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Alien Earth

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Andrew looked confused. “So?”

“So tell me what the rumor was?”

Andrew looked acutely uncomfortable. “It was only a rumor, John. I heard it from Luis, and you know what he’s like. I wouldn’t give it much credit, except …” Andrew hesitated.

“Spill it,” John advised him. He took a thin slice of taro root from the plate, seasoned it, and crunched into it.

“Well, you know how she’s always muttering to herself?”

John didn’t, but he nodded to let Andrew continue.

“Well, Luis says that when a person has had really intensive Readjustment, they do that. It’s part of the hypnotherapy. They give the person set dialogues that kick in to relieve stress, you know, built-in pep talks from the subconscious.”

“I’ve heard of it,” John admitted.

“Yeah, well, Luis said he overheard enough to know it wasn’t the standard stuff. He had the bunk right above hers; you know we don’t get separate awake quarters like you’ve got on the Evangeline. He said it sounded to him like she’d been involved in, uh, some kind of violence. Something bloody. And after Connie left the Trotter, and Luis got more open about talking about it, Trey said she’d used to live in the same building as Connie, back when she was a shoresider. She’s not positive it was Connie, because she didn’t really know her then, but someone got taken out of the building one afternoon by emergency personnel. It wasn’t the kind of thing to be too curious about, but Trey said there was a lot of blood on whoever they took out, and the room was a mess with it.”

Andrew paused breathlessly, waiting for John’s reaction. John didn’t have one to give him. Instead he sat silently, thinking of how Connie clasped stillness and disappeared herself into it. He tried to picture her in violent motion, energetic, engaged in some passionate act. He couldn’t. Then he tried to picture her as the recipient of violence, as the stunned victim of some unadjusted person’s wrath. He winced. He said softly, “Don’t they do a Readjustment sometimes on a person who’s been badly hurt? You know, traumatized by violence?”

John watched Andrew absorb the idea, saw the flickering of emotion over his boyish face. “Damn,” he said softly. “I’ll bet.” After a moment he asked, “You going to keep her on?”

John took another bite of taro root, to give the appearance of considering the question. In reality, he didn’t have time to do anything about Connie except keep her. Hiring a new crewman would take time. Time spent in port was time vulnerable to the Conservancy; and Earth Affirmed had stressed that a speedy departure was essential. He had no choice but to keep her. No damn choice about anything anymore.

“I’ll just have to be careful of her,” he said, and only when Andrew nodded did he realize he’d spoken aloud.

“Just don’t put much pressure on her, and she’ll probably do fine. She did okay on the Trotter. And the Evangeline is a lot quieter than the Trotter. Less stress. She’ll do fine.”

“Probably,” John agreed glumly, thinking of Tug and their present mission. Less stress. Sure. He took a sip of stim, watching Andrew over the rim of his mug. “Ever think about getting off?” he asked seriously.


“You know. Get off the Beast. Retrain. Get a real job, a real life, one that goes day to day, where you have neighbors and friends….”

Andrew shifted uncomfortably. “No,” he said shortly.

“Why not?” John asked.

“Are you serious?” And when John nodded, Andrew frowned. “Because, as frustrating as it all is, it’s still as close as I’m ever going to get to the real thing. The old dream, you know, the freedom of the stars. I doubt any man will ever really ‘captain’ a Beastship, or any other interstellar ship. The ancient technology that we once thought would get us to the stars: it was too messy, too inefficient. Too damn slow. And even it’s been lost. The Arthroplana have it all sewed up. Beastships are the only practical method of interstellar travel. And whatever they are, neither you nor I are equipped to really captain one. So we’re along for the ride. And it’s frustrating, and sometimes it’s humbling, but it’s still as close as I’m ever going to get. So we take the crumbs and are grateful. But sometimes we stop and wonder, What does that make us?”

John closed his eyes for one aching instant, and wished Andrew hadn’t been able to verbalize it so well. But it was true, and once in a great while, the Humans who worked the Beastships would speak of it. Quietly. Bitterly. Crumbs. They got only crumbs, but they’d cling to them fiercely. Because it was as close to the dream as they’d ever get. “Human,” he told Andrew softly. “It makes us Human.”


TUG FINISHED THE SEARCH of his archives. He signaled Evangeline to retract the memory filaments that served as his records and withdrew into himself to contemplate. Montemorossi. There was simply no record of him, anywhere in Tug’s library. Not even the most teasing reference. And yet John’s latest acquisitions had seventeen poems ascribed to him. More baffling still was that Tug’s extensive knowledge of linguistics couldn’t pin the poet’s work down to a particular time. Late nineteenth century, Earth-reckoned date, was his tentative decision, but then again, there were certain idioms used in the work that hadn’t come into common usage until the twenty-second century. It was totally baffling, and therefore totally delightful.

