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Alferd Packer
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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-08-27 09:24pm

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So, this story is inspired by Surlethe's "Global Mean Temperature," or rather, the thread in which it resides. RI stated that he wanted to see the payoff for the shuttle launches shown in the beginning of that story. Well, here it is. ;) Or not really. This story is not endorsed by or related to Surlethe's in any official capacity. It is, as I said, inspired by it. Consider it an alternate universe where the Earth of GMT exists in much the same capacity as it does in that story, but with several changes of my own design.

Yes, the characters in this story re-discover a long-lost Earth. I'm not going to attempt to make it a mystery to the reader about what planet they find; I'm much more interested in the process by which they, the characters, determine that they've discovered humanity's birthplace. Asimov fans will also note several elements from Foundation and Earth in this story. Sorry if it's a little info-dumpy here in the beginning; I swear I'll stop! :D

Finally, I have more written already than I've posted here. I'll get the next batch up within a day or so. Enjoy!

* * *

Jovas Kholo awoke to the dim click-gong-click-gong of the ship's alert system gently getting his attention. It was designed to let him know that there was something interesting occurring within one billion kilometers of the vessel, named by Jovas the Long Sight. Its official designation was GS-1340, but Jovas never thought of it that way.

He yawned, waving his hand through the air. A magnetic field suspended a foot above his bed detected his hand passing through, sending a signal to the the ship's computer to cease the alert. With a small groan, he stood. If he stayed in bed, sensors would detect his weight and, after a minute, tell the ship's computer to re-initiate the alert.

Becoming more sensate by the second, Jovas rubbed his chin stubble. The tone of the alert meant he had plenty of time before he had to deal with whatever was out there. It was likely that the system they'd arrived at three days ago had a habitable planet in it, and the computer had finally detected this.

Jovas pulled on a pair of pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and went over to the mirror, examining himself, as was his wont every morning. He was twenty-three, tall and lanky, with a mainly shaved head--though, for the last several months out in space, he'd become somewhat lax about it. He cheekbones were high and pronounced, making his eyes and cheeks look more sunken than they really were. With his long, straight nose, he was by very few definitions handsome, but that mattered little to him. He was a certified pilot of the Galactic Alliance, out on assignment, exploring the long-forgotten reaches of the Galaxy.

He kept his cabin sparse and clean, a holdover from his days at University. Nudging into his shoes, the doors to the hallway parted, and he stepped out of his cabin, on to the hard plating of the deck. There, he faced a dilemma. If he turned right, he would go to the galley, and he could eat. If he went left, would find himself in the pilot's room, and he could finally see what the alert was that awoke him at...0530? Jovas sighed; it was too early to want to do much of anything.

In the second of two cabins, directly across from his, he could hear his companion, Asin Welseo, snoring loudly. Since exploration assignments like his could last up to six months or more, a pilot could bring along another, as long as that person could contribute to the mission in some way. A pilot could bring along an astronomer, to expedite the process of stellar cartography. He could choose a biologist to study any life discovered on planets surveyed, or geologist or paleontologist, if he liked. Asin, however, was none of these; he was a historian, specializing in recovering the history of humanity before the Great Galactic War and the Expungement.

Five hundred years past, when the Galactic Alliance was at its zenith of power, there arose a curious faction within its midst, motivated by a strange religion. The Zealots, as they called themselves, grew in power until they could wage open warfare on the Alliance. When they won, and the Alliance was shattered, they erased the entirety of human history on every world they could find. They crippled the Galactic Hypernet, preventing what history that survived from being communicated from world to world. And, for three hundred years, their theocracy ruled supreme.

But history was nothing if not cyclical; Asin had told Jovas that much. Secular counter-culture took root, much in the same way the Zealots had, and after one hundred and fifty years of struggle, had re-established the Galactic Alliance. Jovas and Asin were the first generation in half a millennium to be born in this new Galactic Alliance. On their shoulders did the incredible task far of re-discovering what was long lost: humanity's history.

There were millions, if not billions of systems to visit. Long-forgotten colonies of colonies of colonies could have never been touched in the Expungement, and on these there would certainly be answers. Much had been found already, but the work would possibly never be done.

Asin was, therefore, indispensable for a exploration mission. Having direct access to the constantly-updated Galactic Reference Encyclopedia, he could see the latest re-discoveries and, as they hopped from system to system, catalogue their own. Of course, the fact that he and Jovas had been lovers whilst at University together certainly made the trip more pleasant, too. At first, they had tried sleeping in one bunk, but they were barely a meter wide and made for an uncomfortable night. This way, in separate cabins, Asin could maintain whatever hours he pleased and not disturb Jovas; recreational activities could be handled separately from sleep.

Finally, Jovas decided to go to the pilot room; it was too early even for breakfast. The pilot room was a seven meter walk down the hallway, and was little more than a viewer and a few chairs. All control of the ship came from Jovas directly, via a special transmitter surgically implanted in his brain. It activated only when in the pilot room, so as to avoid inadvertently transmitting commands whilst he dreamt or relaxed. Similarly, if he was in the pilot room, he could shut it off at his leisure.

He sat in his chair and listened. The computer told him that a habitable world had been discovered in the system, based on long-range visual-spectrum analysis. The computer had altered course to the inner reaches of the system, and would arrive in approximately nine hours. In addition, spectral analysis of one of the outer gas giants had been completed and uploaded to the GRE at 0340.

Jovas had almost stopped being amazed by the capabilities of the Long Sight. Its computer was the newest and most powerful model available, save those of dedicated military ships, capable of sophisticated information analysis. It was almost as good as a trained expert in the fields of astronomy and planentology, and it automatically catalogued everything it saw for later examination by qualified professionals, back at University.

This particular class of ship, the Galactic Scout, was purpose-built for the Re-Discovery. There were almost fifteen hundred in service, each sporting a wide array of sensing and communications equipment. Most remarkable was its ability to decipher language, as the ships often had to do when a lost colony was encountered. Isolated from the Galaxy for sometimes up to ten thousand years, the languages on these planets were nothing like that of Galactic Standard.

Nine hours to the planet. This was the first habitable one they came across. Of course, that didn't mean that they would encounter anyone; many habitable worlds were abandoned throughout the course of humanity's history. Some were never inhabited by humans or any other sentient life to begin with! Jovas briefly considered waking Asin, but decided against it. Such a find as this could make the young historian's career; he would be uncontrollably excited until they arrived, and, as the habitable area of the ship was very small, Jovas would scarce be able to avoid him.

Give me an external view of the craft, he thought suddenly, and the viewer shifted from the blanket of space to that of the Long Sight, light-amplified to give him a decent look. Shaped like a flattened teardrop, its silver hull was an ultra-strong composite material, able to withstand the tremendous forces of interstellar travel, as well as shield the occupants from cosmic radiation and other hazards. Advanced deflector screens further protected the ship from anything up to an including primitive nuclear weapons--a precaution against a frightened colony world launching an assault on an explorer craft. Against the the advanced weaponry of the Galactic Alliance or interstellar pirates, they could only suffer a scant few hits, but a good pilot could escape quickly enough to survive such an encounter.

The most amazing component of the ship, though, was its gravitic drive. Drawing power from the gravitational potential created from interacting with every mass in the universe, it had an inexhaustible fuel supply, so far as Jovas was concerned. The device which allowed this took up the bulk of the ship, but made the craft extremely fast and maneuverable, as inertia didn't affect it in any way, except when close to large masses. In addition to its relatively standard hyperdrive, the GS class could out-fly any antimatter- or singularity-powered ship in the known Galaxy.

Jovas' stomach rumbled suddenly; it was just after 0600. Enough of admiring his ship; he'd better eat, then awaken Asin.

* * *

As it turned out, Asin was already awake and eating. He was normally a plump man, but the months of careful food rationing meant that he couldn't even properly be called stout anymore. He had a overall pleasantness to him: a warm, round face, dark, smooth skin, a flatter, wider nose, and a perpetual smile.

He looked up as Jovas entered the galley. "You're up early," he grinned.

"Computer woke me up at 0520." He walked around the tiny table they shared and kissed Asin good morning.

"Nothing amiss, I hope?" Asin activated a ration bag for Jovas. The self-heater rapidly steamed the food inside.

"Nothing amiss," he confirmed. The bag peeled itself apart at the seam, revealing a nutritious and tasty, if disgusting-looking brick of concentrated food. "We're heading to the inner star system. There might be some interesting stuff for an in-depth analysis."

"Hmm!" Asin murmured. "Any radio transmissions picked up?"

"None so far, though we are on the far side of the sun. We may get something yet once we clear it." Jovas ate.

Asin was quiet for a moment before he said, "What sector did you say we were in, again?"

"The Sirius Sector," Jovas replied.

"Really!" Asin chirped with delight. "We might in for something very interesting, then! I was reading a new article about the origins of humanity. Some documents were re-discovered that gives us the name of the home world and the sector it resided in! The Sirius Sector is that place!"

Jovas kept his face inert. "Fascinating. And the name of the world?"

"Terra. It's from an archaic language, not Galactic Standard. Unfortunately, as the information was discovered in a copy of a, ah, a children's book, no important characteristics are given. I imagine that there are hundreds of systems in this sector."

"True enough, but we might be lucky eventually."

Asin nodded. "Perhaps. It's not really important, though. Origins is rather sleepy section of human history. Biologists tell us that all ten quadrillion humans are the same species and therefore must come from a common ancestral stock, so it is a given that this stock must have evolved on some single world. No one really cares, though, which world it is. That's why there's so little mention of it in pre-Expungement literature, and why we haven't, as of yet, found any concrete data about it. It's out there, somewhere, though."

Jovas smiled; he always loved to listen to Asin talk. It seemed to make him his happiest to share his knowledge. "How can you be sure?"

"Well, you can't be sure," Asin smiled back, "but realistically, very little was irrevocably lost in the Expungement. A thousand year old database that's been automatically replicated through the ages by its hosting company could hold reams of information, just waiting for someone to stumble across it. One of the interesting traits of the lost colonies is how much they value their history; it's remarkably well-archived in most instances. When you are a single world, links to the past are much more treasured."
Last edited by Alferd Packer on 2007-12-09 10:51pm, edited 12 times in total.

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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-08-28 08:12pm

"A habitable world!" Asin cried for the hundredth time since he'd sat in his chair. Jovas, from the pilot's seat, smiled again. The world filled the viewer, sharp and clear, a blue, white, and brown marble.

"We're on approach now," Jovas announced. "Fifty thousand kilometers. At this distance, I can tell you for sure that it's not inhabited. There's no radio traffic, no orbital stations or satellites of any sort--uhm, save the natural one in orbit, of course. We'll come back to that later." He "listened" for a moment as the computer dumped the preliminary report into his brain. "Diameter is approximately 12,500 kilometers. Mass is about 6e24 kilograms. Axial tilt is about twenty-three degrees. It appears that it's summer for what we will describe as the northern hemisphere right now. Mean surface temperature is about twenty-four degrees. Hmmm..."

"What is it?"

"That's a bit high for a habitable world. An ideal is between ten and twenty degrees, although...oh, I see now. There are no ice caps." The viewscreen flickered, and split across the middle were two views of the poles. "See? No ice. There's a massive archipelago at the south pole, and the sea at the north. Just a warm planet, is all. I'm going to bring us into an equatorial orbit; we'll go around once to verify the preliminary data."

The Long Sight settled into orbit around the middle of the planet, its ventral hull exposing all sorts of high-resolution detection equipment: radio antennas, cameras, full EM-spectrum telescopes, exotic particle detectors, and so on. In forty minutes, the orbit was complete and the report compiled.

Jovas rattled off for Asin: "Previous estimates confirmed. Also, the atmosphere is, of course, breathable, but it does have a high concentration of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Approximately 27% land, 73% water of relatively low mean salinity. The landmasses in middle latitudes are largely desert, and barren. There is some very intense storm activity in this belt around the planet. Some of these storms are extremely powerful and long-lived; less than 700 millibars at their eyes. It looks like the the upper and lower sixths of the world are most hospitable. I can't get a good reading on lifeforms, though. There's definitely plant life, maybe grasses or lichens or something at the polar latitudes. I have to take the ship underneath the cloud cover and sweep the planet."

Asin rose slightly in his chair. "Are you sure that's safe?"

"If I wasn't, I'd be a very poor pilot," Jovas grinned. "Don't worry, the ship's computer is going to activate the deflector screens when necessary. It decreases the accuracy of the scans somewhat, but the intensity of those storms probably mean that there's very little to detect anyway. Still, we'll be methodical about it."

"How long will it take?"

"About fifty orbits around the planet, or ninety-six hours or so. If I go too much faster, I'll risk heating the hull up unacceptably." Jovas finished constructing the instructions for the computer, and set it to the task. The ship plunged confidently through the atmosphere and began its work.

Jovas stood up. "Well, there's very little to do now, except wait. I suggest we find a way to distract ourselves for a while, as the view is going to be very boring for most of this."

* * *

Jovas "listened" to the report as the computer dumped it into his brain. His stomach tightened with the thrill of discovery. He tried, nonetheless, to retain an even timber as he spoke with Asin.

"You're not going to believe this," Jovas said, "but there are people living on this world."

"What!?" Asin cried out. "Where? I saw no cities."

"This is amazing. This planet is an anachronism, a pre-prehistoric world, I think you call it."

"Are you serious? Pre-prehistoric? There have been exactly two worlds in all of Galactic history which qualify for such a status. Are you absolutely sure?"

"Absolutely, Asin. The computer analyzed the conditions under which the people lived and compared them to the conditions described for pre- and pre-prehistoric worlds. It found the following: the populace of the entire world is under one million. They have no agriculture, and subsist entirely on hunting and gathering. They have no capacity for domestication, no written language evident, and they sleep either out in the open or in naturally-formed shelters. Their toolmaking skills consists of stone axes, knives, and spears; there is no metalworking of any sort. All of these conditions exceed the requirements of pre-prehistoric world."

Asin fairly bounced in his chair. "My goodness! This is--I am stunned! This planet is so primitive, I don't even think we can call it a pre-prehistoric world. I'm going to have to come up with a new classification--Jovas, this planet is going to make my career! And yours too, I might add. You'll be commanding a sector cruiser before you know it!"

"Well, if you say so, my friend. I imagine you're going to want to look at the data in depth. We have some images of the habitations available." Jovas sent the commands to the computer, and the viewer suddenly displayed image after image of small figures gathering around smoky bonfires.

"The computer did not find one single settlement under fifty-three degrees latitude, north or south. The bulk of the population lives on the northern landmasses, anywhere from fifty-eight degrees latitude to eighty-one degrees latitude. The climate is semiarid continental or maritime, with the dominant landmass being steppe or grassland--"

"One moment," Asin said suddenly. "The population isn't centered on one landmass?"

"Actually, no. Let me call up the results..." Even as he spoke, the viewscreen flickered. Like the skin of a fruit, the surface of the planet peeled away so that they could see the whole thing. On this, a red overlay covered several spots. "These red spots indicate the rough ranges of the populations. As you can see, there are a few populations on the southernmost peninsula of the large north-south continent, but mainly, the northern areas are populated, including several large islands here, here, and here."

"This is something entirely unprecedented!" Asin stood and began to pace around the pilot's room. He could only manage three or so hurried steps before he had to turn. He peered down into his pocket viewer, which was tapped directly into the GRE. "There are two recorded pre-prehistoric worlds. One was Bifur. A world had been terraformed, pending the arrival of a colony ship. The colony ship crashed instead on Bifur, ten thousand light years from its terraformed target, and twenty children were the only survivors. They managed to subsist as hunter-gatherers for several generations, but their descendants used the wreckage of the ship, including its seed vault, to begin primitive agriculture. After approximately two thousand years in isolation, they were discovered by the Galactic Alliance. What was unique about them was that, radiating outward from the original settlement, they remained geographically isolated in a relatively small area, blocked by mountains on one side and the ocean on another. They never managed to spread out.

"The other planet was Delocos. This world was metal-poor, and as such, relied on imports. A massive impactor hit one of the other planets in the system, and created a navigation hazard that made importation of manufactured goods impossible. A farming world, the situation grew more and more primitive, and the world was isolated for five thousand years. When the navigation hazard cleared of its own accord, what population was left on Delocos existed in a pre-prehistoric state, barely scratching out an existence with the most primitive of agriculture.

"But again, they were settled on one landmass, geographically isolated. This," Asin gestured wildly at the screen, "is something completely unknown. How did the population migrate so far?"

"Well, might not the planet have been settled in multiple areas?" Jovas offered.

"Practicality demands that there be a single initial settlement when colonizing a world," Asin said. "Historically, this has been done since...well, since the dawn of history. As the colony grows and resources further exploited, new settlements are made."

"So, could that not have happened here?"

"But why the regression? Why the complete and utter failure of every aspect of modern life across the entire planet? No traces of technology, apart from stone implements? No dwellings? No agriculture at all? We should've heard about this, even in post-Expungement literature. Now, I'm no paleontologist, but I would wager that what we're seeing here is exactly how humankind got its first start, when..."

"When what?"

"When humankind, my friend, was isolated to a single planet."

A shiver rose up Jovas' back. "Terra?"

"Indeed." Asin turned back to the viewscreen. "But it makes no sense. To get into space, a prehistoric world would still have had to have mastered crude industry. They definitely would have had to have harnessed the atom. We historians have guessed at some of the other requirements, like certain capabilities regarding mathematics, physics, chemistry, and so on. Similarly, they would've needed a population over, say, eight billion."


"Well, on a typical world, resources normally exist to grant a comfortable existence to perhaps one billion individuals. Eight billion would generate massive resource shortfalls, which, in turn, would demand that space be explored for exploitable resources. At least, the simulations I've seen point to such conclusions."

"So, is this Terra?" Jovas asked. "Is this humankind's birthplace?"

"No, it couldn't..." Asin paused. "It's highly unlikely that this is Terra. We're becoming overly enthusiastic about this, and I am to blame. No, this is simply a remarkable discovery of perhaps the most ancient lost colony of humanity. They could have existed, shut out from the Galaxy, for over twenty thousand years...or more! Cut off from culture and technology, their large population consumed the planet's resources, and technology fell, and fell, and fell. Perhaps natural disasters contributed to it. A Level 12 impactor would disrupt an isolated population to the point of near extinction. Or perhaps there was a civil war. Isolated populations, it has been shown, act very strangely. But how did it happen?"

"Well, we can orbit the world for the next decade and gather all sorts of data, but that won't answer what happened here. What do you recommend we do to answer this question?"

"Make contact," Asin answered flatly. "We interview segments of the population and learn their legends and lore. We compare oral traditions amongst geographically isolated regions, and any commonalities we discover will lead us to the truth. It'll take us a good couple of months, I'm sure, but it'll be time well spent. I'll even give you a co-writing credit on the paper."

