Dappled sunlight found gaps in the rain forest canopy, illuminating streaks of brilliant color in the dim, vine-laced avenue between. The fierce gales of mid-winter had ebbed some weeks back, but a stiff breeze served as a reminder of those days, causing boughs to dip and sway, and shaking loose moisture from the prior night's rain. Droplets made fat, plinking sounds as they landed in little shaded pools.
It was quiet in the mountains overlooking the Vale of Sind. Perhaps more silent than a forest ought to be. The woods were lush, and yet their superficial beauty masked a sickness, a malaise arising from ancient wounds. Though the air carried a wealth of fecund odors, one of the strongest was a subtle hint of decay. It did not take an empath to know that this was a sad place. A melancholy world.
Indirectly, that sadness was what had brought Earthlings here. History had not yet written the final chapter on Garth, but the planet was already on a list. A list of dying worlds.
One shaft of daylight spotlighted a fan of multicolored vines, dangling in apparent disorder from the branches of a giant tree. Robert Oneagle pointed in that direction. "You might want to examine those, Athaclena," he said. "They can be trained, you know."
The young Tymbrimi looked up from an orchidlike bloom she had been inspecting. She followed his gesture, peering past the bright, slanting columns of light. She spoke carefully in accented but clearly enunciated Anglic.
"What can be trained, Robert? All I see there are vines."
Robert grinned. "Those very forest vines, Athaclena. They're amazing things."
Athaclena's frown looked very human, in spite of the wide set of her oval eyes and the alien gold-flecked green of their large irises. Her slightly curved, delicate jaw and angled brow made the expression appear faintly ironic.
Of course, as the daughter of a diplomat Athaclena might have been taught to assume carefully tutored expressions at certain times when in the company of humans. Still, Robert was certain her frown conveyed genuine puzzlement. When she spoke, a lilt in her voice seemed to imply that Anglic was somehow limiting.
"Robert, you surely don't mean that those hanging tendril-plants are pre-sentient, do you? There are a few autotrophic sophont races, of course, but this vegetation shows none of the signs. Anyway..." The frown intensified as she concentrated. From a fringe just above her ears her Tymbrimi ruff quivered as silvery tendrils waved in quest. "... Anyway, I can sense no emotional emissions from them at all."
Robert grinned. "No, of course you can't. I didn't mean to imply they have any Uplift Potential, or even nervous systems per se. They're just rain forest plants. But they do have a secret, Come on. I'll show you."
Athaclena nodded, another human gesture that might or might not be naturally Tymbrimi as well. She carefully replaced the flower she had been examining and stood up in a fluid, graceful movement.
The alien girl's frame was slender, the proportions of her arms and legs different from the human norm — longer calves and less length in the thighs, for instance. Her slim, articulated pelvis flared from an even narrower waist. To Robert, she seemed to prowl in a faintly catlike manner that had fascinated him ever since she arrived on Garth, half a year ago.
That the Tymbrimi were lactating mammals he could tell by the outline of her upper breasts, provocatively evident even under her soft trail suit. He knew from his studies that Athaclena had two more pair, and a marsupial-like pouch as well. But those were not evident at present. Right now she seemed more human — or perhaps elfin — than alien.
"All right, Robert. I promised my father I would make the best of this enforced exile. Show me more of the wonders of this little planet."
The tone in her voice was so heavy, so resigned, that Robert decided she had to be exaggerating for effect. The theatrical touch made her seem oddly more like a human teenager, and that in itself was a bit unnerving. He led her toward the cluster of vines. "It's over here, where they converge down at the forest floor."
Athaclena's ruff — the helm of brown fur that began in a narrow stroke of down on her spine and rose up the back of her neck to end, caplike, in a widow's peak above the bridge of her strong nose — was now puffed and riffled at the edges. Over her smooth, softly rounded ears the cilia of her Tymbrimi corona waved as if she were trying to pick out any trace of consciousness other than theirs in the narrow glade.
Robert reminded himself not to overrate Tymbrimi mental powers as humans so often did. The slender Galactics did have impressive abilities in detecting strong emotions and were supposed to have a talent for crafting a form of art out of empathy itself. Nevertheless, true telepathy was no more common among Tymbrimi than among Earthlings.
Robert had to wonder what she was thinking. Could she know how, since they had left Port Helenia together, his fascination with her had grown? He hoped not. The feeling was one he wasn't sure he even wanted to admit to himself yet.
The vines were thick, fibrous strands with knotty protrusions every half-meter or so. They converged from many different directions upon this shallow forest clearing. Robert shoved a cluster of the multicolored cables aside to show Athaclena that all of them terminated in a single small pool of umber-colored water.
He explained. "These ponds are found all over this continent, each connected to the others by this vast network of vines. They play a vital role in the rain forest ecosystem. No other shrubs grow near these catchments where the vines do their work."
Athaclena knelt to get a better view. Her corona still waved and she seemed interested.
"Why is the pool colored so? is there an impurity in the water?"
"Yes, that's right. If we had an analysis kit I could take you from pond to pond and demonstrate that each little puddle has a slight overabundance of a different trace element or chemical. "The vines seem to form a network among the giant trees, carrying nutrients abundant in one area to other places where they're lacking."
"A trade compact!" Athaclena's ruff expanded in one of the few purely Tymbrimi expressions Robert was certain he understood. For the first time since they had left the city together he saw her clearly excited by something.
He wondered if she was at that moment Grafting an "empathy-glyph," that weird art form that some humans swore they could sense, and even learn to understand a little. Robert knew the feathery tendrils of the Tymbrimi corona were involved in the process, somehow. Once, while accompanying his mother to a diplomatic reception, he'd noticed something that had to have been a glyph — floating, it seemed, above the ruff of the Tymbrimi Ambassador, Uthacalthing.
