A Galactic Primer
Forgive me, diary. I have left you under my pillow for a week. What can I say? Life moves slowly on an interplanetary castle with room service.
But I met an interesting lady today.
After breakfast this morning Captain Gold took Pish and Fartles off to ride horses in the gymnasium. I wandered the commercial galleria for a while, trying to understand the strange fashions and trinkets proffered by garish boutiques beneath mesmerizing signs. Ladies in wide dresses held their oval plates before them on carved grips, peering through this window at all things, escorted by cadres of purchase-laden robots and bored stewards. I also saw a blue dog.
Lunch was taken in an echoey court of cold marble, presided over by service robots with marble-patterned carapaces. They fetched me fried eggplant, spiced bread, brown rice and yogurt. I also received a purple concoction to drink, but I somehow failed to fathom the opening of its vessel and ended up spraying the whole of the frothy contents on my shirt and face.
"A serviette, sir?"
Castle Misne is fitted with twin observation galleries which rotate at the ends of armatures long enough to give occupants a view of space largely unobstructed by the castle itself. Pish was very enthusiastic about the experience after visiting one of the galleries with Captain Gold, so I had promised him I would see for myself.
The observation deck was transparent, and dark. Were it not for fleeting highlights against the glass it would seem that I had entered unto void. I climbed down the ladder to the clear flooring, unable to resist testing the surface experimentally with my toe before letting go of the rungs. Tentatively I stepped on the sky, swarms of stars occulted by my silhouetted shoes.
Above me wheeled the long castle, encrusted with tiny lights and glowing ports. To my left yawned the diminishing ruddy face of Aramaiti, to my right a hard blue point. The star Aino beamed at my back, filtered from brilliance to a crisp coin of white. The stellar sail was gauzy haze above, the stars seen through it scintillating and tinted with spectral halos.
There were three other shadows in the observation gallery at first, but two left shortly after I had arrived. I cleared my throat awkwardly. "Is it inappropriate to speak here?"
"Not at all," said a papery female voice that was strangely familiar to me.
"May I ask madam, do you know whether that blue point is Annapurna?"
"Indeed it is."
I looked at the blue disc, and then back over my shoulder at the globe of Aramaiti. "How amazing that space should be so vast that it takes sixteen days to travel between two points that can be seen one from the other with the naked eye."
The woman stepped closely beside me but I still could not make out her features in the weak, filtered light. The shadow of her face was long, with a regal profile. There seemed to be a bun of hair atop her head. "Sixteen days is a jaunt. The transit was much longer on my way out -- nearly three months."
"Forgive me, madam. I don't know a thing."
"Ignorance is my business," she replied, her voice again striking a chord in my memory. "Questions indulge me. I am a schoolteacher."
I smiled. "You really wouldn't mind if I ask you something else then?"
"If I go too long without teaching I may regain my senses and take up a more rewarding career."
"Madam, I think you are just the sort of person I've been looking for. I'm called Hellig Apples. I'm from Samundra."
"I'm Corinthia Tag," she told me. "And you're not from Samundra, though you carry the accent well, Hellig. Where are you really from?"
"I'm told my home is on Maja."
"You're told? Now this is intriguing, Hellig. Next thing you're going to tell you've come out of a hyperspatial gate with Interstellar Amnesia!" She chuckled in a way that reminded me of a certain plump chicken at Duncan's Bliss, which pleased me. But when I did not reply her tittering ceased. "My dear Hellig, I do hope I haven't offended you."
"Well, it's true," I sighed. "Joke as it may be, it's true."
"You really came through a gate without your self?" I nodded in the shadows and she whistled.
I jumped. "How did you do that?"
"What, this?" She whistled again. "Whistling?"
"It sounds like a kettle!"
There came a pause. In the gloom I saw Corinthia Tag retreat a few paces, and then turn around and walk back closer to me. "Hellig, I can see that I have you at a serious disadvantage. Perhaps I had best let you ask some of your questions, in order to catch up."
And so I deluged her. "Who runs the worlds? Where did people come from? How do interstellar gates work? What were the shuttle's shields made of?"
"One question at a time!" she begged.
I took a breath and thought about it. "How long is history?"
She laughed, her shadow cantering back against the stars as she clapped. "That's a wonderful question, Hellig. Hominid civilization has enjoyed some ten thousand years of recorded history, dating from the advent of primitive writing systems by human tribes on Terra, the first Earth."
"Tribes like Captain Gold's Jews?"