Jovas grinned. "Alright. Since I am a lowly pilot, and this sort of sociohistorical event is your forte, I defer to your lead. Set a plan, and I will make it happen."

"Well, those people down there aren't going anywhere...well, ever, so I'll take a few days to come up with something. The greatest temptation is going to be not posting our findings to the GRE, but even worse, I'll have to be careful about what I access. There are all sorts of parasites watching the Net, seeing what we explorers are accessing, trying to discern what it is we're dealing with. The last thing we need is another ship coming along and poaching our find; or worse, they send out an expeditionary cruiser." His voice dropped. "I think I might have to DAT myself, as well. I don't know all that much about arranging such outings as this. I'll just have to come up with a way of doing it without attracting undue attention."

Jovas nodded. "Agreed. Well, I'll put us back in equatorial orbit, I'll also make available all the data on the planet on your viewer, including anything new the computer discovers. Take your few days, and we'll move forward."
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Alferd Packer
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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-08-30 05:52pm

Jovas was panting with excitement, giddy as he could ever remember being. Had he even been this exuberant when he received the command codes for the Long Sight? Striding quickly from the pilot's room, he barged into Asin's cabin, where the latter was hard at work at his desk.

"Did you see what I just uploaded to your viewer?" Jovas nearly shouted, pulling up another chair.

Asin blinked a few times, then responded slowly, "Uhm, no. I didn't."

"Well, look!"

As if shaken awake from sleep, Asin turned away from his desktop computer and picked up his portable viewer. Looking up at Jovas uncertainly, he turned back to the screen, studying it for a long while.

Finally, he asked, "What is it?"

"It's a structure! It's an artificial structure!"

"Sooo...the people on the planet can create structures. That's f--"

"No!" Jovas barked. He then realized that he had gotten ahead of himself, and he continued at a more even pace. "Since you've been working, I took the ship out of orbit to perform an in-depth analysis of the satellite. To satisfy my own curiosity, you see. The computer spotted this image on its surface."

"A structure on the satellite? Why is this so important, Jovas?"

"Because it's not exactly a structure; it's a vehicle."

Asin straightened up. "One of ours? Pirates? Mercenaries?"

"None of the above. It matches nothing in the GRE or the ship's own databases. I think it was made by the world below."

"They explored their own moon?" Asin frowned. "That is very strange."

"Oh, but it gets stranger!" Jovas crowed. "Look at the next image. I sent down a surface probe with a camera for a closer look."

Now it was Asin's turn to stutter with excitement. "That is a landing craft! But it's partially collapsed!" And there's a pole with something on it, like a sheet or a flag?"

Jovas nodded. "Isn't this amazing?"

"And how!" Asin cried, an excited laugh escaping him. "The pattern on the flag is faded, but it...look, there's the same pattern on the craft. How strange!"

"I saved the best for last, my friend. See the next image."

Asin's silence said it all. "It's a plaque. It was on the one of the legs of the craft. The probe got a good look at it. The computer's working on the writing right now; with such a small sample size, it may not be able to decipher it. But..."

"The image of the planet on the plaque!" Asin finished, "It's very similar to the planet below."

Jovas nodded again. "The computer already confirmed that. There are no statistically significant differences between that image and the hemispheres of the planet, given the crudity of the drawing. So I guess these people did explore their own moon at some point during their isolation."

"Remarkable! I can see why you were so excited! This sort of activity is almost unaccountably implausible, but yet, here we are!" He set the view down on his desk. "I wonder if the people have codified this in their legends and lore. I...this is completely unprecedented!" Then, sheepishly: "I say that entirely too much. Remind me to download the GRE's thesaurus later." Each was silent in thought for a moment.

"I've seen those letters before!" Asin exclaimed suddenly. He pulled them back up on his portable viewer. "The ones on the plaque. I've seen letters like them at University!"

"Where?" Jovas asked.

"Oh, ah, in one of the upper-level history buildings," Asin added, a bit red-faced. "There's a display of one of the Alliance's greatest generals from about five thousand years ago. A quote of his is inscribed underneath his image in Galactic standard and these letters!" Asin swung back to his desktop computer, where he began to access the GRE. "Oh, by the way, I'm using a spoofer when accessing the GRE. It looks like a ship on the other side of the Galaxy is accessing this data right now. A gift from an ex-lover."

Jovas shook his head. "Well, I suppose if your charms were to come in handy, it should be now."

Asin called up the picture in question. "See? General Qa Solip. He came from a world with an archaic local dialect, and he insisted on speaking it whenever applicable. So, when it came time to memorialize him, they wrote this little quip in his native speech. This particular piece survived the Expungement in the private bunker of a wealthy, influential Zealot, whose family--"

"Asin," Jovas interrupted quietly. "What does it say?"

"Oh! Well, in Standard, it says, 'Crush your enemies and drive them before you. This is what is best in the life of a man of war.' If you ask me, it's not a very good saying, which is probably why it's not on display in a museum somewhere, but since it did survive the Expungement..."

"Upload that image to the ship's computer." Jovas stood and went to the pilot room.

There, it only took the computer a dozen minutes to compare the general's translated quote to the text on the plaque, and make as good a translation as they would get. The translated text flashed on the main viewer, magnificent and powerful:

JULY 1969 A.D.

Beneath that was a list of names with decorative markings above them.

"What a strange history these people have had!" Asin spoke finally. "Isolated, they forget that there are thousands of other worlds with humans on them. They develop a prehistoric society and think it an achievement to travel to their own satellite! And perhaps even stranger is that they share an archaic dialect with at least one other world. They must be a colony of it!"

"So, this tells us a few things we didn't know before," Jovas said. "Namely, that they call their planet 'Earth.' Also, it looks like there's some sort of dating convention on the plaque. This landing took place in the 1,969th year of some important era. Maybe the 'July' era?"

Asin shook his head. "I would guess that the era is A.D., whatever that means. Since the dawn of history, dates have always run in the same fashion. Second, minute, hour, day, month, year, era."

"Oh? Why's that?"

Asin shrugged. "Because that's the way the computers accept date information. That's why we have Galactic Standard months and years in the first place: our computers demand it."

"Of course. It seems we do a great many things because computers demand it that way." Jovas leaned back. "Alright, we have a few new clues to search for in the GRE. Check on the A.D era, see if you can place in the Galactic chronology somewhere. I've got the probe on the surface analyzing the metals. Based the amount of solar radiation it's received, the moon's orbital characteristics, and the properties of the star, I should be able to get an approximate age of that craft."

"I'm already looking. Also, I'm searching for the name 'Earth' in relation to the General's homeworld," Asin added. "It may not be listed as an official colony, but I'll see what I can find." He looked up for a moment. "We're starting to get a clearer picture. This is a thrilling experience, Jovas. Thank you for convincing me to come with you on this voyage!"

Jovas winked. "The very convincing was all the thanks I need from you, Asin."

Asin blushed. "Your words will drive us to distraction! And just when I've started to make a bit of progress on our excursion plans, too!"

"You did DAT yourself then?" Jovas straightened up in his seat, a bit wary. "How did you manage to do it without attracting the usual attention from University?"

"Well, ah..." Asin rubbed the back of his neck quickly.

"You used an unofficial repository?!" Jovas roared in sudden rage. "Do you know how danger--this is your brain we're talking about here! Who knows what was in the DAT you got?"

"Relax, Jovas," Asin said with a minimal amount of conviction. "I know the repository's administrator, and I trust him. In fact, he was the one who gave me the spoofer. He personally verified the data by DATing a Sim, and then running a diagnostic on it. It was exactly the same as what lies in the DAT repositories at University."

Jovas, holding his breath throughout this, exhaled slowly and loudly. "Very well then. I apologize for yelling. But Asin, the last thing I want is to have your personality overwritten by some jokester pirate from a world halfway across the Galaxy." He laid his hand on Asin's. "I prefer you exactly as you are."

And as Asin had just said, Jovas' words drove them both to distraction for a quite a while.

* * *

In Asin's cabin, Jovas sat and watched and Asin went over his notes once more. He looked utterly miserable: glistening brow, pale complexion (at least, as pale as Asin could be), and trembling form.

"No wonder you used to complain about having to give speeches at University," Jovas remarked with a grin. Asin ignored him, as he seemed entirely enthralled by his notes. Finally, he looked up, a thousand-meter stare in his eyes, and began.

"To begin to piece together the history of the planet Earth, we are presented with a most unique task. We cannot simply decipher what books they have or study their monuments; indeed, they have none. We must instead acquire the inhabitants' legend and lore via direct contact and oral dissemination. This process must be repeated for several large, geographically isolated population groups. Similarities found in these separate tales will give credence to certain aspects, and from this we can begin to reconstruct how Earth fell into a such a state." He paused briefly. "Questions so far?"

Jovas beamed. "None yet."

"Very well. If you'll turn your attention to the viewer in front of you, I've selected, with the computer's and your help, five distinct regions in which we will land. Four of these regions lie in what we have described as the northern hemisphere, with the last in the southern. Each contact will follow roughly the same procedure: we will land during the time when most of the inhabitants are sleeping. We will approach them after performing soil and atmospheric sampling, as well as some other necessary ship maintenance.

"Contact will consist of long-range observation, at first. Using sensing equipment, we will listen to their speech to allow the computer to be able to translate their local dialect. We will then enter their midst with confidence and initiate contact. Attempts at hostility, I am told, will be impossible, as the field suits we wear will protect us from any sort of mundane harm they will be able to affect."

Jovas nodded with a smile. Asin offered a small one back, and continued. "It may be difficult to gain the trust of the group. They are most likely to react with fear at our sudden appearance. Time is, unfortunately, the only way to mitigate this fear and gain trust. We will, then, probably have to spend several days among them. During this time, we will collect various, non-invasive samples of the inhabitants and store them for later analysis on board the Long Sight. Eventually, we will collect DNA from all group members for comprehensive analysis, and, coupled with our acquisition of their legends, we depart for the next location. Our total time should not exceed forty Galactic Standard days."

Jovas sat in silence for a moment. Asin then added quickly, "Uhn, I'm done. More detailed briefings can be found on your viewer. Thank you."

"No, thank you," Jovas murmured, unable to keep his grin down. "If I may have the floor?"

"By all means!" Asin stammered, and hesitantly shuffled over to the spot where Jovas sat a few moments before. Jovas stood in front of him, glanced quickly at his viewer, cast it aside, and began his own briefing.

"While you remain the coordinator of the mission, I am master of this vessel and therefore will hold command while on the surface," he intoned gravely. "As we are entering an unknown environment, we will avail ourselves fully of the equipment the Alliance has benevolently seen fit to pack into this vessel's hold.

"First! The field suit!" He produced a satchel from underneath Asin's desk. He touched a seam and it unraveled, revealing a beige and red one-piece jumpsuit. "We will wear these during the entire duration of our stay on the surface. It comes equipped with an on-board computer, with viewer sewn into the left forearm. It can remain in contact with the ship for up to one thousand kilometers, provided I deploy a relay satellite in static orbit over our site--which I will. It will grant us full access to the ship's facilities. The translation device is sewn in to the collar, and once the computer has deciphered the language, it will intercept our speech and translate it for the benefit of the inhabitants, and vice versa.

"Further, the suit is constructed from superstrong, superflexible composite materials. It can withstand chemically propelled projectiles and primitive energy based weapons. As a fail-safe to this, a forcefield generator not unlike our ship's shields is included in the suit, and it remains on hot standby at all times. It will intercept anything with enough kinetic energy to overcome the fabric's integrity, so if one of the inhabitants tries to charge us, we will not be harmed...though we might be knocked down. Questions?"

"Yes," Asin began, raising his hand perhaps without realizing it. "I notice there are no helmets. Am I take it that we will be breathing the planet's air?"

"Yes, as we have been before the past week," Jovas confirmed. "The ship cycled our air with the planet's when we entered the atmosphere for surface scans...after thorough analysis, of course. The air is, as evidenced by our continuous consciousness and sound health, perfectly safe.

"Now, for the next bit of field gear: the Number." He produced from underneath Asin's desk a mainly featureless, smooth, half-meter long black cylinder, maybe 4 centimeters in radius, with a slightly larger, ergonomic hand grip at one end. "This is a modified riot-control melee weapon. It is, essentially, a heat pump. When activated, it begins drawing energy in from its surroundings commensurate with its velocity. If you were to slowly dip it water, it would gradually chill and freeze it. If you were to thrash it around in the water, it'd freeze within a second or two.

"When it strikes a person, it wreaks all sorts of havoc. It deadens nerves and muscles, and it causes excruciating pain. As part of my pilot's training, I took a full-power blow to the leg from one of these. I couldn't walk for over two hours, and I was screaming for nearly all of that." He paused for a moment. "A blow to the head or neck, depending on how violent the strike is and the absorption rate of the Number, will probably be fatal. This most likely if you strike the base of the skull, as the nerves controlling autonomous biological functions will be temporarily deadened. Always aim for a limb; you'll probably hit it anyway. Prolonged contact can actually cause frostbite, so strike quickly. Questions?"

Asin, pale as he could get again, shook his head in the negative faintly.

"Good. The Number is, as I said, mainly a deterrent. But it is not the only weapon we're bringing along." Again, from under Asin's desk, Jovas produced a burnished metal case. Setting it upon the desk, he punched in a code on a touchpad, and the case opened silently. "It would be foolish not to bring along a ranged weapon of some sort, so I will be carrying this," he hefted the dark, vicious-looking weapon. "This is colloquially known as a blaster. It is a directed energy weapon, and this particular model is a sub-rifle. It has optional stock and scoping attachments for long-range shots, an adjustable power output in case you merely want to stun, and can switch between semi-auto and burst-fire. Since you're not cleared to use this weapon, you won't be carrying one, but I will. Questions?"

"Is this really necessary?" Asin asked. "I mean, the worst these people can do is hurl rocks at us. Our suits will protect against that, won't they?"

"Good questions. First: yes, this is necessary. Computer estimates that there's a high probability of land-based predators, and I would rather shoot them then be constantly harassed by them. Secondly, while our suits would protect us against these predators, it would make working all but impossible. There is also, of course, the remote possibility of poachers. They will undoubtedly be armed, and so will I. The forcefields of our suits could withstand maybe half a dozen shots from one of these blasters, and this isn't even the most powerful model available."

Jovas paused for a moment. "I don't discount the possibility of encountering poachers or pirates, so listen carefully. In the event of an attack by pirates, I will only resort to force as the last resort. I am authorized to bribe pirates with a sum up to one hundred thousand Alliance credits. In case they wish to use force, I have been DATed in numerous forms of combat and will be prepared to respond. Asin, at this point, you must disregard my wellbeing and flee to the ship. I will provide you with emergency command codes at a later time. These will allow you activate the ship and execute a number of rudimentary manuevers, including a pre-programmed series of hyperspace jumps that will take you back to Alliance territory. If I can make it back to the ship before it launches, I will. You must be prepared, however, to leave me if the worst happens."

Asin seemed to be on the verge of tears. "Jovas...I..."

He held up his hand. "This is very important. The computer will instruct you in certain protocols; they will allow swift response by Alliance forces. Politically speaking, GS ships like ours carry a lot of clout, because normal citizens hate to hear of their or their brave, intrepid pilots' destruction, so politicians hate their destruction, as well. They will respond with overwhelming force, and if I am still alive, they will find me.

"Having said that, I think we'll be fine. The odds are on our side, not the pirates. But, I must adhere to protocol during these briefings, I am afraid. With that covered, though, I will move on to the various sample collection devices..."
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-09-01 10:51pm

The Long Sight landed on the planet called Earth silently. Four landing legs deployed simultaneously, and the craft touched down on a flat, grassy plain. A hatch opened on the belly of the craft, and a mechanical arm began removing crates and other objects from within the bowels of the craft and setting them underneath it.

A few minutes later, another hatch opened, revealing the gangway to the ship. Jovas and Asin appeared at this and descended onto the ground.

"Oof!" Asin clutched his stomach. "I'm suddenly a bit queasy!"

Jovas held a sensing wand high in the air, trying to to ignore his own nausea. "I am, as well. It happens when you move from the artificial gravity of the ship to that of the planet. Also, the gravity is approximately twenty-five percent weaker out here than I keep it on the ship. It'll pass in a few seconds." He glanced at the display sewn into the fabric of his left wrist--the transmitter in his brain was inactive outside of the ship, so he'd have to acquire information the old-fashioned way--and gave a weather report.

"Temperature is a comfortable twenty-two degrees. Winds are 2.4 meters per second out of the south. Relative humidity is forty-eight percent."

Asin was scanning the horizon. "The sun's just going down. Or just rising, I suppose. It appears that we've landed too early, or too late. Weren't we supposed to land during the middle of the night, when everyone would be sleeping?"

"We did, Asin." Jovas looked at him, then gestured towards the sun dangling just above the distant horizon. "We're over two hundred kilometers inside the polar circle. The sun won't set for another thirty-seven Galactic Standard days, or forty-one of this planet's days. As far as the inhabitants are concerned, this is the middle of the night."

"Oh, I see now!" Asin chirped. He turned back to the sun. "So, that is north, then?"

"Just to the left of the sun, yes." Jovas was at the equipment. "Asin, I want to you begin collecting samples. The devices are in this crate." He tapped it with his sensing wand. "If you like, start with the airborne microbial collector, then move on to the soil and water. According to the satellite imagery, there's a pond three hundred meters west of this site."

Asin hadn't moved when Jovas next looked up. "Three hundred meters?" he stammered weakly.

Jovas grinned. "There's a map available on your display. And you have your Number."

Asin was sweating suddenly. "It's just that...predators and..." Then Asin screamed.

He screamed because Jovas threw his sensing wand at his head as hard as he could.

After a few seconds, Asin's scream petered out. He uncovered his face, and looked down at the sensing wand, which lay a few centimeters before his feet. He then looked up at Jovas, who was quaking with suppressed laughter.

With as much righteous indignity as he could muster, Asin stomped over to the crate, grabbed the soil and water samplers, cast one final piercing look at Jovas (who looked at though he were about to explode), and stalked off west, towards the pond.

Jovas waited until his laughter subsided, then retrieved his sensing wand. He went back over to the hull, to a heat sink aperture, and began the mundane process of verifying its integrity, casting an occasional glance at Asin as he walked through the waist-high grass towards the pond.

* * *

Asin hated feeling foolish. Jovas was not normally cruel, but did have to be so abrupt? He would've gone without having a sensing wand hurled at him...he would've just had to have built up his nerve a bit more. After all, he had over two dozen combat-related DATS in his brain; that tended to give one plenty of courage. Asin's DATs were all related to history, so his bravery had to be made the way humans had done it since...

His suit chimed softly. He looked at his wrist display, he was a scant ten meters from the pond. Well, at least he didn't step in it. Fumbling a bit with the collectors, Asin went up to the shoreline and began sampling.