It had been a strange, fleeting sensation — as if he had caught something which could only be looked at with the blind spot of his eye, which fled out of view whenever he tried to focus on it. Then, as quickly as he had become aware of it, the glimpse vanished. In the end, he was left unsure it had been anything but his imagination after all.
"The relationship is symbiotic, of course." Athaclena pronounced. Robert blinked. She was talking about the vines, of course.
"Uh, right again. The vines take nourishment from the great trees, and in exchange they transport nutrients the trees' roots can't draw out of the poor soil. They also flush out toxins and dispose of them at great distances. Pools like this one serve as banks where the vines come together to stockpile and trade important chemicals."
"Incredible." Athaclena examined the rootlets. "It mimics the self-interest trade patterns of sentient beings. And I suppose it is logical that plants would evolve this technique sometime, somewhere. I believe the Kanten might have begun in such a way, before the Linten gardeners uplifted them and made them starfarers."
She looked up at Robert. "Is this phenomenon catalogued? The Z'Tang were supposed to have surveyed Garth for the Institutes before the planet was passed over to you humans. I'm surprised I never heard of this."
Robert allowed himself a trace of a smile. "Sure, the Z'Tang report to the Great Library mentions the vines' chemical transfer properties. Part of the tragedy of Garth was that the network seemed on the verge of total collapse before Earth was granted a leasehold here. And if that actually happens half this continent will turn into desert.
"But the Z'Tang missed something crucial. They never seem to have noticed that the vines move about the forest, very slowly, seeking new minerals for their host trees. The forest, as an active trading community, adapts. It changes. There's actual hope that, with the right helpful nudge here and there, the network might become a centerpiece in the recovery of the planet's ecosphere. If so, we may be able to make a tidy profit selling the technique to certain parties elsewhere."
He had expected her to be pleased, but when Athaclena let the rootlets fall back into the timber water she turned to him with a cool tone. "You sound proud to have caught so careful and intellectual an elder race as the Z'Tang in a mistake, Robert. As one of your teledramas might put it, 'The Eatees and Their Library are caught with egg on their faces once again.' Is that it?"
"Now wait a minute. I —"
"Tell me, do you humans plan to hoard this information, gloating over your cleverness each time you dole out portions? Or will you flaunt it, crying far and wide what any race with sense already knows — that the Great Library is not and never has been perfect?"
Robert winced. The stereotypical Tymbrimi, as pictured by most Earthlings, was adaptable, wise, and often mischievous. But right now Athaclena sounded more like any irritable, opinionated young fem with a chip on her shoulder.
True, some Earthlings went too far in criticizing Galactic civilization. As the first known "wolfling" race in over fifty megayears, humans sometimes boasted too loudly that they were the only species now living who had bootstrapped themselves into space without anybody's help. What need had they to take for granted everything found in the Great Library of the Five Galaxies? Terran popular media tended to encourage an attitude of contempt for aliens who would rather look things up than find out for themselves.
There was a reason for encouraging this stance. The alternative, according to Terragens psychological scientists, would be a crushing racial inferiority complex. Pride was a vital thing for the only "backward" clan in the known universe. It stood between humanity and despair.
Unfortunately, the attitude had also alienated some species who might otherwise have been friendly to Mankind.
But on that count, were Athaclena's people all that innocent? The Tymbrimi, also, were famed for finding loopholes in tradition and for not being satisfied with what was inherited from the past.
"When will you humans learn that the universe is dangerous, that there are many ancient and powerful clans who have no love of upstarts, especially newcomers who brashly set off changes without understanding the likely consequences!"
Now Robert knew what Athaclena was referring to, what the real source of this outburst was. He rose from the poolside and dusted his hands. "Look, neither of us really knows what's going on out there in the galaxy right now. But it's hardly our fault that a dolphin-crewed starship —"
"— that the Streaker happened to discover something bizarre, something overlooked all these aeons. Anyone could have stumbled onto it! Hell, Athaclena. We don't even know what it was that those poor neo-dolphins found! Last anyone heard, their ship was being chased from the Morgran transfer point to Ifni-knows-where by twenty different fleets — all fighting over the right to capture her."
Robert discovered his pulse was beating hard. Clenched hands indicated just how much of his own tension was rooted in this topic. After all, it is frustrating enough whenever your universe threatens to topple in on you, but all the more so when the events that set it all off took place kiloparsecs away, amid dim red stars too distant even to be seen from home.
Athaclena's dark-lidded eyes met his, and for the first time he felt he could sense a touch of understanding in them. Her long-fingered left hand performed a fluttering half turn.
"I hear what you are saying, Robert. And I know that sometimes I am too quick to cast judgments. It is a fault my father constantly urges me to overcome.
"But you ought to remember that we Tymbrimi have been Earth's protectors and allies ever since your great, lumbering slowships stumbled into our part of space, eighty-nine paktaars ago. It grows wearying at times, and you must forgive if, on occasion, it shows."
"What grows wearying?" Robert was confused.
"Well, for one thing, ever since Contact we have had to learn and endure this assemblage of wolfling clicks and growls you have the effrontery to call a language."
Athaclena's expression was even, but now Robert believed he could actually sense a faint something emanating from those waving tendrils. It seemed to convey what a human girl might communicate with a subtle facial expression. Clearly she was teasing him.
"Ha ha. Very funny." He looked down at the ground.
"Seriously though, Robert, have we not, in the seven generations since Contact, constantly urged that you humans and your clients go slow? The Streaker simply should not have been prying into places where she did not belong — not while your small clan of races is still so young and helpless.
"You cannot keep on poking at the rules to see which are rigid and which are soft!"
Robert shrugged. "It's paid off a few times."
"Yes, but now your — what is the proper, beastly idiom? — your cows have come home to roost?
