Under an Airless Sky
by Lizzie Newell
The stars burned steady and unwavering as the tube train sped across the plains of the planet Seracho. No remainder of dusk or forerunner of dawn disturbed the clearness of the night sky. Aboard a dome compartment, Gadid and Turi remained awake. Their paternal brothers and father slept—Salvelin slumped against a bulkhead, Pike leaning with his head thrown back, their father, Chief, snoring softly.
Glowing tops of underground greenhouses branched in a network across the dusky plain. They looked like greenhouses to Gadid anyway. He rubbed his stubbly beard and stretched out his booted feet trying to get comfortable. He hadn’t shaved in the days since they’d fled their homeworld. Although after traveling light-years, days no longer meant much.
The trip had been a confusing muddle of cramped space capsules, windowless space-hubs, and the babble of unintelligible languages.
Turi, an inky silhouette against the stars, gazed into the darkness.
Gadid transmitted to his brother Turi on a private channel, Navigator, where are we?
Don’t know yet. With the buttes in the distance and the train moving, I can’t get a good fix on the horizon.
Get some sleep. You’ll be translating, sent Gadid.
New stars. I wouldn’t miss this for the queen’s share.—Turi.
Ahead, the glowing lights of other compartments came into view as the train curved southwards. Reaching a Y in the tube, it uncoupled without losing speed. The head continued northeast while Gadid and Turi’s compartment shot southeast.
“Approaching Escarpment University.”
The announcement jolted Gadid awake. He accessed his implant for a sub-visual translation in written Fenrian: Nearing cliff school.
The tube ahead descended suddenly. The compartment plunged underground then slowed. With a hiss, it came to a stop in a bunker. Harsh artificial light shone on the train platform, a row of carts, and on walls of rough glass, as if the material had been sand cast as one piece.
Two figures emerged from a side tunnel, each wearing tunic and trousers. Gadid couldn’t determine if they were male or female, but they didn’t appear to be armed—not even with rigging knives. That’s all that mattered to him. He trusted Chief to present necessary documents to their Seracho hosts.
Helmsman, how long do we have to unload? asked Salvelin as he released the lashing on the gear, six crates of robotics and five toolboxes. Salvelin’s beard, originally a goatee, was particularly ragged and unkempt.
Don’t know. Let’s move quickly. Gadid lifted one end of a tote. Salvelin took the other, the cooperation practiced and habitual.
We’ll stack the gear over by the wall. Gadid judged the location to be out of the way of traffic. He reckoned train stations were like boat ramps; out of respect for others, the handy mariner moved his gear expediently.
He and Salvelin hauled their crate onto the platform. Turi and Pike followed behind with another. The ventilation in the bunker hummed, but the dank air had the tang of solvents and ozone. As he and Salvelin moved their second load, the two strangers approached.
One spoke in what must have been Standard. “Blazes! They’re testostrites.”
Gadid’s implant offered a sub-visual translation, Fire! They’re quiz crystals, which didn’t make sense. Glares! They’re exam bonerocks, wasn’t any better. He’d let Turi figure it out.
As Gadid and Salvelin added their second crate to the stack, Chief exited the compartment weighed down with toolboxes.
Gadid’s implant offered only flashes of meaning as the stranger wearing purple zigzags spoke:
Income an appearance, that unique has male template hairlessness. And altogether that facemask mane...
Turi standing on the train platform sent a better sub-visual translation prefaced by, Act like you don’t understand this. Let’s keep them talking.
The translator rapidly presented options and, nudged by Turi, resolved into comprehensibility:
“Take a look, that one has male pattern baldness. And all that facial hair. Out of control hormones. Completely unregulated, by the look of it.”
The other said, “They’re in the rut for sure. They stink of it, and they’re all armed. Those vests look like body armor. And knives!”
Chief deposited the toolboxes and bowed. “Greetings,” he said in familiar Fenrian.
Pike stopped at the compartment door. He was supposed to say, “how do you do,” in Standard. That’s how we practiced it.
Turi sent, Chief knows what he’s about, and went into the compartment.
Two more crates to go.
