Death would not be so mundane... nor hurt in such familiar ways. When she began regaining consciousness, there was never any doubt which world this was. The old cosmos of life and pain.
Peepoe remembered the sea monster, an undulating behemoth of fins, tendrils and phosphorescent scales, more than a kilometer long and nearly as wide, flapping wings like a manta ray as it glided well above the sea floor. When it reached up for her, she never thought of fleeing toward the surface, where mere enslavement waited. Peepoe was too exhausted by that point, and too transfixed by the images -- both sonic and luminous -- of a true leviathan.
The tentacle was gentler than expected, in grabbing her unresisting body and drawing it toward a widening beaklike maw. As she was pulled between a pair of jagged-edged jaws, Peepoe had let blackness finally claim her, moments before the end. The last thought to pass through her head was a Trinary haiku.
* Arrogance is answered
* When each of us is reclaimed.
* Rejoin the food chain! *
Only there turned out to be more to her life, after all. Expecting to become pulped food for huge intestines, she wakened instead, surprised to find herself in another world.
A blurry world, at first. She lay in a small pool. That much was evident. But it took moments to restore focus. Meanwhile, out of the pattern of her bemused sonar clickings, a reflection seemed to mold itself, unbidden, surrounding Peepoe with Trinary philosophy.
* In the turning of life's cycloid,
* Pulled by sun and moon insistence,
* Once a springtime storm may toss you,
* Over reefs that have no channel,
* Into some lagoon untravelled,
* Where strange fishes, spiny-poisoned,
* Taunt you, forlorn, isolated... *
It wasn't an auspicious thought-poem, and Peepoe cut it off sharply, lest such stark sonic imagery trigger panic. The Trinary fog clung hard, though. It dissipated only with fierce effort, leaving a sense of dire warning in its wake.
Rising to the surface, Peepoe lifted her head and inspected the pool, lined by a riot of vegetation. Dense jungle stretched on all sides, brushing the rough-textured ceiling and cutting off her view beyond a few meters. Flickering movements and skittering sounds revealed the presence of small inhabitants, from flying insectoids to clambering things that peered at her shyly from behind sheltering leaves and shadows.
A habitat, she realized. Things lived here, competed, preyed on each other, died, and were recycled in a familiar ongoing synergy. The largest starships often contained ecological life-support systems, replenishing both food and oxygen supplies in the natural way.
But this is no starship. It can't be. The huge shape I saw could never fly. It was a sea beast, meant for the underwater world. It must have been alive!
Well, was there any reason why a gigantic animal could not keep an ecology going inside itself, like the bacterial cultures that helped Peepoe digest her own food?
So now what? Am I supposed to take part in all of this somehow? Or have I just begun a strange process of being digested?
She set off with a decisive push of her flukes. A dolphin without tools wasn't very agile in an environment like this. Her monkey-boy cousins -- humans and chimps -- would do better. But Peepoe was determined to explore while her strength lasted.
A channel led out of the little pool. Maybe something more interesting lay around the next bend.
One of the spiky branches started moving, bending and articulating as it bowed lower toward the watery surface where he and Chissis waited. At its tip, one of the crystal "fruits" contained a quadrupedal being -- an urs whose long neck twisted as she peered about with glittering black eyes.
Tkett knew just a few things about this species. For example, they hated water in its open liquid form. Also the females were normally as massive as a full-grown human, yet this one appeared to be as small as a diminutive urrish male, less than twenty centimeters from nose to tail. Back in the Civilization of Five Galaxies, urs were known as great engineers. Humans didn't care for their smell (the feeling was mutual), but interactions between the two starfaring clans had been cordial. Urs weren't among the persecutors of Earthclan.
Tkett had no idea why an offshoot group of urs came to this world, centuries ago, establishing a secret and illegal colony on a planet that had been declared off-limits by the Migration Institute. As one of the Six Races, they now galloped across Jijo's prairies, tending herds and working metals at forges that used heat from fresh volcanic lava pools. To find one here, under the sea, left him boggled and perplexed.
The creature seemed unaware of the dolphins who watched from nearby. From certain internal reflections, Tkett guess that the glassy confines of the enclosure were transparent only in one direction. Flickering scenes could be made out, playing across the opposite internal walls. He glimpsed hilly countryside covered with swaying grass. The little urs galloped along, as if unencumbered and unenclosed.
The sphere dropped closer, and Tkett saw that it was choked with innumerable microscopic threads that crisscrossed the little chamber. Many of these terminated at the body of the urs, especially the bottoms of her flashing hooves.
Resistance simulators! Tkett recognized the principle, though he had never seen such a magnificent implementation. Back on Earth, humans and chimps would sometimes put on full body suits and VR helmets before entering chambers where a million needles made up the floor, each one computer controlled. As the user walked along a fictitious landscape, depicted visually in goggles he wore, the needles would rise and fall, simulating the same rough terrain underfoot. Each of these small crystal containers apparently operated in the same way, but with vastly greater texture and sophistication. So many tendrils pushing, stroking or stimulating each patch of skin, could feign wind blowing through urrish fur, or simulate the rough sensation of holding a tool... perhaps even the delightful rub and tickle of mating.
Other stalks descended toward Tkett and Chissis, holding many more virtual reality fruits, each one containing a single individual. All of Jijo's sapient races were present, though much reduced in stature. Chissis seemed especially agitated to see small humans that ran about, or rested, or bent in apparent concentration over indiscernible tasks. None seemed aware of being observed.
It all felt horribly creepy, yet the subjects did not give an impression of lethargy or unhappiness. They seemed vigorous, active, interested in whatever engaged them. Perhaps they did not even know the truth about their peculiar existence.
Chissis snorted her uneasiness, and Tkett agreed. Something felt weird about the way these micro-environments were being paraded before the two of them, as if the mind -- or minds -- controlling the whole vast apparatus had some point it was trying to make, or some desire to communicate.
Is the aim to impress us?
