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Raising Caine: Chapter Twenty Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 9, 2015 21:31 EDT



In orbit; GJ 1248 One (“Adumbratus”)

    As Caine entered Gaspard’s otherwise empty quarters, he ignored the chair toward which the Frenchman waved an inviting hand. “Ambassador, we just heard that Yiithrii’ah’aash is on his way.”

    Gaspard nodded. “I have been alerted, as well.”

    “Then we need to settle something before we get down to what will probably be the swiftest, and most insufficient, strategic briefing in the annals of diplomacy. I need to know that, as we go forward, you can either ensure Ms. Veriden’s compliance with the protocols you yourself have approved, or that you put her under my direct command for the duration of this mission. I can’t do my job, otherwise.”

    Riordan had expected an argument, possibly a brief tantrum. Instead, Gaspard simply nodded. “You have my apologies, Captain Riordan, and my thanks for salvaging today’s unfortunate situation on the planet. You and the entire legation were placed at risk. As was its chance of success. I have spoken with Ms. Veriden and she will follow the protocols I set for her, or she will spend the remainder of this mission confined to her quarters.”

    Caine managed not to reveal his surprise at Gaspard’s frank and eminently sane response. “Thank you, Ambassador.” He took the indicated seat. “Actually, what concerns me most is that she didn’t inform us of her intent to avoid the Slaasriithi markers, and then did not alert us to that fact immediately afterward.”

    Gaspard held helpless hands aloft. “I am often at a loss to explain her behavior. She is an intrinsically suspicious and cautious person, and so, she does not say much. Which I usually find quite agreeable in a guard.”

    “But not so much, today?” Hwang added with a rueful smile.

    Gaspard returned the expression. “It is as you say, Doctor. Today, I could have wished for her to be more communicative, more informative. Which is a natural segue to the business before us: in the matter of the experts’ xenosociological projections about the Slaasriithi, did they advance any theories about –?” The privacy chime sounded. Gaspard sighed. “Reality has preempted theorizing, it seems.” He rose. “Please enter.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash entered the room. He did so slowly, almost cautiously.

    He stopped when Ben Hwang rose. “I mean no offense, Dr. Hwang, but you do not have sufficient clearance to remain for this particular meeting. My sincere regrets.”

    Gaspard’s chin came up slightly. “Captain Riordan does not have my diplomatic rating, either, yet you are evidently prepared to allow him to stay.”

    “Ambassador, Captain Riordan may remain because his standing with us is commensurate with the clearance assigned to you by your government.”

    “In what way?”

    “Allow me to ask you a question, Ambassador Gaspard. From what authority does your position as ambassador-plenipotentiary derive?”

    “The political will of the Consolidated Terran Republic. Through that authority, I am empowered to make decisions for my species.”

    “Yes. And Captain Riordan has an oft-demonstrated gift for understanding other species. This makes him a necessary part of our communication and so my race extends him recognition and standing equal to your own. We are pleased to have him remain, just as we were pleased to request him for our first contact in the Sigma Draconis system.”

    Ben nodded and started toward the door. “If you’ll excuse me.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash made one deep, slow neck-bob and held it until Hwang had left. “I would very much regret if the doctor was affronted by my insistence upon protocols.”

    “I doubt he was,” Gaspard commented diffidently, gesturing for the ambassador to sit. Which he did, although that posture more resembled a well-supported squat.

    Yiithrii’ah’aash swiveled his head to focus directly upon Gaspard. “Ambassador, I must regrettably begin our meeting by insisting that you take whatever steps are necessary to exert greater control over your personnel.”

    Caine interrupted. “I take full responsibility for Ms. Veriden’s actions –”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash raised an objecting pair of finger-tendrils. “It has already been established that Ms. Veriden is not your responsibility. The matter lies with Ambassador Gaspard. It is his personal security assistant who has, within the space of one day, twice violated our requirements.”

    Gaspard nodded noncommittally. “Yes, although I suspect the second incident might not have occurred had I been given time to confer with her regarding the full significance of her first violation. But our immediate departure after Captain Riordan recovered from the anti-intruder gas precluded that discussion. Similarly, with more time and warning, we could have better coordinated our visit to Adambratus, or least selected the right persons for inclusion.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s tendrils drooped. “While your analysis is no doubt accurate, it ignores our initial stipulation: that every member of your legation must visit these introductory planets. This prepares you to move about freely upon our homeworld, to help you understand and distinguish between the various taxae of my species and how best to interact with them.”

    Riordan folded his arms. “While we’re on the topic of interacting with the locals, I noticed that the rover which pursued Ms. Veriden had a marked aversion to me. What did you do to ensure that my biomarkers were so much more effective than the others’?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash waved languorous tendrils. “Your preparation was no different from the others.”

