather odd girl from Minamitane, 7 kilometers away from the space center. She was a bit schitzy, the doctor said; it was hard to pin down. But she seemed to be flourishing at the club—she loved her instructor. Her father, who was a smith, had died five years earlier in the Senkaku Islands Dispute while he was serving in the Japanese National Police Reserve. During an accidental encounter with Chinese troops, a weapon was discharged and both sides exchanged gunfire. Shortly afterwards, the dispute was resolved, but Kiwa was without a father. Kiwa was not a student at the college, but local karatekas were welcome at the club. She knew Jiamu as Sensei Yamada, and did not realize that his mother was Chinese until one morning when she saw his name in the local newspaper.
Kiwa had trained with her father in the ancient Tanegashima art of iron working: blades from the island were famous around Japan. She took the last knife she and her father had made together and brought it with her to practice. When they lined up to bow to the instructor she was flushed and rather crazy-looking, and as he bowed back she drew the knife from the fold of her Gi and went straight for him.
Now Jiamu was, as we know, an Amok fighter, that is, an adept of the new school of controlled berserk arousal as a form of Chi energy. But what happened, everybody agreed, was not a berserk reaction. He quickly snap-kicked the knife out of her hand, and instead of striking her with the back-fist, bore down slightly on her shoulder so that she lost her balance and collapsed. All would have been well if it had not been for the trajectory of the flying knife. It descended just as she fell and buried itself in her eye as she turned. She died almost at once.
Everybody agreed that it was a freak accident, except for Jiamu himself. He helped rush her to the hospital and went with the police willingly to give a statement at the small campus police station. It was clear afterwards that he blamed himself. He was very quiet and polite, but apparently quite dead inside. After he was questioned they asked him to wait in an empty unlocked cell at the end of the corridor and left him with a pot of hot tea so that he could collect himself while the police interviewed the other witnesses. They wanted him around so that he could corroborate or question anything they said.
Jiamu understood the levels of complexity of the human will and spirit. Had he intended the flying knife to do what it did? Had he so developed his amok powers that he had become a hair-trigger bomb, a danger to all other people? Was he frustrated that he was here teaching pilots when he’d rather be on a real mission out among the planets, like in the past? Or had he somehow internalized the ancient hostility between the Chinese and the Japanese—had the occasional tensions between his Chinese mother and his Japanese father, exacerbated during the Sino-Japanese conflict years before, sowed a poison seed in him?
We know his scruples were just that, but he didn’t. Jiamu’s conscience was perhaps at that time over-sensitive. They had found him with his black belt tied around his neck, hanging from the bars of the skylight above an upended chair, and cut him down. The police decided to hold him, both for his own protection from himself, and also because they wondered whether perhaps after all he had intended harm, given his apparent attempt to punish himself. He was sent under sedation to a barred hospital room for psychiatric observation, with a police guard, while the detective inspector checked for more details of the incident and for possible motives (they found nothing to incriminate him), and the doctors monitored his sore neck and shoulder.
Two days later Kadi arrived. Kadi, as the reader may already have gathered, could have a peculiar effect on people. Her enormous sufficiency of being, her easy African good humor, and her instinctive authority won people’s trust and put them on notice that they had better be honest with her. She knew that Jiamu was the pilot she wanted and had heard what had happened. When she arrived at his bedside she was, it seemed, in a furious temper. He had been told that she had come to offer him a job, and had refused to see her; she had sailed through anyway and laid into him at once.
Through the long training period, the journey to Jupiter, and the descent into Europa he had healed, with the help of his new friends and especially Jill. But now it seemed as if that structure of rational responsibility and cultural harmony was breaking apart, and his old wound was opened.
Europa itself was coming to feel as if it too were a beautiful intact thing that could be damaged by our engagement, our expertise, our good intentions. Jiamu too was struggling with history, with the long bloody love-affair between China and Japan, and his own history, his dead father, the poor dead girl. Their bouts in the gym had become silent and pro forma; and Jill felt this even more sorely than did Jiamu. Because she had grown to respect the quiet pilot in such a way that she could not imagine living without him.
Later, when I saw how things worked out, I made a rough guess about which of us had taken which side in the big argument, and who had voted for and against Kadi’s motion. Of course, my crewmates were complex and highly intelligent persons, with the ability to balance value systems against each other and to see the other’s point of view. So there was by no means a lockstep division. But events themselves had presented us with the need to make up our minds on some kind of policy, and Kadi, as a true leader, had recognized this and had proposed a course that would win the largest degree of consensus. We all saw its inherent flaw: even a temporary engagement, with promises of a later withdrawal, would surely draw us deeper into Europan politics and cultural differences; but to break off abruptly would almost certainly do more harm than good.
So, here’s my guess about the initial “sides”:
For continued engagement with Europa, the earliest peaceful departure, and an effort to control any damage that might already be done: Kadi, Nick, Nell, Jill, Barak, Clio, and Mack. For immediate disengagement and exit: Sylvie, Billy, Smutty, Jam and Doc.
Kadi’s motion had managed to diminish the numbers of the radicals who wanted out at once, but it had created a further group of people who were discontented with either direction. For the motion: Kadi, Nell, Barak, Nick, Jill, Clio. Against the motion: Sylvie, Billy, Smutty. Abstain: Jam, Doc, Mack.
Other friendships were strained by the division as well. Barak and Billy had developed a close bond in the course of the conversations they had been having about religion, conversations that had also engaged Nick, the ex-Jesuit. Ironically, Barak the doubter had now adopted, at Nick’s persuasion, an ecumenical acceptance of religious traditions as noble fictions that raise us beyond the limitations of our nature, and he was beginning to feel that this Gamlegh they had been hearing about was the Prophet or Christ of this civilization. Perhaps every sentient world needed a redeemer. Could one have a jihad for inclusiveness? Our imagination, and our capacity to risk ourselves for what we think more important than ourselves, require that we extend the moral world, he thought, and so he voted for staying, teaching, and being taught. But Nick and Billy weren’t entirely on the same page. Nick wanted an ecumene, a syncretism that would embrace all religions. But Billy’s steadfast adherence to the Prime Directive was based partly on an Aboriginal skepticism about any grand scheme of unity. Enlightened Brits had devastated the delightfully idiosyncratic cultures of the southern continent. So he feared that Nick’s mentorship might produce another messianic enthusiast.
Oddly enough, none of us really feared the repercussions of Europan civilization on the citizens of Earth and its colonies—indeed, the very presence in the same solar system of an advanced civilization of morally sentient beings. So we had, I suppose, made a tacit judgement that we humans would be better able to handle a giant cultural challenge than would the Europans. Though some of us may have felt an impulse to keep Europa’s secret for the sake of Europa, nobody was arguing that we should conceal from Earth the existence of an alien civilization, for the sake of Earth! But maybe those repercussions were already happening, in miniature, in our own crew.
It was in this state of doubt and division that the crew of the Marie finally arrived at the great island city of New Songhai.
Three cycles after the first conversation between Leon and his hosts in the mother-of pearl meeting room, Orgrund and Tenebrae brought him a map of Europa’s ocean. This, in retrospect, was a remarkable gesture of trust. Or perhaps they thought that with all our impressive science we already knew where everything was and they wanted to show us their own elegant solution to the mapping problem.
And problem it was. How do you map an ocean, anyway, especially when it contains at least seven distinct climate layers from top to bottom, and very different zones of turbulence and laminar flow from pole to equator to pole? When islands and reefs do not stay in place, but ride around the planet at different rates, obeying the 1:2:4 harmonics of the tides? The great planoforming efforts of the Coros had indeed shaped and channeled the primordial chaos, and this provided a regularity that could be mapped—but only by a map that was also a clock, a dynamic instrument of its own. And such a map was not, like Earthly maps, a picture of nature with intelligent constructions on it, but basically a picture of moving intelligent constructions constrained by natural forces—a very different concept.
What they brought Leon was to his eyes an extraordinary work of art in itself. It reminded him of those Hellenistic brass computers for calculating the motions of the heavens, or medieval astrolabes or Enlightenment orreries. It was a series of spherical shells like a Russian doll, centered upon a single axis that precessed slowly over time. Each shell was divided into independently moving zones, from the slowly spinning poles to the more turbulent middle latitudes and the racing equatorial belt. Storm areas were indicated at the boundaries between layers and zones. And there was that large “red” spot (as on Jupiter itself and the other gas giants, though the Europans could not know it), the enduring tornadic storm that journeyed around the globe in its southern middle latitudes.
Attached to the globe at its base was a complex clock and drive mechanism, with a renewable source of energy. This was fashioned of various metals in beautiful anodized shades of color, with a trim of gold.
The whole construction had to be custom-made for his human eyes, itself a feat of physico-chemical science. Normal Europan maps are transparent to sound—and the materials used have their own harmonic signatures that can symbolize storm areas and, of course, cities, islands, reefs, ice, bedrock and volcanic districts on the sea floor. They can be easily read by Europans, who can sear the interior of the mapclock, but are completely useless to visual beings who can only see the outer surface. So Leon’s hosts first had to figure out the use of those jelly-like globes in the human face. Then they had to strain their rather limited knowledge of optics and their fine expertise in polymer chemistry to come up with metal-doped silicones that would be transparent to human eyes, resistant to the gaseous reactive medium we breathe, and markable with visual colors. That they could construct the map so swiftly was a staggering tribute to their technological genius.
It was exquisite. Leon had the unworthy thought that if this thing were at auction on Earth, it might fetch the price of a city in itself. Leon was given the names of the island-cities and taught the raised braille-like glyphs that identified them. He began to find human names for them, sometimes in an attempt at a poetic translation of the original, sometimes in response to its shape, history or main industry, sometimes on whim; and later we did likewise. Here is a list of some of the most important:
Vond (the birthplace and great shrine of Gamlegh)
Camelot (where Leon was held)
New Songhai (our home for the next months)
Trebizond (the remains of another old empire)
Tarpon (a city noted for having a majority Cark population; a major fish market)
Archimedes (one of the centers of the engineers’ guild)
Rampart (a very large, old, and important bulwark against the standing eddy around Europa’s “red spot:” one of the major claimants for the role of having begun Europan planetary hydraulics)
Proteus (Coros here had developed sophisticated germlines that could produce coralline polyps that mimic the structure and function of the other three sentient species)
Korolev (a center of scientific speculation about other worlds above this one)
Stormshield (specializes in emergency storm management)
Wittgenstein (University city, famous for studies in logic and mathematics)
Brin (a city of ideas and entrepreneurial imagination)
Comnene (another university city, known for its enormous library and its historical records)
Pelican (a pleasant resort city in the warm waters only two levels up from the seafloor)
Thyssen (technological finance)
Krishnamurthi (the ecumenical religious center, preferred by New Law progressives)
Caravel (named for the great Pisk merchant adventurer family)
Palaeologue (claims to be the oldest city on Europa)
Matsushita (center for electromagnetic studies)
Gondwana (largest reef on the planet)
New Benin (tourist city: during its golden age 15,000 years ago it was the most important center for the arts: very beautiful architecturally)
New Corinth (major trader city in bulk goods and heavy transportation)
New Bremen (leader of a confederation of smaller trading communities)
Genoa (New Bremen’s chief competitor in boutique commerce)
Zamaz (a city of magic and illusion, famous for its dramatic and performing arts and its circuses)
Li Bai (beloved of poets)
Candlemas (the highest riding city in the cold upper ocean)
Karakorum (the huge, ancient, partly dead island that was the birthplace of Tlaloc, about whom I will have much to say).
Sometimes three or four island cities would be stacked above each other, as the currents brought them into alignment. Leon was fascinated by their sheer abundance. Only now did he realize the sheer volume of the Europan civilized world. Its population must be many times greater than that of Earth.
But it was a population whose political economy was coming under increasing strain. Bear in mind that changes that take ten years on Earth take hundreds or thousands on Europa, because of its inherent slowness of communications. But in the last few hundred years natural science and engineering had progressed by leaps and bounds. Mathematics had been maturing for millennia in the meditative brains of the great Coro hives, but it now became a doorway to all sorts of exciting ideas. The liberation of individuals and liberalization of communities, driven by new scholarship on the doctrines of Gamlegh and her imaginary laws, had more recently contributed to an acceleration of invention, industrialization, and population growth.
Thus old local cults, most of which were centered on the Birthmother, came under threat by new philosophical claims. The discovery of the process of biological evolution, materialist explanations of the chemistry and geology of the interior, and new moral ideas that challenged authority, ritual, and tradition all threatened the comfort of old communities across the world. Empires based on technological superiority rose and fell; and the international rules that were set up to stave off further savage conflicts and oppressions themselves undermined the special loved institutions of the dear community where one lived.
The map itself was one of the results of this gradual but powerful renaissance. Leon studied it carefully in his retreat in Alice, and asked questions of his hosts about it when they met. They would sometimes bring in other experts to help, including a witty Lusk historian called Chiver. One of Leon’s particular interests was in the distinction between the Old Law—to which his patrons here were allied—and the New Law, which they had mentioned several times. Most of the island cities on the map, it turned out, were quite clearly one or the other. And tensions between the two sides had been increasing.
The distinction seemed to be something like this:
The Old Law comprises mostly Cark and Coro traditionalists, with some Lusk and Pisk subjects, employees and disciples. They believe in Mother Gamlegh, the incarnation of the Great Mother, the Hatcher at the center of the universe, and want to hold on to a million years of (imagined) peace, order, contentment, and reverence. She was the fulfilment of the old law of the Mother-Birthgiver, and the gifts of the megacetans were her continuing gifts to us all. In a world that had forgotten its loving origins, Gamlegh came to restore the ancient balance and recover the connection of all four races to the mystical harmonics of the tides and flows of the world. She had been torn apart that we might be united forever.
The New Law is mostly Pisk and Lusk in inspiration, with major Coro sponsors (who resent the gene monopolies and believe they should be available to all). They take Gamlegh to be a liberating innovator, and believe in progress, and pride themselves on being open-minded. Some even speculate that their universe-sphere is surrounded by another with a second ice shell, in which the Maker dwells, the alienated mate of the Great Mother at the center; and that the harmonic rhythms of the tides and magnetic forces in Europa are produced by influences in the higher shell. For them Gamlegh was a visitor from there, the bodily form of the Maker Himself.
Several knightly Cark clans, taking The Tale of the Loyal Traitors as their inspiration, have made an eternal battle-contract with the New Law, and are found at every level of New Law society, especially in the police and gendarmerie. The great Pisk merchant corporations and the Lusk scientific and technological guilds are almost always of the New Law persuasion. Though there are fewer Coro cities that incline toward the New Law than to the Old, they are much bigger and wealthier, less hidebound by sumptuary laws, ritual prescriptions, and outdated economic concepts. Coros themselves are unexcited by the sexual mythology of the other three races, since they are self-cloning and self-mutating. But their innate conservatism is tempered by their flair for genetic innovation and their strong economic interest in continued genetic progress.
For New Law enthusiasts the Old Law, with its totem animal the megacetan, is a mere eater, a consumer of the world. It is for us to liberate the world from it by science and universal justice, and so reconcile the divided halves of the Deity, the Maker and the Mother. Maker Gamlegh, who would complete the unity of the sexes, had come into the world as the liberator, the sacrificed god, the founder of forgiveness, and the embodiment of divine love. He had incarnated as a female to underscore and symbolize His mission of reunification.
These two persuasions had lived in an uneasy peace for hundreds of years. But a new radical version of the Old Law, it seemed, had recently arisen, spearheaded by an order of Carks drawn from their most aristocratic clans. Leon called them the Templars. When we heard about them independently, we called them Mujahedin, and named the clans who were loyal to the New Law the Paladins, to make the distinction clear. We would much later end up adopting Leon’s term, out of a kind of deference to Barak, who didn’t care anyway.
For the Templars, new ways have once again poisoned the world, and the time is nearly at hand for the great clans of the Carks to unite, and lead both Lusks and Pisks in a jihad of purification, cleansing the Coro cities, overthrowing the profiteers, oligarchs, and tribunes that hold the population in their evil sway, and reestablishing the highest Coro lineages as the rightful rulers. The present instability of the Coro exchange system, where the ancient standard currency based on secret banked DNA sequences was being replaced by market-based commodity instruments, was a sign of the times and a portent that change must come soon. The New Law was a perversion, a heresy, an economic fraud, a systemic oppressor, and an enemy to psychological health and social harmony. It is time it was expunged.
Leon was in the hands of a relatively moderate and peaceful Old Law community. But he felt a sort of itch in his back, a sense that there was a powder keg that was about to explode. Was he the spark that would ignite it? Was there any way he could prevent it, or failing that, mitigate its terrible harm?
Around the great gate of New Songhai a crowd had gathered to view the travelers from an unknown land. Our impression of the entrance was entirely different from Leon’s on his arrival in Camelot. We were seeing in the dazzling acoustic light and color of the sear world, and with a dawning understanding of the multitude of glyphs, runes, cries, prayers, architectures, songs, advertisements and spells that made up the great commercial city. Inside the grim armored outer wall with its bastions, ravelins, and casemates, great spaces opened up on every side flanked by every kind of market, performance space, residence, eating-place and temple (or so we characterized them). A huge high-speed thoroughfare was flanked by more leisurely boulevards adorned with spectacular coral growths of every shape and tint. The costumes of the citizens were often bizarre, sometimes beautiful. The noise was blinding, the colors deafening. We were in a constant state of vertigo because this city was in three dimensions, not two: vertical streets opened onto squares whose ceilings were patchworks of shops, banks, hospitals, and fancy apartments. Alleys led off down into quiet coral gardens inhabited by brilliantly-colored coral fish darting to and fro like birds.
More official-looking edifices with formal rhythmic architectures began to appear as we went deeper, and finally we entered a space wider and grander than we had seen before. Here, before a massive symmetrical façade with three huge entrances, a dignified deputation hovered in perfect formation, evidently our welcoming committee. Four or five armored vessels hung in the background as an honor guard, but the whole display signaled celebration, diplomatic welcome, and the offer of friendship.
“Do you wish to meet our leaders in person?” our escort asked us. We decided at once, as a matter of trust, to leave Marie to its AI and meet our new hosts as a body, face to face. We replied in the affirmative, took a deep breath, and filed out of our ship to greet the plenipotentiaries of New Songhai and the Syndics and Deputies of the Conclave of the West Seatrader Archipelago.
We were all wearing our skinsuits, a faint shimmer over our dress uniforms, ready for whatever we might be required to do. With the help of Jill, Barak and Doc I had modified the standard babelfish implants we all carried to handle the local Europan language and rigged up a simple synthesizer and microphone to convert our words into audible (or visible) Europan. We had already seen travelers on the “Grand Trunk Road” make a peculiar gesture of ducking before each other in greeting, and we all did the same. The deputation before us, seemingly a little surprised, followed suit, with a courteous deeper inclination. Kadi glided forward.
“We thank you for saving us in battle,” she began, “and we halt in amazement at the beauty and grandeur of your city. We are travelers from a distant world and come in friendship to learn from you and tell you what we know.”
I have to confess that at this point I giggled. The whole affair suddenly reminded me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is welcomed by the Munchkins. It was all so oddly familiar, yet so utterly alien, hovering here in a three-dimensional city before a crowd of flamboyantly dressed monsters listening to the immemorial clichés that emerge spontaneously in all such encounters. Luckily our hosts did not notice my brief convulsion—why should they, not knowing our physiology and cultural references? Kadi gave me a quick, withering glare and I suppressed myself. But the Europans had begun their speeches of welcome.
“Greetings,” said Phaleilei, the Coro moiety, who manifested here in the shape of a human female clad in a sort of sarong. “In the name of New Songhai and in the name of the Mother and Maker. We welcome you to our city and our world, if indeed you are yourselves not of it. We open our city to you and offer our protection.”
We worried about this—why should we need protection? Events would swiftly explain.
“I am Phaleilei, a moiety of New Songhai of the lineage of Kaleilei the Founder. I am the Nuncio of the city for this Great Cycle. Beside me is Cantagorax, the Mayor”—turning towards the ancient Lusk on the left—“And Passaval, the Captain of the Guard”—indicating the splendidly-uniformed Cark on her right. “Above me is her Excellency Calver Tyce, the First Syndic of the West Seatrader Archipelago.” The large meditative Pisk above her ducked, and the whole assembly followed.
Kadi spoke. “We are a pilgrimage of scholars and scientists from the Pan-African Space Administration, representing the peoples of Earth and of Greater Earth, and we thank you for your hospitality. I am Dr. Kadiatou Eleanor Bird, and I serve as the first-among-equals of a party that is wiser than I.”
“Before you ask, we know of your lost companion,” said Cantagorax. “We have sought to bring him to you; unfortunately, circumstances have prevented it. We believe him to be alive, but–”
He was unable to complete the sentence. There was a shattering explosion, a blinding flash of visible light and glare that lit up the plaza in colors utterly different from those our sears perceived. The water was suddenly full of shrieks, and clouds of opaque colors. Our skinsuits saved us, but we were racked with internal bruises from being dashed to and fro by the shock wave. Doc and Sylvie were knocked out for a couple of minutes.
But there was carnage in the great square. The cavitation bomb—for so it proved—had evidently been shaped to propel a shock wave at us, but had only grazed us and had hit Captain Passaval squarely. The great Cark hung in the water at an angle, belly up, a cloud of vond colored blood about him, digestive organs looping from his burst thorax. And where the bomb had exploded in the crowd there was a track of bodies, pointed towards us and the welcoming committee.
Somebody did not want us here.
Fairly early in Leon’s sojourn in Camelot, Orgrund and Tenebrae introduced him to members of the other two intelligent species on Europa. They were the Lady Caravel, a wealthy Pisk, and Lord Saladon, a distinguished Cark. For Leon it was always difficult to make personal contact with these two species, because of the sheer mechanics of it; on his first meeting they were behind a transparent wall they had added to the mother-of-pearl audience room, and spoke with him via a translator/microphone.
Camelot was a moderate and fairly enlightened Old Law city, with a leadership that was philosophic rather than sectarian. The fact that they (or the Cark herdsmen they employed, to be exact) had been the discoverers of the stranger was regarded as a point of prestige, a proof to New Law sophisticates that Old Law science was just as capable of progress. Recordings of the first conversation and the remarkable music of the alien had already found their way into the trade routes, and there was much misinformation and much pressure to see Leon in person. But Orgrund and Tenebrae wanted to hold off on a public show until the news had got about more widely. So they had invited Caravel—a Pisk industrial and trading magnate, with contacts all over this sector of the planet, and Saladon, the paramount chief of the North Salt Current clans, to interview him, stand as witnesses to his authenticity, correct false rumors, and spread the news around their constituencies.
They introduced themselves and greeted him courteously, and he responded in kind. Saladon was otherwise silent at first, so the Pisk, finding that the onus was on her, began.
“In your first meeting with our hosts you spoke of sharing knowledge. I believe that I speak for many in expressing my curiosity about your place of origin. We know of gas-breathers, though they are rare. You cannot be the only one of your kind—your anatomy, pardon me, indicates that you are part of a continuing lineage, and your technology indicates that your civilization is an advanced one. Where can all these beings live? What process generates the gas you breathe?”
Leon had decided that concealment of the truth would be more dangerous both for Europa and for him than openness would be (though he now believed it was deeply dangerous either way). So he came clean.
“This world is a sphere in an enormous universe. Above its ceiling of ice is an immense space containing neither water nor gas, and in it are many millions of other spheres, some like this one. This one, which we call Europa, revolves around a much bigger one, called Jupiter, and Jupiter revolves around a huge ball of flaming gas called the Sun. I come from another sphere that revolves about the sun, which we call Earth. But Earth is very different from Europa. Our oceans do not have an icy roof, except in places, and our interior rises up above the ocean as islands and continents [Leon wondered how the translator program would handle “continent”: big island?]—and it is on those dry lands that we live. Above the land and the sea is a shell of gas that we call air, a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, and that is what we breathe…”
Caravel interrupted. “What keeps this “air” in place, if there is no roof? Why does it not drift away, especially since your world must be moving very fast around your Sun?”
“Your question demonstrates your wisdom,” said Leon. “Your scientists must know that gas has weight. You know that gas is drawn down toward the center of your world by the attraction of its own mass, and that the pressure of your water at greater depths is because of the weight of water above you. Our gas atmosphere is held to the Earth by the combination of Earth’s mass and the gas’s mass.”
“Very well,” said Caravel, “And this is also the reason, I suppose, why your world’s water, and you, do not fly away because of the speed of your motion.”
“The speed of our motion does not matter, since empty space can offer no resistance,” Leon pointed out.
This was a difficult notion for Europans, for whom a resistant medium was a given. They had of course observed that things moved about more easily in a gas, but they had measured the smaller resistance and reconciled it with their theories about the nature of space. Gas just had a smaller amount of existence. The nub was that empty space, being empty, could not exist. And here again was the theological problem Leon presented.
Saladon, the Cark, finally broke his silence. His education as the heir of his mother the paramount chief had introduced him to the best intellectual circles of Trebizond, Korolev, and Comnene, and he was well aware of New Law speculations about what lay above the ice. Another ocean, and another ice-roof? Some even proposed that it was oceans and ice-roofs all the way up forever, and argued–against accusations of impiety–that this view privileged us in being closest of all to the Center, the Birthgiver, the Hatcher. This, though, seemed to some a sort of return to primitive Old Law, and critics suggested that it eliminated the Maker and thus the moral significance of Gamlegh herself. Saladon had finally dismissed all the academic megacetan-shit and on succeeding to the chieftain’s scepter had adopted a vague and tolerant version of popular contemporary Old Law.
“Let us set aside these interesting questions and leave them to the logicians,” he said. “Perhaps you come from a great hole in the ice above us, and have your own beautiful explanations of your world. Whatever. But we are on this one. We must take care not to upset the customs and beliefs of our good people.
“You have some devices, especially for using light and gas, that would be of great use to our people. Perhaps we could share with you in return our knowledge of cavitation energy and the dynamics of pressure. Both worlds have universes of genetic knowledge that we can exchange.
“And above all, we have heard recordings of your extraordinary music. We wish to learn how it is made, and share with you our own scores and recordings.”
Leon had heard several snatches of Europan music, but unlike Europans, whose musical tradition was much older than ours and whose training in music much more widespread, he had not immediately recognized it in its subtlety and beauty as they had recognized that of Earth. He realized now that this was an embarrassing omission, and effusively welcomed his hosts’ offers, adding rather disingenuously that he had no words to describe the brilliance of Camelot’s music and wished to hear much more. And perhaps this little gaffe then led him to an impulsive offer of the scientific information he had at his disposal.
He was lucky as it turned out, for his hosts, who were keenly aware of the social and political issues that might be raised by such knowledge, did not immediately take him up on the offer. Perhaps they wanted to be able to truthfully deny that they knew the secrets of their guest, shrewdly guessing that some of them might be very dangerous indeed. But they now had his words on record, and once things became clearer and preparations had been made, they could remind him of them.
The explosion in the great plaza of New Songhai had shocked me so badly that it was some time before the confirmation that my father had been alive only a couple of months ago really hit home. How to describe my feelings?
I was surprised by the force of my relief. A few hours after the bombing I found myself suddenly weeping—not exactly for joy, or perhaps I wouldn’t admit that it was joy. I had resented his neglect and envied his adventures, and thought that I had accepted his possible death with reasonable equanimity. But I had not. Yes, I was still angry with him, compounded now by the predicament he had apparently got us into, but the passion flowed out of me with irresistible force. I was going to find him and get him back.