Salvelin fanned the air in front of his nose and scruffy beard. They’re right. Stuck for days in a compartment with you all.
It wasn’t days, sent Gadid. The train trip had been less than a night.
It sure seemed like it.—Pike.
Boys, belay. Chief gestured with a grand sweep of his arm. These are our hosts.
The two tunic-wearing strangers shied. As the Fenrian men converged, the strangers took on the look of herring surrounded by sharks.
Easy.—Chief. Let’s not intimidate them. Everyone bow.
Along with his brothers, Gadid inclined his torso.
“Did you see that?” A stranger exclaimed. “Synchronized.”
While stooping, Gadid kept a watch for dangerous moves. Both the strangers had short black hair. Their skin was a pleasant beige, not unlike the Fenrians, but they had no facial hair. Their draped clothing—patterned with zigzags on one stranger, stylized flowers on the other—concealed the curves and angles of their bodies. Gadid had no idea of their gender even on closer inspection.
“Hello, I’m Doctor Denuth,” said the one with purple zigzags. “And this is my colleague, Doctor Stan.”
Gadid closed his eyes to read the translations then asked, Does “Doctor” mean physician, teacher, or lawyer? What are they?
They aren’t mariners and they sure aren’t Seaguard.—Salvelin. He'd covered two of the three Fenrian categories for people. Seaguard had implants for operating remote robotics. The other category was women, one that dominated nearly every profession on Gadid’s homeworld. I’d hazard they’re teacher-women.
Gadid figured Salvelin was right.
Teacher Stan, wearing stylized flowers, held out her hand.
You’re supposed to shake, Turi suggested. Next, we say who we are.
Chief grasped her hand and pumped.
I’m not giving out my name to strangers.—Pike.
Stan and Denuth might not be their names.—Chief. Are those personal names? Clan name? Or maybe the name of their boat.
I doubt that.—Salvelin.
We can give whatever we want as names. They won’t know the difference.—Pike.
Chief stepped forward. We’ll give Professional titles just like they have. Navigator, give me phrases. Turi sent them and Chief spoke. “Chief Noahee here. My kinsmen.” He gestured to his four sons.
As senior, Gadid went first giving his professional title. “Helmsman.”
Pike followed Gadid’s lead. “Engineer.”
“Navigator,” said Turi.
“Boatswain,” announced Salvelin. Ask about our gear. If that train departs we’ll lose it.
He and Pike peeled off, headed back to the compartment. Chief read more of Turi’s phrases. “Our baggage is there.” Chief pointed to the four stacked crates. “And on the train. Keep it here until we unload.”
Gadid didn’t wait for an answer. He and Turi hefted the last crate. They hauled it out of the compartment and added it to the others against the glassy wall. When they’d fled Fenria, they’d packed their gear and not much else, leaving behind clothing and mementos all to make room for robotics.
Denuth tugged at her purple zigzag tunic. “More of them? What could these testostrites possibly be bringing into Escarpment?” An accusing glance shot toward Chief.
The boxes carried telechiric robots, devices essential to the work and the very identity of Seaguard. Gadid used such remote appendages as readily as he used his fingers, and he would feel the loss of the gear as keenly as amputation of his own hands.
Stan placed a palm on a crate. “What’s inside?”
Gadid entered kiriks into his translator. Suggested phrases scrolled across his sub-visual display: remote prosthetics, robots, drones, electronic bugs, spy-bots. None of them seemed likely to please their hosts.
What do we tell her?—Pike.
“Tools,” offered Turi, speaking in Standard.
“Just what kind of tools would they need?” Denuth turned toward Stan. “I can’t imagine garden rakes.”
Stan slapped a crate. “Show us. Open it up!”
Seaguard telechirics were personal and sacrosanct. Gadid and his kinsmen simultaneously crossed their arms, a phalanx of booted gray.
“Do you understand me?” Stan asked.
Gadid blinked and saw, Do you erect beneath me?
“Open!” Stan gestured the lifting of a lid.
We have nothing to hide. Show them.—Chief.
Gadid considered which of their devices would appear the most innocuous to Stan and Denuth. Crate four. His arms still crossed, Gadid transmitted a command to unlock and pop open Pike’s crate.
