Demons Of The Past 03 – Retribution – Chapter 05

Chapter 5


“Doctor Sooovickalassa,” the Eönwyl said, looking at both the diminutive R’Thann and the vastly larger Doctor Guvthor, “It won’t be very long before we arrive at the Mydrwyll system. I think we need more information about what to expect. You said they had joined the R’Thann Meritocracy? Doesn’t that mean that there will be a large number of R’Thann ships in their system?”

There should be a few, Vick’s telepathic voice replied, but not very many.

“Indeed?” said Guvthor. “Why not? A relatively new ally, when they are clearly now being threatened by the power of the Reborn Empire, would seem a very likely candidate for large numbers of reinforcements.”

A hiss-and-rattle of the R’Thann’s golden crest showed his amusement. You do not understand the way of the R’Thann. Or, in truth, the Mydrwyll. The R’Thann would not have accepted the Mydrwyll as allies if they thought that this new addition would place more strain on our forces as a whole; they would have to be capable of defending themselves, or else offer something of such value to the Meritocracy that it would be worthwhile for us to weaken our own worlds to defend theirs.

Similarly, the Mydrwyll would never have offered to join if they felt that they required so much assistance; their concept of “Rational Debt” would be strongly offended by the idea that they began a relationship so far in debt to the other that their very lives might be dependent upon the other.

Guvthor was nodding, but the Eönwyl had no real idea what he was talking about. “What is ‘Rational Debt’? I don’t know anything about the Mydrwyll; not sure I’ve ever seen one, actually.”

Unsurprising, Vick said. They possess only one solar system at the moment, and thus there are few of them venturing far off. Captain Varan had apparently had the fortune to encounter three, as he was familiar with them before meeting Hmmmseeth, and I would suspect very few other Imperials have even met a single Mydrwyll.

Nonetheless, despite their small numbers, they have an extremely high level of technology and have learned much trading with both the Empire and the R’Thann. They have a formidable navy of their own, and while in no way the equal of the R’Thann, have a fair number of individuals with advanced psionic capabilities.

“No wonder they ended up with the R’Thann.”

There is far more to it than a mere coincidence of interests and abilities, the R’Thann scientist responded.

“Indeed, the Mydrwyll are a fascinating civilization, possibly unique in the history of the Galaxy,” Guvthor said. “I know something of them, though our friend Vick obviously knows more. And if we are to interact with them, you had best know all that we do.”

“Difficult to interact with, then?”

In the sense that they are different in their interactions than most other species, yes, difficult. R’Thann tend to understand them fairly easily, but many other species — humans included — often cause offense without even meaning to.

This has to do, Vick went on, with the basic nature of the Mydrwyll as compared to other civilized beings. All the others of which we know are, to one degree or another, social beings. They associate in groups naturally, ranging from small families to very large extended clans. R’Thann, human, Thovian, Chakron, all of them have these social impulses and natural tendencies, and all of them have, relatively speaking, small numbers of offspring.

The Eönwyl nodded. “So you’re saying that the Mydrwyll are not like that?”

Precisely. They are, in fact, almost the opposite of it. In nature they are something like h’revass, or the creatures that our acquaintances on Earth called ‘squid’; aquatic animals which reproduce in vast numbers with the expectation that only the smallest fraction of the hatchlings will survive and mature, and in general essence independent and isolate.

Insofar as I can ascertain, the Mydrwyll were a species of creature that evolved to fill a near-land niche, where the shallows kept away most larger predators, but where competition remained strong. Eventually these creatures evolved intelligence, and were able to use this intelligence to increase their personal chances of survival, sometimes by cooperating with another member of their species, but usually not. They slowly wiped out most competition in the near seas and on the lower land — for they became amphibious — but this simply made them their own worst competitors, fighting for dominance of specific areas of the seashore, destroying their egg grounds, and so on.

And then came Alavelaa-Salaki.


“That may be the actual name,” Guvthor said, “but our masters of records believe it is a title, as it translates, in one of the oldest Mydrwyll dialects, to ‘Truth of Cooperation’.”

