And the Lion said Shibboleth
by R.P.L. Johnson
“How can you steal from a species that has no concept of possessions?” I asked. The music in the bar was overpowering, but I was sure I’d heard her correctly.
My sister leaned over and slapped me on the shoulder. It had been nearly ten years since I had seen another child of the High Frontier and over twelve since I had seen a sister, although I had never met this one.
“See! I told you he’d get it,” she said addressing the rest of the table. “It’s hardly even a crime. Maybe we should just shuttle over and ask for it.”
“Great idea,” I said. “The Chirikti will either ignore you completely or they’ll swarm you and use your remains for reaction mass. But I guess being spat out the back of a Chirikti starship one ion at a time is one way of seeing the galaxy.”
There was an uncomfortable shuffling around the table. It seemed my sister had made a big point of the Chirikti’s lack of individuality, including an absence of attachment to personal possessions, but she had neglected to mention the rest of the package. If it came to a fight, a Chirikti mapped onto the human behaviour spectrum somewhere between selfless bravery and mindless savagery.
Mina had come to the meeting with two companions: Reason Jefferson Jura, a post-op neuter tank who must have massed close to a quarter of a ton and her pilot, Albright Smith. The back of Smith’s head was distended above the nape of his neck in an encephalitic bulge that probably housed some wet-wired neural upgrade. By the way I could feel his stare boring through to the back of my skull I was guessing falcon, definitely a raptor of some kind anyway.
My sister seemed unfazed. “That,” she said, “–is where you come in.”
The call had come out of the black, but how could I refuse a meeting with a sibling? We were so widely scattered these days, it was rare to even read about another child of the High Frontier, let alone meet one. Despite our similar genetic stamp we had shown a remarkable capacity for diversity. Perhaps our father had been a little too exact in his imitation. As well as his dark good looks, charisma and expansive if somewhat bookish intelligence, he had also gifted us with his distrust of authority and his insufferable self-confidence. Combine that with the way we were fragmented and raised in separate foster groups and you had a pretty good recipe for a Diaspora.
Mina had found me at Lansky’s Folly. The station was a waypoint on the shipping routes of a dozen civilisations. It saw more different species in a month than any Terran embassy saw in a local year and there was always work for xenolinguists like myself. However, it could be a disorientating place to get around. The transient and ever-shifting population also gave it a fluid social structure and some interesting politics. It was not an easy place to call home.
Mina leaned back in her chair and gestured to the bar for another round of drinks as if she owned the place. I knew that the bar didn’t have table service, but the drinks came anyway.
The bar we had agreed to meet in was on the 3.9 radian spoke, about 1.1g down. This particular spoke formed the border between the oxygen breathers and the quarter-rim that housed the nitrogen-phosphorus crowd, and the bar’s patrons were an eclectic mix.
The bar’s motto, “Space is the hole into which we all fall,” was projected above the bar in languages from Terran to Trux to Gilbrashi as well as the stultifyingly logical, mathematically based Galactic Standard (cosmos ≡ -ve delta-z communal locus <accidental>). There was no need for it to be displayed in Chirikti. For one, the language had no written component, other than the pin-yin we xenolinguists applied to it, and also the Chirikti themselves were far too alien to ever do anything as normal as spend a night in a bar.
“You know, you’re a difficult man to find,” Mina said. “What kind of a name is Morgan Tenetto anyway?”
“It attracts less attention than John Turnbull Junior,” I replied.
Smith, the wet-wired pilot, let out a low whistle. Even the tank sat up a little straighter, the seat creaked under its weight.
“You’re a John?” Mina said. “I should have guessed: new hair, new chin. What’s the going rate for mentoplasty these days?”
“Affordable, on a xenolinguist’s salary. Less so on a surviving dependants’ pension,” I said, self-consciously rubbing fingers along grafted bone.
Even after twenty years, the name John Turnbull was enough to raise eyebrows. I guess that the children of infamous parents get a lot of unwanted attention, but it was worse for the children of the High Frontier.
Our father, John Turnbull, or Prester John to use the title he had affected, was the last leader of the generation ship High Frontier. His was generation zero. Old Prester John was one of the first people who could expect to reach their destination in their lifetime. Even his critics admitted that he was a charismatic leader and a very effective administrator, and by the age of thirty-four he had become the head of the administrative council.
It had taken him another fifteen years to turn the Frontier into his own private dictatorship and two more decades before his personality cult reached the height of its powers. By then John Turnbull was an old man, but his vital energy and infectious charisma had never waned. He assumed the title Prester, from the legend of the mythical Christian king of the Orient, and became the Frontier‘s spiritual leader, its father-protector.
His rule was total, every action an example, every utterance a proclamation. And when he ordered that the U.T. tanks be brought online early and a generation of cloned children be quickened from his DNA, that order was carried out to the letter.
We don’t know for sure that he gave the order to space the thousands of frozen embryos stored to populate the new world. There is no record of who ordered the pogroms against his political opponents. But we do know that the greenhouses of the Frontier were fertilized with blood and bone as well as recycled nitrates and that when it eventually reached its destination there were no children aboard ship that were not Prester John’s.
It was technology that undid him in the end. FTL drives were invented while the High Frontier was still drifting between Sol and Xuxa. By the time Prester John arrived he found a thriving colony already there and celebrating its centenary. He killed himself just hours before the shuttle arrived to take him into custody.
His lieutenants were tried of course, but the population of Xuxa was never quite sure what to do with the hundreds of children that Prester John had sired. We were treated as victims of his messianic hubris, but always in the knowledge that we were also identical copies of him. He was an iconoclast and a tyrant, a mass-murderer as callous and calculating as he was charismatic. And everything that he was, is in us. I was a John, one of that first generation, sharing even the mad king’s name. That’s bound to make people look at you sideways.