He wondered about that, then abruptly realized what it must be about.
... all of Jijo's sapient races were present...
In fact, that was no longer true. Another species of thinking beings now dwelled on this world, the newest one officially sanctioned by the Civilization of Five Galaxies.
Oh, certainly the reverts like poor Chissis were only partly sapient anymore. And Tkett had no illusions about what Dr. Makanee thought of his own mental state. Nevertheless, as stalk after stalk bent to present its fruit before the two dolphins, showing off the miniature beings within -- all of them busy and apparently happy with their existence -- he began to feel as if he was being wooed.
"Ifni's boss..." he murmured aloud, amazed at what the great machine appeared to be offering. "It wants us to become part of all this!"
A village of small grass huts surrounded the next pool she entered.
Small didn't half describe it. The creatures who emerged to swarm around the shore stared at her with wide eyes, set in skulls less than a third of normal size.
They were humans and hoons, mostly... along with a few traeki and a couple of glavers... all races whose full sized cousins lived just a few hundred kilometers away, on a stretch of Jijo's western continent called The Slope.
As astonishing as she found these Lilliputians, they stared in even greater awe at her. I'm like a whale to them, she realized, noting with some worry that many of them brandished spears or other weapons.
She heard a chatter of worried conversation as they pointed at her long gray bulk. That meant their brains were large enough for speech. Peepoe noted that the creatures' heads were out of proportion to their bodies, making the humans appear rather child-like... until you saw the men's hairy, scarred torsos, or the women's breasts, pendulous with milk for hungry babies. Their rapid jabber grew more agitated by the moment.
I'd better reassure them, or risk getting harpooned.
Peepoe spoke, starting with Anglic, the wolfling tongue most used on Earth. She articulated the words carefully with her gene-modified blowhole.
"Hello f-f-folks! How are you doing today?"
That got a response, but not the one she hoped for. The crowd onshore backed away hurriedly, emitting upset cries. This time she thought she made out a few words in a time-shifted dialect of Galactic Seven, so she tried again in that language.
"Greetings! I bring you news of peaceful arrival and friendly intentions!"
This time the crowd went nearly crazy, leaping and cavorting in excitement, though whether it was pleasure or indignation seemed hard to tell at first.
Suddenly, the mob parted and went silent as a figure approached from the line of huts. It was a hoon, taller than average among these midgets. He wore an elaborate headdress and cape, while the dyed throat sac under his chin flapped and vibrated to a sonorous beat. Two human assistants followed, one of them beating a drum. The rest of the villagers then did an amazing thing. They all dropped to their knees and covered their ears. Soon Peepoe heard a rising murmur.
They're humming. I do believe they're trying not to hear what the big guy is saying!
At the edge of the pool, the hoon lifted his arms and began chanting in a strange version of Galactic Six.
"Spirits of the sky, I summon thee by name... Kataranga!
"Spirits of the water, I beseech thy aid... Dupussien!
"By my knowledge of your secret names, I command thee to gather and surround this monster. Protect the people of the True Way!"
This went on for a while. At first Peepoe felt bemused, as if she were watching a documentary about some ancient human tribe, or the Prob'shers of planet Horst. Then she began noticing something strange. Out of the jungle, approaching on buzzing wings, there appeared a variety of insect-like creatures. At first just a few, then more. Flying zig-zag patterns toward the chanting shaman, they started gathering in a spiral-shaped swarm.
Meanwhile, ripples in the pool tickled Peepoe's flanks, revealing another convergence of ingathering beasts -- this time swimmers -- heading for the point of shore nearest the summoning hoon.
I don't believe this, she thought. It was one thing for a primitive priest to invoke the forces of nature. It was quite another to sense those forces responding quickly, unambiguously, and with ominous threatening behavior.
Members of both swarms, the fliers and the swimmers, began making darting forays toward Peepoe. She felt several sharp stings on her dorsal fin, and some more from below, on her ventral side.
They're attacking me!
Realization snapped her out of a bemused state.
Time to get out of here, she thought as more of the tiny native creatures could be seen arriving from all directions.
Peepoe whirled about, shoving toward shore a wavelet that interrupted the yammering shaman, sending him scurrying backward with a yelp. Then, in a surge of eager strength, she sped away from there.
Just when he thought he had seen enough, one of the crystal fruits descended close to the pool where he and Chissis waited, stopping only when it brushed the water, almost even with their eyes. The walls vibrated for a moment... then spilt open!
The occupant, a tiny g'Kek with spindly wheels on both sides of a tapered torso, rolled toward the gap, regarding the pair of dolphins with four eye stalks that waved as they peer at Tkett. Then the creature spoke in a voice that sounded high-pitched but firm, using thickly-accented Galactic Seven.
"We were aware that new settlers had come to this world. But imagine our surprise to discover that this time they are swimmers, who found us before we spotted them! No summoning call had to be sent through the Great Egg. No special collector robots dispatched to pick up volunteers from shore. How clever of you to arrive just in time, only days and weeks before the expected moment when this universe splits asunder!"
Chissis panted nervously, filling the sterile chamber with rapid clicks while Tkett bit the water hard with his narrow jaw.
"I... have no idea what y-y-you're talking about," he stammered in reply.
The miniature g'Kek twisted several eye stalks around each other. Tkett had an impression that it was consulting or communing with some entity elsewhere. Then it rolled forward, unwinding the stalks to wave at Tkett again.
"If an explanation is what you seek, then that is what you shall have."
The interior of the great leviathan seemed to consist of one leaf-shrouded pool after another, in a complex maze of little waterways. Soon quite lost, Peepoe doubted she would ever be able to find her way back to the thing's mouth.
Most of the surrounding areas consisted of dense jungle, though there were also rocky escarpments and patches of what looked like rolling grassland. Peepoe had also passed quite a few villages of little folk. In one place an endless series of ramps and flowing bridges had been erected through the foliage, comprising what looked like a fantastic scale-model roller coaster, interweaved amid the dwarf trees. Little g'Keks could be seen zooming along this apparatus of wooden planks and vegetable fibers, swerving and teetering on flashing wheels.
