Day 5: 7 June 2153
She awoke from the sleep that was almost death and every part of her being screamed the command:
The faint, sweet tang of an animal drifted into the cave from outside, touching her olfactory pores, and she exploded into action; one moment a somnolent, curled-up ball, the next a ferocious predator with just one imperative on her mind. One bound got her to her feet; another took her to the mouth of the cave where she squatted on her legs and feeding arms, her hunting arms flexed out in front of her. A faint growl radiated from her vocal membranes as she scanned the forest ahead of her and her claws slid in and out by reflex.
A moment’s pause. A faint breeze; leaves rustling; minute vibrations in the undergrowth that her hearing membranes picked up and amplified and turned into an image of sound all around her. That was two branches rubbing together. That was a nearby stream. But that …
… was the source of the scent.
A final bound took her flying into the centre of a nearby bush, claws extended, teeth bared. There was a squeal from beneath her as she landed. A small, furry form shot out of the undergrowth, and the chase was on.
Branches slapped at her face as she raced through the trees, hunting arms outstretched; she barely noticed, her mind fixed firmly on the fleeing meal ahead of her. It dodged; she dodged. It ran faster; she ran faster. Every sense, every impulse she had was dedicated to catching this creature. Another instinct within her told her she was burning resources at a dangerous rate. They were already low after her sleep of half a year, and she had better get her prey soon.
The end came when the animal had to dodge a fallen trunk. It was too close to the ground to see it coming and it suddenly had to swerve to one side. But she had seen the trunk, and anticipated the move, and she made her own final sideways leap just before the animal. It gave a final squeal as the claws of her hunting arms sunk into it, and then her teeth tore into the flesh and hot, rich blood squirted into her throat. She finished it in a moment, threw out her arms and let rip a mighty blast of triumph.
The need for food was still there, but now much less urgent. She had her strength back; she could afford to relax just a little. Something was growing within her mind, a self-awareness that began to exercise control over her purely animal body. It told her to keep going, not to slacken off now. And then her pores picked up another prey scent and the awareness lingered just long enough to tell her to follow it, before withdrawing and letting her animal instinct do the rest.
Three hunts later, she was fully sated. The self-awareness was back and this time it grew and grew until it had taken her mind completely over, while the animal semi-sentience was pushed back into the darkness.
She stood up slowly and stretched, wiping her mouth. She knew who and what she was. She was Kin. She was Oomoing of the Scientific Institute; she had awoken from her latest sleep; it was time to get on with her life again.
She turned, at a footstep behind her. A young male in the uniform of the Space Presence. His hunting arms were folded politely behind him and his feeding arms held out a robe.
“Wakefulness, Learned Mother,” he said.
“Wakefulness, Loyal Son.” She looked at him curiously while she took the robe and put it on. A quick scan through her Shared memories told her nothing about him. “And you are?”
“Third Son of the Family Barabadar, Learned Mother. Will you come this way? We need to get to the Waking Hall.”
Oomoing made an amused tone as she fell into step beside him, making their way through the trees to the edge of the bowl. “You’re a grown male. I can’t call you Third Son.”
For a moment there was a note of shyness. “My chosen name among my friends is Fleet.”
A questioning tone from Oomoing.
“I was always a fast runner, Learned Mother.”
“Then I would like to call you Fleet, because I hope we’ll be friends.”
“Thank you, Learned Mother.” There was no mistaking the shyness. Oomoing made a mental note that this young male was not good at concealing; but then, pups never were. By contrast, it had already crossed her mind that if she were to think of breeding again then the Third Son of the Family Barabadar might be a good prospect … but she was controlled enough never to show thoughts like that at any level.
And speaking of family … She looked around and hummed with curiosity.
“None of your family were able to attend your wakening, Learned Mother,” Fleet said, as if reading her mind.
“Because?” Oomoing said in surprise.
“They’re all on Homeworld, Learned Mother.”
This was one feeling Oomoing didn’t even try to conceal. “What?” she bellowed. The surprise wasn’t that her sons and daughters were on Homeworld. It was the implication that she wasn’t.
Then they came out of the trees and Oomoing saw that this wasn’t her usual waking bowl. The design was the same, but then, waking bowls were all similar: a crater or a natural hollow, studded with sleeping caves around its rim, and a forest carefully stocked with feeding animals to restore the sleepers’ strength. But the bowl she always used, the one back at the Institute, was a natural crater. She could see at once that the rim of this bowl was artificial, though sculpted to look natural. And the town they were heading for was completely different. And now she came to think of it, with her waking frenzy well and truly over, there were thousands of tiny differences. The smell, the taste of the air …
She bounced experimentally on the balls of her feet. Was she just a little bit lighter than usual?