Stan startled. The raised lid revealed row-upon-row of remote-control wrenches, each in a charging niche, each with legs folded close to carapace as if they were mechanical crabs. Larger remote-control devices filled the lower niches.
Stan peered at the leggy kiriks. “What are these for?”
“Fix boats,” Turi said.
“And aircraft,” Salvelin added after checking alternatives.
About anything.—from Pike, the owner of the wrenches.
“Boats? Boats on Seracho?” Denuth laughed. “There’s no lakes here, and no atmosphere.”
Turi looked skyward. “Always prepared.”
We need to know where to store our gear and how we’re going to move the crates.—Salvelin.
We could have the robots climb out and carry the boxes.—Pike.
Gadid imagined an army of drones streaming out of the crates like so many ants or rodents. Stan and Denuth would piss themselves, he sent.
Turi asked, “Where do we put gear?”
Stan rubbed her baby-smooth chin. “I say we get it over to the department. Then we’ll see. CART!”
A wagon with four wheels, but with no cab or driver, rolled toward the crates and stopped.
Gadid helped lift crates and toolboxes onto the cart. Only three of the large totes fit.
“CART!” shouted Stan.
A second wagon arrived for the rest of the baggage. Gadid helped Salvelin lash down the gear.
The group left the station bunker through heavy doors and a passageway, also with glassy brown walls and artificial light, the two carts trundling behind.
The passageway led to an underground concourse where the air smelled of loam, irrigation spray rustled on leaves, and vines cascaded from balconies. Trees reached upward toward skylights, dark against the night.
In the humid warmth, Gadid's clothing was sticky, so he loosened his vest. Considering vulnerabilities, he identified power, data, and water lines. Shorting power or interrupting data would be a simple matter of sending a kirik spider to snip some wires. He also recognized the nozzles and lines of a fire suppression system.
Passersby, clothed in flowing garments, turned to stare. Gadid stared back, aware of the striking contrast between himself dressed in boots and life vest and those costumed in sandals and what looked to Gadid like sleepwear. The pedestrians were all smaller than himself and his kinsmen. None carried weapons or appeared to be dangerous, other than their naked curiosity—a curiosity that Gadid shared.
Chief walked with Stan and Denuth. Turi followed, glancing upward at the skylights, surely attempting to locate stars above the dark glazing.
Navigator, what’s our bearing? Gadid sent.
South by southeast. Turi pointed in the direction of their travel. I’ve identified the planet’s magnetic field.
Salvelin and Pike trailed with the carts, leaving Gadid free to look out for danger. He didn’t see any among the greenery or soft, mysteriously-robed strangers.
Pike, the engineer, stooped. The carts have capacitors. Not batteries.
Gadid monitored and approved. They were all doing their jobs even in this bizarre environment.
They journeyed for a half mile, according to Turi, through tubular greenhouses under the stares of the locals. The group passed through a bulkhead door into a cavernous space filled with stacks of glass-fronted offices. Pedestrians—presumably students—strolling through the area were about Gadid’s age or a bit younger.
A huge panoramic window formed one wall and gave view of the night. Then light blazed across the barren planet as the sun rose, a sliver at first. It cleared the horizon, illumination flooding across the expanse of a vast crater under a black sky.
“Escarpment,” Denuth said reverently as the sunlight streamed through the glazing, her words a consecration.
And so it was, Gadid acknowledged. The university had been built into the cliff that ringed the crater. He was awed by the fragility of the thin glazing separating the verdant habitat from the stark vacuum beyond.
Gadid checked that all six crates and five boxes were secure and he activated surveillance before leaving the carts and gear behind. He and his kinsmen followed the teachers up a stairway to "The Department."
They crowded into a cubical office to meet “The Chair of Anthropology.” Turi had determined that chair was not a piece of furniture, but another androgynous denizen of Seracho, one who wore a tunic printed with interlocking octagons. Gray frosted her short, curly hair.
“Good blazes!” she exclaimed.
“These are the Fenrian refugees,” said Denuth, the one in zigzags. “Surprising. I know. I didn’t expect this overblown masculinity from a matriarchal society. I didn’t expect this at all.”