The pond was obviously a major watering hole. The grass near it was trampled flat, and twice Asin nearly stepped in some sort of animal feces. Frowning a bit, he wondered if he should collect that, as well as the water and soil. Maybe he'd hurl that at Jovas and teach him how it felt. Asin giggled: here he was, on a career-making planetary contact mission, and he was contemplating throwing shit at his lover. How mature of him!

Asin had worked his way halfway around the pond when he noticed them. There were two of them, lying near the periphery of the trampled grass, about twenty meters away. They appeared to be sleeping on a woven grass mat. They were naked and covered with short, fine, straight hair.

It took Asin a full five seconds to realize that they they were human.

He froze. The satellite imagery had pegged the group whom they were initially contacting to be over ten kilometers to the east of their landing site. What were these two doing out here? What if they woke up?

He was not still for long, though, as the DAT he received began kicking in. He removed his portable imager from his belt and began recording the two figures. Since he didn't want to risk speaking, he began sending the images back to Jovas with the following text: Stumbled on two at the pond. Will not disturb at the moment. Moving downwind for observation. Will report every fifteen minutes, and send images and recordings.

Asin had already moved to a spot by the time Jovas replied: Terrific stuff! Computer estimates their height to be 1.5 meters, yet appear to be sexually mature. Stay until they wake up, try to record them talking. What luck you have!

Asin smiled, taking time to heap a few clods of soil and matted grass in front of him. Shame these suits had no active camouflage. He lay prone, approximately thirty meters away from the sleeping pair, the wind blowing in his face. He steadied his image and switched it over to three-dimensional capture. After all, this was for posterity.

Four reports later, and the two still hadn't stirred. Each reply from Jovas had been the same. Patience will pay off. It's much more boring at the ship, anyway. Asin was inclined to agree, but still, the place was thick with insects, and the sun was slowly climbing higher. A few hours more, and it would be downright hot.

Finally, some action! One of them had rolled over and sat up. From Asin's vantage, he could see that it was a male. He yawned hugely, brushed some stray grass from his shoulder, and stood up. He sauntered over to the edge of the pond, and took a drink. Asin double-checked that the imager was recording sound, too, and waited.

"Seenagoba!" A lilting female voice called out. The other one, apparently a woman, was awake and sitting up. She was facing the man, who still drank from the pond. "Tras! Tras porruse!"

Asin glanced down at his wrist display, where a new message from Jovas read: Computer's working on the translation now. Hopefully, they'll keep talking. You'll start hearing them speak Standard when it's ready.

He looked back up. The woman had joined the man at the pond, and they both were drinking, crouched on their haunches. "Bis turkin gibwe cho. Cho pees," the man said.

The woman laughed suddenly, spitting out a mouthful of water. She was as hairy as the man; even her breasts and face were partially covered in hair. "Tuktoy ensh aw peesa tlich, aw weda," she replied.

Asin listend to this jibberish for a few more minutes. The man and woman seemed to be a pair, perhaps a husband and wife. Though, they could have been siblings, for they looked (to Asin, anyway), very similar. And they were short! The grass would be chest-high to them, and Asin himself was almost half a meter taller than they. And Jovas was even taller.

After they drank, they returned to their grass mat. The woman lied down on her back, and the man positioned himself directly over her. Before Asin could realize what was happening, they were mating--and rather vigorously, too!

Well, Asin thought, I certainly now hope they're not siblings.

Though Asin himself had no interest in women, he had seen plenty of pornographic material while at University, and he maintained a detatched curiousity of how that act was accomplished. After all, it was the one of the only acts that, by its definition, required a woman. He and Jovas could accomplish just about every other sexual feat except this.

He got another message from Jovas. Started laughing so loudly I had to go inside the ship to keep watching. I hope we don't look that absurd. Computer says it's about three-quarters done with the translation. Their language structure is quite primitive and their vocabulary is limited, so we'll have to keep our speech simple, else the computer can't articulate our words. Enjoy the view.

Asin smiled wanly. They were done mating rather quickly, the man emphatically ending it with a high-pitched screech. Then, they were talking, but softly. Another message from Jovas: The computer's only picking up about half of what they're saying. Increase the recorder sensitivity.

Asin had to shift his weight, so he could punch in the commands on his wrist display. Insodoing, he moved his right foot slighty...and a twig snapped underneath it.

His eyes went wide. He was almost afraid to look up, but he did. And both the man and the woman were looking straight at him.
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-09-08 06:08pm

The amount of training required to be competent in almost any profession had grown and grown over the thousands of years of history. Education began in early childhood and progressed through stage after stage after stage. At the critical point of this archaic version of acquiring skill, the average career would last a mere twenty years before a person would simply succumb to old age. And yet the demands for greater prerequisite education continued to grow.

Finally, the solution came in DATing. A DAT compressed years of education into seconds. By directly transcribing expertise onto a brain, the average time to educate a professional was shrunk down from an upper limit of ninety years to an entirely reasonable four--and much of that time was preparing the brain to receive the DAT. Limitations included certain requirements pertaining the age of the brain, innate structural features, and personal inclination. These considerations aside, however, receiving DATs was painless (if momentarily disorienting), rapid, and the single most efficient way of acquiring skills available in the Galaxy.

The instant expertise felt as though it were second nature. This was perhaps the greatest boon, to which Asin would testify as he found himself spotted by two native earthlings. The DAT he'd just acquired allowed him to easily and confidently decide what to do next. It was so obvious!

Slowly, he stood. Now, adopt the posture.

Head slightly turned up and to the right, clearly exposing the neck. Upper arms held at a ten degree angle relative to the torso; lower arms at twenty-six degree angle. Palms out, facing front, hands spread wide, but fingers slightly loose. The movements felt natural and came easily, as if he'd done a thousand times before.

Now for the smile. Don't flare the nostrils. Smile should be broad and disarming; should show no teeth. Some cultures took toothy smiles to be a threat, but almost none took closed-mouth smiles as such.

The pair hadn't moved. The man was actually still on top of the woman, they appeared to be in shock. And why shouldn't they? Asin was, by their standards, some sort of dark-skinned giant.

Now, advance, but slowly. As though he were walking on some sort of narrow beam high above the world, he stepped out of the grass, leisurely yet assuredly putting one foot in front of the other. He didn't quite make eye contact with either of them, instead looking at the mouth of the man. He advanced a full fifteen meters before they moved.

The man stood suddenly, wide-eyed and breathing in huge gulps. The woman, equally wide-eyed, scurried behind him, crouching herself as small as she could and shaking.

Asin advanced another five meters, then stopped, holding the same easy, passive posture. With a small flourish, he bowed to the man, stood upright again, and waited.

The man's entire face was animated, muscles alternatively pulling and pushing, contorting all his features.

"Pash tenna go!" he whispered suddenly, his face lighting up. Then, louder: "Pash tenna go! Pash tenna go!" The woman peered out from behind the man.

"Pash tennu gola?" she squeaked.

The man was fairly jumping up and down. "Pash! Pash!" he said to the woman. He turned back to Asin, his eyes alight with joy. Spittle glistened at the corners of his mouth. Without warning, he threw himself at Asin.

Not startled enough to move, Asin watched detachedly as the man struck the ground five meters from him. Now crawling and murmuring jibberish, he prostrated himself before Asin. Shortly after that, the woman joined him, bowing low at Asin's feet.

He was quite alarmed. There was nothing in the DAT about this type of behavior! What on Earth were they doing?

He looked at this wrist display. A message from Jovas flashed. The translation is almost done. You should hear Standard any second. Remember, keep your sentences and words simple!

He turned back to the pair groveling at his feet. "Pash tenna go, pash tenna go," the man repeated. Then, all at once, the man's voice changed. "The gods visit us, the gods vist us!" he cried out in perfect, unaccented Standard.

Asin physically started. Gods? That's what these people thought him as? Reflecting on it, he mused that it made some strange sort of sense. These people were apparently so primitive that the only context in which they could categorize him would be as a god. And why not? They wouldn't understand the concept of outer space, most likely. Even if he said he was from the sky, they could possibly interpret that as an affirmation of his supposed godhood. That would, of course depend upon the peculiarities of their religion.

But still, he couldn't perpetuate such a lie! For one, it would interfere with their mission's objectives. But more importantly, it was completely unethical. Asin thought for a moment how best to dismantle this assumption.

"Stand, friends," he spoke. They looked up at him, tears in their eyes. Slowly, trembling slightly, they both got to their feet. Asin marveled for two reasons: first, he was easily half a meter taller than the man, and perhaps as much as three fifths of a meter taller than the woman. Second, the translation worked perfectly!

"Do you think I am a god?" he continued. "Please, speak."

The man hesitated, but only for a moment. Asin reasoned that the motion of his mouth did not match his words, and this probably confused him. Finally, he said, "You must be a god. Only gods would visit this place."

Asin was momentarily offput. The man's words were out of sync with his mouth. How strange! "Then you are gods, too?" Asin asked.

They looked at each other. "No, we are not gods. We came here to become man and wife, and we seek the blessing of the gods here. Some say that the gods visit."

Asin hoped Jovas was recording all of this; his imager was lying in the tall grass behind him. What a fascinating marriage ritual! Moreover, what luck they had in selecting this landing spot!

"I understand," Asin intoned. "Why do you think I am a god?"

Again, they looked at each other. This brush with a deity was probably not going as they were told it would. The man said, "You look like us, yet you are not like us. You are not a dog, or a squirrel, or a bird, or a man. What else could you be?"

Asin nodded slowly. "I understand. Could I not be a different type of man?"

The woman now spoke. "You are not a woman. This much I can see." The man nodded vigorously.

"And you are not from one of the other tribes," the man offered. "This much I can see."

Asin nodded, and smiled. The man smiled back. Perhaps he thought that this was a challenge by his god, a test of sorts. "And you know of all the tribes?"

"No, I don't," the man said slowly, "but I know of many. Always do they look like me."

Asin paused a moment. "I am not a member of those tribes. I am a member of a different tribe. I come from very far away."

Both the man and woman frowned. The man squinted for a moment, as though he were trying to understand. "You come from far away? Do the gods live there?"

"No," Asin answered. "I do not know where the gods live. Do you?"

The woman ventured an answer: "Some live in the sky. Others live in the sea. Some still live in the mountains."

Perfect! Asin thought with triumph. "I do not come from any of these places. I come from the south."

The man cocked his head. "South?" he repeated in stilted, garbled Standard. "Where is that?"

Asin quickly realized that the translator had faltered; they had no words for the cardinal directions. Asin pointed in the direction opposite the sun, which had now risen enough to cause huge shadows to be cast by their bodies. Noticing this for the first time, he again marveled how much longer his own shadow was than theirs. "That way. My tribe comes from there. Very far."

Their eyes widened in unison. "The Hot Lands?" the man asked, incredulous. "How do you live there?"

Asin stopped for a moment. Recalling the material he'd read about the middle latitudes, the temperature there routinely exceeded seventy degrees. That was far too hot for much to survive there, and they knew that much. They would never explore there, so that would make for a suitable false origin. Now, how to explain this lie satisfactorily...

"Magic," Asin replied, watching the man carefully for signs of non-comprehension. He breathed a reserved sigh of relief when the man nodded in apparent understanding. Asin continued. "We are not gods. We are men, but we are magic men. We use our magic to live in the Hot Lands."

It was then that the man's demeanor changed. He went from an almost penitent posture to a firm, alert, curious one. The woman seemed to follow his cues, standing at her full height. They both regarded him with a bright, cheerful inquisitiveness, their eyes playing all over him, trying to soak up as much information as fast as possible.

Asin allowed himself another sigh of relief. He was, again, incredibly lucky. By all rights, they should've been incredibly fearful and paranoid, perhaps even hostile. The persuasive techniques suggested in the DAT were, happily, very effective at mitigating this. Now, the real work began.

"I am a magic man," he repeated, "and I come seeking the knowledge of your tribe. In return for this knowledge, I will show you my magic. Will you bring me to your tribe?"

The man nodded eagerly, as did the woman. Asin smiled approvingly. "I am called Asin. What are your names?"

"I am called Tras, after my uncle," the man said. Asin nodded, but frowned inwardly. He should have asked for their names first to better mimic their manner of speech.

"And I am called Cho, wife of Tras," the woman said. Asin nodded again.

"Tras, after his uncle. Cho, wife of Tras," Asin affirmed. "Thank you for this. I will show you magic." He let the statement hang for a moment, watching the excited looks on their faces.

Asin gestured to the east. With an easy smile, he asked, "Would like to see my home?"
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-09-22 03:04pm

Tras had once feared manhood and the responsibilities it brought. His uncle, the tribe's patriarch, would often speak of the graveness of his position. On his wisdom and knowledge rested the tribe's fate: it was by his direction and sensing of the changing seasons that told them when to begin the migration to the lands where the sun lived. His uncle had to mediate disputes that arose, and negotiate with other tribes for anything from hunting rights to marriage contracts. When food was lean, his uncle's command to ration was the only that would be obeyed. And Tras saw how much it troubled him, these demands of manhood, and Tras feared the time when he too would bear that responsibility.

It was so much easier to be a youth! Your parents fed you, and they protected you from the dogs. If you were sick, they foraged into the wilderness for special plants and roots that made you feel better again. They taught you how to hunt, how to track prey and avoid the dogs. They taught you how to weave grass mats and baskets, how to make throwing sticks and spears. They taught you about the past, how the world came to be, how to worship the gods, and how to please them.

But they couldn't teach you everything. There were things that you had to learn on your own, and this was doubly true for Tras. When he took his uncle's name at the cusp of manhood, it meant that his uncle felt that he was strong enough and smart enough to become the Patriarch one day. Moreover, it meant that the other adults agreed with this, thus Tras was married to Cho, whom they thought was the best woman of Tras' age that the tribe had to offer.

But still, with these endorsements, Tras felt great trepidation at the prospect of becoming a man. Taking his new bride to the marriage pools, over two days' walk from the tribe's summer home, carrying no food, and armed only with his trusty spear, was terrifying even to think about. But if his uncle could conquer his fear, then Tras too would endure, even if his fear was always with him.

Now, though, Tras' fear at becoming a man was gone! He had protected his wife during their journey to the marriage pools. And there they had mated, cementing their marriage and hopefully starting their family. But then...

The magic man from the Hot Lands! He was too amazed to be frightened! But then again, perhaps that was the magic man's doing, for he could not accomplish his task of Tras tried to stick him with his spear. How foolish he had been at first, to think the magic man as a god! And how patient was he in his explanation!

And to think he feared manhood! Only as a man could he have this encounter! If he were still a child, he would be lucky to have caught a glimpse of this magic man, and he certainly wouldn't have been able to speak with him. It would be like those times when they had encountered other tribes. Tras' uncle would meet the other Patriarch away from the both groups, while the rest looked on in wonder. And now, he and his wife would bring this magic man to their tribe, and forever would their tale be told. It made Tras swell with pride.

The magic man, Asin, led them through the grass, away from the marriage pools. He was strangely large, and hairless! Instead of having hair, he wore some sort of wrapping, like the hides Tras and his tribe wore during the short days, just before their migration towards where the sun lived. It was no wonder he wore it now, even though it was the middle of the summer season. The magic men from which he came must be very odd, indeed. Even their speech had to be strange, as their lips did not match the words they spoke.

Tras wondered what magic Asin would show them. Perhaps he could make fire appear from nothing, or make things float like a blade of grass did on water. Tras shook his head; he shouldn't even attempt to think of such things. For a man to travel all the way to from the Hot Lands, he must have greater magic than Tras could even imagine.

Cho walked alongside him. He had known her for as long as he could remember, for all children in the tribe knew and played with one another. She was somewhat older than he, and she was both clever and healthy, both strong-willed and prudent--all making her an ideal wife. Though Tras could tell that the encounter with the magic man had disturbed her, he could also see that she trusted him to protect her. He caught her eyes, and she smiled at him. He offered his hand to her, and she took it, squeezing tightly.

Despite its trappings, Tras decided that it was indeed good to be a man.

* * *

Jovas had to scramble to secure the site around the ship. He'd listened Asin's interaction with the two native Earthers with utter fascination--Asin's handling of it was superb. He was so entranced that it took him a few seconds to register that the three of them were returning to the landing site, so again, he found himself madly dashing around the underbelly of the ship, sealing up exposed hull plates, closing containers and, most importantly, raising the gangway. It was, essentially, impossible for the two Earthers to do any damage if they got into the airlock, but the protocols concering situations such as this were etched into Jovas' brain the clearest and most urgent of terms, so it was assured that he would adhere to them.

Leaning against one of the equipment crates underneath the Long Sight, he folded his arms and waited. He could spot Asin now, still a hundred or so meters distant, cresting the small hill to the west. It took him just over a minute to stride into the patch of cleared grass which sat underneath the ship, the two tiny, hairy people in tow. Jovas did not move, not wanting to startle either of them. He found his heart pounding almost absurdly. Why was he nervous?

They didn't notice him, anyway, for they were completely transfixed by the ship. Necks craned upward, they gaped and pointed. "Look at the rock!" the man said. Jovas had to remind himself of his name, in a detached sort of manner. Tras went on. "It shines, like the water does when the sun strikes it! Do you see?" He was speaking to the woman, his wife Cho, who nodded slowly.

Asin caught Jovas' eye. With a flick of his head, he beckoned the latter over. Jovas stood and uncrossed his arms. He was suddenly aware of the blaster which was harnessed to his back. Why am I so nervous? he thought. There is nothing wrong here.

Then, he understood: his combat DATs were asserting themselves. He was operating a peak alertness, and he was thus anxious about just about everything. Amazing that he'd never experienced this before...though, perhaps, that was for the best. He wasn't sure that he liked feeling as though the world was going to explode around him at any moment.

Jovas stopped two meters in front of the pair. Asin stood to his right, facing perpendicular to Jovas. Tras was carrying a stone spear and alternating between regarding him warily and glancing at Asin questioningly. Cho held on to her husband's arm, eyes affixed only on Jovas.

"Tras, Cho," Asin began, "I introduce to you another magic man. He is called Jovas, and he is my friend."

Jovas bowed slightly. "Tras, after his uncle. Cho, wife of Tras."

Tras hesitated for a moment, then nodded crisply. Cho followed suit a moment later.

"As I said," Asin went on, "This is my home." He gestured upward at the Long Sight.

"You live under this strange rock?" Tras questioned.

"Not quite," Asin replied. "I live inside of it."

Tras dropped his spear and clapped his hands together excitedly. "Magic!" he breathed.

"So it is," Asin said. "Watch, and you will see our magic." He looked to Jovas expectantly.

Jovas found himself actually feeling more relaxed, now that Tras had dropped his spear. He consulted his wrist display and opened the hatch to the gangway. As it was on the far side of the ship, they all moved around to the view the descending ramp.