Boredom was Tug’s greatest enemy. As an enBeasted Arthroplana his intellect should have developed beyond the point where mere solitude could bore him, yet he had welcomed this diversion that John had unwittingly provided during the first twenty-seven years of their trip out from Delta toward Terra. After John and Connie had secured their Human quarters and settled into Waitsleep, Tug had occupied his time well. First, there had been the relatively minor matter of deciphering the language-based lock John had placed on his personal library access reader. That done, he had plundered the latest collection of ancient poetry that John had stored in the reader’s immediate memory. And since then there had been the methodical storage, referencing, and cross-referencing of the new material into his library, along with lavish notations on possible interpretations of the works. It had been an enjoyable, if brief, entertainment. But now it was time he turned his attention to his Human charges. He reared up from his customary perch over the section of Evangeline’s nerve trunk that ran through his chamber, and moved to where he could monitor the Human’s Waitsleep. They should be in their dreaming cycles right now.

Raef moved slightly in his womb, a shuddering, twitching movement that was a response to gentle electrical stimulus of his muscles. Raef was in the toning cycle. Heartbeat and respiration gradually accelerated, blood pressure came up to a carefully calculated level. The dormant body must be stimulated without being aged or stressed. Random eye movements reassured Tug that Raef was dreaming, the mind being allowed enough self-stimulation to prevent psychic damage from too long a period of disuse. Within his own chambers, the Arthroplana checked the reciprocal pulse points that let him monitor Raef’s womb. All was well. Evangeline controlled Raef’s dream cycle herself after all these years, but it was a thing he always monitored; there was something peculiar about it, but he had never been able to determined exactly what. Perhaps the great age of the specimen had something to do with it, or perhaps it was Raef’s own mental peculiarities showing up in a physical way. Whatever it was, Tug always watched it, and handled all of Raef’s Waitsleep time with solicitude. Tug’s greatest fear was that something would befall Raef and he would die before Tug could solve the mystery that the man represented to him. Tug had already planned that when his own enBeastment ended and he stood once again before the Elders of his race to present his findings on Humans, an analysis of Raef’s abnormalities would make an interesting sidebar to his research. “Dreams: the Wellsprings of Human Creativity” he was thinking of calling that dissertation.

As always, Raef was intact, in superb condition, and actively dreaming. This longer journey they were presently embarked on would give Tug more opportunities for waking Raef and discoursing with him. Perhaps even enough opportunities for Tug to finish extracting his knowledge and memories of old Earth. Those factual accounts would provide a marvelous backdrop to his analysis of Human fictions regarding that time. He was sure that the final product would be a multifaceted presentation such as the Elders had never seen before, and a certain guarantee of a comfortable old age and many breeding cycles. Tug gave a gurgle of satisfaction.

Captain and crew; John and Connie. It would be the longest cruise of John’s career, and Tug would have to be particularly careful of the Humans’ health during the longer Waitsleep intervals. It was time for more than a cursory check of their readings. Tug drifted across his chambers, rested feelers on two separate sets of pulses. Both Humans were fine. John’s temperature was half a degree cooler than Connie’s, but that seemed to be the norm for him. Tug carefully positioned two smaller feelers over each pulse point and stimulated Evangeline’s system, simulating her body’s reaction to a mild scare. Within a few moments the pulse nodules on his chamber walls quickened their pace as Evangeline’s body responded to his interference. The increase in stimulation was passed on to John and Connie through the tubes of their wombs. Both bodies responded as expected as they entered the toning and dreaming cycle. As Evangeline recovered, their metabolisms would gradually slow back to a dormant state.

A separate bank of instruments, Human made and laboriously installed by Arthroplana centuries ago, let him monitor their Human quarters inside the gondola. All readings there were normal. All readings there had always been normal. Even after all this time, there were moments when the artificiality of the Human equipment, its geometric shapes of metals and plastics, struck him as bizarre. All of his own interfacing with the Beast was done biologically. He wondered how long Human evolution would have to be guided before their mechanical barriers between species were replaced with biological interfaces.

