We do not perceive reality, we conceive it. To suppose otherwise is to invite catastrophic surprises. The tragic nature of history stems in large part from this endlessly recurrent mistake.—Oskar Haeml, Betrachtungen über die menschliche Verlegenheit
Both suns were now down. The western mountains had become a wave of blackness, unstirring, as though the cold of Beyond had touched and frozen it even as it crested, a first sea barrier on the flightway to the Promise; but heaven stood purple above, bearing the earliest stars and two small moons, ocher edged with silvery crescents, like the Promise itself. Eastward, the sky remained blue. There, just over the ocean, Ruii was almost fully lighted, Its bands turned luminous across Its crimson glow. Beneath the glade that It cast, the waters shivered, wind made visible.
A’i’ach felt the wind too, cool and murmurous. Each finest hair on his body responded. He needed but little thrust to hold his course, enough effort to give him a sense of his own strength and of being at one, in travel and destination, with his Swarm. Their globes surrounded him, palely iridescent, well-nigh hiding from him the ground over which they passed; he was among the highest up. Their life-scents overwhelmed all else which the air bore, sweet, heady, and they were singing together, hundreds of voices in chorus, so that their spirits might mingle and become Spirit, a foretaste of what awaited them in the far west. Tonight, when P’a crossed the face of Ruii, there would return the Shining Time. Already they rejoiced in the raptures ahead.
A’i’ach alone did not sing, nor did he lose more than a part of himself in dreams offcast and love. He was too aware of what he carried. The thing that the human had fastened to him weighed very little, but what it was putting into his soul was heavy and harsh. The whole Swarm knew about the dangers of attack, of course, and many clutched weapons—stones to drop or sharp-pointed branches shed by trees—in the tendrils that streamed under their globes. A’i’ach had a steel knife, his price for letting the human burden him. Yet it was not in the nature of the People to dread what might sink down upon them out of the future. A’i’ach was strangely changed by that which went on inside him.
The knowledge had come, he knew not how, slowly enough that he was not astonished by it. Instead, a grimness had meanwhile congealed. Somewhere in those hills and forests, a Beast ran that bore the same thing he did, that was also in ghostly Swarm-touch with a human. He could not guess what this might portend, save trouble of some kind for the People. He might well be unwise to ask. Therefore he had come to a resolve he realized was alien to his race: he would end the menace.
Since his eyes were set low on his body, he could not see the object secured on top, nor the radiance beaming upward from it. His companions could, though, and he had gotten a demonstration before he agreed to carry it. The beam was faint, faint, visible only at night and then only against a dark background. He would look for a shimmer among shadows on the land. Sooner or later, he would come upon it. The chance was not bad now at this, the Shining Time, when the Beasts would seek to kill People they knew would be gathered in vast numbers to revel.
A’i’ach had wanted the knife as a curiosity of possible usefulness. He meant to keep it in the boughs of a tree; when the mood struck him, he would experiment with it. A Person did once in a while employ a chance-found object, such as a sharp pebble, for some fleeting purpose, such as scooping open a crestflower pod to release its delicious seedlets upon the air. Perhaps with a knife he could shape wood into tools and have a stock of them always ready.
Given his new insight, A’i’ach saw what the blade was truly for. He could smite from above till a Beast was dead—no, the Beast.
A’i’ach was hunting.
Several hours before sundown, Hugh Brocket and his wife, Jannika Rezek, had been preparing for their night’s work when Chrisoula Gryparis arrived, much overdue. A storm had first grounded aircraft at Enrique and then, perversely moving west, forced her into a long detour on her way to Hansonia. She didn’t even see the Ring Ocean until she had traversed a good thousand kilometers of mainland, whereafter she must bend southward an equal distance to reach the big island.
“How lonely Port Kato looks from the air,” she remarked. Though accented, her English—the agreed-upon common language at this particular station—was fluent: one reason she had come here to investigate the possibility of taking a post.
“Because it is,” Jannika answered in her different accent. “A dozen scientists, twice as many juniors, and a few support personnel. That makes you extra welcome.”
“What, do you feel isolated?” Chrisoula wondered. “You can call to anywhere on Nearside that there is a holocom, can you not?”
