Leaving the Lab (Thick of Mind, Part 12)

Day 42. 64 pages, 30,290 words.

The year was 3230 YM, they said, but he didn’t know what that meant. And if he didn’t know what it meant, he didn’t understand how they expected him to tell them what year it had been when he’d gone into the pod. He didn’t even remember a pod, except for the pictures they’d shown him. Pictures of a battered and dusty old thing, its mechanisms verdigrised with age … and a pallid and bloated thing lying inside it that they said was him, before they’d pulled him out and drained him off and cleansed him of the poisons that had kept him alive for far too long.

Still, he did his best to help the doctors. He was awake, which was slightly more than he could say for the other one he shared the laboratory with on a permanent basis. The other patient, or Bonshoon or whatever … there had been two of them at first – three, including Maladin – but now there was only one other.

While Maladin had exercised and taken the tests and learned to speak, those other two had just sat, or lay, in the positions the doctors last put them in, and said nothing. Sometimes they would scream when the doctors tried medicines or procedures on them that, it quickly became apparent, they were going to try on him next. The doctors never heard them scream, and – for the first few times, at least – didn’t listen to Maladin when he told them about it.

But the medicines and procedures that made the other two scream invariably also made Maladin scream, and those screams, the doctors could hear. Eventually they started to pay attention to him. It wasn’t as if he was simply balking at arbitrary things and concocting a bizarre story about those things making the others cry out. He was a child but he wasn’t a baby. There were far scarier-looking procedures, and horrible-seeming medicines, that didn’t make the others scream, and to these he always submitted without complaint.

If he was being realistic, it was only when one of the procedures made one of the others scream and then that other one died that the doctors stopped what they were doing and began to pay attention to his earnest claims. And even then, it seemed to him that several of the doctors stopped coming to visit, and were replaced with other ones. He wasn’t sure what significance to connect to that series of events, but one of the replacement doctors had been Doctor Galhbron, and he thought she was nice. So all in all it seemed to have been an improvement in his situation.

He followed her now, stepping out of the main door at the end of his little domain. A pair of black-clad doctors – no, these weren’t doctors of course, they were guards, soldiersMolren? Maybe. He didn’t know – stood outside the doors, one on either side. They held sleek instruments of dark metal that he identified as weapons simply because he couldn’t imagine what else they could be. He had no idea what kind of weapons they were. He wasn’t sure what different kinds existed anyway, although he was dimly aware that they did.

The guards, impassive-faced behind their clear yellowish helmet visors, did not respond to their departure. As the doors closed behind him, Maladin glanced back and saw words printed on the smooth composite.

He’d learned, or re-learned, how to read in the short time since he’d last been permitted to leave the lab for a brief excursion. He recognised the words Biorelic Research Samples 1, 2 even though he didn’t entirely understand them, and was reasonably certain the more esoteric collection of markings underneath were warnings related to security, personal danger, required levels of clearance and authorisation, and a couple of other things he couldn’t identify but which had silhouettes of heads stuck through with alarming-looking red markings as if bolts of energy were escaping from their skulls.

He wondered, but didn’t ask, whether he was sample 1 or 2. He hoped, for no particular reason, that he was 1.

They continued through a series of corridors remarkable only for the fact that Maladin had only seen them on two other occasions, and did not remember them well from either. They were clean and sterile and undecorated, and at three further points they passed through doors on the opposite side of which stood more guards. Maladin read the labels on each door – Sentient sample groups, Organic (nonstandard) and Classified research wing, in outgoing order – and noted that the series of accompanying warning markers dwindled steadily as they went. The final set of guards did not even seem to be carrying weapons although they, like the others, did have an array of mysterious objects attached to their clothing, any one – or all – of which could have been dangerous. In each new corridor, moreover, they added one or two new doctors to their group. Some of them Maladin knew, and they greeted one another cordially. Others were unfamiliar to him, and simply stared at him in fascination and seemed shocked when he said hello.

Their growing team arrived at a larger and well-lit corridor that Maladin guessed was the main causeway, and followed it – passing several groups of doctors and guards and other people in different styles of dress – to a chamber where still more doctors waited. Some of them glanced at their group as they arrived, but most didn’t seem interested.

Doctor Galhbron leaned over to talk to him quietly while the large group milled politely in front of a large set of doors.

“We are about to enter the Fleet Worldship Pelindrake,” she said. “Up until this point, you have only seen Molren – people, that is, like myself. You should be aware that there are three distinct species of Molranoid, however: Molran, Blaran, and Bonshoon.”

“Bonshoon is the thing that I am,” Maladin said.

“Yes. You look a little different and your genetic history is diverged from the Molran baseline, but we are very similar. Blaren are similar as well, but they will often embellish their bodies, augment them with tools and decorations. It can be off-putting, even frightening.”

“I understand.”

“There are several other species,” Doctor Galhbron went on, “that you might encounter on this visit although we have done our best to ensure minimal exposure. Of these, the three main ones are aki’Drednanth, Fergunakil and human. They are all quite different to Molranoids in appearance and disposition, but pose no threat to you. You will not be expected to interact with any of them on this occasion without our direct assistance.”

“Alright.”

Doctor Galhbron studied him. “You are wondering, perhaps, why we did not tell you about this, or prepare you for what you are about to see. By showing you images, for example.”

Maladin shrugged. “I assumed that it was a test of my ability to adjust to unexpected data at short notice,” he said, “but you did not want to test it to too great an extreme, which is why you told me in general terms what to expect,” he thought Doctor Galhbron looked surprised – maybe even impressed – so he added, “I did ask if I would be told beforehand about any expectations, and you said I would. I assume this is one of those cases.”