For a moment Tug toyed with the idea of awakening Connie and talking with her. When she had returned to the ship with the tapes, he had sensed a subtle change in her attitude toward him. It should be explored; it was probably John’s doing. But the Beastship’s schedule didn’t call for her to be awakened for another five Human years, and he had no real justification for breaking schedule. Only his own curiosity, and John never considered that a valid reason. John was dry as old bones when it came to curiosity. He wasn’t fresh meat like Connie. Tug savored his simile and metaphor proudly. He was becoming certain that he had mastered the forms, regardless of John’s contempt for his efforts. John was old bones in that he and Tug had conversed so often that there was nothing new in his mind to nourish Tug’s curiosity. And Connie was fresh meat in that she was much newer to the crew, and offered much new information and anecdotes to nourish Tug’s curiosity, just as fresh meat had once nourished Humans when they were predatory carnivores. Yes, dry old bones and fresh meat. He almost awakened Connie just so he could try the simile and the metaphor out on her.

She intrigued him. Her satisfaction at bringing him his recordings had astonished him. So much triumph to attach to the minor circumventing of a rule. He had tried to explain to her that what they had done was not wrong. The tapes would be biodegraded, in fact Evangeline’s physical system would break them down far more completely than the standard methods prescribed by the Conservancy. All she had really done was to postpone their processing until Tug could scan them, and make duplicates of the more interesting ones. But her elation had not faded with his explanation. Like Raef, there was much about her he could not understand. He sensed a reserve within her that would bear careful exploration. But this voyage would allow him the opportunities to break down her barriers, too.

She was very young, and the Evangeline was only the second Beast she’d been within. When John was awake, she tried to be all business. And when she was alone, she always seemed surprised when Tug spoke to her. Still, he was convinced her reticence hid secrets rather than hostility like John’s. He would prise them out of her, but with patience and tact. His long-ago baiting of John had been an error. He had thought that in anger, John would reveal more of his true self. Instead, he had shut down communication with Tug almost completely. Tug expected it would take him another century before he could wear through John’s resentment and finish exploring the man.

Connie’s records had been easy to access, compared to John’s. He’d learned that most of her education blocks had been devoted to the sciences rather than the classics. Mariner had been her first career choice, and Dirty-Tech Engineer her second. She had managed to get her first choice, even though it was not within the top ten options her aptitude tests had suggested. He should have found her boring. But the few conversations Tug had had with her led him to believe that she was more of a kindred spirit than John, despite the captain’s first option as a Poet. Perhaps with time Tug could educate her, make her a fitting companion for him on these longer voyages. She seemed the sort who could appreciate verbal playfulness, the niceties of a pun and the wilder pleasures of parody, perhaps even enter into the passion of dissecting a poem full of metaphor and simile and symbolism, layer by layer. Not like John who only became irritated when Tug tinkered with the words of the old Earth poets. Connie, he thought, might be educated.

Despite her reluctance, he had programmed some poetry onto her sleep-learning access. Introducing her to the classics could only make her more interesting. He looked forward to discussing them with her when she came out of Wakesleep for her required alert time.

But not yet. Not for months. He gurgled deeper in self-denial as he turned away from the pulse points and diaphragms and meters and gauges that enabled him to monitor the Human complement of the ship. No, his mental and emotional nourishment must be put off until his body had replenished itself and until Evangeline’s need for mental stimulation had been satisfied. Evangeline had recently grazed her way through a narrow asteroid belt, and the bulk she had taken on was now digested sufficiently that Tug could take his share from his Beast.

Tug drifted across his chamber to where a gas artery rippled the wall, and aligned his flukelike midsection with the engorged vein. He melded his midsection to the Beast’s artery and punched his scolex into the feeding scar. They began their exchange of gases and mineral slurry. Neural ganglia writhed out from Evangeline in response to their joining, and Tug craned his foresection down to allow them to dock with his receptors. He tried to pay attention to her simplistic whining.

Evangeline was unhappy. There were no other Beasts out here. There weren’t any Beasts to mate with and only dust to graze on. There was nothing interesting out here. Only bare dead places. Evangeline wanted to go back.

Carefully, simply, Tug explained. If they went out here now, when they came back later there would be many good things for her. Captain John would be very pleased with her, and she would get much slag from the station. All would be harmonious.

But there were no Beasts out here to mate her.

He stung her quickly and gently, without barbs, carefully injecting just enough inhibitor to quiet her urges. And again, he explained to her. They had to go this way, because that would make their Human friends happy. They would go this way, very quickly, and then they would come back, very quickly, and when they came back, everyone would be very happy with Evangeline, because she would have done what she was supposed to do.

But they had gone this way before, many, many times. She remembered every time they’d gone. Why must they do it again?