“Yeah, or flit to a town on business or vacation or whatever,” Hugh said. “But no matter how stereo an image is and sounds, it’s only an image. You can’t go out with it for a drink after your conference is finished, can you? As for an actual visit, well, you’re soon back here among the same old faces. Outposts get pretty ingrown socially. You’ll find out, if you sign on.” In haste: “Not that I’m trying to discourage you. Jan’s right, we’d be more than happy to have somebody fresh join us.”
His own accent was due to history. English was his mother tongue, but he was third-generation Medean, which meant that his grandparents had left North America so long ago that speech back there had changed like everything else. To be sure, Chrisoula wasn’t exactly up-to-date, when a laser beam took almost fifty years to go from Sol to Colchis and the ship in which she had fared, unconscious and unaging, was considerably slower than that…
“Yes, from Earth!” Jannika’s voice glowed.
Chrisoula winced. “It was not happy on Earth when I left. Maybe things got better afterward. Please, I will talk about that later, but now I would like to look forward.”
Hugh patted her shoulder. She was fairly pretty, he thought: not in a class with Jan, which few women were, but still, he’d enjoy it if acquaintance developed bedward. Variety is the spice of wife.
“You really have had bad luck today, haven’t you?” he murmured. “Getting delayed till Roberto—uh, Dr. Venosta went out in the field—and Dr. Feng back to the Center with a batch of samples—” He referred to the chief biologist and the chief chemist. Chrisoula’s training was in biochemistry; it was hoped that she, lately off the latest of the rare starcraft, would contribute significantly to an understanding of life on Medea.
She smiled. “Well, then I will know others first, starting with you two nice people.”
Jannika shook her head. “I am sorry,” she said. “We are busy ourselves, soon to leave, and may not return until sunrise.”
“That is—how long? About thirty-six hours? Yes. Is that not long to be away in… what do you say?… this weird an environment?”
Hugh laughed. “It’s the business of a xenologist, which we both are,” he said. “Uh, I think I, at least, can spare a little time to show you around and introduce you and make you feel sort of at home.” Arriving as she did at a point in the cycle of watches when most folk were still asleep, Chrisoula had been conducted to his and Jannika’s quarters. They were early up, to make ready for their expedition.
Jannika gave him a hard glance. She saw a big man who reckoned his age at forty-one Terrestrial years: burly, a trifle awkward in his movements, beginning to show a slight paunch; craggy-featured, sandy-haired, blue-eyed; close-cropped, clean-shaven, but sloppily clad in tunic, trousers, and boots, the style of the miners among whom he had grown up. “I have not time,” she stated.
Hugh made an expansive gesture. “Sure, you just continue, dear.” He took Chrisoula under the elbow. “Come on, let’s wander.”
Bewildered, she accompanied him out of the cluttered hut. In the compound, she halted and stared about her as if this were her first sight of Medea.
Port Kato was indeed tiny. Not to disturb regional ecology with things like ultraviolet lamps above croplands and effluents off them, it drew its necessities from older and larger settlements on the Nearside mainland. Moreover, while close to the eastern edge of Hansonia, it stood a few kilometers inland, on high ground, as a precaution against Ring Ocean tides, which could get monstrous. Thus nature walled and roofed and weighed on the huddle of structures, wherever she looked—
—or listened, smelled, touched, tasted, moved. In slightly lesser gravity than Earth’s, she had a bound to her step. The extra oxygen seemed to lend energy likewise, though her mucous membranes had not yet quite stopped smarting. Despite a tropical location, the air was balmy and not overly humid, for the island lay close enough to Farside to be cooled. It was full of pungencies, only a few of which she could remotely liken to anything familiar, such as musk or iodine. Foreign too were sounds—rustlings, trills, croakings, mumbles—which the dense atmosphere made loud in her ears.
The station itself had an outlandish aspect. Buildings were made of local materials to local design; even a radiant energy converter resembled nothing at home. Multiple shadows carried peculiar tints; in fact, every color was changed in this ruddy light. The trees that reared above the roof were of odd shapes, their foliage in hues of orange, yellow, and brown. Small things flitted among them or scuttled along their branches. Occasional glittery drifts in the breeze did not appear to be dust.
The sky was deep-toned. A few clouds were washed with faint pink and gold. The double sun Colchis—Castor C was suddenly too dry a name—was declining westward, both members so dim that she could safely gaze at them for a short while, Phrixus at close to its maximum angular separation from Helle.