In Gadid’s opinion, there were too many people in a room without a fire escape. But he realized evacuation was impossible. In the event of a fire or explosion, there was no place to go. Inhabitants would be blasted into the harsh vacuum just beyond the thin membrane of the habitat.
“Is it safe to have them here at the university?” asked The Chair.
Gadid understood how savage he and his kinsmen might appear. Big and rugged, they were clad in gray and seaboots, stubble on their faces, tools attached to their vests. Salvelin’s vest sported a marlinspike. Pike’s had pliers. They all carried rigging knives with combinations of serrations, line hooks, and spikes for splitting and splicing wire and rope.
“Can’t say. We were given to understand that they’re political refugees. This seemed a valuable opportunity to study a matriarchy that developed during the Galacti-com isolation.” Denuth shook her head. “Now I don’t know.”
Gadid’s kinsmen followed the translation, eyes closed, fingers to the sides of their heads, their responses delayed. Gadid kept his eyes opened. Someone had to keep watch.
He expanded his awareness to a security camera on the gear in the passage. The crates and toolboxes aboard the carts remained undisturbed as students hurried past.
The Chair said, “What proof do we have of their refugee status?”
“You’re thinking they’re an invasion force?” asked Denuth. “Or maybe terrorists?”
“It seems absurd.”
Chief cleared his throat and produced a tube from his pocket. From it he pulled a roll of thick paper. He handed the documents to the department chair, and she unfurled the sheets. Handwritten letters in Standard filled the pages.
The Chair bent to read, her face growing even more serious as her eyes scanned. When she’d finished a page, she handed it to Stan and Denuth. Side-by-side, flowers next to zigzags, they held the sheets between them. The letter had been penned by Lana Politkofsky, the same ethnographer who had produced the lexicon used by Turi. Gadid’s estimation of her ability had dropped significantly in the past few hours. To be fair she’d compiled it for understanding Fenrian, not for Fenrians to understand Standard.
The Chair retrieved the pages from Stan and Denuth. “This isn’t good. It says that they fled after a failed coup attempt.”
“Accused of a coup attempt,” said Stan.
The Chair said, “We don’t know if they made the attempt or not. We only have Politkofsky’s word on this. The important issue—might they try it here? They’re a group of rebels who were fighting for men’s rights in a matriarchal society.”
“We’re hardly a matriarchy,” said Stan. “And this is why they’re so valuable as anthropological subjects.”
“And one of them”—The Chair dropped a finger on the unfurled message—“was slated for execution. Because ‘e was anti-social and unable to control ‘er anger.”
Navigator, did she say “he” or “she?” Those are the pronouns in Standard, yes?—Chief.
“This one, Gadid—”
Gadid turned to his name spoken by The Chair, then closed his eyes to read:
—was so dangerous that ‘er own people believe ‘e had to be killed for their safety.
Helmsman, hold steady. They don’t think we understand. Let’s keep it that way.—Chief.
No need to pretend. Gadid had plenty of trouble following the discussion.
The documents supported the family claim that Gadid and his kinsmen had fled Fenria in fear for their lives and cited his impending execution, but the Fenrian judges had never intended the sentence to be carried out. Theirs had been a Solomonic decision calculated to force a settlement to a messy custody battle between his maternal and paternal clans, a battle drawn out for most of Gadid’s life.
“Which one of you is Gadid?” asked The Chair.
Go ahead and answer.—Chief.
Gadid bobbed his head. “Aye.”
The three teachers turned their gaze on him as he read a phrase suggested by Turi: “I am Gadid.”
“Do you understand us?” The Chair asked.
Gadid shook his head.
Turi corrected him, Helmsman, according to Politkofsky, a shake of the head means no.
How do they indicate confusion? Gadid asked.
She doesn’t say.—Turi.
Gadid shook his head yet again.
Depths! Not even agreement on yes and no.
The Chair reached for a device on her desk. “We’ll order a full psychiatric workup.”