“If I look up, will I see the sky?” she said.
“Of course, Learned Mother,” Fleet said, sounding surprised. Oomoing toned relief and looked up.
“And the ground above that, naturally,” Fleet added. But she had already seen the land where there should have been the horizon; it stretched up above the bowl, up through the wisps of vapour that passed for clouds, wrapping itself together to meet above the axial sun, with tiny little Kin and ground cars passing above her head like minute insects. She had looked up several times during the hunt, but then the trees had obscured the view. Now …
“I’m on a space station!” Oomoing roared. Several Kin paused in their toing and froing and glanced at her, not concealing their amusement.
“This way, please, Learned Mother,” Fleet said quickly, and took her arm.
“Which one is it?” she muttered. She kept her head down, her eyes straight ahead, not attempting to disguise her fury. She was dimly aware of buildings and Kin around them. Fleet had got her out of the bowl and they were heading quickly for the Waking Hall.
“Habitat 1, Learned Mother,” Fleet said with pride. “The original.”
“Hmmph.” So, she was a very long way from home. Habitat 1 was a giant cylindrical space station with an orbit between the Dead World and the first asteroid belt. Out of the corner of one eye she saw a servor trundle along on its tracks, the air whistling in and out of its intakes. Servors derived their energy aerobically, without recourse to the inconvenience of nuclear power: you only ever saw them on space stations or in spacecraft, and if she had seen this one earlier she would have known immediately where she was.
“I’ve been on a habitat before,” she said.
“Indeed, Learned Mother?”
“It was for a conference. I didn’t like it then …” She stopped, and swung round to glare at the young male. “… And I like it even less now! How dare you take me from my sleeping cave and bring me here, to wake up alone and friendless? By what right?”
“You are on the Reserve list, Learned Mother,” Fleet said, with just a touch of reproach. He was glancing anxiously from side to side and making vague, fluttering gestures with his feeding hands. He didn’t want them to be overheard.
“That’s for national emergencies. National emergencies, which by definition happen to nations. Which are back on Homeworld. So what am I doing out here? What nincompoop on the High Command decided it would be a good idea?”
Fleet’s apologetic expression froze. “My mother, Barabadar,” he said. “The Marshal of Space,” he added, just in case the name itself didn’t narrow down the range of Barabadars that Oomoing had heard of.
Oomoing subsided. “I’m sorry, Loyal Son. But can you tell me anything at all about what’s going on?”
Fleet gently nudged her out of the way of a groundcar and they fell into step together.
“All I can tell you, Learned Mother, is that my mother requires the services of the best forensic scientist we have. My orders were to bring you out here to await your wakening, then to escort you to our final destination.”
“I see …”
“And I have to tell you one more thing, Learned Mother. Habitat 1 is an international project with an international complement of crew, but for the time being this is a purely internal matter. In fact, my mother’s orders are that you speak of this to no one to whom I have not personally introduced you. Is this clear?”
Only the knowledge that he was just passing on orders kept Oomoing from biting the young snot’s head off.
“I accept these conditions,” she said tightly.
“We’re here,” Fleet said.
The Waking Hall was quiet, secluded, dark. It even smelt as it should: polished wood, the right amount of incense in the background. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make the surroundings familiar and comfortable. Not everyone in the Space Presence was an idiot.
A Sharer came towards them, white robe crisp around her, a welcome resonant in her tone.
“The Learned Mother has just awoken …” Fleet said.
“Of course, of course.” The Sharer’s forehead wrinkled in a kind smile at Oomoing and she barged Fleet out of the way in her bustling eagerness to be helpful. She was good at her job; just the right level of reassurance, of motherly bonding. “This way, Learned Mother, please.”
“The Learned Mother has some most important Sharing to do first …” Fleet began. The Sharer lashed out with the talons of her left hunting arm in a move that could have taken off half Fleet’s face if he hadn’t been quick enough to pull back. As it was she just nicked the tip of his nose.
“Later,” she said firmly. Oomoing was pleased to note that Fleet had enough self control not to strike back, and not to put a hand to the wound while the females were watching. He let the blood well and drip instead. She just had time to hear Fleet’s courteously angry protest before she was whisked away into the female quarters and the door was shut firmly in the face of the seething young male.
