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July 04, 2022

Extinction's Brink 06

By Alexandra Queen

So far: Rho Five was a simple hunter-gatherer, just trying to obey the rules of his people. Psi Two, the woman he served, led him into semi-heretical actions that for a time appeared to be the doom and damnation of not only Psi Two, who seemed to be taken by the gods, but his entire people as well. It seemed the old ways were open to some interpretation however, for not only did Rho Five's people survive, but almost ten years after Psi Two was taken by the gods, more divine beings came from the heavens to visit Rho Five's world. Desperate to find Psi Two, Rho Five flung himself into the star in which the gods traveled, hoping to beg to be allowed to find and serve her. Psi Two's more prosaic insights into the old legends seem more correct than Rho Five could have imagined. The woman he sees in the lands of the gods is not Psi Two, but a servant of the gods  or as she would call it, a cloned replicant  named 27, who is just as surprised to see Rho Five as he is to see her.
"Gneiss, you have to put him back."

It was maddening trying to tell if the Waymaker was looking at her or not. There were sensory organs all the way around the Waymaker's soft underbody, allowing for continuous, 360-degree observation of its surroundings, but that didn't necessarily mean it was paying full attention to her. It usually only bothered 27 when she was already upset. Like now.

Your thought has merit, But not to him; he seemed quite Determined to come.

The Waymaker's tentacles traced out the concepts. When 27 was still learning Standard Tentacle, she thought that the Waymakers' tentacles and Snap's tendrils were so alike in the way they signed. Now she knew the differences were as profound as the various styles of calligraphy lost to the Human race when the freeborns were eradicated three hundred years ago. Snapdragon's tendrils were full of art and flourish, mischief and poetry. The two Waymakers were graceful, slow, exquisite in their speech. When time allowed, 27 liked to translate their gestures more completely, using poetry to convey the nuances of gesture that prose failed to express. She liked to use haikus or sonnets for the Waymakers. She tended to think of Snap as speaking in limericks. Usually dirty ones.

"The new Human is too primitive to have a concept of what 'here' is. It's cruel. You need to return him to his social group."

He chose a new group. Fear not. Humans are known to Be quick to adapt.

A faint rustling of leaves broke the silence and drew 27's eyes over to where Snapdragon was basking under his lamp. There were few concessions to either Snap or 27 here on Deck Two. If the gravity on Deck One added ten pounds to her weight, the gravity on Deck Two added a hundred. Too much of it was hard on her joints and on Snap's stems, and the combination of weight and heat rapidly exhausted them both. That didn't stop either of them from piling down here once or twice a day to pester the Wayfarers, though. It also didn't stop either of them from bickering. The layers of meaning pile up like so many ribbons of sedimentary rock. I think Gneiss just told you to deal with it.

Your hungry roots seek Fertilizer in earth and Words. Cease 'starting shit'.

"I think he just told you to shut up."

Rhyolite's shell lifted up, revealing the many tentacles and soft organs underneath and looking like nothing so much as a turtle, octopus and centipede omelet. One ropy appendage snapped like a whip near 27's bottom, another popped near Snapdragon, setting several of his feeder leaves swaying.

Children, children, come! Play nicely or I will have Machines do your jobs.

A cable wrapped around her leg, pulling her into a comforting, many-limbed embrace. 27 sighed and leaned across Gneiss's hot, knobby shell watching several tentacle tips dance as a few others patted her back.

Fear not, my daughter. This male comes after much thought. You will teach him well.

---

The lift ascended to the biosphere, releasing pounds from her so that she felt like a bird soaring into the air as she stepped out into the cool and damp of the cave. Snap felt it too, springing out in a rustling of leaves and splashing over the water running through the tunnel. They raced out onto the grass, 27 laughing despite herself as she took the lead. Something thick like pliable steel snagged her ankle, but there were several more roots to break her fall as she tumbled forward with a shriek. She bounced a friendly kick off Snap's tuberous midsection as he wrapped several more feeder roots around her and pretended to constrict.

You would not have won had I been properly hydrated. Most of the feeder roots were sinking into the ground, the ones pinning her arms releasing her gently to snake out under the grass.

"Your excuse, my strategy. Do you need any proteins?"

A few tendrils waved indecisively. I'm feeling a bit peckish, but the soil here is very rich and the sunlamp very direct. Not like the forests of home, where the shade of the great trees is so complete that you could run for months beneath their branches and never see the sun, and where the rains are so steady and constant that the earth is little more than lichen covered rock or stale and tasteless grains of minerals.