Gadid stepped back as his kinsmen closed in around him. He’d repeatedly undergone psychiatric tests on his home-world, all because at the age of five, he and his maternal brother had been left in the care of a cousin during their mother’s illness. The cousin had mistreated his brother. Angry, Gadid had staged a premeditated attack. He’d ambushed the cousin using remote-control spiders, biting her repeatedly. She’d been traumatized but otherwise unharmed. Even if he were able to explain the event to The Chair and two teachers, he wouldn’t.
His actions had set off the custody dispute that had eventually resulted in his flight to Seracho. He sighed. He’d been exiled light-years from home for his behavior and his father for the coup that was no coup, merely an assertion of paternal rights in a matriarchal society.
“Dr. Meuon, these…,” Stan’s disturbed glance took in the Fenrians, “…men understand us. And they’re opposed to such a test. Observe the body language. Proximics.”
The Chair's face went stark. “Blazes. You’re right.”
“We do. How’s this for proxemics?” Chief crossed his arms and stepped toward The Chair. “Gadid is my oldest son. My… firstborn. Harm him and I will become angry…”
Turi sent a phrase suggestion.
“Face my wrath!”
The Chair, face awash with fear, stepped back.
Chief spoke slowly. “Answer. Do you have children? You singular? You...yous...you all?”
The Chair straightened her tunic and answered. “One. On Seracho, each person may produce one child with the partner of ‘er choosing.”
Chief consulted with Turi then demanded, “Are you male or female?”
“That is considered a rude question in our culture. Taboo.” The Chair smiled weakly. “A good thing to an anthropologist. I’m sure you have your own.”
“Pardon me,” said Chief according to Turi’s suggestion. The tension in the office eased only slightly.
The Chair said, “When someone wishes to produce a child, ‘e alters ‘er daily hormone regimen under the direction of a physician.”
Chief relayed a question from Turi: “Standard has pronouns—he, she, it, Yes?”
“Correct. Also they, we, and you. However, on Seracho, we use ‘e to avoid rudeness. It takes the form of E for subject. Er and ers are the possessive forms. Im is for direct object. Please refer to me, and others by these pronouns.”
We will respect their customs. Chief bobbed his head. “Aye.”
“Each person has the right to produce at least one child,” The Chair repeated. “More than one if E is chosen as a parent by another. If someone dies without issue, er partner produces a replacement heir to continue the name.”
The room became silent even as the transmitted discussion buzzed with speculation.
So, they do have more than one child each.—Pike.
One designated child. Probably an average of two for a stable population.—Chief.
His forehead creased as he raised his eyebrows. “Your name?” To Fenrians asking someone’s name qualified as extremely rude. Chief had no compunction about taboos, a contributing factor in their exile.
Taking no offense, The Chair seemed to understand Chief’s somewhat indirect question about inheritance. “My name was given by my parent, Senior Meuon.”
Chief consulted with Turi then announced, “Gadid is my eldest. My one child. I care for im as much as you care for yours.”
We always knew you loved him best.—Pike.
I love all of you equally. But we support Gadid. Chief nodded to him.
“We wish no harm to your one child,” said Meuon. “However, we must protect the safety of students and staff.”
“Understood,” said Chief. By now, Turi had taught the translator to recognize that word.
Meuon said, “I have arranged for psychiatric evaluation. With your permission, I will escort your one child to the clinic immediately.”
Stan whispered to Meuon, “In the event E is declared dangerous, will you…?”
Stan’s words were too low to be understood, but they came through translation clearly. Someone, probably Turi or Chief, must have placed a microphone bug.
Gadid checked the signature of the device, Chief’s. The kirik, an insect-like robot clung to the back of Meuon’s tunic.
Meuon shook er head and still the kirik held on. “Under the influence of testosterone, males tend to run amok. They rage. They shoot. They set off bombs. We know this from our cross-cultural studies. We may have no choice.”
Navigator, what did that mean? Are they planning to kill me? Gadid sent.
Out in the passageway, a student approached the carts and was reaching tentative fingers toward a lid.
We won’t let it happen.—Turi.
The others sent sub-visual agreement.
Gadid’s full attention shot from the room to the gear as he activated defensives, giving the student’s fingers a sharp electrical zap. The student jumped back.
Then the student reached out again. Depths, E was still curious. Gadid upped the power.