Well, let the pup simmer a bit, she thought — she liked Fleet already, but one had to have priorities — and then she spent a glorious half hour being bathed, and having her fur brushed and her mane knotted in a manner appropriate to her rank.
When she was offered a proper waking meal she turned it down, deciding to meet Fleet halfway. He was pacing backwards and forwards in the Sharing area, a secluded passage with curtained alcoves down either side. His nose was already scarring nicely. He made a visible effort not to snap “At last!” when Oomoing appeared, accompanied by the Sharer.
“I have Sharings from the Learned Mother’s family,” Fleet said, stepping forward. “Three of them.”
“Then you’ll need a while to take them in, Learned Mother,” the Sharer said. “Come in here.”
She led them into a cubicle halfway along the passage and drew the curtains behind her. Oomoing squatted down in the centre of the cubicle and the Sharer turned to Fleet.
“Well?” she said. Fleet squatted and drew a slim silver box from his tunic, which he laid on the polished floorboards in front of Oomoing. She opened it quickly and feasted her eyes on the contents: the three translucent, waxy nodules within.
Her children’s Shareberries. Their memories of the last half year.
“They’re in descending order of age, right to left, Learned Mother,” Fleet said. “But first …” Oomoing slowly tore her hungry gaze from the nodules and looked up at Fleet. He bowed, and his tone was suddenly shy again. “I have a Sharing of my own, Learned Mother, and I know my mother would want you to take it first.”
“Well, really,” said the Sharer, “this …”
“Wait,” Oomoing said. Something in Fleet’s tone had touched her, and she was having to face the fact that although the surroundings of the Waking Hall had done a lot to settle her, the whole scenario — being on the habitat, whatever mission Marshal of Space Barabadar had in mind for her — was most unusual. And as Fleet had pointed out, she was on the Reserve list, so she had responsibilities. She really should find out what was happening. “I’ll take his Sharing first,” she said.
Smothering a smile, Fleet sat down opposite her. “I must tell you,” he said, “that my own information was given to me over a radio link, but what I have, I’ll Share.”
The Sharer had moved round to stand behind Fleet. “And where is it?” she said.
“Lower left,” said Fleet.
The Sharer lifted his mane to show the back of his head and his Sharemass, the mass of dark, wrinkled spheres, hundreds of them and several layers deep, that covered it. She took a clip and pinned Fleet’s mane back, then ran a finger over the spheres at the lower left until Fleet said, “That one.”
“I have it.” She opened the small cupboard at the back of the cubicle and took out a small scalpel and a silver bowl. She turned back to Fleet with the scalpel in her hand and whipped off the Shareberry he had selected. A good Sharer could do this without even drawing blood, and she was a good Sharer. The nodule was small and dark and leathery. Then she held it carefully between two fingers of one hand and made a small incision in its rough surface with the top of the scalpel. She put the scalpel down and peeled away the surface of the Shareberry. All that was left was the waxy centre, which she put into the bowl.
She squatted next to Fleet and held out the bowl to Oomoing.
“Learned Mother, take this Sharing of your Loyal Son as your sacred duty,” she said. Oomoing reached out, took the Shareberry and placed it reverently in her mouth. She felt the saliva begin to flood around it, the Sharing enzymes starting to break it down and feed the information to her brain. “Will you take the others now or later, Learned Mother?”
“Later,” Fleet said. The Sharer pointedly ignored him and continued to look at Oomoing.
“Later,” Oomoing agreed.
“Later it is, then,” the Sharer said brightly, packing her instruments away. “Just call.”
She withdrew. Fleet studied Oomoing’s face carefully, waiting for her to absorb the new memory she had just been given. Oomoing shut her eyes, sat back on her haunches and let it come.
Even though the Shareberry had come from the side of his Sharemass (acquired memories, incidental thoughts) and not the middle (personal information, to be Shared only among Fleet’s family) there was the inevitable echo of Fleet’s other memories — shades, textures, feelings — and she ignored these with a practised mental flip. Not only would it have been bad manners to proceed down that road, but she could sense the looming motherlode of far more interesting and relevant information that the nodule carried. She moved her mind towards it and began to drink it in.
A dark rock, no name, catalogue number 136750#48, half a mile long, a quarter wide, trailing the planet Firegod. Discovered by astronomers 87 years ago, surveyed by robot probe 24 years ago, attacked five days ago by armed units of the Space Presence …
Oomoing convulsed with surprise, but even as one part of her mind was framing the obvious question, “Why attack an asteroid?”, further information was coming in.
