Dangerous ideas, p.1
By Vincent L. Cleaver
The plants of Othrig II were purple and green, like the uniforms of some of the Markov, the elite, the Autocrats' Own Immortals. That was irony for you, hard at work making the universe an interesting place to be. Her dad called them Jokers, for some reason that Karen could not fathom, and he promised to explain it, after the mission was over. But the mission was going to be over before it began, if Karen could not stop the lone Markov she had just come upon from sounding the alert. This Markov wore brown and orange, for garrison duty; a guard from the camp the Markov Imperium had placed in this northern jungle- for the comfort of the Markov and the discomfort of their Bluehorn detainees, probably. He was out here by himself, which was very un-Markov, for they were a gregarious species, always doing things together.
It was a good thing that he reached for his weapon; that gave her time to close with him. He looked at her, not afraid of a sixty-kilo human female. He was a half tonne of alien soldier, but the smallest adult Markov she had ever seen. In his curiosity, the Markov took too long, and she swept past the barrel of the blaster, knocking it aside. He turned it in his hands and used it to block her, but she was already climbing, using the barrel as if it was the rung of a ladder. Her broken left arm had almost healed, but she favored it and swung with her right, jabbing a knuckle at the nerve cluster under his ear.
The Markov staggered, and sat on his haunches. Karen winced as she fell to his left, and rolled; she had felt the weakness of her left arm and had let go rather than risk breaking it again. She looked up from the plants and mud she had landed in, and rolled as the soldier swung the butt of his rifle. She got her feet under her, and he reversed the blaster rifle, a hand-canon, really.
There was no time for thought. Karen rolled forward, tumbling into his forelegs. There was another nerve cluster, at the top of his right foreleg, and she jabbed at it and missed. He staggered but remained upright as he pulled herself around to his right side. She was right under five hundred kilos, and trying to bring it down; that irony was not lost on her and she smiled all the while she was climbing around and over his equipment packs. The grenades were just in reach when he got a hand on her and ripped her off. Grenades were not a good idea, anyway. The noise would attract attention. Karen landed and reached for a blade. The knife was a smart material, and it lay against her spine for extra protection when she was not using it, adhering to her skin. Now she put her hand to it and it shifted, becoming a handle and a blade with an edge that would not part her own skin.
The Markov soldier chuckled. “That’s your idea of a weapon?” He raised the blaster, and then grunted as the knife landed in his left eye. The blaster rifle fell from his hands and he collapsed. Very faintly, Karen could hear him speak, and then he was still.
Karen waited a few breaths, and approached cautiously, reaching to pull her knife free. The Markov was not dead, though. His right hand grabbed her left, jerking her around. The old break snapped wetly, and she stifled a scream. He pulled her to him, breathing raggedly, and held her, while he took her knife from his eye. His scream in her ear was her entire world for an instant, and then he pressed the knife futilely to her throat. It still hurt where he dragged it, but she was alive, and he was terribly disappointed.
He turned her around, slowly, thickly, raggedly, and faced her, a massive hand squeezing at her throat. She watched the life go out of his remaining eye as hers ebbed, heart thudding and the blood in her ears roaring. There were spots in her vision, and then she was free and coughing. She was half suffocated and weighed down by his upper body, but she dragged herself free.
Her father came along then and helped her up, saying nothing. He handed her his water, which she drank greedily, and checked her over; again, wordlessly. He reset the re-broken arm and he just looked at her when he was finished, still not saying anything. She hugged him with her good arm, and wiped at her eyes.
“The bad news is,” he whispered finally, “it gets easier. I’m not sorry you chose this life, but I wish I could have spared you that,” and he nodded at the Markov.
“It’s okay, Dad; it’s okay. There’s just something I’ve got to do,” she added, and turned to the body. His comm told her what she wanted to know, and she squatted by Trooper Gadd, of Clan Krell. She wrote with a stick, naming him, his sire, and his dam, and calling on his Gods and Ancestors to mark that he had died for the Imperium and for the Autocrat; that he had died well.
“Do you really believe that, Karen?”