"Robert, the fanatics won't let go now that their passions are aroused. They will chase the dolphin ship until she is captured. And if they cannot acquire her information that way, powerful clans such as the Jophur and the Soro will seek other means to achieve their ends."
Dust motes sparkled gently in and out of the narrow shafts of sunlight. Scattered pools of rainwater glinted where the beams touched them. In the quiet Robert scuffed at the soft humus, knowing all too well what Athaclena was driving at.
The Jophur, the Soro, the Gubru, the Tandu — those powerful Galactic patron races which had time and again demonstrated their hostility to Mankind — if they failed to capture Streaker, their next step would be obvious. Sooner or later some clan would turn its attention to Garth, or Atlast, or Calafia — Earth's most distant and unprotected outposts — seeking hostages in an effort to pry loose the dolphins' mysterious secret. The tactic was even permissible, under the loose strictures established by the ancient Galactic Institute for Civilized Warfare.
Some civilization, Robert thought bitterly. The irony was that the dolphins weren't even likely to behave as any of the stodgy Galactics expected them to.
By tradition a client race owed allegiance and fealty to its patrons, the starfaring species that had "uplifted" it to full sentience. This had been done for Pan chimpanzees and Tursiops dolphins by humans even before Contact with starfaring aliens. In doing so, Mankind had unknowingly mimicked a pattern that had ruled the Five Galaxies for perhaps three billion years.
By tradition, client species served their patrons for a thousand centuries or more, until release from indenture freed them to seek clients of their own. Few Galactic clans believed or understood how much freedom had been given dolphins or chims by the humans of Earth. It was hard to say exactly what the neo-dolphins on the Streaker's crew would do if humans were taken hostage. But that, apparently, wouldn't stop the Eatees from trying. Distant listening posts had already confirmed the worst. Battle fleets were coming, approaching Garth even as he and Athaclena stood here talking.
"Which is worth more, Robert," Athaclena asked softly, "that collection of ancient space-hulks the dolphins are supposed to have found... derelicts that have no meaning at all to a clan as young as yours? Or your worlds, with their farms and parks and orbit-cities? I cannot understand the logic of your Terragens Council, ordering Streaker to guard her secret, when you and your clients are so vulnerable!"
Robert looked down at the ground again. He had no answer for her. It did sound illogical, when looked at in that way. He thought about his classmates and friends, gathering now to go to war without him, to fight over issues none of them understood. It was hard.
For Athaclena it would be as bad, of course, banished from her father's side, trapped on a foreign world by a quarrel that had little or nothing to do with her. Robert decided to let her have the last word. She had seen more of the universe than he anyway and had the advantage of coming from an older, higher-status clan.
"Maybe you're right," he said. "Maybe you're right."
Perhaps, though, he reminded himself as he helped her lift her backpack and then hoisted his own for the next stage of their trek, perhaps a young Tymbrimi can be just as ignorant and opinionated as any human youth, a little frightened and far away from home.
"TAASF scoutship Bonobo calling scoutship Proconsul.... Fiben, you're out of alignment again. Come on, old chim, try to straighten her out, will you?"
Fiben wrestled with the controls of his ancient, alien-built spacecraft. Only the open mike kept him from expressing his frustration in rich profanity. Finally, in desperation, he kicked the makeshift control panel the technicians had installed back on Garth.
That did it! A red light went out as the antigravity verniers suddenly unfroze. Fiben sighed. At last!
Of course, in all the exertion his faceplate had steamed up. "You'd think they'd come up with a decent ape-suit after all this time," he grumbled as he turned up the defogger. It was more than a minute before the stars reappeared.
"What was that, Fiben? What'd you say?"
"I said I'll have this old crate lined up in time!" he snapped. "The Eatees won't be disappointed."
The popular slang term for alien Galactics had its roots in an acronym for "Extraterrestrials." But it also made Fiben think about food. He had been living on ship paste for days. What he wouldn't give for a fresh chicken and palm leaf sandwich, right now!
Nutritionists were always after chims to curb their appetite for meat. Said too much was bad for the blood pressure. Fiben sniffed.
Heck, I'd settle for a jar of mustard and the latest edition of the Port Helenia Times, he thought.
"Say, Fiben, you're always up on the latest scuttlebutt. Has anyone figured out yet who's invading us?"
"Well, I know a chimmie in the Coordinator's office who told me she had a friend on the Intelligence Staff who thought the bastards were Soro, or maybe Tandu."
"Tandu! You're kidding I hope." Simon sounded aghast, and Fiben had to agree. Some thoughts just weren't to be contemplated.
"Ah well, my guess is it's probably just a bunch of Linten gardeners dropping by to make sure we're treating the plants all right."
Simon laughed and Fiben felt glad. Having a cheerful wingman was worth more than a reserve officer's half pay.
He got his tiny space skiff back onto its assigned trajectory. The scoutboat — purchased only a few months back from a passing Xatinni scrap hauler — was actually quite a bit older than his own sapient race. While his ancestors were still harassing baboons beneath African trees, this fighter had seen action under distant suns — controlled by the hands, claws, tentacles of other poor creatures similarly doomed to skirmish and die in pointless interstellar struggles.
Fiben had only been allowed two weeks to study schematics and remember enough Galactiscript to read the instruments. Fortunately, designs changed slowly in the aeons-old Galactic culture, and there were basics most spacecraft shared in common.
One thing was certain, Galactic technology was impressive. Humanity's best ships were still bought, not Earth-made. And although this old tub was creaky and cranky, it would probably outlive him, this day.
All around Fiben bright fields of stars glittered, except where the inky blackness of the Spoon Nebula blotted out the thick band of the galactic disk. That was the direction where Earth lay, the homeworld Fiben had never seen, and now probably never would.