Tug stung her again, for pain this time, but not much, no more than a reminder. She must take them this way because it was her duty. It was what was right, and harmonious. Didn’t she want things to be harmonious?

Of course she did. She had not meant to be disharmonious. She would not object again. She had been reminded, and would pay more attention from now on.

He sensed her repentance. Tug soothed her as best he could. There would be other asteroid belts to graze, and very soon. Of course this was a boring trip; they had been to this section before, five times before, but Tug would keep Evangeline entertained. As for mating, well, there would be time for that later. Besides, if she mated now, out here, there would be no safe place for her young’s net. They’d starve. And there were no Arthroplana out here to enter her young, so they would be empty and lonely inside while they starved. A horrible fate.

She was aghast.

But none of that would happen, because Evangeline always listened to Tug. Evangeline was good and wise to avoid such awful things by not mating at all. Everyone admired her wisdom. Such a good Beast.

She quieted quickly, her simple complaints forgotten in Tug’s reassurances. He rewarded her with a new entertainment. He showed her the winning and losing patterns of the Human game of tic-tac-toe that Raef had taught him the last time Tug had awakened him. The losing patterns distressed Evangeline, as Tug had known they would, so they switched to cooperatively creating winning patterns of X’s. Evangeline eventually saw that the easiest way for X to win was to eliminate all O’s from the pattern. Tug agreed this was best for maximum efficiency and least conflict, and helped her fill in the patterns with solid X’s. Cooperating with a higher mind soothed her as it always did. Tug showed her a universe of endless X’s with no conflict and she purred with contentment and all the games won themselves.

Raef liked the dreaming times. On his first trip out, the evacuation trip, he had been told that he would be aware of nothing, that he would go to sleep and wake up, perhaps decades later, and it would seem like no more than the passing of a single night. Maybe it would have, for someone else. But he had always been different; had always suffered because he was different. Maybe this, now, was finally his reward for all the suffering he had done for being different. To finally be rewarded for his differences, secretly.

His consciousness hovered. Not quite awake, but not asleep either. As a small child he’d been able to make it do that. He’d been able to get to a place between being asleep and awake, and stay there. Almost falling asleep, but not letting go of the thread of awareness, controlling his dreams. Lying on the couch after school, bored, with the television turned on to the afternoon soaps for company; those were his best dream times. Then he’d closed his eyes and practiced floating, making the voices of the soap characters into comfortable family background noise. His real mother wouldn’t be getting home for hours yet, and his dad not for days. Waitress and long-haul trucker. Latch-key kid. So he would close his eyes and hover between sleep and wakefulness as he went back over his day at school and fixed it. That’s what I should have said; that’s what I should have done. I should have punched him when he said that, and for once I would have been fast enough for the punch to land, so he wouldn’t just dodge away and laugh at me, wouldn’t join the circle of kids always laughing at me. Today I should have, would have won, if I’d only done that. So in the dream times, he did it, and the world was better. He fixed it until the bad feelings went away, and then dreamed new triumphs until the alarm clock went off and told him it was time to take his TV dinner out of the freezer and put it in the microwave.

This wasn’t much different. Except that he’d had lots of time to go over everything, from the very beginning, and make it the best it could have been, or try it a whole different way, a different life, a different Raef. And then he could dive deep into the dreams, and live all the lives, just as real as they should have been. He could be what he knew he really might have been, if they’d only just left him alone, so he could be it. He dove deep now, going down to just the way he wanted things to be. The nerve impulses for a smile tickled at numbed muscles, then ceased. Raef toyed with a new fantasy, dreamed on.

Prison cell. Walla Walla. That’s where he’d been when he’d first heard. Two years down and seven to go. Ugly green bunks, fastened down with bolts, and spread up with puke green blankets. Steel toilet and sink. Four men to a cell, and none of them liked Raef. None of them ever did, but they left him alone. Because he was big, bigger and stronger than any of them, and if they so much as touched him or his stuff, he’d knock the shit out of them. And they knew it. He was long and lean, with a scar on one cheek. What was he in for? Murder. A revenge thing. And it had been a big thing, a media circus when they’d caught him.

And in his dream, it was the time of the first evacuation, the first coming of the Arthroplana. Raef knew about it first of anybody in the cell block. First of anybody in the prison! He dreamed deeper, coloring in details. And he didn’t hear it on Skip’s lousy ghetto blaster with the blown speaker on one side. Instead, he’d been listening on his own personal AM/FM Stereo CD players. Black and silver, with the teeny little headphones so he’d been the only one in the cell listening on that first day when the alien signals finally came in clear.