“What is it you want to steal?” I asked. The Chirikti don’t have anything worth taking. Their technology is mostly impossible to operate unless you’re planning on growing half a dozen pedipalps and simulating their pheromone keys. They’re not particularly advanced anyway. Maybe some of their field theory is ahead of ours but in many other ways they’re quite backward. They wouldn’t even be a star-faring species if they weren’t so bloody tough and long-lived.
“Does this mean you’re in?” Mina asked.
“No, it does not.”
She looked at me for about half a second. One of the problems of talking to a sibling is that you know what they’re going to say before they say it. Not that we’re psychic or any of that crap you see on the 3-Dramas, just that we are so alike that we tend to follow the same conversational cues. Even so, I confess that I didn’t see her angle until she explained it to me.
“Those Chirikti, they’re about as alien a civilisation as you can get and still have some kind of a meaningful dialogue with. I don’t think there’s a species in the galaxy that really understands them. And they don’t understand us. We can communicate, sure, but they don’t really get us. They go through the motions and do whatever the Chirikti equivalent is of nodding and smiling politely and then they leave.”
“So?” I asked.
“So… the point is they go through the diplomatic motions, no matter how strange our customs appear to them. And when we give them a gift–“
“They know enough to accept it and avoid causing offence,” I said.
“Exactly!” She leaned closer, conspiratorial although I had seen her tip the bar-man for a shielded booth. “Twenty-three days ago a Chirikti vespiary ship stopped by Terra long enough to renew the non-combatant treaty. By way of sealing the deal we gave them a chunk of mineral from the neutral planetoid where first contact was made fifty years ago.”
“AB Pictoris,” I said.
“AB fucking Pictoris, exactly. A planetoid of almost pure carbon. We gave these bugs a diamond the size of bar-fridge and they’re so fucking dumb they probably tossed it in the trash before they broke orbit.”
“And that’s what you want to steal?”
“It’s not as if they care. It won’t be guarded. It will probably just be sitting in a storage locker.”
“Chirikti don’t have storage lockers,” I said.
“The hold, then.”
“They don’t have a hold either.” These guys really were in trouble. “A Chirikti starship is just a big porous rock like a chunk of soapstone. They don’t form it, or hollow it out: they just fit sensors, drives and weapons and then it’s good to go. A typical vespiary will have between sixty and eighty thousand individuals inside and they permeate the whole damn thing, crawling through the voids in the rock.
“They don’t have a bridge, or a hold or a mess. Apart from the drive which has to line up with the centre of mass, there is nothing in a vespiary ship that we would call architecture or geography.”
“It’s all one super-organism, a hive mind, I get it.”
“It’s better to think of the Chirikti as a species that has selected cooperation over specialisation. They’re all individuals, but identical. In a vespiary the use that each area gets put to depends upon the relative concentration of individuals in that space. You get a dense enough concentration of individuals who are thinking about navigation and that’s your bridge. You get a group who just happen to be near a malfunction when it occurs and that’s your engineering team. Nothing is fixed, there is no hierarchy. It’s like looking at a human brain and asking which neuron is in charge, except the neurons are all constantly crawling through the skull in response to the shifting concentrations of pheromone signals around them. It’s practically impossible to predict.”
As soon as those words came out of my mouth I knew she had me. Mina smiled.
“Practically impossible, you say.”
“Where’s the hatch?” Smith asked from the cockpit.
“There is no hatch,” I replied. “Just find a hole you think will be big enough and take us in.”
“Plenty of candidates. The rock looks like a bloody sponge. You want fore or aft?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. I was used to this: humans found it very hard to come to grips with the Chirikti’s lack of specialisation.
Whatever avian neurons Smith had grafted onto his brain did their job. He brought us down a long fault that extended a hundred yards into the vespiary, easing the shuttle into a three-dimensional powered spiral and set us down as gently as a mother hen settling onto a clutch of eggs.
The vespiary had a slight spin to it: enough to give an apparent weight of about three quarters standard.
The fault continued deeper into the ship in the direction my brain now told me was up and we set off along a steep, irregular slope.
This part of the ship was unpopulated but that was to be expected. The vespiary always allowed space for future expansion. I took the lead with Jura, the giant neuter, following so close behind that I repeatedly had to tell it to back off. If we came across any Chirikti our posture as a group would be important. Jura had been schooled on this in the last couple of days as had the others, but either the neuter’s curiosity or its aggression kept getting the better of it.
During my lectures on human-Chirikti psychology, Jura had joked that all human interaction came down to the decision to eat, fight or fuck whatever it was they came across. By divesting itself of the third option, Jura’s appetites for the first two had grown sharper and I disliked having its oppressive bulk so close behind me.
Contact with aliens was difficult. Humans are social animals, hierarchical and status-obsessed: that’s an easy system to game. We’re predisposed to defer to authority. If you can assume that authority then you’re home and hosed. Basic monkey politics.
But those tricks aren’t universal. Alien species don’t pick up on tone, inflection or body language. Some do not even inhabit the same sensory space as we do. At first contact with the Gilbrashi, the aliens spent the whole time trying to read the infrared signatures given off by the human ambassadors. They didn’t even know they were supposed to listen for the modulations in air pressure we call sound.
Compared to finding your way around a Chirikti vespiary, Father’s conversion of an entire generation ship to his own personality cult was child’s play.
Perhaps that was why I worked with aliens. I wanted something more challenging than what my father had done. Monkey politics again: hierarchy, status, be the best.
The fissure narrowed and branched into a number of tunnels.
