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The Eleventh Gate: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Saturday, April 18, 2020 21:56 EDT

 


 

POLYGLOT

        Near the sparsely-settled northern pole of Polyglot, Philip Anderson walked across the savannah away from the jeebee nest, stripping off his protective gear.  He glimpsed Tara Landry coming toward him and immediately turned around, jamming the helmet back onto his head.  But putting on all the gear took too long and she was between him and the temple, so he resigned himself.

        “Hello, Tara.  What brings you to Polyglot?”

        “You.”

        Direct as always.  In Tara, it was not a virtue.  They had met four years ago when Philip had given a lecture at Zuhause University on Polyglot, and she had not left him alone since.  Her eyes ran over him hungrily, and Philip had to keep himself from flinching.  Tara had tired of college and now spent most of her time on the Landry worlds or off in space doing gods-knew-what, but at least five times each year she ran him to ground.  She was rich, genemod beautiful, brilliant, and — in Philip’s opinion — crazy.  Or at least severely unbalanced.

        He said, “This isn’t a good time for a visit.”

        “It’s never a good time, according to you.  Are you still doing this ridiculous thing with the jeebees?”

        He had never liked that name for the flying creatures, more like dragon flies than bees, that pollinated many of Polyglot’s plants.  The first settlers had used Terran names to “keep our home world alive forever.”  It had not worked, of course; after a hundred fifty years, Philip was one of the few who regularly accessed the historical data bases.  Civilization on the Eight Worlds was still too raw, and in some cases too uncivilized, for much scholarly research.  But now everyone was stuck with names like “New California,” “Galt,” “bees.”   Even “month” was still used to designate four weeks of seven days each and “year” to mean fifty-two weeks, even though the Eight Worlds had different rotation and revolution periods and varying numbers of moons.

        He said, “This project is not ridiculous.  The villagers –” he waved in the direction of the settlement of Adarsh and its mostly Punjabi descendants — “are making money by selling the jeebees’ nectar, and the jeebees are keeping away the lions.”  Another ridiculous name — the predators native to Polyglot looked nothing like lions.  Smaller, smellier, and far more dangerous to humans, they hunted in deadly packs and had killed children herding the genemod Terran goats that this relatively poor area depended on.

        Tara said nothing, just stared at him with that sexual intensity that made Philip so uncomfortable — but was that because his body responded to it?  So far, he had resisted her, although she invaded his dreams.  Those green eyes, husky voice, body⦠ Not for the first time, he cursed her beauty, and his own that had attracted her.  He couldn’t help the way he looked.  Also, while he was at it, he cursed the Libertarian Landrys that did not control where their offspring went or what they did there.  If Tara had been a Peregoy, he never would have met her.

        She still watched him without speaking.  The sun beat down; Polyglot had only a 1% axial tilt and most places were grassland or, near water, forest.  Sweat formed at the back of Philip’s neck.  To relieve the tension, he raised his wrister and brought up a holo image.  “This set-up — using pollinators to keep away predators and also produce income — was tried on Earth, only there the bees were real, the protectees were big animals called elephants, and the predators were us.  See — this is an elephant.” 

        Tara didn’t move her gaze from Philip’s face.  “Did it work?”

        “No.  Poachers still wiped out elephants before the Catastrophe did.  But this might work here.”

        “It won’t.  Human nature doesn’t change.  The best you can hope for is a temporary, carefully constructed truce that will fall apart eventually.  The predators always win.  Phil –“

        “No, Tara,” he said, somewhere between gently and irritated.  “I’ve told you over and over again.  No.”

        “But I love you.”

        “I don’t love you.  I’m sorry, but I don’t.”

        “Do you love somebody else?”

        This was what he dreaded.  She was unbalanced, she commanded huge resources, she had the ruthlessness of Polyglot “lions” taking down unprotected prey.  If Philip did fall in love with someone else, what might Tara Landry do to her, or to him?  He considered Tara dangerous.

        “No,” he said.  ‘Tara, leave me alone!”

        “I can’t,” she said.  “I won’t.  I know you want me — do you think I can’t tell?”

        Philip stepped back; when past conversations had gone like this, Tara had not hesitated to stroke his crotch, which had instantly responded.  This time, however, she merely said, “Would it make a difference to you if I did something so wonderful that it saved millions more lives than your jeebee plan ever could?”

        “What are you talking about?”

        “I can’t tell you now.  Not yet.  Phil, you don’t know me.  I’m as idealistic as you are.  I am.  We want the same good things for the Eight Worlds.  With my money — and don’t try to tell me your parents left you enough money because I know exactly what you inherited — you could do such great things for everybody!  I would help you, not to do these fucking little experiments but real, large improvements and creations!  I would –“

        “No.  Tara, I’m sorry, but no.  Not now, not ever.  I’m sorry.”

        He braced for the explosion, but it didn’t come.  She smiled sadly and said, “All right.  I can wait.”

        “Don’t.”  He turned away and strode around her toward the temple, the one place she would never follow.  He expected a tantrum, but she said nothing.