Stations! He activated a spider, extending the eight legs of his chosen arachnid. The front appendages were duplex neurologically to his arms, the back to his legs. He pushed from the niche and exited the toolbox through a sally port. A short climb brought his spider to the top of the load. Gadid activated a second spider. Pike and Salvelin’s devices were also emerging. Pike’s crab-like wrenches took up guard atop a crate—eye turrets swiveling. Salvelin’s resembled sea stars with cameras on the tip of each arm.
Gadid’s second spider reached the top; its array of multiple cameras glittered on its face. He reared his spiders on hind legs and hissed.
The student jumped back. Other students stopped to watch, a crowd gathering.
Gadid had intended to warn the intruder away, not to put on a street show. Got an audience.
We’ll make the best of it. Salvalin tapped the rays of his starfish against a crate lid, and Pike picked up the rhythm.
Gadid’s hissed in time with the beat. He sent his spiders into a jig, tapping their tarsals. The crowd laughed.
Now what? Gadid asked.
You tell us, Helmsman.—Pike.
In the office, Salvelin and Pike’s hands were moving in time with their remote devices, and the teachers were staring at them.
“Got a situation in the passageway,” Gadid said in Fenrian. Turi, help me.
“Our gear,” Turi said in Standard. “Not safe. We go.”
The crowd was growing larger. Shouts came across in snatches: freaks, testosterone, wild men.
Gadid tramped down the stairway in a group now eight strong, the teachers trailing at the end.
In the passageway, individuals in olive green tunics shouted at the mob. The crowd fell back from Gadid’s party as Meuon consulted with the green-clad individuals—officers?
Gadid struggled with sub-visual translation superimposed over his multi-eyed view of the crowd:
...research subjects...anthropology department...We don’t know...We don’t know...Keep back.
As the officers unfurled barriers, Meuon led the group along the passageway and into a waiting room with walls covered in woven grass. Gadid judged that complying was safer than dealing with crowd directly.
Another androgynous person stepped through an inner door and eyed the Fenrian wild men. “Which one of you is the patient?”
His brothers pushed Gadid forward. “Helmsman.”
Some support from you, Gadid sent.
We’re right here.—Turi.
They followed him into the office where they surrounded and overtopped the psychiatrist, a person even smaller than others they’d encountered.
“I’ll see the patient alone,” E said from between the darkly clad men as they filled the tiny office with their large bodies and the reeked of stale sweat. Otherwise, the room contained two chairs and a potted plant.
Seems safe enough. Gadid longed for a shower and a shave.
As one, his kinsmen turned and filed out the door, leaving the plant quivering in the breeze.
Send us everything. I’ll translate.—Turi.
Salvelin can take over, sent Gadid.
Salvelin is better for guarding the gear.—Turi.
I’ll take security.—Chief.
Gadid released control of his spiders to his father, saying, if anything happens I recommend targeting ventilation. I judge it their weak point.
Danna’s grace it doesn’t come to that.—Chief.
Gadid sat on the edge of a chair and faced the psychiatrist.
“Your name is Gadid, correct?” E held a notepad.
“Aye. Helmsman Gadid.” He used what he and Turi guessed was the same form as his hosts’ names.
“Do you understand what I say when I speak to you?”
Gadid read Turi’s suggested response: “A little.”
The initial translation came up and changed as Turi chose words and reordered the grammar.
“I’m a psychiatrist. I will evaluate your emotional responses. If warranted I can prescribe endocrines to regulate your excessive testosterone. I’m going to ask you a series of questions. There are no right or wrong answers. Do you understand?”
There were right and wrong answers. Gadid didn’t want to consider the consequences of refusing the hormones. Refuse them he would, since he had no way of knowing how the medication would affect his implant. “Aye.”
He watched for the next question to resolve into meaning.
On a scale of one to six, one being never and six being always, how often do you feel angry?
What kind of question is that? sent Gadid. I can give adrenaline spikes recorded by my implant. It’s spiking right now. His implant showed his elevated heart rate as it pounded. He took a breath and willed it to slow.
That’ll confuse im, Turi sent and the others agreed.
