Marque of Caine – Snippet 29

Chapter Nineteen

April, 2124

Rooaioo’q, BD +66 582

After three hundred meters, the dense cover–mostly goldenrod trees and five-meter tall clusters of day-glo green tubules–began thinning.

“Silence, now,” Thlunroolt murmured, even though none of them had uttered a single word during their walk.

They emerged into a glade dominated by an almost perfectly oval pond, hemmed in on three sides by trees. The fourth side was a sand-and-scree shore, beyond which the roofs of primitive structures were visible. Several Dornaani were standing near the water, two of adult height, the remainder considerably shorter and thinner in build. The young had vestigial fins along their spines, their arms, and the top of their heads. They were staring fixedly toward what was, from Riordan’s perspective, the right-hand bank.

Thlunroolt gestured to the general scene. “A Breeding Pool. There are shallows on both the right- and left-hand shores. The direction in which the younglings are looking is the bank where the spawn shall begin their crossing. The opposite bank is where they shall complete it.”

Riordan looked at the latter side more closely. “It’s higher, and there’s more overhanging vegetation. Is that chance?” He peripherally spied Thlunroolt glance at Alnduul once again, whose only reaction was a wry look.

Thlunroolt rested on his walking stick. “You have keen eyes, human. The bank along the shallows to the left is notched by small inlets. Those are the First Calling grottos.”

“First Calling?”

“Mature Dornaani Quickeners–you would inaccurately call them ‘males’–shall be in those shallows when the newly hatched young swim across. The Quickener’s aquatic movements reprise the basic kinesthetics of their respective Callings. The younglings who complete the crossing gravitate to one of those grottos based on the pattern of motion they find most pleasing or congenial to their sensibilities. That determines much of their initial mentorship.” He stared out at the pond. “At least, it does here.”

Riordan waited before asking, “And elsewhere?”

Thlunroolt stared up into the sky. “Elsewhere, these ways have been forgotten. They are too troublesome to preserve, or even replicate. New fertilizations are now so rare that they must be arranged in advance. “

Riordan frowned. “But there must still be some need for them. Otherwise, your race would have died out. Wouldn’t it?”

Thlunroolt met his eyes. “Over eighty percent of all Dornaani reproduction is now fully artificial. Reasons vary, but since we do not have families such as you conceive them, natural reproduction has become either a distinctive choice or merely a curiosity for primitivists. Our species’ replacement rate dropped into negative integers several thousand years ago.” He stirred the water slowly with his walking stick. “Very few of us remain truly active. This diminishes the personal affiliations and social networks that sustain a species, keep it evolving, growing.”

Caine hardly knew what to say after such a melancholy summation. He leaned back, inhaled deeply. The lily scent was particularly strong here. The glade was calm, but not completely silent: the sound of animals, of wind, of water created a natural soundtrack to go along with the serenity of the place. Riordan sighed. “I certainly didn’t expect to find this on my first visit to a Dornaani world.”

“Oh?” Thlunroolt’s stick trailed agitated bubbles. “And what did you expect?”

“I suppose I envisioned sleek machines, busy cities.”

The stick stopped making slow circles in the water. “You are disappointed?”

Caine shook his head. “No, just surprised. I didn’t expect visits to sites of natural beauty.” He paused. “It’s reassuring.”

“Reassuring? In what way?”

Riordan drew another deep breath. “It’s easy to imagine that when a race achieves the level of technology, of mastery, that you have, that it might forget the importance of”–he waved his hand at the pastoral scene–“all this. It’s nice to discover that Dornaani still appreciate it.”

Thlunroolt’s stick started tracing slow, watery circles again. “I must disabuse you of your optimistic impressions, human. Do not expect to find such a place on our other worlds. Those of us on Rooaioo’q have made a very conscious and costly decision to live this part of our lives, the propagation of our species, in keeping with our biological origins and cultural roots.” He withdrew his stick from the pond. “Rooaioo’q is not known for serenity, human. We are known for being intentionally simple. In all the least flattering intimations of that term.”

“As in simple-witted?”

Thlunroolt moved away from the water’s edge. “We have been called far worse. But enough of that. Alnduul, you and this human will housed near here so that we may–” He stopped as if struck. The old Dornaani’s eyes narrowed, focused on something over Riordan’s shoulder.

Caine turned.