“That is true,” Doctor Galhbron said. “Your logic is sound and your equanimity commendable.”

Doctor Galhbron was still looking at him in considering silence, and Maladin was unable to keep himself from beaming happily, as the docking blister doors opened and the crowd moved forward onto the Pelindrake.

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50,000,000 B.C. (Not Quite An Interlude)

Day 41. 64 pages, 30,290 words.

A scream burst the tranquillity, sending a flock of colourful four-winged birds flapping and hooting melodiously from a copse of graceful trees. The sky, aquamarine and perfected rather than marred by a few clumps of high, fluffy cloud, seemed to reverberate with the howl.

Moments later a filament-thin line that had been etching itself across the vault of the sky for almost a minute swelled and brightened into a particulate-wreathed trail of fire and the scream intensified as a blazing object hurtled towards the rolling green hillside. Just as it seemed inevitable that it would impact the ground destructively the projectile slowed, its flame dropping to a rosy glow, and came to a halt in midair just above the turf. The air-flattened vegetation singed, browned, and then crumbled away in the heat, and the object completed its landfall with a heavy clunk.

It was large, a rounded-off cuboid with a wider base than top, its underside rounded slightly and still glowing hot from the atmospheric insertion. It hissed and spat and tinkled slowly as it cooled, and the silence otherwise returned.

The tall, brushed-chrome cylinder that had observed all this rose from her resting place and whispered towards the landing site on a cushion of agitated micro-leylines. By the time she arrived at the edge of the burned circle of ground, the landing capsule had already split along a couple of seams and a doorway was swinging open in the hull. A hand, red-orange and wreathed in flame, reached out and grasped the still-glowing metal from the inside, pushing the capsule the rest of the way open.

The figure that vaulted out of the oven-hot interior and subjected the landscape and the waiting cylinder to a critical and tactical stare somehow managed to be stupendous even though there was absolutely no basis present for comparison. He stood almost as tall as the landing capsule, somewhat taller than the watching cylinder, and his vast body was a shifting, glowing tapestry of flames and curling ribbons of blue ice. He was unclothed but for an assortment of belts and straps that were clearly by necessity heat-resistant. His face, formed of the same elemental matter, was a stern overlay across irrepressible good humour.

Keeping glowing red eyes fixed on the cylinder, he reached behind him and put a hand on the ruddy metal of the capsule. The flames around his hand brightened, then the underlying ice rose up and ran together. At the same moment, without any further sounds of contraction or stress, the capsule dulled and returned to local background temperature.

“So,” the enormous figure said. “This is Sheen, in the faraway Dimension of Serdios.”

“Revered Second Disciple,” the cylinder said. “Welcome,” she paused momentarily. “You are…”

“They call me Brutan now,” Brutan told her, and grunted in wry amusement. “Brutan the Warrior. Quite the joke they all thought it was, too. I suppose I was quite different, the last time we met.”

“Hindab the Sly,” the I-Spy confirmed, “in the years before the war in Ekelesees.”

Brutan grunted almost soundlessly, and scanned the surrounding countryside. “You’ve come far.”

“There is farther yet to go,” the I-Spy said.

Brutan looked surprised, then nodded thoughtfully. “You’ll go where the cold whims of fate guide you, old friend,” he said, “as you always have. Serdios, though, stands on the very edge of the Infinites’ dominion,” he glanced up at the sky, the blazing yellow-green sun that sailed through the sky above this part of Sheen, the second that crept across its horizon. “These are the last living stars – if stars you can call them. From here on out, there is just the darkness.”

“Many things live in darkness.”

Brutan chuckled again. “Most things live in darkness,” he agreed. “Still, this seems a pleasant little place. I suppose I should go through the motions,” he stepped forward, went to one knee and placed his hand, which had returned to its normal balance of fire and ice, flat on the grass. The vegetation did not burn – would not, unless he wished it to. “God,” he said, “I found You another world. Warm regards, Brutan.”

The I-Spy watched this careless dedication impassively, recording the Brotherhood’s claim and formalising it through the Corporate data networks. For Firstmades, such claims were uncomplicated – and binding in perpetuity. Whether or not settlers would ever come out this far, or sentient life evolve on Sheen of its own accord … well, that would be a matter for future debates. For now, however, Sheen was part of the Pinian sovereignty and theirs to do with as they pleased.

“I trust you examined the information I have collected,” she said.

Brutan nodded. “Not much else to do on the way out. How long do we have until nightfall?”

“Still a month or so, by the Firstmade calendar,” the I-Spy replied. “You would be best advised to lift off again before that point,” she swivelled in the air to display the deep scratches marring her shell.

Brutan whistled appreciatively. “And that was an organic? Not a tool-carrier of any kind? Not an energy weapon?”

“This damage was done by the #3 hominid I listed,” the I-Spy told him. “On other worlds, or in other circumstances they may be on the verge of tool usage, but this damage was done with claws alone.”

“And they’re not likely to advance to tool usage,” Brutan said, “because of this evolutionary monolithism you mentioned.”

“Yes. Hominid #3 has reached a point of balance and its development has stopped. This is quite distinct from the other flora and fauna of this world – either aspect of this world – because everything else is still changing and mutating and competing as normal. It is just that every change that has come to anything else in the past several million years … simply poses no threat or change-prompt in the #3 hominid. It continues as it was, and everything else evolves around it. It is almost as if some freak mutation moved it into a final state, as close to perfection as naturally possible. This is why I contacted you.”

“Usually when a mutation like that happens, the over-evolved animal destroys everything and starves out,” Brutan mused.