But I was a responsible member of the expedition—or perhaps, faute de mieux, of what was now the delegation. I could not try to force the issue of recovering Leon, if it meant disrupting the whole planet still further and souring its future relations with Earth forever. I must act as the information officer of our ship and find out all I could about the situation here and now.
The bombing immediately drew together the Salvages with the people of the city. All social species must have emotions, which are the way the species can override the motivations of the individual in the interests of the group. Humans and New Songhai Europans united in sentiment in defense against a common enemy. With the help of Marie’s sensors and the city’s own police records the terrorist was soon identified (he had been killed by his own weapon) and his associates were arrested. All except for a Coro moiety, who had escaped, were Carks, and all but one of these were strangers to the city.
It is much harder to conceal the truth if your interrogator can literally see through you and observe the tightening of sphincters, the rush of blood, and the increased production of stress hormones by the glands. Though three of the conspirators were trained operatives who were able to conceal their own inner reactions, the others were not, and the three, subjected to nonviolent interrogative techniques that impressed the Earthers, soon gave up their secrets. One name kept coming up in all the confessions: Tlaloc. Tlaloc was a well-known Cark lord, a paramount chief of the Stormshield Eddy clans, an extremist Old Law Archimandrite or warrior-priest. His home city was Karakorum, a large island-city partly in ruins whose Coro hive was reputed to be senile and eccentric, but whose Cark warrior caste was feared all over the planet. The way the bombers talked about him was frightening. It was awe, the awe of a devotee in the presence of his god.
All this came as no surprise to the investigators. Tlaloc was the local leader of the Templars, the military wing of the worldwide Old Law revival movement that had suddenly emerged around the world. (Some said he was more than that.) The fleet of blue ships that New Songhai forces had driven off–but unfortunately allowed to escape—was one of his. They were slave-raiders, they told us, and the trail of bodies that we had seen tumbling from the damaged ship was composed of captured Lusk citizens, being conveyed to the Old Law holy city of Palaeologue. Palaeologue was several levels down, so the blue ships must have escaped into the storm zone, let it carry them around until it was safe, and then dropped down and made for home.
New Songhai, we found, was already preparing to go on a war footing. We came as potential allies. As soon as the city government had regrouped after the attack, Kadi and I met with the city leadership. We asked for two things: that we be informed how we could help, and that a rescue operation to free Leon might be part of whatever plan emerged to deal with Tlaloc. Phaleilei and Cantagorax were more than generous with their attention, and suggested a general exchange of information, to be followed by a reasonably early decision about possible expeditions of rescue or reprisal.
The many meetings that followed between our crew and various citizens of New Songhai were cordial and open for the most part. What was of greatest interest at first to the Europan scientists was human visual experience. Lusk/ Coro science had already speculated about a world of light and had begun to study the primitive light-sensitive areas of certain jellyfish and marine worms that used light displays to attract mates. Genes for these functions, and rudimentary lenses, had been implanted into Coro moiety volunteers. The human eye was fascinating to them, and it suggested all kinds of improvements.
But many other areas of shared research soon opened up. Scientists on both sides excitedly compared classification systems, formulations of natural laws, experimental evidence, and amusing bits of strange information. They agreed to avoid controversial subjects such as cosmology and astronomy, recognizing that these might offend religious sensibilities, but it was clear that the livelier minds of the city were already white-hot with excitement about the world-picture that was tacitly implied by their guests. The official position was vague—there was another shell of reality before the edge of the universe, and this was where the strangers came from. Engineers were already thinking about drilling up through the ice to the strangers’ world.
Leon’s influence was obvious. Much of what he had apparently been telling the Old Law folks on Camelot was dismissed as the ravings of a stranger driven crazy by his experiences and his longing for his own kind. But some of it made a weird kind of sense. The more intellectually ambitious thinkers of New Songhai, who were either agnostic in religious matters or devout mystics with a much larger vision of spiritual reality, had already started playing with concepts of gravitation and orbitals that might explain the open planets, cosmic light- and heat-sources, atmospheres and empty spaces Leon had been talking about. Empty space was an addictive idea. It implied a kind of freedom, a freedom of potential, an uncaused region, that resembled one of the most ancient concepts of Coro meditation, the true zero. But if empty space was possible, what was matter made of? Energy? This was very worrying indeed.
The exchanges on the social sciences, economics, and political philosophy were cordial, though for some of us deeply disturbing too. The faction of our group that wanted quick disengagement were getting more and more impatient, but we all felt we owed it to Leon to try to find him and bring him back. In addition, if we left even a single Earthie on Europa, the cultural and political effects might be just as bad in the long run as continued contact with a group. Kadi and I politely continued to pressure the authorities, who were preoccupied with bringing the bombers to justice, to locate Leon and help recover him. Not much happened, but then there was a break. We were told by Mayor Cantagorax that there was a Lusk historian in the city who had met Leon and who had slipped out of Camelot a while ago and had recently arrived in New Songhai. We were eager to talk with him, and he showed up shortly afterwards. His name was Chiver.
Chiver was a revelation.
Meanwhile Mack had made the acquaintance of a pair of Pisk miners, Kerrik and Sungal, while investigating the seamier side of New Songhai.
Mack had found the equivalent of a bar down in the lower south quadrant, and had fitted up one of his drinking tubes with a fine old Rakiu. The place looked like Aladdin’s cave. By now the presence of aliens on the island was well-known, though they had not been sighted in this part of the city before. After a while his appearance there no longer produced a gawking crowd and he could settle down to watch the entertainment and join the imbibing in a way that was not entirely vicarious. Nevertheless, on his most recent entrance a long thin Cark with a painted maw flicked her tail and left. The bartender, a huge old Pisk with golden scales, was not pleased. But Mack had a thick skin, and the only way he’d leave a bar he liked was if he was thrown out.
He overheard Kerrik and Sungal talking about their recent stint on a seafloor smoker mine. As a miner himself who had not had many demands on his expertise so far and who was a little bored, he was glad to be in company who knew something of the craft. As he understood it, they had been ripping out a pure dyke of nickel where an old vent had steamed for millennia, dropping various metal ores in a plume series determined by their relative atomic mass. Their supervisor had been a ’cetanshit geologist wannabe and had wasted their time trying to go deep when they should have just strip mined.
Europan miners pride themselves on being incapable of surprise, so when Mack introduced himself they acted as if meeting an alien in a bar was a normal occurrence. But after a few minutes they decided to have a little fun with him and mentioned the big crystals of pyrrhotite that grew around the vent. Mack at first thought that the translator had made a mistake, but something in the demeanor of his companions clued him in.
“Pyrrhotite crystals, huh? I eat them for breakfast. Good for the digestion.”
(Though pyrrhotite exists, there are no pyrrhotite crystals. I looked it up—Clio.)
From this point on they were buddies. The barkeep sold a lot of drinks, and looked more cheerful. They exchanged mining stories, some tall, some true. On their most recent shift all kinds of changes had happened in the next claim. They were digging a huge pit, thousands of workers, lots of Cark guards around packing heat. Kerrik knew the area and was puzzled. The only stuff down there was yellowcake (not yellow to Europan sears, but screal), which was of interest only to physicists and chemists, as far as he knew. It had a heavy metal in it that they were after. But it was not worth a tenth of the cost of extraction. Sungal had met one of the Lusk workers at the boundary between the claims, who seemed terrified and had to report back soon. He asked the Lusk, who had a New Songhai accent, what they were digging for and who was buying. Yes, it was yellowcake, and some big Cark syndicate was buying it at premium prices. He had heard that it was being shipped to the weapon shops of Daramhain.
Chiver the Historian was the witty Lusk who had helped brief Leon on Old and New Law. And he had been present at the fall of Camelot.
Historians are respected and largely ignored throughout Europa, so when the coup came nobody arrested him or even barred him from observing what was going on in the great plaza of Camelot, the government offices, and the now elaborate annex devoted to the study of the Alien. So much of what Chiver told us was sear-witness.
It had apparently begun before Leon’s interview with Caravel the merchant and Saladon, the young Cark paramount chief. Saladon had returned home to find that three of the clans under his suzerainty had renounced their fealty to him, and sworn allegiance to his uterine uncle, Varangia, a radical Old Law zealot and ambitious political leader. Varangia was in turn a follower of the doctrines of Tlaloc and his theologian mentors, and he had taken hostages from Saladon’s own clan and surrounded their native reef.
Saladon’s liberal views had long grated on the hierarchs of the Old Law, and the arrival of the Alien had catalyzed a spiritual panic that was already growing in the Cark rank-and-file. What had happened to the old ways? Snide city unbelievers, clever unscrupulous Lusks and grasping profit-minded Pisks had muddied the ancient clear waters of belief. Many Cark clans had sold out to their corrupted Coro patrons, damning themselves with their blasphemies against the Hatcher-Mother. The Maw and Tongue of Tlaloc had come at his Mother’s command to cleanse the waters of Europa and expose the evil doctrines of the infidels. Was the Alien a true Megacetan-born, or a diabolical fraud? Was he in league with the unbelievers, or a captive of them, a child of the true Mother, being used by the enemy to sow doubt among the faithful? Tlaloc would sift him, oh he would sift him, and Varangia would receive for his faithful service the paramountcy of the North Salt Current clans.
Saladon fled into exile. Caravel the merchant, on the other hand, had observed the situation and pragmatically gone along with the revolution. She would trade with anyone who wanted to trade: in the old Pisk proverb, dirt on the gift washes away soon with travel. So Camelot had no support and little warning when the fleets of Tlaloc and his allies had arrived before the city gates.
There was a token resistance; some of the Cark city guard had already been converted or suborned to the new extremist cult of radical Old Law, so the heroes who held out at the gates and in the main thoroughfares died in vain. The city government collapsed and surrendered, some officials choosing suicide, others joining their conquerors and suppressing their disgust at the primitive absoluteness of the Templar horde. The Lusk city governor Embel was expelled and replaced by Crookmaw, one of Tlaloc’s lieutenants. Tenebrae was murdered, protesting as he died the evident intention of the invaders to take Leon prisoner and force him to serve them. Orgrund the Coro moiety was reabsorbed into the Umma or mystical body of Camelot’s collective mind. Several priests of both the ancient pre-Gamlegh faiths and the New Law (till now tolerated by the city) were slain on their own altars. The Coro Hive philosophically accepted what had happened and tried to negotiate good conditions for its citizens.
Chiver scarcely registered on the sears of the invaders. When questioned he responded that it was his job to record the great actions of the present, so that the future would know of them and respect them. With such a pretext he managed to get a final interview with Leon. Leon was, he said, drooping and restless at the same time.
I asked Chiver what Leon had said—but the interview was much more a matter of Chiver telling Leon what was going on than it was of Leon telling Chiver what messages he wanted to send. Leon did say one thing, though, which was that if by any remote chance his own people came looking for him, they should stop, and that he would never say Alice’s mantra. Chiver did not say what Leon meant by this, though Leon had insisted that Chiver repeat it correctly. But I got it at once. Leon had named his ship Alice, thinking of me and of the three times he had read me Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by installments at bedtime. The mantra must be the words that would permit access to Alice’s AI.. In a way it was a message to me, since only I would be able to break the code of its delivery. He must have hoped that if there were a rescue mission I would be monitoring it at least, and perhaps a local Europan informant would pass his words along to the rescuers. I was pretty sure what the code key was.
Leon was obviously thinking about Alice’s thorium reactor and the manual and schematics in the AI’s memory. They must not be allowed to fall into the hands of Tlaloc and his engineers. Leon realized now that they should not fall into any Europan’s hands, at least until the danger had been laid out to some responsible body that represented the planet as a whole. I can only imagine Leon’s bitter recriminations against himself. Had he triggered a brutal religious war?–and had he not offered knowledge that could make it inconceivably worse?
I have a feeling that my account may give the wrong impression, that maybe it too is distorted by my subjective point of view. The reader may well feel that I have shamelessly anthropomorphized the Europans, especially in my rendering of Chiver’s story. It all sounds so much like a piece of Earthly history, perhaps.
I’m writing in English, and recording a piece of history, so naturally I use the language of the historian when I write about Europa. The skeptical reader may have a point. But all of us in the Marie were surprised again and again by how naturally the Europan stories echo with Earthly stories. Chiver really did sound like an Earthly historian when he was analyzing the cascade of political actions that resulted in the fall of Camelot.
After all, Earthly chronicles from all kinds of different cultures across the globe all sound the same—whether it’s Mesopotamian king-lists, Chinese histories of the Three Kingdoms, Holinshed, or the Popol Vuh. Maybe history is an emergent order, like the market, law, or language, that finds its way towards a sort of sweet spot of explanatory clarity.
But one might still object that this is all very well for Earthly events—after all, we’re all in the same fairly recent species—but it need not follow for an alien species in a wildly different environment (let alone four alien species).
So if you accept my evidence, the correspondence in style among historical accounts must be deeper than mere species dialect. I think it indicates a much richer law of emergence. I’ve already mentioned the hypothesis that intelligence has a natural limit, a point where too much neural connectivity begins to cripple itself. But there are other constraints. Living organisms all face death, and sexually-reproducing organisms all seem to be programmed to die, to make room for a better-adapted generation (though the self-cloning Coros do seem to be a bit of an outlier). Logic and the laws of evidence and science do work and enhance survival. Individuals must cooperate and compete in order to exist; groups must do the same; the ability to predict gives an enormous advantage and is selected for. Trading multiplies the value and range of possessions and implies possession itself and the potential of its violent transfer. Language has huge power to increase the odds for survival and flourishing. Physical threat can overrule preference. Maybe these constraints and drivers together make the role of historian inevitable, and dictate the manner of her work.
Once Chiver had fully absorbed the coup that had replaced the government of Camelot, he realized that his news was too important to keep to himself. If he was detained by the new authorities his historical contributions might be lost. He arranged with a caravan of Pisk traders, whose grizzled old leader he knew, that he would join them in a secretarial capacity; and thanks to the continuing disorganization of the city’s civil service, departed from it without fuss or notice. He was heading for the academic island city of Comnene and its enormous library and archive, but first had to find a bank that had connections with his own, and so his journey ending up taking several Earth months. In Comnene he composed an account of his experiences and settled into further research. It was there that he heard that a fresh band of aliens was in New Songhai. Rather against his historian’s creed of passive sensitive recording, he decided that he should take action and tell New Songhai and the aliens his story.
We pressed Chiver for further details. At that moment Mack returned from his pub-crawl, with what he said was very scary information. We shushed him, though, and as soon as Mack realized whom we were talking with, he fell silent. We were curious about Tlaloc and wanted to know everything about him.
Chiver obliged by giving us a blow-by-blow of Leon’s conversation with Tlaloc.
TLALOC: Megacetan-born, why have you come among us? Do you not know the anxiety and doubt you have sown among the people?
LEON: I hear with deep regret that my poor presence is a harm and trouble. I wish that I had not come, and not tried to explain where I come from.
TLALOC: You would wish to deceive us, then? Or was your story itself a deception?
LEON: I cannot conceal my being, which tells its own story. But in speaking of my origin, I know now that I have seemed to deny the truths of your scriptures and traditions. But I believe that this was a misunderstanding of words, as is common between languages. Teach me what words I should use, that would not violate your pattern of meaning, and I will use them.
TLALOC: Is not this what a flatterer would say, or a coward? To do as you suggest is merely to feed me back my own breath. Or are you a holy one, and do you test me? Only a holy one in all this world would dare to test me.
LEON: Are we not all tested, by experience itself?
TLALOC: You play with me. You are either very wise, or very foolish–or you do not wish to continue your life.
Let me tell you about the reef where I was born. The clan of the Screal Harpoon was my family. We herded three megacetans, good beasts that we drove to the sweet pastures of the southeast drift every nine cycles. We sang to them, and they to us. We harvested from them iron and copper and molybdenum, silver and gold. We nested in the great caverns under the lower scarp, and feasted on holy days at the altar of Gamlegh, and sacrificed a perfect and unblemished megacetan male. The lodge elders taught me to hunt, to fight, to pray. The sweet fragrance of the anemones, of the coral egg-release in season, the pungent acids of our cookery, the soft allure of our females was all about us. My mother was killed by a wild carchary when I was young, but the other mothers loved me and cared for me.
All this was founded upon our Center, our faith in the Great Mother, the Hatcher, the Source. All the logic of our words and the continuity of our thoughts and our bonds to each other had the huge song of the Center, the harmony of tide and current and eddy in them. These are truths that are lived.
We are not as the lesser breeds, the Pisks and Lusks, and the lazy Coros, who are losing their faith.
And you come, and you make us question the shape of the world and its special value? I would give life, clan name, spirit to defend them.
My scientists say that there is a hot evil, a poison music of light that sings from the tail of your vessel. They believe that it is the source of your ship’s power and of your own. Perhaps if you are our friend and savior you come to save our world from unbelief, to bring back nest and mother and all old love, by means of the harpoon of your power.
If this is so, and you reveal its secrets to our heroes, I will love you and protect you.
If it is not so, you yourself know what you have deserved.
Leon was paralyzed. The Europans obviously knew about radioactivity, though Tlaloc, very much the tribal warlord and not a scientist, described it in magical terms. Real scientists had been scanning Alice, though up to now they had not searched it, since this would violate the protocols of hospitality under which they had so far operated. Those real scientists were now in the hands of Tlaloc. It was not just the presence of Leon himself that was unbalancing to this intricate society he had entered; it was the very means of his coming. Sooner or later the ways of hospitality would be replaced by the ways of quarantine, seizure of contraband, military requisition, or outright violent force.
Leon had just learned from Chiver that two more cities, further down, had been added to Tlaloc’s growing empire. One takeover was a matter of blackmail, threat, and a dynastic pretext; but the other was, ominously, a plain military conquest. If Tlaloc got hold of nuclear weapons, his crusade or jihad could easily be the ruin of a whole planet. He resolved that when he got back to Alice he would attempt to break the moorings that held her and escape before Tlaloc sent drysuited engineers in to inspect Alice’s power source. Failing that, he would order Alice to self-destruct, though he bitterly feared the damage and slaughter this would create in the heart of the city of Camelot.
Something in Leon forbade him to try to lie to Tlaloc. Tribal chieftain he might be, but his discernment was obviously formidable, and a lie would probably be detected, wrecking any latitude of trust he might still be able to claim. There was something else, too, I think, that appears in Leon’s journal account of the conversation, and that Chiver missed. Leon liked Tlaloc.
You see, my father by that time had learned to read many of the expressions and body language of the four thinking species he had been dwelling with. Tlaloc was huge, hovering in the great chamber on the other side of the transparent partition between air and water. He was covered with scars, and still wore his old, battered war-armor. His long whiskery barbels trailed along his head-part, and he sometimes gave a little toss to shake them from his sears. His sincerity was as obvious as his shrewdness. Perhaps he had a sense of humor, too; his reputation for cruelty and savagery was matched by stories of his generosity when he was amused or moved. Leon decided to take the direct and honest way with him.
LEON: Lord Tlaloc, I am only a humble explorer, and you are a great statesman. But let us speak frankly, as one good person to another. What you are asking is more dangerous than anything that your world has ever encountered before. It nearly destroyed mine.
TLALOC: Do you think that we are less wise than your world? That we cannot be trusted with such knowledge?
LEON: You have spoken of the trouble of mind and the grief and struggle of the people that my presence has brought about. I deeply regret it, and would die to set it right. And it seems to me that even before I came, there was deep unrest and anger between the good old and the good new. So is it wise to bring a poisoned gift of infinite destruction into such a moment in history, when passions are aroused and minds honestly confused and no one voice speaks for all?
I have come to love your world. So let me take my evils with me and go away, and leave you in peace. I will promise to keep your world a secret from mine, and after a time my coming will become a strange tale for entertainment not belief, and then forgotten. And you, with your power and wisdom, can settle the troubles of this world, and prepare it for the knowledge of powers that are as beneficial in creation as they are evil in destruction.
TLALOC: I hear the truth in your words, stranger Leon. But will not your countrymen, the dwellers in that ocean of gas that lies above ours under the second ice-wall [here Tlaloc was citing the most moderate of the conservative theories about the stranger]—will they not send others to find you, or new explorers and discoverers? And if they mean less well than you do, and are armed with great weapons that we do not have, will we not be conquered and lose our freedom and our faith? Will not some of our folk of all breeds, corrupted by cities and trade, join with them to crush us?
We have a proverb: you cannot put the killer shark back in the net.
LEON: We have no ambition of conquest. And we have made a principle of fair trade. Our people have a law, that no tribe or nation or belief shall attempt to conquer or undermine any other. Our stupid, unwise, and wicked history has taught us this. We have a saying, a joke, that we always do the right thing—after we have tried everything else. We have tried all the alternatives, and they failed.
TLALOC: We have the same proverb too. But is not “the right thing” simply the creed of the winner?
We learned afterwards that it was at this point that Leon, with a silent mental command, ordered Alice’s AI to shut down, leaving only its life support subroutines in operation.
Chiver was about to go on with his story, but Mack, who had grown increasingly restive, broke in.
“There’s something that you guys have to hear.”
Kadi frowned. “Can it wait? This is important stuff.”
“No, that’s just the point. What I’ve just learned is the next part of the story. Let me bring in a couple of friends of mine.”
Outside the brightly-lit cavern with its pleasant decorations which the Salvages had been given as an audience chamber, the Pisk miners, Kerrik and Sungal had been waiting patiently. Kadi, intrigued now, had them called in.
Mack said: “Kerrik old buddy, tell them what you told me.”
With interjections from Sungal, Kerrik told them everything he had found out about the crazy yellowcake mining operation next to the nickel claim where they had been working. Almost as alarming was the fact that the Lusk miner, their informant on the yellowcake mine, was apparently under duress. It was known that Old Law Templars were taking slaves—they all remembered the Lusk prisoners streaming from the damaged blue ship—and now, it seemed, we knew why. There must be a huge and expensive push to dig uranium.
Most alarming of all was the intended destination of the ore. The weapon shops of Daramhain were situated in the middle of the thickest field of black smokers on the seafloor of Europa, fabulously rich in minerals and metal deposits of all kinds. From what we had heard it was a place of volcanic eruptions, brutally high pressure and foul-tasting waters—a sort of aqueous hell, a Vulcan’s smithy. The weapon shops were of old the domain of two guilds in partnership: the Smelters and the Weaponsmiths. They had since become a semi-independent subsidiary of a large multi-city industrial corporation, and teams of scientists, designers and engineers had been brought in to update the old procedures. The Pisk conglomerate then in control, many of whose members were enlightened magnates of the Whiggish New Law persuasion, wanted to shift the emphasis from military to civilian uses. But within the last year there had been a hostile takeover; huge offers had been made to some of the less idealistic partners, and a new management, including many Old Law Carks, had been put in charge. The word “hostile” was not entirely metaphorical: some of the old craftsfolk of the forges and workshops had put up violent resistance to the new measures, but had been suppressed. Heavy security had been brought in, and a strict wall of silence had cut off all news from the place. But there was word of huge shipments of ore and advanced refining equipment with strange orders for precision parts; and rumors of occupational casualties from poisoning.
“Connect the dots,” said Mack.
“I am leaving now,” said Leon to Tlaloc. “It is evident that you do not trust me. I am grieved at this, because I think that in the right circumstances I would trust you. But I must do what I must do, which is to leave this planet to its own destiny.”
He bowed, absurdly, and turned toward the umbilical that led toward the Alice. As he expected, the access threshold irised shut before him. He was a prisoner.
But the guards who had been waiting in drysuits and who immediately detached the umbilical from Alice found that they could not enter the ship. The airlock/waterlock was indeed locked, and the intelligent carbon of the vessel, a triumph of Earthly technology, had sealed the ship against almost anything that Europa could throw against it. Any explosive device that might rupture this hull would also pulverize everything within and render it useless. Only Leon could provide the key.
At this point Tlaloc must have had a problem. Torture is probably universal somewhere in an intelligent species’ political evolution, and Tlaloc was no stranger to it. But he respected Leon, and had been told by his scientists that they might be able to probe the secrets of the ship if it could be taken to a military diagnostic dock where the latest scanning equipment could be brought to bear. The best of these was over fifty kilometers down, in the weapon shops of Daramhain. The ship would have to be taken there in any case, locked or unlocked, for reverse engineering.
So Tlaloc held off on the more robust methods of persuasion for now. If the scientists failed once they had all the equipment and facilities they required, then there would be time for torture if need be. And perhaps in the meantime Leon might be persuaded that it was in the planet’s interest to release the information and open up the ship.
Tlaloc decreed that Alice would be towed to the weapon shops, and Leon would be taken there separately. But this presented another kind of problem. In the interests of hospitality there had been some experimental efforts by the chemists and cooks of Camelot’s mayoral establishment to replicate the chemistry of Earthly food, removing the odd sulfates and silicates that rendered it indigestible, but they had been interrupted by the invasion. Now Leon was cut off from his ship and its excellent protein vats, hydroponic cells, and robotic cuisine.
So he would have to endure several cycles of unintentional torture, spasms of vomiting and diarrhea, persistent weakness and cramps, and sheer undignified misery, as the cooks and chemists Tlaloc had commandeered from the city fought to find or synthesize something he could eat. At the same time, Europan plumbing had to be adapted to the uses of a gas-breather. As a child Leon had experienced an ache of empathy for the splendid fish in Capetown’s great aquarium; now he knew how they felt.
But at last his captors found a sort of gruel that worked for Leon—mildly unpleasant in flavor, like plastic—but he was so hungry by then that it tasted delicious.
Another problem was pressure. Europans, like Earthly beaked whales, have evolved strategies for dealing with large and rapid changes of depth and pressure. But humans have no such adaptations. Leon’s carbon skinsuit with its oxygen filter and rebreather would automatically preserve an Earth-normal pressure on his body, and he wore it in the mother-of-pearl chamber (which the Camelotans had hospitably set up for his requirements) just in case the gas pressure system failed. But at greater depths they would have to raise the pressure to prevent catastrophic failure of the seals, and this meant that Leon would have to suck his food through a depressurized tube. His captors experimented with various ways of doing this. As Leon notes in his journal, “I am not only a prisoner, but a sort of fetus, who must suck his nourishment from his enemy.”
So the departure for the weapon shops was postponed. It was clear to the Cark guards who were in charge of him that he was very unwell, and they started to fear for his life. Leon did not attempt to allay their anxiety. An idea had begun to form in his mind, and he needed delay and complication to bring it to fruit. He acted out more suffering than he felt. When nutritionists and doctors were brought in from the city to find out what was wrong, he was deliberately, but not obviously, misleading. It seemed clear that they were at cross-purposes and that the language of diagnosis and even of shared experience had quite broken down. He invented a whole language of visual light-based terminology to describe his symptoms. He had a “green stomach,” he said: its “rays” were “shadowed.” His head and right foot were “red-flecked,” And so on. Europan contempt for Earthly medicine grew moment by moment, they became annoyed and frustrated, and left, complaining to the guards. Leon waited.
Those guards must have passed their concerns up the chain of command, because in Leon’s next interview with Tlaloc the old warlord showed some solicitude for his health.
“Necessity and duty have compelled me to place you under protective custody, and for this I apologize. Not being acquainted with our political situation and our social customs, you might have endangered yourself.
“But my people tell me that you are unwell. No doubt a delayed result of your previous treatment. I hope we have not come too late. I am distressed, as your welfare is of the highest importance to me. What can I do to make your stay with us more comfortable?”
Leon feigned indignation. “First you imprison me, then you give me poisoned food. I had thought better of you, sir. Worst of all was the charlatans you sent to heal me, if that was their real purpose. They had no idea how to speak with or understand an earthman. Is this how the Cark lords treat their guests?”
