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-
-Voices, shrieking, piercingly loud. Asking questions he didn’t understand. Battering at his ears with words, poisoning his blood with fiery potions.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.