“Are we getting close?” Albright Smith’s voice sounded anxious but that may have just been the distortion of the com link.
“Not far now,” I said. “All we need is one Chirikti so as soon as we reach the edge of the vespiary we’ll be able to ask.”
“How will we know when we’re there?” Mina asked.
I smiled. She was in for a treat.
There was light ahead: colourful cycling pulses of brilliance on an organic beat that seemed in time with my heartbeat. I found my footsteps following its rhythm.
The tunnel opened into a huge, spherical rock bubble and I crawled out onto the inner surface of a world reversed. Above me the cavernous space, curved around to an antipodes over three hundred yards distant. The surface of the sphere was plated in reflective, prismatic panes of crystal that shimmered like the wings of butterflies. There was no obvious order to the riot of light but it had a chaotic beauty that fascinated rather than overwhelmed.
I had the feeling of being an observer cast inside a huge glass prism, watching as the rainbow of colours was struck from white light.
“Fuck me,” said Jura as it crawled out onto the inside of the sphere next to me.
“I know,” I said. “Beautiful isn’t it?”
“I meant fuck me, there are lots of them.”
Chirikti crawled all over the inside surface of the sphere. Each was an identical oblate disc about a metre across at the widest point. Their leathery surface gave them the appearance of headless sea turtles but instead of flippers, branching limbs extended from their carapace at approximately two, four, eight and ten o’clock on the dial of their disc-like bodies. They wore clothing of photo-reactive film that glistened like soap bubbles in the refracted light that filled the sphere.
“Stay close,” I said as Mina and Albright Smith crawled out of the tunnel.
I checked my shibboleth. The university had issued me with enough for a day in the vespiary. Split four ways it would only last a few hours, but that should be enough. The adhesive patch of volatile resin attached to my suit would boil away at a steady rate, surrounding me in a perfume of pheromones that identified me as a legitimate visitor. It acted like a peptide marker on a cell; without the shibboleth we would be torn apart by the vespiary’s equivalent of an immune response.
I approached one of the Chirikti, walking slowly towards it so as not to outpace the invisible cloud of protection provided by the shibboleth. It was working on one of the vespiary’s computer nodes, routine maintenance by the look of it. Although it made no reaction as I advanced, I could see the cluster of black eyes on the front of its carapace and knew that I was in its field of vision.
Chirikti language included body posture and limb-glyphs, a kind of semaphore with the front limbs. Fortunately they had evolved as an arboreal species so orientation was not important: I would not have to drop to all fours in order to communicate.
I delivered the query I had prepared, something like a material requisition but phrased with a casual postural context and a structure of hormonal graphemes that I hoped would be compatible with the underlying identification markers of my shibboleth. Parallel with the query, I released a cocktail of complex, volatile hydrocarbons which basically said, “Excuse my accent, I’m new in town.” Composing this one phrase had taken several days. This was what Mina was paying me for. This, and my ability to get us out alive.
The chemicals were released from a small dispenser in the chest-plate of my suit. I waited, holding my posture in a one-foreleg-raised salute that was strangely human while the chemicals perfumed the atmosphere around me. I tried not to shake. This was the crucial time: if the Chirikti found my query to be inconsistent with the agreed parameters of my mission (as encoded in the chemical signature of my shibboleth) then the best we could hope for was escape.
The Chirikti bobbed up and down on its four limbs, acknowledging communication, and then its right rear flank rippled with a fast pattern of light pulses. The photo-chromatic suit of its nearest neighbour caught the pulse and passed it on, as did the next and the next. My query, encoded as a staccato pattern of colours, sped outwards like the reflected flash rippling through a turning shoal of silver fish. It fanned out as it propagated, passing from one individual to two, then four until it became a wave-front of information rolling across the entire inner surface of the spherical chamber. The Chirikti I had spoken to went back to working on the computer node.
“Did it work?” Mina asked.
“As far as I can tell,” I replied. “It accepted my request and passed it on. That’s about as much as we could have hoped for.”
“So what now?” Jura asked.
“We wait. It will take some time for the request to propagate through the whole vespiary. The response time will depend on how many Chirikti know the location of the diamond and how far away they are.”
“So all these colours are Chirikti talking to each other?” Mina asked.
“Exactly. Humans have encoded our language in the written word, allowing us to save, copy, and transmit data. The Chirikti have done the same thing using colour and light. Any pheromone-posture grapheme can be encoded as a different shade and the order of the syllables maintained either as a printed spectrum of colours or a series of individual coloured pulses. The light can be transmitted much easier and quicker than pheromones and the signal remains coherent.”
We busied ourselves in recording as much of the photic conversation as we could, and I constantly monitored the local pheromone concentration. I had to have something to show the university after all.
Although there was too much to translate all at once, I kept an eye out for certain key phrases and set up an autonomous program to parse as much of the information as I could. There was still a chance that our ruse would be discovered. As our “material requisition” was passed to more and more individuals, it took up an ever-greater percentage of the vespiary’s information bandwidth. The more individuals that knew we were here, the greater the intelligence of the combined meta-mind that might turn its attention on us. One Chirikti might accept an oddly formatted request; a meta-individual of several thousand combined Chirikti, however, might have the experience or just the prudence to question our motives.
The Chirikti were not a true hive-mind–their communication methods were too slow for a true synergetic consciousness to emerge–but any doubts expressed by an individual would be encoded along with the other information in the signal and could be amplified as it was passed on.
But for now there was no sign that our presence was in any way objectionable. I made Mina and the others help me with the monitoring equipment. Having something to do steadied their nerves and the action also reinforced the I.D. imprint of the shibboleth. We were broadcasting the fact that we were visiting academics. If we acted out of character, we would draw a lot of unwanted attention, shibboleth or no shibboleth.