Peepoe tried to glide past the shoreline villages innocuously, but seldom managed it without attracting some attention. Once, a war party set forth in chase after her, riding upon the backs of turtle-like creatures, shooting tiny arrows and hurling curses in quaint-sounding jargon she could barely understand. Another time, a garishly attired urrish warrior swooped toward her from above, straddling a flying lizard whose wings flapped gorgeously and whose mouth belched small but frightening bolts of flame! Peepoe retreated, overhearing the little urs continue to shout behind her, challenging the "sea monster" to single combat.
It seemed she had entered a world full of beings who were as suspicious as they were diminished in size. Several more times, shamans and priests of varied races stood at the shore, gesturing and shouting rhythmically, commanding hordes of beelike insects to sting and pursue her until she fled beyond sight. Peepoe's spirits steadily sank... until at last she arrived at a broad basin where many small boats could be seen, cruising under brightly painted sails.
To her surprise, this time the people aboard shouted with amazed pleasure upon spotting her, not fear or wrath! With tentative but rising hope, she followed their beckonings to shore where, under the battlements of a magnificently ornate little castle, a delegation descended to meet her beside a wooden pier.
Their apparent leader, a human wearing gray robes and a peaked hat, grinned as he gestured welcome, enunciating in an odd but lilting version of Anglic.
"Many have forgotten the tales told by the First. But we know you, oh noble dolphin! You are remembered from legends passed down since the beginning! How wonderful to have you come among us now, as the Time of Change approaches. In the name of the Spirit Guides, we offer you our hospitality and many words of power!"
Peepoe mused on everything she had seen and heard.
Words, eh? Words can be a good start.
She had to blow air several times before her nervous energy dispelled enough to speak.
"All right then. Can you start by telling me what in Ifni's name is going on here?"
Givers of Wonder
A Time of Changes comes. Worlds are about to divide.
Galaxies that formerly were linked by shortcuts of space and time will soon sunder apart. The old civilization -- including all the planets you came from -- will no longer be accessible. Their ways won't dominate this part of the cosmos, anymore.
Isolated, this island realm of one hundred billion stars (formerly known as Galaxy Four) will soon develop its own destiny, fostering a bright new age. It has been foreseen that Jijo will provide the starting seed for a glorious culture, unlike any other. The six... and now seven!... sapient species who came sneaking secretly to this world as refugees -- skulking in order to hide like criminals on a forbidden shore -- will prosper beyond all their wildest imaginings. They will be co-founders of something great and wonderful. Forerunners of all the starfaring races who may follow in this fecund stellar whirlpool.
But what kind of society should it be? One that is a mere copy of the noisy, bickering, violent conglomeration that exists back in "civilized" space? One based on crude so-called sciences? Physics, cybernetics, and biology? We have learned that such obsessions lead to soullessness. A humorless culture, operated by reductionists who measure the cost/benefit ratios of everything and know the value of nothing!
There must be something better.
Indeed, consider how the newest sapient races -- fresh from uplift -- look upon their world with a childlike sense of wonder! What if that feeling could be made to last?
To those who have just discovered it, the power of speech itself is glorious. A skill with words seems to hold all the potency anyone should ever need! Still heedful of their former animal ways, these infant species often use their new faculty of self-expression to perceive patterns that are invisible to older "wiser" minds.
Humans were especially good at this, during the long ages of their lonely abandonment, on isolated Earth. They had many names for their systems of wondrous cause-and-effect, traditions that arose in a myriad landbound tribes. But nearly all of these systems shared certain traits in common:
a sense that the world is made of spirits, living in each stone or brook or tree.
an eager willingness to perceive all events, even great storms and the movements of planets, as having a personal relationship with the observer.
a conviction that nature can be swayed by those favored with special powers of sight, voice, or mind, raising those elite ones above other mere mortals.
a profound belief in the power of words to persuade and control the world.
"Magic" was one word that humans used for this way of looking at the universe. We believe it is a better way, offering drama, adventure, vividness, and romance. Yet magic can take many forms. And there is still some dispute over the details....
Alternating Views of Temptation
TKETT found the explanation bizarre and perplexing at first. How did it relate to this strange submersible machine whose gut was filled with crystal fruit, each containing an intelligent being who leaped about and seemed to focus fierce passion on things only he or she could see?
Still, as an archaeologist he had some background studying the tribal human past, so eventually a connection clicked in his mind.
"You... you are using technology to give each individual a private world! B-but there's more to it than that, isn't there? Are you saying that every hoon, or human, or traeki inside these crystal c-containers gets to cast magic spells? They don't just manipulate false objects by hand, and see tailored illusions... they also shout incantations and have the satisfaction of watching them come true?"
Tkett blinked several times, trying to grasp it all.
"Take that woman over there." He aimed his rostrum at a nearby cube wherein a female human grinned and pointed amid a veritable cloud of resistance threads.
"If she has an enemy, can she mold a clay figure and stick pins in it to cast a spell of pain?"
The little g'Kek spun its wheels before answering emphatically.
"True enough, oh perceptive dolphin! Of course she has to be creative. Talent and a strong will are helpful. And she must adhere to the accepted lore of her simulated tribe."
"Arbitrary rules, you mean."
The eye stalks shrugged gracefully. "Arbitrary, but elegant and consistent. And there is another requirement.
"Above all, our user of magic must intensely believe."
PEEPOE blinked at the diminutive wizard standing on the nearby dock, in the shadow of a fairytale castle.
"You mean people in this place can command the birds and insects and other beasts using words alone?"
She had witnessed it happen dozens of times, but to hear it explained openly like this felt strange.
The gray-cloaked human nodded, speaking rapidly, eagerly. "Special words! The power of secret names. Terms that each user must keep closely guarded."