Wide-eyed, Tras led Cho by the hand, hooting inarticulately and attempting to see everything all at once from all possible angles. Having suitably distracted them for a moment, Jovas took a moment to confer with Asin.

"How does this change our timetable?" Jovas asked.

"It accelerates it by a few days," Asin said. He didn't look at Jovas, instead choosing to observe the two Earthers. "I'll spend most of the day with them here, and tomorrow I'll let them go on their way. We'll let them return to their tribe and spread word of our impending arrival. Things will be a great deal easier that way."

Jovas nodded, watching Asin watch the pair. "What is your initial assessment?"

"Beyond anything I could imagine. I'll need to take some time with my notes and compose a more cogent report, but this is easily the most remarkable and noteworthy event in the Re-Discovery. What we have here is a world apart from all others, a great mystery that will probably take years to unravel." He was still watching Tras and Cho, as they peered curiously up the gangway and into the ship.

Jovas smiled. "Should we feed them?"

Asin finally looked at Jovas. "I hadn't thought of that. They're probably quite hungry."

Jovas turned to one of the nearby crates. "Well, I suppose should find out now if our rations are palatable to them, or if I'll have to go out and shoot an animal for them to eat." He punched in an access code and and the lid opened with a small hiss.

Tras was immediately at Jovas' side. "What is in this rock?" he asked.

Jovas looked down at the man standing next to him. Jovas was an even 200 centimeters tall, and Tras was barely 140. Jovas guessed that living on the edge of starvation kept these people small, but maybe there was a more complex reason for it that Asin would be able to discern.

"Well, Tras," Jovas began, "we store food in this, so that no one will take it. It is the same with all you see. We keep things in them so that they are not taken."

Tras nodded slowly, wearing a thoughtful expression. Jovas added: "I was getting some food for myself and Asin. I would think you and Cho would like some food, as well." He glanced at Asin.

"Errr...yes!" Asin started. "But we must first make sure that you can eat our food, for it comes from the Hot Lands, and..."

Tras interrupted: "You must make sure that it is not poison?"

"Yes," Jovas said. Tras clapped jubilantly.

"So is it when trade food with the other tribes," Tras went on to explain. Cho came up alongside him, adding, "Sometimes the meat we get is from a strange animal, and it is tainted with poison, or spoiled. It makes whoever eats it very sick."

"And I don't want to make you sick!" Asin said. "So we must use our magic to make sure." Tras grinned, and Cho even offered a smile at the prospect of seeing more magic.

Jovas was already at another crate. Asin's quick thinking was commendable--in truth, since the food was completely sealed, there was no possibility of a bacterial infection making either of them ill. The only question would be a matter of taste, and he doubted that, given their apparent diet, they would much care about how the food tasted. The possibility of food, however, would be an excellent way to attain their cooperation in collecting samples from them.

Jovas removed a sampling kit for gathering and analyzing DNA. He opened the case, and the case's computer booted immediately and uplinked with the ship's computer. Checking his wrist display, he saw that the ship had already tested the various apparatus of the kit and determined that it was operating within acceptable parameters.

Removing one of the sampling swabs, Jovas turned to Tras. "Please open your mouth." Tras complied eagerly, and Jovas swabbed the inside of his cheek briefly, looking back at the kit. It confirmed that the swab had a valid sample with a pleasant chirp, and Jovas removed it and stowed it. "This magic rock will now tell us if you can eat our food," Jovas said, gesturing to the DNA sampling kit. The computer built in to the swab had already transmitted the reading of its contents to the kit, which was now harnessing the full power of the ship's computer to run its analysis program. Jovas made sure all sounds and lights were enabled on the kit, as Tras marveled at it. Even Cho's caution was overcome by her curiousity, and they both stared at the flashing, swirling lights on the kit's display, totally mesmerized.

Within fifteen seconds, the analysis was complete. The computer alerted him on his wrist display that it had taken longer than normal. Frowning momentarily, he made a note to run some optimization programs later in the day; it was possible that some errant program was consuming a larger-than-normal amount of resources. With such fantastically complex computers as that of the Long Sight, it was difficult to pinpoint exact difficulties.

Jovas handed a second swab to Tras. "Hold it like this," he instructed, forming Tras' fingers around the device. His hands were strangely smooth. Perhaps the hair covering it protected the skin from harm.

When he had it properly positioned, Jovas stepped back. "Now, do as I did to your wife, and you will do magic as I did."

It was fair to say that Tras' eyes boggled. He gulped hugely, looking from the swab, to Jovas, to Asin, then to Cho, before repeating the whole sequence. He finally rested his gaze on Cho, who stepped forward silently, opening her mouth. Casting one final look at Jovas, who nodded briefly, Tras swabbed the inside of his wife's cheek with a surprisingly deft, gentle touch.

While this took place, Jovas happened to look at Asin. He had covered his mouth with one hand, and he looked like was holding his breath. He held his imager in the other, and he'd no doubt been recording the entire interaction.

When the kit chirped, Tras immediately pulled the swab from Cho's mouth. He handed it back to Jovas, who stowed it. The kit analyzed the new sample, and Jovas said, "Our magic tells us that our food will be fine for you. Let us all eat together!"

Moving to another crate, Jovas parceled out four ration bags, each the dull color of unpolished aluminum. Asin, having taken a few moments to mount the imager on a telescoping pole, came over and took three. "I should explain that the food is inside these," he intoned, passing two to Tras, who, after taking a moment to marvel at their smooth surface texture, handed one off to Cho. Asin continued, holding up the bag for them. "First, you must touch this part of the bag," he instructed, pressing a finger against the red oval near one of the bag's seams. "Then, simply set it upon the ground, like this," Asin placed his back on the ground, seam facing up. It peeled back after a few seconds, revealing the familar concentrated brick of food.

"It looks like westa!" Tras exclaimed with a laugh. Cho grinned, trying not to laugh, herself. Jovas and Asin exchanged glances; the translator had failed, for some reason.

"What is westa?" Jovas asked.

This made Tras laugh even harder. Cho explained mirthfully, "Westa is what food becomes." To drive the point home, she spun around and gave her naked, hairy rear-end a hearty slap.

Asin's skin blushed as much as it could. Jovas snickered, despite himself. The translator program, though heavily modernized in light of its role in the Re-Discovery, could still trace its roots back to the Zealots. Their strange religion despised profanity and vulgarity of any sort, and as such, the translator program now was not especially well-equipped to handle such words when they were encountered. Subsequent versions, designed with less of a moral agenda in mind, would most likely have been able to translate the word 'westa,' but not this one.

After a few moments, Asin said, "Appearances are deceiving. You thought me a god a short while ago, but I am just a man. So is this just food." He bent down and picked up the brick with his bare hand. He took a bite. "You will not be harmed."

Tras, still grinning from his previous observation, pressed against the red oval on his ration bag, then set it on the ground. Cho did the same, and they both took a step back as the bags peeled apart. Tras came forward, crouching low to the ground. He leaned down and sniffed the food. After taking a moment to ponder, he looked back at his wife and nodded assent. She approached her ration brick and crouched low. Both of them scooped up their respective foods and tasted it gingerly with the tips of their tongues. Then, cautiously, Tras took a small bite.

Again, Jovas marveled at how expressive Tras was. His eyes lit up with the purest of joys, and he eagerly began gobbling the ration brick. Cho's actions and expressions mirrored her husband's. Jovas noted only then that he had selected the 2,000 kilocalorie ration (there were also 1,000 kcal bags aboard, and a normal ration was to have one of each variety per Galactic Standard day). Judging by their ravenous behavior, neither Tras nor Cho had probably eaten 2,000 kilocalories in a single sitting in a very long time, if ever.

Jovas activated his own bag, choosing to simply hold it in his hand while it peeled apart. Taking a bite, he further wondered about the normal diet of the two strange humans, crouched in front of him. How did they acquire the vast variety of necessary chemicals to maintain good health? Perhaps they didn't, and that was why they were so short. There were so many questions to ask; they'd never be able to do it all with their limited time and resources. The inevitable return expedition, which would probably occur in a year's time and would probably be headed by Asin himself, would carry hundreds of capable professionals, and they would be able to quickly discern such specifics. Jovas, though by no means a sociologist of any leaning, looked forward to reading the articles Asin and his contemporaries would publish about this amazing planet named Earth.

When they had finished, Tras belched contentedly. The rations were designed to induce a feeling of fullness that would persist for about twelve hours, depending upon and individual's metabolism, of course. Tras and Cho lounged on the grass, now shaded by the hull of the Long Sight. The sun was now well above the horizon and in the eastern quarter of the sky, so for most the local wildlife, the day had begun.

Asin was the first to speak. "Now that we have eaten, I think we should begin learning about your tribe." He sauntered over to the pair and sat upon the grass, a transcription pad in hand. "Tras, you are named after your uncle," he began. "Tell me about him."
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Alferd Packer
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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-09-30 02:05pm

Asin interviewed Tras and Cho for nine of the most amazing, uninterrupted hours of his life. It was only when the day's heat built oppressively that he became aware of how much time had passed. Tras had wanted to sleep; after all, Asin's arrival had occurred the previous 'night' and interrupted their normal rhythm of sleep. In addition, it was customary for most people to sleep through the heat of day. Asin marveled that it was possible, even at a near-polar latitude, to build up such heat as was present here on Earth. Small wonder, then, that no one lived nearer the middle latitudes except during the winter, when the long periods of total darkness forced them south.

And, truth be told, Asin was tired, too. He'd been on the planet for over twelve local hours, and awake for another twelve on the ship, making final preparations for departure. He could certainly use a few hours' rest.

So, Tras and Cho spread out their grass mat, and, under assurances from Asin that they would remain safe from the dogs, settled down to sleep in the shade of the ship. Asin took the opportunity to retreat inside the Long Sight, so that he might collect his thoughts, go over at least some of the notes he had taken, and perhaps sleep for an hour or two.

Would that be measured in local time, or Galactic Standard time? he thought suddenly. Also, he noticed that Jovas had matched the ship's gravity to that of the planet's.

As he passed through the airlock, which opened into the cramped, utilitarian underdeck of the ship, his ears were assaulted by music being played at a piercing volume. He winced and covered his ears; he hated this kind of music. The genre was called "metallic," though no one could tell Asin precisely why (he sometimes sourly surmised that it was because it sounded like the musicians were ripping metal apart), but Jovas loved it. He and Asin shared many things, but taste in music was not one of them. Asin preferred softer, more harmonious and contemplative arrangements. This, however, was vicious and enraged. Jovas didn't normally play music in public areas of the ship, but Asin had heard enough metallic music over the years to know that this particular arrangement came from a group called 'Detritus.' Every song was of the crudest and coarsest sort, obscenely extolling the virtues of destruction, war, and sex.

Well, Asin mused, it's not all bad.

It was doubly odd, then, that the music would be playing on the underdeck. It was trivial for the computer to isolate the music played to whatver room one happened to be in, be it the galley, quarters, or pilot room. Asin wondered suddenly where Jovas was, exactly; he'd vanished into the ship almost immediately after Asin had started his interviews, saying he wanted to perform a diagnostic of some sort. Asin hadn't noticed if he'd come out at all after that.

The main chamber of the underdeck, in which Asin stood, was perhaps nine square meters. There were two rows of harsh lighting overhead, and all surfaces were unadorned metal: walls, floor, and ceiling. In the far left corner, a lift waited that would take Asin to the main deck and thus his quarters. On the right wall at regular intervals were four hatches which, Asin was told, led to the drive section of the ship and were for emergency purposes only. Directly opposite Asin was a normal-looking, two-meter-wide door which let to the ship's hold. Finally, on the wall to his left, near the lift, was a hatch which led to the computer core and detection equipment.

This, perhaps not surprisingly, was ajar.

"Jovas!" Asin shouted towards the hatch. Nothing. The music was far too loud. Realizing he still wore his field suit, he consulted his wrist display and sent him a message: Taking a break from interviews--went superlatively well. Will be in my quarters. I might be asleep, but feel free to wake me. Tras and Cho are sleeping outside. He took the lift up to the main deck, which, once the lift doors closed behind him, was silent. The sound dampening, Jovas had said, was actively accomplished by the computer projecting sound whose wavelengths formed a perfect interference pattern with the ambient noise, completely canceling both sounds out. He wished such a device had existed at University--at least, one that he could have afforded on his meager student's stipend!

Asin traversed the main corridor to his quarters. He stripped his field suit off, and placed it in the laundry module. Ultra-high frequency pressure waves blasted the dirt and soil from the suit within a few seconds, and it was automatically pressed and folded. As that happened, Asin showered. Since they were on a planet, they no longer had to ration water; Jovas would refill their tank when they left. Asin luxuriated by rinsing the suds from his body, instead of having to scrape them off with a bathing spatula.

He has thought that the shower would refresh him, but it seemed to make him all the more sleepy. He decided he would try to get a few hours' rest, then take a fresh look at his notes.

He was asleep after his head touched his pillow, but only by a few seconds.

* * *

Click-gong-click-gong. Asin slowly swam back from nihility, automatically waving his hand through the magnetic field suspended over his head. Where had the two hours gone? Almost automatically, he now stood and redressed in his cleaned field suit. He exited his cabin and staggered to the galley, meaning to get a Stimdrink.

As the doors to galley parted, he saw Jovas, sitting at the tiny table, hunched over. He was filthy, covered to head to toe in a fine gray soot. On the table, resting between his elbows, was a clear bottle of a shimmering brown liquid.

"I wasn't going to drink it," Jovas said, not looking up. His tone was utterly bleak. "It's meant for celebrating. We've no cause for that." He looked down at the bottle, turning the label so Asin could see. "Whisky from Halicar Prime. It's an old tradition to open the bottle and have a drink at the end of a long voyage, to celebrate your successes."

"Jovas," Asin began cautiously, "what's wrong?"

Jovas sighed, as though he were drawing in strength through it. "The short of it is this: I have a reasonable cause to assume that our computer is suffering a serious malfunction, and I can't fix it. We're probably going to have to cut the mission short and put in for repairs."

Jovas wasn't looking up, so he didn't see the alarm in Asin's face. Asin retrieved a Stimdrink, then sat across from Jovas. "What's the long of it?"

"It began thusly: When the computer analyzed Tras' DNA, it reported that it took seventeen times longer than it should have. That's an enormous amount of time, Asin, for a computer such as the one on the Long Sight. I didn't think much of it, but the same thing happened for Cho's DNA. That gave me cause for concern.

"I boarded the ship, and began a diagnostic cycle from the pilot's room. It turned up nothing anomalous. The logging showed no errant tasks being performed. However, whenever I analyzed the DNA samples from Tras and Cho, it always took too long! I decided to check the kit itself, to see if there were problems with it. You didn't even notice me when I came back outside.

"I began by checking its current calibration against the benchmarks in the ship's computer--all were fine. I then used the benchmarks that the manufacturer supplies; they checked out, too. Finally, I took the kit physically apart and ran diagnostics on each of its components, and nothing was wrong!

"I was left with the computer. Unfortunately, the diagnostics I am able to affect from the pilot room are very high-level. To really strip away all the layers of presentation and interpretation, I had to get at the core's terminal, which is in the underdeck." He looked himself over. "This ship's only a year old; I don't see how the core could possibly get so dirty.

"The details of my adventures in the computer core are of no concern here. I was able to glean that, aside from the anomalous processing of the DNA samples, everything appears to be working correctly. So, what was left? The results of the DNA samples. At this point, I'd eliminated seemingly everything else, so I had to look at the results. They were...most disheartening."

"What did they say?" Asin asked, straightening up in his chair.

Jovas sighed again. "The kit is designed primarily to handle human DNA. When you run something else through it, it is forced to adjust its program on the fly. It can analyze pretty much anything, but it's optimized for humans, you see. The results said, quite bluntly, that Tras and Cho are not human."

"Impossible!" Asin breathed.

"Indeed. But the computer was most ardent in this. No matter how many times I re-ran the analysis of the sample, the result was the same: no human DNA was found."

They were silent for a few moments. Finally, Asin muttered quite simply: "Shit."

Jovas nodded bleakly. "You saw them; they're obviously human! They have ten fingers, ten toes. They speak, they laugh, they love. So what if they're primitive? What unites the human species across all of the galaxy is our DNA. How could theirs be any different from ours? We're the same animal!"

Asin finished off his Stimdrink. "Okay, Jovas. What next?"

Jovas stood, almost knocking the bottle of whisky over with his arm. "I'm running the analysis on the kit itself right now, instead of having it use the ship's computer. I predict it will return the correct result: that Tras and Cho are indeed human. At that point, we will have isolated the problem to the ship's computer beyond a reasonable doubt, and I will be forced to end the mission.

"I will take the computer core offline and active our emergency core. With this, I will be able to pilot the ship successfully back to Alliance territory and put in for repairs...but little else. It can't adequately manage the gravitic drive, so I'll be running the ship off of our auxiliary fusion drive. Unfortunately, when we make it back for repairs, all the data we have gathered on Earth will be made known through official channels. Another GS ship will take over our work, and that will be the end of that." He paused. "Asin, I'm sorry this happened. I feel...I know this would've made your career."

Asin took a deep breath. "Don't apologize, Jovas. This is beyond your control. I'm disappointed that we have to leave, but we can come back someday. To be honest, I'm starting to grow quite fond of Tras and Cho. They're very friendly and kind, and Cho is surprisingly sharp-witted, when she cares to let it be known."

"Oh, I'd forgotten all about that!" Jovas exclaimed. He fetched a Stimdrink of his own, and sat back down. "How did the interviewing go?"

"Words can't describe," Asin began. "I've gained so much information, it's probably going to take a me a couple of weeks to make sense of it all. Do you want to hear some of it?"

"Of course!"

"Where to begin?" Asin's eyes looked distant for a moment. "Well, the tribe, for starters. They live in a tribe of perhaps one hundred individuals. They are led by Tras' uncle, whom they title the 'Over-Father.' I think 'Patriarch' is an apt term. He is a chieftain, and he mediates all disputes, leads annual migrations, and arranges trade between other tribes they encounter.

"This polar region is their summer home. In the late autumn, when the days grow very short and actually cold, they migrate south. How far I can't say, but I'd guess it's more than a thousand kilometers. Tras described it as taking 'many' days, which is what they use to describe certain numbers higher than twenty or so. They are capable of knowing larger numbers if they deem it important--like how many are in their tribe. Unimportant ones are just 'many,' though.

"Socially, the tribe operates as a primitive form of meritocracy. Tras' uncle is the smartest, strongest male, so he leads the tribe. Tras is viewed by most in his tribe as being the smartest, strongest male of his generation, so he is being groomed for succession. That they are related is merely coincidence. Their families, however, are incredibly strong units. There is no such thing as divorce, and they pair for life. Tras and Cho will be together until one of them dies, and the survivor will never remarry.