He’d had to wait for a while. The signals were muddled and in Chinese, too. But he’d waited, while they did French and Spanish and a bunch of other languages, and then finally English. “Your planet is poisoned. The effects of the poisoning are irreversible. Within two hundred years, your species will not be able to survive on your planet. You must evacuate now, before the poisoning affects your genetics and depletes your gene pool. We are here to evacuate you. We are the Arthroplana.”

Short and simple. That would have been a better message, without all those long codes the Arthroplana had actually used when they first made contact. Raef had never understood that. Seemed to him that if you wanted to contact a whole world, you’d put your first messages into an easy form that anyone could understand, not some big mishmash that scientists talked about and argued about for years, and then put all their arguments in the newspapers so no one ever did know what the Arthroplana had really said. Later on it turned out the government guys had been hearing the message clear for a whole bunch of years, but hadn’t been telling anyone because they were too busy arguing about it.

So Raef had been the first in his cell, in the whole cell block, to know what the governments had known for months, maybe years, but had been keeping secret. There’d been rumors, kind of, in those supermarket papers. End of the world stuff. And there’d been stuff on TV, college professors and guys in ties saying like there wasn’t enough rain forest left, the ozone had holes in it, the Midwest water tables were dropping, fossil fuels were poisoning the world, all the rain was acid, and eating fish would make you have dead babies. All that stuff.

[Explain, please,] said his mother’s voice.

You know. All that stupid stuff. Rumors and arguments, government guys fighting with university guys. All the different schemes for fixing it all. All the irrigation canals they wanted to dig, all the animals and plants they evacuated and tried to reestablish elsewhere, all the laws about who could use a car or what laundry soap you could buy. The big desalinization plants, the cooling domes, the arctic preserve that turned out to be even more polluted than the rest of the world. All the delays, when they should have just listened and started building shuttles right away. All the big people with all the money, arguing and fighting instead of doing anything.

The real hysteria had come later, of course, during the so-called lash-back years. All the good stuff got taken away, unless you were rich or government or something. Cars were against the law. All these volunteer groups out trying to move forests and animals and bugs to areas where they might be able to live. Making it against the law to kill bugs, even if they bit you or stung you. Plastic stuff disappeared out of the stores, and when you went shopping, you had to take your own canvas sacks from home. You couldn’t buy detergent or hairspray or drain cleaner or spray paint. It got really crazy, guys with picks and shovels out breaking up parking lots, digging down and opening the dirt up to the sky again. People out harvesting wild grass seed to try to get it to grow in the bare places. Finally, everyone trying when it was already too late.

Somewhere, in Tug’s part of the ship, the Arthroplana did something, made some adjustment to his metabolism. Raef felt his control slip away, felt his mind slip back up to the silly dreams that made no sense. His dreams swarmed up around him, taking over his mind. He supposed it was as it should be. Tug was watching over him, as Tug always did, as Tug always would. The oldest Human in existence twitched once and then slept inside a womb chamber inside a creature that the Arthroplana called Beastships and the Humans had called Lifeboats.

Connie dreamed of the creche. She was in the nap yard with the rest of her generation. Twelve 10-year-olds rested in the warm sun, each lazing on his or her own patch of kifa moss. They were spread out over a large area, for there were many empty patches. Her generation was smaller than most. Less children were needed these days than in olden days. But that was no reason to disturb the unused kifa patches, for they were always in perfect harmony with the environment. At the four corners of each kifa patch were the four different plants that nourished and sheltered the kifa even as they took nutrients in from the kifa’s waste products, in a perfect balance of exchanges. (We must all strive to be as perfect as our kifa patch.) At the southwest corner of each kifa patch were the tall fronds of the giraffe plant, and each giraffe plant sported a swollen yellow bud. Soon they would open. Nan, one of the younger nurturers, had told them so. And she had told them all to watch their buds very carefully during this rest time and see what happened. Something very important was going to happen, and afterward, Daniel would explain it to them.

Connie liked Daniel. He was new. Their old co-op teacher had gotten all weepy and crabby and gone away to be something else. She had been older than Nan or Susie or Damon, almost sixty. So when she went through her change, no one was surprised. Everyone had already learned about it in Human bio, so they’d known what to expect. People who changed smelled different, Damon had told them. Boys got more hair and bigger muscles. Women got breasts and bigger butts. Everyone got more emotional at first, and then more serious afterward. But they were still people, even if they didn’t look like boys and girls anymore. They were men and women, and someday everyone in Connie’s generation would be men and women, too.
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