Marque of Caine – Snippet 39

Chapter Twenty-Six

May, 2124

Glamqoozht, BD+80 238

Alnduul closed the comm link to Glamqoozht’s port authority. “We have just received permission to travel planetside, Caine Riordan.”

Riordan looked up from the equivalent of a “teach yourself Dornaani” program. It had been almost a month since they’d left Rooaioo’q, and his mastery of the language was still lagging behind that of an early youngling.

Olsloov had completed in-shift to the regional Capitol exactly one year after Caine left Earth. Alnduul communicated their arrival and was promptly ordered to take up a tether at the highport’s spindock. Glamqoozht’s was one of the largest such facilities: a thirty kilometer rotating cylinder where ships moored to tethers with differing values of equivalent gravity, based on their length. Sparsely inhabited systems had smaller equivalents: spinbuoys, which worked on a thrust-and-counterweight principle. Alnduul had explained that the ubiquity of the spin facilities was not merely to reduce the medical consequences of zero gee, but as a safeguard against any reemergence of the loji phenomenon. Alnduul had moored Olsloov to a tether with a rotational rate that produced half a gee,and there they continued to spin, ignored by Glamqoozht’s authorities.

Now, nine days later, they were finally being officially recognized.

Riordan waved the program away. “When do we head down?”

“Tomorrow. We must arrive early. Few of our planets have screening as rigorous as Glamqoozht’s.”

Riordan wondered if he might be able to translate any part of the planetary name, tried, gave up. “Is Glamqoozht just a place name or does it mean something?”

“It translates imperfectly as Council Hub.”

Riordan was guardedly hopeful. “Sounds like it’s a place to get questions answered and decisions made.” Unless, of course, it was like human capitols.

“Glamqoozht is also the administrative center of the Collective,” Ssaodralth commented from the navigation station. “Although it is not the meeting place of the eight Senior Arbiters of the Assembly, it is the site of the government’s supporting infrastructure, research and oversight agencies, communications nexus, and most records. It is also where the Arbiters spend most of their time.”

Riordan frowned. “Then why not simply move the capitol here?”

Alnduul raised a didactic finger. “Because this is not our designated homeworld.”

Fair enough. “So is this meeting formal, with prepared statements, or more free-form and conversational?”

Ssaodralth and Irzhresht were absorbed reading their instruments. Alnduul’s outer lids cycled once. “It will not be formal, but nor will it be relaxed. In addition to a number of Regional Arbiters, we shall be speaking to four Arbiters of the Collective’s Senior Assembly: Nlastanl, Glayaazh, Heethoo, and Suvtrush.”

“Why only four Arbiters? Ssaodralth just said that most of them reside here on Glamqoozht.”

“They do, but several are gone. And one indicates that she is . . . indisposed.”

“So: a snub.”

“Some do not wish to be associated with a prominent human who suggested and supported Earth’s delay at joining the Accord and subsequent unilateral expansion.”

Riordan nodded. “Because if they meet with me, they could be accused of tacitly tolerating those policies.”

One of Alnduul’s fingers lowered; the other became an affirming streamer. “This is why I did not press for an earlier invitation to the Collective. Because if the Collective ever formally disapproves of humanity’s present ‘land-grab’ activities, your government may honestly reply, ‘You neither responded to our attempts at, nor initiated, communication.'”

Riordan forced himself to exhale slowly, patiently. “So Elena’s fate has been held hostage by your Assembly and its infighting. I just hope you Custodians remain my friends.”

“I hope that also, Caine Riordan, but bear this in mind: my presence no longer confers the implicit support of the Custodians. To use your expression, I have been ‘placed on probation’ for my actions in support of Earth. However, I am still allowed to act as your translator and chauffeur.”

“And you can continue to work as my advisor, too. Right?

 Alnduul’s inner eyelid cycled rapidly. “That is part of what we shall learn tomorrow.”

*     *     *

The moment Caine stepped out of the interface terminal alongside Alnduul, he fleetingly wondered if he was in another virtuality simulation. The cerulean blue of the sky and the manicured green of the pygmy rushes–which were more like terrestrial grass than any other world’s ground cover–seemed impossibly pristine and perfect. The city itself was a study in alabaster and silver. Hemispherical domes and low rectangular frustums clustered around the bases of towers. Each of those tapering spires were capped by disks, each ringed by windows that reflected the sky and the mirroring blue of the quiet bay. The water stretched away from the city in an improbably perfect arc, lapping gently at pink sands that lined a coast-following slideway. In the distance, aviforms swirled around cliffs and buttes towering above dark green skirts of forest.

