Marque of Caine – Snippet 30
Thlunroolt kneaded the head of his walking stick. “The rite is an outgrowth of their inability to breed, to cull, naturally.” Thlunroolt’s lids nictated rapidly, quivered. “They use their own younglings, still half-feral, to hunt the spawn: to devour their own kind. They starve the younglings for days, just to ensure that they become kinslayers even before they can speak.” He glared at Alnduul. “Am I exaggerating?”
Caine was horrified to witness his friend look away. He turned back toward Thlunroolt. “But don’t you–even the lojis–have laws against murder?”
“Spawn are not deemed persons until they exit the far side of the pool, so their death cannot be deemed murder. But that does not mean we cherish them any less: they are our future and so, during the culling, we must actively resist our ancient instinct to aid them. However, the loji, in their rings of spinning metal and rolling cylinders of rock, are relentlessly trained to acquire different instincts. Brutal instincts.”
Alnduul’s voice was gentle. “Not all loji who come to maturity in those places are endued with their ways.”
Thlunroolt raised a single accepting finger. “True, but how can we ever be sure which loji those are? How may we reliably distinguish the hidden predators from those who come to the Collective to legitimately seek their way in our society?”
Alnduul backed away. “I have no answer to your queries. And now I must leave.”
“You mean to depart with the loji?”
“I do. She sensed your rejection.”
“Yes. And so?”
“And so, I would be a poor Mentor if I took any action which she could construe to mean that I share your opinion of her. So to show solidarity, I must accompany her back to Olsloov.” Alnduul glanced at Caine. “If you are not comfortable in this place, you should return with me now. I will make planetfall again tomorrow.”
Riordan wanted to be back in his cabin on Olsloov, to get away from the ghastly nightmare images that the old Dornaani had painted. But he also sensed that there was much more to be learned from Thlunroolt, some of which might prove useful as Caine’s journey toward Elena took him deeper into the Collective. “No. I’ll stay.”
Alnduul’s eyelids cycled once. Then he slid into the spread-hands posture of both greeting and farewell. “Enlightenment unto you both.”
Thlunroolt returned an abbreviated version of the gesture, muttered the same mantra. He watched Alnduul walk away, burbled fitfully.
Riordan watched along with him. “You do not agree with his reasons for leaving?”
The seamed old Dornaani’s dental shearing plates grated together: an irritated sound. “In fact, I do agree with his reasons. Once one has accepted the role of Mentor, one must be extraordinarily scrupulous in such matters. My disagreement is with his choice of postulant. But, as your colloquialism has it, that is spilt milk under the bridge.”
It took Riordan a moment to decipher the perverse amalgam of human colloquialisms. It had evidently been a very long time since Thlunroolt observed humans. “You seem and Alnduul seem to know each other quite well.”
Thlunroolt gestured for Riordan to follow him back up the trail. “We should. I was his Mentor.” Noticing Caine’s surprise, he shook the fingers of one hand loosely, dismissing the topic. “Surely you guessed that. No? Well, you will understand us, and our ways, much better after tomorrow.”
“What happens tomorrow?”
“You shall witness our reproduction.”
Riordan suddenly wished he was on Alnduul’s shuttle, which, thrusters glowing, was whispering up into the darkening teal sky. “Is that why Alnduul brought me here?”
“He has not told me. Although I suspect that he wishes you to see our breeding traditions that you may contrast what we were with what we have become.”
They arrived at what looked like a cross between a hut and a cottage. Its doorway was over two meters in height. Clearly not for Dornaani. Thlunroolt gestured toward it. “You shall stay here. It has all the necessary amenities for your species.” He walked away without glancing back. “Do not be late rising tomorrow. We start at first light.”
Rooaioo’q, BD +66 582
Riordan discovered Thlunroolt standing just outside the cottage’s door when he opened it in response to the first glimmers of pre-dawn.
“Acceptable,” the old Dornaani mumbled and started down the path to the Breeding Pool. Once again, he set a surprisingly brisk pace, given his short stride and advanced years.
Mists wound around and disappeared between the tapering black daggers that marked dense, shadowed stands of goldenrod trees. Beyond them, Caine heard distant, distempered grunting. A low, rattling challenge–part snarl, part growl–answered.
Riordan turned toward Thlunroolt. “What was–?” Before he could complete his question, a sudden duel of furious hisses escalated into wild thrashing. A few roars that sounded like falsetto grizzlies, and then silence. Caine became acutely aware that he lacked anything that even vaguely resembled a weapon.