Irzhresht had appeared where the narrow trail widened into the glade. Her limbs sagged; her breathing was labored. “Alnduul, if you mean to return to the Olsloov, we must–“

You should not be down here at all,” Thlunroolt articulated with great formality. It is unhealthy for you. And very possibly, for us.”

Irzhresht’s eyes opened very wide, rims quivering: her markings and mottled stripes darkened, became maroon-mauve.

Alnduul walked to her quickly. “I thank you for bringing this message to me personally, Irzhresht.”

“I had no choice. Someone on the planet has blocked communications.”

Alnduul met her gaze steadily. “I understand. Return. Wait for me.”

“I shall.” Irzhresht backed out of the glade. Riordan had the strong impression that she kept her face toward Thlunroolt out of caution, not respect.

Alnduul turned back to the older Dornaani after the sounds of Irzhresht’s retreating footsteps faded. They stared at each other for at least ten seconds. If Riordan had any place else to be, he would have headed there in an instant.

“You cannot trust lojis.” Thlunroolt’s utterance was more raw than any Caine had heard emerge from a Dornaani. He was not sure whether it had been directed at Alnduul or at him.

Alnduul gestured toward Caine with one hand, spiked the fingers of the other down toward Thlunroolt’s spatulate feet. “You would put a guest in so awkward a position? He has no–“

“No what? No need to know the truth, that our race is split down the middle? That any overture from a loji may be an invitation to treachery, to doom?” Thlunroolt turned toward Riordan. “Would you not say the same of the Ktor, even though they too are human?”

“I–I don’t know.” When Caine had begun his journey to the Collective, he thought he’d anticipated almost every path a conversation there might take. Now he was struggling to find any words at all. “We’ve only met a few Ktor. There might be others who are less predatory, less obsessed with conquest and dominion. And to presume that we know the entirety of their society from those few we’ve met would be–“

“Racism? And do you believe that is the basis of my reaction?”

Before Alnduul could intervene, Riordan answered. “Isn’t it?”

Thlunroolt became very still. At first, Riordan suspected that, like Irzhresht, he had become persona non grata. But when the old Dornaani resumed speaking, his voice was calm. “No, my reaction does not arise from racism. Not as you mean it. I do not care about the shape of the loji. But I do care about what causes that shape.”

He waved a warding hand as Alnduul stepped closer. “Do not interrupt. You will travel with Riordan for many months, so you will have many opportunities to make your many rebuttals.”

The old Dornaani turned toward Caine, approached to within arm’s reach. “The loji consider green worlds pestilential affectations, objects of senile nostalgia. They are born, live, and die on rotating space habitats they call rings. They have done so for thousands of generations and pride themselves on having no need of help, either from each other or the rest of our species.

“They are organized into guilds or associations that you would call gangs or tribes. But the aspirations of your world’s criminal collectives are paltry in comparison to the near-universal desire of lojis: to live in a universe purged of all creatures which require green worlds in order to exist.”

Thlunroolt held up a hand in response to Riordan’s startled blink. “Do not take my word for this, human. Rather, when you return to Olsloov, ask Irzhresht what her tattoos mean. At the very least, you will discover that they are badges of allegiance, conferred only after blood oaths–or acts.”

Caine found himself leaning away from the agitated old Dornaani. “Loji society: is that what the Dornaani were like, earlier in your evolution?”

Thlunroolt pounded the end of his stick into the ground. “No! The opposite! The loji have not slid backwards. They have jumped forward into a devolution, a darkness, of their own conception and creation. In our primitive state, there was no room for, and no thought of, such internecine violence, such horrible rites of passage, of survival.”

Riordan frowned. “What do you mean, rites of survival?”

Alnduul looked away.

Thlunroolt placed both hands firmly upon the top of his walking stick. “The loji rings are utterly sterile: artificial complexes with little gravity, no germs, no diseases, and no greenery, not even hydroponics. Is it any surprise, then, that they themselves have become almost completely sterile? And when they do breed, shall I tell you what they have in place of this?” He gestured toward the Breeding Pool and its bucolic surroundings, did not wait for Caine’s encouragement to continue his tale.

“In the water behind me, there are small but ravenous pisciforms. They have, since time beyond reckoning, culled our spawn as they emerge from their eggs. However, these pisciforms cannot survive in a low gee environment. Furthermore, the loji consider them ‘extraneous’: unnecessary biota and thus, expendable.”

Riordan was careful to bring Thlunroolt back to his original point slowly, calmly. “You mentioned a rite of survival?”