"Above all, most creatures will only obey those with inborn talent. Individuals who possess great force of will. Otherwise, if they heeded everybody, where would be the awe and envy that lie at the very heart of sorcery? If anyone can do a thing, it soon loses all worth. A miracle palls when it becomes routine.
"It is said that technology used to be like that, back in the Old Civilization. Take what happened soon after Earth-humans discovered how to fly. Soon everybody could soar through the sky, and people took the marvel for granted. How tragic! That sort of thing does not happen here. We preserve wonder like a precious resource."
"But all this --" She flicked her jaws, spraying water toward the jungle and the steep, fleshy cliffs beyond. "All of this smacks of technology! That absurd fire-breathing dragon, for instance. Clearly bio-engineered! Somebody set up this whole thing as... as an..."
"As an experiment?" The gray-clad mage conceded with a nod. His beard shook as he continued with eager fire in his piping voice.
"That has never been secret! Ever since our ancestors were selected from among Jijo's land-bound Six Races, to come dwell below the sea in smaller but mightier bodies, we knew that one purpose would be to help the Buyur fine-tune their master plan."
TKETT reared back in shock, churning water with his flukes. He stared at the many-eyed creature who had been explaining this weird chamber-of-miniatures.
"The B-Buyur! They left Jijo half a million years ago. How could they even know about human culture, let alone set up this elaborate --"
"Of course the answer to that question is simple," replied the little g'Kek, peering with several eye stalks from its cracked crystal shell. "Our Buyur lords never left! They have quietly observed and guided this process ever since the first ship of refugees slinked down to Jijo, preparing for the predicted day when natural forces would sever all links between Galaxy Four and the others."
"The great evacuation of starfaring clans from Galaxy Four -- half an eon ago -- made sure that no other techno-sapients remain in this soon-to-be-isolated starry realm. So it will belong to our descendants, living in a culture far different than the dreary one our ancestors belonged to."
Tkett had heard of the Buyur, of course -- among the most powerful members of the Civilization of Five Galaxies, and one of the few elder races known for a sense of humor... albeit a strange one. It was said that they believed in long jokes, that took ages to plan and execute.
Was that because the Buyur found Galactic culture stodgy and stifling? (Most Earthlings would agree.) Apparently they foresaw all of the changes and convulsions that were today wracking the linked starlanes, and began preparing millennia ago for an unparalleled opportunity to put their own stamp on an entirely new branch of destiny.
PEEPOE nodded, understanding part of it at last.
"This leviathan...this huge organic beast... isn't the only experimental container cruising below the waves. There are others! Many?"
"Many," confirmed the little gray-bearded human wizard. "The floating chambers take a variety of forms, each accommodating its own colony of sapient beings. Each habitat engages its passengers in a life that is rich with magic, though in uniquely different ways.
"Here, for instance, we sapient beings experience physically active lives, in a totally real environment. It is the wild creatures around us who were altered! Surely you have heard that the Buyur were master gene-crafters? In this experimental realm, each insect, fish and flower knows its own unique and secret name. By learning and properly uttering such names, a mage like me can wield great power."
TKETT listened as the cheerful g'Kek explained the complex experiment taking place in the chamber of crystalline fruits.
"In our habitat, each of us gets to live in his or her own world -- one that is rich, varied and physically demanding, even if it is mostly a computer-driven simulation. Within such an ersatz reality every one of us can be the lead magician in a society or tribe of lesser peers. Or the crystal fruits can be linked, allowing shared encounters between equals. Either way, it is a vivid life, filled with more excitement than the old way of so-called engineering.
"A life in which the mere act of believing can have power, and wishing sometimes makes things come true!"
PEEPOE watched the gray magician stroke his beard while describing the range of Buyur experiments.
"There are many other styles, modes, and implementations being tried out, in scores of other habitats. Some emphasize gritty 'reality,' while others go so far as to eliminate physical form entirely, encoding their subjects as digital personae in wholly computerized worlds."
Downloading personalities. Peepoe recognized the concept. It was tried back home and never caught on, even though boosters said it ought to, logically.
"There is an ultimate purpose to all of these experiments," the human standing on the nearby pier explained, like a proselyte eager for a special convert. "We aim to find exactly the right way to implement a new society that will thrive across the starlanes of Galaxy Four, once separation is complete and all the old hyperspatial transit paths are gone. When this island whirlpool of a hundred billion stars is safe at last from interference by the Old Civilization, it will be time to start our own. One that is based on a glorious new principle.
"By analyzing the results of each experimental habitat, the noble Buyur will know exactly how to implement a new realm of magic and wonders. Then the age of true miracles can begin."
Listening to this, Peepoe shook her head.
"You don't sound much like a rustic feudal magician. I just bet you're something else, in disguise.
"Are you a Buyur?"
The g'Kek bowed within its crystal shell. "That's a very good guess, my dolphin friend. Though of course the real truth is complicated. A real Buyur would weigh more than a metric ton and somewhat resemble an Earthling frog!"
"Nevertheless you --" TKETT prompted.
"I have the honor of serving as a spokesman-intermediary...."
"...to help persuade you dolphins -- the newest promising colonists on Jijo -- that joining us will be your greatest opportunity for vividness, adventure, and a destiny filled with marvels!"
The little human wizard grinned, and PEEPOE realized that the others nearby must not have heard or understood a bit of it. Perhaps they wore earplugs to protect themselves against the power of the mage's words. Or else Anglic was rarely spoken, here. Perhaps it was a "language of power."
Peepoe also realized -- she was both being tested and offered a choice.
Out there in the world, we few dolphin settlers face an uncertain existence. Makanee has no surety that our little pod of reverts will survive the next winter, even with help from the other colonists ashore. Anyway, the Six Races have troubles of their own, fighting Jophur invaders.
