The Awakening of the Skullied (Thick of Mind, Part 13)

Day 43. 64 pages, 30,290 words.


 

Maladin didn’t see much of the Worldship Pelindrake, preoccupied as he was with staring at the vessel’s inhabitants.

He’d never seen such colours. The laboratory rooms in which he’d spent his return to life were clean and almost monocromatic, the Molren who tended to him equally so. The Molren of the Worldship – not to mention the Bonshooni, to say nothing of the Blaren – were dressed and decorated vibrantly, from the array of Fleet uniforms to the endless rainbow of civilian garments to the glowing, glittering, flashing and in some cases blazing accessories of the Blaran clansfolk. Maladin stared at them all, enraptured, and barely noticed the walkways and ramps and chambers and avenues they were traversing.

He also saw a number of squat, two-armed bipeds sporting grey one-piece uniforms, with fur of varying lengths and colours atop their funny domed heads. These, Doctor Galhbron said quietly, were humans. Some even smaller bipeds, apparently wholly mechanical and decorated in garish, obscurely discomforting styles, she identified as Fergunak.

“They are Fergunakil giela,” Doctor Galhbron clarified. “Do you know the term, giela?”

Maladin frowned. “‘The God among us’?” he hesitantly interpreted.

Doctor Galhbron looked at him a little sharply, then gave a forbearing laugh. “Not exactly,” she said, “although I am familiar with the underlying mythology I believe you are referencing. The Fergunak are an aquatic species, and have difficulty interacting with the landbound,” at this, one of the doctors walking alongside them made a soft, muffled sound of derision or amusement, but turned it into a murmur for the ears of his companion on the other side. Doctor Galhbron’s nostrils tightened in mild annoyance, but she continued. “These machines are interactive and mobile, controlled remotely by the Fergunak in their own habitats. They represent the whole, writ small. If the Fergunakil is a God in its aquatic domain, then yes – one might say the giela is that God walking among us.”

Maladin did not see any of the sixth sentient species that made up the union, although several of the doctors accompanying him had been murmuring about the possibility of an aki’Drednanth attending the ceremony. He did see a tall, willowy brown-speckled creature that looked rather like a human but Doctor Galhbron said was a They Stand Aside, a species that the Six Species had encountered millennia ago and were on friendly terms with, but had never officially invited to join a rebranded Seven Species.

“Why not?” Maladin asked.

“There are historical and cultural factors and impetus to consider with such a question,” Doctor Galhbron said, “but the unfortunate truth is that when the Six Species encountered the They Stand Aside, there were … terrible mistakes and misunderstandings. The species was almost eradicated. Many lessons were learned about contact with alien species, but it was too late. They exist now only as an echo of themselves, in biological and genetic terms. They are more human than they are They Stand Aside, their organic legacy a matrix of failures and fabricated patches. It is very sad.”

Maladin wasn’t sure this answered his question, but at the same time he was fairly sure he wouldn’t have understood an actual answer any better. They continued on to Outer Ur-Deck Kitanga Bal 1-1, which was where the ‘awakening ceremony’ was to take place.

Here, the crowd was predominantly Molren with a sparse scattering of Bonshooni, Blaren and humans. Maladin could see no Fergunakil giela or any other species of alien. They took their places in a shielded viewing deck above a spacious chamber very similar to Maladin’s home.

“Are we hidden to the doctors and sleepers below?” Maladin asked, looking down through the viewing panels with interest. The row of sleeper pods around which the doctors were fussing didn’t look like the one from which he’d been awakened, but the design was similar in many respects.

“Yes,” Dotor Galhbron replied. “Many people wish to witness these events, but it is undignified and traumatic to awaken a sleeper amidst a crowd of gawking strangers. On the Pelindrake, the custom is to perform the ceremony with a concealed viewing ring such as this. We were very fortunate to be permitted to attend.”

“I am grateful,” Maladin said dutifully. Nothing much seemed to be happening down below, so he went on. “Does this … ceremony … happen very often?”

“Not often, no,” Doctor Galhbron replied. “And it is not often shared with outsiders. In this case, the set of pods is somewhere between twelve and fifteen thousand years old. We cannot say for certain, only that they date from before the Five Species’ arrival at Earth, but after the mass-awakening of the Bonshoo that gave rise to…” she paused momentarily.

“To my species,” Maladin said.

“Yes,” Doctor Galhbron seemed to rally as the Molren below began to gather around the first sleeper pod. “The sleepers below have entertainment implants installed in their heads as a part of the overall storage and upkeep process. These so-called skullies were designed to provide a form of virtual interactive environment for the sleepers, since their minds remained active throughout their journey. Over the millennia, this quasi-consciousness caused irreparable cognitive collapse, and so it was thought that the skullies would aid in maintaining function.”

“Did I have a skullie?” Maladin asked.

“No,” Doctor Galhbron said. “Your pod predated the use of skullie technology. Your cognitive endurance remains something of a mystery – it is hoped that today’s ceremony might provide us with some steps towards solving that mystery.”

Maladin nodded, watching as the doctors readied their instruments and began to carefully open the pod. “So these Bonshooni will wake up in sound mind?”

“It is unlikely,” Doctor Galhbron replied sadly. “Over a sufficient period of time, even if the skullies continue to function normally or do not shut down altogether, they caused issues of their own. This is why the practice was discontinued, and small samples of sleepers such as these are periodically woken up and rehabilitated when possible. It is an important function of Fleet culture, and helps to inject new vitality into stagnating communities.”

“Bonshooni join the Fleet as officers?” Maladin asked, intrigued and excited.

“Sometimes,” Doctor Galhbron said smoothly. There was another barely-discernible pause, and when she went on it was obvious to Maladin that she was once again skirting the edge of some other subject – but it wasn’t one in which he was currently interested. “The skullie was adapted as a form of interactive entertainment for waking Molranoids. It is still used, in some-”

The Bonshoon in the pod below began to move sluggishly, and the doctors quickly moved in with vials of nutrients and other medical equipment. Maladin heard them murmuring softly to one another and to the awakening sleeper.

Then the Bonshoon screamed.

NO LET ME BACK IN LET ME BACK PUT ME BACK DON’T MAKE ME NO

The Bonshoon spasmed, struggled against the Molran doctors who fought in turn to hold him inside the pod. Some of them were lifted bodily, if briefly, off their feet by the newly-awakened sleeper’s unexpected strength. Eventually they got him pinned down safely in the pod, and another of the doctors administered a sedative. They released him, and another of the doctors gingerly slid a long, gleaming ribbon of metallic filaments out of the side of the Bonshoon’s head. It was affixed to a silvery button in the doctor’s hand, and she transferred the whole assembly carefully to a sample tray.

“The skullie implant,” Doctor Gelhbron said. “Sometimes its removal will cause nervous system flares like this – the seizures and involuntary muscle spasms you just saw.”

“Do you think he wanted to be left inside the virtual interactive environment the skullie had made for him?” Maladin asked.

“Oh, no,” Doctor Gelhbron replied. “It is a deep subconscious simulation. In the unlikely event of its continuing correct function, the sleeper would not even be aware it is ongoing – or of its ending. The movements you saw were wholly unconscious.”

Maladin nodded, and watched the doctors complete the awakening. They were, after the brief wrestling match, doing their best to continue in a sedate and almost ritualistically solemn fashion. The Bonshoon was slowly helped back into a sitting position, wiped free of assorted residues, and draped in a ceremonial robe. He looked back and forth, his wide and jowly face empty and lost. He did not scream again, and Maladin realised he had never screamed in the first place.

Not to anybody but him.

 


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

This entry was posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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