Opposite them, Argo dominated heaven, as always on the inward-facing hemisphere of Medea. Here the primary planet hung low; treetops hid part of the great flattened disc. Daylight paled the redness of its heat, which would be lurid after dark. Nonetheless it was a colossus, as broad to the eye as fifteen or sixteen Lunas above Earth. The subtly chromatic bands and spots upon its face, ever-changing, were clouds more huge than continents and hurricane vortices that could have swallowed whole this moon upon which she stood.
Chrisoula shivered. “It… strikes me,” she whispered, “more than anywhere around Enrique or—or approaching from space… I have come elsewhere in the universe.”
Hugh laid an arm around her waist. Not being a glib man otherwise, he merely said, “Well this is different. That’s why Port Kato exists, you know. To study in depth an area that’s been isolated a while; they tell me the isthmus between Hansonia and the mainland disappeared fifteen thousand years ago. The local dromids, at least, never heard of humans before we arrived. The ouranids did get rumors, which may have influenced them a little, but surely not much.”
“Dromids—ouranids—oh.” Being Greek, she caught his meanings at once. “Fuxes and balloons, correct?”
Hugh frowned. “Please. Those are pretty cheap jokes, aren’t they? I know you hear them a lot in town, but I think both races deserve more dignified names from us. They are intelligent, remember.”
“I am sorry.”
He squeezed a trifle. “No harm done, Chris. You’re new. With a century needed for question and answer, between here and Earth—”
“Yes. I have wondered if it is really worth the cost, planting colonies beyond the Solar System just to send back scientific knowledge that slowly.”
“You’ve got more recent information about that than I do.”
“Well… the planetology, biology, chemistry, they were still giving new insights when I left, and this was good for everything from medicine to volcano control.” The woman straightened. “Perhaps the next step is in your field, xenology? If we can come to understand a nonhuman mind—no, two, on this world—maybe three, if there really are two quite unlike sorts of ouranid as I have heard theorized—” She drew breath. “Well, then we might have a chance of understanding ourselves.” He thought she was genuinely interested, not merely trying to please him, when she went on: “What is it you and your wife do? They mentioned to me in Enrique it is quite special.”
“Experimental, anyway.” Not to overdo things, he released her. “A complicated story. Wouldn’t you rather take the grand tour of our metropolis?”
“Later I can by myself, if you must go back to work. But I am fascinated by what I have heard of your project. Reading the minds of aliens!”
“Hardly that.” Seeing his opportunity, he indicated a bench outside a machine shed. “If you really would like to hear, sit down.”
As they did, Piet Marais, botanist, emerged from his cabin. To Hugh’s relief, he simply greeted them before hurrying off. Certain Hansonian plants did odd things at this time of day. Everyone else was still indoors, the cook and bull cook making breakfast, the rest washing and dressing for their next wakeful period.
“I suppose you are surprised,” Hugh commenced. “Electronic neuranalysis techniques were in their infancy on Earth when your ship left. They took a spurt soon afterward, and of course the information reached us before you did. The use there had been on lower animals as well as humans, so it wasn’t too hard for us—given a couple of geniuses in the Center—to adapt the equipment for both dromids and ouranids. Both those species have nervous systems too, after all, and the signals are electrical. Actually, it’s been more difficult to develop the software, the programs, than the hardware. Jannika and I are working on that, collecting empirical data for the psychologists and semanticians and computer people to use.
“Uh, don’t misunderstand, please. To us, this is nearly incidental. Mindscan—bad word, but we seem to be stuck with it—mindscan should eventually be a valuable tool in our real job, which is to learn how local natives live, what they think and feel, everything about them. However, at present it’s very new, very limited, and very unpredictable.”
Chrisoula tugged her chin. “Let me tell you what I imagine I know,” she suggested, “then you tell me how wrong I am.”
She grew downright pedantic: “Synapse patterns can be identified and recorded which correspond to motor impulses, sensory inputs, their processing—and at last, theoretically, to thoughts themselves. But the study is a matter of painfully accumulating data, interpreting them, and correlating the interpretations with verbal responses. Whatever results one gets, they can be stored in a computer program as an n-dimensional map off which readings can be made. More readings can be gotten by interpolation.”