"As you might suspect, they subsist by hunting and gathering. Though mirthful when times are good, they will resort to drastic measures when food is scarce, including war with other tribes and limited cannibalism. Theirs is a fantastically hard life; I would estimate their life expectancy to be no higher than thiry-five or forty of their years, with fifty being an extremely advanced age."

At this, Jovas seemed genuinely suprised. "That's all? How old is Tras?"

Asin shrugged. "He didn't say precisely. I would guess that he's fifteen or sixteen, and Cho is a bit older...perhaps seventeen."

"And she'll give birth probably next year," Jovas said, "at eighteen. Amazing! How old were your parents when you were born, Asin?"

"My mother was fifty-one, and my father fifty-eight."

Jovas nodded. "My parents were both over fifty-five, which I believe is the average age of a first-time mother. Remarkable! Three generations pass on on Earth for every one generation in the Galaxy at large. I personally would not even consider procreating until I was fifty. You?"

"Same," Asin agreed. "But we have the luxury of being able to live to one hundred and twenty with little difficulty. I've heard of some people getting their DNA resequenced annually and living to nearly two hundred, but who would want to do that?"

Asin was about to reply, but the display panel on the wall next to the table chimed and lit up. "Oh!" Jovas said. "The kit is done." He stood. "Let's confirm our fears. No sense in dragging this out."

Asin stood, and followed Jovas to the underdeck. There, he examined the display on kit, and Asin reeled in the unmitigated torrent of obscenity pouring from Jovas' mouth. It sounded like he was speaking lyrics from a Detritus song.

"I gather it says the same thing as the computer core," Asin said when Jovas paused momentarily in his tirade.

Jovas nodded, suddenly embarassed. "That it does. Tras and Cho aren't, according to this kit, human." He sat down roughly on the deck plating and leaned against the wall. "How is this possible? Are both devices malfunctioning?"

"May I see the results?" Asin asked. "I was never much for biology, but..."

Jovas gestured brusquely. "By all means."

Asin took the kit and began reading. "Does this kit have a manual?"

"Access it from the main menu," Jovas said in a pained voice. His eyes were shut, and despite having just downed a Stimdrink, he looked exhausted.

"Ah, there it is." The only sounds were the far-off hum of the ship's machinery and the occasional chirp from the kit. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Finally, Asin said, "Oh?"

Jovas jerked his head up. "Yes?"

"This kit all does genealogy!" Asin cried. He began to laugh.

"Asin, w--"

"I see it now! This is amazing! I understand why it thinks Tras and Cho aren't human!" He paused, looking at Jovas. "The Bottleneck, Jovas!"

"The what?"

Asin blinked. "This is basic history! Approximately one hundred thousand years ago, our species went through a population bottleneck. All of humanity was reduced to approximately 10,202 individuals. We know this because when the Galactic Alliance was at its zenith, it had DNA records of nearly every human being alive, including pirates, mercenaries, and rebels. Every single person can trace their DNA back to two of these 10,202 individuals, without fail. Besides, logically speaking, if humanity went through a population bottleneck(which it did), even those whose DNA wasn't cataloged would still be traceable to two of these individuals. It's pretty much a foregone conclusion.

"This DNA analysis kit was built with this in mind. Part of its analysis is to trace the genealogy of the sample back to the Bottleneck. This can tell us all sorts of interesting information, such as when the population split from the Galaxy at large."

Jovas frowned. "I don't see--"

"'If a sample is fed to the machine whose genealogy cannot be determined, the sample will be classified as "Not Human," pending a species-specific analysis.' It's right here, in the manual. Don't you see? Tras and Cho exist outside the Bottleneck! Their ancestors weren't ever a part of! They violate one of the kit's fundamental assumptions: they are human, but their genealogy cannot be traced! They've been on this same world, isolated from the entire Galaxy, for the last one hundred thousand years!"

"And that means that the computer isn't malfunctioning!" Jovas leapt to his feet. "We don't need to cancel the mission!"

"And this mission is now so much wider in scope," Asin said. "Do you realize that history is wrong? Only part of humanity experienced the Bottleneck--the part from which you and I and almost everyone else is descended. Tras and Cho's ancestors simply lived as they always had, a completely insular pocket of humanity!"

"Alright," Jovas said, a grin on his face. "I'm going to do some research on this analysis kit, and I'll see if I can disable the genealogical analysis."

"I'm going to speak with Tras and Cho some more," Asin said. "It's been about four hours; they're probably awake by now."

"Or mating."

Asin rolled his eyes, but he couldn't keep the smile from his face. He punched in the code for the airlock, and hatch for the gangway slowly lowered as he stepped inside and shut the hatch behind him.
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Alferd Packer
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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-10-04 10:20pm

It was eight hours later, and Tras and Cho had departed for their tribe. They had done so only after extracting the strongest of promises from Asin that he and Jovas would find and follow them. To facilitate this Jovas had supplied Asin with a tiny transponder, that the latter surreptitiously adhered to Tras' skin during the second round of interviews.

But that was behind them, now. Tras and Cho were gone. Asin and Jovas had gotten precious little sleep in the past thirty-six hours, so this was naturally the most urgent of their needs, and accomplished in a restorative four hours. Having accomplished that, the order of the day was clear: compare and contrast their findings and begin creating their preliminary report. This, they did in the pilot's room, where Jovas could most easily access anything Asin desired.

A pair of Stimdrinks set aside for both of them, Jovas began: "I think we need to address something, Asin, before we really start this report. We've been dancing around this issue for over a week now, and that is this: is this planet Terra?"

Asin frowned. "Jovas, I honestly haven't given it any thought. I've been quite wrapped up in...well, everything else."

"Do you still hold to your assertion that it is highly unlikely that this planet is Terra?"

"Yes. I feel that insufficient evidence has been advanced to support a positive claim."

Jovas grinned. Their tones were becoming more and more academic. Their ultimate course would be inevitable, so Jovas simply sped things up by saying: "I assert the opposite, and I feel that I have enough evidence to demonstrate that Earth is indeed Terra, in that it is where the human species evolved."

Asin countered, "That is an extraordinary claim. I hope you have extraordinary evidence to support it."

"With your help, I think I can produce just that. Please, retain the position of the skeptic. I want this to be as rigorous as allowable in such an informal atmosphere."

Asin nodded silently, and Jovas' eyes flicked back to the main viewer. "We begin with coincidence. First, consider the known facts: there exists a planet on which humanity evolved. This planet is called Terra. No other planet listed in the GRE shares this name, which is extremely odd, given the number of worlds in the galactic throng.

"Further, it is a known fact that Terra is in the Sirius Sector, the same sector in which we currently find ourselves. With this in mind, we can examine the planet below, Earth."

"First, I must object," Asin said. "It is not a know fact that Terra is in the Sirius Sector. The primary source listing said 'fact' is a children's book. Its veracity must be verified against some sort of reference material to be considered acceptable. Moreover, we cannot hang a time line to this reference. Terra was in the Sirius Sector...where? And when? The Galaxy isn't standing still, you know. Over time, were it near the edge of the sector, it could have drifted out of what we presently define as Sirius, even taking into account the fact that sector borders are redrawn from time to time to reflect this drift!"

"Noted," Jovas replied. "I request that we accept this fact's veracity conditionally. I believe that further evidence will render it true."

Asin paused to sip at his Stimdrink. "Very well," he assented finally, "continue."

"The planet's name is Earth, or so we were able to infer by way of discovery of a primitive landing craft on the planet's satellite. At first, it was assumed to be a long-lost colony world, but the given data fits this explanation poorly. Asin, what is the most populous world in the Galaxy?"

"Capital," Asin answered immediately. "As the seat of the Alliance government, it practically has to be. Only Capital's planet-girdling city can support the massive central government."

"And its population?"

"Well, it was somewhat depopulated during the Great Sack, when the Zealots were overthrown, but it is now stable at 1.6 trillion."

"And how is it that this planet supports such a population?"

"It doesn't," Asin answered flatly. "An unending stream of food, water, and manufactured goods is brought in by a fleet of over one hundred thousand ships. Power is beamed to ground stations from enormous orbital power plants. There is a titanic infrastructure keeping Capital running."

"Would it be safe to say that a protracted break in this chain of supply would be catastrophic for Capital and its people?"

"Yes, it would." Such sieges have happened in the past, and have been incredibly short. Mass death occurs somewhere between four days and a week, so capitulation is never far off."

"Very good. Then, let us turn back to Earth." The main viewer flicked easily to an orbital view. "This world is unlike any other known in the Galaxy, for its inhabitants exist in the most primitive conditions imaginable. We find them without any technology. No agriculture. No written language. No domesticated animals. No hallmarks of modernity whatsoever!

"We first theorized that this planet has been unmolested and left to fall for upwards of twenty thousand years. Genetic evidence obtained, however, proves beyond any doubt that this planet has been continuously inhabited and unmolested for at least one hundred thousand years, or the length of recorded history. Our theory that this planet was an ancient colony no longer fits the observed facts, so we must construct a new theory to fit the facts, particularly the fact that the humans on this planet exist outside the Galactic genealogy."

"And you suppose that equating Earth to Terra is such an explanation?" Asin asked.

"I do. Further, I think that the regression seen supports this, as the planet below is an analogue to what Capital would ultimately become without its infrastructure. We must consider it a possible occurrence."

"I'm sorry, but I don't think that's the simplest theory," Asin said. "A much simpler theory is that the Galactic genealogy is merely incomplete. There existed other pockets of humanity outside of the Bottleneck. Earth is such a pocket. Perhaps Earthers are descendants of a marooned early interstellar ship. Considering the extremely low population of the human species at the time, it's not unreasonable to think that any habitable world would be seeded by a few individuals, with those that sprouted later rejoining the the throng to intermarry. This behavior, after all, holds today. Is it not Galactic law that humans must select a mate from a world other than their own, to maintain the homogeneity of the species? Earth was, most likely, simply lost. They colony was thought failed and the world, being undesirably hot, was ignored."

"This theory fails to account, then, for the wide distribution of the population," Jovas countered immediately. "If such a colony was founded, why are there populations near both poles? How did they cross, as Tras so deftly puts it, the Hot Lands?"

"I cannot account for this at the moment," Asin offered, "but I nonetheless hold that, given the astronomical odds against actually locating and correctly identifying Terra, my theory accounts for the facts the best."

"I must admit, Asin, that I've been toying with you a bit. I've some new facts that I found in the GRE which are pertinent to this argument."

"Oh?" Asin smiled. "You always had a flair for the dramatic. Well, out with it, then!"

Jovas smiled back easily. "Recall how we translated the text on the plaque found on the satellite. It came from a memorial of a certain general, Qa Solip. I did some research on the man. There is actually a surprisingly large amount of information available on him. As an example, he grew up on a world nearby. It's a scant thirty light years away, as a matter of fact. And old, too. Their oldest written record is more than ninety thousand years old.

"Incidentally, the ancient dialect they once spoke isn't really a dialect; it's actually another language altogether. When the Galactic Hypernet came online some six thousand years ago, it allowed unification of all the dialects of Galactic Standard. Stubbornly, of course, some worlds resisted this, but over time, all worlds the Hypernet reached spoke Galactic Standard. Because we can't fathom their being more than one language, we call anything that differs a "dialect," but in certain cases, the isolation has been so profound that a new language has been formed, bearing little similarity to the original.

"Now, the reason I bring this up is accounting for the General. His language and that of his planet was ancient. Its written aspect is verifiably ninety thousand years old. It's so old, in fact, that it predates all but the oldest form of Galactic Standard, which is known to date to the Bottleneck.

"We must ask ourselves this: the writing on the plaque of the spacecraft on Earth's moon is the same as a ninety thousand year old writing sample on a planet a mere thirty light-years away. Which came first?"

Asin took a moment and finished his Stimdrink. "We cannot determine this unless we know the age of the spacecraft..."

"...which we do," Jovas finished. "I've been sitting on the results for nearly a week now; I didn't even look at them until last night because, well, I forgot about them. Based on the empirical data, the computer has determined the age of the craft to be one hundred and two thousand years old, plus or minus one thousand years, with ninety-nine percent certainty. Therefore, the oldest known language in the Galaxy is not ninety thousand years old, but over one hundred thousand years old, and it originated on the planet below."

Asin was quiet for a moment. Finally: "This evidence is strong, but circumstantial. We don't have an accurate time line of those events. We can't place the Bottleneck accurately enough to determine how exactly all of this happened. And we still don't know for sure if we're in the correct system!"

"Asin, you've played the part of skeptic admirably," Jovas began, "but defeat is at hand. Allow me to share with you the facts that support the theory that Earth and Terra are the same." He paused; perhaps Asin was right, and he did have a flair for the dramatic. No matter; let him indulge!

Jovas' brain implant chirped suddenly. Please view external monitor number six, the ship's voice flashed through his mind sweetly.

"Oh, come on, Jovas!" Asin shouted suddenly, but Jovas quieted him.

"Something's going on outside," Jovas said quickly, and he switched the main viewer to comply with the computer's request.

There, on the main screen, was a crystal-clear view of the area near the gangway of the ship, or where it would be if it weren't raised at the moment. There was no sound, but there didn't need to be; Asin and Jovas recoiled in horror all the same. Cho was there, flailing her arms wildly and stamping the ground. At her feet was her husband, Tras, lying supine, limp, and motionless, and covered in blood.
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-10-17 10:49pm

"Get them!" Jovas snapped, rising to his feet. "Bring them to the galley!"

"And what exactly are you doing?" Asin nearly shouted. As he rose, he nearly tripped over the seat.

"Activating the emergency medical protocol," Jovas fired back. "Just get them to the galley!"

Jovas didn't look back to see how quickly Asin was moving, and he crossed the ten meter-long corridor to the galley in about three strides. The doors barely had enough time to part for him, and his momentum carried him to the far wall of the tiny chamber. Using the bulkhead mainly to stop himself, he plunged down and drove his fist into an otherwise mundane panel in the far right corner. Uniquely, it gave way underneath his strike, and a tray was rapidly ejected onto the floor in front of him.

From the tray he fetched an emergency relay, enabling his implant to be used outside the pilot's room. Entering the access code along the side of the device, it activated with a sequence of flashes emitted from one of its ends.

The emergency relay has been activated, the computer's voice flashed inside his brain. Please recite code nine-three to confirm.

"Blue volume seven zero five red red one!" Jovas bellowed. His heart pounded thickly inside his ears.

Thank you! the computer responded cheerily. To activate the emergency medical protocol, please recite code seven-six.

Jovas took a deep breath. "Four one orange nine two four blue eight."

Thank you! DAT will applied in three seconds. Two seconds. One second. Now!

It was fortunate that Jovas was kneeling, because the receiving a DAT was as disorienting as being kicked in the head from behind. He clutched his head with both hands and bent over double, crying out. A raging torrent of sensation roiled through his brain, spinning and spraying over everything he knew, blotting out all but a numbing buzz of words, figures, and diagrams.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. Jovas remembered that his name was Jovas. He remembered that Asin was fetching the horribly injured Tras and bringing him to the galley. But, most importantly, he knew how to turn the galley into a medical bay.

Medical emergency! Jovas thought to the computer. Activate: Zero zero zero dread blue zero! Then, he stepped back.

The galley, to be precise, vanished. The food and drink dispensaries disappeared behind bulkheads. The table and chairs were replaced by a two meter long sick bed. Panels and plating revealed half a dozen medical apparatus, each flickering with an internal light as their onboard computers booted to life. And Jovas rested easy in the knowledge that he knew how to operate everything.

Outside, Jovas heard the lift doors open. Immediately, he plunged his hands into a new cavity in the far wall; a disinfectant/sealant was applied to his hands in a fine spray. It dried within half a second, giving him just enough time to turn around and see Asin barge into the room, carrying Tras like a child. Cho followed quickly, too possessed with the state of her husband to marvel at everything around her.

"He's barely breathing," Asin spurted, "and there's so much blood!" He placed Tras on the bed, only then taking a moment to marvel at the transformation in the galley.

"Use the sanitizer," Jovas said calmly, pointing. He went over to the bed and activated the medical indexer via his implant. It emerged from the wall above the bed and fanned out, covering Tras. As this was happening, Jovas affixed monitoring sensors to vital areas of Tras and said, "What happened?"

"Dogs," Asin replied, coming back. "That much I know. Tras managed to fight them off, but not before...they walked most of the way back, until he collapsed. Then she carried him." He looked slightly less terrified than Cho, who had scrunched herself into a corner of the room and was shaking violently, her dirty face streaked with tear tracks.

The indexer finished scanning Tras, and the computer dumped the list of injuries into Jovas' brain. "He's sustained massive tissue damage and blood loss. Amazingly, no broken bones. Pulse is shallow, but stable for now." Automatically, he reached for a nanopaste dispenser. Loading a cartridge into it, he began applying it to the wounds on Tras' shoulders and neck. The steel-blue paste melted into each wound in turn, forming an artificial scab.

"What's that?" Asin asked.

"Nanopaste. Haven't you ever been wounded? The nanites are in suspension in the paste. As directed by the medical indexer, they convert that paste into healthy fl--hold on."

"What, what?" Asin cried out, partially because one of the monitoring screens began to flash red.

"His pulse is accelerating, and his blood pressure is dropping. His hemorrhaging has increased from Class 3 to Class 4. He's bleeding to death." Jovas' own panic was tempered by the DAT, but it was nonetheless there. "I'm going to cook a batch of artificial blood for him."

"Where is he bleeding? I don't see any bleeding!" Asin shouted.

"Internally, somewhere in the torso," Jovas muttered. He slipped a sample of Tras' blood into a the hemogenerator and activated it. It buzzed angrily.

"Invalid sample?" Jovas muttered.

"Invalid?!" Asin roared. "Why?"

"Approximately three percent of people can't take the artificial blood this machine makes. It's only an emergency device; we're not in a hospital," Jovas snapped. The medical indexer alerted him silently. "The indexer has found the site of hemorrhage. I'm going to inject a super-concentrate of nanites into the site to repair the broken blood vessels." He filled up the dermospray with an ominously black substance. "It's a good thing he's unconscious, because this is going to hurt."

Jovas jammed the dermospray into Tras' left side and depressed the injector. With a nearly silent hiss, a few hundred billion nanomachines plunged into the damaged tissues and, receiving instructions from the indexer, quickly sealed the breach.

"We're not clear yet," Jovas muttered. "He still lost too much blood. His heart is having trouble moving around what's left."

"But he can't take the artificial blood!" Asin said. "What can we do?"

Jovas paused a moment, the medical DAT swirling chaotically. "Saline!" he cried out suddenly. "We just need a volume expander." Working quickly, he was able to produce a one-liter bag of pure saline and connect an intraveinous drip.