“He did, and that’s enough for me.” But she was asking herself what she was doing here, and what she really believed.
Kev and Karen had gone out collecting and camping in the foothills of the mountains holding back a melting sea of ice. Edelweiss was warming, and the alpine meadows they hiked through would be forested in a generation and more. The pair had accomplished a few things, not one of which was more important to them than the holding of hands and lazily making up new constellations under the night sky. After five days they were out of supplies and had to return to base camp. There had been almost no contact with the rest of what passed for civilization here on Edelweiss, and the two saw that there was an additional runabout grounded by the river.
“What do you suppose that is about?" Kev asked her, and felt the Rangers’ hand tighten almost painfully around his. “What is it, love?”
They spoke Ilshani, and had reached the stage where they called each other ‘Za’, or love. Romantic love, as opposed to physical love or rut, was not a given among the species of the wider Galaxy, but the Ilshani had been pair bonding, like humans. They said "Sha oossa na anoosk, Zah, anoosk eneb.” In the English- "Be well and grow young, Love, grow ever young."
“My father is down there,” Karen said, quietly. “I don’t know what it means, but at least you two get to meet.” She smiled and stole a kiss. Then she tugged at his hand in hers, and led him down the hill.
‘Father’ was an unknown concept to Kev. Father figures, those he’d had plenty of; his Uncle Kyle, his Grandfather, even Old Complications, a Hunter, an alien friend of his family. That one was ancient, and had been Karen and her father’s Teacher in the Rangers.
“Teacher!” she cried. Saw over half a tonne of tiger-centaur moving in a heart-stopping blur. The alien met his love in a hug and a roughhouse tumble. Kev realized that this was a mix of Gresh, a Hunter martial art, and… Ilshani Battledance. They had separated, spun apart with heartbreaking poise and grace- he swallowed, moved nearly to tears, joy and sadness so close together. They played in the light and shadow cast by giants.
“'I gaze on senseless beauty, spilling grace upon the world.'”
“That’s my favorite, too.” A human Ranger, in his black and gold uniform, walked up to Kev. “So, you’re the young man my daughter fished out of the icy waters? It makes for quite a story, and it’s all over the wider galaxy, by now…”
“I, I didn’t realize. That I’d spoken, or…But yes, I’m Kevin Boyle.” The human custom was to shake hands, to grasp right hands firmly for just the right amount of time. The Ranger smiled at this ritual.
“Mine is Thomas James Clark, father as I believe I mentioned, of that one, there- not the giant alien question mark! My daughter, son, is all that I have left, and she is precious to me, and I hope to you, too.” The warmth in his eyes went away, briefly, and came blazing back again.
“Yes, sir, she is,” Kev said, a little confused. “She’s, she’s… wonderful!”
Thomas stared at Kev, and then he roared.
“Oh Gods and Ancestors, son, a man gives fair warning to his daughter’s, ah, ‘suitor’, and that’s not exactly the words he’s expecting to hear…” He took Kev into a headlock, and ruffled his hair, haulin
Karen and Old Complications came over to them then and the tiger-centaur said rather formally, “It is good to see you again, Kevin Boyle, of the Humans.” He grinned his rather terrifying, toothy grin. But Kev did not see an alien, or a monster. He saw…
“Ol’ Cee!” Kev threw himself at his old babysitter and over-sized playmate. The Hunter never stood on his dignity, not with family. Dignity was for fools who did not know that life was to be drunk up to the dregs. That Old Complications still needed to be reminded of that from time to time, meant that he was lucky fool.
“It is well, youngling; and yes, you are still so to me, even yet, my little man-cub,” Ol' Cee said gruffly. “So, how goes the exploring and discovering, and, shall we say, inter- or intra-organizational liasing, hmm?”
“Did you just make a joke about my daughter and this young puppy?” Thomas said in mock outrage. He rounded on Kev and said, “So? How is the ‘liasing’ progressing? Be very careful how you answer that, son…”
Karen hugged Kev from behind; both arms, because her left arm, after six days, was almost healed. He took her right hand, and, kissing her knuckles, turned around to face her. “How would you say it’s going?”