The olfactory sensations were less ideal: a carrion sourness blended with a musky-pine scent. Given the Dornaani penchant for slightly aged seafoods, it was no surprise to find that odor included in what they considered a blend of pleasing aromas.

Alnduul gestured toward the slideway. “Shall we continue?”

Riordan nodded, stepped on to the moving pedestrian thoroughfare. “Sorry. I was just taking it all in. It almost looks unreal.”

“From a purely natural standpoint, it is. The weather is largely controlled, pollutants are both regulated and reprocessed, and the flora and fauna have all been carefully managed. Anything undesirable was removed long ago. What remains has been genetically engineered, even the rushes. They are completely resistant to pests and blights, and grow to a precise length and shape.”

Riordan surveyed the scene again. Knowing that it could not be other than perfect made it seem less remarkable, much in the way a constructed vista in a theme park could never quite compare with a less perfect one discovered in nature. This was merely an engineering achievement, and the price of its perpetual perfection was its inability to inspire a sense of grandeur. He wondered if the Dornaani had not, unwittingly, revealed something of themselves in their shaping of this environment.

As the slideway carried them into the first urban microcluster, Riordan was struck by yet another unusual feature: the serenity and sparseness of its inhabitants. “Where is everyone?”

Alnduul surveyed the spaces between the buildings. “Our cities are not dwelling places so much as they are work centers. What you see is typical.”

As the slideway carried them into the center of the urban cluster and closer to Dornaani pedestrians, Riordan noticed that they seemed more completely naked. I took him a few moments to discover why: “No control circlets or vantbraces.” He turned toward Alnduul. “And you left your wearables back on Olsloov.”

“It is unlawful to have them here.”

Riordan frowned. “Why?”

“Security. Glamqoozht has very few computers and, except in extraordinary circumstances, none of them have any means of exchanging data. Simple recording devices are permitted, but they can only relay their content via pre-linked lascom.”

“Then how does this place function? The Collective seems to rely on expert systems, semi-autonomous machines, remote controls. And what about virtuality?”

“Virtuality is illegal here. And yes, our bureaucracy moves much more slowly here than elsewhere.” As they neared a broad concourse, Alnduul gestured toward a swarm of mobile disks moving parallel to the slideway, or, in the case of further ones, churning in a sluggish imitation of Brownian motion. “From here, we must walk.”

As soon as Alnduul’s outstretched foot touched one of the disks, it adjusted to his speed, allowing him to exit the slideway without a wobble. It carried him across the current of other waiting disks toward an immaculate concourse that led between two of the tallest towers.

Riordan followed his friend’s example, marveled at the responsiveness of the disk: he had no sensation that he was transferring from one moving object to another. As soon as Caine had joined him, Alnduul headed directly toward the soaring tower on the left, cutting diagonally across the concourse.

As he did, a loose cluster of pedestrians crossed their path just long enough for Riordan to realize that these weren’t ordinary residents. They weren’t even Dornaani.

One of the creatures was a pony-sized hexaped. Its patchy hide was a mix of spines, exoskeletal flanges, and bristles. It had a neck, but instead of a head, it sprouted a cluster of organs that resembled translucent eggs.

Walking casually beside it was a quadruped, its fore body vaguely reminiscent of a terrestrial hominid. Its barrel-chested torso tapered back into hindquarters constantly rippling with the motion of its spider-like legs and long, narrow tail. As its four eyes blankly assessed Riordan, he reflexively stepped away. The high-jointed legs, smoothly scaled and muscled, evoked a momentary impression: a giant tarantula wearing a lizard suit.

The other two creatures were somewhat similar to deer, but did not have hooves. Their legs ended in wide stumps that changed shape and consistency as they came into contact with the surface of the concourse. Bony, wing-shaped protrusions lined with spiracles emerged from behind their shoulders, where strong planes of muscle supported a structure that Caine supposed was a head: a sleeve of calloused hide housing a writhing, questing mass of tendrils. Or polyps. Or maybe tentacles.