"Here!" he said, handing it to Asin. "Hold this and keep pressure on it. It should drain within ninety seconds." As Asin did so, Jovas took the time to apply nanopaste the remainder of Tras' wounds. "His heart rate is stabilizing. He's still hypoxic, but his remaining blood should be more able to transport oxygen now." He hooked up a second bag, half-liter bag, the first having been drained. "Same task," Jovas said, eying Asin.

Jovas then turned to Cho, who had urinated on the floor blamelessly. She gave forth the occasional tiny sob, still shivering. Jovas crouched low near her. "Are you hurt?" he asked softly.

She shook her head, but even doing that seemed to make her weep all the harder. "He fought them all," she wailed. "He protected me from the dogs!"

"Tras is very brave," Jovas offered. "But he needs your help. He doesn't have much blood right now, and we can't make more with our magic." Cho sobbed. "But I can give him some of your blood. Will you do that?"

She looked up at Jovas, her eyes suddenly clear. Sniffling, she rose to her full height and nodded. "Yes."

Jovas smiled, and stood up. He went over to to the wall and slid open a storage drawer to obtain the necessary equipment. Asin followed him.

"What are you doing?" he hissed.

"The medical indexer has access to all of the data the computer does, including the DNA samples of Tras and Cho. It determined that their blood types are the same; she is a compatible donor." Jovas stood and walked back over to Cho.

"Hold out your arm," Jovas said, mimicking the desired action. She complied, and with a deft touch, Jovas swabbed her inner elbow and set up an intravenous line, guided into a vein by the a subtle feedback system build into the cannula's computer. Attaching a smaller vial to thes first, he allowed it to fill up with approximately fifty milliliters of blood. Cho watched with a strange mix of fascination and apprehension. He then attached the larger blood bag and activated the cannula, which automatically opened a valve and began to fill the bag.

"I will not take much," Jovas said in a soothing tone, "but even this will help Tras greatly." Cho bit her lip and blinked back tears, nodding silently.

"The second bag is complete," Asin said. Jovas requested and received updated vital signs of Tras from the ship's computer.

"Good, he's doing much better. He's going to need some injections to prevent infection, and I want to keep him under for the next few hours. Once he receives this blood, though, he should be alright to walk around some. Asin, go to the underdeck. There's a crate in the hold marked 'Passenger Accommodations.' Pull out some bedding for these two; you're going to have roommates."

* * *

Jovas woke Tras up three hours later. While remaining groggy and lethargic, he was aware of his surroundings, so he was at least partially amazed at the interior of the ship. Cho, having herself recovered from donating blood to Tras, wept with joy at seeing her husband conscious again. Tras cried, too, and though Asin would never get him to admit it, Jovas wiped away a tear, as well.

Jovas elevated the bed so that Tras might be more comfortable, and gave him a simplistic version of what had happened. He explained the nanopaste, the blood loss, and the subsequent weakness he would feel. Growing more cognizant by the second, Tras began to nod thoughtfully after each statement from Jovas.

"I want you and Cho to stay with us for some days," Jovas said. "You are still very weak, Tras, and while our magic can heal you, it cannot do so immediately. You will rest here in our home, you will eat our magic foods, and then we will all return to your tribe."

Cho immediately protested. Having tasted her first Stimdrink, she was quite energetic. "But the dogs have tracked us here! And you have no spears or axes!"

"But we have magic," Asin offered. "Magic that will stop the dogs from ever hurting us."

"And other magic," Jovas added. "Dark magic. Frightful magic. Magic enough to kill every dog between here and your tribe. You and Tras will be safe. I promise this."

Wide eyed, the pair nodded silently. "Enough talk," Jovas said, rising. "Tras, I think it would be good if you stood up. It will hurt, and you will feel weak, but we don't have far to go." He looked at Asin.

"Yes!" Asin affirmed. "It's time I showed you where you'll be sleeping while you stay with us."

Gingerly, as many of his abdominal muscles were still shredded, Tras pushed himself upright, grunting only once at at the apparent pain. He pivoted upon his rear and, with Jovas' help, lowered himself to the floor. After a moment, he pushed away Jovas' steadying hand and stood upright, a determined grimace set upon his face. He stepped forward.

"Let's see where we'll sleep," Tras said. Cho appeared at his side silently, and and carefully looped his less injured arm up over her shoulders. Tras did not protest. Asin nodded to Jovas, and he led the pair out of the galley and to his (now their) quarters.

Tras could not help but gawk at Asin's room when he entered. Cho had seen it already some hours before, so she maintained her composure. Asin stepped around his bed and turned to face the pair.

"This is where I sleep. You will be sharing my space for the next few days, while Tras heals. I know you lost your mat, but I have found some things that will be comfortable for you to lie on." He held up one of the blankets he'd procured from the underdeck.

"Where is the sun?" Tras asked. "How will we know when to sleep?"

Asin shrugged. "Sleep when you are tired. You need not obey the sun in this place." Tras nodded, then looked over at Asin's desk. "What is that?"

"That rock," Asin began, stepping over to his desktop computer, "tells me things I might wish to know. It shows me images of distant places and people, and it has markings in it that tell me stories from the old times."

"Strange rock," Cho remarked, "but such is magic."

Asin smiled. It was almost sad how quickly Cho has acclimated herself to the marvels of the ship. One she accepted that magic caused all she saw, it ceased to be, well, magical, Asin thought.

"Now, you must be curious where you may make your...westa," Asin continued unevenly. A sheen of sweat descended from nowhere and landed upon his brow. "We have a rock over here," he said, moving over to the toilet, "that takes it away. You simply sit, and you...go. Tras, you must aim!" he added with a hint of sharpness. Tras laughed, then winced in sudden pain.

"When you are done, touch here," he said, pressing a purple on the wall near the toilet. "You will be cleaned and dried. Touch this to send your westa away. Then, you place your hands in here," he put his hands inside the sanitizer, "and you are done. The magic is complete."

"Now," Asin continued, "you must also bathe while in our home. We have a place where the rain pours in at our whim; this is where you will bathe." He stepped over to the shower stall and opened it; the door slid back into the wall. Tras and Cho watched with a pleasant sort of curiosity. "Press this red part, and the water will pour. Then, a strange mist will cover you and take all the dirt from your bodies. Finally, more water will cleanse you completely.

"Now," Asin said, "Cho, I think you should try."

Cho nodded, and made to move forward, but Tras stopped her. Silently, she stepped back, and Tras tottered forward. "Let me," he said with remarkable conviction. He stepped inside the stall, supporting himself against one of the walls. After a moment's hesitation, he activated the shower.

Asin left the door open so that Cho might see the water cascade down and not be frightened. The multitude of nanopaste-sealed wounds were waterproof, Jovas had told Asin earlier, having had time enough to set properly.

Tras turned his face up into the stream of water. "It's warm!" he cried with glee. "Like a summer storm!" He gargled with some of the water, spraying it all over the wall. After a few moments, the water ceased and the soap sprayed him from all directions.

"Don't be alarmed, Tras," Asin called out. "This will clean you. Try not to eat it, for it tastes bad." He passed the now pink, foamy man a swatch of bathing fiber. "Rub your skin with this, but take care by your wounds. They will hurt."

Tras nodded and set himself to work. He was remarkably thorough, even taking care to wash less obvious parts of his body: behind his ears, his back, and genitals. Finally, the rinse period began and Tras luxuriated as the soap fell from him. When the shower ended, Asin handed him a towel. Needing no explanation, he took it and began drying himself off. "Wonderful!" he remarked. He tottered back out. "What was that called?"

"A shower." Asin said evenly, wondering if the word had been translated.

"Shower?" Tras repeated in the customary perfect Standard. "Like light rain?"

Asin nodded, then moved over to his dresser. "You will also be more comfortable in some clothes. That is what I wear," he added, "clothes." He pulled one or his short-sleeved shirts out. "I will mend it so that it will fit better, but I think they will suffice for you and Cho."

Asin did this while Cho bathed. Now both cleaned, their hair shimmered lustrously, and their tanned skin fairly glowed. Save Tras' numerous wounds, they looked remarkably healthful, and their odor, while not unpleasant before, was vastly reduced. As Tras and Cho bedded down for some much-needed sleep, Asin watched them contentedly. It was remarkable how fond he'd become of them. His mind drifting, he wondered when, after the mission had ended, he would see them again. As he turned back to his desk to work a bit on the report, he hoped it would be soon.
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-11-01 11:28pm

Asin found Jovas in the main chamber of the underdeck, sitting crosslegged on the floor, an assortment of tools and parts spread out before him. He was humming what was probably part of Detritus song as he worked, and didn't notice Asin until the latter waved his hand in front of his face.

"Oh!" he started. "I've been rather absorbed. What's going on?"

Asin shrugged. "Nothing. I wished to see what was occupying your time, and you weren't on the main deck, so..."

"Well, I'm modifying my blaster." He held up the partially disassembled weapon. "For the journey back to the tribe, you see."


"There are two aspects of the weapon that I want to modify. One is the type of blast it issues. A standard bolt throws off a lot of excess heat, so much so that a missed shot could ignite the grass. I don't want to burn half the steppe down because a dog dodged my shot, so I'm installing a device which modifies the bolt's characteristics, so that most of the heat bleeds off as it's fired. The result is a bolt which causes extreme concussive damage, but shouldn't ignite anything."

"Interesting. Why is this not a standard feature on blasters?"

"Because energy is conserved." Jovas smiled knowingly. "A blaster bolt generates a lot of waste heat when it is created. When the bulk of the heat is carried with the bolt, it doesn't stay in the weapon. This means that the weapon can be fired longer without overheating. By keeping the heat in the weapon, I'm drastically reducing my fire rate. There are active and passive systems that can mitigate this to a point, but nonetheless, I would wager that I could fire two dozen shots at most before the weapon will automatically shut off and enter an active cooling cycle."

Asin watched Jovas work for a few minutes. "What's the other?"

He looked up. "I'm sorry?"

"The other aspect that you're modifying?"

"Ah, yes! That would be a somewhat cosmetic choice. See, blasters come standard with a dampening device that reduces the report issued when the weapon is fired. I'm removing this device, so that each shot will be extremely loud."

Asin nodded thoughtfully for a moment, then realized that that made absolutely no sense. "Wait, why?"

Jovas shrugged. "The computer suggested that the dogs would be frightened by loud, unfamiliar noises. I suspect that a loud, unfamiliar noise, coupled with one of them exploding, should make thing think twice about attacking us. Speaking of us, where are they?"

"In my quarters, watching their shows." Jovas gave forth a small chuckle.

The last four days had certainly been interesting. Tras and Cho, though amazingly primitive, were happily quite malleable to life aboard the ship. They used the toilet, they showered, and they proudly wore Asin's shirts (though they were so large on the small creatures that they served to cover their genitals, as well). When it came time to sleep, they slept contentedly, and perhaps fortunately, Tras was too wounded to attempt sex.

Jovas had shown them the pilot room, taking care to censor any blatant errata that would suggest that he and Asin hailed from outer space. He showed them the computer's log of the tracking device on Tras' skin, how it showed their journey to the northeast, precisely where they were attacked by the dogs, and the return trip.

Most interestingly, Asin had introduced them to the entertainment network. Broadcast over the Galactic Hypernet, it was the Alliance's fervent attempt at re-homogenizing Galactic culture. Again censoring shows which had to do with space, he found Tras and Cho rapidly become uninterested in the remaining programs, complaining that they were too complex and fast-moving to follow, and the vocabulary used was too varied to translate properly. They did, however, love the advertisements, for they were short and simple, and seemed to always end well. Even if Tras and Cho had no idea what the product being sold was, they found the extolling of its virtues and its joyous acquisition to be utterly wonderful. Asin found himself customizing his viewer to only display advertisements, and Tras and Cho passed much time huddled around it, contentedly watching strange-looking humans acquire devices and services which they could not fathom in a language they could barely understand.

"I almost feel bad, showing them the viewer," Asin said. "It entrances them! But at least I now have had some time to work on the report. They're so curious, they were badgering me with questions every waking moment. You'd be surprised how quickly they stop accepting 'magic' as the cause of all they see."

"Well, if magic becomes commonplace, the wonder ceases and curiosity takes over. I bet if you had insisted that we were gods, they would not question anything out of pure fear!" Jovas fastened a finned, vented heat sink along the blaster's barrel. Attaching the stock to it, he held it against his shoulder and checked the sights. Grunting with a measure of dissatisfaction, he pulled out a small hand tool of some sort and began fiddling with the blaster again. Asin chuckled, then noticed something leaning against the far wall.

"Is that a spear?" he asked, unable to keep a tone of shock from his voice.

Not looking up, Jovas replied, "Yes. It's Tras' spear, to be precise. I was outside yesterday, setting up water condensers--as an aside, the four of us are using quite a bit of water. I was about fifty meters from the ship, and there I noticed it, lying in a patch of trampled grass...I think that's where Tras finally fell.

"It's really a marvelous weapon, all things considered. Even after fighting with the dogs, it was still intact and quite sharp. So, I brought it on board and modified it."

Asin had gotten up and was examining the spear. "I was about to say--this isn't a stone head."

"No, it's not. The ship has a basic milling and routing machine which is meant for creating limited replacement segments for the hull, or for various ship parts, if we're in a pinch. But practically speaking, in can create any shape I want. So I made Tras a new spear head, and I reinforced the shaft with some microfracture sealant. I suspect it will prevent the wood from rotting or breaking, but I can't be sure."

"A metal spear point and an unbreakable shaft." Asin hefted it clumsily, examining its leaf-shaped blade. "Tras just become the most heavily armed Earther on the planet."

"How right you have it," Jovas quipped. "That spear head is the same composite material as the hull. Nothing he can do will dull it. Ever. Well, at least in his lifetime. A half dozen centuries of abuse might wear it down a bit. I made a knife for Cho, too, but I don't know if there's some cultural taboo against arming women, so it may wind up to be Tras', as well."

"I think they'll appreciate these very much, Jovas," Asin said. "To them, these weapons are life. A sturdy spear or knife means food--or at least, it means that they have a good chance at getting food. It is security against their predators, and against other, hostile tribes. Tras places incredible value on his spear--it's actually saddened him that he lost it. And I don't believe there are any taboos against women having weapons."

"Good, I'll give them their weapons when we set out tomorrow."

"So soon?" Asin watched Jovas stow his modified weapon in its case, the lid sealing shut with a soft hiss. "Is Tras ready?"

"I believe so," he replied, setting the case against the wall. "I examined him earlier this morning, while you were still asleep. The nanopaste has been rebuilt into healthy flesh. He's still sore where the new muscles are, because they take longer to stitch themselves to the existing ones. I want us to sleep in a few hours until late evening local time, then we'll set out."

"And you said it's a fifteen kilometer walk?"

"Based on the images returned from the relay satellite, yes. The tribe moved closer to us, to the shores of a lake larger than the one they were staying at. That cut a good twenty kilometers off the walk. I think that even if we go slow, we'll make it there before the day truly begins. We'll stay as long as you need; the only thing I want to make sure is that I get DNA samples of everyone in the tribe."

"DNA? Why? Won't it just confirm what we already know?"

"Perhaps," Jovas answered cryptically. "I have a notion, though, I think it would be shown correct if I had a larger sample size."

"Oh, Jovas!" Asin rolled his eyes. "Your flair for the dramatic is rearing its head again."

Jovas perked up. "Speaking of which, I've been meaning to tell you...we are on Terra, in fact, and I can prove it."

Asin looked perplexed for a moment. "Oh yes! You had me wriggling in the crushing grip of argumentation when our guests arrived. Alright, Jovas, tell me. How is it that we are on Terra?"

"The sun."

"The sun?"

"Yes, Asin. Terra has a sun, like any other planet worth a care. Do you happen to know its name?"

Asin thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No idea."

"Sol. Its name is Sol."

"And you're sure of this?"

"As sure as those publishing the GRE are of it. This is, apparently, one of the few things known with reasonably certainty about Terra. Sol is Terra's sun."

"Very well. So how do you know that that particular sun outside which will not set is Sol?"

"A series of fortunate events," Jovas replied mirthfully. "First, it began when I started analyzing the star to place the age of the landing craft on the satellite. The computer was able to observe the star in great detail...much greater detail, in fact, than it normally would. It was thus able to accurately simulate the characteristics of the star moving back in the past.

"Knowing this, I encountered a great boon while researching General Qa Solip. You recall the written record I spoke of, which is ninety thousand years old?" Asin nodded. "Well, it is the oldest verified record, but there are records which may be older, but are certainly no more than five or so centuries younger than this verified record. Among these I found a navigational chart."

"And this listed Sol?"

Jovas smiled. "No, it wasn't quite that easy. Early interstellar navigation relied upon being able to correctly identify stars following a jump. A navigator would have to examine the region of space where a star was supposed to be following a jump, and the best way to identify a star is by keeping detailed characteristics of it. From this, you can determine what a star should look like at the distance from it you think you are. If your assumptions hold, you repeat the process for several other well-known stars to confirm your position, then begin plotting your next jump.

"Of course, modern navigation is much easier, as we have hyperspatial beacons. At any time I can ping the nearest two beacons and triangulate our position. But, at any rate, the chart I discovered listed the properties of fifty or so local stars, along with their coordinates relative to the General's planet. Using a bit of guesswork, I narrowed the list down to ten or so, then it was just a matter of comparing the properties of this star to those on the list--specifically, to the extrapolation the computer made of what the star would have looked like 90,000 years ago. When I found a match, I went looking through any other literature I could find from the general's homeworld which would have a name to match to the coordinates."

"And that was where you found the name 'Sol,' " Asin finished at a whisper.

"Indeed. This is the final piece of the puzzle, Asin. I believe that I have provided sufficient evidence that the star this planet orbits is Sol, and that, therefore, this planet is Terra. Terra is Earth."

Asin found himself leaning against a crate for support. "Terra is Earth," he repeated. "Earth is Terra." He laughed. "Earth is Terra!"

"You'll understand, then, if I decide to cut the mission short, so that we can transmit our findings back to University?" Jovas stood.

"Earth is Terra!" Asin shouted, then threw his arms around Jovas, who barely maintained his balance.

Jovas laughed, embracing Asin tightly. "I'm glad you understand. Now, let's go get some sleep, and then take Tras and Cho back home."

* * *

Jovas inhaled deeply through his nostrils. The air was dry and comfortable, and nothing smelled amiss. A tiny breeze gave the faintest wobble to the tops of the steppe grass. It crackled softly as he stalked forward, his eyes darting back and forth rapidly. The unfolded stock of his blaster rested just above the crook of his right shoulder, and the weapon felt cool and deadly in his hands. The entire plain was cast in a golden glow by the midnight sun, just off to Jovas' left.