Garth, on the other hand, was a bright green spark only three million kilometers behind him. Her tiny fleet was too small to cover the distant hyperspacial transfer points, or even the inner system. Their ragged array of scouts, meteoroid miners, and converted freighters — plus three modern corvettes — was hardly adequate to cover the planet itself.
Fortunately, Fiben wasn't in command, so he did not have to keep his mind on the forlorn state of their prospects. He had only to do his duty and wait. Contemplating annihilation was not how he planned to spend the time.
He tried to divert himself by thinking about the Throop family, the small sharing-clan on Quintana Island that had recently invited him to join in their group marriage. For a modern chim it was a serious decision, like when two or three human beings decided to marry and raise a family. He had been pondering the choice for weeks.
The Throop Clan did have a nice, rambling house, good grooming habits, and respectable professions. The adults were attractive and interesting chims, all with green genetic clearances. Socially, it would be a very good move.
But there were disadvantages, as well. For one thing, he would have to move from Port Helenia back out to the islands where most of the chim and human settlers still lived. Fiben wasn't sure he was ready to do that. He liked the open spaces of the mainland, the freedom of mountains and wild Garth countryside.
And there was another important consideration. Fiben had to wonder whether the Throops wanted him because they really liked him, or because the Neo-Chimpanzee Uplift Board had granted him a blue card — an open breeding clearance.
Only a white card was higher. Blue status meant he could join any marriage group and father children with only minimal genetic counseling. It couldn't help but have influenced the Throop Clan's decision.
"Oh, quit kiddin' yourself," he muttered at last. The matter was moot, anyway. Right now he wouldn't take long odds on his chances of ever even seeing home again alive.
"Fiben? You still there, kid?"
"Yeah, Simon. Whatcha got?"
There was a pause.
"I just got a call from Major Forthness. He said he has an uneasy feeling about that gap in the fourth dodecant."
Fiben yawned. "Humans are always gettin' uneasy feelings. Alla time worryin'. That's what it's like being big-time patron types."
His partner laughed. On Garth it was fashionable even for well-educated chims to "talk grunt" at times. Most of the better humans took the ribbing with good humor; and those who didn't could go chase themselves.
"Tell you what," he told Simon. "I'll drift over to the ol' fourth dodecant and give it a lookover for the Major."
"We aren't supposed to split up," the voice in his headphones protested weakly. Still, they both knew having a wingman would hardly make any difference in the kind of fight they were about to face.
"I'll be back in a jiffy," Fiben assured his friend. "Save me some of the bananas."
He engaged the stasis and gravity fields gradually, treating the ancient machine like a virgin chimmie on her first pink. Smoothly, the scout built up acceleration.
Their defense plan had been carefully worked out bearing in mind normally conservative Galactic psychology. The Earthlings' forces were laid out in a mesh with the larger ships held in reserve. The scheme relied on scouts like him reporting the enemy's approach in time for the others to coordinate a timed response.
Problem was that there were too few scouts to maintain anywhere near complete coverage.
Fiben felt the powerful thrum of engines through his seat. Soon he was hurtling across the star-field. Got to give the Galactics their due, he thought. Their culture was stodgy and intolerant — sometimes almost fascistic — but they did build well.
Fiben itched inside his suit. Not for the first time, he wished some human pilots had been small enough to qualify for duty in these tiny Xatinni scouts. It would serve them right to have to smell themselves after three days in space.
Often, in his more pensive moods, Fiben wondered if it had really been such a good idea for humans to meddle so, making engineers and poets and part-time starfighters out of apes who might have been just as happy to stay in the forest. Where would he be now, if they refrained? He'd have been dirty perhaps, and ignorant. But at least he'd be free to scratch an itch whenever he damn well pleased!
He missed his local Grooming Club. Ah, for the glory of being curried and brushed by a truly sensitive chen or chimmie, lazing in the shade and gossiping about nothing at all....
A pink light appeared in his detection tank. He reached forward and slapped the display, but the reading would not go away. In fact, as he approached his destination it grew, then split, and divided again.
Fiben felt cold. "Ifni's incontinence..." He swore, and grabbed for the code-broadcast switch. "Scoutship Proconsul to all units. They're behind us! Three... no, four battlecruiser squadrons, emerging from B-level hyperspace in the fourth dodecant!"
He blinked as a fifth flotilla appeared as if out of nowhere, the blips shimmering as starships emerged into real-time and leaked excess hyperprobability into the real-space vacuum. Even at this distance he could tell that the cruisers were large.
His headphones brought a static of consternation.
"My uncle Hairy's twice-bent manhood! How did they know there was a hole in our line there?"
"... Fiben, are you sure? Why did they pick that particular..."
"... Who th' hell are they? Can you...?"
The chatter shut down at once as Major Forthness broke in on the command channel.
"Message received, Proconsul. We're on our way. Please switch on your repeater, Fiben."
Fiben slapped his helmet. It had been years since his militia training, and a guy tended to forget things. He switched over to telemetry so the others could share everything his instruments picked up.
Of course broadcasting all that data made him an easy target, but that hardly mattered. Clearly their foe had known where the defenders were, perhaps down to the last ship. Already he detected seeker missiles streaking toward him.
So much for stealth and surprise as the advantages of the weak. As he sped toward the enemy — whoever the devils were — Fiben noticed that the emerging invasion armada stood almost directly between him and the bright green sparkle of Garth.
"Great," he snorted. "At least when they blast me I'll be headed for home. Maybe a few hanks of fur will even get there ahead of the Eatees.
"If anyone wishes on a shooting star, tomorrow night, I hope they get whatever th'fuk they ask for."
He increased the ancient scout's acceleration and felt a rearward push even through the straining stasis fields. The moan of engines rose in pitch. And as the little ship leaped forward it seemed to Fiben that it sang a song of battle that sounded almost joyful.
