Marque of Caine – Snippet 32

Chapter Twenty-One

April, 2124

Rooaioo’q, BD +66 582

After three hours, Thlunroolt finally moved again, tilting his head upward to study the sun overhead. He picked up his walking stick, turned to look out over the Breeding Pool. The only sounds were faint and close at hand: the rhythmic movements of the Quickeners in their grottos, sending the primal waves and shapes of their calling washing over the spawn who were soon to exit the water and, in that moment, become younglings.

The old Dornaani tapped his stick lightly upon the ground. “It has been an unusually quiet day. The qaiyaat have taken but a few Quickeners.” His mouth twisted. “Your scent probably disinclined them more than any weapons would have.” His gills popped lightly. “I suppose Alnduul has arrived by now. We should join him.” He rose, finished on a disgruntled tone: “He will no doubt wish to gloat.”

Riordan rose to follow him. “Gloat? Over what?”

“Over my erroneous presumption that you would not be able to restrain yourself.”

“You mean, control my instincts?”

“No: most of your species can learn to do that. The true challenge is whether you can control your predisposition to presume moral equivalencies where none exist.” His gills fluttered. “For your species, this is a difficult test. Not only is your first reflex to fight back, to meet force with force, but your best moral education teaches you to defend the weak, the innocent. The predation by both the greel and the qaiyaat were sure to trigger both responses. Yet you suppressed them. You evinced the behavioral and mental discipline necessary to distinguish this morning’s events from superficially analogous situations on your own world, and to adjust your reactions accordingly.”

Thumping his stick down harder than he had to as he walked, Thlunroolt was silent for several moments before murmuring: “Humans will be worthy Custodians one day. But if our flaw has been reluctance to act, yours will be excessive zeal to do so. That difference in our natures was implicit in how we reacted today. Yet it is my hope that the younglings which crawled up upon the banks today will indeed reclaim some of our lost decisiveness. Or maybe a bit more.”

Wait: so Thlunroolt hopes today’s younglings will be…well, more like humans?Riordan slowed, reconsidered the deep forest, the rude huts, the absence of advanced tools, the ever-present risk from predators. Until now, he had conceived of Rooaioo’q as a reenactment preserve where a subculture of primitivists could turn their back on modern Dornaani society. But now . . .

He stopped, stared at Thlunroolt’s receding, perversely exaggerated hourglass shape. “Rooaioo’q is where Custodians come from. This is how they’re born, how they are raised.”

The old Dornaani turned. “Not all. But younglings who are spawned here are five times more likely to become Custodians. Those who are also raised here are twenty times as likely. And all of them tend to be the most decisive of their cohort.”

Riordan nodded. “So this is Alnduul’s home?”

“No, but Alnduul’s first mentor was a native of this planet, brought out his pupil’s natural decisiveness.”

Ah. “You.”

Thlunroolt’s inner eyelids snicked once, quickly. “Yes.” He turned, resumed walking.

Riordan caught up. “So if you were his Mentor, you were a highly-placed Custodian. Yet you left to return here? Why?”

“Besides being my home, it is close to the place I worked.”

Riordan frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Thlunroolt’s mouth twisted slightly. He nodded toward the northeast corner of the sky. “Tonight, look there. You will see your stars. Sol, Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Indi.”

The pieces fell together. “So you were a Senior Mentor of the Terran Oversight group, too.”

“Yes. Another served in the time between my tenure and Alnduul’s. You met her at Convocation: Third Arbiter Glayaazh.”

“But you never had a seat on the Collective’s Senior Assembly?”

“No. In addition to their reluctance to confer such power upon a native of Rooaioo’q, one of the most turbulent episodes in recent history occurred during my time as Senior Mentor.”

“Which was?”

“Making the Ktor Assistant Custodians. I foresaw it would be disastrous but was ‘overruled’ by individuals who preferred pandering to the millions of Dornaani who crave a placid existence over a principled one.”

Riordan started.

Thlunroolt glanced sideways at him. “This outcome shocks you?”

“Somewhat, but not as much as the difference between your opinion of your species and the way most of humanity perceives it.”

“And how does your species perceive ours, human?”

“Ancient, enigmatic, and, when it comes to your abilities, a bit god-like.”

Thlunroolt stopped, his head bowed, eyes closed. “We are grave robbers, not gods.”

Riordan frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Human, we accrued our power by scrounging among the leavings of the past. And in doing so, we lost the vigor to weave a new world out of the whole cloth of the future.”

His eyes opened. “Human, it is your species that possesses the truly decisive power: the inner drive that pushes you outward, the uncritical confidence in your own immanence and will to create.”

Caine heard a last-second caesura. “But?”

”But that confidence can also make a race dangerous. A race capable of limitless creation is also capable of the hubris that comes with it. We traded away that vigor and risk for a serene and longer life. Only later did we discover that without vigor and risk, we were no longer living; we were merely surviving. We became accustomed to food without taste, excitement without vulnerability, accomplishment without sacrifice.”

He wrung the top of his stick in his hands. “Your species has made the opposite choice: of aspirations and dreams over safety. That brings an opposite but equal set of dangers. You imbibe dreams like strong drink: they inspire, they embolden, they intoxicate you with possibilities. But there is a tipping point where they begin to inebriate, distort, delude. And if your avidity for those impossible visions becomes too great, they will ultimately lure you over the precipice of your own limits into a final fall.”

Thlunroolt shook his shoulders–annoyance? rejection? a desire to be done with the topic?–and started forward again, more briskly than before. Within a minute, they emerged from the ferns that separated the Quickeners’ bank from the sandy shore.

Alnduul and Ssaodralth were walking down the slope toward them.

Alnduul’s inner nictating lids cycled in slowly: recognition, gladness. “So: you have returned to the Breeding Pool to see the conclusion of the process.”

Puzzled, Riordan looked at Thlunroolt, then back to Alnduul. “But we never left. We were here all day.”

Alnduul stopped in mid-step, turned wide eyes upon his old mentor. “You assured me you would protect him.”

“The human was in no danger. Indeed, I suspect his scent kept me safe from the qaiyaat.”

Alnduul’s gills popped open and remained that way. “Levity is inappropriate, cannot lessen the severity of your violation. You know the Senior Arbiters gave express orders that Riordan was not to be exposed to risk. None whatsoever.”

Thlunroolt planted his stick upon the ground and rested both hands upon the gnarled knob atop it. “So. Do you intend to report me?”

Alnduul’s lids nictated rapidly. “I am a Custodian. You know I am required to give a full accounting of a visitor’s activities.”

 “I also recall that not all your reports to the Custodians have been painstakingly complete.”

Alnduul blinked hard, as if trying to clear his vision. “You would stoop to extorting my cooperation, my collusion? You, Thlunroolt?”