After about twenty minutes of work, the reflected wave front of information reappeared in our chamber. There was an obvious ripple in the shimmering riot of colours around us: a shrinking circle of light converging on our position. Jura shifted nervously, the converging wave was a bit too much like being at the centre of a target.
“Stay calm,” I said as the wave front broke around us and concentrated on the individual I had first approached. As the colours splashed across its surface it laid down its tools and orientated itself towards me.
I checked the chemical sniffer on my suit. The Chirikti was emitting a complex cloud of ketones. The sniffer broke down the concentration for me and displayed it graphically in the heads-up display on the inside of my faceplate. I translated directly, bobbing up and down slightly in acknowledgement as I did so.
“Any luck?” Mina asked.
“It’s basically saying follow me,” I replied. “Although ‘me’ isn’t strictly accurate as the Chirikti language uses pronouns differently.”
“Have they found the diamond?”
Was Mina’s voice always that deliberate? Either her stress levels were rising, or perhaps I was reading too much into it. Working with non-humans tended to make me hypersensitive to subtext.
“It didn’t mention it,” I said. “But based on the overall format of the returning light pulse, I’d say results were most likely positive.”
“It’s not an exact science, Mina. I’ll review the spectrography on the fly as we move, but the light has been evolved for Chirikti compound eyes. Doing a visual analysis without tools is like trying to out-sniff a bloodhound.”
“On the move…?” asked Albright Smith: the words too fast, the tone of the query almost timid. Was he stressed too?
Jura pushed past me. “Like the bug said… Follow me.” The neuter was the only one of us whose voice wasn’t displaying signs of stress. And it was the only one who I wouldn’t mind being a little cowed.
“Did I ever tell you how the Chirikti hunt?” I asked casually. “They spit out a thick mucus that hardens on contact with the atmosphere. They trap their prey and then devour them whole, re-ingesting the mucus along with the trapped prey. Once they’ve caught you, they tend to work inwards from the extremities. It’s one of nature’s more unpleasant ways to die. I’d advise staying behind me.”
Jura squared up to me, its chest plate level with my helmet, before bowing theatrically and waving me past.
“Be my guest, Professor,” it said as I passed.
The Chirikti took half a dozen crab-like steps to its nearest neighbour and touched it with its foreleg. Two of the forelimb palps were specialised to deliver packets of sticky pheromone similar to our shibboleths. Our guide deposited a chemical marker on its neighbour and then scuttled back to work on the computer node.
I tried to run an analysis on the chemical marker, but its effects were too localised to get a good reading. Each Chirikti passed the chemical signal on to its neighbour and we followed it through the crowd of scintillating, jewelled bugs. As each passed the marker on, it immediately went back to its former business. We never followed the same individual for more than a few seconds.
Our succession of guides led us to a narrow corridor that was little more than a crack in the rock. Chirikti were fewer here and we followed some individuals for up to a minute before being passed on. We turned and then turned again, following a rough counter-clockwise spiral heading deeper into the vespiary. I wondered what would happen if they took us down a route that was too narrow for humans. Already Jura was forced to turn sideways to negotiate some of the tighter areas.
“Ask it where we’re going, can’t you?” said Albright Smith, his voice strained with the effort of climbing and something else. His breathing heavy but fast.
“Just relax.” Mina’s voice was like anaesthetic: like Prester John’s at the start of his sermons, before he whipped his audience into foaming apoplexy.
“Fucking bugs,” said Jura. “How do you know they’re not leading us to the brig or into a garrison?
“Because they don’t have a brig or a garrison. Just relax and enjoy the ride. Not many people have been this deep into a vespiary.”
“Have you? I mean, before?” asked Smith. I didn’t answer.
“I’ve got a partial on the returned light signal,” I said instead. “There was definitely directional information and a kind of telomeric suffix that shortens every time it’s passed on to a new individual–that probably measures distance–but I can’t see any material modifiers for carbon. That might just be an accent thing. Each vespiary is slightly different. It’ll take a few more minutes to get a full translation.”
Our Chirikti guide stopped in its tracks. The colours on its soap-bubble clothing took on a greener hue and then it scuttled sideways and disappeared into a crack in the rock hardly wider than its disc-like body.
I checked my chemical sniffer. There was no sign of the signal that had caused the Chirikti to lead us here.
“So where is it?” Jura asked.
I instructed everyone to turn off their suit lights while I scanned the darkness looking for any electromagnetic clue as to why the Chirikti had abandoned us. There was none. We had been deserted in the darkness.
“I still say it won’t work?” Jura said. It sat on a plastic packing crate which sagged noticeably under the neuter’s weight. I had set up a makeshift classroom for Mina and her crew in the hold of Mina’s ship. She had only sprung for a cheap limpet dock on the outer wheel, so we were pulling one and a half gravities. Jura didn’t seem to care and there wasn’t enough meat on the bird-like Smith for the gravity to get a hold of. My feet were killing me.
“It’s our best chance,” I said.
“I say we wait until they wait until they break orbit, follow them nice and quiet, and roll a canister of methyl phosphate into the nest. Then we just walk in and take what we want.”
“We’re not jacking some family-run tug,” Mina said. “You’re talking about fifty million cubic yards of alien vespiary ship. There isn’t enough MP in the system to gas them all. Even then, how are you going to find the crystal? It would take three lifetimes to search that rock.”
“I’d rather spend years searching a ghost ship than hours in the middle of a swarm, waiting for it to attack.”
We’d been around this block before and I was getting tired of seeing the same streets.
“Just stand still: that’s all you have to do,” I said. “Can you stand still for an hour without killing something?”