“Yes. Hominid #3 does not seem to feel the need to do so,” the I-Spy replied. “And the unique environmental conditions help to further maintain stability.”

Brutan waved an enormous hand. “Show me.”

The I-Spy swiveled once again. “This way, revered Firstmade.”

They set out, floating construct and striding biped matching couse and speed, across the warm and fertile landscape.

“There’s no sign of the change that’s coming,” Brutan noted. “I would have expected, as temperatures fall and sunlight lessens, for some sort of adjustment period.”

“The shift between day / summer and night / winter is extremely abrupt owing to the nature of the temperate bubbles that surround the star clusters,” the I-Spy replied. “Within hours, the ambient environment shifts completely. The flora of Sheen then either dies or goes dormant, and the fauna of Sheen enters hibernation. And at the same time-”

“The flora of Thord grows,” Brutan said, “and the fauna comes out of slumber.”

“Yes. It is a dramatically violent few hours.”

“There are a couple of other worlds like this closer in towards The Centre,” Brutan remarked, his eyes quite literally alight, “but none so savage. If this #3 hominid is so impressive, how does the Sheen fauna stand up to the territorial disputes at nightfall and morning?”

“Much of it does not,” the I-Spy replied, “although there are a couple of species that are capable of holding their own, in sufficient numbers. The rest is made up for by a prolific breeding season the next time Thord enters a star-bubble and reverts to Sheen.”

Brutan nodded. “Any large predators in this area?” he sounded idly curious, mildly anticipatory rather than worried.

“No. They do not willingly frequent areas where the #3 hominid sleeps. There are numerous bird species that take advantage of this fact to nest here, but they are comparatively harmless.”

“And what about hominids #1 and #2?”

“They don’t willingly frequent these areas either,” the I-Spy quipped. Brutan favoured the floating cylinder with a narrow sidelong glance. “They have their own remarkable collections of genetic oddities,” she went on, “and are impressive life-forms although not particularly dangerous. Certainly, in this biosphere they might be considered benign.”

They continued past small clusters of trees and down into an overgrown river valley. There, on the far bank of the pleasantly gurgling stream, several large holes had been clawed into the loamy earth.

“Usually dens like this are made for protection,” Brutan said with a mighty frown. “What are these big fellows hiding from?”

“I would theorise that it is an instinctive action that they never grew out of,” the I-Spy replied. “Originally they may have done so to avoid some now-extinct superpredator, or to curl up and lick their wounds after the Thord / Sheen crossover, or merely to avoid the worst of the sunlight and heat. These dens do not actually maintain a sub-freezing temperature of the sort the Thordic organics are accustomed to, but they may be slightly more comfortable than sleeping in the open. Since Sheen’s ambient temperature is enough to put the hominids in a dormant state, and they enter the dens at the close of Thordic night / winter, it’s entirely possible that they just … don’t realise that the burrows are not particularly effective.”

Brutan snorted. “Not all that bright, then.”

“They are pre-sentient,” the I-Spy said, “and likely to remain that way.”

“Just a little joke my Brothers like to repeat about brains and brawn,” the Pinian said.

“Ah.”

Brutan the Warrior stretched slowly, opened and closed his huge fists, and let the fire and steaming frost writhe along his forearms.

“Right then,” he said, and launched himself directly across the river.

The Pinian landed in the shallows, rolled tightly and trotted into the nearest hole. He didn’t quite have to duck his head in order to enter. He descended into darkness, the shifting light of his body illuminating the soil to either side for a time, but  was soon no longer visible from the far bank. The I-Spy settled her domed lower end into the underbrush and waited.

A few moments later the ground shook and a thunderous roar reverberated from the riverbank. The thumping and bellowing continued for several seconds, not seeming to taper off or weaken in the slightest as the unseen struggle went on. It ended abruptly instead, and a short while later Brutan reappeared in the mouth of the den. He was holding his side and the fiery matter that made up his physical form seemed to be damaged underneath his hand, but he was grinning widely. In his other fist he held a large, curled black horn, sheared off at the base.

Magnificent,” he declared.

“A suitable candidate-species for your proposed shock troops, revered Firstmade?” the I-Spy asked.

Eminently suitable, old friend,” Brutan congratulated her, and vaulted back across the river. He landed heavily and grunted in discomfort, but his exuberance seemed undiminished as he climbed abreast of the I-Spy. “Well worth the six-month journey out here,” he laughed, the sound almost childlike in its joy. “Big fucker hardly even woke up to fight,” he marvelled.

“Will you relocate them while they are still dormant,” the I-Spy asked, “or wait until after the next night / winter period? I have calculated the world’s trajectory around the inner edge of this bubble and predict the next Thord iteration will last almost nineteen years.”

“Oh, plenty of time to worry about that,” Brutan said, and hefted the massive horn in his hand. He winced again and shifted his clasp on his wounded side, but then his grin returned. “I can’t wait for a rematch come nightfall.”

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The Good Specimen (Thick of Mind, Part 11)

Day 40. 64 pages, 30,290 words.


 

He sat as straight as he could and tried not to grimace as he swallowed the long strands of medicated nutrient. They always made him retch, but the doctors said it was very important that they feed through his system as unbroken as possible in order to balance the deposits of stimulant and genetic fortifying agent. He barely knew what half of these words meant.