She had to admit that this offer had tempting aspects. After experiencing several recent Jijo storms, Peepoe could see the attraction of bringing all the other Streaker exiles aboard some cozy undersea habitat -- presumably one with bigger stretches of open water -- and letting the Buyur perform whatever techno-magic it took to reduce dolphins in size so they would fit their new lives. How could that be any worse than the three years of cramped hell they had all endured aboard poor Streaker?
Presumably someday, when the experiments were over, her descendants would be given back their true size, after they had spent generations learning to weave spells and cast incantations with the best of them.
Oh, we could manage that, she thought. We dolphins are good at certain artistic types of verbal expression. After all, what is Trinary but our own special method of using sound to persuade the world? Talking it into assuming vivid sonic echoes and dreamlike shapes? Coaxing it to make sense in our own cetacean way?
The delicious temptation of it all reached out to Peepoe.
What is the alternative? Assuming we ever find a way back to civilization, what would we go home to? A gritty fate that at best offers lots of hard work, where it can take half a lifetime just learning the skills you need to function usefully in a technological society.
Real life isn't half as nice as the tales we first hear in storybooks. Everybody learns at some point that it's a disappointing world out there -- a universe where good is seldom purely handsome and evil doesn't obligingly identify itself with red glowing eyes. A complex society filled with tradeoffs and compromises, as well as committees and political opponents who always have much more power than you think they deserve.
Who wouldn't prefer a place where the cosmos might be talked into giving you what you want? Or where wishing sometimes makes things true?
"We already have two volunteers from your esteemed race," the g'Kek spokesman explained, causing TKETT to quiver in surprise. With a flailing of eye stalks, the wheeled figure commanded that a hologram appear, just above the water's surface.
Tkett at once saw two large male dolphins lying calmly on mesh hammocks while tiny machines scurried all over them, spinning webs of some luminescent material. Chissis, long silent and brooding, abruptly recognized the pair, and shouted Primal recognition.
# Caught! Caught in nets as they deserved!
# Foolish Zhaki -- Nasty Mopol! #
"Ifni!" Tkett commented. "I think you're right. But what's being done to them?"
"They have already accepted our offer," said the little wheeled intermediary.
"Soon those two will dwell in realms of holographic and sensual delights, aboard a different experimental station than this one. Their destiny is assured, and let me promise you -- they will be happy."
"You're sure those two aren't here aboard this vessel, near me?" PEEPOE asked nervously, watching Zhaki and Mopol undergo their transformation via a small image that the magician had conjured with a magic phrase and a wave of one hand.
"No. Your associates followed a lure to one of our neighboring experimental cells -- to their senses it appeared to be a 'leviathan' resembling one of your Earthling blue whales. Once they had come aboard, preliminary appraisal showed that their personalities will probably thrive best in a world of pure fantasy.
"They eagerly accepted this proposal."
Peepoe nodded, shocked only at her own lack of emotion, either positive or negative, toward this final disposal of her tormentors. They were gone from her life, and that was all she really cared about. Let Ifni decide whether their destination qualified as permanent imprisonment, or a strange kind of heaven.
Well, now they can have harems of willing cows, to their hearts' content, she thought. Good riddance.
Anyway, she had other quandaries to focus on, closer at hand.
"What've you got p-planned for me?"
The gray wizard spread his arms in eager consolation.
"Nothing frightening or worrisome, oh esteemed dolphin-friend! At this point we are simply asking that you choose!
"Will you join us? No one is coerced. But how could anybody refuse? If one lifestyle does not suit you, pick another! Select from a wide range of enchanted worlds, and further be assured that your posterity will someday be among the magic-wielders who establish a new order across a million suns."
TKETT saw implications that went beyond the offer itself. The plan of the Buyur -- its scope and the staggering range of their ambition -- left him momentarily dumbfounded.
They want to set up a whole, galaxy-spanning civilization, based on what they consider to be an ideal way of life. Someday soon, after this 'Time of Changes' has ruptured the old inter-galaxy links, the Buyur will be free from any of the old constraints of law and custom that dominated oxygen-breathing civilization for the last billion years.
Then, out of this planet there will spill a new wave of starships, crewed by the Seven Races of Jijo, commanded by bold captains, wizards and kings... a mixture of themes from old-time science fiction and fantasy... pouring forth toward adventure! Over the course of several ages, they will fight dangers, overcome grave perils, discover and uplift new species. Eventually, the humans and urs and traekis and others will become revered leaders of a galaxy that is forever filled with high drama.
In this new realm, boredom will be the ultimate horror. Placidity the ultimate crime. The true masters -- the Buyur -- will see to that.
Like Great Oz, manipulating levers behind a curtain, the Buyur will use their high technology to provide every wonder. Ask for dragons? They will gene-craft or manufacture them. Secret factories will build sea monsters and acid-mouthed aliens, ready for battle.
It will be a galaxy run by special effects wizards! A perpetual theme park, whose inhabitants use magic spells instead of engineering to get what they want. Conjurers and monarchs will replace tedious legislatures, impulse will supplant deliberation, and lists of secret names will substitute for physics.
Nor will our descendants ask too many questions, or dare to pull back the curtain and expose Oz. Those who try won't have descendants!
Cushioned by hidden artifice, in time people will forget nature's laws.
They will flourish in vivid kingdoms, forever setting forth heroically, returning triumphally, or dying bravely... but never asking why.
Tkett mused on this while filling the surrounding water with intense sprays of sonar clicks. Chissis, who had clearly not understood much of the g'Kek's convoluted explanation, settled close by, rolling her body through the complex rhythms of Tkett's worried thoughts.
Finally, he felt that he grasped the true significance of it all.
Tkett swam close to the crystal cube, raising one eye until it was level with the small representative of the mighty Buyur.
"I think I get what's going on here," he said.
"Yes?" the little g'Kek answered cheerfully. "And what is your sage opinion, oh dolphin friend. What do you think of this great plan?"
Tkett lifted his head high out of the water, rising up on churning flukes, emitting chittering laughter from his blowhole. At the same time, a sardonic Trinary haiku floated from his clicking brow.