“Well, I’ve sat here listening to your theories on amateur larceny for twice that and you’re still alive. But I still say we gas the fuckers.”
“I will not be a party to genocide!”
“If I remember my history, you already have been. What’s the matter, Junior? Your old man wasn’t this squeamish.”
“Fuck you, Jura!”
“I bet you wish you could. But I had that option surgically removed.”
Jura sat back on the creaking packing crate and folded its arms against the slabs of muscle on its chest. It shared a wink with Smith, who looked like he was going to send out for popcorn.
“Why don’t we take a break?” Mina said.
“It was just starting to get interesting,” Jura protested.
Mina turned to the giant, a slim stiletto against Jura’s battleaxe. “That wasn’t a request. Why don’t you go and shoot some rats or whatever else it is you do for fun.”
Jura sighed and hauled its bulk up off the crate with Smith following behind as if drawn away by the big neuter’s gravity.
“I was serious,” Mina said once they were out of earshot. “Jura’s a better ratter than any cat. Costs more to feed though.”
“It’s a bloodthirsty oaf, and it’s going to get us all killed,” I said.
“Don’t let it get to you. Jura was always a prick… even before it exchanged it for a cloaca. But it’s not stupid. It’ll do its part.”
I followed Mina to the flight deck and we sat down in the two pilot’s couches. The stars wheeled by outside at nauseating speed, but at least the padded couches were a respite from the sapping gravity.
“How’s the phrase coming along?” Mina asked.
“Nearly done. I’ve checked it against all the standard simulations. It’s about ninety-five percent accurate which is as good as we can expect. I can still fine tune the pheromone mix a bit, but it’s just about ready.”
“And what about afterwards?”
“We walk out the way we came in?”
“And if they won’t let us?”
“Then we go to plan B.”
“How’s that coming along?”
I thought back to the untested, uncalibrated pile of components on my desk back in my apartment. There weren’t any simulations that I could test that on.
“It’ll be ready,” I said.
Mina looked at me for a long second, then nodded and went back to gazing out at the wheeling stars. She pulled out a hip flask and took a swig, booted feet up on the console.
If Father had ever been plagued by self-doubt, then it never showed. There were hours of recorded sermons as well as propaganda videos from the High Frontier. Every shot of my father showed him serene and in control with that iconic knowing smile, like a stage psychic hearing every secret whispered into his ear from a hidden microphone. I looked across at Mina, saw the same smile.
“You need this as much as we do, you know,” she said.
“What I need,” I replied, “is my bed and eight hours away from your psychotic teammates.”
“They’re your teammates too. And the last thing you need is to crawl back into the hole you’ve dug for yourself on the Folly.”
“That’s my life you’re talking about.”
“You know, you could actually learn a lot from Jura. Do you think it cares about other people’s opinions?”
“What makes you think I–“
“Do you know how many siblings I’ve found hiding out in places like the Folly? I know why you live out here… why you work with aliens… why you’ve changed your name and your face.”
“I like my life,” I said.
“Bullshit! You hate it. I know that because I’d hate it. We’re the same, you know? No matter how much you try to deny it. You, me, Father.”
“Father was a mass murderer.”
“That was his choice. It was also his choice to create us. You can’t just deny everything he did, not without denying yourself. You shouldn’t have to hide at some back alley university, hoping like hell that nobody recognises you.”
I looked out at the wheeling stars. The star Rho Cassiopeiae was a bright, faintly red pinprick. When I was growing up in the foster house on Xuxa, the death of Cassiopeiae had been a big deal. Although light years distant when it had gone nova, it had knocked out satellites and power distribution networks across half the planet.
When I came to Lansky’s Folly I outran its death throes and so here it was again, long dead and yet still shining: ready to fuck us up all over again.
We stood in the dark tunnel while I re-examined my original request. It was faultless; the Chirikti could have refused, but there was no way they could have misunderstood.
“Perhaps the signal dispersed,” I said. “I’ll try again.”
We clambered through the rock until we came across a small group of Chirikti tending a fungal garden on the rock wall. I approached cautiously and delivered my query a second time. There was the same initial acceptance and wait while my request was actioned. The signal returned and we followed a succession of three Chirikti guides until the last one abandoned us in a tunnel a few hundred yards from where we had started.
I asked again, and again. Each time my query was accepted but then, apparently, countermanded. Our final guide took us only half a dozen steps.
“What’s the problem, Professor,” Jura asked.
I paused while I reviewed the data.
“He doesn’t know!” said Smith. His voice was noticeably shaking now. Even the others must see that.
“I never said this was going to be easy,” I said.
“He doesn’t fucking know!”
“You’re still getting a reply though, right?” Mina asked.
“Yes, but it appears to be overridden almost immediately.”
“And you said there’s something in the language that signifies distance?”
“Where are you going with this?”
“If we keep moving and keep asking the question, we can triangulate those distances… Get a bearing: find the diamond ourselves.”
Mina used the distance we had traveled so far to make a rough calibration, and we set off to make a good baseline before trying another reading.
All I could hear was panting over the open channel. The Chirikti tunnels branched in all directions and our pressure suits weren’t built for spelunking. I watched the others as they climbed. Mina, deliberate and focused: every movement a ballet of economy, as if someone had told her the location of all the handholds in advance. Albright Smith was just the opposite: burning energy in a flurry of avian ticks and flinches and half-movements. Jura, powering up the slope, driving its mass of grafted muscle as if it was stolen.
After twenty minutes of scrambling through the rock, we came to a large cylindrical space like an old lava tube. It was crawling with Chirikti. Once again I asked my question and translated the returning signal. Mina blip-casted the output from her mapping software onto my faceplate. Three green lines converged on a spot in the middle of the asteroid.