I’ll select one. I never feel angry, because I do something about it.
What about the time my kirik swallowed yours?—Turi.
That was years ago!
Pick three.—Salvelin. Right in the middle.
“Three,” Gadid repeated.
The psychiatrist asked, Do you keep your emotions in until you explode?
That doesn’t make sense. Gadid imagined his guts spattered in the office, not a pleasant thought.
It doesn’t, agreed Turi who returned Gadid’s exact words phrased in Standard.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Gadid said.
Do you keep anger in until it explodes?
Why the depths do they think anger explodes?—Pike.
Beats me.—Turi. I think of it as a storm. The others agreed.
“No,” said Gadid. He figured that if he didn’t entirely understand, the best answer was no.
Do you feel guilty after getting angry?
When he was angry there was a good reason for it. “No.”
Do you tend to criticize others?
All the time.—Pike.
When I have good reason to, Gadid sent. “No.”
I will read some scenarios. On a scale of one to six, let me know how angry you would feel?
On your way from your shift in hydroponics, you stop in the concourse for some noodles. As you walk past a garden alcove, you see your partner kissing and holding hands with someone else. E produced your heir and you thought you would produce ers. How angry does this make you feel?
What do noodles have to do with anger? Hydroponics? Even with Turi’s massaging of vocabulary and syntax, the scenario made no sense. Gadid grimaced and shrugged.
We’ll move on. Your partner dies without issue. Your parent-in-law cuts you out by arranging for an heir without your contribution. How angry does this make you feel?
Gadid sent to Turi, What do you think this means?
No idea. They all agreed.
“We don’t understand,” Gadid said.
The psychiatrist leaned forward and templed er fingers. “Do you mean I or we?”
“We,” said Gadid. “We don’t understand.”
“How many are you?”
The psychiatrist jotted on the note pad. “We have been using the wrong assessment tool. It seems you may have a split personality.”
Gadid patted the back of his head. “No. Implant.” He turned to show the scars on his scalp. His hair must have grown too long for them to be visible. He lifted his hair. “Communicate with kinsmen.”
“Who am I speaking with?” asked the psychiatrist. “You, Gadid, or all of your kinsmen?”
The psychiatrist set the note screen aside. “I can’t do this assessment.” E went to the door and entered the lobby. “Dr. Meuon, this test is inappropriate. Gadid is a cyborg. He shares a hive mind.”
Bees in his brain?—Pike.
Let’s go with it.—Chief.
“These men would have to be tested collectively. I don’t have any such diagnostic tool at my disposal.”
It’s not exactly true.—Pike. We are individuals.
If it gets me out of psychiatric testing and being air-locked, I’m all for a hive mind, sent Gadid.
“Are they dangerous or not?” asked Meuon. “I will not have staff and students held hostage to rage.”
Explosions? Gadid sent. He now understood. If there’s a fire, or someone goes berserk, there’s no escape. He recalled the fire suppression nozzles, the capacitors used in place of batteries or combustion engines, and the fragility of the panoramic window.
But Meuon had misidentified the danger. Any attack by Gadid would have the support of his kinsmen, and they would plan and carry it out with cold precision. Turi would most likely favor targeting data. Pike would want to knock out electricity. Salvelin might argue for going after the water. For sweltering effectiveness, Gadid would throw in for disabling ventilation. But Chief would determine the response.
Turi and Chief were in rapid communication as they worked out what to say.
Chief cleared his throat. “Teachers, psychiatrist, I’m chief of this hive. My members answer to me. They are my one child and the one children of my partners. We come for refuge. We mean no harm.”
Stan turned to Meuon. “What do you think?”
“We have no way of knowing,” said Denuth.
The psychiatrist shut er notepad. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Navigator, speak for me. Gadid reckoned an advocate’s word would have more weight.
Turi stepped beside Gadid. Shoulder-to-shoulder they worked out a translation. Then Turi straightened and adjusted his vest. “I am Navigator Turi. I speak for Helmsman Gadid. We are paternal brothers of the same clan.” He bowed to Meuon. “I convey his words. We communicate using implanted wireless modems. We know our kinsmen. Where they are. If one of us is angry or hurt, we come to his aid.”