It stung. “I am sorry to hear this,” said Tlaloc with what seemed like real sympathy. Carks, Leon knew, prided themselves on their hospitality.
“At least before I had wise and intelligent interpreters—Tenebrae and Chiver—with whom I was able to form a shared understanding. I am told that Tenebrae is dead, and Chiver has disappeared.” (Here Tlaloc started, and the outer rim of his maw drew back in a Cark expression of surprise and annoyance at himself. By now, Leon knew, Chiver would have made good his escape.) “Orgrund has gone missing too, it seems. No big loss. I never got along with him. But at least he understood me.
“If you want me to get better, for the sake of Gamlegh send me somebody to interpret for me with the clowns who are supposed to take care of me.”
Leon knew that a Coro moiety who had been reabsorbed into the hive could be regenerated: and what he had hoped for came to pass. At the next meeting Tlaloc apologetically confessed that he had been unable to find anyone better than Orgrund to act as interpreter, and that Orgrund had at least been located and was waiting to meet him. Camelot’s Hive must have been compelled by threats to hostages to reanimate Leon’s Coro friend.
Leon feigned disappointment, but consented that he should be brought in. Orgrund, to Leon’s relief, showed no sign of the affection that had built up between them; he must have guessed what Leon was up to. Orgrund was complaining too.
“I was basking in the unity of the Umma, and now I am summoned back to duty. And I must be separated from my Hive. Thank you very much.”
So now Leon had one ally. Perhaps there was a shred of hope after all.
Alice’s tow was now set up, with a strong escort and a travel chamber for the prisoner, and they prepared to set out for the underworld.
For the crew of the Marie, Europan life had become almost familiar. Doc, Billy, and Sylvie had spent two weeks—four cycles–with a friendly Cark clan, the Golden Herd. I think one reason they left was because of tension in the group. Sylvie was uncomfortable about her estrangement from Nell, and Doc and Billy wanted a relief from the cultural optimism of the others. But these discomforts were swiftly forgotten. They had fallen in love with the music, the recurrent quiet rituals, and the beauty of the Golden Herd’s sea caves and gentle ocean pastures. They had begun to understand the immemorial grace of old custom, that coexisted with the violence and camaraderie of the hunt and the brutal games of the young males. They had seared one of the great spectacles of the solar system, the seasonal herding of the megacetans from the depleted upper pastures to the rich tide-race below, when the next cyclic conjunction rolled round. Life for these beings was often dangerous—they saw one fatal accident—but the danger was part of the joy of it, and death was regarded as a return home.
While they were there they kept searing a very strange being—or perhaps it was several very similar beings, flitting silently among the great buttresses of the coral. Unusually, it was better seen than seared, if it was illuminated by a flashlight. It did not seem to mind light. It was like a slim human-sized jellyfish, very gauzy and angelic, white in both visual and auditory color, wafting gently along with a languorous pulsing collapse and inflation of its frilled parachute. Sylvie was reminded of the keepers of the shrine on the Grand Trunk Road. They asked Farsee, their friend the village elder, what they had seen. He said that they were the immortals, the ghosts of Coro moieties that had long since been destroyed or reabsorbed into the Coro Umma. Some of them were thousands of years old, a few dating back even to the dawn of Coro intelligence over a million years ago. The older they got, it seemed, their episodic memory diminished until they were pure personalities, experiencing the whole history of the planet, free as birds. They were held in religious respect in all communities. Farsee’s village had three such friends. They would sometimes give advice if they were asked nicely and the situation was serious. Sylvie called them “Seraphs” and the name stuck.
For Billy the whole thing was an anthropological and theological treasure-trove. The Seraphs were living dream-songs, the ideal form of immortality, purged of the garbage of memory. Sylvie saw them as the exemplars of the pacifist life, in harmony with the tides and currents of their world. And Doc, with his expertise on distributed forms of intelligence and consciousness, found in them a new model of both. An intelligent organism, he knew, was much less a self-contained calculating system than a sort of sensitive antenna or receiver of the general intelligence of the universe, acquired over 14 billion years of self-organizing adaptive improvisation. Robotics had taught us this. But that was theory: here in reality, it seemed, was the most pure and elegant stripped-down version of a spiritual/mental antenna.
When Sylvie, Doc, and Billy returned with their stories, we all decided that it was time for us to have a real talk with the Coros, in particular the local Hive. This made us realize that we had better get our story straight, and we agreed that we would need to debate again what we wanted as a group. When Chiver’s news and the revelations of Mack’s miner friends hit us, we were on the verge of our dreaded conversation.
“Let’s summarize,” said Kadi, when we were back in the ship. “Two things particularly alarm me. The obvious one is that Tlaloc is trying to build a nuclear weapon. Europan science has known about fission in theory for quite a long time. Now I don’t believe Leon would ever give access to his ship and its AI. Clio’s interpretation of his message about Alice is convincing.
“So it’s not as if Tlaloc’s boffins have something to reverse engineer, and it would be a thorium power reactor in any case. They must have been able to sear the interior of Leon’s boat, and then must have recognized the similarity of the radiation to that produced by uranium, which they already knew about. So just the presence of a controlled reaction and the amount of energy it must be producing would be enough—they’d put two and two together, and decided to start purifying and enriching uranium. Their centrifuge technology is already very good, so it won’t be long before they get some kind of device.
“It’s the other thing that scares me more, though. The city—Proteus, wasn’t it?–that Tlaloc sacked. This was not ordinary dynastic politics, or Cark resentment of Pisk and Lusk economic and technological success, though those old evils have been revived. What’s happening now is that some kind of threshold between theological differences and war has been crossed. Apparently Proteus’s Coro hive itself was wounded. Think massive brain damage, trauma, derangement. It must be hell in there for the survivors of the invasion.
“Put these two things together and we have the possible end of a global civilization.”
There was a silence. Sylvie spoke first. She had clearly thought through what she was going to say.
“The problem is us. I don’t mean that we are wicked or ill-intentioned. Dear shipmates, and I mean “dear,” it’s that our very existence is deeply destabilizing. My father’s culture, we know, did one of the most evil things in human history, the murder of the Jews. And many historians trace the original trauma back to the Thirty Years’ War, maybe the deadliest war to that time in European history, especially if you see it as part of the Reformation wars of religion in general. Objectively, the differences between the Catholics and the Protestants were trivial. Bigendians versus Smallendians. It’s like the Shiites and Sunnis in the twenty-first century–as Billy says, it’s green teetip versus gold teetip. It would be hysterically funny if it weren’t utterly horrible.”
Sylvie’s intensity made her hard to listen to. Nobody realized the depth of passionate scholarship and anguished ethical analyisis that lay beneath her placid surface.
“Why the savagery of the religious wars? OK, part of it was that the great powers thought they could get advantage by using sectarian passions to meddle. But most important of all was the terror of the new, all those renaissance discoveries and new perspectives—the Copernican revolution, the discovery of the Americas, the invention of printing, materialist medicine, the shock of Classical learning with its cynical sophistication, Galilean physics, changes in sexual morality, the beginning of epistemology, the new concept of the zero. ‘This new philosophy puts all in doubt,’ said the English poet John Donne. It was terror, but also a ghastly liberation into a world where whatever you thought or did was as likely to be right or wrong as anything else. No limit on impulse. No foundation, no Christendom. A psychotic world, dreaming while awake. Think of Hieronymous Bosch’s hells, his wartime landscapes. Or for that matter, Goya’s etching, the dream of reason producing monsters. Or those Islamic State videos of beheadings. The world unhinged. Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness—‘he had kicked the Earth to pieces.’ The painted bird.
“OK, you know I’m a pacifist. But I’m not just saying all this out of ideology. You just have to look at history. Civilization looks very solid, but it stands on a thin pedestal. If you break it, everything smashes down. That must have happened to those Mayan empires when they crashed and everybody went back to the jungle. Or to the African kingdoms when the Europeans came.
“Well, we’re exactly the kind of thing that breaks the pedestal. It’s not what we say, it’s what we are. We challenge almost everything that is foundational for the Europans. And when you’ve got that cognitive dissonance, and you’re too civilized to just burn the witches and have done with it, then you frame the anguish in terms of some known religious difference, however small, and then go at the bloodletting without limit. Maybe it would be better if they had burned the witch, in this case Leon, and then burned us. But their curiosity and hospitality undid them. We were the poisonous gift, the hostile guest. And they took us in.
“So I say we should leave right now, get off the planet, or lose our lives trying. Who are we to debate the disposal of their world? Just go. Then maybe the nightmare would be over, and Europans would wake up to their familiar lives, and shake off those ghastly thoughts. And go back to making their own civilization.”
Sylvie had taken our breath away. Nell looked at her with tears in her eyes.
“But Sylvie, dear,” she said, “isn’t it too late already? Even if we leave, they’ve still got Leon.
“And weren’t the Europans already doing the same thing to themselves? Undermining their old myths? All that Lusk speculation about cosmology, all that cosmopolitan Pisk industry and trade? The slow collapse of the Cark economy, seafloor mines replacing the old megacetan ocean refining? They were spoiling for a fight.
“Now that we’re here, maybe our role is to help prevent Tlaloc from conquering the world and imposing a tyranny we can only imagine. Think of the Mongol invasions—three times more people died than in the religious wars. And mightn’t Tlaloc set up his own Einsatzgruppen to round up and massacre everybody of the wrong race? We humans don’t even have real races. They have four. Maybe you’re right, but maybe we were just a trigger, and now we’re here we should try to stop even worse things from happening.”
“I don’t think Einsatzgruppen and interspecies ethnic cleansing would work here,” said Billy, trying to calm the anxiety we were all feeling. “The fact that they are different species and symbiotic with each other means that every species is irreplaceable. Humans practice genocide because you can always get more humans. The Europans may be better in the long run at living with each other than we are.
“Yes, if Tlaloc succeeds, they’ll probably have an inquisition and some form of enthusiastic communism. Plenty of folks will die, and their economy and science will be held back for decades. It’s a mess, cobbers. But it won’t be the end of their world, and we would do more harm than good. I think we should leave them to it, let them work it out–”
Barack interrupted, a bit pale around the eyes. “So you’re saying that despotism and thought-control is the answer? Let Tlaloc win? Keep the folk ignorant and happy? A boot in the face, forever? Enlightenment too good for the riffraff?”
“Settle down, mate,” said Billy sympathetically. “That’s not what I meant. But we have to be realistic. Remember at the beginning of the century when we all wanted to get rid of the military dictators, and thought that everyone would suddenly become civilized and democratic? Except that when we did get rid of them, we found out what was worse—failed states, religious spasm warfare, famine, mass death, millions of refugees, economic collapse.”
“Billy, you’re making Tlaloc’s argument,” said Jill, whose face was pink under her tousled red hair. “Or Napoleon’s. Or bloody Cromwell’s. Monopoly of coercion. Unite everybody under one ruler with absolute power, and everybody is protected from everybody else.”
“Hobbes’s Leviathan,” I put in, footnoting.
“You know where I stand,” said Doc, “I’ve said it before. Do no harm. The difference now is that I get it that whatever we do is doing harm already. So best do nothing at all.”
Kadi took charge. “Jam, Smutty, you’ve been quiet. What do you think? We know the lengths the Templars will go to now. And don’t nuclear weapons change the whole equation? We know they spread very fast once people get the point of them. Nick? Mack?”
Smutty, the big handsome diver, was always a bit shy. But now when he spoke, quite softly, it was so earnest and sincere that we had to listen.
“The only way is nonviolence. Nelson Mandela is the answer. Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King. But that doesn’t mean inaction, Doc my old bru. We have to take action. We have to find some way to carry the ring of power to Mount Doom. Do the salt march. Cross the Selma bridge.”
Jiamu had been watching Jill through all of this. “I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “Jill’s right—we can’t let what Tlaloc is doing stand. I was confused because I agree with Doc: do no harm. But there’s a way of doing by not-doing, like Aikido. And Smutty’s right: we have to go to Mount Doom.”
Nick had also been watching Jill. “But what does that mean?” he asked. “We’re not dealing with human history, here. We’re dealing with Europan history. If we’re going to have any kind of moral standing here, we’re going to have to be Europans. We must follow Gamlegh. What did Gamlegh do? She gave law to the slaves. Tlaloc’s one weakness is that he’s a slavemaster. I think we must go to the Weapon Shops of Daramhain and free the slaves.”
There was a murmur of agreement on this. And now, last of all, Mack spoke up.
“I don’t know what you mean by going to Mount Doom. If it means making big gesture and going down in flames, be my guest. But free the slaves I do understand.
“Why? Because having a slave means just taking and not paying anything back. That creeps me out. And you know what creeps me out just as much? It’s giving when you don’t get nothing back. Or being given something by somebody you didn’t give anything to. They own you.
“Family is different. With somebody who gave you life, or you gave life to, you give and you take and you don’t care. You own each other. But if somebody just ups and gives you something, it means maybe they want a piece of you. If you give something, maybe you think you’re a good guy, but maybe you’re trying to buy them into the family and you don’t know it.
“New Songhai is a nice city. Europa is a nice place. But get this: they’re nice because we have stuff they can use, and we’re nice because they have stuff we need, including a way out of here. But we’ve got no shop for trading yet. OK, we’re swapping plenty of information, science, and stuff. All the stuff we and they are giving away because it’s not that important, and maybe it’ll grease the skids, like fruit in your hotel room. But how do we trade real goods, real action, services?
“I met Kerrik and Sungal in a bar, but they couldn’t buy me a drink and I had no Songhai money. They came and they’re waiting outside, and they gave us some really valuable information. I want them paid. We need to earn some Songhai dollars and they need to earn some Terran roubles. By the way, we should be paying Chiver a lot. Otherwise he’ll think we are his personal followers, and if we don’t follow, he’ll be pissed off, rightly.
“And if we do the big heroic sacrifice, we will be trying to buy Europa. The poisoned gift, as Sylvie says. Beware of the Greeks when they come bearing gifts. There had better be something in it for us. Then they’ll know we respect ’em. Because they’ll have something to trade. We’ll help Europa get rich, not out of goodness of our hearts but so they can buy our stuff and we’ll get rich. We can be adults together, buddies maybe.
“Everybody’s looking for alternatives to the bomb. Maybe Tlaloc’s just old time raider and pirate, and needs to get gutted. Maybe not. But for the rest of us, if we can free those slaves, stop trying to make people part of our family, stop trying to muscle in on somebody else’s family, and get market going, that’s the best we can get for now.
“OK, Gamlegh and Jesus and Mohammed were givers, according to script. But half the gospel parables are about businessmen and cash crop farmers. And what was Gamlegh’s big achievement? Freeing the slaves. And one book of laws about paying and getting paid. Mohammed was merchant, right? Jesus had carpentry business. If we—us and the Europans—are going to get anywhere, we need to set up some kind of blockchain coinage and hook it in to the Coro banking system. We’ll need to buy big fleet, for a start. Bonds, maybe. What have we got that they’ll really love?”
Kadi, who had been watching this unprecedented rant from Mack with astonishment and rising admiration, burst out laughing.
“Music!” she sang out. “We’ll sell ‘em music!”
“And genes,” said Barak.
“OK,” said Mack. “And maybe a thorium reactor.”
“What do they have that we want, though?” asked Nell, more soberly. She was thinking, I believe, of what the Spanish wanted when they came to Tenochtitlan and Cuzco.
“History, art, genetic technology, cavitation, acoustics, stories, religion, distributed computation—they’re ahead of us in all of these,” said Billy. “Mack is right. We trade for them, fair and square.”
Well, we were still divided, but nevertheless this conversation had opened things up a bit. We had already begun to feel that we would never understand Europa without getting to know the world of the Coros, and now we decided to seek a meeting with the Hive of New Songhai as soon as possible. We contacted Cantagorax, the Lusk mayor, and asked if we might speak with Phaleilei, the Coro moiety we had met when we arrived, with a view to arranging a meeting with the full Hive itself. This was a bit complicated, as it transpired. A Hive liked to speak with individuals one on one—or make announcements to everybody. It was confused when talking with groups of individuals and relied on its moieties to do this sort of business. We talked about this together and felt that it would be unfair to leave anyone out—and important insights might be lost if we did. So we asked if we could each have a session with the mind of New Songhai one by one. Two days later, surprisingly, the answer was “yes.”
Meanwhile Kadi and Mack had been dealing with Calver Tyce, the Pisk merchant princess whose headquarters were in the city, basically sharing intelligence on what was going on in other cities and what were the Earthly politics behind our whole expedition itself. Mack had insisted that Caravel, the rich Pisk Leon had met but who had stayed neutral through the annexation of Camelot, might be much more important than we had been giving her credit for. It turned out that Calver Tyce knew Caravel very well, indeed they were some sort of distant cousins, as their name-prefixes suggested. After the bombing at New Songhai’s main square the authorities had set up an embargo on Tlaloc’s dependencies and put prominent Templars in the city under house arrest. But Caravel still traded with the Templars, having been exempted from the ban on the advice of Tyce, and was often in New Songhai on business. She was a rich source of information. Her agents among the contractors who served the fabrication workshops at Daramhain were now charged with getting information on Leon—where he was being held, what were his conditions—and on the progress of the yellowcake uranium project. Caravel believed that Tlaloc would almost certainly have moved Leon with his ship to the weapon-shops for analysis. So this solved one problem for us, whether to go first to Camelot to rescue Leon before moving on to Daramhain.
Kadi and Mack asked Phaleilei if we might set up an account at the New Songhai bank, so that we could settle debts and receive payments while we worked with the city. This, too, proved complicated. The bank, it turned out, was just a ledger, and the ledger was the great Coro hive itself, accessed only at the ancient center of the great thirty-kilometer reef that was the island city. We’d have to apply there for an account with New Songhai’s central Coro mind. So now it seemed like our pilgrimage to the local core shrine of Coro spiritual culture would also be a visit to our future banker, an application for a line of credit.
Very strange. We already knew that Coro currency was based on germcell lines that were also blocks of information chained back hundreds of thousands of years to the earliest dawn of Coro group intelligence. This idea was not entirely new to us, of course—some of our present virtual currencies on Earth use the DNA codes of their users as locks and keys for transactions, and many of us have patented our own chromosomes. But for the Coros these records are also equivalent to breeding protocols, 3-D printing blueprints, public ledgers, social class markers, memory cores, history books, sonic “video” archives, and sacred scriptures. And they are the factory by which they are reproduced. The elegance of this system, as I came to understand it afterwards, was astounding. If we humans had put it all together the way they had, we could have put a human on Mars back in the time of the Han and Roman empires. Of course we’d have to be Coros to make it work—or maybe the Internet is already a group intelligence with its own total memory?
When we all compared notes afterwards, each of us gave a different account of their experience in New Songhai’s underworld. The Mayor had told us that the convention on such serial visits was that they take place in order of rank. I was the last, being the most junior (and also the one usually tasked to summarize things for Kadi’s log). I’ll just give my own impressions.
I remember being fascinated by Greek mythology as a child in my grandfather’s library in Cape Town. I loved the stories of the journey to the land of the dead, and how heroes like Polydeuces, Orpheus, and Heracles rescue their beloved from it. The idea shows up in other myths from all over the world. Gilgamesh trying to find his dead friend Enkidu. Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the Mayan twins, rescuing each other from the lords of the underworld. African Mwindo bringing back his father from the underworld and forgiving him. Hermod and Odin trying to bring back Baldur from Hel. It was only later that I realized that I had those stories in mind when I moved heaven and hell to get onto the expedition. I would be a sort of Alcestis. Europa was an underworld, with the Weapon-Shops of Daramhain at its core serving as Hephaestus’s smithy. And the sea of Europa was the sea of Minos her son, the judge and gatekeeper of Hades, who must be propitiated by song if Orpheus is to succeed in his task of resurrection.
Every reef-city in Europa modeled itself roughly on the planet as a whole. The outer parts were devoted to industry, trade, entertainment, and residences. Then deeper down were the public edifices for law, worship, and governance. But then deeper still were more ancient parts of the reef—stony antique coral structures, still living but almost quiescent, often in fantastical shapes. It became more and more like a baroque curvilinear library. I thought of Borges’s library of Babel. Phaleilei itself led me down, pointing out the historical events that marked each stage of the island’s gradual accumulation. It was a bible, too. When we reached the era of Gamlegh there was an opening up into vast pellucid halls filled with sonic and sculptural representations of her life and allegorical designs representing her parables and laws. The teetip was prominent in many of these images, and more subtly in the whole geometry of the architecture.
Then down we went further, where strata of history gave way to mythical prehistory, the corals now greatly different in genetic structure, lacking many of the epigenetic modifications and genetic inventions of later generations. I was almost in a trance, and Phaleilei had to steady me as my flipper-strokes began to wander. The passages became narrower and dimmer—almost everything we seared was in response to our own movements and clickings, because the minute movements of the corals as they breathed and took in nutrients had slowed almost to a standstill and scarcely disturbed the water. Acoustic darkness, an unusual condition on Europa.
The last chamber, at the very center, was oddly cramped. But the psychological pressure was enormous. I remembered that I was here to see my banker, and suddenly giggled with the memory of my first loan application, for tuition in the IT Cadet program. The lord of the underworld was the lord of money. To ask for a loan in the vault itself! I had to recall that I was not actually asking for a loan, but opening—or helping open—an account, and tried to recover my dignity.
I had inherited that old socialist reflex from another era, to separate money matters and economics from sincere morality and earnest spiritual politics. I still felt a slight Marxist sneer when I saw old bank-façades that looked like solemn temples or holy churches. But now I recalled Mack’s tough-minded analysis of our situation, and further back an eccentric teacher of political economy who pointed out that the language of morality is all based on human practical exchanges and obligations. “Ought” means “owed.” “Mercy” is rooted in “commerce” and the merchant-god Mercury. Without ownership, no-one is their own. “Justice” is the yoke of the balance, the jugum that balances the labor of one’s oxen. “Meaning” is “means,” “Value” and “worth” apply equally to moral and market dealings. The loving “bond” gets its force from the bond of contract.
We humans were not always schizophrenic about our values, my teacher said. The Roman Mint was the temple of Juno, the Chinese ban liang coin was the mandate of heaven, Solomon’s temple was the Fort Knox of the chosen people. My people.
Freedom, he went on, is an allowance, an affordance. Morality grows out of the moment-to-moment fairness that guides any successful deal-making, not the other way round. We don’t start with a beautiful moral system and impose it on practical exchange: beautiful moral systems evolve from and are based on our active accommodations with other people.
So the Coro system had never divided the economic from the moral. What I was seeing as I went down into that labyrinth was—in reverse—how the Coros themselves evolved a trading system out of a reproductive system, and a moral system out of a trading system. Each city was its own book of Genesis. From Cain, who slays his brother to become a father of the human tribe, through Jacob, who cheats his kin and is cheated by them in turn, to Isaac, who buys and sells, to Joseph, who has a fully human morality, there is a series of necessary steps. The final and earliest chamber I floated in at the end of our journey was the Coroan Eden of the loss of innocence and the birth of choice.
Enough philosophizing. There I was, silent, before a rock of ages, an ancient judge, with a request that might mean the fate of a world. Phaleilei was no help, perhaps out of some kind of humorous malice at my predicament, or perhaps because of its own sense of awe—after all, if Phaleilei’s life as a moiety was a river, the Coro hive-mind of New Songhai was its final ocean. Although there was something a bit absurd about the idea of wasting the time of an almost immortal being, I felt it, and blurted out:
“It’s an honor to meet you. May we open an account?”
There was a faint murmur, as if a current had suddenly started to flow through the hollow caves of the vast hive of living stone. It grew to a thunder, and the whole place suddenly brightened up with a white light or ear-shattering crash.
WHY? said the Coro.
“We would like to trade with your world, and we believe that we might be able to help save it.”
YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO SAVE US?
“We know how wise you are, and how ignorant we are of the ways of your people, how helpless we are in your world.
“But coming from another world we know things, and can do things, that the peoples of your world cannot. We wish to trade them for all the things of which we are ignorant, and all the things we cannot do. To value them properly we need a market. So we have come to you.”
THE HIVE OF THE CITY YOU CALL NEW SONGHAI ALREADY KNOWS OF YOUR CLAIMS. WE HAVE HEARD FROM OUR SCHOLARS WHAT YOU HAVE TOLD US OF YOUR HISTORY. HOW DOES THAT HISTORY IN ANY WAY CONSTITUTE A BASIS OF TRUST?
I was beginning to feel that I was being played with, maybe even bullied.
“At least we told you about our past failings. And our present vigilance against them. If we were untrustworthy, would we have done so?”
IT IS NOT YOU THAT SHOULD BE ASKING THE QUESTIONS. IN ANY CASE, YOUR CONCLUSION IS INVALID. IF YOU WERE UNTRUSTWORTHY, YOU WOULD SURELY ATTEMPT TO WIN OUR TRUST BY CONFESSIONS OF PAST MISDEEDS. I AM NOT A VILLAGE CONSTABLE.
Despite my strong feeling of terror, I was losing my temper. Knowing the extreme folly of what I was about to say, I said it anyway.
“And what about your history? Didn’t you enslave the Lusks, and pay the Carks to murder the savior, the lawgiver Gamlegh?”
I felt like Dorothy confronting the great and powerful Oz. It was a “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” moment.
There was a silence. I waited to be struck down—security must be massive down here, and I was sure they’d figured out ways to deal with a nanocarbon suit by now.
What I heard, though—or seared—was something very like a chuckle. Or so my babelfish interpreted it.
THE OTHERS WARNED ME YOU MIGHT BE MORE FIERY THAN YOU APPEAR.
YES, WE TOO HAVE HAD WAYS WE MUST UNLEARN, AND WE TOO HAVE RESISTED WHAT WE KNEW WAS RIGHT.
AND PERHAPS IT IS THE FOOLISHNESS OF A VERY OLD REEF, BUT I HAVE HEARD SNATCHES OF THOSE MUSICS OF YOURS, ESPECIALLY THOSE MADE BY THE MAN BACH, THAT REMINDED ME OF SOME GOOD TIMES IN MY CHILDHOOD. WORTH TRADING FOR.
YOU HAVE AN ACCOUNT. MY LUSK ATTORNEYS WILL ACQUAINT YOU WITH THE CONDITIONS, AND I HAVE ALREADY EXPLAINED THEM TO YOUR LEADER KADIATU ELEANOR BIRD. MY ACCOUNTANTS ARE PREPARED TO HELP YOU WITH THE PROCESS.
GOODBYE, LITTLE FRIEND.
The journey from Camelot to Daramhain would take Tlaloc and his escort more than four cycles–two Earth weeks. The Shops at that season were half the planet away, the currents were mostly adverse, and unfriendly cities and dangerous reefs must be avoided–all this with an alien ship in tow. But the delay also gave Tlaloc’s flotilla time to adjust to the mounting pressure at these great depths, and to the increasing heat as they neared the planet’s active core. Leon found himself gasping in temperatures that did not seem to bother his hosts. So they rigged an air-conditioning unit for him while they reinforced his gas-filled chamber to prevent its collapse. His body chemistry would not be able endure the ambient pressure at these depths, and thus his cabin effectually became a vacuum relative to the environment of the rest of Tlaloc’s ship.
Leon used his babelfish as a recorder to continue his journal, on the remote chance somebody from Earth might eventually retrieve it. It was unhackable by anything the Europans could put together for the next 50 years, he reckoned, by which time the damage would already have been done. His campaign had begun when Tlaloc took him into custody. At that moment things had clarified for him; his nightmare ordeal in the belly of leviathan, his moral qualms and doubts when dealing with his Camelot hosts, his despair and horror at the conquest of the city and the loss of Tenebrae, his persistent snide underminings of his own name, of his own ridiculous ideals of heroism—all these now were packed away, and he cleared his decks for action.