* Sometimes sick egos
* foster in their narrow brains
* Really stupid jokes! *
Some aspects of the offer were galling, such as the smug permanence of Buyur superiority in the world to come. Yet, PEEPOE felt tempted.
After all, what else awaits us here on Jijo? Enslavement by the Jophur? Or the refuge of blessed dimness that the sages promise, if we follow the so-called Path of Redemption? Doesn't this offer a miraculous way out of choosing between those two unpalatable destinies?
She concentrated hard to sequester her misgivings, focusing instead on the advantages of the Buyur plan. And there were plenty, such as living in a cosmos where hidden technology made up for nature's mistakes. After all, wasn't it cruel of the Creator to make a universe where so many fervent wishes were ignored? A universe where prayers were mostly answered -- if at all -- within the confines of the heart? Might the Buyur plan rectify this oversight for billions and trillions? For all the inhabitants of a galaxy-spanning civilization! Generosity on such a scale was hard to fathom.
She compared this ambitious goal with the culture waiting for the Streaker survivors, should they ever make it back home to the other four galaxies, where a myriad competitive, fractious races bickered endlessly. Over-reliant on an ancient Library of unloving technologies, they seldom sought innovation or novelty. Above all the desires of individual beings nearly always subsumed before the driving needs of nation, race, clan and philosophy.
Again, the Buyur vision looked favorable compared to the status quo.
A small part of her demanded: Are these our only choices? What if we could come up with alternatives that go beyond simpleminded --
She quashed the question fiercely, packing it off to far recesses of her mind.
"I would love to learn more," she told the gray wizard. "But what about my comrades? The other dolphins who now live on Jijo? Won't you need them, too?"
"In order to have a genetically viable colony, yes." The spokesman agreed. "If you agree to join us, we will ask you first to go and persuade others to come."
"Just out of curiosity, what would happen if I refused?"
The sorcerer shrugged. "Your life will resume much as it would have, if you never found us. We will erase all conscious memory of this visit, and you will be sent home. Later, when we have had a chance to refine our message, emissaries will come visit your pod of dolphins. But as far as you know, you will hear the proposal as if for the first time."
"I see. And again, those who refuse will be memory-wiped... and again each time you return. Kind of gives you an advantage in proselytizing, doesn't it?"
"Perhaps. Still, no one is compelled to join against their will." The little human smiled. "So, what is your answer? Will you help convey our message to your peers? We sense that you understand and sympathize with the better world we aim toward. Will you help enrich the Great Stew of Races with wondrous dolphin flavors?"
Peepoe nodded. "I will carry your vision to the others."
"Excellent! In fact, you can start without even leaving this pool! For I can now inform you that a pair of your compatriots already reside aboard one of our nearby vessels... and those two seem to be having trouble appreciating the wondrous life we offer."
"Not Zhaki and Mopol!" Peepoe pushed back with her ventral fins, clicking nervously. She wanted nothing further to do with them.
"No, no." The magician assured. "Please, wait calmly while we open a channel between ships, and all will become clear."
"Hello, Peepoe," he said to the wavering image in front of him. "I'm glad you look well. We were all worried sick about you. But I figured when we saw Zhaki and Mopol you must be nearby."
The holo showed a sleek female dolphin, looking exquisite but tired in a jungle-shrouded pool, beside a miniature castle. Tkett could tell a lot about the style of "experiment" aboard her particular vessel, just by observing the crowd of natives gathered by the shore. Some of them were dressed as armored knights, riding upon rearing steeds, while gaily attired peasants doffed their caps to passing lords and ladies. It was a far different approach than the crystal fruits that hung throughout this vessel -- semi-transparent receptacles where individuals lived permanently immersed in virtual realities.
And yet, the basic principle was similar.
"Hi Tkett," Peepoe answered. "Is that Chissis with you? You both doing all right?"
"Well enough, I guess. Though I feel like the victim of some stupid fraternity practical --"
"Isn't it exciting?" Peepoe interrupted, cutting off what Tkett had been about to say. "Across all the ages, visionaries have come up with countless utopian schemes. But this one could actually w-w-work!"
Tkett stared back at her, unable to believe he was hearing this.
"Oh yeah?" He demanded. "What about free will?"
"The Buyur will provide whatever your will desires."
"Then how about truth!"
"There are many truths, Tkett. Countless vivid subjective interpretations will thrive in a future filled with staggering diversity."
"Subjective, exactly! That's an ancient and d-despicable perversion of the word truth, and you know it. Diversity is wonderful, all right. There may indeed be many cultures, many art forms, even many styles of wisdom. But truth should be about finding out what's really real, what's repeatable and verifiable, whether it suits your fancy or not!"
Peepoe sputtered a derisive raspberry.
"Where's the fun in that?"
"Life isn't just about having fun, or getting whatever you want!" Tkett felt his guts roil, forcing sour bile up his esophagus. "Peepoe, there's such a thing as growing up! Finding out how the world actually works, despite the way you think things ought to be. Objectivity means I accept that the universe doesn't revolve around me."
"In other words, a life of limitations."
"That we overcome with knowledge! With new tools and skills."
"Tools made of dead matter, designed by committees, mass-produced and sold on shop counters."
"Yes! Committees, teams, organizations and enterprises, all of them made up of individuals who have to struggle every day with their egos in order to cooperate with others, making countless compromises along the way. It ain't how things happen in a child's fantasy. It's not what we yearn for in our secret hearts, Peepoe. I know that! But it's how adults get things done.
"Anyway, what's wrong with buying miracles off a shop counter? So we take for granted wonders that our ancestors would've given their tail fins for. Isn't that what they'd have wanted for us? You'd prefer a world where the best of everything is kept reserved for wizards and kings?"
Tkett felt a sharp jab in his side. The pain made him whirl, still bitterly angry, still flummoxed with indignation.
"What is it!" He demanded sharply of Chissis, even though the little female could not answer.