Our people concur; we believe her real name was Voolmeri, but there is no way to know for certain.

In any event, Vick went on, Alavelaa-Salaki was hatched, at some point around ten thousand years ago. She quickly won for herself a significant territory, but found that there was an incursion of dangerous creatures in territories bordering hers. She proposed cooperation to her neighbors to dispose of these new creatures; at first, her neighbors did not understand, but she finally convinced them that it was something in all of their interests — by getting rid of these creatures now, her territory would not become a threat to them if she were killed.

Alavelaa-Salaki then apparently brooded on that event and others for several years, and then somehow managed to convince a large number of Mydrwyll to meet at a neutral spot on the border between shallow and deep water. There she propounded the idea that all intelligent creatures would benefit from cooperation permanently, as a group, and that they all had something to offer to, and something to gain from, this cooperation.

“You have to understand,” Guvthor said as she looked puzzled, “that for such creatures this idea was totally foreign. She was proposing something that violated their basic instincts of isolation and competition.”

The huge fur-covered alien chuckled, a rumbling sound whose echoes chased themselves around the ship. “The fascinating thing is that she must have had a truly extraordinary force of personality. She convinced this assemblage that she was right, and began to develop rules for this kind of interaction — rules that ultimately led to the philosophy of Rational Debt. Rational Debt is in concept quite simple: if someone performs a service or gives you something which in some way improves your life — solving a problem for you, removing an obstacle, helping you feed yourself, whatever — they are owed an equal effort or action on your part, in order to show to them that they did not waste their effort on you. It is more complex than that . . . but not terribly so.

“Such a concept seems overly simplistic for beings such as ourselves, but for the Mydrwyll it was utterly revolutionary. It could form the foundation of a society — but even the other Mydrwyll realized that this was only likely if they could convince most other Mydrwyll that this path was correct, and there were millions of such creatures — far more than Alavelaa-Salaki could ever visit in her lifetime.”

“That does sound like a challenge. A few idealists or, rather, inspired pragmatists, up against genetically-determined habitual individualists that outnumbered them thousands or even millions to one. Okay, so how’d they manage it?”

Once more the idea is credited to Alavelaa-Salaki. She realized that the issue was that they did have to track down and then meet with all of these people once they were adults, fully grown and in their established territories. “What if,” she asked, “we could raise the spawn to adulthood with these ideas to begin with?”

The idea was eminently rational — the others understood the point instantly — but again it fell to Alavelaa-Salaki to devise the method, which would both preserve the survival pressure on the species while allowing them to control the upbringing of the resulting survivors. Together they constructed the first Seven Pools, areas where all spawn were placed and channeled through in order. The first two or three were filled with the usual threats to young spawn, ensuring that most spawn died as they did in the wild, and that only the fast, fortunate, or unusually intelligent managed to thrive. Each of the next few pools also sorted the spawn, but by less deadly, and more complex, means. Those that achieved the last — the Seventh Pool — to this day are expected to be exceptionally talented and intelligent. Hmmmseeth, the one we seek, is a Child of the Seventh.

“I think I understand. They can’t possibly keep all their spawn alive or the world would drown in Mydrwyll . . . but by carefully controlling how many survived, and then raising them in the philosophy and helping them after they grew —

A chiming nod of satisfaction from Sooovickalassa. Exactly. They ensured that those adhering to their philosophy would be quickly and disproportionately successful in spreading out and acquiring territories of their own, pushing out the non-cooperating groups. Those that were smart enough to recognize that something strange was going on were able to come and learn, and join if they chose. Within a relatively few spawnings, the teachings of Alavelaa-Salaki had become widespread and stable, and more details and careful additions were made over the centuries.

The Eönwyl thought about that, and slowly the titanic nature of the achievement really struck her. “One person created their entire civilization,” she murmured in awe. “From scratch.”

“So the story goes, yes,” agreed Guvthor. “And both the Thovians and, it would seem, the R’Thann believe it.”