“About a quarter of a mile, give or take,” Mina estimated. “We’ve got enough air–just about.”
“Going to be more like double that,” Jura said. “These tunnels aren’t exactly straight.”
“Then we eat into the reserve,” Mina said. “That’s what it’s there for.”
Smith started to pace up and down. “We should go back.”
“We’re not going back empty-handed,” said Mina.
“Maybe I should check the shuttle.”
“We’re not splitting up either,” Mina replied. “The shuttle’s fine.”
“How do you know? This could have been a stalling tactic; they wanted us out of the way.”
“Just calm down,” I said to no effect. Smith was still pacing up and down and gesticulating wildly. It was his wet-wired raptor neurons, I realised–claustrophobia. His falcon hindbrain wasn’t taking well to being trapped inside a trillion tonnes of bug-infested rock.
I noticed a few local Chirikti turning towards the commotion. “You really need to calm down,” I said again. Smith ignored me.
“They’ve done something to the shuttle, I’m sure of it. They know why we’re here.”
More Chirikti turned towards us, their disc-like bodies turning like the wheels of a giant clockwork engine, each cog ratcheting onto its neighbour until twenty of the aliens had turned to face us.
“Get behind me!” I ordered with all the force Prester John’s voice could muster. “Everyone get around Smith.” I wanted him at the centre of the shibboleth where the pheromone concentration was highest. That might help to turn attention off him.
Jura had other ideas. It saw the ring of Chirikti surrounding us.
“He’s right. We’re blown.” The giant neuter reached into the pack it was carrying, the big holdall that we had brought to carry our prize, and pulled out a short-barrelled carbine. It snapped open the stock and dropped to one knee into a rifleman’s crouch.
The slow ratcheting of clockwork wheels became a chain reaction as ripples of attention tore through the accumulated mass of Chirikti. A thousand compound eyes turned towards us. Colours pulsed in unison, strobes of high end purples shimmering into violet and then the ultraviolet beyond my sight and visible only to my suit’s sensors.
The translation macros I was running threw invectives onto my heads-up display: aggression, fear, violation and something else–a kind of focussed unity that I had never seen in any Chirikti communication. If my mangled contact suit was ever returned to the university these readings could earn someone a Nobel.
“Don’t shoot!” I shouted at Jura. “We can still negotiate.”
The telomeric language structure was back, this time as a prefix to the coded UV pulse. With each cycle it was breaking down in a pattern similar to a half-life decay, shortening.
“I can get us out of this,” I said against all the observable evidence.
The muzzle of Jura’s carbine panned wildly as if the neuter was unsure of which of the massed ranks of Chirikti it would blow away before it was overrun.
“Morgan! Say something!” Mina’s calm broke into shards and she spat it out in a series of sharp-edged curses.
I was already talking as fast as I could. I had adopted a posture of abject contrition and was spewing out a cloud of pheromones, at the same time frantically shouting at Jura to lower its weapon.
The Chirikti’s first shots were aimed at Jura. The bugs spat sticky globs of epoxy with unnerving accuracy. The first clogged the receiver of the carbine and glued Jura’s hand to the now useless weapon. The next shots took out its legs and remaining arm. After that the epoxy was flying everywhere. I felt hits on my legs and torso. They were strong enough to have knocked me off my feet were I not already glued down and buttressed by amber epoxy that was knee deep in seconds.
The impacts grew dull as successive layers added to the laminated shells of my prison.
We had only one chance now. Mina had paid for a way out as well as a way into the vespiary. I unhooked the light emitter from my chestplate and triggered the failsafe I had built into the back of it. LEDs started to blink in a countdown. I flung the emitter as far as I could into the air and it burst into a staccato strobe of multi-coloured light flooding the whole spectrum.
The light was picked up by the Chirikti’s photo-reactive suits and flashed around the chamber like a bush fire of burning magnesium. The Chirikti were overloaded with information. Their communications were swamped. The meta-individual of the vespiary shattered into its component organisms.
The attack on us ceased as the Chirikti around us stood dazed, their suits still pulsing with a confusing babble of light.
“We should have a few minutes,” I said. “Is anyone free to move?”
A Chirikti walked up to me, its suit black and inert, its gaze purposeful. Its back was distended slightly in a star-shaped bulge. It spat at me.
More of the inert, unaffected Chirikti appeared and resumed our burial. As the shots landed I thought not only had I failed, I had failed twice.
Then the first shot to my head knocked my skull against the inside of my helmet and I passed out.
The biological hold of the High Frontier stretches out before you, so big you can see the curvature of the hull as a horizon reversed. The ranks of uterus tanks that have stood barren for generations look like glass phials as broad as cathedral columns. Only now they are full: ghostly silhouettes are visible in the milky translucence of the amniotic fluid. You see the symmetrical discs of Chirikti as well as other, human forms: some slender as children, others are hulking masses of sexless muscle.
You cross to the desk in the middle of the hall. A light is blinking. You press it. Around you, the crystal columns stand silent and empty. Sterilised by hard vacuum.
You look deep into one of the empty tubes. Your reflection is distorted to a carnival joke by the curved glass. It converges as you approach. Prester John’s face stares back at you with bloodied eyes: every blood vessel ruptured by the pressure of the bullet’s backwash as it tore its way up from your jaw. The top of your head is splayed up and out like a crocus. You look into the empty tank and within and without see only death, and you smile.
I awoke in blackness to the sound of chewing.
I remembered what I had told Jura about the Chirikti eating inwards from the extremities and tried to guess what direction the chewing noise was coming from. It seemed to be directly in front of my face. Not that it really mattered where the bugs started. As soon as they breached the suit I’d be dead in a couple of minutes from asphyxiation.