Four human officers stepped across the brick parquet floor of the conservatory, their polished brown boots clicking rhythmically in step. Three stopped a respectful distance from the large window where the ambassador and the Planetary Coordinator stood waiting. But the fourth continued forward and saluted crisply.
"Madam Coordinator, it has begun." The graying militia commander pulled a document from his dispatch pouch and held it out.
Uthacalthing admired Megan Oneagle's poise as she took the proffered flimsy. Her expression betrayed none of the dismay she must be feeling as their worst fears were confirmed.
"Thank you, Colonel Maiven," she said.
Uthacalthing couldn't help noticing how the tense junior officers kept glancing his way, obviously wondering how the Tymbrimi Ambassador was taking the news. He remained outwardly impassive, as befitted a member of the diplomatic corps. But the tips of his corona trembled involuntarily at the froth of tension that had accompanied the messengers into the humid greenhouse.
From here a long bank of windows offered a glorious view of the Valley of the Sind, pleasantly arrayed with farms and groves of both native and imported Terran trees. It was a lovely, peaceful scene. Great Infinity alone knew how much longer that serenity would last. And Ifni was not confiding her plans in Uthacalthing, at present.
Planetary Coordinator Oneagle scanned the report briefly. "Do you have any idea yet who the enemy is?"
Colonel Maiven shook his head. "Not really, ma'am. The fleets are closing now, though. We expect identification shortly."
In spite of the seriousness of the moment, Uthacalthing found himself once again intrigued by the quaintly archaic dialect humans used here on Garth. At every other Terran colony he had visited, Anglic had taken in a potpourri of words borrowed from Galactic languages Seven, Two, and Ten. Here, though, common speech was not appreciably different from what it had been when Garth was licensed to the humans and their clients, more than two generations ago.
Delightful, surprising creatures, he thought. Only here, for instance, would one hear such a pure, ancient form — addressing a Female leader as "ma'am." On other Terran-occupied worlds, functionaries addressed their supervisors by the neutral "ser," whatever their gender.
There were other unusual things about Garth as well. In the months since his arrival here, Uthacalthing had made a private pastime of listening to every odd story, every strange tale brought in from the wild lands by farmers, trappers, and members of the Ecological Recovery Service. There had been rumors. Rumors of strange things going on up in the mountains.
Of course they were silly stories, mostly. Exaggerations and tall tales. Just the sort of thing you would expect from wolflings living at the edge of a wilderness. And yet they had given him the beginnings of an idea.
Uthacalthing listened quietly as each of the staff officers reported in turn. At last, though, there came a long pause — the silence of brave people sharing a common sense of doom. Only then did he venture to speak, quietly. "Colonel Maiven, are you certain the enemy is being so thorough in isolating Garth?"
The Defense Councilor bowed to Uthacalthing. "Mr. Ambassador, we know that hyperspace is being mined by enemy cruisers as close in as six million pseudometers, on at least four of the main levels."
"Yes, ser. Of course it means we dare not send any of our lightly armed ships out on any of the few hyperpaths available, even if we could have spared any from the battle. It also means anyone trying to get into Garth system would have to be mighty determined."
Uthacalthing was impressed. They have mined D-level. I would not have expected them to bother. They certainly don't want anybody interfering in this operation!
This spoke of substantial effort and cost. Someone was sparing little expense in this operation.
"The point is moot," the Planetary Coordinator said. Megan was looking out over the rolling meadows of the Sind, with its farmsteads and environmental research stations. Just below the window a chim gardener on a tractor tended the broad lawn of Earth-breed grass surrounding Government House.
She turned back to the others. "The last courier ship brought orders from the Terragens Council. We are to defend ourselves as best we can, for honor's sake and for the record. But beyond that all we can hope to do is maintain some sort of underground resistance until help arrives from the outside."
Uthacalthing's deepself almost laughed out loud, for at that moment each human in the room tried hard not to look at him! Colonel Maiven cleared his throat and examined his report. His officers pondered the brilliant, flowering plants. Still, it was obvious what they were thinking.
Of the few Galactic clans that Earth could count as friends, only the Tymbrimi had the military strength to be of much assistance in this crisis. Men had faith that Tymbrimi would not let humans and their clients down.
And that was true enough. Uthacalthing knew the allies would face this crisis together.
But it was also clear that little Garth was a long way out on the fringe of things. And these days the homeworlds had to take first priority.
No matter, Uthacalthing thought. The best means to an end are not always those that appear most direct.
Uthacalthing did not laugh out loud, much as he wanted to. For it might only discomfit poor, grief-stricken people. In the course of his career he had met some Earthlings who possessed a natural gift for high-quality pranksterism —a few even on a par with the best Tymbrimi. Still, so many of them were such terribly dour, sober folk! Most tried so desperately hard to be serious at the very moments when humor could most help them through their troubles.
As a diplomat I have taught myself to watch every word, lest our clan's penchant for japes cause costly incidents. But has this been wise? My own daughter has picked this habit from me... this shroud of seriousness. Perhaps that is why she has grown into such a strange, earnest little creature.
Thinking of Athaclena made him wish all the more he could openly make light of the situation. Otherwise, he might do the human thing and consider the danger she was in. He knew that Megan worried about her own son. She underrates Robert, Uthacalthing thought. She should better know the lad's potential.
"Dear ladies and gentlemen," he said, savoring the archaisms. His eyes separated only slightly in amusement. "We can expect the fanatics to arrive within days. You have made conventional plans to offer what resistance your meager resources will allow. Those plans will serve their function."
"However?" It was Megan Oneagle who posed the question. One eyebrow arched above those brown irises — big and set almost far enough apart to look attractive in the classic Tymbrimi sense. There was no mistaking the look.