Directly behind him was Tras, managing to keep up with Jovas easily. He carried his spear proudly in both hands even now, over twelve kilometers into their trek. Asin had indeed be correct; he'd loved the spear, and Cho loved her knife. She'd fashioned a sheath for it out of some of the leftover fabric from her shirt, and it hung from her belt. Every once in a while, when Jovas turned around to see if any dogs were following them, he would catch her hand on it, a soft smile on her face.

Bringing up the rear was Asin, who was terrified enough for the all four of them. White-knuckled, he held his Number tightly in one hand, and continually hitched the strap of his rucksack with the other. But Jovas paid him little attention; every rustle of the grass could possibly herald the arrival of dogs. Tras had said that the pack in this region was nearly fifty strong and could bring down a fully-grown man without any major difficulty. It made hunting alone risky, but such was their life. Jovas smiled a small, vicious smile; if he could, he would make their lives just a bit easier before they left.

Tras tugged on his sleeve. Jovas stopped and turned. "They're close," he said, wide-eyed. He pointed to his left, the northwest. "I hear them, and they often come out of the sun. They will be there."

Jovas nodded. "Let's move on. Quickly!"

Putting on his sun shades, the midnight sun dimmed so that he could see where Tras had indicated. Sure enough, he saw half a dozen squiggles being beaten through the grass, fifty meters away. Tras' hearing was rather sharp; Jovas was impressed.

"Jovas!" a voiced hissed behind him. It was Asin.

"I'm a tad busy!" Jovas hissed back.

"They're behind us, too!"

Casting a glance over his shoulder, he saw them, coming up the path that they'd created in the grass. They were large creatures, at least fifty kilos. Tall and lean, they loped efficiently, low growls in their throats, ears back, and teeth bared. Jovas counted five of them, moving in single file.

"They are the same ones that..." Cho moaned, pulling her knife out. Asin turned on his Number, and it began to throb quietly.

"Move," Jovas ordered. Shoving past the three of them, he brought his blaster up to his shoulder and thumbed the safety catch off. Taking a moment to sight the lead dog, he closed the contact.

It looked like the front of the weapon exploded in a deafening roar. Coruscating arcs of ionized particles shot up off the barrel, and a pressure wave blasted flat the grass in a two meter radius in front of him. The recoil was mainly absorbed by the stock, but in this configuration, the weapon's kick was still incredibly strong. The bolt itself moved too fast to see, of course, but the tracer followed it perfectly, a glowing blue lance stabbing outward from the muzzle to its target.

The lead dog's brain probably didn't even have time to register the sound before it disintegrated under the unrelenting might of the blaster. In a few milliseconds the front two thirds of the dog was simply gone, replaced by its aggregate components spraying across ten meters of grassland in quarter-circle volume away from Jovas and the others.

Jovas lowered the weapon momentarily, the heat sinks hissing angrily as they worked furiously to dissipate some of the waste energy of the weapon. The dogs stopped their forward motion, and one was yelping in obvious pain, a shard of bone lodged in one of its eyes.

Looking back behind him, he saw the paths continuing to be cut in the grass towards them from the northwest. That made at least eleven dogs total, now ten, advancing directly on them. Tras and Cho, despite themselves, had clamped their hands to their ears in futile defense against the blaster's report.

"Something's wrong," he murmured to himself. Then, a bit louder: "I think they're driving us towards a trap." He looked back south; the remaining dogs were retreating, leaving the remains of their fallen comrade behind. "We go northwest, through them."

"Through them?" Asin peeped. He was trembling.

"Yes," Jovas barked, resuming the lead spot again. "Then they'll all be to our south and won't be able to direct our motion as effectively." He looked at the map on his wrist display. "We'll loop around a patch of trees--that's probably where they were going to spring their ambush--and continue on our way. It'll only add a kilometer to our trip. Quickly, now!"

Jovas took off at a trot towards the advancing dogs, and the rest followed him silently. When he'd closed to twenty five meters, he closed contact again, firing at the dog to his immediate left. The blaster thundered, but the shot was slightly wide. The dog he'd shot at was merely hideously wounded, and it screamed in abject agony. Not resting on his laurels, he swung his blaster right and fired again at nearest dog. This shot was dead on, and the dog exploded rather horrifically.

"Move!" Jovas barked. "I want to make sure they don't follow us." He couldn't exactly see where the other four dogs were, but he suspected that they were reconsidering their plan of attack. As Tras led Cho and Asin to the northwest and past the now-disrupted line of dogs, Jovas paused a moment. The dogs to his left were moving off, but the ones to his right w---

It was only after the attack that he realized that the dog had leapt immediately for his throat. The next thing he was aware of was the hissing of the forcefield atomizing the dog's saliva as it tried again and again to bite his neck. His combat DATs fully in control, he acknowledged that his blaster had been knocked from his hand. Forcefully, he drew and activated his Number, thumbing it up to the maximum setting. As the dog was completely occupied with trying to open his throat, it ignored his left arm until the Number it was wielding smashed square into the creature's spine.

The dog collapsed on Jovas, its back legs now essentially useless. Ignoring its piteous screeching, he shoved it off to his side and sat up. Almost as an afterthought, he swung the Number again and struck it at the base of its skull, killing it instantly.

Looking to the northwest, he saw another dog's corpse. Asin, Cho, and Tras stood over it, Tras howling victoriously at the apparent kill. His spearpoint was bloody, held high over his head. Breathing hard, Jovas grinned, and stood up, pausing just a moment to retrieve his blaster.

Walking over to the three, Tras grinned at him broadly. Jovas clapped the smaller man on the shoulder, then looked up at Asin. "Good work!"

Asin twirled his Number. "I did my bit, but I doubt I could have finished him off."

"It was a fine kill." He looked back down at Tras. "Right?"

Tras nodded happily. "Alright," Jovas continued. "Let's move on. We've only a short way to go!"
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-11-09 08:47pm

Asin watched the main viewer dreamily, where Terra hung in eternal repose, the view only changing because they were again orbiting it.

"Now, as I was saying," Jovas continued, "we are at a crossroads. I want to include something in the report, but it's big. It's going to fundamentally alter the Alliance's response, and I don't think you're going to like what that means."

Asin snapped out of his reverie yet again. He could scarcely stop staring at Terra on the main viewer, and found himself often idly daydreaming about what evidence of the cradle of humanity had survived one hundred thousand years. But, for now, he focused on Jovas, specifically, what he had said.

"I'm sorry Jovas, but I don't know what you're talking about. We're including everything, no?"

"That's the problem," Jovas sighed. "I've been working on a bit of a side project, while you were compiling the main body of the report. It was designed, at first, mainly to keep myself occupied, since I couldn't very well help you write, but I've found out something which I think you'll find...disturbing."

Asin's patience for Jovas' mannerisms was large, but undeniably finite. "Yes, yes, and that is...?"

Jovas took a deep breath, then blurted out, "Now that we're off the planet, there are no humans on Terra."

Asin's shoulders slumped. "Really?" he groaned in exasperation. "We're back to this again? Jovas, the DNA kit was wrong because these people exist outside the Bottleneck, not because they're not human."

"Actually, Asin, it's both." Jovas brought up a new display on screen. "The analysis kit was throwing an error due to the genealogy issue. We accepted this and moved forward, but something nagged at me about it. I hadn't the time to devote attention to it until we had returned to the ship, but I found a most startling fact: when you disable the kit's genaeological analysis, Tras and Cho's DNA still comes back as not human."

"But, that's impossible! You saw them with your own two eyes. They're human! All of their tribe, too!"

"No, Asin, they're not. None of them are human. Of all fifty-two females I sampled, not a single one could produce a viable offspring with you or myself. Of the fifty males I sampled, not a single one could reproduce with the benchmark female DNA sample that the computer has on file for reference. They are genetically incompatible with humanity, and this means that they are a different species."

Asin frowned. Indeed, he didn't like what he was hearing at all, but he couldn't place exactly why. Jovas continued: "It is a special case of allopatric speciation. Their population went through a bottleneck, as did ours. But where we have reproduced from ten thousand individuals to ten quadrillion, they have not taken a dip in the Galactic gene pool for over one hundred thousands years. Their selective pressures are completely unlike ours: they must have sharp hearing and smell. They must be physically hardy. They don't need to read, or write. They can be as dumb as asteroids, so long as they can survive long enough to reproduce. And since their populations are so small, the genetic drift is large. Speciation probably occurred many thousands of years ago."

"But I don't understand something," Asin began slowly, with the same frown on his face. "If we went through a similar bottleneck, why isn't our drift so pronounced? Why can a woman take a seventy thousand year old sperm sample from across the galaxy and have a viable, healthy child? Why didn't we speciate?"

"Asin, we did speciate. We did it at the same time they speciated. I admit, though, these things are a bit fuzzy. For example, the common ancestor that we and they share? Some humans can technically produce viable offspring from ancient DNA samples, but this could loosely be described as the phenomenon of a ring species. Not every human woman can take that ancient sperm sample and have a healthy child, but every human living today can successfully interbreed with any other living human of the opposite gender, all things being equal.

"Further: I'm no geneticist, so I can't be certain, but I would wager that we, as a breeding population, kept our genetic drift down by intermarrying as much as possible, so as to maintain genetic homogeneity. Also note this: the average generation is seventeen years on Terra. The average Galactic generation is over fifty, but we will say fifty-one to make the math simpler.

"Genetic drift is governed by a change in alleles over the course of generations, not years. For every one of our generations, three occurred on Terra. Therefore, alleles reached fixation on Terra at a rate three times greater than that of the Galaxy at large--at minimum!. Compounding this is the fact that our population exploded, while theirs stayed small and fixed. Once our population grew large, the rate of allele drift (and thus, fixation) shrunk precipitously, while theirs stayed as high as ever. All this drives home the undeniable: Terrans, Earthers, whatever you name them, are a distinct sapient species, with which we share a common ancestor. But they are by no means human."

"But you mentioned ring species--"

"Ring species tend to occur when there is a wide variance in the habitat of a given species, enough to cause significantly different selective pressures at the extremes of the range, but there remains enough interbreeding occurring on the whole to allow interbreeding among certain similar members of the species. For example, individuals at either extreme will not be able to interbreed, but both will be able to select a mate from nearby clines and interbreed.

"Regardless, humanity's habitat has been stable for one hundred thousand years, and so have its selective pressures. Earthers have remained anomalous and isolated, subject to high genetic drift and totally different selective pressures. They were human once, but no longer."

Asin sat in sullen silence, staring at Jovas. He felt his hands absurdly clenching, and the blood was hotly creeping up his neck. Shifting uncomfortably, the latter began, "I imagine this is somewhat upsetting to hear, but--"

"Oh, what in the fresh fuck gave you that idea?!" Asin screamed suddenly, his dark skin flushed as much as he could manage. He was trembling hotly as he continued, "How dare you say that about them? About our friends?! Do you realize what you're insinuating?! Do you--?"

Asin suddenly found himself weeping, and he didn't know exactly why, for for exactly how long he was crying. But his anger melted as suddenly as he had rose, and when Jovas offered him his shoulder, he eagerly took it.

"Listen, Asin," he said softly, "I don't like this, either. But the evidence is incontrovertible. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

"I know," Asin moaned into Jovas' shoulder, "but it's just...what does this mean for the Terrans? For Tras and Cho?"

"I wish I knew," Jovas sighed. "I don't believe that there has ever existed concurrently another sapient species in the entire Galaxy, much less one with which humans share a common ancestor. Every governing document I've every read guarantees human rights, expressly and only. What happens when there are sapient creatures who aren't human? How are their rights assured?"

"Don't say that, Jovas!" Asin said suddenly. Sniffling, he pulled away from Jovas and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. "The Alliance government wouldn't do anything to harm them!"

"Would they? I'm not so sure. There's no legal mandate for them to do anything to protect the Earthers. And there are only a few hundred thousand of them. What's to stop them from quietly shipping them off to a reservation, so that Terra can made more habitable and re-settled by a human population..."

"Wait a minute," Asin snapped again, before regaining his composure. "You said that both we and they speciated. Who's to say that they aren't, in fact, humans, and we are the aberration? After all, they live on humanity's birthplace, and have done so, uninterrupted, for one hundred thousand years. Why shouldn't they be the inheritors of the legacy of our common ancestor?"

Jovas shrugged. "I think that that question is deeply philosophical, and I can't answer that definitively for you. All I can tell you is what I know, and I know that we and they aren't they same species. I have a notion, though..."

Asin sat back down in his chair. "By all means."

"Much of Terra's history is still unknown. For example, we don't know how their population came to exist in such a state. You yourself said that they would've had to have mastered primitive industry to get out into space. We ourselves are proof that they got out into space, so we know they had crude industry. So, where did it go? Why did they fall to near-annihilation, when we spread through the galaxy, and flourished?

"I don't believe that humanity is defined by whether or not you were born on Terra. Maybe we could consider ourselves human because we represent that which our ancestors so desperately sought: propagation throughout the galaxy and, ultimately, survival. We embody that drive that first pushed our ancestors out into space. We are the end result of their desire; their dream realized. Even so, I can't tell you why our ancestors remained on Terra, but I doubt the reasons were noble.

"But regardless, we have succeeded and they have failed. Consider two realties: one contains only us and the other only them. In the first, one, ten, or a thousand of our planets can be wiped out and the species will continue to thrive. In the other, if anything severe enough happens to Terra, they are dead to the last person and everything for which our ancestors struggled vanishes. All the pain, the suffering, the anguish of the countless billions of them is lost to the universe. This gives us claim to the legacy of our ancestors and the title of humanity. At least, that's how I feel."

Asin didn't speak for a while, churning instead in his own thoughts. Finally: "Well, that's a nice way to think of it, I suppose. Still, what do we do about them? What do we do for Tras and Cho, and all of their tribe?"

Jovas wetted his lips before speaking, "We do what is best for them, and that is this: demand equal protection under Galactic Law. They deserve to have their standard of living massively raised, and doing so for a few hundred thousand sapient beings to which we are remarkably similar is, logistically speaking, a trivial task for the Alliance. There may be a lack of political will at first, but we can fix that. I don't think it's farfetched to say that you and I are going to be famous, Asin...for about fifteen minutes. We can use that fame to bring the plight of Earthers to the attention of quadrillions of humans. Enough of them are going to care for enough of a period of time for the government to do something. If we strike while our words have weight, I feel we can accomplish some real good."

"You think, Jovas?"

Jovas shrugged. "It's worth a try. None of my friends from University are politicians now, so we should take our plight to the people. It's not as if we could hide this, either. I haven't sent anything back to University or the GRE in over two weeks, so they're expecting something large from us. Even if we didn't submit the report, they would know from the ship's log we visited this place and were here for a long time. Earth will be discovered, one way or another."

Asin wrung his hands together. "What can we expect, if we send everything in?"

Jovas frowned. "Well, I'm going to exercise the territorial clause in my commission, claim that this world is of special importance to the Alliance, and demand that a warship be sent out protect it. We'll wait in orbit until they arrive, when we'll be debriefed, and in all likelihood, set upon by the Galactic entertainment networks."

Asin nodded, then said with conviction. "Alright, Jovas. We send the full report in, and we deal with all of its consequences. For Tras and Cho."

"For Tras and Cho. And every...person...still living on Earth. On Terra."
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-12-09 12:08am

The Long Sight slipped out of one of several dozen launch bays of the massive flagship. Elegantly, it moved into formation with the rest of the "ceremonial" battlegroup, consisting of several dozen frigates and corvettes, ten or so destroyers and heavy cruisers, and, of course, the aforementioned flagship: the Indomitable. Six cubic kilometers of the finest in destructive technologies in the Galaxy, it was the personal ship of none other than the Grand Admiral herself, the highest officer of the Alliance navy. And yes, she was aboard.

And she'd spoken to Jovas. Personally, one on one.

And Asin. Personally, one on one.

It was doubtful to Jovas that he'd actually survived the encounter, for he couldn't remember even breathing while in her presence.

But nevertheless, he was back at the helm of his ship, taking time enough to absorb his thoughts. For the last two weeks, he'd scarcely had a moment to himself, save for sleeping or bathing. They even talked to him when he was in the bathroom!

The Alliance had reacted even faster that Jovas had expected. Having access to the timeline of events after the fact, he was ever amazed at the speed at which things had happened. It began when the report Asin submitted entered the queue, where it sat for approximately thirty-six seconds, awaiting a preliminary summarization by the computers back at University. When the report was analyzed in this first pass, it occupied the computer for a full second, it was so absurd. Finally, the analyzer deemed the report too outlandish to be true, and it was dumped to a secondary queue, pending human intervention and analysis.

Jovas had suspected as much would occur, and thus, they would wait. What amazed him was that seventeen hours later, the report was suddenly logged in the third-pass, override analysis. That meant that the report had been read in its entirety by a technician, then taken to four distinct supervisors to obtain the necessary clearance to go back into the analysis machine. The average for that was anywhere between twenty-two and thirty days, though in reflection, Jovas surmised that the territorial claim exercised by him gave the report something of a priority in the great bureaucracy at University.

From there, the report was properly analyzed and its data parsed and sent off to the relevant experts at University, whose own computers would prioritize the segments received to determine in which order and by whom they were looked at. Asin had informed him, and not with a small amount of pride in his voice, that every aspect of their report and gone straight to the top of each queue.

So, scarcely three days after the report had been submitted, they received their first congratulations. A pair of frigates were dispatched from the nearest Alliance garrison, and their captains had eagerly and publicly heaped praise upon both Asin and Jovas, hoping to be the first to be seen with the new celebrities.

It took a few more days for the Indomitable to arrive, as it stopped off at Capital and University to pick up a motley of politicians, press, and a few academics. That was when the real fun began.

The initial debriefing was attended by not only a thousand members of the press, but the Grand Admiral herself. After that, Asin and Jovas hopped from reporter to reporter, answering the same questions the same way--as they had agreed. At every opportunity did they stress the Earthers' sapience and assert that this entitled them equal treatment.

After the press junket, they were separated. Jovas found himself before a naval review board, where his candidacy for the command track at the Naval Academy was proposed, seconded, and accepted. Without so much as ten words from Jovas, he found himself on the fast track to his own naval command. He wanted to tell Asin, but he couldn't find him. He was even busier than Jovas, speaking to historians, professors, and sociologists. Somewhere within the bowels of the Indomitable, he and his fellow academics began drafting plans for the return expedition.

Of course, each learned of the other's encounters only superficially, and only when they were back aboard the Long Sight. But Jovas knew little else, because Asin was asleep in his room. He'd apparently gotten very little rest in the week they'd been aboard the Indomitable.

Jovas drummed his fingers on the arm of the pilot's seat. He should probably sleep, too, as there were another string of debriefings scheduled in, eleven hours. Idly, he commanded the ship to rotate around its horizontal axis, causing the starfield to distort sickeningly. At least, it was to most people. Jovas wasn't bothered by it in the least--part of the reason he was suitable to be a pilot.