… to reveal the presence of a base populated by intelligent, non-Kin lifeforms.
It was like a physical shock; she had to go back to it again. And then again. Non-Kin! Extraterrestrials! Her mind was divided. Part of it, the scientific part, the part that made her a reasoning, thinking scientist, crowed at last! Proof of all those theories. There were others out there. They were not alone.
The other part, the part that made her Kin, shuddered. Extraterrestrials. Outlanders. Not Us.
She kept going.
Subsequent to its capture, surveillance equipment was discovered orbiting the asteroid: painted black, floating free in space rather than be tethered to the rock where it would be visible to any Kin who glanced that way through a telescope, disposing of its heat by refrigeration laser. It was virtually undetectable. However, it was the refrigeration lasers which had first hinted at the extraterrestrial presence: astronomers on Homeworld observing the first conjunction of the planets Firegod and Stormwind in nearly five centuries had noticed hot spots moving across the surface of the latter. The hardest part of the subsequent investigation was speculating what might be causing these spots. Once the correct hypothesis had been devised then it was easy to trace the them back to their source.
Neat: Oomoing loved to see science and logic being used properly. She also had to admit that the logistics of getting the soldiers there were quite clever:
Armed units were chosen from those about to go to sleep. They were launched into space on unpowered trajectories that would take them to within a few miles of the asteroid half a year later. Hence the ships carrying them could be small, light, and much harder for anyone on the asteroid to spot.
Utilising the natural half-year sleep cycle was an elegant touch. But, what about their waking frenzy? Launching a carefully planned attack on an asteroid would be the last thing on the mind of a recently woken soldier, so how …?
And again, with that question came the answer:
The waking frenzy can be circumvented by the introduction of certain chemicals into the bloodstream.
“Interfere with the frenzy?” Oomoing said, out loud, aghast. “That’s … that’s unnatural!”
“But doable,” Fleet said complacently. “Incidentally, that’s another military secret I must ask you not to talk about, Learned Mother, so please keep your voice down.”
Oomoing growled and went back to the memories, to learn the details of the attack: the lasers that took out the asteroid’s defences; the burrowing machines that let out its air; the more than sixty bodies discovered.
Prisoners? she thought.
No quarter was given.
“Oh, brilliant!” Oomoing exploded. “The first sign of non-Kin life and we go in with guns blazing …” Fleet was looking, well, stony. “It was one of your mother’s ideas, wasn’t it, Loyal Son?”
“Indeed, Learned Mother.”
“I promise that from now on, if I’m to insult your mother I’ll do it to her face.”
“You will have the opportunity, Learned Mother.”
She subsided into her chair again, but part of her mind was still whirling and it wasn’t just with the surprise revelation. To attack without challenge or proper warning — even extraterrestrials deserved that most basic of considerations … didn’t they? Not least from a reputable warrior like Barabadar.
Oomoing disciplined herself to take in the rest of the information; she could bother with her opinions of it later.
There were two survivors.
At last! Oomoing was transfixed by this final portion of the memories Fleet had given her. The mental images were fuzzy and indistinct: he had only seen them on a display and the camera images were obscured by the soldiers carrying them. They weren’t moving.
The captives put up resistance but were subdued eventually …
They were dressed in spacesuits, that much was obvious. And at first glance they looked very different. One tall and thin with two legs, a rough analogue of the Kin shape but with not enough arms; the other shorter and apparently with four legs, nothing like a Kin at all. Two sexes? she wondered. Interesting diversity …
“Fascinating,” she said.
Fleet smiled. “Your brief, Learned Mother, is to find out all you can about these things. My mother wants to know their strengths, their weaknesses …”
“Their level of threat?” Oomoing said sardonically.
“Most especially. And, if you can, to work out how they were able to reach our solar system.”
And hence, whether we can travel in the opposite direction. Oomoing read between the lines without difficulty. She searched carefully: there were no further revelations lurking at the back of her skull. “There’s still information I need,” she said. “If Barabadar wanted to find out about them, it would have been a lot more … constructive to capture some alive. Why was no quarter given?”
“I know what I know, Learned Mother,” Fleet said apologetically. “My mother is on her way — she’s coming from the other side of the system — and she might allow you to Share.”
Might, Oomoing reflected. Naturally she would ask, but Barabadar would be senior enough to say “no” if she chose.
“I look forward to meeting her when she gets here,” she said.
“Um, not here,” Fleet said. “At the asteroid. We’ve had a ship on standby for two days, waiting for you to wake. We leave in two hours.”