She knows as well as I that more is called for. Ah, if Robert has half his mother's brains, I'll not fear for Athaclena, wandering in the dark forests of this sad, barren world.
Uthacalthing's corona trembled. "However," he echoed, "it does occur to me that now might be a good time to consult the Branch Library."
Uthacalthing picked up some of their disappointment. Astonishing creatures! Tymbrimi skepticism toward modern Galactic culture never went so far as the outright contempt so many humans felt for the Great Library!
Wolflings. Uthacalthing sighed to himself. In the space above his head he crafted the glyph called syullf-tha, anticipation of a puzzle almost too ornate to solve. The specter revolved in expectancy, invisible to the humans — although for a moment Megan's attention seemed to flutter, as if she were just on the edge of noticing something.
Poor Wolflings. For all of its faults, the Library is where everything begins and ends. Always, somewhere in its treasure trove of Knowledge, can be found some gem of wisdom and solution. Until you learn that, my friends, little inconveniences like ravening enemy battle fleets will go on ruining perfectly good spring mornings like this one!
Robert led the way a few feet ahead of her, using a machete to lop off the occasional branch encroaching on the narrow trail. The bright sunshine of the sun, Gimelhai, filtered softly through the forest canopy, and the spring air was warm.
Athaclena felt glad of the easy pace. With her weight redistributed from its accustomed pattern, walking was something of an adventure in itself. She wondered how human women managed to go through most of their lives with such a wide-hipped stance. Perhaps it was a sacrifice they paid for having big-beaded babies, instead of giving birth early and then sensibly slipping the child into a postpartum pouch.
This experiment — subtly changing her body shape to make it seem more humanlike — was one of the more fascinating aspects of her visit to an Earth colony. She certainly could not have moved among local crowds as inconspicuously on a world of the reptiloid Soro, or the sap-ring-creatures of Jophur. And in the process she had learned a lot more about physiological control than the instructors had taught her back in school.
Still, the inconveniences were substantial, and she was considering putting an end to the experiment.
Oh, Ifni. A glyph of frustration danced at her tendril tips. Changing hack at this point might be more effort than it's worth.
There were limits to what even the ever-adaptable Tymbrimi physiology could be expected to do. Attempting too many alterations in a short time ran the risk of triggering enzyme exhaustion.
Anyway, it was a little flattering to kenn the conflicts taking shape in Robert's mind. Athaclena wondered. Is he actually attracted to me? A year ago the very idea would have shocked her. Even Tymbrimi boys made her nervous, and Robert was an alien!
Now though, for some reason, she felt more curiosity than revulsion.
There was something almost hypnotic about the steady rocking of the pack on her back, the rhythm of soft boots on the rough trail, and the warming of leg muscles too long leashed by city streets. Here in the middle altitudes the air was warm and moist. It carried a thousand rich scents, oxygen, decaying humus, and the musty smell of human perspiration.
As Athaclena trudged, following her guide along the steep-slided ridgeline, a low rumbling could soon be heard coming from the distance ahead of them. It sounded like a rumor of great engines, or perhaps an industrial plant. The murmur faded and then returned with every switchback, just a little more forceful each time they drew near its mysterious source. Apparently Robert was relishing a surprise, so Athaclena bit back her curiosity and asked no questions.
At last, though, Robert stopped and waited at a bend in the trail. He closed his eyes, concentrating, and Athaclena thought she caught, just for a moment, the flickering traces of primitive emotion-glyph. Instead of true kenning, it brought to mind a visual image — a high, roaring fountain painted in garish, uninhibited blues and greens.
He really is getting much better, Athaclena thought. Then she joined him at the bend and gasped in surprise.
Droplets, trillions of tiny liquid lenses, sparkled in the shafts of sunlight that cut sharply through the cloud forest. The low rumble that had drawn them onward for an hour was suddenly an earthshaking growl that rattled tree limbs left and right, reverberating through the rocks and into their bones. Straight ahead a great cataract spilled over glass-smooth boulders, dashing into spume and spray in a canyon carved over persistent ages.
The falling river was an extravagance of nature, pouring forth more exuberantly than the most shameless human entertainer, prouder than any sentient poet.
It was too much to be taken in with ears and eyes alone. Athaclena's tendrils waved, seeking, kenning, one of those moments Tymbrimi glyphcrafters sometimes spoke of — when a world seemed to join into the mesh of empathy usually reserved for living things. In a time-stretched instant, she realized that ancient Garth, wounded and crippled, could still sing.
Robert grinned. Athaclena met his gaze and smiled as well. Their hands met and joined. For a long, wordless time they stood together and watched the shimmering, ever-changing rainbows arch over nature's percussive flood.
Strangely, the epiphany only made Athaclena feel sad, and even more regretful she had ever come to this world. She had not wanted to discover beauty here. It only made the little world's fate seem more tragic.
How many times had she wished Uthacalthing had never accepted this assignment? But wishing seldom made things so.
As much as she loved him, Athaclena had always found her father inscrutable. His reasoning was often too convoluted for her to fathom, his actions too unpredictable. Such as taking this posting when he could have had a more prestigious one simply by asking.
And sending her into these mountains with Robert... it hadn't been just "for her safety," she could tell that much. Was she actually supposed to chase those ridiculous rumors of exotic mountain creatures? Unlikely. Probably Uthacalthing only suggested the idea in order to distract her from her worries.
Then she thought of another possible motive.
Could her father actually imagine that she might enter into a self-other bond... with a human? Her nostrils flared to twice their normal size at the thought. Gently, suppressing her corona in order to keep her feelings hidden, she relaxed her grip on Robert's hand, and felt relieved when he did not hold on.
Athaclena crossed her arms and shivered.