"Eugh!" came from behind him. Jovas looked, and there stood Asin. He actually looked green, and he had his eyes screwed shut. "What are you doing? Trying to kill me?"

Jovas commanded the ship to stop, and the the starfield instantly returned to normal. "I didn't know you were there! I was just marveling a bit...this close to the flagship, it should be impossible to do what I just did."

"And why's that?" Asin asked, taking his familiar seat next to Jovas.

"The Indomitable is a warship, Asin. It generates its own interdiction field at all times, unless it is launching or retrieving smaller craft. And even then, it only deactivates the field in specific launch and landing perpendicular the bays. Out here, though, it's running as long as the reactors are."

"So, why can we maneuver such that you can nearly make me vomit out in the interdiction field?" Asin asked drily.

Jovas laughed. He'd missed Asin. "Our gravitic drive, dear friend. To the external universe, it appears that we produce no gravity. As such, we are completely immune to the slowing effects associated with interdiction fields. The interactions are a bit more complicated than that, of course, but that's the basic idea."

Asin nodded thoughtfully. "So...shall I call you 'Captain Kholo' from here on, or should I wait until you actually receive your commission?"

Jovas rolled his eyes. "Oh, please! If you call me that, Professor Welseo, you'll find yourself back on the Indomitable, unable to get a moment to yourself."

Asin threw his hands up. "I surrender! Anything but that!"

Jovas laughed, then a silence settled between them. Asin said, "How much longer do we have here?"

"Not long. After the next round of briefings, the ceremonial battlegroup is going to disperse, and only a dozen or so ships are going to remain behind. We're going to have to report back to University after that...though, the Grand Admiral told me that she would see to it that we would be given two weeks to get there, and a rather large amount of discretionary funds to facilitate the journey. Any particular places you care to visit?"

Asin looked startled. "How...generous of her! When I spoke with her, I received no such indication. She was downright...chilly with me!"

Jovas shrugged. "Well, you know, she was part of the GS program when it was in its infancy. She piloted the third GS ship ever constructed. It was only because of this solidarity between her and I that we received such a generous offering--of that I have no doubt. It's also why we're out here, rather than still aboard the Indomitable: she said she would want to be aboard her ship, so she let us go. I also think she understood that we were more than colleagues, so..."

"Well, remind me to thank her!" Asin laughed. But again, it died and the pilot room was silent.

"Do you have any news on the return expedition?" Jovas asked.

"Well," Asin sat upright as he spoke, "we've only decided to return in a year's time. Terra's year, not the Standard year. Every archaeologist and ancient historian in the Galaxy has expressed interest in coming to Terra, so we won't be short of labor. I believe that there will be some sort of station constructed in this system, so that will be our staging point."

"What about the...other issue?"

Asin sighed. "I've done my best, as have you, but there are a lot of ideas being thrown about. The one gaining the most traction is to build reservations for the Earthers and, over the course of generations, subject them to genetic therapy so that they are, eventually, the same species as ours. They'll have access to the same standard of living as the rest of the Galaxy, and, in time, they will be indistinguishable from us. At any rate, they're going to be corralled in reservations so that the planet can be terraformed and settled."

Jovas sighed. "Well, I suppose it's the best we could hope for. But why are they terraforming the planet?"

"Terra is going to be a powerful propaganda tool. It is a tangible symbol of unity, a shining beacon to direct the eyes of the entire galaxy. For one hundred thousand years, we've been a scattered species. Only now do we have concrete notion of 'home.' Imagine the potential for reunification! To be the faction that possesses the planet from which we can all claim ancestry! Sociologists I've spoken with surmise that a great number of planets will rejoin the Alliance on this fact alone--on the fact that we have Terra!

"At any rate, for the Alliance to properly possess it, it must be terraformed and colonized. There must be a human population on Terra, and it cannot wait. Frankly, I see the reasoning behind this position, but I don't like it at all!"

Jovas was taken aback. "Asin, are you...are you angry?"

Asin took a deep breath. "I keep seeing Tras and Cho! In my mind's eye, that is. It doesn't matter that I know they're going to be better off this way. I just...can't imagine how they'll handle what's going to happen! Nothing will be same for them! Nothing!"

"Why don't you recuse yourself from the return expedition, if you cannot bear the thought?"

Asin shook his head. "It's strange, but I cannot. As much as I hate it, I feel I owe it to Tras and Cho to return. To see them and their tribe on the way. Oh, I know it's irrational! But they are my friends, and..."

"Say no more," Jovas said. "I understand. It's commendable, Asin, and I wish you all the best. Your hand will help guide how we treat the Earthers. Do everything to help them, and you'll truly be their friends."

"Thank you, Jovas." They were quiet for a moment, looking at each other. "So, how would you like to spend the next few hours?"

"I can think of a few things," Jovas replied with a smirk. "We should see about having a drink of that whisky from Halicar, for one. That should lead nicely into some vigorous...exercises. But before that, what do you say we decide on where to spend our last two weeks? I was thinking of a planet with a beach..."
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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Alferd Packer
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Post by Alferd Packer » 2007-12-09 10:51pm

Tras crouched low and peered at the pile of feces in front of him. A cursory sniff told him, of course, that it came from a dog, but it was the pile's location that had him concerned. This was close to the tribe's summer home at the lake's shore, and it was not common for dogs to be prowling around here.

Tras frowned, his mind working at the problem as methodically as it could. It was just a few short days ago that the dogs had stumbled across the child Desi when she had wandered away from her parents. They'd only found the bloody earth to mark where she'd been killed--the rest had been carried off by the ravenous pack.

For some reason, the dogs had grown bolder than they'd last summer. Discounting his own incident, none of the tribe had come into contact with the dogs. It was only when they'd returned to the lakes this spring that the sightings had increased, and now, they had eaten little Desi.

Tras scratched at the hair upon his face, partially introspective, and partially to deter lake flies from lingering there too long. Why were the dogs so aggressive? The ground squirrels had been sparser than he remembered, so that would make the dogs hunt outside their usual territories. Yes--dogs couldn't fish, as Tras and his people could. What else had they but children? An adult knew how to fight or evade the dogs long enough for help to arrive, but a child was slower and weaker. As that was the case, Tras would then protect them...somehow.

Tras went by many names these days. Some called him Godspear, for the fierce and unstoppable weapon he carried. It pierced anything it touched, cutting through skin, muscle, and bone with ease. Some called him Tras the Blessed, for he was friends of the amazing magic men who had visited last year. Still others called him the Tras the Invincible, for his body was crisscrossed with scars that would've killed anyone else, yet he was healthier than any other man in the tribe. But all called him Over-Father, for he was the tribe's Patriarch.

His uncle, Tras, did not live long after meeting Asin and Jovas. As the summer waned, he led them back south to their winter home. There he and several others of the tribe ate some poisoned meat, and they all succumbed to the sickness it carried inside it. Tras became Over-Father on a grey, dark winter's day, and with heavy heart, he led them during the dark months.

Tras turned his attention back to the dog droppings in front him. If they kept creeping closer, there would be a fight. There were enough adult men in the tribe to ensure victory, but it would come at the cost of some of their lives, and others would surely be crippled in the struggle. And for what? If the pack disintegrated, another would coalesce eventually, or a pack further afield would take over this one's territory. And in the interim, good hunters would be dead, and the rest would suddenly want for food. No, fighting would be the last option.

Tras stood. Uncle, what would you do? he thought to himself. He turned back to the lake shore, and spied twenty or so children playing happily in the water, under the watchful eye of the tribe's women. Further still the men of the tribe tended the fires, tried a bit of fishing the shallows, or simply lounged under the shade of a clump of trees against the day's heat. None of that for him, though. He had much to consider, and it often helped him to ask his uncle for help. Of course, he was dead, so he couldn't possibly hear any reply he might send, but it cooled his thoughts somewhat, and made them come more easily.

But nothing was forthcoming. The lake stretched on, vanishing to the horizon, even upon the hill on which Tras now stood. It was times like this that Tras asked someone else: Jovas, what would you do?

He did not think of the magic men every day, but he did think of them when he encountered difficult problems such as these. And while Asin was a kinder, more friendly person, he respected Jovas' hardness and his hunter's instincts. He was clever, like a leader had to be. Probably, Tras thought often, he was a Patriarch in his own right, back in the Hot Lands.

So, what would Jovas do?

Jovas would lead the tribe to the far side of the lake...perhaps beyond, the voice in his head spoke.

Tras rubbed his chin thoughtfully. That wasn't a terrible idea. The fishing was good on the far side of the lake, and there might be more ground squirrels over there. It would be a long walk, looping around the shore as they had to do, but all the year's babies had been born, and the mothers who'd survived had all recovered, so it would be not take too long. Further, the dogs would be unable to approach them from more than one side, so they would be safer.

Nodding to himself, Tras settled that matter. They would prepare for two days, then move to the lake's far shore. He was about to continue his thought, but a pair of familiar hands slid around his sides and over his bare chest.

Grinning broadly, he turned. "Wife."

Cho grinned back at him. "Husband. Father."

From the satchel on Cho's back, his son bleated happily, just able to see his father over his mother's shoulder. A tiny hand reached out, plump infant fingers outstretched. Tras extended his index finger, and his son grabbed it, laughing at the game. Tras smiled, for it warmed his heart to see his son both strong and happy.

"What are you doing up here?" Cho asked. She was naked, as was Tras, both having used their shirts to swaddle their child and make his satchel.

"Thinking," he replied. "The dogs draw ever closer. I will take us to the far side of the lake."

Cho nodded, the motion of her hair causing the baby to coo with delight. Tras' son was strong, like his mother, and like his father. He'd been born during the long migration back north, and he quickly grew accustomed to the hard life of the walk. Many had expected Cho to fall behind and die, as most mothers did who birthed babies out of season, but she bore herself and her son back to their summer home with no complaint or ill effect.

"Have you thought of a name for our son?" Cho asked, eying Tras expectantly. It was the father's duty to give a child his first name. When he became a man, he would, of course, be given an adult name, but for now, the task fell to Tras.

Tras leaned on his spear. "I have two, but I cannot decide."

"Asin," Cho replied immediately.

"Actually, no," Tras replied. "Neither is that. One is 'Jovas,' though--"

"No!" Cho stabbed a finger over Tras' shoulder, wide-eyed. "Asin!"

He turned, and sure enough, Asin was there. He was far away yet, and he appeared to be floating across the ground towards them, but he was there.

* * *

The hoverjaunt had a top speed of thirty kilometers an hour, which made it incredibly useful for these short excursions. If only they'd had these a year before! But then again, GS scouts weren't equipped to handle such planets as Earth, because such planets weren't expected to actually exist. The new expedition was equipped with absolutely everything they'd need. Asin didn't risk inhaling the air deeply, for want of having an insect shoot down his throat. Instead, he gripped the handlebars tightly and checked his position again. He would be there soon.

To be back on Earth again! From the outset of the earliest planning, it had been inevitable that Asin would feature prominently in the expedition, but it diminished his joy no less. He'd requested to be deployed to the polar region again, specifically, to see Tras and Cho.

It amazed him still how much they now knew of Earth, and where they had found the information: much like Jovas' discovery a year before, it had been on the moon, in a massive underground structure near the moon's north pole. Exposed to and preserved by the vacuum for one hundred thousand years, it contained a wealth of information.

Asin could see the three-dimensional images on the holoviewer even now with this mind's eye. The specially sealed chamber marked "Records." The carefully delineated instructions etched into the walls on how to construct a device to access the data it contained. And the information itself!

Earth had succumbed to climate change. This much was clear. The world grew hotter and hotter, and the pre-historic society collapsed. Humanity had spread out not from Earth, but from the colony on the moon. They developed artificial gravity. They developed the hyperdrive. They even mastered terraforming...and yet they never returned to Earth to fix it. Nothing found in that lunar sepulcher ever explained why.

But where mysteries conspicuously remained, other information was abundant! It was remarkable to consider that he knew the name of the land over which he now floated: Canada. It was a massive primary political division of Earth, and one of the last ones to crumble to nihility. He was in one of its last major subdivisions: New Ottawa. There were two others: Yukon, to the west, and Nunavut, to the east. There were half a dozen others to the south, but they had dissolved in the final years. These remained the final bastions of civilization at the top of a dying world.

But Asin was on no mere joy ride, for New Ottawa was the last to fall to ruin and, as such, it held the most current ruins of civilization somewhere. The last city to decay, according to the lunar repository, was Canada's capital, Inuvik. Based on planetary surveys, Inuvik's ruins now lay underneath a massive lake, the southern shore of which Asin was heading towards.

It also happened to be the summer home of a certain tribe, to which Tras and Cho belonged.

Asin marveled at the coincidence, but he was no longer surprised by it. He was far too erudite to ascribe to such notions as fate, of course, but the sheer number of humans alive in the galaxy meant that, statistically, amazing events would occur to someone, somewhere. Asin was that someone. But then again, it could've just as easily had occurred any number of ways. They could've originally visited another of the continents and befriended the tribes in places with names like Russia, Scandinavia, New Denmark, or Svalbard. But they came here, to Canada, where the last cities of their ancestors died slow deaths.

There were other cities, of course, scattered across the top of the globe. North of Inuvik was the smaller city, Tuktoyaktuk. It was now several kilometers out to sea, swallowed by the rising waters. In the Yukon subdivision, the area surrounding the city of Fairbanks was now under investigation. In Nuvaut, the coastal cities of Resolute and Iqaluit were currently being located by survey teams. Like them, a swarm of archaeologists would soon descend upon the lake over the ruins of Inuvik, probing its depths and learning the secrets of Earth's last city.

But not just yet, Asin thought. There is one matter--there they are!

He spied them at a distance of one hundred meters, as he crested a hill that gave him a stunning view of the lake. He checked his wrist display again; amazingly, the transponder Tras had been unknowingly outfitted with last year had remained attached to his skin and still functioned. Tracking Tras and Cho down was a simple task, but being able to venture out alone and meet them again was a great fortune.

He throttled the hoverjaunt down to fifteen kilometers per hour, then ten. They had spotted him by now and were running to meet him. They had recognized him!

He slowed to three kilometers per hour and hopped off. The hoverjaunt obediently stopped and powered down, no longer sensing his weight on it. Unmindful, he walked towards Tras and Cho, a huge smile on his face, his arms held wide and welcoming.

"Asin!" he heard Tras shout. "Asin, Asin!" Asin was momentarily concerned, because Cho wasn't moving as fast as her husband. Had she been injured in the year since he'd last seen them?

He had no time to think on it further, because Tras was upon him. Asin brought his arms close to his body, sticking his forearms straight out, parallel to the ground, palms up--the common greeting of the tribe. Tras took the offered greeting and clasped Asin's forearms with his iron grip, and Asin tried to do his best to match it.

"Hello, Tras," Asin said, barely able to form the words, his smile was so broad.

"Asin!" Tras shouted for the umpteenth time. Asin was pleased to see that Tras looked as healthy as ever. His body was still scarred, but his skin and hair shined, and his eyes looked clear. Amazingly, he looked noticeably older--more mature, perhaps.

By now, Cho had joined them. Tras released his grip so that Cho could greet Asin. As was custom, she offered her palms upward to the man, Asin, and he took them. "Cho, it is wonderful to see you again. I--" He trailed off, only now noticing the bundle on her back.

He looked to Tras. "Your child?"

Tras beamed. "My son!"

Asin grinned a shocked grin. "Wonderful!"

The baby did not know to be afraid yet, so he reached its tiny hand out towards the new figure. Asin, not entirely sure of what else to do, offered his finger to the infant. He almost jerked it back when the little hand closed around it and tried its best to crush it. But, after a second or two, he let go, gurgling happily.

"He is strong!" Asin exclaimed, flexing his finger. "You should be proud. Both of you," he added. Tras couldn't smile any wider, but he tried, anyway.

"Where is Jovas?" Cho asked.

"He could not come with me. He had other tasks to do." Asin thoughts turned momentarily and somewhat sadly towards Jovas, who he had not seen physically in nearly ten months. Off at naval command training for almost a year now, he was in line for his first assignment any day. From what he'd last related to Asin, it looked likely that he would receive one of the first gravitic corvettes, with over sixty people under his command. Sixty! His assignment would likely last two or three years.

"And why have you come back, friend?" Tras asked.

"I have something I need to speak with you about," Asin began. "And your uncle, too. It concerns the whole tribe."

Tras posture stiffened suddenly. "My uncle is dead," he said flatly. "I am the Over-Father now. You may speak with me."

"Oh, Tras," Asin murmured, "I am sorry. I--" But then he stopped. The moment he'd feared had come. Somehow, he'd been able convince himself that it would never happen, that Terra would remain inviolate forever...even though he'd spent the better part of a year planning this very expedition. But he'd been able ignore it, to tell himself that they would plan and plan and somehow never get around to doing it. Even when they'd moved from University to Earth's newly-constructed orbital station, he never thought they'd actually go down to the surface. And when they went down to the surface, the expedition would...what? Cease? He hadn't allowed himself to think that far, and only now had his denial caught back up to him.

I can't tell them, he though with miserable certainty. I can't physically speak these words. How do you tell someone that their way of life is going to end? That settlers are going to flock to the world in millions to legitimize the government's claim? How can they even understand such a concept?

How can I tell Tras and Cho that their son is going to grow up in a climate-controlled reservation two thousand kilometers away, mashed together with dozens of other tribes, so that the terraformers can increase the planet's habitable range? That he'll speak their language second to Standard? That he and all his children will be subjected to gene therapy so that one day, a descendant of his will have evolved to be the correct species? I am not a friend to them. I am a destroyer!

Tras waited, either blissfully unaware or unmindful of Asin's tortured expression. Then, he looked over Asin's shoulder. His eyes boggled; so did Cho's. Asin became aware of the deep throbbing heralding a descending ship, and he too turned. No, not yet! he screamed bitterly in his mind. I just arrived! Give me some more time! Give them some more time!

But the Galaxy would wait for neither Asin nor Earth. The transport ships landed a few hundred meters away, and almost immediately, people began pouring out of them and onto the surface. Bays opened, and equipment and vehicles crushed the steppe grass beneath them. A few hundred meters beyond this, a massive prefabricated structure floated down and shook the ground with its impact, the first of many such buildings in this new frontier settlement. The baby started crying, and perhaps in spite of her own fear, Cho took him in her arms, shushing it gently.

"Asin," Tras began uncertainly. He'd dropped his spear. "What are all these things? Who are these men? Are they magic men, like you?"

"Like me, yes," Asin answered weakly.

"What are they doing here?"

Asin looked up at the sky, blinking back tears. If he looked at Tras, looked into his eyes, he would surely weep. But perhaps he owed him that. No, he definitely owed him that. So he looked at the Earther, and he spoke.

"They're coming home, Tras," he said, fighting staunchly to keep his voice. "They're coming home."
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." -Herbert Spencer

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." - Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, III vi.

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