He swallowed the last strand, and belched as politely as he could into his own sinus. The smell of it – the taste, there was no distinction – was like smoke and overripe fruit. They told him it was the sleeper medicines working their way out of his digestive and nervous system, as well as a physiological disorder that some of them called Lomgrem’s Lung and others called psycholomtaxia. Both meant the same thing – that his respiratory system was sick and he was breathing the sleeper medicine’s byproducts out of his body in a way he shouldn’t be. Neither Lomgrem’s Lung nor psycholomtaxia meant anything to him, and neither did the explanation.

Maladin knew little else but the three expansive chambers of the laboratory in which he lived. He knew his name was Maladin because that was what the doctors called him. They said he’d told them. But he didn’t remember that. He didn’t really remember much of anything, except for the painful stretch of time it had taken the doctors to wake him up, get him moving, teach him to walk and talk again.

The doctor on duty – Doctor Galhbron – studied him closely as he finished his combined meal and medicine.

“How do you feel?” she asked. “Ready? Strong?”

Maladin sometimes thought of his waking-up as a birth, but he knew there must have been more before that. For one, he could sort of remember things. Some things, and only very faintly and vaguely, but he didn’t think he’d just imagined them. He remembered running, and laughing, and he remembered blue sky and green trees and … and it all flitted away when he tried to focus on it.

He smiled back. “Strong,” he said. “Ready. Yes.”

For another, he did know some things. For example, when he recognised his Lomgrem’s Lung as producing tastes of smoke and fruit, those associations came from somewhere. He could speak Xidh, although the language he knew and the language the doctors spoke were apparently slightly different. He was learning the ‘modern’ variant quickly, along with a couple of the other main languages spoken by the Molren in the lab. He understood concepts, rules, behavioural cues without needing to be taught them. It was like he was being reminded of them, rediscovering ingrained reflexes he’d had all along. He didn’t think a newborn would take to life so quickly, although one of the doctors told him that Molren did develop such reflexes naturally fast, so it stood to reason that Bonshooni would as well.

Is that the thing that I am? Bonshooni?

The question had made the doctor uncomfortable, another thing Maladin had realised without needing to be taught. He’d corrected Maladin’s grammar – Bonshoon – and then changed the subject.

Maladin had seen himself in imagers and reflections, of course, so he knew he looked like the doctors. More or less … well, strictly speaking, more. The doctors were all tall and slender and delicate-looking, while Maladin – although still a child according to what they told him – was round and heavy, his limbs feeling clumsy and stumpy even though he had no basis for comparison.

He’d decided that until he learned otherwise, Molran and Bonshoon were just words for doctor and patient that he hadn’t known due to his language being slightly different. Or perhaps for adult and child. Sooner or later, he would find out.

“Alright,” Doctor Galhbron said, and helped him up. “Mobility good?”

Maladin walked on the spot and moved his arms in the spinning sequence of coordination exercises he’d been taught. There was some numbness and tingling in his limbs, and another fruity belch worked its way out of him, but he was otherwise fine.

“Good,” he reported, looking up at her with a casual smile to show how nonchalant and brave he was being. Doctor Galhbron rewarded him with a brief smile in response, then tapped in a sequence of metrics on her computer pad. It was important, Maladin knew, to take as many different readings as possible of his physiological state.

“Good,” she echoed crisply. “Are you ready to leave the laboratory for a brief excursion?”

“Yes,” Maladin replied, making sure not to answer too quickly or eagerly. Molren – doctors – preferred it when you maintained dignity and decorum. Never raising your voice, never getting angry or excited or agitated. It was difficult sometimes, especially when it hurt … but he didn’t think they blamed him then.

“Good,” Doctor Galhbron repeated. “We will be travelling along the main causeway to the docking blister, and from there onto a Fleet Worldship named the Pelindrake. Do you know what that means?”

Maladin thought about it. “That we will be leaving the ship containing this lab,” he said, “and boarding another ship, temporarily.”

He put just enough question in this last statement that Doctor Galhbron recognised the query. She nodded. “Yes, temporarily. Do you have any questions?”

“Will I be told beforehand if there is a process I need to adhere to, or something I need to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then I have no questions at the moment.”

Doctor Galhbron smiled a rare second time.

“Good,” she said.

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.

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Interlude: Rest in Peace, Hawkie

Day 39. 64 pages, 30,290 words. Done some editing!

Today I learned of the passing of an age-old Australian icon, former prime minister Bob Hawke.

I don’t know whether he was a good politician, or a good man. He seemed popular when I was a kid and remained popular in most circles I know of to this day. I don’t recall seeing him being reviled as so many politicans are in recent years. It’s probably fair to say he had a few skeletons and was responsible for some perpetuation of mistreatment of minorities. I don’t want to trivialise that but I will plead my complete ignorance.

He was a politician in the 1980s. A product of his time, to be sure, and I’m certain there will be any number of glowing homages, searing take-downs, and the hottest of hot takes over the days to come. Again, I plead ignorance and can only offer this Eighties Kid’s reflection on a larger-than-life national leader.


Mr Hawke’s capacity for drinking was vast. After all, he entered the world record books upon sinking a yard glass of beer in under 12 seconds during his time at Oxford University.


He was very much an Australian icon. From his beer-drinking victories (he quit drinking entirely during his time as a political leader but was still notorious) to his declaration on national television that any boss who fires an employee for skipping work the day of Australia’s victory in the America’s Cup is a bum (not to mention the class act of cheating on his wife with his own biographer, although it seems as though he divorced and remarried with said biographer and remained with her until his death, which – I – well – I, I just don’t know what to think but I’m sure, again, that the takes will be fresh, hot, and numerous), he was well-loved in a quintessentially Australian way that I connect, for better or worse, with my childhood.