"Very much so. The Hebrews of Terra give us some of the earliest examples of written history, along with the Vedics, the Hellenes and the Chaldeans."
"When did we first leave the Earth?"
"At the dawn of informatics, four thousand years ago -- knowledge being power, of course. The same era saw the birth of the telegraph, the automobile, the spaceship, the microprocessor, the robot..."
"How many worlds in the galaxy are populated with human life?"
"There are thirty-nine Solar worlds. You must always remember, Hellig, that human life is not an island. We are supported by a host of organisms that are every bit as integral to sustaining Solar civilization as we are. Why, there are millions of microscopic organisms on or inside of you right now."
I shivered. I felt itchy. "What are they doing?"
"Some of are doing critical things like making the digestion of your food possible. Others are just along for the ride. Your cells are powered by wee things called mitochondria who even have their own genome, distinct from your own."
"I had no idea."
"And that's just one of end of the spectrum. To breathe we require the carbon dioxide sinks of vast forests; and forests are maintained by armies of organisms, from moulds and mosses to beetles, bats and birds. Solar life is a broad family, which is in part what makes it so difficult to transport across lightyears of space. Seeding the galaxy is a slow process."
I considered this. "But can a man not simply step through a gate, and find himself on a new world?"
She chuckled again. "Indeed, but who builds the gate?"
I was dumbstruck. "I never thought of that. Who does build the gate?"
"Robots. But they have to get there the long way, first. It takes many centuries to travel between the stars. When a colonizer arrives at a candidate planet it begins by broadcasting Solar micro-life, laying the bacterial framework for engineering the climate even before construction on the hyperspatial transmitter is started. In some cases the robots have opted to wait for hundreds of years before engaging the transmitter, to allow for the decay of radioactivity left over from atomic blasting to release subsurface gases."
"So there are robots out there doing this? Even now?"
"When were they sent out?"
"They are sent out continuously. Civilization has been building and launching colonizers for thousands of years. It is a sacred activity managed directly by the Panstellar Neighbourhood."
"This is the body that rules Solar worlds?" I asked.
"Rules?" she echoed. "Goodness me, no. Each star system is autonomous, in order that civilization might be worked upon by natural selection."
"What is natural selection?"
She took a deep breath and thought about her answer. "Hellig, there is no creature alive or dead who knows the one best way to run a Solar world. It is an answer that is beyond our philosophy, but not beyond the great computer of time and space. Thus, each world is governed as its populace sees fit, without interference from any greater authority. In time, worlds that are successful will contribute more culture, genomes and materiel to newly colonized worlds than less successful ones. Do you follow me, Hellig?"
"Success is viral, if tyranny is suppressed," she said emphatically. "In this way we hope to steer toward a destiny where the entire galaxy is populated by stable worlds, each governed by politics honed by millions of generations of experience. Since cultural reproduction is predicated on a sustainable high quality of life for its citizens, the culture that comes to dominate our worlds shall be tested and optimal."
"I think I see," I said. "But how can one assure that the people of failing worlds do not emigrate in a wave, and thereby cause a cancer of failure that springs from world to world?"
"That is where the accords of the Panstellar Neighbourhood come into play. Sick worlds have their hyperspatial gates shut down. The connection is not re-opened until auditing reveals a change in the internal situation."
"How is sickness defined?"
"Starvation, mass death, uncontrollable crime. There are a number of metrics, but it isn't easy to earn the disfavour of the Neighbourhood. Affiliation asks little beyond basic civility. As I said, interference is minimized in order to let the social organisms of worlds evolve according to their own internal forces. The strictest regulations concern warfare: no star system may hold a world beyond its own heliopause."
"But worlds may war between one another within a system?"
"Assuming such warfare does not drag the world into barbarity, for if so the entire system loses. Hyperspatial gates are either open or closed with regard to a given star...it is not possible to secure gates on a world-by-world basis."
For a moment I stared into the stars, wondering which ones might be playing host to colonizing robots, nascent civilizations or quarantined barbarians. "Has any star system ever tried to conquer a foreign world?"
"Oh, well of course," she snapped, and then apologized. "-- Look at me, a schoolteacher, stammering over it. How silly of me. It seems so impossibly strange to have to explain to someone the defining event of our times..."
I let her collect her thoughts, patiently scanning the panorama as she played her fingers against one another, leaning to and fro. I turned to look at her shadow as I heard her draw in breath to speak. "Ten years ago the hegemony at Kamari Star moved against Cassiopeia, igniting a terrible war. The Panstellar Neighbourhood was forced to mount navies to protect the galactic interest, and in retaliation Kamari deployed an unspeakable weapon against us all."