        The temple was empty, its coolness welcome.   Philip’s parents had lavished augments on their only child, spending most of their money on his genemods.  In the temple’s dimness, his infrared vision spotted the lion behind the altar.  It had slunk in to grab bread left as an offering.  Philip froze.

        The lion crept around the stone altar, and he and it stared at each other. 

        Philip’s muscle augments made him fast, but not as fast as a Polyglot lion.  But these animals hunted in packs, not alone.  This one might be an outcast.  Gray and very thin, it had been reduced to eating bread.  Possibly it was being hunted by its own kind, as the old often were.  Slowly Philip moved away from the door and, just as slowly, reached for the gun at his waist.

        He didn’t need it.  As soon as the doorway was clear, the lion streaked through it, carrying away the bread.  Philip darted back outside to watch it disappear into tall grass.

        Tara was still there.

        She wouldn’t come into the temple.  Both she and the lion had agitated Philip; never had he felt less like meditating.  But that’s what meditation was for: to calm agitation.  Although ever since that day five years ago, he had aimed at so much more.

        He knelt on a faded cushion.  The temple, its walls ornamented with unskillful drawings of various gods, had been built by late-arriving settlers who’d spent all their money getting to Polyglot, which was why they now occupied such a left-over, poor island.  The temple was made of foamcast, cheap and durable.  The treasured golden Shiva brought from Earth had been stolen almost immediately, and a local artisan had carved one of wood brought from a distant forest.  This had sat on the stone altar for a hundred years, flanked by dim, bacteria-generated electric lights instead of candles.  Like the lights, Hinduism on Polyglot had evolved in ways that no pujari would recognize, although followers still left offerings of bread, berries, and flowers.  The heavy, pungent odor of yellow thlek blooms filled the temple.

        Philip was not Hindu.  He went to whatever place of worship existed wherever his work for the perpetually underfunded Polyglot International Environmental Service took him.  As long as the place of worship was quiet, he could indulge his own peculiar religious practice, which had also evolved in the last five years.

        Most people on the Eight Worlds were Rationalist, that dry substitute for the human impulse toward the sublime.  Religion, Philip had realized long ago, provided two things: comfort through the unseen and a sense of community.  Denial of all “superstition” negated both.  The Rationalists had sought to remedy that problem by founding a movement with “services” consisting mostly of scientific information, along with the social events, charity endeavors, and solidarity once provided by churches, temples, mosques, covens, synagogues.  The Rationalists were a great success, flourishing even on Polyglot, where older forms of worship also existed.

        Philip had never liked Rationalist services.  He appreciated science, of course; his training was in biology.  But Rationalism lacked passion.  In addition, he could never shake the idea, unproven but powerful in his mind, that there were other valid ways of perceiving and experiencing the universe.  So he had tried Buddhism, Hinduism, Druidism, charismatic Catholicism — anything he could find.  None of it satisfied him, although he did learn to meditate deeply.

        Then, five years ago, it had happened, and not while he was meditating.

        There were no words for “it,” and Philip had stopped trying to find them after his stumbling explanations evoked only pity, or dismissal, or scorn.  He couldn’t even find words to clarify it to himself. 

        He knew all the biological explanations: meditation redirected blood flow in the brain away from areas that perceived bodily boundaries, resulting in “out-of-body sensations.”  Neuron-firing disturbances in the limbic produced religious hallucinations.  He knew the psychological explanations: wish-fulfillment, sensory delusions, anxiety alleviation.  He knew the philosophy: logic was one way of perceiving the world, but is it arrogant to assume it is the only way?

        He knew what had happened to him.

        No, he didn’t know that — he knew only that something had happened, something as real and grounded as the cushion under him now.  He had been in New Chengdu on assignment for the Environmental Service, walking by the Ocean of Aromatic Waters, named by the first inhabitants of the island.  The waters might have been aromatic once, but this morning they smelled of dead fish washed up by a storm.  Philip, barefoot, had just finished meditating and was thinking vaguely about lunch.  All at once ocean, fish, and his own body disappeared.  He was somewhere else, somewhere without form and possibly without substance, and in the presence of something calm, majestic, and so multiple that he could discern nothing individual, only a great whole of which he was now a part, as vast number of colors make up white light.  He was somewhere definite in the universe, but he didn’t know where.  Time did not exist, yet when Philip returned to his body, dusk had fallen and Polyglot’s two moons cast silvery paths on a calm, dark sea.

        He’d sunk down to the sand and tried to go back to wherever he’d just been.  He couldn’t.  Ever since that day, he’d been trying to go back, so that he could understand what he’d touched.  He’d never succeeded, and the master meditators he’d talked to had all tried to correct him: If he’d attained satori, there wouldn’t have been other presences, nor a sense of physical place.

        The masters were wrong.  What Philip had experienced was just as real as this shabby Hindu temple, as the ache developing in his neck, as the planet turning under him.  He would reach it again, maybe today.

        And if he couldn’t, he could at least stay here until Tara gave up and went home.


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