“Certain things require further rigorous study…”
“I was talking about the cooking. Not great, but we didn’t poison each other, did we?” She turned to her teacher and her father. “But the lovemaking is heavenly.”
Thomas seemed to be choking, and OC swatted him none too gently on the back with a massive paw. “Thanks. Oh sweet daughter of mine, your mother would kill me…”
Father and daughter both winced and met each other’s eyes, briefly. The silence stretched out until Mission Commander Brooj arrived to save them all from the past.
“So, what brings two highly accomplished Rangers to Edelweiss?” Brooj asked over a hastily arranged meal. It was nearly noon, and the Ilshani greeting meant literally, ‘Have you eaten?’ The nutritional and communal eating requirements of the Conservancy put the dining facilities of a five-star restaurant to shame. Brooj started as his eldest daughter kicked him under the table, and he smoothly turned to Karen and added, “Not that our own Ranger isn’t…”
“Relax, Mission Commander. This is just something in the way of a family visit; family business,” Ranger Thomas Boyle said, and smiled innocently. Kev shook his head. Rangers and their secrets… Which begged the question; what was he getting himself into?
Karen leaned his way and whispered, “I’ve got to go talk with dad and Old Complications, after dinner. Are you okay with that?”
“Of course; why wouldn’t I be?”
The Ranger traced a little moisture on the table with a fingertip; Kev saw the characters for disaster, fortune and misfortune, as she added particles and removed them. There was an old saying of doubtful provenance, that went, ‘there’s a fortune in misfortune.’ That was as true in English as in Old High Ilshani. Written in the Ilshani manner, bottom-up, so fortune was underneath misfortune, which was the same character with a particle for negation. The Ilshani had nodded for ‘no’ and they expressed the concept as two carets, one pointing up and the other pointing down. The character for fortune and treasure came from a drawing of two hands, a double fistful.
The Markov Imperium, and most Markov, would say that all we have is what we can hold onto. That attitude, plus the inborn fellowship of the Markov from their herd ur-critter origins, was reinforced with ritual and sacrifice. It drove them to conquer for Clan and Autocrat.
“They came to get me for something big; I can feel it,” she said, still looking down at the characters. “I’ll probably be going away…”
“For how long? And…” Of course, it would be dangerous. But OC and her father had come to get her, so it wouldn’t be too dangerous, would it? Of course, it would be.
“Demands, now?” She kissed him, and tasted a little of the spicy Markov beer that he’d shared with OC. Forehead to forehead, she whispered, “I’ll tell you what I want from us, when I come back. And I will be back, digger.”
Where OC and Thomas sat, a little ways down and across the table from them, the Hunter was trying not to stare; but the sight of the two lovers, forehead to forehead, tugged at his hearts, and he had to drag his eyes away. He was old; far, far older than the Conservancy itself, although that was not common knowledge. That he was older than the Hunter species, whose shape he now wore, was a secret kept by a very few, and this man beside him, though a close friend, was not one.
“Are you thinking of your wife?”
OC went completely still, thinking that perhaps his humans had started to express the powers hidden away inside them; but no, this man was an open book, not a mind-reader. He was thinking of his daughter and his dead wife, her mother, and from there to OC’s actress.
“My ex-wife, you mean? No, I was just thinking that they look like Reshoo and Princess Henneshaneh, from Hojin Venn’s The Shining Host.”
Thomas stared at them and then at OC. “Two things, oh wise and wonderful Teacher. One, they don’t they have tails, scales or horns, although they are a little horny…”
OC looked mildly miffed and pawed his muzzle, hiding a very human-like yawn. “They are very nearly ‘hrooning’ at each other…” That would be forehead to forehead and sub-vocalizing, in the manner of the Ilshani.
“Also, I thought that you never watched that epic any more, not since the break-up?”
“I don’t. But it left an impression.”
Day Zero, Year Zero, Five Suns Xenoarchealogical Consortium Expedition to W-1232-F, Site 829, South Continent, 3046 years ago-
When the diggers breached the last barrier to the old Ilshani blast-shelter, they found something scratched into a sandstone wall. It faced the inner door of the shelter they'd found so far underground. The team took views of it and went on about their survey, but Ash, the Hunter explorer, remained there, reverently tracing the little scratches. Sothep, the Ijbarree linguist and information systems tech, imagined Hunter claw-tip touching Ilshani claw-tip, across thirty thousand years. He shivered.
"Sha oossa na anoosk, Zah, anoosk eneb," Ash whispered.
"You're getting very good at reading Ilshani script, Ash. I didn't think anybody was following my work on the syllabary." Ash didn't respond, and Sothep muttered, "Brilliant work, if I do say so, myself..."
He adjusted his optics, pulling up the recording he'd just taken. "Let's see... 'wellness/good things to become’, or ‘becoming’, plus, no that would be 'and'… Yes! Hey Ash, did you know, ‘Ilshan’ literally means 'The Good Place', or 'The Place of the Good Folk?' I suppose another translation might be 'Heaven.' This next part is 'becoming youth, youthening?' Zah is love, of course..." He fussed happily with his files, in his own little world.
Very quietly, just to himself and all his ghosts, Ash said, "Be well and grow young, Love, grow ever young." He leaned against the stone walls; the sheltering stone; the abiding stone. “Goodbye for now, my love. I've much work to do, before can I rejoin you."
The rest of the team soon determined that this was the last refuge of Princess Henneshaneh, some of her children, and her body guards. They gathered excitedly to hear a recording of the princess singing her children a lullaby while getting them into stasis pods.
"(Sleep youngling, and have no fears, for your father walks the Stars!)
(His shield arm is strong, and his sword swift and sharp,)
(But, most important of all, his heart is full of love for us!)
(Sleep and Dream, youngling, of all the things you will be and do.)
(Will you captain a bright starship, and see all the worlds?)
(Or build the starship well, and keep all who fly her safe?)
(Maybe you will tell the tales, of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers,)
(Who dare, and strive and hope for t
Ash could not bear it, and left that place of death; for the refuge had run out of power for the stasis pods more than twenty-five thousand years ago.
They told Karen next to nothing, but gave her a choice which was not really a choice, not when your father and your Teacher ask you, ‘Come away with us. We need you.’ That was all she told Brooj; she and Kev did very little talking, in the hour or so they had before he walked her to the runabout and watched it fly off.
Ajik Brooj, the troublemaker he and Karen had saved from drowning in the recent disaster and flooding, came up to where Kev sat watching the empty sky. The youngling was Brooj’s son. He and Kev had talked once or twice about family problems.
“What’s up, sport?”
“I thought… my, uh, sister asked me to see if you were okay.”
“That was thoughtful of her,” Kev said, smiling at the fidgeting Bluehorn. “Tell her that I will be. Okay.” He suddenly reached over and rubbed the spot where Ajik’s horn was coming in for good luck before the youngling could object. Then Kev sat back and looked back up at the sky again and added, “I think that I understand you and your brother, the one who went away, a little bit better, now.”
They sat in companionable silence, each looking to his own thoughts and troubles.
“Did you ask her not to go?” Ajik asked after a little while.
“No." Kev turned to the youngling. "Did you ask your brother? Not to go?”
"Which is it?"
"I told him that he was a big stupid jerk, and that he didn’t love us.” There was anguish, pain and regret in that last part, and Kev nodded. Just so.
“You know that’s not true, right?”
Mulishly, the youngling said, “If he loved us, he would have stayed!”
Kev smiled. “Sport, people are the way they are. We love them the way they are. We may not always agree with them, but…” He looked up at the sky again.
“He’s still a stupid jerk! He made my dad- He made my dad throw him out. He ran away to fight for people he does not even know! He doesn’t…”
“I think he does, and I think deep down you know that he does, and you want to see him again, want to take back those words... Your dad was protecting his family, and trying to protect all of us, in the Conservancy. Some ideas are dangerous, and have a life of their own. But it’s still okay to be proud of who and what you are, Ajik.”
Dangerous Ideas by Vincent Cleaver / Science Fiction have rating 2 out of 5 / Based on32 votes