Not that I drank a lot of beer and screwed around behind my wife’s back with my biographer in the 1980s. Or, you know, at any other time. I don’t actually have a biographer, in fact. I wrote my own biography, so I guess there’s a masturbation joke in there somewhere but let’s show a little bit of respect … actually Hawkie would probably have a laugh, never mind.


I’m very proud of it in one way [and] very disappointed that all the other, many brilliant things I’ve said are never mentioned. “What’s the most brilliant thing Hawkie ever said? It’s the ‘bum’ one.”

– Hawkie on his bum quote

Like all things from the 1980s, Hawkie was probably better remembered than experienced, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have been well-received in reboot form.

I didn’t know, for example, that Hawkie’s government was responsible for making Advance Australia Fair our national anthem. Up until 1984, it was God Save the Queen – same as Britain’s. Yikes. Now to be fair, Whitlam started this particular fire but then the Queen / Governor General dismantled the Whitlam government on the 11th of the 11th and the replacement government – hmmmm – reinstated the old anthem.

Hawkie also made the green and gold Australia’s sporting colours at the same time. Fascinating.

Here’s to ya, Hawkie. Good innings.

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– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.

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A Fleeting Connection (Thick of Mind, Part 10)

Day 38. 64 pages, 30,257 words.


 

“Close your eyes. Concentrate. Try again.”

Years had passed uneventfully in Happyface. Forty-two of them, to be precise, since Jadis’s first visit to the rambling structure. Pod 9’s tasks remained largely unchanged after all that time, and he lived a life of contentment – the contentment that came from routine, and from knowing nothing else.

Jadis had come back several times. He thought this was maybe the fifth time she had visited, but he wasn’t entirely certain of that. He was forgetful, prone to letting his mind wander, still more prone to letting events of the past merge together into a pleasant foggy blur when they weren’t particularly important. And he was not good at judging whether events were important.

“Okay,” he said agreeably, and closed his eyes even though he didn’t want to. Having his eyes closed, being in the dark, made it somehow more difficult to ignore the cold. It also made him feel tense and anxious, as though his nose and mouth were being covered up just like hie eyes were, with heavy flaps of skin … he didn’t understand why, and he did his best to ignore the feeling because he’d been told it was just his imagination.

He concentrated, but since he wasn’t sure what he should be concentrating on, aside from the cold and not feeling anxious, it was difficult.

Whenever Jadis came to Happyface, she moved into the big set of luxury habs and ‘open’ ice fields on the starboard docking spar. Occasionally, this meant other guests had to be evicted and be granted compensatory privileges, which could be unpleasant depending on the guests. Happy Gretchen took care of most of the unpleasantness. No other guests had died since Jalahso the security officer, at least not that Pod 9 had been told.

It was cold in the starboard docking spar habs, refrigerated down to the biting temperatures aki’Drednanth most enjoyed, and that meant Pod 9 had to struggle into a thermal garment and brave the discomfort in order to attend his training. Sometimes Jadis would come out into the main structure and even visit him in his cell, but she didn’t like to wear an envirosuit and she didn’t smell very good when she started to thaw, and even when she wasn’t in her suit Pod 9’s cell was a little cramped with both of them in it.

Pod 9 coming to the freezer hab and suffering while Jadis tried to teach him how to make his brain work, then, was what Doctor Reco called ‘a compromise’.

You know, it’s like how you want a new Corp Sci medical fabricator rig, and Happy Gretchen wants you to keep making replacement organs out of lunch meat and snot … so you compromise and make replacement organs out of lunch meat and snot.

“Concentrate,” Jadis’s voice, a slightly raspy but maternal product of her gauntlet generator, sharpened audibly in accordance with her mood. Pod 9 tried to concentrate even more than he already was. Since he was already concentrating as much as his wandering mind would permit him to, he became worried about what sort of reaction his failure might elicit.

He wasn’t overly concerned, however. Usually when he failed in his training, Jadis just said that she was getting too old to be wasting her time and that she would go back to Pod 22 and Pod 23 who at least showed some promise in human trials. Although reading human minds wasn’t exactly difficult, she also said, or even actually necessary, since if you just let them talk then sooner or later they would tell you everything they were thinking anyway.

Pod 9 supposed this was supposed to embarrass him and goad him to do better, but mostly he was just pleased that he’d get to go back to the warm.

He concentrated, imagining the heavy, oppressive gulf of Jadis’s mind gaping wide in front of him, and the spongy vacant shell of Pod 3’s mind slumped by his side. He imagined his own mind, like silvery liquid pouring away from the broken vessel of his brain, battling Jadis’s gravity well, emptying himself into Pod 3.

“I can’t,” he said.

“Oh no? Open your eyes,” Jadis commanded.

Pod 9 opened his eyes. For a moment his vision blurred and doubled, showing him two overlapping images of the aki’Drednanth lounging on the ice before him. He turned and looked at Pod 3, who continued to stare glazedly at nothing. The boy – the man; they were all fully-grown now and Pod 9 supposed they were all far enough into their First Primes to qualify as adults even if they lacked the mental qualifications and legal status – was dressed in an identical thermal to Pod 9’s but lacking a niqi to cover his face, so his nostrils and lips and the corners of his eyes were gathering frost crystals. Furthermore, since Pod 9 had put his thermal on for him, it was a bit rumpled and crooked and probably wasn’t even as warm as Pod 9’s correctly donned garment. Pod 3 didn’t complain, of course.

“I don’t unders-” Pod 9 began, then stopped. Concentration, such as it was, fled in that instant but he was certain he had seen what he’d seen. As he’d spoken, Pod 3 had mouthed along with the words.