She took a deep breath. "There is a proper name for it, but it is always called by the name Radio Kamari used: the Nightmare Cannon. It is a weapon designed to transmit the worst kind of human suffering over a signal capable of being carried along with everyday holographic media. You...did not experience the Horror, I take it."
"My amnesia is total."
"I..." she paused, and I heard her breath catch in her throat. "There is no way to explain to you what happened to so many of us on that day. I caught only a glimpse. And I know I will take that glimpse to my mausoleum."
"A glimpse of suffering?"
"Ultimate suffering," she whispered fiercely. "Soul-tearing suffering. Riveted into my mind! Many died instantly. Suicides followed. We were all watching the war broadcast when the Panstellar Navy engaged the Kamari forces at Cassiopeia. Everyone was watching..." She trailed off again, and took a moment to re-compose herself. "With his empire on the brink of defeat a terrible man engaged the cannon, and in less than five minutes irrevocably brutalized half the galaxy."
"Terrible indeed," I echoed.
"Engaging the cannon isn't what made him terrible, Hellig," she replied quickly. "It was what he did. The Nightmare Cannon is not a creative device, but a projective one. To transmit its payload of ultimate suffering it must first record it."
"Record it? How?"
Corinthia coughed. She may have retched. Her breathing was ragged. "That is unspeakable, my dear Hellig. I'm sorry. But even schoolteachers have their limits."
I let a moment pass. The stars crawled as we rotated about the castle. I asked, "Was this man brought to justice?"
"No," she said mournfully. "He escaped. Many, many people have dedicated their lives to hunting him down for just that purpose. And to learn the location of the Nightmare Cannon, so that it might be destroyed once and for all. In fact, it is on a grant from the Citadel of the Recovery that I have toured Samundra, following up some research they thought might help the cause."
I hugged my shoulders. "I had no idea the galaxy could house such evil. I thought I knew how sheltered I had been when I was betrayed by a friend, but now I see how little I have been through."
She sniffed, and touched my arm with her hand. "Don't let me upset you. You're one of the lucky ones, to have no idea what I'm talking about." She dropped her hand from me and crossed her arms, turning to the black sky once more. "Goodness knows what I wouldn't give to have never heard the name Terron Volmash."
My telephone buzzed, startling me. I jumped and gasped, startling Corinthia. I heard her voice sound in my head: "Incoming missive from Jeremiah. Response?"
"How do you know Jeremiah?" I asked Corinthia.
"Incoming missive from Jeremiah. Response?"
"Hello?" I cried.
"Sir," said Jeremiah smoothly through my telephone. "Will you be joining us for dinner? The captain has invited us to his private buffet."
"Let me get back to you," I told him. "My telephone sounds like you," I said to Corinthia, bemused.
"Ah yes," she groaned. "I get that a lot. My speech was modeled years ago, and the rights have been sold so many times I've lost track of everywhere it ends up."
I laughed. "For weeks I've had this irrational want to meet the friendly lady in my telephone," I said. "And now I have. It has been a genuine pleasure to make your acquaintance, Madam Tag. Would you consider joining me for dinner with the captain?"
She tittered. "I'd be delighted, my dear Hellig. But there is one thing, before we go."
"Will you kiss me?" she breathed. "Here, now, in the dark -- before you see me in the light."
"Are you ugly, Corinthia?"
"I am old."
We kissed, very gently but very sweetly. Her skin was soft and dry, like a fallen leaf. She told me my face was sticky, and I was forced to explain to her about my purple juice mishap. She giggled like a girl.
Dinner with the captain was noisy, largely on account of Captain Gold himself who was endeavouring to teach Pish some sort of a throaty, lugubrious song with words I could not identify. Fartles crooned along, which made the captain nearly choke as he laughed.
Corinthia Tag's hair was white, and her skin creased with hundreds of tiny lines that seemed to mark every expression she had ever worn, with a bias toward open-browed smiling that folded the skin around her green eyes. She was the colour of chocolate, her hands long and careworn. We didn't talk much over dinner, but every once and a while we looked over at one another and smiled.
After dinner she took me to the Spider Tree Garden in the third habitat ring of the castle, a mad labrynth of freefall plant life interspersed with great yellow orbs of suspended light clotted with translucent moths. For someone who described herself as "geriatric and planet-chained" she navigated the webby, floating world of the garden with grace. I will not detail my own tribulations, but suffice it to say Corinthia seemed to find my artlessness somehow charming.