    Caine heard the evasive tone. “But that’s not the same thing as saying you don’t know why the rover had a stronger reaction to me.” He waited.

    After several seconds, Yiithrii’ah’aash buzz-purred. “No, it is not the same statement. But I only possess conjectures on this matter, not knowledge. And there is no way to conclusively test my hypotheses.”

    Gaspard leaned his fine-boned chin into his long-fingered hand. “Even so, I am most interested in your speculations.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash tilted his sensor-cluster in Caine’s direction. “This is not Captain Riordan’s first contact with our biota.”

    Caine was stunned that he had not thought of this before. “Of course. The natives on Delta Pavonis Three. They probably still mark fauna, and visitors, with pheromones.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash raised attention-commanding digits from either pseudo-hand. “Since the primitives there have not entirely reverted, and since interspeciate pheromone-marking predates our tool-use, I suspect that you were multiply and powerfully marked on Delta Pavonis Three. But after at least twenty millennia of genetic recidivism and drift, that planet’s primitives may have marked you with pheromones that we no longer recognize.”

    “But how would any pheromones remain active so long?” Gaspard wondered, frowning. “The captain visited Delta Pavonis Three over two years ago. Since then, he has twice been purged in preparation for extended periods of cryogenic suspension. How could a marking persist through all that?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s fingers writhed in apparent uncertainty. “I cannot say. However, markings have different depths. Most are superficial and can be removed by several meticulous bathings. However, some are not merely external but internal. They introduce microorganisms that produce the needed pheromones for excretion through fluids, perspiration, even wastes. Such markings could persist for years. Perhaps decades. Perhaps longer.”

    Caine nodded, forced himself to sit calmly as his mind shouted: And our best decontamination procedures and most advanced biological screening didn’t detect anything? So how the hell do we know what they might choose to put in us now, and which we might be carrying back to the fleet? And then Earth? How do we know these microbes only mark us? And how can we be sure they won’t replicate and spread? Yes, the Slaasriithi have been amicable and helped us against the Arat Kur, but how do we really know they can be trusted? Because they told us so themselves? At the end of Yiithrii’ah’aash’s explanation, Riordan nodded one last time. “That’s very interesting. Thank you for explaining.”



    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s neck seemed to collapse, even retract slightly into his torso. “It is we who must thank you for your patience. We not only regret the haste with which this mission was conceived and launched, but we deeply appreciate your willingness to adapt to our means of communication.”

    Riordan shook his head. “I do not understand. Your English is flawless, Ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash.”

    “I do not refer to language. I refer to our insistence that you ‘see’ us rather than ‘read about’ us.”

    Gaspard’s smile was gracious, if brittle. “It has been challenging, yes.”

    “More than challenging, Ambassador Gaspard. It has been the source of Ms. Veriden’s infractions and the cause of Mr. Buckley’s death. And I am sure it has thwarted your efforts to plan for our negotiations, since your species invariably strategizes how to gain objects you strongly value in exchange for objects you value less.”

    Hearing it broken down that way, the legation’s sober diplomatic intents suddenly sounded like well-heeled con artistry.

    Gaspard cleared his throat. “These are concerns to us, yes. Are they not also to you?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s tendrils seemed to spin for a moment: intense frustration? “Not as you mean it. We too hope to create bonds through exchange. We too hope that these exchanges are materially beneficial to us. And, like you, we will not disclose all our future plans or certain details of our deep history. But our concepts of ‘negotiation’ and ‘gain’ are qualitatively different, and the number of secrets we keep is very, very small.”

    Caine experienced both a surge of shame and a stab of wariness. If Yiithrii’ah’aash’s depiction of Slaasriithi negotiations and exchange was even partially accurate, it made humanity look like a bunch of grifters and frauds, by comparison. On the other hand, although the Slaasriithi kept few secrets, they did, by Yiithrii’ah’aash’s admission, keep some secrets. Which suggested, by inverse deduction, that those secrets would be very important. Perhaps important, and problematic, enough to necessitate reappraising an alliance with the Slaasriithi.

    “We find similar distinctions between ourselves and almost every other species,” Yiithrii’ah’aash hastened to add. “Less so with the Dornaani, but even they record material exchanges the way you do, as well as the passage of events.”

    Gaspard frowned. “So your recording of history is fundamentally different from ours?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash bobbed. “What you call ‘history’ is not a useful concept to us. We notice with interest the linguistic fluke latent in the term you use for narratives of your past: ‘his-story.’ At every level, the focus of your chronicles is upon egocentric personalities: who did what, which group of combatants won and gained specific resources, and how contending philosophies of different peoples sparked both intercultural debates and religious wars.” His neck contracted sharply. “We lack internecine analogs for these events; they only arise when we deal with other races.”