She frowned, thinking hard about what this meant. “I . . . think I begin to understand. We have a social assumption in most of our behavior that doesn’t exist for the Mydrwyll.”

Exactly, Vick said. From even an R’Thann point of view, walking or swimming through a city of Mydrwyll is . . . somewhat unsettling. They tend to avoid each other even now, so “city” is not perhaps the correct term; streets or swim-lanes tend to be extremely wide, and the Mydrwyll concept of “personal space”, as it were, is vastly larger than that of any other species. Buildings constrain this to some extent, as for practical purposes they cannot build useful structures that allow so much space, but there they have rigid, yet completely internalized, rules for approaching and passing others, all designed to allow the maximum space between persons who are not currently interacting. Hmmmseeth, having spent much time with other species, was much more tolerant than the usual.

“How do you approach a Mydrwyll, then?”

“First,” Guvthor said, “you make sure that the Mydrwyll is free to speak — not involved in something requiring great concentration. This can be determined by observing the Mydrwyll eye. If it is open at multiple points around the entire circumference, the Mydrwyll has capacity to spare; if it is focused in only one or two directions, they are concentrating very hard, and should only be interrupted if something of vast importance — usually, personal danger — is at stake.”

“One eye? I’m having trouble visualizing –“

Apologies. You have never met one, while we have. Here, an image from my files of Hmmmseeth himself.

The projection showed a large, mostly-purple creature whose ovoid body was supported by multiple — the Eönwyl thought she counted ten — sturdy tentacles which split at their ends into hand-fine sub-tentacles. A bulge encircled the body, about three-quarters of the way up, a narrow bulge which appeared to be a single set of eyelids that ran the entire circumference of the Mydrwyll. Several portions of the eye were closed off; those which were open showed a yellowish phosphorescence. Two round, ridged areas were visible on the sides of this body. If there was a mouth it was not visible in this image.

“So why does it close and open only parts of its only eye?”

Because processing a complete and integrated three-hundred sixty degree panorama with a vertical span of one hundred twenty degrees is very computationally intensive, and puts a great load on the brain.

“Exactly,” Guvthor said. “So they generally keep three to five sections open to give themselves overall awareness of the region, but only open the whole eye if they are watching all around — guard duty, for example.”

“Okay, I understand this. What else do I need to remember?”

Except in moments of great emergency, there is a formal approach to use. You present yourself at a distance no closer than two meters — three, if possible — and say “A greeting and request for dialogue”, followed by the Mydrwyll’s name if you know it. The Mydrwyll will then respond by either denying you the dialogue, or by evaluating you as worthy to speak with.

“Let us demonstrate, Eönwyl.” Guvthor turned to Vick. “A greeting and request for dialogue, Vick.”

You are a scientist and a fellow crewmember with interests that accord with my own and my current task. Vick’s mental voice held a tone that she knew indicated a formal quotation. This is therefore a rational and reasonable request, and I will speak with you, Guvthor.

“What would it be if he chose not to speak? Something like ‘I do not see that we have a commonality, and this is therefore an irrational request, and I will not speak with you’?”

“Close enough, yes. The other point — correct me of course if I am wrong, Doctor Sooovickalassa — is that you must have something of value to offer to the one to whom you speak. This should be in some way proportionate to the information’s value.”

“But doesn’t have to be money, right?”

Certainly not. While money is of value — the right sort of money, in any event — information, personal assistance, new technology, and so on may be of interest. They may be inclined to provide some assistance to a Master of the Light of the R’Thann, but we would be unwise to rely on that overly much.

“Got it. We’re going to land on a planet filled with amphibious, instinctively solitary people that do nothing for free or even for mere goodwill, and on that planet we have to figure out where to find one member of this species — and then convince him to come back with us to save a man he’s been told is a monster. Is that right?”

“It is a beginning,” Guvthor said with a far-too-amused twinkle in his eye. “Let us hope it is all that simple!”