Back home she had taken part in only a few, tentative practice bondings with boys, and those mostly as class assignments. Before her mother's death this had been a cause of quite a few family arguments. Mathicluanna had almost despaired of her oddly reserved and private daughter. But Athaclena's father, at least, had not pestered her to do more than she was ready for.
Until now, maybe?
Robert was certainly charming and likable. With his high cheekbones and eyes pleasantly set apart, he was about as handsome as a human might hope to get. And yet, the very fact that she might think in such terms shocked Athaclena.
Her tendrils twitched. She shook her head and wiped out a nascent glyph before she could even realize what it would have been. This was a topic she had no wish to consider right now, even less than the prospect of war.
"The waterfall is beautiful, Robert," she enunciated carefully in Anglic. "But if we stay here much longer, we shall soon be quite damp."
He seemed to return from a distant contemplation. "Oh. Yeah, Clennie. Let's go." With a brief smile he turned and led the way, his human empathy waves vague and far away.
The rain forest persisted in long fingers between the hills, becoming wetter and more robust as they gained altitude. Little Garthian creatures, timid and scarce at the lower levels, now made frequent skittering rustles behind the lush vegetation, occasionally even challenging them with impudent squeaks.
Soon they reached the summit of a foothill ridge, where a chain of spine-stones jutted up, bare and gray, like the bony plates along the back of one of those ancient reptiles Uthacalthing had shown her, in a lesson book on Earth history. As they removed their packs for a rest, Robert told her that no one could explain the formations, which topped many of the hills below the Mountains of Mulun.
"Even the Branch Library on Earth has no reference," he said as he brushed a hand along one of the jagged monoliths. "We've submitted a low-priority inquiry to the district branch at Tanith. Maybe in a century or so the Library Institute's computers will dig up a report from some long-extinct race that once lived here, and then we'll know the answer."
"Yet you hope they do not," she suggested.
Robert shrugged. "I guess I'd rather it were left a mystery. Maybe we could he the first to figure it out." He looked pensively at the stones.
A lot of Tymbrimi felt the same way, preferring a good puzzle to any written fact. Not Athaclena, however. This attitude — this resentment of the Great Library — was something she found absurd.
Without the Library and the other Galactic Institutes, oxygen-breathing culture, dominant in the Five Galaxies, would long ago have fallen into total disarray — probably ending in savage, total war.
True, most starfaring clans relied far too much on the Library. And the Institutes only moderated the bickering of the most petty and vituperative senior patron lines. The present crisis was only the latest in a series that stretched back long before any now living race had come into existence.
Still, this planet was an example of what could happen when the restraint of Tradition broke down. Athaclena listened to the sounds of the forest. Shading her eyes, she watched a swarm of small, furry creatures glide from branch to branch in the direction of the afternoon sun.
"Superficially, one might not even know this was a holocaust world," she said softly.
Robert had set their packs in the shade of a towering spine-stone and began cutting slices of soyastick salami and bread for their luncheon. "It's been fifty thousand years since the Bururalli made a mess of Garth, Athaclena. That's enough time for lots of surviving animal species to radiate and fill some of the emptied niches. Right now I guess you'd probably have to be a zoologist to notice the sparse species list."
Athaclena's corona was at full extension, kenning faint traceries of emotion from the surrounding forest. "I notice, Robert," she said. "I can feel it. This watershed lives, but it is lonely, it has none of the life-complexity a wildwood should know. And there is no trace of Potential at all."
Robert nodded seriously. But she sensed his distance from it all. The Bururalli Holocaust happened a long time ago, from an Earthling's point of view.
The Bururalli had also been new, back then, just released from indenture to the Nahalli, the patron race that uplifted them to sentience. It was a special time for the Bururalli, for only when its knot of obligations was loosened at last could a client species establish unsupervised colonies of its own. When their time came the Galactic Institute of Migration had just declared the fallow world Garth ready again for limited occupation. As always, the Institute expected that local lifeforms — especially those which might someday develop Uplift Potential — would be protected at all cost by the new tenants.
The Nahalli boasted that they had found the Bururalli a quarrelsome clan of pre-sentient carnivores and uplifted them to become perfect Galactic citizens, responsible and reliable, worthy of such a trust.
The Nahalli were proven horribly wrong.
"Well, what do you expect when an entire race goes completely crazy and starts annihilating everything in sight?" Robert asked. "Something went wrong and suddenly the Bururalli turned into berserkers, tearing apart a world they were supposed to take care of.
"It's no wonder you don't detect any Potential in a Garth forest, Clennie. Only those tiny creatures who could burrow and hide escaped the Bururalli's madness. The bigger, brighter animals are all one with yesterday's snows."
Athaclena blinked. Just when she thought she had grasp of Anglic Robert did this to her again, using that strange human penchant for metaphors. Unlike similes, which compared two objects, metaphors seemed to declare, against all logic, that unlike things were the same! No Galactic language allowed such nonsense.
Generally she was able to handle those odd linguistic juxtapositions, but this one had her baffled. Above her waving corona the small-glyph teev'nus formed briefly — standing for the elusiveness of perfect communication.
"I have only heard brief accounts of that era. What happened to the murderous Bururalli themselves?"
Robert shrugged. "Oh, officials from the Institutes of Uplift and Migration finally dropped by, about a century or so after the holocaust began. The inspectors were horrified, of course.
"They found the Bururalli warped almost beyond recognition, roaming the planet, hunting to death anything they could catch. By then they'd abandoned the horrible technological weapons they'd started with and nearly reverted to tooth and claw. I suppose that's why some small animals did survive.
"Ecological disasters aren't as uncommon as the Institutes would have it seem, but this one was a major scandal. There was galaxy-wide revulsion. Battle fleets were sent by many of the major clans and put under unified command. Soon the Bururalli were no more."