    Gaspard raised his hands in appeal. “But in order to deal with the other races of the Accord, you must have kept records of your negotiations, what transpired when you sent or received diplomatic and trade delegations.”

    “We welcome such contact, Ambassador Gaspard, but we have experienced much less of it than you might suppose. Only the Dornaani ever displayed much interest in our society. And if you are using ‘trade’ as a synonym for commerce, you must understand that this is not our way.”

    Gaspard was silent for a long moment before responding. “I would like to understand what you mean. But I do not.”

    “To us, ‘trade’ means exactly that: an exchange. Among ourselves, we do not buy and sell but rather — what is your word for it? — ah yes; we ‘swap’ things. We do not ‘manufacture’ for ‘markets,’ or maintain competing accounts of personal assets, or track what you call ‘balance of trade.’ There are many reasons for this. Arguably, the most prominent is the absence of your universal tradition of attaching the possession of material goods to narrow genetic lineages.”

    Caine felt, rather than saw, the consequences. “So, you have no social unit akin to our nuclear family?”

    “Correct. Biologically, our reproductive process is considerably different from yours, as is the manner in which we raise our young. It follows, then, that our species’ individual affiliations and social patterns are equally distinct. For example, because of the innate differences between our taxae, there are no ‘class struggles.’ Our individuals are born to their tasks, and evolved to find them more gratifying than any others.”

    Good grief; their evolution has made them the ultimate communists. “I can see that there might be no basis for commerce among your own people, but is there no way for our respective societies to accommodate each other in the matter of material exchanges? If only to facilitate cultural and political connections?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash emitted a slow clicking noise from his tightly-furred thorax. “I am certain we may find ways to do so, but I suspect we will seek very different ends from those exchanges. It is in the nature of your species to use commerce as a means of consolidating power. It is in our nature to see exchange as an opportunity to create further harmonies and interdependencies among all biota, in the interest of establishing a peaceful and stable macroecology.”

    Gaspard seemed to be grasping for words. “And what sort of — of trade item would be of interest to you, in that context?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s answer rode over the top of his eager buzz. “We have read much about your honey bees, particularly the variety you label the ‘bumble-bee.’ We do not know if we would find their sugar-intensive byproduct palatable, but there are other species that surely would. Logically, it would be a powerful ‘reward object’ with which to accelerate behavioral modification in those species. Another byproduct — the pure wax they generate in constructing their shelters — would be useful in various material processes. Lastly, the bee’s selfless communal defense instincts interest those of us who are tasked with refining the security response templates for our various autonomous drones and missiles.”

    Caine’s train of thought staggered to a halt, spun about, began inexpertly down a path he had never considered before. “Are you saying that your computers are partly biological?”

    “Yes, although some would be more accurately described as partly mechanical. Those systems, which we call OverWatchlings are rare but also more crucial to us.”

    Riordan was careful not to look at Gaspard. Who, he sensed, was pointedly not looking at him. No matter how friendly the Slaasriithi seemed, it would be imprudent to give any outward sign of how pivotal Yiithrii’ah’aash’s last revelation was, and how decisively it might figure in any future negotiations or possible alliance. Caine shifted the topic slightly. “How extensive are your defense needs?”

    “Until now, fairly minimal, but we project that the recent hostilities are merely precursors of more to follow. The war resolved very little. The Arat Kur have been temporarily neutralized. The Hkh’Rkh have been contained, but will not remain so for long. The Ktor are stalemated. The Dornaani were not sufficiently alarmed to pay closer heed to the warnings of the Custodians. Your own species has already begun to capitalize upon the technological insights derived from your attackers’ equipment, and is entering its characteristic post-crisis phase: spatial expansion combined with political consolidation. This post-war environment is inherently unstable; there will be further conflicts. We must prepare.”



    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s summary was breathtaking in its ruthless and egoless accuracy. “So how large a defense increase will you require? How extensively have you settled this region of space?”

    The Slaasriithi’s tendrils waved languidly. “Where life has arisen, there we have remained. And we have had a long time, even by our standards, to nurture biota on even the most inhospitable worlds.”

    So, pretty extensive settlement. “I take it, then, that you are well-furnished with shift-carriers, to serve so many systems.”

    “Not so well-furnished as you might expect, Caine Riordan. The great majority of our expansion has been effected by slower-than-light ships, many of which are directed by semiautonomous machine biots.”

    Gaspard’s question was slow, calm, careful. “You have living, self-directed ships?”

    “That characterization would imply a greater degree of awareness than is possessed by these craft. Each ship’s semiautonomous system resembles a highly advanced hive-mind. Its task is simply to deliver its payload from one known place to another known place.”