I tried to move but I was still encased. My suit was overheating. With the exhaust ducts clogged with resin I was looking at heatstroke within the hour.
The chewing noise grew louder. It looked as if heatstroke wouldn’t be a problem after all.
The resin came away from my faceplate in chunks and suddenly I could see again. I was glued to the wall of a cylindrical chamber about twenty yards in diameter and more than double that in length. It was dark by Chirikti standards with only a few of the crystalline lighting panels emitting a warm orange glow. It was only when the Chirikti that uncovered me pushed back and floated across the cylindrical space that I realised that we were weightless. We were at the very heart of the vespiary. The centre of its rotation.
I checked my shibboleth. Nearly all gone. I must have been out for some time.
I tried to look for the others, but the back of my head was still encased in the unyielding resin. I could see and the sensors in the temple of my helmet were clear, but I could not move.
“Morgan? Morgan, are you okay?” It was Mina’s voice. I would have jumped out of my skin were I not held immobile. “I saw that thing eating into you but then it just stopped. Are you talking to them?”
I wished that I could. I had expended most of my stock of pheromones in the vain attempt to talk us out of being captured. And in any case, the translator on my chest plate was still buried.
“Where are you?” I asked. “I can’t see anyone.”
“We’re behind you and to your right. At least Jura and I are. Smith got knocked loose and is bouncing around the ceiling somewhere. We’re still stuck like you: they just cut us free enough for transport.”
I started to reply, but a Chirikti drifted over towards me, its stance a pose of dominant inquiry. It stopped in mid-space in front of me and held station with tiny vents of thrust from an armoured suit that encased everything except its forelimbs in a kind of second carapace.
I tried to get my overheating onboard computer to behave and readied some phases.
What/why human incursion. My domain. Violation!
The voice was obviously a computer simulation and was coming in through our supposedly secure local network.
“Nice work, Professor,” said Jura. “The fucking bugs can talk. Probably been spliced into our net since we landed.
“No they can’t!” I said.
“Maybe it’s an AI?” Mina ventured.
“It said ‘my domain’. Chirikti use a distributed computer system modelled on their own society. It wouldn’t use a personal pronoun like that.”
“Morgan. Don’t think about what it should be saying, just concentrate on what it is say–“
Response insignificant. Garbled translation.
The Chirikti drifted closer with small puffs of gas from its thrusters. I could see the distended bulge on its back–a black star-shaped formation just like the other Chirikti, the ones that had finished the job of capturing us.
The black shape lifted itself up on six legs and leaped across the void onto my faceplate. It started at me, not with the compound eyes of a Chirikti, or the lenses of an automaton but with six eyes of black pearl like a spider. It was a separate organism.
I could see its mouth parts moving and feel the faintest of vibrations against my suit. It was talking to me.
Why incursion? It asked again. My suit flashed coloured pulses across my heads up display, trying to convey emotion and intention in a garbled mishmash of gaudy Chirikti phonemes. But the creature wasn’t a Chirikti. The morphology was all wrong, it was six-legged not four and the limbs ended in spikes of black chitin, lacking the Chirikti’s manipulative pedipalps. Even here, in the heart of an extraterrestrial hive, it looked alien.
Behind it, the husk of its Chirikti host hung motionless in space. The recess that the parasite had occupied was a cauterised wound that had excised most of the Chirikti’s brain.
That was why my request hadn’t worked. The vespiary was already host to a parasite more subtle and invasive than we could ever be. They squatted here at the heart of the vespiary like a cancer buried so far into the brain tissue that it was inside all defences: so deep that the host did not even realise that it had been infected.
They squatted here, manipulating, dissembling, just like we had planned to do but with a couple of million years more practice. An evolved parasite: an intelligent germ with all the morality of a virus, thinking only of itself and the continuation of its line. Like an elderly preacher spouting dreams of a heaven on earth that would cost a hell to pay for, entreating people to look forward to a bright future past the blood on their hands and the bone meal dusting their boots.
With a surge of revulsion that was almost physical I saw the difference between us. I had been so keen to prove that I was not my father I had never realised that that desire alone made me different. I was not my father. I could not do what he had done, what these parasites were doing.
I like to think that I spotted the movement before the parasite on top of me exploded, but I think that was just rationalisation after the fact. The Chirikti that stormed the core were fast. They wore armoured carapaces similar to the ones commandeered by the parasites, but theirs were stronger, faster. The parasites put up a stiff resistance: I caught the edges of it through my suit. The chemical concentrations were off the scale. Lights flashed, reflecting off armour like neon on black water, but the Chirikti shock troops were unfazed. Their suits protected them from the parasite’s propaganda as effectively as they did from enemy fire.
I heard Jura cheering as the parasites were shredded.
I looked at the chemical signature of my shibboleth as it faded to nothing. We were unprotected.
The attack was also a purging. The vespiary had decided to rid itself of the infestation and wasted no time in trials and investigations. Where parasites were found outside of their individual hosts, they were destroyed utterly. When they fought back from the armoured steeds of their burned-out Chirikti, their mounts were amputated by scything planes of force or in hand-to-hand combat by the bladed greaves of the shock troops’ powered armour.
The limbless torsos of immobilised Chirikti floated briefly in the microgravity before shots of epoxy glued them to the nearest surface for later retrieval.
I checked my suit. The shibboleth was long gone and anyway would have been lost in the garbled, clouded atmosphere of the core. The armoured Chirikti, encased in their hardened local net and immune to external signals, probably would not have noticed it anyway.