He sat, staring at the slumped figure of his p’bruz. When his mouth had moved, Pod 3 had sent a little sprinkling of ice from his lips onto the dark thermal material covering his belly. Now, however, he was sitting as listless as he always had. If it wasn’t for that little sprinkle of frost, Pod 9 might have thought he’d imagined the movement.

“You very nearly connected with her,” Jadis remarked.

“Pod 3 is a him,” Pod 9 said vaguely.

Jadis waved her gleaming black gauntlet. “Him, her,” she said. “You know my kind do not care. And it hardly seems to matter to these wretched sisters of yours, does it?”

“It matters to some of our guests.”

Jadis gave a deep woof of amusement. “Close your eyes,” she resumed her instruction. “Concentrate. Try again.”

Pod 9 closed his eyes.

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Heft: Fading Signal Memory of Lost Dema (Thick of Mind, Part 9)

Day 37. 64 pages, 30,257 words.


 

They were in the middle of morning exercises when the confirmation and activation finally went through. Maladin’tiar Tiakor was in the lead, waddling his pig earnestly through the course so swiftly and nimbly that he’d almost caught up with some of the stragglers who were lagging nearly a lap behind.

The nullmind wasn’t exactly a pig, that was just what they called it. There were lots of different sorts, the most common being the nullslates that were used for medicine and surgery and birthing difficult offspring. They were a convenience. At Jathan’s School, the pigs were assembled with their consciousnesses dialled down to zero, to allow the students to work on them.

Possession, it was said, was the province of the Firstmades. Tiakor didn’t really know what that meant – he was barely ten years old and the only thing he really identified with the phrase ‘Firstmade’ was the calendar by which he was deemed to be ten years old. The elders, dour and humourless as they were, treated it far more seriously. To them, it seemed almost a matter of faith. Tiakor didn’t really understand that sort of thing. And it didn’t really matter what the elders muttered, as long as he was allowed to drive the pigs.

It wasn’t really possession, anyway. Jathan herself had said so. It skirted the edge of the craft but it wasn’t as total, as immersive. Tiakor and his p’bruz commandeered the sensory pathology of the nullmind and in doing so gained puppeteer control of its nervous system and musculature. They could waddle them around an obstacle course, but that was about the limit of it. They couldn’t do the same thing to people with actual minds. Although of course they’d all tried on one another, in the privacy of their dorms at lulltime. It simply wasn’t possible.

Tiakor’s pig stumbled before righting itself and waddling on, ascending a ramp and tumbling from the far end. While it was still picking itself up – or rather while he was picking itself up – his closest rival barrelled up the ramp and launched itself on top of him. While the two heavy, clumsy genetic constructs were thus entangled, Tiakor’s opponent strummed expertly on his own pig’s central nerve trunk … and the pig spurted a thick slurry of sub-shooey from its stonk directly into Tiakor’s pig’s eye- and mouth-holes.

This, by unfortunate dint of his connection to the pig, enabled Tiakor to enjoy all the sensations its rudimentary senses could transcribe. And since his p’bruz had forced an expulsion well in advance of full digestion, the stuff wasn’t a harmless peppering of tasteless and odourless shooey packets. It was, simply put, unholy.

“Dun!” he exclaimed, half-laughing and half-outraged. “Disgusting.”

Dunnkirk Kilwadi, his closest friend, grinned in Tiakor’s periphery where they sat and guided their pigs. He may have lacked Tiakor’s facility, but he came close – and when he got close, Kilwadi could use his far greater knack for fighting dirty to devastating effect.

“Chew on it well, Mal,” Kilwadi said, and rolled his pig upright. “See you in-”

This was when the chime sounded, and the practice came abruptly to an end. Tiakor, Kilwadi, and the seventeen other children in their unit immediately withdrew from their pigs, which collapsed heavily in their tracks on the obstacle course below. They rose to their feet as their instructor strode into the room.

“Bring your luggage,” he said, his elderly face grim. “Dart bay in twenty minutes.”

They wasted no time asking questions, but hurried to their rooms and grabbed the single pack each of them had long since filled with personal items for the evacuation. An absolute minimum was permitted, but most of the students at Jathan’s School were unburdened by either luggage or sentiment. When you carried everything important inside your own skull, there wasn’t much you needed to put in a bag. Tiakor’s own pack was almost empty, and he’d topped it up to permitted capacity with snacks. Just in case.

He met Kilwadi at the dart, where other students were already filing aboard. His excitement faltered as he saw the distress on Kilwadi’s face.

“What is it?”

“Hask isn’t coming,” Kilwadi said mournfully, gesturing with his free left hand at the woman standing by the dart doors with a pad held up before her.

Genara Hask was another of their tutors, and one they were all fond of. The irascible old lady with the razor-sharp tongue and the even sharper telepathic lash was past her Third Prime, and Tiakor had already known she had volunteered to remain on Dema when the School evacuated. He suspected Kilwadi had already known too, but that he’d convinced himself to forget.

“Good luck, Lawkeep,” he said formally.

Hask never really smiled, but her lips tightened and her ears dipped. “Don’t be foolish, little ones,” she said. “This planet is doomed, and I along with it. Take the luck where it will do some good, in the unlikely event that luck is even a factor worth consideration,” she tapped the pad irritably. “Tiakor. Kilwadi. On board with you.”

Twenty minutes and eight seconds after the chime had sounded, the dart was skimming across the ground through the cleared passway. Empty, burned-out residences lined one side of the avenue, military installations the other. Jathan’s School was heavily fortified, but it had been several weeks since the last security breach. The panics, the riots, the chaos that Tiakor had lived with all of his life, had faded into eerie serenity over the past few months as the evacuations reached their peak and the population dwindled steadily. The growing silence had actually been scarier than the disruptions.