Leon remembered the old African-American stories of Uncle Remus that he had come across as a boy during the America trip, shortly before he saw the drowned boy in the river. His favorite was the one where Br’er Rabbit is about to be finished off by his nemesis the Fox. Mr. Fox is trying to decide how to do the deed. Barbecue him? Br’er Rabbit responds that though being barbecued is pretty painful, it’s not as bad as being thrown in the briar patch. The fox, disappointed by Rabbit’s casual treatment of his threat, now suggests hanging as a more terrifying and humiliating end. But Br’er Rabbit thanks him for at least not throwing him in the briar patch. Drowning? Knifing? The same, but “Whatever you do is fine, but don’t throw me in the briar patch!” Of course Mr. Fox throws him in the briar patch—and Rabbit makes his escape. And as he does so he jeers at Mr. Fox, as Odysseus jeers at Polyphemus: “I was born and raised in the briar patch!” He knew that this was code for the slave’s defiance of his slavemaster: you can’t enslave me, I’ve been one all my life.
In the first of his regular meetings with Orgrund as Tlaloc’s flotilla glided down toward the great deeps, Leon told his friend the briar patch story, ostensibly as one of a number of of Earthly folktales, about which Tlaloc’s anthropologists had inquired. Orgrund, no fool, caught on, and together, obliquely, they evolved a system of reversed verbal signals by which they could coordinate their plans even under constant eavesdropping. Leon had begun naked and alone, but now he had an ally, and he was determined to find or create more. And it all must be done at cross purposes. Tlaloc did not trust Orgrund, but Orgrund was his only intermediary with the alien whom he desired to win over to his cause. Orgrund was an untrustworthy spy, but he was the one Tlaloc had, and all spies are untrustworthy as Tlaloc well knew. Leon had plenty of time to think, and he realized that he could use Tlaloc’s mistrust of Orgrund as a method to consolidate Tlaloc’s existing trust in Leon’s sincerity. It was a strange trio.
Tlaloc was obviously busy with matters of war and government, but he was a fairly frequent participant in the conversation (at other times one or more of his subordinates were eavesdropping and reporting). Tlaloc began his campaign to “turn” Leon by coming back to the theme of world government.
I learn from my counselors that on your world your nations have been at war forever.
We believe that we are getting closer to world peace. At least we have international bodies and agreements to try to keep things nonviolent. (Leon thought he knew where Tlaloc was going with this, and played along.)
ORGRUND (to Tlaloc, in local Carkian dialect):
My Lord, he may be trying to persuade you that his people have no warlike intentions.
(to Orgund) I’ll be the judge of that.
(to Leon): But there were two great empires that kept the peace for many generations: Rome and China. Who was it unified them and placed over them a single law?
For the Roman empire, it was Augustus. In China, it was Qin Shi Huang.
Are they not remembered with praise and gratitude?
Yes, they are. But progress only happened when the Roman empire broke up, and independent nations competed with each other in science, arts, political philosophy, and business. And then when China adopted the same policy of free competition.
(Leon tactfully forbore to point out that it was probably slavery that held back the Roman Empire from developing modern technology, and that the abolition of slavery in the West was the prologue to the Industrial Revolution, where paid workers became the market for mass-produced goods in a self-generating economic spiral.)
But you concede that those empires were necessary preparations for the idea of world government?
LEON (pretending to hesitate):
Uh, I suppose so. But… it’s not the same here. You’ve already had your industrial revolution.
Why should that make any difference?
You have a point, sir.
ORGRUND (aside to Tlaloc):
Be careful, my lord. Don’t believe him when he appears to be convinced.
LEON (who knew perfectly well what Orgrund had said):
What is he telling you, sir? I can’t be at ease when he’s always interrupting in a language my translator doesn’t know yet.
Your friend was warning me to watch my step. (Literally “sear out the carchery’s cave”.
More seriously now:) Do not think that I enjoy the many necessary deaths that I shall have to endure in my conscience, deaths of my own people and of many, many others. But if there is any divine meaning in this world, I must be its executor. A world of many meanings is a world of no meaning. I am the sad and unwilling arm of the Hatcher, the obedient and grieved son of the Mother, the tearing Tongue of the Lawgiver.
If your world is, as you claim, one in its intentions (he waved away Leon’s objections here), we must meet it as one in ours.
To tell the truth, Leon himself was hard put to come up with a counter-argument, at least one that would look as if he was trying his best not to agree with Tlaloc. Leon’s education had been good enough that he knew the arguments against Hobbes’s Leviathan. The need for government to have a monopoly of coercion—the only final alternative to civil war—must not be based on an unbreakable contract of the people with the sovereign, which was tyranny pure and simple and could only lead eventually to bloody revolution. It must, as Locke argued, be based on a contract between the people themselves to select a ruler whose tenure was revocable by the people.
Leon felt that these subtleties were beyond the experience of a feudal warlord like Tlaloc, however shrewd and perceptive he might be. He needed arguments that were not as strong, more understandable, and still evidence of reluctant surrender.
But I did say we were not fully unified. We have plenty of debates. You wouldn’t be dealing with a monolith. And we are not interested in being adversaries or competitors either.
So he says.
TLALOC (ignoring Orgund):
You say your people only want to trade with us. Do not traders always seek to overreach each other? Are we not safer from being cheated if we speak with one voice? The merchant does not allow his partner to suggest a lower price, unless they have agreed already on this strategy. You yourself praised competition; is not all money business competition?
Leon was impressed. The old Cark was no yokel. He knew there were answers to Tlaloc’s points, but he also felt that his reaction, being genuine, must have been noticed by his captor, and decided to let it ride, as it was exactly what he wanted Tlaloc to take way. So Leon agreed to think about it until next time, and went on to complain politely about his living conditions.
Each of us had had a different experience with the hive mind of New Songhai. We had, after all, been seeking a business connection, and by the time New Songhai had talked with each of the others, much in that line had already been worked out. The Umma had obviously decided to make me into the final test or check of our intentions, wisely recognizing that the most junior member of the expedition would likely be the most indiscreet. I had come through with flying colors, it appeared.
One reason, perhaps, was that as far as I was concerned, I felt I had no financial skin in the game, as Mack would have put it. All the others were empowered in one way or another to speak for and provisionally represent the great and little corporations that through their national governments had funded our mission. There was nothing corrupt about this. In earlier times, when shady and under-the-table deals could easily be made, any public/private partnership invited rampant bribery, rent-seeking, influence-peddling, etc, etc. But now such corruption was almost impossible. Kadi had explained this to me long ago when, with my journalist’s hat on, I had pestered her about it, and Mack had added his own two bits’ worth.
Most people still don’t entirely believe this, but as you know, our collective fiat currencies, essentially a complete record of all the transactions that they had ever been used for, eliminate all covert and unacknowledged deals. Even secret barter is severely limited, since anything of any lasting value is now of course electronically tagged and sealed and thus integrated into the blockchain system. This is not to say that the crews of ELERA 1 and 2 had not been presented with ingenious schemes for mutual profit if and when something valuable turned up on our journey. Some naïve offerings involved real, heavy, shiny bars of gold. Whose radioactive molecular labels were neatly stored in the collective servers of the human inhabited worlds.
Kadi waxes eloquent on all of this. She claims that we have finally been able to achieve Aristotle’s ideal of the city, and of the citizen who can serve both himself and his city by virtuous action. The good and the evil that one does are plain to see and are their own reward. Once corruption in public/private actions is no longer an issue, all the wretchedly wasteful defensive measures against it become moot, and the persona of the good public servant need no longer be that of the paranoid keeper of secrets. I was surprised by Kadi’s optimism of about current Earthly political economy, but if anyone had earned that optimism, she had. As a sometime journalist I had a few doubts, and had smelled an occasional rat in the negotiations of PASA and its allies, but the goods involved had been more of the reputational kind than the concrete.
In any case, we had had plenty in the way of quid to offer Europa in return for its quo. My crewmates were plenipotentiaries with good credentials for the companies and countries back home that had put money in the pot. Those home entities were certainly taking a flier on this high-risk/high reward venture. But solar system business folks had long recognized that micromanagement from afar simply would not work, if only because it is often hours before you can get a reply on the phone. Light only goes so fast. And in our instance, of course, everybody knew that they probably wouldn’t hear back from us for at least a year. So they had trust their ambassadors to make the right deals. And anything would be better than nothing with a pot–a planetful–this big.
At first glance I was the only crew-member that didn’t have something to gain and to offer in our negotiations with Songhai (and the world banking system Songhai had been empowered in its own turn to represent). But thinking about it afterwards, I realized that I was wrong. Several media organizations already recognized me as a stringer, and my byline could end up being pure gold both for them and for me. If I ever made it back I’d be a rich girl!
Thank heavens, I thought—if I had considered this angle, I might have been more cagy with the ancient Coro entity at the center of its maze! And, ironically, a much less valid test of the sincerity of our whole expedition.
Gradually Tlaloc came to feel that Leon could be trusted—not to trade masters and betray his own world, but to recognize the logic of having a single negotiating partner when the two worlds met. And Leon plainly liked Europa and wished it well—how could he not desire that it should have a single pacifying overlord?
Tlaloc had shared with Leon much of his own past. Tlaloc’s father Gorm had apparently become a cruel psychopath after the accidental death of his favorite wife—a runaway Pisk vehicle had shattered her. At the time she was carrying the baby Tlaloc in her marsupial pouch. At her death Gorm took out some of his fury upon his son; Tlaloc was sent to be nursed by the lowest of the maidservants in the clan and variously ignored, punished, or ridiculed as he grew up. He matured early, and mastered the harpoon at an age when most young fry were regarded as little better than bait. Inflamed by penth, the Cark version of alcohol, Gorm tried at one point to spear his son, but Tlaloc escaped from Karakorum and fled to the sanctuary of his favorite aunt, who admired his muscular flanks and fine barbels. She dwelt in a reef near New Corinth, the leader of a small traditional clan. Here the sweetness of the traditional Cark way of life, herding and hunting, the ritual cycle, the jokes about the resident Seraphs, the gossip and politics of family and social standing, the smells and colors, had made an enduring impression on him. Some seasons later he had made a reputation as a great hunter and fighter, and risen in the hierarchy of the local clans to the point where he was chosen as chief of one of them.
When Gorm, as paramount chief, objected—as was his right—Tlaloc swiftly organized a raiding party, caught his father’s guards unprepared, slew them all and decapitated his father. When Tlaloc recounted this his three convoluted sears screwed up and drops of vond-colored blood oozed from them, his tentacular gill-hands gripped and wrung each other, and he fell silent.
Leon was horrified but also strangely sympathetic. He shared with Tlaloc his struggles with his own father—less dramatic but almost equally heartfelt—and his guilt at his abandonment of his wife and daughter. In that long conversation both beings found themselves thinking aloud in each other’s presence. By this time Tlaloc’s nutritionists had figured out a tolerable alcohol, and Tlaloc’s penth collection was well known.
Then Leon told Tlaloc his story about finding the drowned boy under the ice.
Once Tlaloc got his mind around the idea of drowning, he became evidently moved—it must have struck a chord. Leon himself was suddenly shocked at his own behavior in confessing to this tyrant and moral monster something he had never mentioned to anybody beyond his parents (who had shielded him at the time from the inquest proceedings). What, Leon asked himself, had he been thinking? Was he prostituting his own deepest markers of identity for a political advantage or emotional effect?
But then, hadn’t Tlaloc’s own confession—of parricide—been something similar? Indeed, Tlaloc’s guilt in his story was surely much greater, and Leon’s story was hardly discreditable, though Leon might well be alive now because the drowned boy was dead. On the other hand, Tlaloc’s reminiscence had the feeling of something he had often shared before—perhaps it was part of Tlaloc’s myth, his charisma. Were they just exchanging psychological gambits? It didn’t feel like that, though.
Tlaloc’s emotion could not have been faked. Nor was his own. But if Leon was offering so deep a pledge—in its own way as deep as Tlaloc’s—was it not at the same time a despicable betrayal, given that it had been and still was his firm intention to deceive his host?
His host—no, his captor. In his own defense he could claim that he was justifiably retaliating for his own captivity. Or even making a praiseworthy sacrifice of part of himself for the sake of saving a world. These arguments felt to him peculiarly hollow, even shoddy. No, something had happened, and it was real, and it involved betrayal both now and in the future, and the betrayal was deserved, and it was still a betrayal.
They had become friends. Who would, no doubt, have to kill each other at some point.
By now, through Orgrund, Leon had gotten to know several of the superior officers of the crew, professedly by seeking information about the religion of Gamlegh—Old Law—and the earlier Hatcher customs and rituals that the cult of Gamlegh had absorbed. Some of the officers were quite devout, and they were pleased and surprised that they might have made an alien convert. Tlaloc made no objection to Leon’s conversations with them—indeed, he perhaps hoped that the openness would be appreciated, and Leon would begin to feel some solidarity with his shipmates. Leon, too, had his reasons for inviting these contacts. In the tentative and friendly discussions of moral theology that followed, Leon’s apparently guileless questions about Gamlegh’s texts on slavery, nonviolence, freedom of thought, and rule of law sometimes cast his instructors into moments of doubt and reflection, even a certain intellectual vertigo that was both troubling and strangely pleasant.
The fleet was now approaching the Weapon-Shops of Daramhain. They were flying over a landscape that seemed to Leon’s imagination an abyssal version of Hell. He had asked for, and got, a transparent viewport. Though silicone chemistry provides several robust transparent materials, Leon had to closely supervise Tlaloc’s chemical engineers, who had few means of knowing how transparent a given substance was—how distorted by shape or clouded by tiny impurities. But a good window was found, and through it Leon observed the surface of this hidden world.
It was, in large part, “darkness visible.” But the volcanic activity of the whole region provided plenty of illumination here and there. There were vast glowing patches clouded by gas and steam, lopsided cones and tall ramshackle columns flaming with igniting gas and white actinic specks of burning magnesium, and vaster conflagrations over the close horizon that made a false dawn like the background of one of Hieronymus Bosch’s hellscapes. The noise was deafening—or blinding to his hosts—a screeching thunder. Huge clanging machines moved slowly through the chaos or sat belching clouds of waste-products. Plumes of burnoff, like old time Earthly oil refineries, flared garishly, to be immediately quenched in steam. The water seemed thick with poison. Yet it was a monstrously fecund place too. The red and ochre light revealed enormous grotesque growths of molluskoid, arthropoid, coralline and crustacean life, feasting on the stew of fresh chemicals from the center. Leon’s account implies that they must have arrived at a time of peculiar stress in the Jovian system, and this is how we dated the events in Leon’s journey at that time. Europa must have been at perihelion, and Io and Ganymede in conjunction. When we arrived at the icy surface, 120 kilometers above, it was in a period of relative calm. But to greet Leon the bowels of Europa were writhing with inconceivable tidal and magnetic stresses and squeezing out the chemical riches of the Great Mother.
Kadi, Mack and I—and sometimes one or two of our shipmates—were now in frequent consultation with the Europans. Delegates from Tlaloc had just come in, with what seemed like fairly moderate proposals for a détente. They suggested that New Songhai and its allies join Tlaloc in a Greater Europan Co-prosperity Sphere and informed the city that the religious extremist elements that had planned the bombing had been found and executed. Had they known of the plot, they would of course have extinguished it.
They also joined New Songhai in welcoming the second expedition of the outsiders and invited them to visit Karakorum in the following Great Season (about 1 ½ Earth years), when Tlaloc planned to return from Daramhain. The mention of Daramhain was not just a piece of disarming candor; it was also a veiled threat.
Their friend Leon, they said, was now Lord Tlaloc’s close companion, but he would be accompanying Lord Tlaloc home to Karakorum and was eager to meet with his compatriots when his current work with the Lord was over.
How were we to deal with these overtures? Chiver, who had a wry sense of humor, described it as mollusk-ink (another fine example of parallel evolution). “If you have nothing to say, serve up Megacetan droppings instead,” he added.
Mack laughed. “We have saying, too, that says ‘if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.’”
But Chiver got serious. Though Phaleilei had a sense of humor, Cantagorax kept his, if he had it, well hidden, and Chiver didn’t want to make light of the situation. “It’s a delaying tactic, I think. He is up to something in Daramhain, and wants to give himself time to bring it to completion. My best guess is that he is trying to reverse engineer some technology in Leon’s ship to make a weapon that will give him the edge in any Europan conflict.”
Mack and Kadi and I exchanged glances. “According to Clio here, Leon Held promised not to reveal the motive power of his ship,” said Kadi.
“We have been curious about yours,” said Cantagorax, rather pointedly.
This was awkward. The Salvages had already reached the conclusion that we could, if need be, offer New Songhai the schematics of our boat’s thorium reactor. Although Europa would probably be better off without nukes at all, it would be much harder to make a thorium bomb than a uranium one, and it seemed that the uranium horse, so to speak, was already out of the barn in any case. The evidence from Mack’s miner pals was pretty convincing: Tlaloc was trying to make an atom bomb. But was this the right time to show our cards?
Kadi came clean. “We can give you all we know about nuclear power. But it will not help you build a uranium bomb, at least not yet.”
“Our scientists have known about fissile elements for centuries,” said Phaleilei, “and are aware that in theory they could be made into a super-weapon. But we are more conservative, I believe, than your people, and perhaps more aware of the potential danger. Tlaloc, though, is not conservative. He could certainly be trying to make such a weapon.”
“But surely,” said Cantagorax, “it would be at least a Great Cycle before Tlaloc can assemble the materials.”
Mack agreed. “You’d need to develop a whole centrifuge technology.”
Chiver sear-glanced at Phaleilei, who gave a sign of assent, then said very grimly: “I’m afraid you’re quite wrong there. Daramhain has been centrifuging for purity for thousands of Cycles. We are very good at it—probably better than your folk. We never got as far as you did with fire and smelting, for obvious reasons. But if Tlaloc wants to extract very pure quantities of uranium, he can do it.”
It was at this point that Caravel, whom we had expected to join us earlier, made her appearance. She had come to realize the extreme danger Tlaloc posed, and upon being briefed on the conversation to date, offered part of her merchant fleet at heavily discounted rates to be converted into military vessels.
Things had begun to move.
Too late for some of us.
Two cycles later Tlaloc’s forces struck. New Songhai is itself shaped like a broad-beamed ship, but with large vanes of coral only a few meters thick at prow and stern. These could be warped to steer the city or as breakwaters to direct the currents and tide-races as part of Europa’s ocean control system. A diversionary force attacked suddenly from the beam, and was beaten off quickly with some losses. A single suicide vessel, however, sneaked up hidden by one of the aft vanes and detonated itself in the main restaurant district near the fishing fleet harbor.
Later we figured out what had happened. The explosion was far too big to be a conventional cavitation or chemical weapon, but it was too small, by our calculations, to be a full fission blast. Yet profuse radioactive material was distributed widely across the island’s trailing edge. It was what the early US nuclear program boffins called a fizzle. Tlaloc’s engineers had failed to shape the conventional detonation charges properly, or the detonation materials lacked the requisite energy, mistakes common in Earth’s first clumsy efforts at hell-making. A full explosion would have completely destroyed the city, because of the magnitude of the double shock wave produced by the explosion itself and the subsequent implosion of the vast cavity it had created. New Songhai was lucky.
But Nick and Smutty were dining down by the wharves at an eating-place that had mastered the art of terrestrial cooking. Their bodies, turned to mush inside their intact nanocarbon skinsuits, were brought to us by one of the rescue crews half a cycle later.
We were all numb. We went through the motions, went uselessly through the wrecked and poisoned city with the relief workers, fetching and carrying, trying to pry open the crushed silicate dwelling-places where young Pisk or Lusk fry might be trapped. We seared blindly at the shattered sculpture and defaced ornamentation of the temples, the bright tatters of advertisements and defiled hollows of the little restaurants.
All numb, but for Jill. Jill was fey, as the Celts say, with a sort of feverish and exalted anxiety, singing softly as she worked with the rescue teams. We didn’t know if it was berserker rage or a sense of the spiritual glory of our dead companions, or her way of defying grief. We found out a little more when the time came for the funerals.
Billy was our default officiant. Europa, like Earth, has many tradition forms of burial, ranging from ritual exposure to the scavengers of the ocean to sonic liquefaction and dispersal in the waters of the deceased’s home. We opted for a practice of the Old Law, sometimes used also by more old-fashioned New Law followers, which is the expensive practice of walling up the corpse in quick-growing coral that is then allowed to die.
Many Europans were in attendance, out of sympathy and solidarity as well as curiosity, and the words we spoke were translated and broadcast. Though the city government fully supported us, there were some in the city who felt, with some justice, that we had helped bring this misfortune on their home, and we all felt this keenly. We had decided that we would seek to deflect any further harm by drawing the pursuit away and thus limiting the harm of Tlaloc’s relentless malice, and that we must find a way to do so as soon as there had been a proper disposition of the dead.
We hovered, as an inner sphere with Phaleilei and Cantagorax and a few other Europan friends, before the living coral, blue and vond and hunder, of the city’s outer shell, with its freshly-formed niche and the richly wrapped corpses of our friends within, ready for sealing. Around the inner circle a large crowd had gathered, strangely silent for Europans.
All of the funeral party had words to say about Smutty and Nick. Billy announced the occasion, welcomed and thanked those in attendance, and essentially stepped back to let the rest of us speak. Billy had decreed that we would remember Smutty first, as the younger victim.
Sylvie spoke first. Sylvie had been the closest to danger of the Mole recovery party when the two huge lamprey-barracudas had attacked us what seemed like centuries ago. Smutty’s prompt intervention had very likely saved her life. She told the story briefly and turned to the columbarium and thanked him. She began to break up and could say no more. In turn each one of us added our own words. Kadi simply quoted what Smutty had said at the recent meeting:
“The only way is nonviolence. Nelson Mandela is the answer. Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King. But that doesn’t mean inaction. We have to take action. We have to find some way to carry the ring of power to Mount Doom. Make the salt march. Cross the Selma bridge.”
“This was Smutty’s generosity of spirit,” said Nell. “He had learned from his own ancestry, oppressor and oppressed, that the only thing we really have is what we give away.”
Jill surprised us all. I suppose we all knew that Jill was a huge fan of William Butler Yeats and was a closet poet herself. She had never foisted her poetry on us, though, and had blushingly deflected any polite inquiries about whether she would give us a reading. But now she spoke, and it was an elegy in the meter of Yeats’s “The Lake-Isle of Innisfree.”
Where is the web-hand hero
Who saved us from the maw?
Where is the quiet diver
And his unflinching law?
He’s in the Nordhoek breakers
Under a freshening dawn,
And he will be with us no more.
Where is the dark-skinned swimmer,
Whose eyes were morning blue,
Who followed our Mandela
Into a peace that’s true?
Sleeping on sand by Blauberg,
After the fishing’s done;
And now we know what we must do.
Then we turned to Nick, who Doc reminded us had been a distinguished priest but had given up that vocation to join us in our work of friendship among worlds. Rather surprisingly, Jiamu became quite eloquent in his halting and modest way, praising Nick’s brilliant engineering and listing some of the elegant kluges Nick had devised for the Marie as the journey had presented its various technical challenges. I noticed that he didn’t look at Jill at all as he spoke.
Barak had been in tears for his discussion-partner, but his voice was clear when he reminded us of Nick’s words at the funeral for the crew of the Umtali: “Our imagination, and our capacity to risk ourselves for what we think more important than ourselves, require that we extend the moral world, and this is what these heroes did. We thank them for being human and for their moral victory over death.”
As you may have gathered, I am rather shy about speaking, though obviously not about going on in written prose. All I said on behalf of our dead friends was to thank them for the honor of their acquaintance and the kindness of their attention to a young communications nerd.
Now Jill surprised us again. Not looking at Jiamu, she rather quaveringly gave us another poem. I recognized it as a Petrarchan sonnet and wondered if that was intentional: Niccolo Caproni was of course Italian.
Prince of the Church perdu, my Niccolo,
Lay down your spiritual chivalry,
Rest now upon the long sleep of the sea
In this most distant archipelago.
Your errantry is over now, and so
We’re left the dream that only you could see,
A Christ for every world, a fantasy
That, uttered, is a seed that starts to grow.
You called on us to free the slaves, and we
Are all slaves to one thing or another,
Lost citizens of your ecumene;
You taught us how to recognize our mother,
And find Maria in a foreign sea,
And bound yourself that others might be free.
There seemed to be no more to be said, though we all looked at Jill with new eyes. Billy concluded the ceremony, but asked the guests to stay for a moment, as Kadi had something to add.
“One of the things that Nick pointed out at our consultation is quite important for our most generous hosts of New Songhai to hear. Jill referred to it in her beautiful poem. This is what he said: ‘If we’re going to have any kind of moral standing here, we’re going to have to be Europans. We must follow Gamlegh. What did Gamlegh do? She gave law to the slaves. Tlaloc’s one weakness is that he’s a slavemaster. I think we must go to the Weapon Shops of Daramhain and free the slaves.’
“We propose to leave you, friends, and say goodbye to a hospitality that has been so terribly costly to you. Though we believe that the menace that threatens this world is not entirely of our making, it is incumbent on us not to make it worse and, if it is in our power, to help avert it.”
My two stories now begin to converge in time. I’ve tried to juxtapose the two voyages of discovery, Leon’s and ours, because each throws light on the other and the contrasts may be enlightening, like the use of controls in a statistical experiment. In reality our story was about year behind Leon’s.
The destruction of the Umtali took place in June 2095 Earth time. The reorganization of PASA, the beginning of work on ELERA 2, and the hiring of Kadi took place in the weeks that followed. Leon broke through into Europa’s ocean that August when we had already begun our training on Mars. Leon in the Alice was swallowed by the megacetan in October of that year, and was conducted to Camelot in November, but by March 2096 Camelot had been taken by Tlaloc’s forces. Chiver fled a month later, and after long travels arrived in Comnene and began his memoir about Leon and what had happened in Camelot.
Tlaloc had already begun to realize the technological and military advantage that the stranger might provide. His scientists had told him about the radioactive source that powered the Alice. He ordered work to begin on extracting uranium—economic and political costs be damned. He began capturing slaves to work the mines and centrifuges. Leon was taken to Daramhain in August 2096.
We arrived on the surface of Europa in June 2096, and broke through the crust a month or so later. A month or more passed before we met the Europans in the midst of a battle against Tlaloc’s slavers; by that time the news of the lone alien was well-known in official circles, and Tlaloc’s spies got word at once that we were on the way to New Songhai. The Salvages reached New Songhai in August. Tlaloc had ordered his agents in Songhai to try to assassinate the new group of aliens; with little time to plan, the bombing attempt was a failure.
And now, after the news of our arrival, the stories increasingly began to influence each other. When the Salvages arrived on the scene, Leon had already been a few cycles in Daramhain, and for some time later he was kept in the dark about the appearance of the Marie, and the possibility of a rescue party. But he would know soon.
So let’s turn now to what was going on down in the mines and factories of Daramhain.
By now Leon’s real interest in Gamlegh and his sympathetic questions about the Old Law had endeared him to some of Tlaloc’s officers, and his frank if not always entirely accurate sharing of scientific concepts with his scientist shipmates had created a very constructive atmosphere. He had professed an interest–that was entirely real–in writing a sort of biography of Tlaloc, and Tlaloc himself was not entirely immune to the blandishments of such a project. Their arrival at the Shops and the extensive debriefing and planning sessions Tlaloc required of his staff had somewhat interrupted these conversations, but they were renewed soon, and now sometimes included some of the great guild masters of the weapon-shops.
But Tlaloc felt he had to leave after four or five cycles to supervise the battles for Tarpon
and Brin, and the insurrection on Proteus. He did so, though, under the impression that Leon might be persuadable. More important, he had been told by his scientists that they might not need yet to get into the specs for the thorium reactor in the Alice, but that they could build a uranium bomb instead. Opening the treasure-trove of Alice lost some of its urgency, and Tlaloc had grown fond of Leon anyway and didn’t yet want to resort to torture. He could perhaps try to hack Leon’s babelfish, but Leon had already pointed out that any attempt to do so would result in its immediate self-destruction. There’d be time for that if and when his scientists failed to deliver on their promise. He’d let the issue come to a head when he returned.
Leon’s campaign to infiltrate and disorient his captors’ plans was beginning to bear fruit. Orgrund had been talking with Tlaloc’s physicists, and in a strategically tactless moment had already suggested to them that the reason they were trying to get into the Alice was that they probably weren’t as good as the Earth scientists who had designed the submarine. Leon and Orgrund rightly guessed that this would directly target the great infirmity of scientists, their intellectual pride. They now wanted to do it by themselves, and there was already enough nuclear theory about uranium and its isotopes that they thought they could beat the earthlings and really impress their boss Tlaloc when he returned.
In their conversations on Camelot Leon had been able to convince Orgrund and a couple of local physicists that the zero, even if it remained a fiction, could be very useful. With the help of Alice he had shown how it deepened number theory and led to the complex numbers by whose help subatomic physics might be better understood. The Europans were ahead of us in their holistic quantum math, and were chagrined by its weaknesses. Here in Daramhain Leon and Orgrund played on that same chagrin in the hope that it might become an obstacle to their captors’ attempt to weaponize higher physics.
Leon was kept in a small but relatively comfortable suite overlooking the huge series of fabrication blocks that went almost to the horizon, interrupted by grotesque towers of unknown function. One of the feigned hostile arguments he had there with Orgrund was about the google built into his babelfish. In the “heat of the moment” he had “inadvertently” let drop the wrong degrees of enrichment for fissile material and the ratios of implosion speed and containment required for detonation. He hoped that they were being eavesdropped on, despite the solemn assurances of his hosts that they were not. This little piece of disinformation may well have saved five million lives on New Songhai.
For toward the end of 2096 the herculean efforts of the alchemists and weapon-smiths of Daramhain had accumulated enough fissile material to build a crude nuclear device. But instead of testing it on an uninhabited area of the seafloor, which was the intention of Tlaloc’s engineers, Tlaloc ordered it to be used on Songhai in a suicide mission that might eliminate his potential alien enemies at one stroke. As it happened, the fizzle changed Europan history, and perhaps human history too.
In Tlaloc’s absence Leon and Orgrund pursued a double strategy: first, to continue Leon’s religious education with the naval officers that remained and second, to cultivate the guild masters, smiths, and lower production management of Daramhain. Tlaloc had given orders that they should have access to his valued prisoner, in the hopes that they might learn his secrets.
One of the officers was quite devout—a handsome Cark who was especially interested in the social gospel of Gamlegh. His name was Fingal. In pressing Fingal for more details and exegesis of the texts, Leon knew that the fastest way to get a teacher to doubt his assumptions was to make him teach them, and so it was. When contemporary illustrations of the Imaginary Laws happened to be mentioned, it became tacitly accepted between them that the immediate situation, where Lord Tlaloc was trying to unite the world, was an exception, an anomaly, and that Tlaloc’s long-range intention was naturally to restore the freedoms and due process that must for the present be held in abeyance. Leon professed himself an admirer of Tlaloc.
“I’m sure your master wishes to unburden himself of his power as soon as it can safely be done,” he said warmly. “Some of our great heroes, like Augustus, Napoleon, Lenin, and Mao, yearned to restore the rights and freedoms they had necessarily taken away. I always felt sad that they never really got the chance to do so. But Lord Tlaloc is surely a greater spirit than they were.”
Leon had earlier provided his hosts in Camelot with useful textbooks of Earthly history. For the most part they were taken as ingenious fictions, but some of their characters had been discussed with much interest by the scholars of the city before the invasion, and the more literate among Tlaloc’s lieutenants had picked them up too.
Fingal was vaguely troubled by Leon’s naivety, and warned Leon that though Lord Tlaloc deserved Leon’s praise, there were many examples in Europa’s history of tyrants whose long oppressive regimes had begun as a temporary safety measure. Leon professed himself slightly shocked, and secretly rejoiced. Fingal had begun to experience a certain cognitive dissonance that troubled him as a religious person. A couple of other officers who, like Fingal, were not of Tlaloc’s own clan but belonged to cadet branches of it by marriage, were carrying on a discussion of the their own and sometimes joined in the interviews with Leon.
The weapon-smiths and guild-masters were even more promising material for Leon’s newfound vocation as a provocateur. Tlaloc had inherited most of them from the old guild consortium that had sold the weapon-shops for so unrefusable a price. They were not happy with the Cark overseers and managers that had been placed over them. They hated the slave labor they were required to use. The mission Tlaloc’s general manager had given them, to get Leon to abandon his finicky conscience and open up his ship, had become a pretext for enlisting him as an ally for better working conditions, more freedom of research, and less ideological conformity. Things were going well.
“Does your world have such a thing as a trades union?” Leon asked innocently one day.
It was only three Earth months later that we said goodbye to Smutty and Nick and prepared to talk about our future with the leaders of New Songhai. We met immediately after the funeral.
We knew that there was now a feeling in the city that we were bringing bad luck. Though most citizens were sympathetic about our own loss, they had become anxious about our continued presence. So were we—Sylvie especially was fighting a strong sense of guilt. But one of the few bright spots in this gloomy time was the heartening fact that Sylvie and Nell had begun carping at each other again. Friendship clearly had been restored.
The whole team was in agreement we were were now necessarily engaged in the history of Europa. We didn’t wait for Cantagorax and Phaleilei to raise the matter but went straight to the point.
“We have endangered your city, and we are deeply sorry to have done so,” said Kadi. “It is now for us to make what amends we can. We ask your permission to leave at once. We intend to go to Daramhain, sabotage their nuclear program, and rescue our friend. We have talked with Chiver and Calver Tyce, and they will help us.”
Cantagorax was horrified. “There is no reason for you to leave. We are ourselves very disturbed by your loss and by our inability to protect you, which is our responsibility while you are here as out guests. I understand your generous solicitude for our people and appreciate your offer to leave.
“But what you propose is madness. [The word he used was literally the disorientation and wild flailing associated with the puncture of a swim-bladder.] What can you do against the fleets of the warlord Tlaloc? If you must leave, better to simply hide and let us try to gather our allies and defeat the threat to our peace. Then when it is over we can resume our valuable exchange of knowledge.”
“And deepen our friendship,” Phaleilei added, its sears puckered with feeling. “But if you try to attack Daramhain, we will lose not only our friends but our immeasurably valuable link with another world.”
“Our venture is not quite as desperate as it might seem,” said Kadi. “We have reason to believe that we may be able to reactivate Leon’s ship.” Here she glanced at me with a gesture that spelled: “I’m trusting you here.” I had told her that I was fairly sure of the code words to unlock the Alice.
“And we’ll have Chiver with us to advise us—and our miner friends who know the territory,” said Mack. “And Calver Tyce is giving us two ships for an escort—fast freighters converted to weapons cruisers.”
“Even so, the mission seems to us suicidal,” said Cantagorax gravely. “But if you are bent on this course, we will offer what help we can. As you know, we are arming a fleet to attack Karakoram, Tlaloc’s capital. At worst we will draw his forces away from the cities he has under siege, and give others time to arm themselves and unite. At best we may cause him to make a tactical blunder and paddle into an ambush on his return. But I will spare three ships for you, good well-armed vessels. It is both the most and the least we can do.”
We thanked Cantagorax, and were about to separate to make the arrangements, but there was more.
“I have been thinking,” said Barak. “Perhaps some of us should go with the New Songhai fleet in the assault on Karakorum. There may well be Earthly technology and tactics that Tlaloc has gleaned from the Camelotan sages who interviewed Leon—before he knew that it might be misused,” he added with an apologetic glance at me. I nodded in understanding and he went on. “If the new Songhai admirals need advice on such matters, it might be good for some of us to be on hand, so that they won’t be taken by surprise by something new.”
Kadi thought a moment and looked round at the rest of us. It was an awkward juncture—we all agreed with Barak, but we had just lost two shipmates and the idea of further separations was almost unbearable. But the logic was plain.
At that moment Phaleilei very delicately intervened. “We were afraid to suggest such a thing ourselves, out of consideration for your feelings. But your help might well prove to be of great importance to us.”
Kadi finally responded. “I think we all recognize the truth of what Barak and Phaleilei have suggested—painful though it is. And there is another reason why we should do as they say.
“Both missions are risky, perhaps suicidal. Still, I’m sure that our superiors on Earth would endorse the plan, now that things have come to the point they have. But I believe they would add another reason why we should split up. If we are all together on one mission, and it fails and we are killed, none of us would be left to tell them what has happened and speak for the great civilization that has welcomed us. If there are two groups, the chance of one surviving is doubled. And there will be voice also for the heroism some of you have already shown.”
Kadi paused and looked round at us again. We all nodded. She turned to Phaleilei and Cantagorax and spoke formally:
“We offer three of our company, and our pinnace, to your fleet for the duration of the present campaign.”
But who should go? We discussed the matter, and accepted three volunteers: Barak, who had proposed the idea, Jill, and Jiamu. The main issue was Jiamu: would his piloting skills be better deployed with the Marie or the pinnace? What swung the balance was the reflection that the pinnace didn’t possess the sophisticated navigational and standard tactical combat AI of the Marie, and Jiamu would be most useful compensating for the difference aboard the pinnace and available to advise the New Songhai commanders. In a major fleet action, such as the one that was in prospect at Karakorum, human creativity moment by moment might be crucial.
The rest of us felt a wave of shocking grief when we reached our conclusion. We were committed. We were no longer knowers, scientists, discoverers. We were warriors for a whole world and must endure the farewells of warriors.
So it was that with our tiny fleet our reduced crew of seven set out in the Marie to disarm a potential world tyrant. As we passed the last headland of New Songhai’s barren western reaches, we were surprised by the appearance of a ramshackle group of old Cark boats, clearly headed toward us. We were alarmed, but felt we had the advantage in firepower; nevertheless we prepared for action.
But action was unnecessary. The sonic blazon of our interceptors flashed out from their leading boats: they were the clan of the Golden Herd, the fleet of the village with whom Billy, Doc, and Sylvie had stayed on their excursion.
The delight on both sides at the reunion was matched by deep anxiety. The Golden Herders, as part of New Songhai’s extended council, had known of our venture and were appalled by the risk we were running. With typical Cark generosity, they had sent some of their best warriors to help us in the quixotic spirit of the old epic, The Tale of the Loyal Traitors. The anxiety on our part was for them. They had even brought their resident Seraph, which proclaimed their total commitment. Sylvie actually burst into tears, an astonishing thing for her. “What will you do without your fighters and herders?” she cried into the translator/broadcaster we had devised. All she got from Farsee, the Cark leader, was a Cark proverb: “A life unpaid for is a life not worth living.”
Billy explained to Sylvie that the loyalty of the Golden Herd was not just toward their new friends and to New Songhai’s alliance. The Golden Herd was a branch of the North Salt Current federation of clans, who claimed a common ancestor. The former paramount chief was none other than that Lord Saladon, whom Leon had met earlier. The NSC clans had been divided by the deposition of Saladon, and the Golden Herders supported their exiled leader. They had chosen to help us as a way to fulfil their feudal oaths to their liege lord.
“But it’s still a beautiful and silly thing they’re doing for us,” said Nell.
“And perhaps what turns the scales,” said Kadi.
Billy was thoughtful, though. Some of his Cark friends, whom he would have expected to be on such an expedition, were not with the Golden Herd ships. They included Farsee’s eldest son. Was there division among our allies?
Calver Tyce’s agents working with her cousin Caravel’s corporate offices in Daramhain had been gathering intelligence for dozens of cycles. But now they were leaving. Like all except the Cark inner circle, they had been strictly kept away from the alien “guest” in the east tower. But rumor was rife in the whole complex, and the agents had pieced together an extraordinary story. The secret order for them to withdraw came shortly before the announcement that Tyce had declared her allegiance to New Songhai in the wake of the nuclear bombing attempt, and they had departed in ones and twos on the regular trading vessels that still plied between the great manufacturing center and the rest of the planet.
We on the Marie heard the story a few cycles after we left New Songhai. A merchanter in the Tyce mercantile fleet broke its journey to rendezvous with us and pass on the information the spies had gleaned. We met at the bridge of larger of the two converted Tyce vessels.
Things had changed in Daramhain, and had done so with amazing speed. Discontent had suddenly spiked among almost all of the guild communities that did the skilled work in the mines and workshops. The Cark overseers had virtually given up trying to suppress the complaints and meetings and contented themselves with urging everybody to at least do their jobs.
The Cark military officers at the base, many of whom had arrived with the alien, were no help. Some of them were talking about the new era of law and freedom that would come when Lord Tlaloc had established a central world government and wanted to begin now by permitting open expressions of opinion. Progress, they said, required the healthy tension of different views—Gamlegh had said such things herself in the Imaginary Laws.
Tyce’s spies were convinced that the alien guest was at the bottom of this. So Leon was up to his old tricks again, I thought, Johannesburg tricks that had got him onto the mission in the first place, and that had deprived me of a real father for so many years. I was suddenly very proud of him and missed him desperately—and was still angry at him, maybe even more than before.
But the news was certainly not all good. The Old Law fleet that guarded Daramhain had not been contaminated by Leon’s subversion. Indeed, they were fanatical Templars, Tlaloc loyalists, angry that they had been left behind on guard duty when they could be earning glory with the marauding armadas of the Old Law. They were itching for battle, to show that they deserved a share in the spoils and the chance to be named the conquerors of Tarpon or Proteus, where the action was.
So discipline in the defensive force was tight and fierce, and there was some tension when their troopers rotated down to the surface on leave. The facilities for entertaining bored marines and sailors were shabby and inadequate enough, but the attitudes of the ground staff struck them as appallingly casual and even seditious. Daramhain would be a very tough nut to crack, but its kernel might prove to be less formidable than the Salvages had expected.
According to Tyce’s agents, the shell of Old Law Templar vessels consisted of between twenty and thirty major ships of war, augmented by several dozen smaller vessels—gunboats, cavitation minelayers, and scouts. Obviously our six ships could not take on a fleet action at these odds. But at least now we had good maps of the layout of the place, and the sites where Leon was held and his ship Alice was impounded. If the shell could be cracked, there might be a chance.
And then there was the element of surprise. Because of the limiting conditions of the Europan environment, movement was slow and communications scarcely quicker. Sound messages could certainly be sent through the water—at many times their speed in the air—but they suffered by being distorted out of recognition at any distance, and worse, by being easily intercepted by anyone in the area. Elaborate repeater beacon systems might be faster once they were operational, but at the cost of the time spent emplacing them, since they would need to have been set up in advance by ships moving at not much more than thirty or forty knots.
So surprise attacks were easy to mount and hard to anticipate. We had in our fleet five or six really massive cavitation bombs, with which we could destroy the major nuclear workshops and the uranium mine-workings if we could reach them. But now there was the complication that we did not want to destroy our potential allies on the ground, not to speak of Leon and his friends. We would have to be circumspect.
In the absence of Jiamu, Mack took over the pilot’s chair, assisted on strategic matters by Kadi herself, and on tactics by Nell, who turned out to be something of an expert. In her youth she had been a captain in Eversion, the super-realistic immersive space warfare game that millions apparently still watch. Yes, we were ad-libbing it here, but the total human population of the planet was eleven and we had to improvise.
The forces at Karakorum were more evenly matched than at Daramhain. But even so the navy hastily put together by New Songhai and its closest allies was outnumbered. Tlaloc had anticipated such an attack, though he believed it to be a feint designed to draw off his forces besieging Proteus, Brin, and Tarpon. So surprise was not complete.
Cantagorax had appointed a very talented military strategist to the admiral’s chair, a Lusk named Nantax. The fact that he was a Lusk was partly a political decision—it might not look fitting to put a more experienced Cark in charge—but Nantax had developed ways of using Coro distributed intelligence gaming theory that had proved valuable in certain excise scuffles a few Great Cycles ago. Nantax was a serious thinker.
He sent a small detachment forward into Karakorum sensor space, instructing them to behave as if they were trying to give a false impression of far greater numbers—drones set up to mimic the sound signature of much larger vessels, faked communications with nonexistent partners, and so on, exactly as if it were indeed a diversionary probe. The pinnace with Jiamu, Jill, and Barak aboard, and its unique sonar signature, was to accompany them as a tempting prize. The Karakorum defense fleet admiral, like his compatriots over Daramhain, was frustrated with his role and eager for action. He took the bait, and the battle was joined.
The “forlorn hope” advance guard sent off a few salvos, then fled at once, pursued by most of the Templar fleet. Now from three directions the Songhai main force converged on the Karakorum force, and in a swift attack shredded their outer perimeter and annihilated five of their capital ships with blinding-deafening cavitation implosions. Even Jiamu played a role, spinning the pinnace around, releasing one of the two homing torpedoes the Marie had been able to spare, and damaging a Templar cruiser.
But the Cark admiral of the Karakorum fleet quickly recognized his mistake and marshaled his forces, making a tight defensive sphere around the city’s perimeter supported by ground installations armed with electrical, shock, and missile cannons. The odds were now reduced so that the New Songhai fleet could not attack New Songhai’s blockade without major losses, but the besiegers could not get close enough to engage without encountering the overwhelming firepower of the ground emplacements. It was a standoff, but Karakorum was being starved out. Nantax allowed a Templar scout craft to slip through his pickets so that it could get the news to Tlaloc: he hoped that Tlaloc would abandon his current operations and return home where he could be ambushed.
I’m going to go to Barak’s journal, kept meticulously through the whole expedition, so that you can understand the human facts behind the military and historical report you already have. I’ll start when the Salvages first split up.
61, 515 PG [“Post Gamlegh”—Barak was using the European calendar, and the unit was Great Cycles, about 3 ½ Earth years].
75th cycle, 285th minim [there are 360 minims in a cycle; a minim is about 14 minutes].
I’m still grieving over our separation from our companions, but I suppose I brought it upon myself by proposing the split. It’s strange how one comes to love the kafir, to use the word ironically. These people have become my life—Billy, who is of all people the closest to the ideal of the umma, Kadi who is a true caliph, Nick whom I will never forget, Jill and Jiamu the gentle jihadis who struggle with themselves for perfection of character—all of them, even Mack, who does in fact have a soul in there.
We’re on our way to Karakorum. It’s cramped in here; each of us has a tiny bunk, but privacy is impossible and food is mostly nuked rations. The fleet is all around us, like a huge school of grotesque fish glowing with their insignia and the ever-present sigil of the prophet Gamlegh, the nine-pointed star. Green of course because these were mostly New Law ships (though there were some gold ones, crewed by Old Law cities in alliance against Tlaloc’s form of despotism).
I’m thinking about the epigenetic-genetic relationship as Phaleilei explained it to me in the context of Coro gene lineages, and its role in their currency system. Kadi and Mack have been very illuminating about the analogy between blockchain archives and genetic inheritance. How stable—or, let’s say, how heritable–are the activation-silencing patterns of gene expression in Coros? Europans certainly use histones, but their histones are subtly different from ours. Must check out their use of methyl groups.
76th cycle, 42nd minim.
I’m becoming more and more aware of the attraction between my shipmates. You can cut it with a knife. Poor dear warriors, they’re only half conscious of it, and visibly suppressing it. They’re brusque with each other. Such wasted virtuousness! They should admit it and get on with it.
More workshops on military strategy and tactics. Admiral Nantax is brilliant, and I’m learning a lot. Of course it’s a love-feast between Nantax and my martial friends—they’re getting quite mystical about Aikido and the Europan version of it, roughly translatable as “Bounce.” Although I basically disapprove of the whole war business, there’s something in my Arab ancestry that is stirred by the prospect of battle. It’s like the choking feeling I used to get just before my trysts with Mirna back at Alex U., going up the back stairs off Al Kotahya to her room with the view of the Bay of Alexandria. So we’re all three of us full of hormones.
[I’ll skip to the battle—most of the entries in between concern Barak’s intensive study of the genetic data he had gathered in New Songhai, with occasional humorous notes on his shipmates. Humorous but affectionate; he was plainly a bit guilty about his own presence, which was probably preventing the moment of revelation.]
78th cycle, 301st minim.
We won! Or at least we threw back their first attack, and our forces are now evenly matched.
It’s been jolly exciting, as my English friends would say. I witnessed something extraordinary—the work of a brilliant pilot and a really subtle tactical co-pilot working in perfect unison, like a musical duet. We weaved through the Templar forces like an embroidery needle through a rucked fabric, avoiding every threat, attracting fire and dodging it so that it fell upon its makers. We’re just a science boat, with a couple of torps and some improvised small arms, but we took down a cruiser. Jiamu and Jill turned into different beings—infinitely quick and deft in their movements, quiet and solemn like priests, hardly any words, just glances, perfectly concentrated. The boat groaned with the violence of our maneuvers—my neck aches a little from one particular swerve, even though we were all strapped in.
But now we have a standoff. Is this enough to bring Tlaloc back? Nantax let a messenger get out, so I suppose we will find out.
79th cycle, 220th minim.
We’ve just spent thirty minims in war council, and we looked at all the intelligence we had got about Karakorum’s defenses. As in most Europan cities now, the battle computers were colonial intelligences, literal brain corals, and for reasons of security and efficiency they were separated from the other functions of the city by a major firewall. We had tried breaching it, but without success. We could hack some aspects of the city and had already damaged some of their industrial base. This was being quickly repaired and stiffened. But we couldn’t get into the strategic base.
[I’ll skip over a few more entries, mostly about the siege.]
81st cycle, 215th minim.
Nantax is waiting to hear about Tlaloc’s response, keeping up the blockade, and probing Karakorum’s defenses. He is worried that the delay is giving time for the spinning centrifuges in Daramhain to refine enough uranium for a second bomb. But perhaps the other fleet will find a way to hamper their nuclear program.
Jill and Jiamu are a little less tense. It seems as if their communion in battle has temporarily satisfied their need for intimacy. But something is missing. I swim off sometimes for exercise, telling them exactly when I’ll be getting back. But the poor dears don’t take the opportunity.
83rd cycle, 324th minim.
Word has come back that Tlaloc isn’t coming. He thinks that if Karakorum has held out this long, it can probably look after itself. The fact that it will be facing economic ruin meets with his indifference. What’s money when the Law is at stake?
But this news means that we must find some way to put more pressure on Karakorum. We know that Tlaloc has now set up an expensive sonic “signal fire” system of beacons that can transmit crude messages in less than an hour. We’re leaving it alone so that he can hear what’s going on. Tlaloc is listening, and we need to do something that will bring him to us.
84th cycle, 65th minim.
A plan is being hatched to sabotage the island’s defense coordination center, located on a large coral promontory whose stony polyps are largely from genetic lineages adapted and specialized for military strategy and tactics. Jiamu and Jill, because of their own combat skills and martial philosophy, have been part of the consultations on the bridge of Nantax’s flagship, but I’ve been coming too—after all, I do have expert knowledge of epigenetics and an interest in fast Lamarckian adaptation.
At the last meeting it hit me. If the gene expression of a critical mass of individual polyps were disrupted, the disruption—essentially a return to the “default setting”—would spread rapidly.
If we could introduce a physical virus into the defense computation system, and if the virus actually carried an antibody to the precancerous epigenetic modification that made the system effective, then it would have the result of healing the tailored polyps and massively reducing their military function. We would literally be scrambling their brains, maybe for long enough to get a beachhead on the island.
Such a poison—or more strictly, such a cure since the military setting is technically a sort of genetic disease with many bad side effects—might be available.
84th cycle, 69th minim.
I’ve checked: the two Coro moieties who are with the fleet as advisers have the viral antidote in their medical supplies. We mightn’t need a costly attack; a commando mission might do it. We’d have to land secretly and find a secluded hollow or cave; drill down through the dead coral defense layer on the surface, extract a sample of the cortical polyps, culture them, then introduce the virus mix and nurse it into action. The sabotage team would then inject the ferment with its nutrients into the neurocortical layer.
A tricky procedure, but I wonder why our hosts haven’t thought about it and made it part of their standard arsenal. Maybe two reasons: the use of “turbocharged” computational polyps for warfare is pretty recent; and if you’re thinking medicine and healing, it might not occur to you to think of a cure as a weapon. Of course sometimes an outsider sees what insiders miss.
The only real problem is getting by the heavy Cark security to implant the gene weapon.
84th cycle, 77th minim.
Jill has come up with the answer. As weapons specialist she knows more about our skinsuits than anyone on the planet. Our suits—state of the art—are built to resist shock. She says she can fine-tune the settings to something on the level of noise-canceling, right through the sound spectrum of the Europan sensory system. Nantax gave a sort of emoji exasperated grin and asked what was her point in military language.
“We can make them acoustically invisible,” she said. “No Europan will be able to see a human in a suit when it’s tuned right.”
So it’s up to us.
84th cycle, 138th minim.
Well, up to me.
I knew what Jill and Jam had in mind and realized that I would have to get ahead of them. So I sneaked off while they were mapping out the mission and went to see Nantax. He was sleeping and not pleased, but realized it was important.
“We don’t need a team,” I said. “The more people involved, the more likelihood of discovery. We’ll still make a wake. Jill and Jiamu are matchless martial artists, but they are not great swimmers—I’m quieter and faster.
“Let me take it on. You need Jiamu here—you’ve seen what he can do as a pilot. Jill wouldn’t let him go without her, and he certainly wouldn’t let her go without him. She’s also his perfect battle-partner, and Jiamu would be only half as useful without her.
“I’m the one that knows the biochemistry, the virology, and the care of gene cultures. With a bit of luck I can do it.
“But I also know them—they won’t let me go alone. So I’m asking you to send me on the mission now—I’m ready to go—and do it without letting them know.”
Admiral Nantax saw my point. So I’m off on my little excursion, finally making myself useful. This may well be my last entry—I’m uploading it into Nantax’s cache as well as my own. Jiamu and Jill deserve a chance to open up to each other. Maybe this will do it. They are two of the finest humans I’ve known. The other nine are the Salvages, and I’ve been supremely lucky to be part of the whole team. If any of you read this, know that I’ve never felt happier than at this moment.
Our makeshift sabotage fleet reached the environs of Daramhain at about the same time. We were lucky; one of our Golden Herd scouts—a fishing boat—spotted the enemy’s outer pickets without arousing suspicion. We held off for a while, hoping that if word came that Karakorum was under attack they might be thrown into indecision and maybe send a detachment off to help relieve the siege. Maybe we could sneak down to the sea floor in the confusion, set our demolition charges, and extract Leon and the Alice.
It was brutal down here: hot all the time despite Marie’s air conditioning system, rather murky, and psychologically oppressive, given that any flaw in the nanocarbon hull would, at this depth, cause a collapse so quick that the entire interior would be flashed to a plasma by the sudden increase of pressure. We put up a cheerful front but the tension was sapping our morale. Silence was essential, so we developed a charade system of communication.
The anxiety aboard the Marie was not, oddly enough, shared by our escort of Cark fishermen. In their traditional warrior vessels decorated with Celtic-looking carved and painted insignia they came and went, fetching supplies and news for the fleet. They exuded a sense of cheerful expectation, which we put down to the prospect of battle.
At last there was a break in the routine. A Golden Herd boat brought news that a Templar scout ship was approaching, and we scattered to let it through. Sure enough, the defender fleet repositioned and seemed to be preparing for a split command; ground leave must have been cancelled, because boats were coming up from the surface.
Kadi was nominally in charge of the expedition, but on fleet matters she deferred to the Pisk commodore and relied on Mack and Chiver for advice. Calver Tyce herself had arrived and had become an essential member of the war council. I acted as a sort of secretary.
There were plenty of issues, most of which had been discussed before but not decided on. What was the mission’s goal, for a start? Rescuing Leon? Destroying the uranium mining operation? Destroying the weapon shops and centrifuges? Activating and retrieving the Alice? Freeing the slaves? Defeating the Templar fleet?
Much though it tore my heart, I had to agree with the others that retrieving my father could not be the first priority. The Salvages owed it to Europa to repair the damage we had done by our presence as far as it was possible, the New Songhai contingent understandably wanted to shut down the nuclear operation, and Tyce’s people feared the coming of a repressive regime that would set Europa back a hundred Great Cycles. The Golden Herd were motivated by loyalty to New Songhai and by a strange liking for the earthlings who had lived with them, especially Billy. We could not by ourselves face the Templar fleet (though old Farsee was strangely cheerful about a possible confrontation).
The news we had got from Tyce’s agents, about unrest on the ground and possible support from the old weapons community, was both a cause of hope and a complication. We certainly shouldn’t launch indiscriminate mayhem on the weapon shops and mines, lest we destroy our own allies and the slaves we came to liberate (and probably Leon too). We needed a secure and reliable chain of communication with our friends on the ground.
And we found one. It was Farsee’s suggestion. “What goes everywhere, remembers everything, cannot be killed, and is noticed by nobody?”
Nobody answered. Billy got it first; he had been collecting old riddles. “A Seraph,” he said. “I think I see where you’re going with this.”
The Seraph that had set out with us from the Herd’s native reef—“Pearlflower” was our version of its name–was still around. Billy, Farsee, and two of Farsee’s ancient cousins, barbels weaving around their sears, met a few minims later and set up the ritual objects for a Summoning. The incense (as Billy called it) was opened to the water and spread, and the small drum was beaten. The invocational words were no sooner spoken than the Seraph appeared as if from nowhere.
You don’t talk to a Seraph except in a very poetic metered chant. Billy, with Farsee’s help, had inserted a petitionary passage in the same form, using archaic compounds to express the more modern technological and scientific concepts. Our request was very unusual, and in any other circumstances would be considered insulting, not to say blasphemous. Seraphs never interfered with contemporary political or military events; they might on their own accord warn of a natural disaster or be consulted on historical and genealogical details, tribal decisions about herding, marriages, diseases, tricky court cases, and the proper forms of rarely-performed ceremonies.
But the present matter concerned the welfare of the planet itself, and there had been rare cases where major catastrophes had prompted the Seraphs to volunteer their services as communicators and advisors. Our Seraph evidently agreed that such was now the case. And s/he was willing to be the go-between.
The key figure was evidently Orgrund. Orgrund had much more freedom to move around than did Leon himself; he knew the territory by now, and he was apparently the way Leon had suborned some of the guild masters and had wormed his way into the confidence of some of the young liberal officers. And as a Moiety, Orgrund would have a natural affinity with a Seraph—Seraphs were widely considered to be Moieties that had undergone their metamorphosis and permanently budded off from the Coro Umma. Orgrund was, as it were, an embryonic Seraph himself.
By now Leon and Orgrund had created a whole system of discontent down in Daramhain. One of the more liberal officers who had been on Tlaloc’s ship when Leon had been delivered to the weapons shops, an Old Law Lusk we called Seashell, happened to be a cousin of the Guildmaster of the Fine Smelting Guild. He became a liaison for Leon between the guilds and the progressive military officers of the garrison.
Leon’s information about Earthly trades unions was met by a mixed response. But some of their ideas—that a marketplace is not compete until there is a relative balance of power among labor, management, consumers and government—became very attractive. The guilds in general had begun to modify their rules, and strikes were discussed. Among the issues was the reality that the use of slave labor was lowering the compensation of nonslave workers. Like Winnie Mandela, Orgrund became the outside agitator while Leon sat in his own version of the Robben Island prison.
Fights had broken out between the more conservative loyalist Cark overseers and some of the new liberalizing ground troops. Naturally the naval defense force warriors on leave supported the loyalists, and there had been attempts on Orgrund’s life and even a plot to assassinate Leon. To do so would be to disobey Tlaloc’s orders to keep him safe, but the loyalists believed things were so changed now that to kill their prisoner would be to follow the spirit, if not the word, of his command.
No door was ever closed to a Seraph, and our friend Pearlflower had no difficulty infiltrating the tower where Leon was held. The false information that Leon and Orgrund had planted about the enrichment proportions for explosive fission had led to the disastrous failure of the first bomb. So the eavesdropping had been dropped, on Tlaloc’s orders. He didn’t feel that his surveillance people could be trusted with it: another little triumph in Leon’s campaign. So Orgrund, Leon, and Pearlflower could confer in secret.
Leon now found to his astonishment that his daughter was not so far away, that there was a plan for sabotaging the nuclear project and releasing him, and that he might get back his ship. All of that last year he had held himself in an inhuman tension, devoted only to what seemed a fruitless task and surrounded by beings of an utterly different world. He had been desperately lonely for his own kind. His neglect of his daughter and his self-blame for the present chaos and future catastrophe came agonizingly back. But his tears were also at his relief at making contact, the hope that he might escape, and his joyful gratitude for the efforts of his rescuers.
Giving Leon time to absorb the news, Pearlflower now turned to Orgrund and asked him for an account of the local political position down here. We had suspected that Leon and Orgrund had been behind the social and ideological changes that Tyce’s scouts had reported. Now we back on the Marie would soon be getting a fine-grained analysis.
Pearlflower, speaking images in his antique tongue, passed on the message that we had prepared for him and Orgrund. Our advice to Leon was to sit tight, keep up whatever machinations had proved successful, and not lose hope. The project was an extremely risky one, and we would not want Leon to be lost. But the idea was that there must be an uprising on the ground, timed with a surprise attack by the navy, and that Leon and Orgrund must be prepared to give the word to their friends here to attack and, if possible, capture the key sites in the production process and the Workshops’ defensive positions. All personnel at the other production sites should lay down their tools and evacuate for their own safety as soon as the time comes.
“But our supporters in the garrison are in a decisive minority,” said Leon, having recovered himself. “The place is also full of Tlaloc’s sailors and marines on furlough—they’d be itching for any mayhem that might come their way. Without them here we would have a much better chance at a revolt, but otherwise it would be a waste of lives and almost certain defeat.”
“Your friends in the battleships [an archaic term from his own era] expected something like what you have described. Do not rise until you see that the Templar Fleet’s shore leave watch has been suddenly and unexpectedly recalled and has embarked—they will surely be ordered back to duty when an attack is detected. Then the odds may be in your favor. That will be your signal, if you have no other.”
“What about my ship, the Alice?” asked Leon.
“We will attempt to reestablish control of it if all goes well. It would be returned to your command. But we’d need the code to activate it.”
Leon pondered whether he should reveal the code that would awaken Alice if the speaker were in close contact with the airlock. But his visitors would not be able to pronounce it, and it was untranslatable. He was sure I would figure it out.
“I think Clio already knows it,” he said.
Jill and Jiamu aboard the pinnace did not remark on Barak’s absence for some time. He had often been with Nantax’s experts or simply on “walkabout”. They were preparing themselves for the expected summons to commence the big bio-hack down on the surface. But eventually they began to worry and sent a message to Nantax. Nantax was evasive, citing a special bio-warfare project Barak was involved in. Barak had warned Nantax that if they knew what he was doing they would come after him and probably alert the defenses to what was going on.
After a few minims they realized that something was deeply wrong. Finally in desperation Jill hacked into Barak’s journal, which he had called his “log.” With that title the account didn’t seem especially private, though ship’s courtesy suggested that one didn’t go into somebody else’s log without permission. Except in an emergency, which this was. The very ease by which Jill opened the file was indicative of Barak’s relaxed attitude about it.
On reading it Jill and Jiamu were horrified.
“The dear idiot doesn’t even know how to fight!” said Jill, and burst into tears. Jiamu leaned over in the cockpit and put his arm around her shoulder, as one comforts a friend.
He was furious with Barak, and more so with Nantax, though he entirely understood the terrible choice the Admiral must have made. And it was too late to do anything about it.
But as he read into the log more deeply, another feeling swept over him—of deep affection for Barak and deep embarrassment about the transparency of his own relationship with Jill. His own feelings were being revealed to him by the sacrificial act of his comrade now down on the surface and quite likely already dead. Simultaneously he and Jill looked at each other and blushed violently. Jiamu took his arm from her shoulder as if from an electric shock.
“No,” said Jill determinedly, “It’s what he wanted.” She suddenly felt the presence of his beautiful male body, so familiar from their many bouts of combat sparring, so sensitive to touch and movement.
Jiamu saw her face go pale under her faded freckles, though her lips were brilliant crimson with a rush of blood. Fear and desire. Exactly what he was feeling. Their eyes met again. They both laughed at the same time, though their lashes were wet with tears. Jiamu felt his own strength wax in him, and rising above it, the strength of this strange woman he had come to so admire.
What fools we are, thought Jill. And what a friend we had.
They were both shaking. And both ashamed at what they were about to do. And happy in a way they had never been before.
How do I know all this? I guess my own crush on Mack had sensitized me to the peculiar mixed feelings of long-denied attraction. And I must admit that there may be a smidgeon of vicarious wish-fulfilment fantasy in my account. But I’m trying to convey the barely controlled hysteria and exaltation of those times, when the fate of a world hung in the balance, all our energies and talents were fully harnessed, and we were consumed with admiration for our comrades in the struggle. Some of our actions may be the more understandable if we recognize that these highly trained scientists and professionals were also human beings with enabling passions and fully operating endocrine systems.
Our plan for the assault on Daramhain was by necessity complicated because there were already many essential moving parts. It was thus extremely vulnerable to any element going wrong.
We had captured a Templar scoutship a few cycles before. Mack had been practicing at its tiny bridge and had got a fair idea of how it handled, despite the clumsiness of having to work the controls in a liquid medium. He had had a braced seat installed, to give a human at the con some base and leverage. There was to be a spectacular attack on the east quadrant, the commencement of hostilities, and in the fuss Mack and I would sneak in on the boat from the northwest with what we hoped was an appropriate call-sign.
We knew exactly where Alice was berthed, and we would get close enough for me to activate her with the code I was sure would work. Then we would pilot it to the tower where Leon was held, and if need be fight our way in using Alice’s modest armaments and Mack’s natural cunning. We would collect Leon and make our escape, covered hopefully by a general strike and walkout in the shops and mines, and a simultaneous uprising in the residence blocks, docks, and commercial facilities. Our little navy would then try to emplace demolition charges in the crucial nuclear production chain, and if defeated in the attempt, at least draw off attention and resources from the ad hoc guild teams who would be tasked to do the destruction instead.
Mack and I waited together in the cramped cabin. Mack was joshing me to keep up my spirits, telling me that when I was a famous author Earthside hanging out with the literati I’d forget all about the nerds and space-jockeys I’d had to put up with on my travels.
My yen for the old rascal came suddenly back, and I got a bit pink and angry and girlish. “Not at all,” I said. “My problem will be in writing it up. How to deal with the class clown on the trip.”
“Oooh, that stung,” said Mack.
Nell and Sylvie were at it, too.
“Can you give me some details for your obituary?” asked Nell. “It’s pretty thin as it is.”
“How about my mentorship of the Mexican Greek girl?” said Sylvie helpfully. “People would be touched by that.”
Down on Daramhain Leon and Orgrund had been briefing the dissident officers and guildmasters on the plan. Timing was important. Nothing could be done until the last of the shore leave Templars had left, so our allies here on the ground must contain their impatience for a while as the ocean battle above began to heat up. A lot depended on the attitude of the Cark commandant of the garrison—which way would he jump? He was known to be a Tlaloc loyalist, but he was not a Templar fanatic and had liberal sympathies.
“Let’s do it,” said Mack. He fired up the motors of the scout, throttled back to a soft rumble matching the ambient noise, and began a slow descent. I was behind him, handling the odd Cark-designed controls of the ship’s small cavitation weapon—a popgun in the present environment, but it was comforting and gave me something to attend to.
Far to the east of us the two cruisers donated by Calver Tyce began to move, accompanied by a cloud of smaller vessels from the Golden Herd. They were to make a sudden attack on the weakest sector of the Templar fleet. The three major warships of Songhai, much faster, would close in behind them, masked by their wakes, and strike off at an angle when battle was joined, heading for the shops and mines with their deadly munitions.
As soon as we were in position we throttled up to a little faster than normal scout-boat speed, as if being pursued, and sent off our call-sign, a distress signal, and a “dispatches” message. We were let through by the pickets and descended toward the service tower where Alice was moored, adjacent to the headquarters tower where we knew Leon was being held.
Above us all hell broke loose. Huge crashes flashed through the aqueous sky, like lightning on a violent summer night. I shuddered, realizing how fragile was my little body, how brief my life, how huge the weight of water above me, how far from home.
“It’s OK, babe,” said Mack. “You got it. Be ready with the code.”
The Europan equivalent of klaxons, a sine-wave from purple bellow to dazzling screal—from hunder to ript climaxing in screal and then back down the spectrum—howled through the halls, labs, barracks, and offices of Daramhain. Mobs of Fleet sailors and marines surged through the corridors toward the docks, while lighters and ferries clustered round the jetties to be boarded.
As the last transports pushed off the word came down to the waiting shop-stewards and local organizers of the new secret trades unions. Down tools. Walk out. Nobble the foremen and overseers if they give trouble.
And to the slaves in the mines: the paid commissary workers and technicians who provided the means for them to work had by now almost all joined the subversive underground, following Gamlegh in her hatred of slavery. All over the mines the slave-drivers were ambushed, mobbed, and torn to pieces. Slaves being punished were released, mutilated, from their cages. Radiation sickness victims were hurried to the emergency medical centers. Union leaders guided the rest to shelters where they would be safe from the anticipated attack on the mineworking machinery.
Endless rows of spinning centrifuges in the refinery shops dopplered down to silence, and darkness fell in the cavernous halls.
But now there was a shocking reversal. The commandant had remembered the ancient loyalty of clan and kin, and his personal devotion to Old Tlaloc, the smiter and giver. He ordered his troops to put down the uprising, and the liberalizing officers and administrators found themselves in a minority. In a hundred corridors savage scuffles broke out—the water was thick with vond and yellow blood and the blinding shrieks of the dying. Dozens of union leaders were gunned down in cold blood.
In the first minims of the uprising Leon’s suite had been liberated and those guards still loyal to the commandant had died at their posts according to their orders. But now a detachment of heavy crowd-control troops was being prepared to go to the Alien’s quarters with orders to secure them.
Almost at the same time in far-off Karakorum another scene was playing itself out. Nantax had given Barak a cycle to prepare and administer the curative poison to the coral mind of the island’s defense system. So far things had been quiet down there, and there were high hopes that Barak had not been discovered and dealt with.
At the end of the cycle Nantax, yielding to the passionate persuasion of Jill and Jiamu, ordered a minor sortie against a promising objective in a nearby part of the island city. It was intended as a test of the defense system, a probe of its effectiveness. And it might draw attention away from Barak. Jill and Jiamu insisted on being part of the mission. Lovers now in the very height of that intoxication, and warriors thirsting dry to help save their friend and matchmaker, they were eager for battle.
The attack was wildly successful. The shipyard they had targeted would normally be impregnable, with a strong garrison, land-based heavy projectile weaponry, and a capable detachment of warships. But it was in utter disarray. The pinnace of our friends led the assault without a graze from the weak defensive barrage. Surprise was complete. They had not expected to do serious damage to the installation and had intended to turn and escape if there was major resistance. Encouraged, they pressed on and the squadron was able to disable over half the yards before they were driven off by the arrival of reinforcements. Plainly the defense system had been massively compromised.
Barak had succeeded! But where was he?
A quarter-cycle later Nantax, trusting in the chaotic state of Karakorum’s defenses in this sector, sent a small reconnaissance force down to the headland that had been chosen for Barak’s insertion. Jiamu and Jill were obvious participants—who would have dared deny them?
They found the corpses of three guards in the narrow cavern that had been chosen for Barak’s entry. A little further they found one more guard, a captain by her insignia. And at the point where the cavern narrowed to a cleft, next to the detritus of an explosion and the wreckage of a drill, they found Barak. His nanocarbon skinsuit was intact. But the heat of a cavitation implosion—perhaps a powered grenade—had liquefied and vaporized his body within, like those of his friends Nick and Smutty.
Our captured scout boat was challenged as soon as the dim outlines of the Daramhain complex loomed through the water. It appeared that our passcode was still valid, and we continued our swift—but not too swift—descent. Mack was humming to himself, some surprisingly melodic bit of Romanian New Folk, as he toggled on the guidance systems that would lead us to the tower of berths where Alice was held. There she was, an odd alien shape among the standard military vessels of Tlaloc’s navy undergoing repair or refit. The tower would normally have been swarming with workers and Templar overseers, but now it was almost deserted. The general strike had begun, and most military personnel who had not been recalled to the fleet battle above would be below, attempting to put down the mutiny.
As we drew near we spotted two remaining guards. With the Europan version of a megaphone they warned us off, then threatened to shoot if we got closer. I was in charge of the boat’s small shockwave weapon and buzzed them both. It was quite simple and even pleasurable, like a computer game. But what followed was a terrifying wave of nausea and grief. It was the first time I had ever intentionally harmed another sentient being, and I really did not like it. I thought about their mothers and threw up in my helmet. Of course the very efficient internal sanitary automaton cleaned me up, but for a moment I was choking.
Mack glanced at me sympathetically. “Hang in there, kiddo,” he said, in the antique American idiom he often affected. His Romanian accent made it suddenly funny, and my tears turned into hysterical laughter. Mack reached out with his free hand and took mine, and I was able to calm down. We were now alongside the Alice. I popped the hatch, maneuvered around the submarine to its diver hatch, and spoke the words that Dad and I had loved back when I was six years old.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
The airlock access light came on, and it opened immediately. I blew out the water and checked the air quality. The proportions and pressure were nominal, and with relief I cracked my own helmet seal. The air was a bit musty, but it also had the faintest smell of Dad. This time I held back my tears. I did not want Mack to think of me as a wuss.
Mack joined me several minutes later. He had set the scout boat’s autopilot to home in on the same frequency as the challenge we had received coming in, ordered it to self-destruct explosively when it got there, and burned off the hawsers that held Alice. I powered up the ship and handed the con to Mack.
“Nice job, kid,” he conceded as we settled in and began to edge the ship out of her berth. Now we had some muscle to bring out Leon.
Nantax saw his chance to attack Karakorum while it was still reeling from Barak’s biocyber attack. He was being urged to do so by Jill and Jiamu. Their reaction to Barak’s death was quite different from what they had felt about Nick and Smutty.
Was it a sense of guilt?—they knew that among other things Barak’s sacrifice had been for their sake. Was his a “greater love” than theirs? Or was their sudden rigid fury the trained reflex of total destructive intent that any good martial arts contestant relies on when a threat materializes? In the cramped cabin of the pinnace they had had no chance to spar and so wash out the Chi energy (or purge the Celtic riastrad) that had accumulated.
Or was it that their intense, long pent up physical desire for each other was suddenly quenched, to be reborn as aggression?
In any case, they wanted to be the point ship in the coming attack, and Nantax, knowing their immense political importance, was faced with a problem. He would not be the one who would be held responsible for the deaths of two more of these visitors from another world. He had seen their risk-taking tendency in the first battle. He had to find something for them to do that would use their talents and not get them into too much trouble.
So he gave them a double mission: to carry the news of the coming invasion to the fleet now attacking the weapon shops of Daramhain, and to disrupt enemy communications by destroying any Templar dispatch vessels inbound to Karakorum that they found on the way. They were to leave outbound courier boats strictly alone, because Nantax wanted Tlaloc to know that his home city was in real danger and that he must return to save it.
Jill complained about the assignment. “With all due respect, sir, you’re trying to get us out of harm’s way,” she said rather perceptively. Jiamu, with his more Confucian sense of the chain of authority, was silent, though he felt the same.
“The real target is Tlaloc,” said Nantax. “And Tlaloc’s lifeblood is information. This would be the most effective way of avenging your friends.”
Our lover-heroes would have to be content with this.
It seemed to Nantax and the staff of the New Songhai command there was a fair chance that Karakorum might fall.
But Tlaloc was no ordinary warlord or chieftain or petty prophet-demagogue. Tlaloc was also a keen strategic and tactical mind. From the beginning he had seen that the attack was probably a feint, designed to draw him into a trap. Certainly if he had been in charge of New Songhai’s forces he would have delayed until he had gathered in the forces of all his allies. They must, he thought, have felt that to move fast with some ingenious trick was worth the risk.
So he had faked the messages denying help to Karakorum, giving false dispatches to the crews of the message boats, and had set out at once, intending to attack the New Songhai fleet from the rear during its assault on the city and inflict a shattering defeat. It was all a matter of timing, as sea battles usually are. Nantax would think that he had at least six cycles—three Earth weeks—to reduce Karakorum and prepare a warm reception for its lord. But instead Tlaloc would arrive exactly when his intended ambushers were committed to an all-out struggle with Karakorum’s navy and garrison, and catch them between two fires. The old military dictum held that to ambush an ambush is even more effective than an ambush; but he would go even further, and ambush the ambushers even when they were preparing the ambush, and doing it with heavy losses.
When Jaimu and Jill left the fleet on their mission, Tlaloc was only half a cycle away. And when the New Songhai fleet descended upon the city in three main divisions, Tlaloc was waiting just out of sonar range. Tlaloc gave them a quarter of a cycle to become thoroughly embroiled, and then fell upon Nantax’s undefended rear.
By an unhappy chance, Jill and Jiamu’s pinnace just missed spotting the Templar relief fleet. At that time in the continual cycling of the planet’s cities, Daramhain and Tarpon, where Tlaloc had departed from, lay roughly in the same direction relative to Karakorum. So it would not have been surprising if Jill and Jiamu had seen the fleet, hurried back, and warned Nantax of its approach. And history might have been quite different.
So far things had gone well for us on the ground at Daramhain, though we feared for our friends above. Mack spun the Alice and arrowed toward the tower where Leon was being held.
Leon’s quarters were not as comfortable as the nacreous chambers he had occupied at Camelot, but they required a more complex technology to keep him alive. The single large room with screen dividers was a compromise: pressurized way above Earth-normal with an air mixture that replaced nitrogen with a mixture of noble gases and reduced the proportion of oxygen, it was safely breathable, but still at a very much lower pressure than the seawater around it. Despite Europa’s low gravity, a column of sixty miles of water and another ten of ice weighed down on every inch of exposed matter. Leon’s chamber had thick walls of heavy alloy, with two airlocks, one giving access to the guard post in the tower, and the other, locked, to the open sea.
Our plan depended on Leon having suborned his keepers, who would have the key-code to the outer airlock. Alice could dock with it, Leon could enter the decompression area, close the lock, and wait until the pressures were equalized and he could enter the main cabin.
But as Leon maneuvered the sub toward the lock, a pitched battle was going on in the corridor and guard-post on the tower side of Leon’s quarters. Faced with an agonizing choice of priorities, the commandant had decided to abandon his troops attempting to put down the uprising and lead a detachment of heavy Cark guards to secure the alien.
The moment the Alice touched the lock the essential electronic contact with Leon’s babelfish was made, and Alice was able in the next few nanoseconds to download its contents. I was down in the lock itself in my skinsuit, ready to give Dad whatever help he might need. I was shaking uncontrollably, tears welling out of my eyes with fright and anticipation.
Suddenly there was a blinding shock, and Alice was drawn bodily toward the tower wall, then as violently shoved away. I was flung against the inner lock and lost consciousness.
Kadi’s diversionary attack on the Daramhain defense fleet went well at first. Kadi herself was in the pilot’s chair of the Marie, at the spearhead of the assault. It was felt that the Marie with its superior nanocarbon armor but its vulnerability (shared with all Europan vessels) to attack by cavitation torpedo, would be best employed in the melée of close quarters. There long-range weapons like torpedoes would be a liability to anybody that used them, and other kinds of offense—light, shock wave, electromagnetic bolt, impact, even boarding—would be more effective. Marie had been modified by the addition of some Europan weaponry and upgrades to her existing array of external effectors.
Surprise was almost complete, and the outer pickets of the Templar fleet had been swiftly overwhelmed. Here the Golden Herd had been especially effective: the Templar fleet had been buying fish from them, unaware of their alliance with New Songhai, and the defenders were unable to defend themselves until it was too late. The two converted cruisers on loan from Calver Tyce took on and disabled a templar dreadnought, and Marie unleashed a salvo of torpedoes before closing with the squadron that had been hastily sent to bolster the weakness in the defensive shell.
Our crew—now reduced to Sylvie, Doc, Billy, and Nell—were busy handling the armament, overseeing Marie’s AI, maintaining communications, and monitoring the external sensors; but they were also watching Kadi. With perfect calm, and her instinctive chic, she fielded the instantaneous decisions of command, calling out her orders in a series of quiet monosyllables. Her hands flew over the consoles as if she had been a pilot all her life. The hours she had secretly devoted to wargames against Marie’s AI during the voyage and reconnaissance were paying off.
But then things started to go very wrong. Halfway down to the surface a large part of the main Templar fleet arrived from all directions. One of the Tyce vessels exploded, spewing bodies from its ruptured hull. Kadi ordered the three New Songhai ships to break off and dive to their assignments on the ground, but they were about to be cut off by a second wave of opponents. Several Golden Herd vessels had been wrecked already, and the end looked near.
But suddenly something very strange appeared out of the murk of battle. Three huge rings loomed up, followed by a dozen others. They were only the leading edge of colossal living forms. Behind them came more vast forms moving at unbelievable speed but with a calm, cruising motion. More appeared. Around them were a scattering of shepherd vessels, clearly of tribal origin. The Megacetans had come.
One of the shepherd boats flashed out a sigil—it was the sign of the Golden Herd chieftainship. Farsee’s son was there too. He had brought the clan’s whole patrimony of Megacetans. The old myth of the Loyal Traitors had been resurrected. Cark glory was not yet dead.
A score of the Templar fleet had been engulfed in those cavernous maws. The others loosed a few mostly ineffectual salvos, and fled. Two Megacetans wallowed in tides of vond and yellow blood, victims of lucky cavitation torpedo strikes that had missed the monsters’ outer armor but found their way into the primary stomach through the open maw. Surprisingly, there were few other losses to the herd—we believe that many Carks, though nominally Gamleghan in faith, still adhered to the ancient worship of the Birth-Mother, the Hatcher, the giver of life, and dared not attack Her living representatives and holy symbol. It was a tribute to the urgency of the situation– as Farsee and his Seraph adviser had seen it–that the Golden Herd had risked their gigantic and much-loved companions in war.
The victory was total, and the three New Songhai warships dived toward their assigned bombing runs.
As Nantax had anticipated, the initial defenses of Karakorum fell quickly, though he was puzzled by the token resistance and elusiveness of the city’s defense fleet. Were they preparing a deadly counterstrike, and allowing the city itself to bear the brunt of the assault? The local gendarmerie were fighting bravely, but it would not be long before the main avenues would be cleared and open for an assault on the core.
Nantax was suspicious. It was too easy. He held back a portion of his fleet, trusting that his marines would be sufficient on the ground with only limited fleet support. So when the remains of the Karakorum defense fleet appeared around the upper south side of the island, he was not surprised.
But to his horror Tlaloc’s relief force suddenly emerged out of the haze in the north, carried by a swirl of current that the warlord’s meteorologists had anticipated. Nantax realized that he had been gamed. He made a feint toward Tlaloc’s force, then flung his ships directly at the Karakorum defense fleet. In a brief and bloody encounter he broke through and escaped. But a third of his fleet had been destroyed or captured, and he had had to abandon his marines. He limped toward New Songhai, hoping to link up with the new fleet of allies that had been slowly forming when he left.
I suppose I have been putting off writing an account of what happened at the tower where Leon had been imprisoned. I came to my senses a few minims after the implosion, very bruised but intact. Immediately I knew that my father was dead—it was as if a constant quiet music in my head, both pleasant and annoying, had been quite cut off.
Mack was cradling me in one arm as he applied a medicinal patch to my throat. “It’s OK, she’s on autopilot. Most of danger is over, bibic. But I have bad news.”
“I know it,” I said. It was as if someone else was answering for me.
When we sorted it all out later with the help of local accounts and Leon’s babelfish records, this is what must have happened.
The fight in the corridor and the guardroom had been bloody. Leon’s idealistic friend from Tlaloc’s ship, who had helped bring over the Gamleghan democrats in the garrison, took out two of the attacking force but was gunned down with a lethal electric bolt. Orgrund, who was with Leon in his chamber, went out through the airlock to join the defense, and then, mysteriously, Pearlflower the Golden Herd Seraph appeared. For the first time in known Europan history a Seraph took part in a battle. He had the power, it seemed, to make an enemy totally confused, as if he must fight legions of himself appearing from all sides. The attack collapsed.
In desperation the commandant, aware that he had failed and that his career and reputation would be forever tarnished, decided on one last act of malice. Leon’s quarters, as I have pointed out, were at an almost impossibly lower pressure than the surrounding planetary ocean. Only the thick-braced stubborn alloys of which they were constructed resisted their collapse. But the same machinery that kept the chamber evacuated could be disengaged. The commandant himself threw the switch.
Instantaneously the chamber imploded, the change in pressure so enormous that the air within, crushed to a cubic millimeter, ignited and formed a plasma, momentarily as hot as the sun, a very brief fusion reaction. Leon’s nanocarbon skinsuit, which he had donned to go out and fight beside his companions (though he had no weapon, of course), resisted the shock. But it could not protect him from the immense pulse of radiant heat. He died at once. So did the commandant and most of his troopers at the site.
Afterwards they found him, suit intact but completely flattened by the collapse of the chamber’s ceiling. He had been turned into a five-pointed star, like a starfish. His discovery by the guild militia and the freed slaves who investigated the destruction afterwards occasioned much wonder and instantly became legend.
A legend is one thing, a father another.
As we headed out to rejoin our squadron, we seared below us the vast blooms of light and sound that betokened the destruction of the uranium mines, the centrifuges, the laboratories and the manufactories where Tlaloc had been building his nuclear arsenal.
For some time after that I was on autopilot. I was morally shocked, in a remote way, that I felt so little—nothing that I could identify as grief. Certainly I could not cry. All my anger at him returned: his ridiculous theatrical bravado, his amateurishness, the way he viewed me through his eyes, not mine. It was a dim sense of waste and weariness. I talk about my feelings in this way because you must realize that my account of events may be biased by them, reduced in importance or inexact due to inattention.
Things settled down on all fronts for a while. We rejoined the fleet, but Marie had already left with Farsee, the Golden Herd, and the Megacetans, to meet and reinforce the relief fleet that was on its way to Karakorum. They had realized too late what Tlaloc intended to do, and also that speed was essential if Nantax’s force, or what remained of it, was to be saved.
Alice (which still smelt faintly of Dad) helped out with the mopping-up of the remaining enemy forces and then the massive task of repatriating the slaves. Kerrik and Sungal, who knew the territory, had come in with the first contingent of relief workers. They worked beside Mack to inform the slaves and organize them for evacuation. Pearlflower, who had mysteriously survived the blast at Leon’s quarters, helped guide and counsel the bewildered workers. After much discussion we decided not to ask the slave leaders for Leon’s body, which had become an object of veneration. We attended and spoke at his funeral, which was as ritually splendid as it could well be given the circumstances and the general chaos; but Leon had now finally become more part of Europan history than Earth’s. The funeral games—especially Ramshot, played by Carks and Pisks, and very violent–and his interment in Gorgon, the greatest of the black smokers in the region, seemed to us like a strange dream, both beautiful and remote.
Next we commandeered what transports remained; the clerical tasks involved, repetitive and routine, were all I was good for and even vaguely satisfying. We had to identify all the former captives and their places of origin and plot the best routes for their quickest possible repatriation, then arrange quarters for them aboard.
When the slaves found out who I was I became the center of much unwanted attention, even adulation—Leon had become an instant cult figure, and a new version of the teetip began to appear. This is important, I know, and I had better explain. The vibratory color of artifacts in Europa is of great symbolic importance, as we had already grasped—the gold of the Old Law teetip was not the green of the New Law version. What now happened was that five of the nine points of Gamlegh’s sacrifice were now appearing in the vond color of Europan blood. And of the remaining four points, two were now green and two were gold. They had incorporated Leon’s starfish crucifixion into Gamlegh’s, as a reconciling mediator between the gold and the green, the old law and the new. This symbol, and an instant body of storytelling about the captivity and the deliverance, was now spread by returning prisoners to the many cities from which they had been torn away. Leon had got his fame at last.
In my cynical mood at the time I recognized how convenient this development might be to you folk at Earth Central if you felt like taking advantage of it. Both Cortez and Pizarro had traded on the domestication of their appearance into the native religions of Montezuma and Atahuallpa, as had the European slave traders with the Ashanti and the kings of Mali. I beg you here not to do the same.
I could not have been very easy to live with at this time. Mack was curious, then alarmed, finally very paternal and tender. Mack really is a dear old lummox at heart, much though he’d resent my revealing it here. Dirty leather over carbon steel with a marshmallow center. And here I must confess a rather discreditable episode—partly to explain my instability at the time, and partly to exonerate Mack from any of the suspicions that are already flying about in the chatterweb. I got an enormous crush on him and for a while wouldn’t let him alone. I was ashamed of myself and had a pretty good idea of the kind of transference that must be going on in the sewers of my unconscious, but I couldn’t help myself.
But Mack was a perfect gentleman. He turned every little girly move on my part into daughterly play and refused to acknowledge the fairly direct woman yearning that had got hold of me. I was resentful, and bitterly jealous of Kadi, whom I knew had a place in Mack’s heart, one even he did not understand. (He wrote it off in himself as standard male lust.) But constant warm kindness and attentive errands of help on his part began to wear down my itch and turn it into affection. He knew that if he took advantage of my craziness the reaction when it was all over would be even more damaging to me, and I know he really liked me a lot, as if I were a real daughter. And gradually I came to find more meaning in our activities and regained my curiosity about what was going on in the war.
This was the current position:
Nantax was still near Karakorum, limping back toward Songhai against the local current, with the remains of his fleet. Tlaloc had left a few squadrons to defend Karakorum and had set out in pursuit.
Delegates from many of Europa’s most progressive cities had met hastily in New Songhai and had formed what might be translated as the Free Hive of the Four Races—FOFER, we called it—a counter-alliance whose first priority was to stop Tlaloc and frustrate his attempt at world empire. A polyglot navy had been cobbled together and was on its way to join and resupply Nantax’s retreating force. Phaleilei, our Coro friend and mentor, was aboard.
Marie, with Kadi, Doc, Nell, Sylvie, and Billy, was on its way to join the FOFER force, accompanied by the four remaining ships of the Daramhain strike force and the Golden Herd flotilla with its megacetans.
Meanwhile things had gone badly elsewhere. We had thought that Tlaloc’s departure from the siege of Tarpon would mean that the city was safe. But there was an unexpected uprising of the Cark fishing guild in the city, and Tarpon had fallen quickly to the blockading fleet Tlaloc had left behind. The Templar authorities on Proteus, which at the time was passing beneath Tarpon and only a few kilometers away, heard about what had happened there and were encouraged to press their assault on the remaining patriots. Proteus too had fallen. Now Tlaloc possessed a huge second navy, and he had summoned it by the “signal fire” network he had set up in the last several cycles. It was on its way toward Karakorum, but hoped to catch Nantax’s retreating flotilla and annihilate it between the hammer and the anvil.
I have to explain the mind-numbing complexity of the situation. Everything was literally fluid. Nantax’s attack on Karakorum from New Songhai had been aided by the fact that at that time the two cities, on different bands of current and at different depths, were rapidly approaching each other. But now they had passed their closest point, and were getting further and further apart.
Jiamu and Jill in the pinnace were the most disadvantaged of all, not only because the local currents at that time were unfavorable for Daramhain, their intended destination, but they had neither the equipment nor the experience to navigate the complicated counter-rotating currents and tide-races of the Europan ocean. And by bad luck they encountered no vessels that might give them news. It would be twenty cycles, over two months, before they could rejoin the war effort. And by that time things had radically changed, both on the planet and in the cramped cabin of the pinnace.
Mack and I set out in Alice as soon as we felt we were not needed and headed directly toward where we thought the fleets would meet. At this point in the tidal cycle we actually had a speed advantage over most of the others and believed we could be with our friends fairly soon.
Apart from Nantax’s fleet and the pinnace, all forces were converging on a position near Karakorum. Tlaloc’s plan was to unite with his new fleet, destroy Nantax’s forces, and then ambush any relief force. Timing was the essential element in all the maneuvers; the opacity to communication and the resistance of the watery medium imposed a sort of nightmarish slow-motion handicap on all the players. Could there be some way to get an advantage in speed? This was the question, especially in the minds of our colleagues on the Marie and on the flagship of the FOFER relief fleet.
Much later, when it was all over, Jill filled me in about what happened after she and Jiamu left Karakorum in the pinnace. I won’t forget the blush that rose across the beautiful skin of her throat and cheeks when she broke down and talked. I tell it here because, as events proved, the intimate history of Jiamu and Jill is of interplanetary importance.
The first few cycles of their journey were profoundly frustrating. They had missed their chance to sabotage Karakorum’s defenses, and their friend had died in the attempt. In their first fury at the death of Barak they had wanted a suicide mission to erase their fancied dishonor. By tacit consent they made no reference to the passionate encounter between them that had been sparked by Barak’s journal. Now they were being sent away for their own protection.
And it was worse. Jiamu was a superb pilot, but not being a Europan navigator he had few of the clever dodges that old hands would use—dipping into counter-currents, riding eddies, using Great Circle routes, and so on—and the currents and tidal flows were now perpetually against them. The pinnace’s computational resources were limited. They ran short on supplies and had to stop from time to time to harpoon a fish, treat its flesh with a chemical marinade to reduce the harmful enantiomers, hydrosilanes, and sulfides, and render it palatable by cookery.
But as time went by something else began to happen. The initial snappishness between them, born of a suppressed desire for action (but always constrained by manners and professional courtesy) was quite evident to both. But it began to fade. Working together at the boat’s domestic tasks nurtured a sense of companionship, and a true friendship began to emerge. They had been fellow athletes and warriors, co-workers, and lovers; now they became companions. It was for a while very comfortable, despite the underlying stress at the perpetual delay and the suspicion that they were missing out on the action and being missed by comrades in action.
After nine cycles Jill became uneasy about her physical condition. She had missed a period. For a cycle or two she refused to even consider the uncomfortable fact that she had not provided herself with contraceptive measures for this trip—or even earlier, as she had not remotely expected to need them.
But it was unmistakable, as a quick bio-test confirmed. That tumult in the cabin when, like Paolo and Francesca, they read in the book and met each other’s eyes, had borne fruit. The first human native of Europa, still only a little grub in its mother’s belly, was preparing for a life unlike any in the history of the solar system.
Jiamu was astounded and at first exalted by Jill’s confession. Naturally and culturally he was a rather prudish fellow, but now a whole world of adult freedom and risk opened up before him. There could now be no question of professional detachment or stoic endurance. Two lives now were his total responsibility—all other duties fell to second place. The guilt of his old “crime,” the death of that student Kiwa in the dojo back in Japan, suddenly and unaccountably fell away. The little girl that was in the process of becoming herself within her mother signified a kind of forgiveness.
“So we’re now ‘Mummy and Daddy,’” said Jill ironically, having regained her sense of humor after those long moments of electric seriousness between them.
“Not the martial arts deadly duo anymore,” conceded Jiamu. “I’ll have to start watching the news and wearing cardigans.”
“As long as you don’t expect me to knit them,” said Jill.
And now, I believe, they fell into the sweet and ordinary married state, sleeping together and with easy access to each other cycle by cycle, that may be the happiest in the world—and the least conscious of its happiness. I have to confess my own envy, my bias for them and my resentment at myself, at my folly with Mack, at my impatience. Maybe my own time will come. Leon always told me that I would get what I want eventually. But he is gone.
Enough of this. They did not have much time to enjoy their new contentment; six cycles after their discovery they met a dispatch-boat with the latest news from Daramhain, some of which had recently come in from the new sonic beacon system set up by Cantagorax to coordinate the war effort. Everything had changed.
Everybody had been wondering where they were. Their friends on Marie were no longer at Daramhain but had left to rendezvous with the FOFER relief force on the way to link up with Nantax’s defeated fleet. Leon was dead. But so was Tlaloc’s nuclear program, at least for now. Alice had been recovered and was, at the time the dispatch boat left, about to follow Marie in the direction of the great anticipated battle. Clearly there was now no need to go to Daramhain.
In former circumstances Jill and Jiamu would be only too eager to get into the battle. But now they had a third passenger, and the world was a different place. Jiamu became absurdly protective.
“Couldn’t we just go back to New Songhai?” he said. “They have excellent medical facilities there, even if they’re for an alien metabolism. But they also have good scientists and brilliant engineers, and could easily fix up maternal care accommodations.”
“Are you crazy?” laughed Jill. “The only place where there’s a real chance for a monitored pregnancy and delivery is aboard Marie. And we have our duty—we should be with our crew and back on the mission.”
“But taking a pregnant woman into battle—!”
“Dear old Jiamu, you’re so old-fashioned. I’m not a fragile flower, and I’ll be able to kick ass for several months yet.”
“That’s not the point, sweetheart. This baby is a person of historic importance,” said Jiamu rather sententiously.
“Well, if you’re going to get cosmic on me, this baby will stand a better chance if we win than if Tlaloc gets to rule the planet and the aliens are eliminated, which I suspect would be the outcome eventually. If we can do anything to help—and they obviously think we can—it will be the better for our child. Whatever we do will be dangerous—we might as well be trying to save the people that are the only hope of saving us and our family.”
Jiamu caved, as Jill knew he would; and he was not entirely displeased. He was still a warrior by training and nature, and still itched to avenge Barak.
So they set out with the dispatch boat toward that moving focal area in the great tides of the planet where its political fate would be settled.
Jiamu, angry at his own navigational incompetence, now had a chance to get to know the wise old Pisk pilot of the other boat. What time he did not spend with Jill he used to winkle out of the barbelled old fellow as much of the traditional lore of the Europan seafarer as he could. It was a craft, for sure, not a science. He made copies of the rutters the pilot showed him and learned the mysteries of the Europan clock/astrolabe/map. Why had he not done so before? Was it that that as a space pilot he had been used to the exact and instant navigational feed from a ship’s computer, and could concentrate on the dynamics of his vessel? Or was it that he had never before thought of himself as a dweller here?
Kadi had been able to download into Marie’s AI a custom rutter or seasonal route guide from the pilot of the Daramhain strike force. So Marie made good time with the assistance of the tides and currents, reaching rendezvous with the FOFER fleet in a few cycles.
And here I’d better backtrack and talk about the ongoing research work of some of my colleagues, as it affected the outcome of the great conflict ahead.
On their sojourn with the Golden Herd, Doc and Billy had become devotees of Cark music, and since then had turned into expert amateurs on Europan music in general. They now got curious about translating it to visual form and color, and the results were spectacular. Billy thought it might revolutionize the human arts of the time if it ever made it through the icy hide of that strange little moon. As the two friends had argued it out in the local music spots of New Songhai, the discussion naturally turned to whether Europans could be modified to hear light, as humans had to see sound.
They took this question to Phaleilei and found from her/him that Coro science had long ago developed and advanced the technique of creating new auditory sense organs. It was a normal practice in the sciences for investigating a new hidden phenomenon–instead of building scientific equipment to record and measure it, they usually modified a moiety to hear it directly. It was if we humans had studied cathode rays by growing an eye to see them. The Coros had even developed ways to transfer this technology to Pisks, Lusks, and Carks. The genes for light perception on a primitive level had already emerged on lower forms of Europan life for sexual display dances. There were already some Coro science moieties who could perceive light as a kind of sensitive touch, like braille.
But what Doc and Billy proposed was something far beyond such cautious measures. Could not Europans be given the same sort of cross-sensory neural hookup as that of the Salvages themselves? Only the other way round—from light input to hearing output? Phaleilei was enthusiastic. Despite the risks of such a new procedure he immediately asked if Doc and Billy would help a team of Coro neurosurgeons to perform such an operation on Phaleilei itself. And when Chiver heard about this, he wanted it too.
In itself this work did not much affect the battle itself—the humans could see for the Europans—but it hugely shaped the political, spiritual, and philosophical outcomes of the conflict.
Of more immediate significance was the brilliant work of Nell, Sylvie, and the elite team of New Songhai oceanographers and physicists with whom they had been collaborating. As they worked together the deep differences between Earthly and Europan physics became clearer and clearer, and so did the possibilities for breathtaking breakthroughs in understanding on both sides. What had held back Europan physics for tens of thousands of years was the almost total lack of evidence for Newton’s first law of motion, the law of inertia. An object at rest remains at rest, or if in motion, remains in motion at a constant velocity unless acted on by a net external force. In a relatively unresisting medium like air, the law is intuitive. But in water anything moving comes rapidly to a stop, and anything at rest is moved about by the most imperceptible currents. To establish the laws of gravitation was very difficult: if a Europan Galileo dropped two cannonballs from a leaning tower, the lighter one would fall much more slowly than the heavier one. The Europans had lived for a million years in an Aristotelian universe. Only in recent times had Europan scientists theorized a gas-filled space in which the two weights would fall at almost the same rate.
One consequence of this handicap was actually a strange advantage in the Europan understanding of time. Whereas we Earthies feel that the passage of time is effortless and natural in a medium as unresisting as nothingness, Europans regard the work of passing through time to be an effort, a mission, a creative task. Time is thick and viscous, and action is required to make the future happen. We must exert energy on that resistant medium, swim against it, to get somewhere. We can’t just let ourselves be carried inevitably along by our momentum. Determinism is absurd to Europans. Nell and Sylvie came to see that time may better match the Europan conception of it than ours. Time is much more different from space than we think it is, and the “T” axis for time in our graphs is as wrong as ether or phlogiston.
When the philosophical distinction became clear, imaginative insights blossomed in the research group. And those insights were not irrelevant to the war. The crucial military issue was timing, as it almost always is. How to get there fastest with the mostest—and mostest depends on fastest.
The idea originally came from Chiver, though he didn’t realize it at the time. During the journey outbound from New Songhai to Daramhain and continuing after the departure to join the main force on its way to relieve Nantax, Chiver had joined the informal seminar composed of Sylvie, Nell, sometimes Doc and Billy, and the Europan science officers of the fleet. It was a continuation of the discussions that had begun back in the city. They met at least once per cycle, alternating between earthly accommodations for Europans on Marie and Europan ones for humans on the flagship.
Chiver had been talking about the emergence of hydraulics in early Europan history. He described a planet whose ways then were utterly incalculable, and though hugely fecund, was also hugely destructive. Evidently the early religions had been profoundly influenced by this monstrous and arbitrary violence and generosity. A couple of the Europan officers had been on hazardous expeditions to study the most active parts of the Europan hydrosphere, especially the interface of the sub-equatorial counter-rotating currents during cyclic conjunctions, and the boundaries of the planet’s “Great Red Spot.” Nobody had ever entered the great red spot—it would be fatal to any known vessel—but the boundary displayed extraordinary characteristics that had much in common with the apocalyptic ripping and cavitation events sometimes found around the equator. The officers wanted more explanation about how this original chaos had been tamed, leaving only remnants and reminders such as the ones they had seen.
Every Europan child knew roughly how it was done, but Chiver’s account of the beginnings of turbulence science, and the formulation of a principle closely resembling the Chinese concept of chi, gave more detail. The violence happened at the discontinuous cusp of certain otherwise laminar flows, where water tore apart into hydrogen and oxygen in a plasma where water continuously burned and reformed. This, together with milder versions of hydrological friction and the collapse of viscosity, was the major heating element of the planet’s ocean, adding even more energy than the volcanic black smokers on the seafloor. Early Coro engineers had caused each city/reef/island to grow huge vanes that would collectively deflect the tide races and currents. Out of this necessary and existential cooperation had come the political foundations of the Europan world.
This agreement did not come easily. In the early days, imperialistic pirate cities had sometimes cheated, growing vanes and rudders that effectively created violent storms that devastated their rivals, or had sabotaged each other’s water control systems.
Nell asked: “Does that ever happen now?”
“Not yet,” said Chiver, “but before Tlaloc got hold of a nuclear weapon he secretly threatened to use current catastrophe against several cities—I know this for a fact. This was one of the ways he created his empire. The only reason he didn’t use it on Tarpon, Brin, and Proteus was because he wanted them relatively undamaged, and also wanted to keep the weapon in reserve until he was powerful enough to ignore public opinion.”
Nell was thoughtful. “Did they ever use it as a transportation device?”
“Not that I know of,” said Chiver, rather irritably—his new sears were making his thorax ache. “It was probably a taboo thing. They knew early on that the planet was kept warm by the storms, and didn’t want to offend the gods by using them for base purposes. Even the use of vanes and rudders was always attended by ritual propitiation and sacrifice. Remember all those myths of permission and covenant.”
Billy, who happened to be there, nodded vigorously (a gesture the Europans had learned to decipher). “Yes, trading with the gods. The initial move of a sentient species.”
It was here that Sylvie had her big idea. “Couldn’t we use it to speed up the fleet? Like a conveyor belt? How quickly could it be set up?”
“Would that be ethical, though, in Europan terms?” asked Billy.
“Ethical, yes,” said Chiver thoughtfully, “though it might arouse some atavistic fears. We wouldn’t be using it in itself to attack a city, just as a transporter.”
One of the officers laughed (I won’t attempt a description of the amazing Europan laugh). “Well, isn’t that what the Grand Trunk Road is already, in effect? A reliable current, maintained by the cities, carrying commerce?”
“Well yes,” said the flagship’s science officer, “though it emerged as that rather than being planned. The issue is whether such a thing could, or should, be set up as an ad-hoc booster.”
Sylvie’s deepest passion was ocean currents, and here she was well up in expertise with her Europan colleagues. “If we had the resources—well-equipped cities on the way through, and fast messages to coordinate the work—we could probably set up a pretty effective intervention in a few cycles. It might give us a big lead in getting to the field early—at least two cycles, I’d say.”
The flagship’s navigator had dropped by and was listening with interest. “We may be in luck. Stormshield is on its way through on level five, and it’s one of the specialist hydraulics cities. Also, Archimedes is not far off and might be able to help.”
Nell was worried. “I was just playing with the idea. Surely it’s far too chancy. The math to figure it out must be completely impossible—NP Hard, as they say.”
“But this is exactly where Europan math is so strong,” said Sylvie.
Realizing their opportunity, Sylvie and Nell resumed their famous act.
“It would have to be, if Sylvie believes she could use it,” Nell observed to the group.
“’NP Hard’—there’s a phrase I haven’t heard for years. Hard for some.” Sylvie shook her head sadly.
Artificial turbulence. Military necessity had revived this ancient idea—ancient on Earth too. I was always fascinated with the worldview of the Mesopotamians, with their primal chaos-goddess Tiamat, the force of flood and turbulence whose dismemberment created the world. Sylvie, with her Europan colleagues, must now forget much of the linear mathematics by which Earth had created civilization and which had also served the Europans, especially the pragmatic Pisks and analytical Lusks, in their local practical science. Tiamat would be summoned to our aid, the primal engulfing megacetan; the chi that precedes yin and yang, good and evil; the initiatory butterfly effect, the hysterical womb of things.
Soon we would join the New Songhai relief fleet. As far as we Salvages were concerned, our mission had been a success, at least in its major objective: Tlaloc’s nuclear program had been throttled. For me, of course, it had been an immense personal loss, but Mack had convinced me that we had surely done our best to get Leon out.
Kadi, however, was taking it all very hard. After the unrelenting tension and concentration of command and first exhilaration of victory, she had suffered a reaction. She had become silent and withdrawn; she seemed shorter in height, and her complexion had somehow gone greyer. Mack was plainly worried about her. I realized that Leon’s death had affected her more strongly than she expected.
What had happened to her command? The loss of Smutty and Nick came down on her heavily at last. They were her responsibility, and they were gone. To recover Leon might, in the odd economy of the pre-moral human psyche, have been a compensation. But now her original mission was over, and her command was scattered—she had no idea how the pinnace with Jill, Jiamu, and Barak was faring; perhaps she had some kind of presentiment about the death of Barak. Only seven Salvages were left.
The moment we sighted the FOFER navy (blessing the navigational magic of the Lusk navigator), Mack confronted Kadi.
“OK, ma’am, that’s enough. The pilot will handle rendezvous. Come in bar [his name for the cubby we drank in] and let’s talk.”
Kadi resisted, but feebly, and Mack had his way. Kadi told me much later what happened.
When they were alone Kadi burst into tears. None of us had seen her cry, even at the funerals. Mack poured her a drink and sat facing her, holding her shoulders until the sobbing was over.
“There’s an old Romanian proverb,” said Mack, “‘Take no more on you than you are able to bear.’”
Kadi looked up and smiled wearily. “Spare me the old Romanian proverbs and the wise uncle act. I’m busted, Mack.”
“Kadi, you’re our lion now, now that Leon’s gone. You’ve always been, to tell the truth. We’d probably all be dead by now without our copper-colored boss with nice figure.”
She batted at him, without much heat. “Insubordination will get you nowhere, mining officer.”
“That’s the spirit, boss.”
“Some boss I am. I keep losing good men. Better keep your distance, I’m bad luck.”
“Bullshit. You’ve organized super-successful science expedition, explored new planet, contacted alien civilization and saved it from nuclear war. We all of us signed on for something we knew was crazy dangerous, including you. And we need you now more than ever if we’re going to make it out in one piece.”
Kadi smiled at the standard pep talk. But Mack was serious in his slightly naïve Eastern European way—irony on the surface and earnestness underneath.
“OK, OK, but you’ll be sorry.”
The FOFER fleet received recent news of what had happened on Karakorum. They already knew from cryptic beacon messages that Nantax was defeated and was fleeing in their direction, but now things were much clearer. Karakorum had almost fallen to our troops, but potential victory had turned to disaster. Only Nantax’s quick grasp of the situation had saved it from being much worse. Among other things they learned of the death of Barak.