My heads-up display started to flash amber. The suit was overheating badly. Sweat stuck to my face in the microgravity and flicked off my blinking eyelashes to tumble like tiny ocean worlds inside my helmet. The recycler wasn’t dealing with the excess moisture well. That was bad: the air would be next to fail. Once that went, I would have maybe a minute breathing my own body stink until I passed out in a cloud of my own exhaled carbon dioxide.
I couldn’t see any parasite that was still whole. Gory cuts of charred meat drifted in front of me. Garbled sounds crackled through my failing suit systems: Jura laughing, someone else–Smith or Mina, I couldn’t tell–sobbing.
The shock troops switched tactics and started spraying everything in the core with the sticky epoxy. Jura’s laughs turned to curses as it was re-buried. The amber gel crept up my suit and over my helmet and for a few seconds I could watch it against my faceplate, hear the tiny cracking-ice sound of its hardening.
I heard the fans inside my suit die a moment before it registered on the display then that too cut out, leaving me in darkness.
Waking up was a good news, bad news deal. I became aware of a throbbing pain in my head and the taste of vomit. I raised my hand to shield my eyes from the glare of lights above me. Only then did I realise that once again I was free to move. I was free of the confining resin: more than that, I was out of my suit.
I sat up. I was lying on a couch in the shuttle: the one near the medical locker that folded all the way back and was the closest thing the shuttle had to an infirmary.
“You’re alive,” Mina said. “We nearly didn’t get you out of the suit in time.”
“Where are we?” I asked groggily. “Are we back on the Folly?” I could see Smith pottering around in the cockpit but Jura was nowhere in sight.
“‘Fraid not. The Chirikti won’t let us leave. I had to compromise by leaving Jura out there. Don’t worry… It’s cool. I don’t know if it’s possible for a neuter to have a crush, but Jura seems to have taken a shine to the Chirikti.”
“Why won’t they let us leave?” I asked.
“You’re the linguist. You go ask.”
Jura was sitting next to an armoured Chirikti in one of the hydroponic fungal gardens.
“It’s okay,” Jura said as Mina and I approached. “It only stops me when I try to move towards the shuttle.”
The Chirikti would never anticipate that we could leave one of our party behind. They saw us as one meta-individual; holding one was as good as holding us all. Perhaps they weren’t far wrong about that.
I examined the Chirikti’s posture. “It likes you,” I said and only afterwards did I realise what that meant. This Chirikti was not an individual; it was part of a greater whole. If it liked Jura then–
“Why didn’t they kill us?” Jura asked. “What they did to those other bastards was just fucking glorious.”
“I’d say they have a history with those parasites: probably a stowaway from their homeworld. Maybe we’re not worth that kind of effort.”
I checked the readouts on my suit. The chemical sniffer in my chest plate had been damaged beyond its capacity for self-repair. I tried to read the colour and posture of the Chirikti around us but without the chemical analysis it was like trying to lip-read every conversation in a crowded bar. I could only get the gist of what they were saying. I spotted shades associated with novelty and a postural subtext of caution.
“They’re talking about us,” I said. “But my sniffer’s broken. I can’t tell what they’re saying.”
The colours on the Chirikti’s photo-reactive clothing started to synchronise into ripples of cyan that expanded outwards until the whole chamber pulsed with it. They were chanting.
“What do you think, Morton?” Jura asked. It had finally used my proper name and it had only taken incarceration in an alien hive to do it. “Looks like they’re getting ready for a lynching.”
I read the Chirikti’s postural context. “I don’t think so.”
There was a disturbance in the pattern of ripples: a chevron shaped indentation of purposeful royal blue that moved towards us through a sea of bobbing Chirikti. As it moved closer I could see something at the apex of the chevron: a small black shape, the charred corpse of a limbless Chirikti with the technological carapace of one of the parasites still embedded in it.
“Exhibit A for the prosecution,” Jura said and laughed.
The corpse was passed hand over hand above the crowd until it was set down next to the Chirikti at Jura’s side.
“What’s going on?” Mina asked.
I didn’t answer. I was too busy tracing the Chirikti’s limb glyphs and cross-referencing them to the torrent of data thrown up by the spectrograph. There were concepts of communication and reproduction, awakening and a brooding, ancient hatred. It was too much to take in: I only understood a fraction of what I was seeing, but the concepts were powerful. I tried to translate for the others, but the best I could do was parrot a few lines from a half-remembered poem.
“Or the last trumpet of the Eternal Day, When dreaming with the night, shall pass away.”
“We woke them up,” I said. “When we trashed their system it forced them to completely rebuild local networks. It re-booted the vespiary and broke the parasites’ hold over them.”
The Chirikti pushed one pedipalp into the innards of the charred corpse. The speakers in my helmet hissed with the sound of an open communication channel, the one the parasites had used.
The colours shifted around us. I saw the marbled greens of six protons, a staccato pattern of flashes like Morse code indicating shape: a pattern of tetrahedrons bonded into a cube. They could have been talking about tin or silicon, but I knew they weren’t.
I turned and walked back towards the shuttle. They didn’t need me anymore and I was tired. Mina and Jura could handle the rest. They were the brains and the muscle, I was just the mouth.
“You said it before…” I said to Mina as I walked away. “When we gave them a gift, they knew enough to accept it. Now it’s your turn…”
Another ripple of movement. Another chevron of advancing activity and another object passed between the thousand palps of the vespiary: a white crystal half as tall as Jura.
R.P.L. Johnson is an award-winning writer of science fiction having won the Gold Award at the Writers of the Future Competition in 2011 and the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest in 2012. His day job as a structural engineer has taken him all over the world from Dublin to Singapore and Hong Kong. He currently lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife and two yong sons. He blogs intermittantly at RPLJohnson.com and his previously published short stories can be found at all ebook retailers.