Athaclena nodded. "I assume their patrons, the Nahalli, were punished as well."
"Right. They lost status and are somebody's clients now, the price of negligence. We're taught the story in school. Several times."
When Robert offered the salami again, Athaclena shook her head. Her appetite had vanished. "So you humans inherited another reclamation world."
Robert put away their lunch. "Yeah. Since we're two-client patrons, we had to be allowed colonies, but the Institutes have mostly handed us the leavings of other peoples' disasters. We have to work hard helping this world's ecosystem straighten itself out, but actually, Garth is really nice compared with some of the others. You ought to see Deemi and Horst, out in the Canaan Cluster."
"I have heard of them." Athaclena shuddered. "I do not think I ever want to see —"
She stopped mid-sentence. "I do not..." Her eyelids fluttered as she looked around, suddenly confused. "Thu'un dun!" Her ruff puffed outward. Athaclena stood quickly and walked — half in a trance — to where the towering spine-stones overlooked the misty tops of the cloud forest.
Robert approached from behind. "What is it?"
She spoke softly. "I sense something."
"Hmmph. That doesn't surprise me, with that Tymbrimi nervous system of yours, especially the way you've been altering your body form just to please me. It's no wonder you're picking up static."
Athaclena shook her head impatiently. "I have not been doing it just to please you, you arrogant human male! And I've asked you before kindly to be more careful with your horrible metaphors. A Tymbrimi corona is not a radio!" She gestured with her hand. "Now please be quiet for a moment."
Robert fell silent. Athaclena concentrated, trying to kenn again....
A corona might not pick up static like a radio, but it could suffer interference. She sought after the faint aura she had felt so very briefly, but it was impossible. Robert's clumsy, eager empathy flux crowded it out completely.
"What was it, Clennie?" he asked softly.
"I do not know. Something not very far away, off toward the southeast. It felt like people — men and neo-chimpanzees mostly — but there was something else as well."
Ruhert frowned. "Well, I guess it might have been one of the ecological management stations. Also, there are isolated freeholds all through this area, mostly higher up, where the seisin grows."
She turned swiftly. "Robert, I felt Potential! For the briefest moment of clarity, I touched the emotions of a presentient being!"
Robert's feelings were suddenly cloudy and turbulent, his face impassive. "What do you mean?"
"My father told me about something, before you and I left for the mountains. At the time I paid little attention. It seemed impossible, like those fairy tales your human authors create to give us Tymbrimi strange dreams."
"Your people buy them by the shipload," Robert interjected. "Novels, old movies, threevee, poems..."
Athaclena ignored his aside. "Uthacalthing mentioned stories of a creature of this planet, a native being of high Potential... one who is supposed to have actually survived the Bururalli Holocaust." Athaclena's corona foamed forth a glyph rare to her... syullf-tha, the joy of a puzzle to be solved. "I wonder. Could the legends possibly be true?"
Did Robert's mood flicker with a note of relief? Athaclena felt his crude but effective emotional guard go opaque.
"Hmmm. Well, there is a legend," he said. "A simple story told by wolflings. It could hardly be of interest to a sophisticated Galactic, I suppose."
Athaclena eyed him carefully and touched his arm, stroking it gently. "Are you going to make me wait while you draw out this mystery with dramatic pauses? Or will you save yourself bruises and tell me what you know at once?"
Robert laughed. "Well, since you're so persuasive. You just might have picked up the empathy output of a Garthling."
Athaclena's broad, gold-flecked eyes blinked. "That is the name my father used!"
"Ah. Then Uthacalthing has been listening to old seisin hunters' tales.... Imagine having such after only a hundred Earth years here.... Anyway, it's said that one large animal did manage to escape the Bururalli, through cunning, ferocity and a whole lot of Potential. The mountain men and chims tell of sampling traps robbed, laundry stolen from clotheslines, and strange markings scratched on unclimbable cliff faces.
"Oh, it's probably all a lot of eyewash." Robert smiled. "But I did recall those legends when Mother told me I was to come up here. So I figured, so that it wouldn't be a total loss, I might as well take a Tymbrimi along to see if she could flush out a Garthling with her empathy net."
Some metaphors Athaclena understood quite readily. Her fingernails pressed into Robert's arm. "So?" she asked with a questing lilt. "That is the entire reason I am in this wilderness? I am to be a sniffer-out of smoke and legends for you?"
"Sure," Robert teased. "Why else would I come out here, all alone in the mountains with an alien from outer space?"
Athaclena hissed through her teeth. But within she could not help but feel pleased. This human sardonicism wasn't unlike reverse-talk among her own people. And when Robert laughed aloud, she found she had to join him. For the moment all worry of war and danger was banished. It was a welcome release for both of them.
"If such a creature exists, we must find it, you and I," she said at last.
"Yeah. Clennie. We'll find it together."
THE END of these sample chapters
This series is set in a future universe in which no species can reach sentience without being "uplifted" (genetically brought to sapience) by a patron race, which then "owns" the uplifted species for 100,000 years. But the greatest mystery of all remains unsolved: who uplifted humankind? Earth has no known link to the Progenitors — and that terrifies client and patron species alike. Should its inhabitants be allowed to exist?
The uplift saga began with Sundiver, and continued with Startide Rising and The Uplift War. A second series — the Uplift Trilogy — began with Brightness Reef, continued in Infinity's Shore, and concluded with Heaven's Reach.
In THE UPLIFT WAR, as galactic armadas search the Five Galaxies in quest of the Streaker, bearer of the secret of the Progenitors, a brutal alien race seizes the planet of Garth, an Earth colony. Humans and their Uplifted allies must battle their conquerors or face ultimate extinction.
Copyright © 1987 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
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David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was cited as one of the top 10 writers the AI elite follow. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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