Thlunroolt resumed walking. “It begins.”
“They have caught the scent.”
Thlunroolt’s slow, deliberate speech was that with which exasperated tutors address very young children. “The Bearers entered the pool before first light. The first will have released their Effusions by now.”
“Each Bearer triggers the hatching of her eggs with a secretion: the Effusion.”
“And these animals can smell that from over a kilometer?”
“It is but one of several distinctive breeding scents. The first hatching of the eggs releases wastes and unconsumed nutrients into the Pool. That induces swarming and an imminent feeding frenzy in the pisciforms we call geel: the culling predators to which I referred yesterday. Collectively, these olfactory and auditory cues arouse the appetite of the carnivores we just heard.”
“Appetite . . . for the spawn?”
“No. But I should not speak further of this.”
“Because there are some things I may not be told?”
“No, because the carnivores might be close.” He turned to stare at Riordan in the gray gloom. “They prefer large prey. Let us finish our walk in silence.”
Riordan concurred with Thlunroolt. Silently.
* * *
Arriving just before dawn, they discovered the surface of the Breeding Pool already stippled by small, ferocious eruptions. The accompanying pattern of irregular splashes and flops reminded Riordan of schools of small fish snatching insects from the surface of a lake.
Thlunroolt must have noticed the sideways tilt of Caine’s head as he concentrated on the sounds. “It is the geel. They are catching the spawn.”
“How many survive?”
“Perhaps one in ten.”
Riordan glanced in the direction of the old Dornaani’s receding voice: he was leading them into an overgrown thicket of what looked like immense broccoli. “How is one in ten enough to maintain your population?”
“How is it enough for your terrestrial fish and frogs?” Thlunroolt tossed a desultory hand of loose fingers in Riordan’s direction. “Like them, we are evolved to it. And your frown tells me you have yet to jettison the prejudices of your own species’ evolutionary suppositions.”
“And what would those be?”
“That intelligence can only develop when a species’ pre-sapient reproductory rate decreases to allow proportional increases in the time available for the gestation and then nurturing of sapient offspring. This paradigm–that more time and complex socialization enables and accelerates the rise of intelligence–is a correct analysis of human evolution. But it is not especially applicable to the evolution of intelligence in other species.
“Unlike you, our evolution did not involve collective hunting or fighting off rival species. We trapped fish cooperatively and retreated to a wide array of safe havens when threatened. Equally important, the higher reproductory rate made it normative for us to absorb significant losses and allowed slower, less adept offspring to be culled. Therefore, a comparatively high rate of casualties among our young actually aided our social stability, whereas it would have been disastrous to yours.” He seated himself. “You will see that evolutionary distinction exemplified in what you witness today.”
He pointed across the Breeding Pool, where there was growing motion in the brush lining those banks. “The Bearers are leaving the water. Their part in reproduction is now over, after having been Quickened six months ago.”
Despite Thlunroolt’s casual tone, Riordan kept his own carefully respectful. “By Quickened, I presume you are referring to fertilization? Mating?”
Thlunroolt’s answering burble was exasperated. “Fertilization does not require ‘mating’. Reproduction begins when the Quickeners–whom you misleading deem ‘males’–release a scent indicating that they are nearing what you call estrus in females of various terrestrial species. This attracts Bearers who are not already gravid. They signify their reciprocal interest by releasing a scent of their own. This stimulates the Quickener to deposit a substance analogous to the milt released by your planet’s salmon. The Bearers absorb these deposits through special vesicles which communicate it to the anatomical homologue of a terrestrial infundibulum. The milt stimulates the ovaries to release four to six eggs for fertilization.”
The Dornaani seemed far more alien than they had only a minute before. “So once the Bearers are gravid, does their behavior change?”
“No. Unlike many of your vertebrates, gravid Bearers have no nesting or hiding instincts, nor do they require that sustenance be delivered to them. If anything, they become slightly more aggressive, both in securing sustenance for, and protecting, themselves.”
“And the males–I mean, Quickeners–do not help them?”
“No more or less than usual. I reiterate: our reproductory and gender paradigms have little overlap with yours. Quickeners tend to be slightly smaller and less aggressive. Gravid Bearers are markedly more combative and dangerous to predators.
“After four months, they make their way to a Breeding Pool and lay their eggs. And then again, two months later to secrete their Effusion and so, start the hatching.” He looked out over the pond. There was no longer any motion or noise along the opposite bank. However, the surface of the water, now dull orange with the first glimmers of dawn, was alive with the constant, fitful feeding of the geel.