27 lay back on the grass and watched the panes of the biosphere slowly polarize, fading into clarity that allowed the starry night sky to shine through. Their rotation was gradually bringing the galactic center into view, spectacular as usual from the clarity of space, a multihued spill of starlight glowing across the sky like white-hot embers and ash dumped in a swath. "Do you miss it?"

Sometimes. You make me homesick now and again.

"Me?" 27 turned with a smile, waiting for the punch line. Snapdragon's feeder leaves were rolled up and tucked safely away in the dark, but his sensitive sight-leaves were angled up to watch the stars. Most of them, at least.

Chasing you reminds me of chasing the lizards of my home. Portable nutrients. 27 humphed and turned her eyes away from the motioning tendrils. They reached out and tapped her forehead playfully as Snapdragon took the conversation where she could see it again. Also, you run like an infant tree.

"What? Trees run where you come from, too? These groves must seem awful stodgy to you."

A tremor of amusement. Only the infants are mobile. Once they reach the size of the trees here, they sink their motile roots into the rock and settle forever. They give up racing the wind in order to slowly digest the earth. And then, Running Flower, they become as stodgy as any of these insensate organisms groving mutely around us. If you ever seek a boring job of translation, go talk to something that spends five thousand years or more absorbing bedrock with its toes. But when they are infants, they have two to four motile roots that function much like your legs, and every morning they gallop out from under their parents' limbs and onto the plains of the plateau where they can gambol in the sunlight. They chase things and tread all over colonies of the silly yellow daisies and chase lizards though they cannot eat them. It's a shame they must grow up.

"Babies are always cuter than the adult of the species. I wonder what little Waymakers look like."

Maggots.

27 laughed and sat up. "I'm going to go say goodnight to the new guy." She sobered slightly. "I don't understand why we need another Human. Why didn't they order another Psi series from the lab? A regular Human would make a very inferior translator."

Maybe he's not going to be a translator.

"That's all we do, Snap."

Humans are their hobby. Leave the Waymakers their play. Do you feel threatened at sharing your territory? You're supposed to be a social animal, you know.

"Of course I don't! Well. Only a little. I just..." she hedged. She knew exactly what it was that bothered her about the whole issue. She just didn't want to say it and thus hear that she was expected to... Yick. No, the Waymakers were so wise, so intelligent. They couldn't possibly have such ideas. This was probably some publicity stunt. Maybe they were going to train him for someone else. "Anyway, that pocket they picked him up from was so pre-technological, he's probably scared senseless over there. It would be cruel not to go reassure him before I head off to sleep." She rose to her feet, dusting some of the dirt and grass off her knees and elbows. "I still think it's cruel to have him here at all."

I was there to see him invite himself aboard the exploration pod. He made a most purposeful and determined entry. Perhaps you could ask him about that.

"He couldn't have possibly known what he was doing."

Could've fooled me.

Mood soured, 27 shot the plant a glare. "I'll see you at sunrise in sixteen hours."

Or something.

27 pretended she didn't see that. "...because I'm going to go by the environmental controls before I go to sleep. So you can expect dawn in a little under sixteen hours."

Several tendrils thumped the ground in an irritated tap. Is it a crime to have summer-like hours?

"I'll bump the temperature up a notch. But you yourself have said you don't need that much sunlight."

It's a mood thing.

27 narrowed her eyes. Damn straight it was, the pervert. He was not going to set flowers while she was around. "See you in sixteen."

Females who long for bloomless winters are also referred to as "frigid" where I come from. Isn't that an interesting linguistic coincidence? With a snort of outrage, 27 turned around with the intention of stomping off, but was stopped short by a vine whipping out to catch her around the waist. She found herself spun about to face the shrub. Do me a favor, Running Blossom, and set the environmental controls for some rain while you're at it. I could use some soupier earth.

"Fine," she snapped, prying at the roots around her waist.

And be careful talking to that creature through the bars. We don't know how he'll behave yet. Human males are notoriously aggressive.

"I'm an expert on the species too, remember?" Damn ropey daffodil! For every vine she wriggled free from, there was another to take its place.

Just stay out of his reach.

"If he's such a menace, why are we keeping him?"

The roots released her all at once, leaving her free to stumble back a step or two. He'll be good for you.

When she turned around to stomp towards the cave entrance, all the sight-leaves but one were angled up, watching the galaxy roll by. 27 glanced down at the fuschia colored shirt and felt her face burn in embarrassment. It was earth tones for her from here out.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-02-28
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