And now it was Jathan’s School’s turn.

There was no point in reviewing the information and procedures. They’d all been born with them and raised on them, even as their training continued as though nothing was happening to the world on which they lived. They would ascend into orbit, lodge to a transporter, and circle the sun to rendezvous with the Bonshoo. There, their packs would be placed in storage and they themselves would be placed into sleep pods for as long as it would take to fly to safety.

Nobody had really explained to the students where they were going, and how long it would take. Only that Dema, their home planet, was in grave danger and that they had to move to a new world. Kilwadi insisted that he’d heard the elders talking about navigating through Portals to alternate Dimensions, and returning to the worlds of the Firstmades. Tiakor didn’t know about that, but it was certainly exciting either way.

The dart pulled into the gravity-shear overhang of the Heft mechanism, in perfect mechanical coordination with a thousand other darts from all over the country. The Heft was the huge accelerated booster that would lob them into orbit. Tiakor had pored over its schematics countless times, but had never actually set eyes on the structure. He didn’t really get to this time either, except as a looming anvilhead shadow in the dart’s windows.

Kilwadi’s right hands crept across and folded into Tiakor’s lefts as the locks came down and the launch alerts sounded. He felt his p’bruz knocking politely at the door of his mind, and he flung it open gratefully.

It will be alright, he told him. Such was their communion that neither of them knew who originated the thought. It didn’t matter. He closed his eyes, and the universe pushed down on him with brutal weight despite the shear field. They soared into the air, and then out of it-

They ran through the tight causeways of the transport, shouting at each other that there was no hurry because it took days to cross the system, but hurry up-

Tiakor dropped his bag and it got kicked before he could retrieve it-

They sat in a corner of their staging deck and ate crushed mascri wafers-

They ran back and forth across the viewing deck with its filters turned to minimum safe levels, daring one another to brave the ferocious undiluted sunlight-

There was a nullslate in the medical bay and they took turns entering it, making it belch and fart, and giggling uncontrollably when the doctors stroked their ears in consternation. It wasn’t a perfect nullmind pig so their control over it was clumsy at best, but it was good enough-

They filed into a chamber-

“No, two decks up, you’re Tiakor and you’re Kilwadi, that’s how this works, don’t worry, all the Jathan kids are in this one sector-”

He looked into the pod. It looked comfortable-

Darkness-

-Light.

-Pain.

-Voices, shrieking, piercingly loud. Asking questions he didn’t understand. Battering at his ears with words, poisoning his blood with fiery potions.

-Pain.

-Darkness.

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Children of Jathan (Thick of Mind, Part 8)

Day 36. 64 pages, 30,257 words.


 

Jadis strode through the ruined and crumbling city. Its gaunt structures towered crookedly on either side of her tall, straight, powerful form as she walked, the buildings seeming to lean in over her protectively and threateningly. The dust into which the city was slowly dissolving was in itself a study in entropy, the drab black of null-attribute shooey collapsing still further into the hard white, the nothingness in solid form that was end-state matter. A metaphor, in this case, but one that could be given life here. If ‘life’ weren’t a laughably inappropriate term.

The silence followed her out of the city, and when the city ended abruptly – in a cresting wave of impossible structures like petrified trees of white stone that reared miles high into the sky’s bleached vault – only the silence remained. Jadis continued out into the flat white wasteland with its oppressive, overhanging red-black sun that stretched across the horizon and seemed to curve up overhead like an encroaching tide. The prominences and surging fountains of matter and radiation from its corona were like the grasping tendrils of some dying leviathan.

Jadis slowed, looked up at the baleful old star for a few moments in greeting, then spread her arms. The ragged and rotting material of her sleeves glistened like scales. A gateway rose up out of the blasted ground, a door outlined in black fire.

A huge form dragged itself into her world, clawing at the edges of the doorway and heaving its bulk through as though climbing out of a vertical pit. The weight of the monster’s dream was alleviated by the fact that this was only a feather-touch, a joining for the sake of communion rather than a complete merging. The Drednanth scraped out onto the ground and hunched, glaring down at Jadis from a single venomous eye.

Kelvin may have taken her Dreamscape form from some long-forgotten alien species with which she had lived, may have amalgamated it from several species, or may have simply grown into a form of her own choosing over the course of aeons. She was huge and shapeless and sluglike, but with a row of great clawed hands in constant movement around her front end where they blended into her mandibles and palps, and above which her great eye blazed.

“Jadis,” she said.

“Kelvin,” Jadis replied.

These were not, obviously, the names they used for each other. Identities and discourse in the Dreamscape were fluid, more pure, did not really require the clumsy concepts necessary in spoken communication. Still, there was the visual metaphor to consider. Each, then, used the names they had been given by their Six Species hosts. Even though in Kelvin’s case, ‘Six Species’ may have been stretching the term a little. Kelvin had last walked the world of flesh several thousand years previously, before the Zhraaki conquest of Aquilar and the forging of the Six Species in the burning crucible of the Wild Empire.

This was the reason Jadis sought her out.

Kelvin’s precise age was unknown. It was possible, although very unlikely, that she was among the eldest of the Drednanth. Most of those ancient monsters were too vast, too ingrained in the Dreamscape to ever really uproot from the Great Ice and take flesh. They could re-enter the world as aki’Drednanth in a litter but could not long remain viable. A single brain, a single self, was no longer something into which they could extrude themselves. However, it was also believed by many that an ancient could continue taking flesh, so long as she carved herself away over the years. Whittle her enormity down and leave only a compact, efficient core. She may not remember everything, may lack a truly rounded and healthy identity, but she could walk among the mortals and interact with them. This, many believed, was what Kelvin did in order to avoid torpor. And Kelvin did not deny it.