The Salvages were devastated by the news, though inspired to tears by the account of his heroic action. Kadi was immediately plunged back into despair and self-recrimination. But it did not go as deep as before. Mack’s pep talk, though superficial, had sparked off a series of reflections that Kadi has recently described in an interview. We can only do what we can do. This is a constraint, but also a liberation. We are here in the world to strive but doing so we can be entirely at peace. No need to worry about outcomes. This was the meaning of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna on the field of battle. Duty itself opened the spirit to a larger universe. Barak’s sacrifice became for her an inspiration at last. What more could be asked of us? It was done, and all else was a bonus. The samurai celebrates his funeral when he becomes a samurai, and so from then on is as one risen from the dead. Good advice. Kadi acknowledged its force but could not assume its spirit, its fatal panache. She would have to go through the motions. But she now knew that she could.
Cantagorax had come out with the relief fleet, leaving a deputy in his place as mayor pro tem, with the rather optimistic mission of taking charge of Karakorum if and when it had fallen and organizing elections there. Cantagorax had important Old Law connections there and it was thought that a majority of Karakorum citizens, given the chance to vote for the first time, might not support Tlaloc if a moderate Old Law candidate for mayor might be found. The Salvages secretly felt that this might be a bit premature—as Mack put it, first you must skin your bear.
But the most important result of the rendezvous was surely the report of Nell and Sylvie on the possibility of a storm boost. If the fleet, and the cities of Stormshield and Archimedes could be persuaded, we might be able to reach Nantax, join up with him, and attack Tlaloc before his own reinforcements arrived. We would be using his own tactic, which had surprised Nantax earlier on.
The fleet command took some convincing, on both the practicality and the ethical/legal status of such an intervention. But the Grand trunk Road argument won the day. As a chronicler and communications expert I had begged to go with the delegation to Stormshield, and when the city, panicked by their current proximity to Tlaloc, agreed to the plan, I got to see the project initiated.
We had to wait half a cycle before the initial eddy, created by Archimedes, made it to our neighborhood. By now it had increased in size, driven by a feedback loop at the boundary between warmer and heavier waters. We stood off in Alice and seared the two vast eastern vanes of the city of Stormshield, each over three miles long and hinged here and there with cartilaginous muscle, turn slowly into position as the turbid storm approached. We were going to force the eddy outward into a counter-rotating current and cause a running singularity where the relative speed of the system was faster than its viscosity could handle.
The racket and thunder of the storm, dazzling to our sears and in all colors, iridescent and violent, rose to a scream. As planned, we and the other messenger boats of the fleet surged forward to catch the bow-shock of the great wave and ride it toward the FOFER navy. The navy would do the same and surf the storm toward Nantax and Tlaloc his pursuer. We were on our way.
By a stroke of luck the pinnace arrived just as the great wave began to gather. Before everything was battened down Jiamu and Jill docked with Marie, equalized pressure, and appeared, pink and beaming, in the airlock as it opened. We were all waiting there for them, with hastily-painted welcome signs improvised decorations, and bad champagne from the ship’s synthesizer. It was a riotous scene—many tensions needed to be dissolved—but the joy was great.
Doc took a look at them and decided that they were probably in in good shape, though pardonably smelly from being cooped up in that tiny cabin. He raised his eyebrows a little at Jill. She was blooming.
“We were sure you were lost,” said Mack.
“We were for a while,” said Jill, and dug Jiamu in the ribs. “Some pilot you are,” she grinned.
There was something about the familiarity of this gesture that caught our attention. We knew they were friends, but this would have been disrespectful in the terms of their prior relationship.
Jiamu noticed our slight hesitation, and smiled. He was not the shy fellow we all knew any more. “Well, things have changed. Kadi, we have a request to make. And it should be done quickly, if you can.
“Will you marry us? This girl needs to be made an honest woman.”
We gasped. Kadi changed color, rose under her copper, and vond under her screal. Her first true smile since the news of Barak’s death crept across her face. As nominal captain she was legally entitled to conduct a wedding. “Of course. And I won’t inquire what brought this on.”
As soon as Jill and Jiamu had contacted the fleet and learned that it was on its way to meet Tlaloc, they had decided on this course. They did not want to go into battle and possibly to their deaths without it being established that they were man and wife, established for others as well as themselves. Identity is not given but achieved, Jill’s dad had told her; and this–though in different words–was what Jiamu’s mother had told him. To be mates was what they wanted their identities to be.
The effect on the Salvages was electric. Sylvie, in an audible murmur, commented to Nell: “Now this is what a real relationship looks like.”
“How would you know?” Nell shot back.
Billy told me later that this decision by our friends had finally borne in on him a rather piercing sociological insight. Billy was a bit rueful about this insight, as it seemed to him that everyone else in the world had already had it. Marriage was definitely back. Billy had grown up in a world where it looked as if marriage was a thing of the past, a shibboleth of the Neolithic, a needless and rather creepy kind of bondage. But Jill and Jiamu had reinvented it somehow. And now he remembered noticing how many young people of his recent acquaintance had similarly hankered after this worn out convention. He had missed the change.
The lovers’ request had another effect. It totally revived Kadi. At least two of her lost sheep had returned, and now they were maybe three. Kadi started to glow again, as she had when she deftly inspired her troops and showed them their freedom to achieve.
Half a cycle later the strangest wedding in human history took place in the Marie. The pinnace had been taken on board and the Alice was mated with her sister ship for the last time before they would be separated to ride out the storm and join in the attack. The dull roar (or hunder glare) of the great hydraulic singularity was not fully silenced by the ship’s noise-canceling system. People had scrounged up whatever festive garb they had in their cubbies or improvised from the ship’s printers. Chiver and Cantagorax, Farsee and his son, Calver Tyce and other officers and scientists from the fleet were there in their protective wetsuits. We had cleared the deck for the event, but it was still packed. Various forms of intoxicating and mind-altering substances were being liberally consumed. Earthly and Europan music played from the PA system, to be cut off when Mack, Sylvie, and Doc began their own surreal bluegrass version of the wedding march. And there stood the bride and groom, adjusting slightly to the shaking of the hull, as the old self-performing words were uttered before the tall captain in her full-dress uniform.
Although all motion is relative, especially on Europa, it would be fair to say we were moving faster than almost any vessel on the planet. And our presence in the huge wave or eddy that we rode was disguised by the riot of noise at all frequencies.
So when we broke on Nantax’s fleeing navy the surprise was great; and when, after having called it to follow, we struck Tlaloc’s pursuing hosts, it was complete.
Tlaloc, as we hoped, had not yet been joined by his own supporting force, so our plan had worked. But he had stripped the defenses of Karakorum for his decisive blow and still outnumbered us by about four to three. The FOFER force, though, was prepared, and hidden until the last moment. Our situation was like that of Napoleon’s at Waterloo, who vainly hoped to catch Wellington before Blucher could join him; but in this case we had beaten Blucher to the punch.
Cantagorax was by title marshal of the fleet; but his forte was the global politics of the expedition, and in practice he left military strategy and tactics to his newly appointed admirals, including Calver Tyce, his career officers Mangar and Gorbus, Farsee of the Golden Herd, and Kadi herself. They were in agreement that they should attack at once.
War is terrible, and this, as General Lee put it, is well, lest we come to love it too much. But I will never forget the surging wavefront of giant ships, accompanied by smaller vessels of various drafts, descending upon the navy of the Templars. The water blazed with the tumult, like living fire. Great bolts of light and sound-shock shot through the roar of the tide-race. The distant ript-violet shrieks of wounded crew rose and fell on all sides. Far on the edge of searing the colossal shapes of megacetans loomed, striking terror into the domestic Karakorum forces that guarded the Templar flanks.
One huge cavitation blast flung us sideways, and then we were completely through the enemy’s staggered perimeter and turned for another pass, slowing against the current.
Now our firing was more precise, more chosen, and more accurate. Far across the welter we saw a gigantic vessel, scarred but intact, which we took to be Tlaloc’s flagship. At the same moment two of our ships close to it exploded, spewing shattered machinery and broken crew.
Our admirals had agreed on a coherent assault on the center of the great disordered sheet of Tlaloc’s advance guard, penetrating through to the main force behind it as soon as possible and thus increasing the shock of the surprise and disrupting its command and control.
The target was essentially Tlaloc himself, since we believed his alliance would swiftly collapse without him. One of his weaknesses was in his relationship with non-Cark allies. There were plenty of Lusk and Pisk devotees of the Old Law who had set aside their ancient fear of the Cark to join Tlaloc in his crusade against the more terrifying new ideas that had, they believed, been empowered by the alien invasion. Coro cities that followed Tlaloc’s radical gospel had sent powerful moieties and sophisticated organic-made ships to Tlaloc’s aid.
But if Tlaloc’s charisma and imputed invincibility, the divine favor of the Hatcher Herself, were proved to be hollow, the alliance, we felt, would fall apart. Then, too, there were dynastic ambitions among the Cark clans themselves that could erupt if there were a crack in the mystique. And on the other hand, pragmatic rent-seeking Pisk corporations that had betted on the preferential patronage and support of an Old Law emperor if he could be brought into power would surely fade away at any sign of weakness.
So after our first assault the plan was to sweep to the upper right against the enemy’s left flank and draw off Tlaloc’s reserve, and hopefully elements of his imperial guard. Then a trained special forces unit of fast ships with precision weapons would dive in for the kill against Tlaloc’s flagship with his staff suite and personal bodyguard. The two ships we had seen explode were part of that latter force, and it looked as if our plan had failed.
But arrowing through the chaos we saw, as we grew closer, a tiny ship loop around the Templar flagship’s belly. It was the Alice, and through the murk some listeners seared the savage whoop of two voices, male and female, in the kia yell of the Amok/Berserker tradition, from the boat’s external speakers. It dipped toward the always-vulnerable waste disposal vent of the flagship and delivered a single missile directly into its opening.
There was a sudden flare, and the great ship lurched. Its battle systems powered down and only the emergency generators could be seared, struggling to maintain life support. Now Calver Tyce’s personal cruiser and Nantax’s repaired dreadnought descended for the kill, as Tlaloc’s main engines struggled to recover. One more shot and the generators themselves were disabled.
In Tlaloc’s command bridge chaos reigned. Old Tlaloc himself, in all the splendor of his Grand Admiral uniform and insignia, raved before the consoles and brutalized his hapless aides. But then, according to observers, a sudden calm fell upon the old Cark. His barbels flowing about his huge thorax, he apologized to his absent friend Leon, called upon the divine Megacetan Maker, drew his personal weapon, an ancestral chitin/silicon blade more keen than any razor, and plunged it into his own central nerve ganglion.
Victory. I don’t like to admit it, but a load fell from my shoulders when I heard that Tlaloc was dead. Naturally, we were all elated that Europa might now be able to work out its destiny without the intervention of a despotic theocracy. It was not that I especially hated Tlaloc—judging from what I had heard of him, there were much worse tyrants in Earth’s history, and I could certainly see his point of view. It was not even that revenge, let us concede, is sweet. It was that somehow Leon’s death now had a meaning, some kind of scales had balanced, I had been true to him despite all my daughterly recriminations.
Much still needed to be done. Tlaloc’s relief fleet was still on its way, ignorant as yet of what had happened. There was a long meeting between the FOFER fleet command, headed by Cantagorax, and the admirals of the defeated Templar navy. In consultations beforehand we had agreed among ourselves to minimize the contributions of the human visitors, and at the truce talks we were represented only by Kadi, as one of Cantagorax’s suite of aides; she did not speak. Farsee was presented as coequal with Cantagorax, heading off any suggestion that this was a “Carks versus the rest” situation.
We allowed the Templar navy to retain its command and insignia and keep its weapons on the condition of a solemn covenant not to use them against us. We offered very generous terms regarding religious observance and the recognition of the fundamental moral principles of the Old Law, and a guarantee that its core myths and stories be respected—essentially self-judgment for all shades of the theological spectrum. Cities that had been captured were to be restored to their previous administrations; Cark tribal and dynastic issues were left to the Carks themselves with some helpful suggestions about compromise. All conditions were agreed to and the truce became a model peace treaty, subject to endorsement by all major stakeholders not present.
The results of the agreement were couriered at once to the Templar relief fleet, with the announcement of the outcome of the battle and of Tlaloc’s passing. After an anxious interval the reply came back that it accepted our terms and was disbanding, different contingents returning to their own islands.
The “morning” after the fleet-wide celebrations the Salvages met aboard Alice for our own little party. Perhaps because we were already feeling the after-effects of the previous “day”’s jollifications, a certain amount of mild bickering emerged; or perhaps, since we were all independent thinkers, we naturally looked for a cloud under the silver lining.
Nell and Sylvie were in good form. Sylvie had gone a little green around the gills when the first jolt from a nearby implosion shook the ship.
“I do think we should clean up after our own bouts of seasickness,” Nell observed to nobody in particular.
“What, did you throw up?” Sylvie asked sympathetically. “If so, thanks for taking care of it.”
Some of the talk was more serious. Old differences of opinion re-emerged. Billy at one point got a bit impatient with what he saw as our self-congratulations.
“You know how this might look to some Europans? We aliens from an advanced civilization come down and bestow on them the poisonous gift of the atom. We then divide and conquer. We plot to overthrow a potential sovereign of the planet. We deprive it of a representative that could negotiate on equal terms with the alien authority. Now we will begin to carve up the planet, as the Europeans carved up Africa, China, Mexico, the Middle East, the Americas; as the Brits carved up Ireland and Australia. What do we say to a Europan who felt that way?”
“Well, is it true?” asked Jill. “Is that really what we are trying to do?”
We all knew that Jill was pregnant, but only Doc and Jiamu realized that Jill had made some kind of further commitment than parental love and duty. They looked at each other quickly—Jill had flushed, and they wondered what would come next.
“Perhaps the only way we could prove it’s not true would be to get out as quickly as possible,” said Sylvie. “Just leave.”
“Hasn’t the damage, if it is damage, already been done?” asked Kadi. “Can we put the genie back in the bottle? They now know about us; and how are we going to hide from our own folk what we know about Europa? Wipe the Mobies’ computers? Scour every inch of our bodies and equipment? If our people know, there’s no way they won’t send a huge expedition to make contact.”
Jill’s pink had deepened. “What’s all this ‘us’ and ‘them’? Aren’t we already a bit Europan?”
Billy’s core assumptions were being questioned here. Anthropologists have a rather blessed professional bias toward the idea that cultures are somehow basic, foundational, incommensurable with each other, and unmixable. The profound mixedness of the Salvages themselves had not destroyed this unconscious bias, but had shifted it so that the bias was now “Human vs. Europan” rather than “European versus African”, etc. Billy was silent, checking out his own ideas.
Jill went on: “it’s all very well saying we can swan on in here and then swan on out like tourists. We’re all invested—’they’ and ‘we’ together.”
“But it is they and we, isn’t it?” asked Sylvie a bit timidly.
Jill was now upset, partly because she knew that it wasn’t really Sylvie’s fault; she didn’t know. Jiamu tried silently to calm her down. But Jill plunged on:
“No. Look, I’ve got a baby Europan growing inside me, and I’m her mother, and I’m now part of this place too. Maybe people that don’t get pregnant can’t feel that way. But I do.”
Nell and Sylvie looked at each other sadly, even bitterly. Jill had clearly aimed her remark at the men, especially Billy and (most unfairly) Jiamu. But Nell and Sylvie were not going to have any babies together, at least not until our biotech gets a bit better.
Jill suddenly realized, and all her righteousness dissolved. “Oh, dear dear friends—I didn’t mean it that way!” She darted over and hugged them both.
Mack broke in. “It’s just us men that are all unsympathetic swines,” he said cheerfully, breaking the rather fraught mood. “No hugs for us.” Kadi looked at him gratefully.
Jill couldn’t help laughing, but quickly got serious. “You wonderful guys, you all deserve hugs. We girls are all still alive, largely thanks to you, and you’ve lost three of the best men I’ve ever known.”
“And I’ve lost a Dad in the same cause,” I put in. Then they all hugged me.
“This is getting too mushy for an old Tennesseean,” said Doc, picking up his fiddle. “Don’t mind me, I’m just going to play a little ‘grass.”
The question of whether we should attempt to leave at once was still on the table. But three considerations clinched the decision to stay longer. The first was that Kadi had been given the equivalent of a battlefield commission as a captain in the FOFER navy and was technically under the command of Admiral Cantagorax. The rest of us were lieutenants. Of course this was a courtesy and an administrative convenience, but courtesy required that we would need to ask permission to depart or be relieved of our command. Secondly, as resident aliens we were under the legal authority of the city of New Songhai and of whatever global sovereign body might emerge from the extensive series of talks that had begun immediately after the surrender of the remaining Templar forces. We would have to get permission from Europa to leave, and we had already been implored to stay as advisers to the committees that were presently organizing a world civic union. An unwilling permission and a hasty departure would not be a good beginning to interplanetary relations.
The third was more personal—if we left now there was every likelihood that the new baby would be born en route, perhaps under emergency conditions in the Mole on its way through the ice or the dangerous vicinity of Jupiter. This baby had already attracted the sympathetic interest of the whole of Europa, and the presses of a dozen cities had already sent correspondents to interview Jiamu and Jill. Its welfare could not be risked. The safest thing would be to wait and to have the resources of an advanced civilization to ensure a safe delivery.
So we settled in to a long process of mutual education with our enthusiastic hosts. We returned to New Songhai. Doc and Billy continued working with Coro and Lusk scientists to develop eyes–“seers,” so to speak–for a group of Europan volunteers, including Phaleilei, Chiver, Cantagorax, and other friends. Visual input would be wired to the sophisticated acoustic cortexes of the Europan thoracic brain.
In a series of discussions, Doc and Billy had come to recognize that cultural purity was no longer feasible, and they now devoted themselves to ensuring that Europa would have the same resources in dealing with humanity that humanity already possessed in dealing with Europa. They should be able to sear us as we seared them. If we could not manage a just apartheid, maybe free trade on balanced terms would be an acceptable substitute. Mack laughed at them affectionately; as far as he was concerned trade was not just the only solution, but by far the best.
There was scarcely time to think; events moved quickly. We heard from the Europan subjects amazed accounts of their first personal experiences of light and visual colors and shapes. We accompanied Farsee with his ships and his victorious megacetans to the grand reef of the Golden Herd tribal homeland and supported him in his triumph. Kadi and I, with frequent help from the others, sat in on the constitutional congress as it hammered out its principles and rules. We learned as much about political philosophy as the Europan delegates did—probably more–and we will prepare a briefing containing Europan consensus theory for the United Nations and the Human Ecumene Committee in the next few months.
Seventy-six cycles after that moment of madness in the pinnace over war-torn Karakorum, Europa Kadiatou O’Neill Yamada was born in the beautiful birthing room arranged and grown by the city of New Songhai. She was perfect and beautiful: she already had a downy cap of ginger hair from her mother, and the golden skin and long Asian eyes of her father: a glowing child, with astonishing blue eyes. The whole planet celebrated.
By a serendipitous coincidence—if that’s what it was—the date of Yurie’s birth was also the cycle of the Great Spawn. Every three and a half human years, dozens of wild coral species released their spores at once, at the same point in each Cycle. As with Earthly sea-turtle and seventeen-year cicada hatches, synchronized spawning is an ancient adaptation, overwhelming any predatory response by sheer numbers. The Coros also spawn at the same time, though the reproductive function of the spores has been large superseded by the Coro arts of genetic engineering. The erotic ecstasy of the spawning act is celebrated in Coro poetry. Many other organisms take the opportunity for reproductive activities at the same time. It is a season of wild celebration for all four intelligent species, a sort of Mardi Gras or midsummer madness. Those of us who had been banished from the birthing room spent the whole cycle out in the ocean near the great gate of New Songhai with crowds of intoxicated locals. We watched endless parades, contests, ritual dances, and pyrotechnic displays, penetrated through and through by the chords and rhythms of Europan music, all glissandos of color and patterns of fiery shapes. We cat-napped in our skinsuits and woke to suck down more of Mack’s rakiu. When Yurie was delivered there was a deafening roar of joy and love.
This baby was Europa’s first human citizen, a promise of much to come. She was baptized according to four rites: that of Catholic tradition, that of Shinto, and those of Europan Old and New Law. Jiamu had consecrated the birthing room as a Shinto shrine and invited the kamis of Europa to take it as a home. Its first kami was Pearlflower the seraph, and the baby’s Miyamairi, its ceremonial visit to the shrine and ritual purification, took place shortly before our departure.
At the insistence of Jill and Jiamu, the normal genetic enhancements that any contemporary human embryo receives had been supplemented by some more extreme modifications, all well tested on Earth, to prepare it for an oceanic as well as terrestrial existence. Like our dear Smutty, the baby would have gills and digital webbing. She was also provided with sears, of course, and digestive modifications to allow her to consume most Europan foods.
At the same time work began on a large group of Europan volunteers to prepare them to thrive in Earthly oceans. It was here that Nell and Sylvie spent most of their time, learning Coro systems to create polyp-grown implants that would enable Europans to cope with the terrestrial world of light, photosynthesis, and plants.
Mack and Kadi, helped by the AIs of Alice and Marie, began work on the design of a Europan space vessel that could navigate between the planets and serve as the platform for the first passenger and freight trade. Mack, meanwhile, with a consortium of Europan industrialists, Phaleilei, and the Umma of New Songhai and with more AI help, was drawing up a tentative list of Earthly and Europan trade goods whose exchange would enhance the prosperity of both worlds. The list got very long, as you know. Our economists now predict a doubling of the wealth of both systems.
It was during the space vessel design process that the whole Mack-Kadi thing came to a head. It was partly my fault. If I couldn’t have Mack, at least I could engineer the connection of the two people I would most like to have as parents. I was helping out with the control and communications systems of the projected vessel, with the help of the brilliant Lusk engineers who had been sent to help us. I noticed a discrepancy between the metrics of the propulsion system and the navigation system, and made an issue of it. Mack was involved with the former, Kadi with the latter. As I hoped, this erupted into a quarrel. The Lusk engineers were mystified until one of them, who was having trouble with her intended bridegroom, got what was going on and gave me the Lusk equivalent of a wink (a faintly obscene gesture to human sears).
The tension between the two of them had become electric, and it exploded in thunder and lightning. Mack claimed that Kadi treated him like an underling. She responded that he shouldn’t act like one, and a lazy one to boot. We faded into the background but eventually heard the sharp slap administered by Kadi and Mack’s surprised grunt. Kadi’s cool had finally broken. Then there was silence. Have they murdered each other? We crept back to find them of course in each other’s arms, Mack’s big hand right on Kadi’s fine bottom. I gave a sigh of satisfaction, and was the first bridesmaid at the wedding, which took place two cycles after the presentation of Yurie at the birthing temple. Cantagorax, as mayor, conducted the ceremony.
They are quarreling still, I understand, and get along very well. They have me to dinner almost every week, and I am learning how to tell jokes and be entertaining.
I know this is beginning to sound like one of Shakespeare’s contrived happy endings, with various arcadian couples coming to the altar. But there is something about Europa that makes one hope for and believe in happy endings; maybe the Great Mother does look after that fecund and abundant place, and humans catch a bit of the disease. And Lord knows we had paid, in work, grief, fear, and friends’ lives, for what happiness we felt.
But at length it came time for us to depart. We had obtained reluctant leave to do so from our hosts. Several of us intended to return to Europa before long. Jill and Jiamu remain behind to raise Yurie in Europa, and be the welcoming committee and guides for the many human visitors that would surely be arriving for trade, science, diplomacy, and even tourism in the years ahead. Kadi and Mack intended to set up a passenger and freight service between the planets, and wanted me to manage its IT. The others, too, expected to be back some time. Of course all this would depend on how you, our superiors and funders of the project in the first place, feel about it. We await your decision.
But this journey back to Earth would still be long and hazardous. With the help of Europan guides we had found and checked out our Moles fairly soon after the conclusion of hostilities. One had been damaged by a storm, but was repairable—we would use the sound one and keep the other in reserve. We would still have to locate the lander and escape vehicle, ELERA 2, and pray that it was intact.
It had long been established that a flotilla of Europan vessels would accompany us to the ice-ceiling of Europa, with various missions: to bid us farewell, to try out a pair of Europan Moles that had been constructed in Daramhain, and to support the small group of Europans who would accompany us to the surface.
This last mission was for Europa perhaps the most important. It would settle once and for all the question of whether there really was a universe beyond the wall of the mother planet, whether there could be something like a nothingness filled with light such as their guests had described—and most of all, what it would “look” like to the new eyes of those who had been genetically modified to see with their refined hearing cortex.
This was not just a scientific issue, but a major theological one, and most profoundly a psychological one. The moral truths of the Mother and of Gamlegh her daughter would remain intact; but millennia of millennia in which the universe was seen as a sphere three thousand miles in diameter must now yield to a wildly different view. The Europans would now be in the position of the missionary in the famous Flammarion woodcut who has gone to the edge of the universe, and put his head out through the crystalline shell of the fixed stars to see the vast terrifying mechanisms that subtend the world we live in. Like Pip in Moby Dick, they must experience the “joyous, heartless immensities” of an unbounded universe.
There would be leaders of the major Europan religious sects aboard the Europan Moles, who had asked to undergo the “seer” implant therapy and had learned to see the light. Of course there were holdouts who regarded the whole idea as deeply evil and blasphemous; but perhaps their colleagues, if convinced, might bring them round.
The journey to the surface was uneventful, but full of wonders for the Europans. Finally they were being repaid in marvels for the ones we had experienced on our way into their world. But it was the emergence that was the most marvelous of all: most terrifying, most unsettling, most revelatory.
Let me try to convey how it must have appeared to our friends when they first beheld the world outside, though the heavily shielded windows of the surface vehicles that the Europan Moles had carried behind their great cutting drills. There was the might of Jupiter, rolling with inconceivable ponderousness over the horizon, its unctuous bands of color in their fractal whorls of turbulence. There were the other moons—mad orange Io, blue-white Ganymede, silver-speckled Callisto, and all the others–that unseen had governed the rhythms and cycles of their world for their entire evolutionary history. There was the surreal tumbled surface of their own world, in stark focus, white bergs and tilted plates dusted or drifted with blue oxygen snow. Above, beyond, there was a wilderness of stars, the torn skein of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. And all was caught in an utterly transparent and silent absence, a nothingness that went on forever. We had explained how full space was with the eternal waves of the electromagnetic spectrum and the invisible presence of dark matter, dark energy—not to speak of the residual traces of dust and gas that are everywhere. But to them this was a medium that was utterly empty, the terror of the zero, the absolute opposite of all that is full and live and obscure and viscous and fecund. And it was dreadfully beautiful, a beauty that had in it almost the seeds of insanity.
We had brought with us a record of all that Leon my father had done and said during his sojourn on Europa and his ending. Many objects that he had touched and handled had been claimed by the new religious cult that had sprung up everywhere, with its tri-colored teetip betokening sacrifice and heroic transcendence. But we had been allowed to bring a few personal items that remained. They included the lucky silver Tenniel rabbit I had given him when I was a girl, the white rabbit with the watch and waistcoat from Chapter One of Alice, on his way down the rabbit-hole to Wonderland. We encased them in a perdurable carbon fiber monolith and left them beside the wreck of his ship, the Umtali.
When you permit me, ladies and gentlemen of the provisional human ecumene, I will return to that place and make my final peace with my father.
The Sea of Minos: a novel about the exploration of Europa
The Sea of Minos