She backed away from his bulk and rancor, taking a snout-down submissive posture. But from her brow came a brief burst of caustic Primal.
# idiot idiot idiot idiot
# idiots keep talking human talk-talk
# while the sea tries to teach #
Tkett blinked. Her phrasings were sophisticated, almost lucid. In fact, it was a lot like a simple Trinary chiding-poem, that a dolphin mother might use with her infant.
Through an act of hard self-control, he forced himself to consider.
While the sea tries to teach...
It was a common dolphin turn-of-phrase, implying that one should listen below the surface, to meanings that lay hidden.
He whirled back to examine the hologram, wishing it had not been designed by beings who relied so much on sight, and ignored the subtleties of sound transmission.
"Think about it, Tkett," Peepoe went on, as if their conversation had not been interrupted. "Back home, we dolphins are the youngest client race of an impoverished, despised clan, in danger of being conquered or rendered extinct at any moment. Yet now we're being offered a position at the top of a new pantheon, just below the Buyur themselves.
"What's more, we'd be good at this! Think about how dolphin senses might extend the range of possible magics. Our sound-based dreams and imagery. Our curiosity and reckless sense of adventure! And that just begins to hint at the possibilities when we finally come into our own...."
Tkett concentrated on sifting the background. The varied pulses, whines and clicks that melted into the ambiance whenever any neo-dolphin spoke. At first it seemed Peepoe was emitting just the usual mix of nervous sonar and blowhole flutters.
Then he picked out a single, floating phrase... in ancient Primal... that interleaved itself amid the earnest logic of sapient speech.
# sleep on it sleep on it sleep on it sleep on it #
At first the hidden message confused him. It seemed to support the rest of her argument. So then why make it secret?
Then another meaning occurred to him.
Something that even the puissant Buyur might not have thought of.
Her departure from the habitat was more gay and colorful than her arrival.
Dragons flew by overhead, belching gusts of heat that were much friendlier than before. Crowds of boats, ranging from canoes to bejeweled galleys pulled by sweating oarsmen, accompanied Peepoe from one pool to the next. Ashore, local wizards performed magnificent spectacles in her honor, to the awed wonder of gazing onlookers, while Peepoe swam gently past amid formations of fish whose scales glittered unnaturally bright.
With six races mixing in a wild variety of cultural styles, each village seemed to celebrate its own uniqueness in a profusion of architectural styles. The general attitude seemed both proud and fiercely competitive. But today all feuds, quests and noble campaigns had been put aside in order to see her off.
"See how eagerly we anticipate the success of your mission," the gray magician commented as they reached the final chamber. In a starship, this space would be set aside for an airlock, chilly and metallic. But here, the breath of a living organism sighed all around them as the great maw opened, letting both wind and sunshine come suddenly pouring through.
Nice of them to surface like this, sparing me the discomfort of a long climb out of the abyss.
"Tell the other dolphins what joy awaits them!" The little mage shouted after Peepoe as she drifted past the open jaws, into the light.
"Tell them about the vividness and adventure! Soon days of experimentation will be over, and all of this will be full-sized, with a universe lying before us!"
She pumped her flukes in order to rear up, looking back at the small gray figure in a star-spangled gown, who smiled as his arms spread wide, causing swarms of obedient bright creatures to hover above his head, converging to form a living halo.
"I will tell them," she assured.
Then Peepoe whirled and plunged into the cool sea, setting off toward a morning rendezvous.
He came fully conscious again, only to discover with mild surprise that he was already swimming fast, leaping and diving through the ocean's choppy swells, propelled by powerful, rhythmic fluke-strokes.
Under other circumstances, it might have been disorienting to wake up in full motion. Except that a pair of dolphins flanked Tkett, one on each side, keeping perfect synchrony with his every arch and leap and thrust. That made it instinctively easy to literally swim in his sleep.
How long has this been going on?
He wasn't entirely sure. It felt like perhaps an hour or two. Perhaps longer.
Behind him, Tkett heard the low thrum of a sea sled's engine, cruising on low power as it followed the three of them on autopilot.
Why aren't we using the sled? He wondered. Three could fit, in a pinch. And that way they could get back to Makanee quicker, to report that...
Stale air exchanged quickly for fresh as he breached, performing each move with flawless precision, even as his mind roiled with unpleasant confusion.
... to report that Mopol and Zhaki are dead.
We found Peepoe, safe and well, wandering the open ocean.
As for the "machine" noises we were sent to investigate...
Tkett felt strangely certain there was a story behind all that. A story that Peepoe would explain later, when she felt the time was right.
Something wonderful, he recited, without quite knowing why. A flux of eagerness seemed to surge out of nowhere, priming Tkett to be receptive when she finally told everyone in the pod about the good news.
He could not tell why, but Tkett felt certain that more than just the sled was following behind them.
"Welcome back to the living," Peepoe greeted in crisp Underwater Anglic, after their next breaching.
"Thanks I... seem to be a bit muddled right now."
"Well, that's not too surprising. You've been half asleep for a long time. In fact, one might say you half slept through something really important."
Something about her words flared like a glowing spark within him -- a triggered release that jarred Tkett's smooth pace through the water. He re-entered the water at a wrong angle, smacking his snout painfully. It took a brief struggle to get back in place between the two females, sharing the group's laminar rhythm.
I... slept. I slept on it.
Or rather, half of him had done so.
It slowly dawned on him why that was significant.
There aren't many water-dwellers in the Civilization of Five Galaxies, he mused, reaching for threads that had lain covered under blankets of repose. I guess the Buyur never figured...
A shiver of brief pain lanced from right to left inside his skull, as if a part of him that had been numb just came to life.
Memories flowed back unevenly, at their own pace.
They never figured on a race of swimmers discovering their experiments, hidden for so long under Jijo's ocean waves. They had no time to study us. To prepare before the encounter.
And they especially never took into account the way a cetacean's brain works.