"Do you think I could be March Peebles?" I asked her.
She smiled consolingly. "I'm afraid not, Hellig. March Peebles is only a folk legend."
"My name is Simon," I said.
And so I recounted for her my tale, beginning while we kicked across the open field at the mouth of the Spider Tree Garden and concluding in the sitting room of her suite over glasses of a pale amber wine served cold with slices of iced grape. I explained about the hospital ward and Nurse Randa, running through the forest and being adopted by Pish, my all too brief friendship with poor Duncan before the police took him, the betrayal of Nilo and Glory, and the way I marched out and took Jeremiah back from them.
When I was done she exclaimed, "My goodness, dear Hellig -- or Simon, I should say. It sounds like a thriller!"
I smiled sheepishly. "So life is not always quite this challenging?"
"Perhaps it is," she admitted, sitting down on the sofa next to me. "But it's usually a little more spread out. I'm sure I've had as many adventures as you have, but I'm nearly two hundred years old and...how old did you say you were, Simon?"
"Two months or thirty-six years, depending on how you look at it," I replied, and then marvelled: "Two hundred years! Is that how long life is?"
She likewise marvelled: "Thirty-six! I can remember it."
We sipped our wine. After an interval she closed her eyes and recounted in a distant, dreamy voice: "I was a thirty-six year old girl when I met the Queen of Space at Eridani Star. It feels so long ago and it feels like yesterday. I felt so small and so foolish, standing in her court surrounded by ministers and executives -- but when she looked at me, and spoke to me, she made me feel like being a citizen of the neighbourhood gave me all the dignity I needed. She behaved as if she were my servant: earnest, tactful, humble, kind."
"What place does a queen have in a neighbourhood without a ruler?"
"She is a symbol," Corinthia explained, opening her eyes and turning to face me. "Each race of life represented in the domain of the Panstellar Neighbourhood has its own ceremonial figurehead and aworldly mouth. The Pegasi have their Metamaster To-Ma-Fe -- whom I believe is currently Bo the Twelfth -- and the Hennish always have the current iteration of the Great Henniplasm to speak for them."
"And so Solar life has the Queen of Space?"
"Exactly. It is an office established long ago by the House Aresou, the exiled monarchs of pre-Martian Ares."
"I have heard of Mars. Captain Gold told me it was a war-like world."
She shook her head. "Never so simple. It was the acme of force as Mars, it was a bastion of freedom as Ares. History knows the world in both forms, and our modern culture owes its heritage to both. The schism and bond between Ares and Mars is the cornerstone of much philosophy." She yawned. "But I think I am too tired for philosophy, dear Simon. Forgive an old woman."
She fell asleep against my shoulder, her breath against my chest. I put my arm around her and cradled her gently, the white bun of hair atop her head tickling my nose. I sneezed but she didn't wake up.
I carefully lifted her up and carried her into the bedroom. I placed her on the bed and asked the light to dim down a bit, which it did after briefly objecting in a staccato, chuckly language I could not understand. I noticed a grey robot standing quietly in an alcove, and asked him to look over his mistress while she slept.
"Does master wish me to examine the mistress?" asked the robot loudly.
"Shut up!" I hissed. "She's sleeping, you idiot. Don't you know what 'look over' means? I know what it means and I'm only two months old!"
"I am sorry to have disturbed master, master," said the robot in a slightly quieter voice. After a moment of consideration it added, "Would young master care for a bottle of warm milk?"
"What are you talking about?"
"I am trying to determine the needs of master, master."
I grabbed the robot by the elbow and pulled him out of the alcove. "Do you see that woman sleeping there?" The robot claimed so. "See to her needs, will you? If she wakes up and wants something, give it to her, okay? Tell her Simon wishes her sweet dreams."
The robot hesitated. "Does master wish me to awake mistress to inform her of master's wish for the mistress to have sweet dreams?"
"Are you malfunctional?" I asked.
"Executing self-diagnostic," the robot reported abruptly, retreating to its alcove and standing erectly in place. I could not get it to respond again. I sighed, shrugged, and quit Corinthia's chambers for my own.
I tip-toed in to pull out my diary without waking Pish, and then sat in our sitting room to dictate this. Our sitting room is just like Corinthia's, only with a different floral motif on the walls and no Corinthia. By looking through the ports I can see that the angle of the stellar sail has changed, and now our view scintillates and is tinted with spectral halos, smears of green and violet, crimson and cobalt.
Fartles farts. I yawn. I have learned a lot today, and it is time to sleep.