    “I understand,” Gaspard replied in a tone that suggested he might not. “But why do you not prefer to use a crew of intelligent beings? We have seen at least one subtaxon which you specially evol — er, induced, to meet the challenges of working in space. Why not create an even more narrowly specialized subtaxon to live upon your STL ships?”

    “Because we eschew generating more subtaxae than is absolutely necessary. The capability to induce a new subspecies or subtaxae does not mean that one should do so whenever it would be most convenient. So, instead of complicating our polytaxic society with yet another subtaxon, we attain our objectives by relying upon the universe’s most underappreciated and yet greatest force.”

    Gaspard leaned forward. “And what force might that be?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash purred faintly. “Time, Ambassador. As your own aphorism has it, time changes all things. It wears down mountains, moves continents, even exhausts stars. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we do not record history similarly to other species: our relationship to time itself is different. Your species and the others manipulate time to your own ends, your own pleasure, and even to assure that you will, for at least a while, transcend its limits.”

    “You mean, that we perform deeds or create objects that will be associated with us, even after we are dead.”

    “Precisely. We do not have these motivations. Indeed, understanding what they truly mean to you remains our greatest interspeciate challenge, since we lack any serviceable analog. We imagine them as a hypertrophied amplification of our self-preservation instinct. But even our self-preservation instinct, while strong, is not so overpowering as your own.”

    “Do you mean that you don’t fear death?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash purred again. “That question is the one we hoped you humans would ask. It is worth all the mishaps this mission has stumbled through thus far, if it has prompted you to ask it so soon.”

    Gaspard’s eyes were wide. “So you do not fear death?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s purr diminished. “I did not say that. But our attitude towards it is so different from yours that you cannot understand us without understanding that difference. We are not defined — even in our diplomatic exchanges — by the number of ships, or planets, or weapons that are at our disposal. We are defined by our macroecological impulse. And no force shapes that impulse more than patience and its corollary: an egoless conceptualization of time. Which, in turn, also shapes our perception of death.”

    Caine smiled. “I suspect this is only the first of many conversations we shall have on this topic.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s purr grew along with Caine’s smile. “Understanding another race is not something that happens swiftly. But for your species to identify, and to question, this signal difference between us is the beginning of the process of knowing.”

    Gaspard rested his chin in his palm. “So this is why your primer mentions no historical figures, cites no earlier Slaasriithi by name.”


    Caine frowned. “But if you have no history of conflict, and your leaders must now deal with it, what models do they have for emulation?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s head turned slowly back in Caine’s direction. “This is a matter of deep concern to us. As you have no doubt discerned, we are happy to appease, just as we are willing to be appeased, when disagreements arise. To do so, to compromise, is our preferred method of interaction where harmony has not yet been established. However, we lack a taxon which is inherently capable of conflict, what you might call a warrior caste. If members of such a taxon had existed any time in the last ten millennia, they would have encountered no challenges, no need for their skills. Indeed, they would have been counterproductive to our harmony. According to apocryphal tales of the last such taxon, they devolved into hermits, whose once valuable decisiveness ultimately became disruptive impulsivity.”

    Caine tried to tame his leaping speculations to follow only the most pertinent track. “You had other taxae, at one time?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s head bobbed. “We have had many for which our need diminished, and ultimately disappeared. But in some cases, that disappearance need not be permanent.”

    “You mean you can reverse the process?”

    “It is not a simple matter, genetically or socially, to reintroduce a taxon. Sometimes it is impossible if it was lost too long ago or too completely. Our polytaxic structure has many strengths but its complexities can make it especially vulnerable to disasters. If either our social or reproductory matrices are shattered, we are likely to revert, to become a different and devolved species.”

    “Like on Delta Pavonis Three,” Caine murmured.

    “Just so. As I once said, the natives of that planet are of us, but are not us, not today’s Slaasriithi. They are a genetic throwback to when we had fewer taxae. Consequently, you have already seen a Slaasriithi community that has been shattered. Today you saw one in its infancy, facing an uncertain future: we cannot know if the changes we mean to induce on Adumbratus will become strong enough to create an equilibrium between our biota and the indigenous life. Finally, in a little more than a week, we will show you a Slaasriithi community on the cusp of becoming one of our primary colonies.” Yiithrii’ah’aash stood. “Speaking of which, refueling will soon be complete, and we will begin preacceleration for our next shift. The members of your legation will be permitted to have free access to your ships and your cargo until then. Prepare for a longer sojourn: we shall examine the next planet more closely, as there is much more to see.”

    Gaspard smiled. “And fewer untamed dangers to encounter?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s voice was grave. “We find that an environment’s dangers do not reside in any of its creatures.”

    “No? Then where does the danger reside?”

    “In the mind of any visitor who makes the mistake of believing that any environment is ever without danger. Good day, Ambassador, and you as well, Caine Riordan. Please prepare your people for departure.”

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