An air-breathing creature who lives in the sea has special problems. Even after millions of years evolving for a wet realm, dolphins still faced a never-ending danger of drowning. Hence, sleep was no simple matter.
One way they solved the problem was to sleep one brain hemisphere at a time.
Like human beings, dolphins had complex internal lives, made up of many temporary or persistent subselves that must somehow reconcile under an overall persona. But this union was made even more problematic when human genetic meddlers helped turn fallow dolphins into a new sapient race. All sorts of quirks and problems lay rooted in the hemispheric divide. Sometimes information stored in one side was frustratingly hard to get at from the other.
And sometimes that proved advantageous.
The side that knew about the Buyur -- the one that had slept while amnesia was imposed on the rest -- had much less language ability than the other half of Tkett's brain. Because of this, only a few concepts could be expressed in words at first. Instead, Tkett had to replay visual and sonic images, reinterpreting and extrapolating them, holding a complex conversation of enquiry between two sides of his whole self.
It gave him a deeper appreciation for the problems -- and potential -- of people like Chissis.
I've been an unsympathetic bastard, he realized.
Some of this thought emerged in his sonar echoes as an unspoken apology. Chissis brushed against him the next time their bodies flew through the air, and her touch carried easy forgiveness.
"So," Peepoe commented when he had taken some more time to settle his thoughts. "Is it agreed what we'll tell Makanee?"
Tkett summed up his determination.
"We'll tell everything... and then some!"
# Tell them tell them
# Promise fancy treats
# But take away freedom! #
Tkett chortled. There was a lot of Trinary elegance in the little female's Primal burst -- a transition from animal-like emotive squawks toward the kind of expressiveness she used to be so good at, back when she was an eager researcher and poet, before three years of hell aboard Streaker hammered her down. Now a corner seemed to be turned. Perhaps it was only a matter of time till this crewmate returned to full sapiency... and all the troubles that would accompany that joy.
"Well," Peepoe demurred. "By one way of looking at things, the Buyur seem to be offering us more freedom. Our descendants would experience a wider range of personal choices. More power to achieve their wishes. More dreams would come true."
"As fantasies and escapism," Tkett dismissed. "The Buyur would turn everybody into egotists... solipsists! In the real world, you have to grow up eventually, and learn to negotiate with others. Be part of a culture. Form teams and partnerships. Ifni, what does it take to have a good marriage? Lots of hard work and compromises, leading to something better and more complicated than either person could've imagined!"
Peepoe let out a short whistle of surprise.
"Why, Tkett! In your own prudish, tight-vented way, I do believe you're a romantic."
Chissis shared Peepoe's gentle, teasing laughter, so that it penetrated him in stereo, from both sides. A human might have blushed. But dolphins can barely conceal their emotions from each other, and seldom try.
"Seriously," he went on. "I'll fight the Buyur because they would keep us in a playpen for eons to come, denying us the right to mature and learn for ourselves how the universe ticks. Magic may be more romantic than science. But science is honest... and it works.
"What about you, Peepoe? What's your reason?"
The was a long pause. Then she answered with astonishing vehemence.
"I can't stand all that kings and wizards dreck! Should somebody rule because his father was a pompous royal? Should all the birds and beasts and fish obey you just because you know some secret words that you won't share with others? Or on account of the fact that you've got a loud voice and your egotistic will is bigger than others?
"I seem to recall we fought free of such idiotic notions ages ago, on Earth... or at least humans did. They never would've helped us dolphins get to the stars if they hadn't broken out of those sick thought patterns first.
"You want to know why I'll fight them, Tkett? Because Mopol and Zhaki will be right at home down there -- one of them dreaming he's Superman, and the other one getting to be King of the Sea."
The three dolphins swam on, keeping pace in silence while Tkett pondered what their decision meant. In all likelihood, resistance was going to be futile. After all, the Buyur were overwhelmingly powerful and had been preparing for half a million years. Also, the incentive they were offering would make all prior temptations pale in comparison. Among the Six Races ashore -- and the small colony of dolphins -- many would leap to accept, and help make the new world of magical wonder compulsory.
We've never had an enemy like this before, he realized. One that takes advantage of our greatest weakness, by offering to make all our dreams come true.
Of course there was one possibility they hadn't discussed. That they were only seeing the surface layers of a much more complicated scheme... perhaps some long and desperately unfunny practical joke.
It doesn't matter, Tkett thought. We have to fight this anyway, or we'll never grow strong and wise enough to get the joke. And we'll certainly never be able to pay the Buyur back, in kind. Not if they control all the hidden levers in Oz.
For a while their journey fell into a grim mood of hopelessness. No one spoke, but sonar clicks from all three of them combined and diffused ahead. Returning echoes seemed to convey the sea's verdict on their predicament.
No chance. But good luck anyway.
Finally, little Chissis broke their brooding silence, after arduously spending the last hour composing her own Trinary philosophy glyph.
In one way, it was an announcement -- that she felt ready to return to the struggles of sapiency.
At the same time, the glyph also expressed her manifesto. For it turned out that she had a different reason for choosing to fight the Buyur. One that Tkett and Peepoe had not expressed, though it resonated deep within.
* Both the hazy mists of dreaming,
* And the stark-clear shine of daylight,
* Offer treasures to the seeker,
* And a trove of valued insights.
* One gives open, honest knowledge,
* And the skill to achieve wonders.
* But the other (just as needed!)
* Fills the soul and sets hearts astir.
* What need then for ersatz magic?
* Or for contrived disney marvels?
* God and Ifni made a cosmos,
* Filled with wonders... let's go live it! *
Peepoe sighed appreciatively.
"I couldn't have said it better. Screw the big old frogs! We'll make magic of our own."
They were tired and the sun was dropping well behind them by the time they caught sight of shore and heard other dolphins chattering in the distance. Still, all three of them picked up the pace, pushing ahead through Jijo's silky waters.
Despite all the evidence of logic and their senses, the day still felt like morning.