This was folklore, or the Drednanth equivalent. Whatever one believed of her age and condition, Kelvin stood above most not only as an authority in folklore, but as one who had walked with legends. Jadis did not consult her lightly.

Kelvin seemed to know this. “So,” she said. “You feel the food in your belly and the air in your lungs. You hunt and run, and roar and kill.”

“As much as I may,” Jadis said in amusement. “The mortals are so skittish.”

“This defines them,” Kelvin agreed. Her gaze shifted over the top of Jadis’s head, to focus on the city in its stately decay behind her. “You mourn still.”

“Forever is a long time.”

“No,” Kelvin said, “it is longer.”

They stood for a time, facing one another across the bared bone of Jadis’s world. The doorway behind Kelvin twisted back into the ground, leaving nothing but the long-dead sun. The huge, shifting monster with the red-black star at her back, and the imposing but comparatively diminutive figure of Jadis with the bleached ribcage of city at hers, formed a rather satisfying tableau even though Jadis was unable to really enjoy it from the inside.

“I have come-” Jadis started.

“You have come to ask me about the Children of Jathan,” Kelvin said with a slow rattle of forelimbs.

“I have?” Jadis asked cautiously.

Kelvin’s rattling became positively amused. “When I last walked among mortals as aki’Drednanth,” she said, “a lost set of sleeper pods from a Molran Fleet Worldship had been found. This was on the Worldship called Gadrion Char, but the pods were not native to that ship. They had ended up there, it was said, after a series of chaotic exchanges as the Fleet fled from the Core, and then encountered the humans of Earth, and then wandered back into the stars when they were denied their homecoming. Over the millennia, as new ships were made and old ones died, the pods were broken up and scattered. One arc was found on the Gadrion Char, hidden away in a greatvault. Only one of the children sleeping in the arc of pods was successfully awakened. If you could say it was successful.”

“Tían,” Jadis said.

“Yes. The unfortunate creature was plagued by more than just medical issues. The demons of millennia clawed at her soul. Her body grew ancient, and her mind dissolved into the Gnang, long before her time.”

“The children I have found would seem to be the same,” Jadis agreed. “They were awakened by a subtler and more advanced sciencrraft, yet only three have retained awareness. They have been brought to a cruel maturity by the medicines and processes, but they are stable – for now. They are beyond my craft, I think, which is why I have come to you.”

“Yes,” Kelvin said, “it may be that they are beyond mine as well. I would take the flesh – this is the only way a mortal might be aided, I think; they require that connection – but I have many thousands of years to wait. Perhaps more. My crimes have been many.”

She said this in amusement as well, and Jadis smiled. Kelvin was in no way a noteworthy transgressor in Drednanth terms, but she had made decisions – both in her last acts as aki’Drednanth and in her philosophies since – that placed her in a position unlikely to be granted a place among mortals anytime soon. This was simply the way of things. There were many Drednanth, and competition for aki’Drednanth lifetimes was fierce.

“I will do what I may,” Jadis said. “But I am a maker of weapons. I may fail these … Children of Jathan?”

“This was the name given to the sleepers,” Kelvin said, “in my time. The pod from which Tían came was part of a set, and researchers pieced together that the total set – some three or four hundred children – came from a group called the Children of Jathan. I translate very roughly, of course. Jathan may have been a name for a region or an institution, rather than any single Molran.”

“Jathan remains an institute to this day,” Jadis remarked.

“Ah, the Carbuncle that flies above Ogrehome,” Kelvin said. “It is indeed a venerable establishment, and I believe the two – Jathan’s Carbuncle, the Children of Jathan – originate from the same deep history. When those children were put to sleep, I believe, they were separated from the rest of the sleeping population. I believe they came from a special group, perhaps a school or some other kind of academy of learning, that was attempting to give Molren the same abilities the aki’Drednanth were given.”

“An experiment into telepathic development?” Jadis asked, troubled.

“Perhaps. We do not know, because so much of the Fleet was lost. The sleepers slept for too long, and their unique minds broke under the weight of years,” her tone was weary and regretful. “If you have found another segment of the Children of Jathan’s pod complement, then it confirms a theory I have long held. That the Fleet, at some point of its history, knew these sleepers were important – and divided them up among as many Worldships and other vessels as they could, so that some of them might survive.”

Jadis nodded. “I will see that they are protected. And I will guide them as best I can. I was called, I think, because of some of my other research and successes. Also because the group that has awakened these children is one that operates outside of Six Species law.”

Kelvin laughed. “Six Species law is such a cumbersome thing,” she said. “But so very bright-eyed and earnest. Not unlike a Bonshoon child, one might say.”

“One would never stoop,” Jadis said.

Kelvin laughed again, then grew reflective. “I will not be able to help directly,” she said, “but I may be able to find someone in a better position to assist you. I will speak to you again.”

Kelvin backed into the doorway as it reared open once again, and vanished with a final flail of dark, jagged limbs. Jadis watched the churning, ominous bole of the sun for a time, bringing her disquiet under control and digesting what she had learned from the strange Drednanth mythologist. And wondering how much of it she would be able to apply to her charges in Happy Gretchen’s cho’gule.

Finally she sighed, turned her back on the sun and gazed longingly at the corpse of the city splayed before her.

Kelvin was right. Forever was longer.

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments