The simple familiarity of the passageway’s shape pleases the D’nal as he treads the length of it with the long-absent missionary at his elbow.
Towering almost fifty centimeters above Remert, the D’nal has no need to stoop. The corridor’s high ceiling accommodates his stature with room to spare and, from it, a comfortable level of illumination washes down over all. This too is pleasing.
His arrival on this outpost mission world earlier this “day” was met without pomp, although the ceremonial trappings were, to his surprise, impeccable.
His introduction to the physical environment, however, was unanticipated to a painful degree, introducing a level of discomfort with which the D’nal has had no previous familiarity.
The excursion suit beneath his vestments was calibrated improperly for the gravity and pressure differentials between Kal’un Shiir’n and this place. His personal retainer traveling with him, being similarly disposed, was unable to crawl to his aid with any haste. An agonizing minnit transpired before the necessary adjustments could be made.
It was an awkward and embarrassing first interaction with D’kin Remert and his troubling second-in-command.
Once he was able to resume, the bare ritual proceeded. Aside from himself and his aide, the strict parameters of the ceremony to transfer responsibility for the Mission precluded everyone but D’kin Remert, his Deputy, and the machine-mind that names itself Sonder from attendance. A less likely gathering he could not have imagined.
Remert excused himself immediately afterward, returning to the remote facility and alleging “processes in motion requiring [his] immediate attention”.
The whole of it has left Kudlac in a sour humor.
Remert’s Deputy Director is a further matter of discontinuity. Kudlac was told before he left Kal’un Shiir’n that the one referring to himself as H’seven had been dismissed. Yet, H’seven was there as the D’nal and his retainers unfolded in this space through Lord Shiric’s portal. He was watching as Kudlac fell, huddled in silent torment, helpless until his excursion suit self-corrected the erroneous preset.
Both of these issues will figure at the top of Kudlac’s next report.
More immediately, there is something unsettling about the D’kin’s manner, conspicuous from their meeting upon arrival. It implies a veiled disrespect, a lack of proper veneration for one of the D’nal’s station. This may be attributable to Remert’s long dissociation from his kind, from the strictly metered hymnody of his Order, and an unavoidable abridgement of the influence of the Claven in his decision-making.
It is a reasonable theory and one he will consider along with the other that advocates the D’kin, left to his own devices for nearly two yonn on this unregulated world, has become a deviate.
They have arrived at a divergent path, a meeting with a wider, arterial corridor. Here there is activity. Foot traffic and workers pushing sledges yield to conveyances navigating the center of the passageway.
“Sonder,” Remert says to the air, “display elemental facility schematic and overview for the D’nal.”
The air in front of Kudlac shapes itself into a tidy wireframe representation of the Reservation. Elements of the image highlight along with an indicator of their position in it as Sonder narrates.
“The facility is defined by a tessellation of seven identical hexagonal containments, each a half kilometer to a side, all together forming a larger hexagonal colony two kilometers across.
“The central hex contains entry portals and command facilities above, critical processes below, and access to the surrounding containments by way of the outer concourses. At its deepest penetration, the facility delves four hundred fifty meters beneath the mesa’s surface and, from there, beneath the desert beyond the mesa’s terminus.
“The whole provides ample space for the various cultures that live and work within this self-contained microcosm, shielded beneath layers of native stone and soil, aggressive vegetation, and, upon the mesa top, a sparse veneer of rural occupancy.”
Kudlac ends the narrative with a gesture both familiar and unexpected. A single word, “Enough,” comes out in a huff.
“If you have a specific question of me, D’nal Kudlac,” Sonder says, “you have only to speak it.”
Kudlac’s accelerated immersion in preparation for this position of both great honor and heavy responsibility has left him with an as yet uncatalogued number of things learned “in process” about this place. What he knows is that it exists somewhere in an unaccountable vastness beyond Hevn’s previously-considered-impenetrable Veil.
Therein lies a revelation that must await his return to the Claven.
The summaries he was given about this world, its populations, their current cultures and beliefs, were less instructive than the psychological development summaries he prompted for and received. The overall development of the species—this conglomeration of Gray t’sunguc and their chaotic societies, their limited perceptions and their biases, their aggressive, greedy, antagonistic natures, and their incompatible yet all-too-similar religions—all remind him very much of Hevn’s own human component. Easily manipulated or deterred, they will present no obstacle to the Mission.
The summary he received of the Mission itself, however, was an education into Lord Shiric’s astonishing reach and grasp, and into the vicissitudes of remote management.
The most recent report received before his deployment indicated there are unsettled and fluid issues Kudlac is expected to address and resolve in a short period of time. His understanding has proven adequate to the task so far, but gaps in that knowledge are now becoming both apparent and urgent.
His preparation, for example, was without reference to the machine-mind. The D’kin introduced him to it and it seems to be everywhere. He finds that fact singularly disconcerting.
He presses the wireframe schematic aside. It dissipates to nothing.
“D’kin Remert, I familiarized myself with the facility’s layout and operations before my transition. You will show me the results of your secondary and tertiary objectives now.”
Remert directs their progress toward an open dartabout hovering in an alcove near the junction. It was not designed for one of the D’nal’s stature, but before Remert can offer apology and call for a different conveyance, Kudlac folds himself into the constricted space with neither complaint nor apparent discomfort. Remert takes the controls and the vehicle skims down the corridor toward the upper concourse loop. Existing traffic yields the center lane and their progress is unimpeded.
The upper loop brings the pair to a vertex, the point where the central and two outer hexagonal containments meet. Corridors branch off from the loop, as does a vertical drop lane equally as capacious as the loop corridor itself. Remert guides the vehicle into it and they sink, a liquid-like descent toward the depth of the facility.
The outer containment walls are transparent and the D’nal is afforded panoramic overviews of both adjacent bio-hexes and their extensive environments before settling at the service level.
Both containments are home to tribes of Gray Moct’unguc She’chah, a stunning achievement. There are no Gray Moccs, or Gray Troccs for that matter, on Hevn. Analyses have confirmed there never were any. The why of it is irrelevant. This accomplishment alone is certain to garner Lord Shiric’s approval and, with it, Methshe Marama’s approbation as well.
The next segment on the service loop reveals a bizarre twist on the Troct’unguc genome, a model already considered by most to be a base aberration of little use beyond applications of brute force and heavy labor. Troccs, considered as a whole, tend to be particularly fond of the former and unanimously disinterested in the latter. These specimens, despite their ludicrous deformity, possess a potential for aptitude and rational thought inconceivable in their savage cousins.
Intelligent Troccs is a notion anyone with sufficient information on the topic would find oxymoronic. The D’nal finds the concept singularly alarming.
Folding himself back into the cursed conveyance, Kudlac waves off a circuit of the residential hex where hundreds of human professionals, support staff, and their families live, procreate, recreate, and presumably die. Humans. T’sunguc. Rare ones actually display the acuity, both physical and mental, to advance into the laity and technical strata. Most are suited for simple duties, service work, labor, and passive occupation of territory.
The D’kin Remert is t’sunguc as well, of course, as are most in the Second and First Circles. The genetic strain has been refined over countless yonn to yield successes just such as this one. Raised to Third Circle in less than a yonn, promoted beyond his experience and potential, some said. They were wrong and Kudlac finds it noteworthy that he was one of the most vocal among them.
He considers this vehicle to be the only true failure of preparation on the D’kin’s part that he might identify upon this, his first, cursory familiarization with the facility at the heart of the Mission.
The intricacy he has so far observed in the processes throughout is beyond any expectation he might have entertained upon his own preparation and immersion. Beyond the undeniable fact of this outpost mission’s success, the sheer numbers, commitment, and competence of the t’sunguc Remert has engaged to facilitate the mission’s numerous objectives is impressive.
It is irrefutable fact that Remert’s ingenuity, devout faith, and perseverance deserve effusive praise. In fact, but for two niggling details, Remert’s conduct and accomplishments would see him returned to the Congregate with honors heaped upon him, elevated before all to position above his Order, beyond that normally deemed possible for such a one as he; raised surely to D’nal.
Kudlac’s abbreviated sigh of something that might be regret, if allowed to ferment, sounds exactly as his breathing does and goes unnoticed. How unfortunate for the D’kin that certain small details assure none of those potential honors will ever transpire.
The last stop on the D’nal’s tour has captivated his attention, as though he has stepped back somehow into Kal’un Thudra’s Underhome.
A broad, brightly lit expanse is occupied by three rows of upright capsules, each with a single mass of bundled cables and conduits sprung from ports in the floor and fused into a single file on one side of the cannister. They look like modified versions of a crèche-nan’s growpods. There are twenty-four of them.
Eight are Trocc-sized enclosures, all unoccupied.
Several technicians in cleansuits with helmets navigate among these vessels, monitoring, recording, moving on. The cumulative low hubbub of disconnected conversations throughout the facility has dwindled to a smattering of subdued exchanges.
Where the purposeful stride of individuals about their business has slowed to a pace less resolute, surreptitious glances have given way to outright gawking distraction. One such, a workman of indeterminate purpose, has simply stopped in his tracks, staring at Kudlac with slack-jawed stupefaction behind his faceplate.
Remert crosses the space between them in three long strides, bends down in front of the individual’s foolish expression, and says, “Explain the reason you have forgotten your duties, sloke.”
The fellow’s eyes skew from the inhuman wrongness that entered with the Director to the dour face of the Director himself. Recognition of his immediate predicament awakens.
“I beg your forgiveness, D’kin,” he says with a deep obeisance. “My responsibilities here remain unattended due to my failure of self-assessment and control. I will report this negligence to my ‘visor and accept any remedial measures deemed appropriate. Will you permit me to resume, D’kin?”
Remert holds his response, watching the man’s reactions, waiting for him to snatch a glance at the D’nal several meters away, but he does not. His eyes remain fixed upon the ceremonial amulet at Remert’s throat, and there is an unambiguous apprehension in them. Both of these things are appropriate.
“Very well, then,” Remert says. “Complete your immediate assignment and report to your ‘visor.”
As if by some magic, before Remert’s glare sweeps the room, normal activity has resumed. Attentions have returned to tasks at hand and a murmur of relevant intercourse has begun to reassert itself into the acoustic backscatter of the life-support mechanisms.
Remert detours slightly, swiping a touchpad on a nearby module, keying diagnostics.
A figure in cleansuit approaches at a march between the rows of pods, a flat-faced woman with deeply folded almond eyes and an angry mouth behind her faceplate. Two technicians follow behind her guiding a manger between them. She halts at a respectful distance and does not appear disconcerted by Kudlac’s appearance.
Remert acknowledges her with what would have been a lifted eyebrow if he had any, and says, “Doctor Ahn, I present to you the Ascendant, Baul Kudlac, a D’nal of the Second Circle. He has come to us to be Minister of the Change.”
The D’kin continues without the requisite adjustment of stance or tone. “D’nal, I present Doctor Ahn Soo Rin. She is my surrogate in this department. Her understanding of the process we employ matches that of any Class Five in the Overhome.”
The flat-faced woman honors the D’nal with a deep bow. He nods in return, a generous acknowledgement to a t’sunguc subordinate who appears to know her place.
“Your pardon, D’kin,” Dr. Ahn says to Remert. “These two have been directed to transport this subject to theater Northeast Five for a staging process. May we proceed?”
Remert makes no move to do other than advance the diagnostic display with a long index finger and, after his assessment is complete, addresses the woman.
“You have been monitoring its recovery.”
“Religiously, D’kin. Eighty-seven percent integumentary regeneration at the interweave sites. No rejection components are evident. It is a resilient subject.”
“So it is. Decrease circulators to twenty-eight percent and maintain the nutrient broth at its current concentration. I do not want to rush the process just because we can. Let its systems do their work.”
“As you say, D’kin.”
“You will pass my instruction along to Dr. McIntosh.”
“Of course, D’kin.”
“Proceed then, Doctor.”
The manger’s tiny, caged quarrmalyne sphere rages dark and silent in its receptacle near the operator’s hand controls. A cerulean flood beneath the sled paints the floor and the technicians’ fabric slippers.
The operator positions the sled behind the module. The other engages the chamber’s onboard systems. The entire series of hose and conduit couplers disengage. The upright capsule is laid back, coming to rest in the manger’s rigid sling.
“This specimen holds particular significance,” Kudlac says to the flat-faced woman.
Dr. Ahn looks to her Director, whose expression registers nothing.
“This is a uniquely hybridized Moct’ah hermaphrodite,” she says. “Its designation is ST-One, a promising emergent from a particularly viable strain and the current subject of a critical series of trials. Its central and peripheral nervous systems have been augmented and its extremities redesigned. Our intention is to join its unusually acute non-linear intellect with the heuristic intelligence that manages almost every tactical phase of the Mission.”
“It is man-a’kin.”
“In every regard. Yes.”
“And you would meld its mind to a thinking machine.”
“Not only its mind, D’nal, but its physicality in actuality as well as in vee. S/he will become Sonder’s avatar, able to operate within the context of Real with the same fluidity as any human.”
“As to the concept of ‘thinking machine’,” Remert says, “Sonder not only manages all LocUS AsReal Community validation processes and portals, but also oversees administrative and environmental control in both the Center and in this facility. It is interrogative, speculative, and creative.”
“You have observed consistent evidence of Methodic thought in your interactions with it,” Kudlac says.
“It is familiar with Methodic concepts and paradigms, D’nal.”
“That is not what I inquired of you, D’kin.”
“Other paradigms have evolved.”
“Your timetable for this project and Lord Shiric’s are synchronous.”
“If the interface is successful, ST-One will be ready and in place at the Center, where Sonder’s core will reside at transition.”
“You will insure that it is so.” Kudlac says and turns to look down on Dr. Ahn. “You will walk with me, Doctor.”
If the doctor is disconcerted by this, her expression behind the faceplate appears unfazed. She is forced to a quick-step to keep up with the D’nal’s pace, nearly tripping to a halt as Kudlac stops to regard another capsule.
He squats, or folds, or something else—difficult to determine given his peculiar gait and the vestments covering enough of him to make speculation necessary. He seems curious about what appears to be Hergenrather/H’seven within the container. And in the one next to it as well. His misshapen alien head turns the doctor’s way.
She indicates the first cannister. “What you see here, Ascendant One, is a fully mature physical clone of the Deputy Director’s current vehicle.” She gestures to the other capsule. “This is the next iteration, an advanced composite man-a’kin, awaiting transference.”
“This is your work.”
“Everything you see here, Ascendant One, is the product of many hands working in concert. I have been given responsibility for the success of this project and have…”
“I will credit your effort in my report, Doctor.”
“Thank you, D’nal, for your generous recognition.”
Kudlac exits the facility with Remert behind, an unhurried second. He is settling into his section of the dartabout as the D’kin approaches.
“That one will return with us at the alignment,” he says to Remert. “Her bearing is acceptable. Her responses, while not properly articulated, were an adequate attempt for an uninitiate.”
“She will be honored by your gracious inclusion of her in the transference, D’nal.”
Remert has guided the vehicle into another vertical corridor. Kudlac is unable to sense whether they are being pushed or pulled, but experiences a profound moment of dissociation as their conveyance rises at a dizzying pace. Some renegade component of his digestive system is threatening to disgorge a remnant of his latest nutrient.
Their ascent ends with bob and Remert diverts the dartabout from the concourse into a proprietary corridor, narrower, sans traffic. The entrance irises closed behind them.
Kudlac’s environment suit has made adjustment again and the distress in his craw is diminished. There seems a way yet to go and he must prepare Remert for the next phase.
“The facility is impressive, D’kin. Given the circumstances of its development and the primitive tools at hand to accomplish the feat, I had anticipated, in this remote station, a gesture at best, a crude approximation of Kal’un Thudra’s sacred architecture.” The D’nal’s bellows refills. “It satisfies me to find, instead, a faithful re-creation of classic Methodic design. I commend you on the compound’s clean, utilitarian layout.”
“The Method and Mong’s Example, coupled with Lord Shiric’s generous resources at the mission’s commencement, were both critical to its inception here. The design follows, as closely as was practical, the Underhome Center of Inquiry, Analysis, and Advancement.”
“An appropriate model, adequately executed, D’kin.”
“Your graciousness is legendary, D’nal.”
“I hear you speak to me in the vernacular of the Method, yet I find your pace and intonations strange.”
“It has been many yarnn since the Thudran language was in my ears. I have been speaking the muddy tongue of these round-worlders for so long, and no other with whom I might share my own. It seems strange to me to hear it spoken properly.”
“You had the songs.”
“You sang them.”
“You produced offspring with one of these round-worlders.”
“You did not teach these offspring the language. You did not teach them the songs.”
“Your reasoning for not doing so must have been compelling.”
“It was obvious, D’nal.”
“Share it with me, D’kin.”
“I had no way of receiving Benison, or even Acknowledgement from the Order for my children and no way to initiate them into the Order without it. To teach them the songs without initiation is forbidden and without the songs, they could never be consecrated.”
“You did not intend to return with them to Kal’un Shiir’n. Or to the Underhome. The required training may have been difficult so late in their development. You did not deem them capable.”
“I believed the mission abandoned after losing contact with Lord Shiric for the best part of a yonn. There was no viable plan for return without His instrumentation. My sons are capable for their purposes here and that, D’nal, is sufficient. Let us return to the work before us. There remains much for you to digest.”
“With few exceptions, D’nal, the t’sunguc inhabiting this Earth have no guiding discipline, nor direction beyond their own self-serving interests. Mong would have a glorious time bringing them into alignment. My own sons, for instance, have inherited their mother’s nature and inclinations. It is unfortunate, but anticipated and, because of that anticipation, they are educated in sufficient Methodic practice to be of continuing value to the mission without compromising Mong’s Imperative.”
A pass-through at the end of the way irises open and closes behind them. The vehicle settles to the lower limit of its pressors within a bare vestibule, and Remert says, “We have arrived, D’nal.”
Kudlac unpacks himself onto the polished stone of the anteroom and straightens with sinuous ease. His vestments fall into place without effort and the slender reed of the D’nal’s neck, braced within his raiment’s gorget, turns his head, scanning the area.
A proper doorway stands just paces away.
“As you know, D’kin, I did not agree with those who advocated your commission. The Claven saw differently and, I admit, accurately. Their wisdom in this is apparent. You have surpassed expectations. You have, in point of fact, conducted yourself in nearly every respect with honor and credit to the Method and its myriad Children.”
From above, he views his subordinate dismounting from the conveyance. Straightening himself and his own regalia, Remert lifts his head and holds the D’nal’s eyes.
Kudlac chooses to disregard the glaring impertinence for the moment. “You present me with an awkward problem, D’kin. As regards your use of the insidious poison, shosht’at-lool, that which Lord Shiric names ‘Good Water’, you have knowingly violated a lawful edict of the Claven.
“And this…” he taps Remert’s head with all three fingers to indicate the webbed map of the neural implant beneath the Director’s bald pate, “This is sacrilege.”
A ripple of disbelief and vexation perturbs Remert’s ever-lugubrious features, quickly suppressed. He pitches his voice in unemotional tones.
“Surely you, D’nal, received Lord Shiric’s benefaction, as did I. Having accepted his commission, he is Nee’m and no other. His purpose is ours. We have so sworn and having sworn, our faith and honor binds us to that oath. I have held my vow inviolate and conducted myself accordingly.”
“Right and true. Regardless, Methshe Marayma is Naa’m. Without breaking the oath so sworn to Lord Shiric, our allegiance is first and always to Her. Her directives, passed down to you through the First Circle, were to be followed meticulously. Now it is time, D’kin, despite any rationalizations, to meet the consequence of your transgression. Your commandment was never to partake of the shosht’at-lool and this you have willfully disobeyed. Furthermore, to allow such enhancements as this,” Kudlac thumps Remert’s skull with slate-dark fingertips, “without the Claven’s direct endorsement, is a profanity. It pains me, but I cannot, upon my return, stand before the Claven and Methshe Marayma to recite my report and sanction either your disobedience or your heresy.”
Remert forces down his fury and replies in a tone devoid of inflection. “I will say this to you now and will not speak it again until my return to Underhome and consideration by the Claven and Methshe Marayma.
“I found myself, without explanation, abandoned upon this Mong-forsaken ball of fung without means of communication or resupply. After nearly ten yarnn without contact, I understood the complex fields and energies of this world would end me long before the Event, before I could execute my charge. I chose a narrow way in order to fulfill my mandate and fulfill it I did. I would defy any in my circumstance to achieve what I have done with so little.”
“This sounds dangerously close to hubris.”
“You recall the Threnody of Beelem, D’nal.”
“Every initiate knows it. You are attempting to draw a parallel between your work in this Mission and B’sho Beelem’s accomplishment.”
“Once the Full Claven is made aware of the exigency of my situation, I am confident they will grant me dispensation in this.”
There is a drawn silence suggestive of many possible responses from the Minister looming above him, indicative of none. A sipping sound becomes a soft rasping of air drawn through the filters in all of the Minister’s nostrils. The bellows in the Minister’s thorax release in a long, slow gust. At the end of it, the tiny, grim mouth shapes words.
“I will agree to reconsider your position.”
Remert produces a deep bow with as much feigned respect as he is willing to simulate at this juncture, but it is enough. “I leave you to your conference with Mr. Pruitt, D’nal. I will join you later in the…”
“You will accompany me now, D’kin.”
“Your pardon, D’nal. As you might anticipate, given the timeline, I have numerous processes ongoing at accelerated pace, each requiring my specific attention.”
“You mention time again, D’kin, as though it is something I am unable to track or, perhaps, fathom.”
“Time does not move in the same way here as you are used to in Kal’un Thudra, D’nal. You will not like it.”
“Heed me, D’kin. Your capable subordinates will manage in your stead until I have relieved you. Do as I command.”
Remert turns on a heel and strides though the near doorway before Kudlac can skirt the conveyance in his path and calls back without turning, ” As you instruct, Minister. I will announce your arrival at once.”
◄ ~ ~