Gadid hoped it was understood that if he were attacked, his kinsmen would know immediately and would respond with brutal force. This was the danger Meuon had to be made aware of.
Turi continued according to Gadid’s instructions. “We plan. We think. We communicate before we act. Escarpment is like a boat. No way out. Fire is dangerous. We know. Emotions are dangerous. We know. We have our own ways of controlling them.”
As Meuon huddled with the teachers and psychiatrist, Gadid couldn’t hear them clearly but the translation came through. “What are our options?” Meuon asked. "Should we require them to take hormones?—”
“If we did that we’d lose an invaluable opportunity. These are wild men in their natural state,” said Stan.
“Hardly natural,” said Denuth. “They’re cyborgs. Maybe not human at all.”
“Are we human?” asked Meuon. “Some would say we aren’t because we don’t reproduce without medical intervention.”
Gadid glanced up to see Stan rubbing er hands together, eyes gleaming. “Transhumans. All the better as research subjects.”
Turi, clearly exhausted, stood with his eyes closed and a hand on the wall. Salvalin had taken a warrior’s stance. Pike stood tall and rigid.
Gadid schooled his face to stoicism.
The psychiatrist whispered, “Ethically, there must be informed consent. I can’t force a patient to take medication against er will. And how would you plan to enforce compliance anyway?”
“It’s better than the alternatives—send them back or hold them in isolation.” Meuon spread hands.
Stan had pushed closer to Meuon. “I doubt you could effectively isolate them.”
It could be done. If Gadid’s kinsman, stripped of their kiriks, were held in separate grounded Faraday cages, they would be unable to use their gear or communicate with each other. Gadid hoped the teachers wouldn’t figure this out. Such isolation would be agonizing for him and his kinsmen. Seaguardsmen deprived of contact with kiriks reported excruciating phantom pain. Gadid had no desire to test the truth of the reports. His hand crept to his knife. If captured he’d hack through the cage to reach the ground wire, if it had one and if he kept the tool with him.
Denuth was saying, “These people are refugees, torn from their homes and thrown into what must be for them a stressful and bizarre new environment. Hormone therapy would ease the transition.”
Stan said, “Lose this opportunity!? For blazes sake, they’re male transhumans with unaltered testrosterone levels. We’ll never have this chance again. Politkofsky wrote that the youngsters were raised as nine children aboard a fourteen-meter sailboat—tight quarters even by our standards. Yet, even with uncontrolled testosterone they cooperate. Astonishing. We have the unprecedented opportunity to find out how.”
The boys had been taken aboard that sailboat for safety after the custody battle erupted. They’d left their mothers and sisters behind to live with brothers they’d never before known. It had been difficult for all of them with fights and tears. Many of them instigated by Gadid. He’d teased and pinched Turi mercilessly until Turi had eaten one of Gadid’s spiders using a larger robot. Now, light-years from their home oceans, Gadid’s life depended on Turi, unkempt with dark circles under his eyes as he fought to translate foreign words.
“Psych, what’s your view?” asked Meuon.
The psychiatrist pursed er lips. “No indication of anger management difficulties either individually or collectively. But testosterone inhibitors might be beneficial for cosmetic reasons.”
“Cosmetic reasons? They’re magnificent,” said Stan.
Denuth’s voice dropped too low to be heard directly: “A request. We should treat them as colleagues, not purely as subjects. Politkofsky indicates that these people are intelligent with the equivalent of at least master’s level education, if not higher.”
As Turi worked out the translation, Pike’s stance softened and Salvelin exhaled. Gadid’s shoulders gave up their tension.
Stan unfurled the Fenrian documents. “Seaguardsmen in the Fenrian Coast Guard. They’re ship’s officers. Chief Noahee was head scientist, forensic biology. I concur with Doctor Denuth.”
Mouen shook er head. “Educated doesn't mean safe. I appreciate this opportunity as much as the rest of you, but I'm responsible as department chair. We must have some assurance here.”
Stan rifled the pages of the letter. “Here's an idea. We surprise them with a threatening situation and see how they react.”
Denuth said, “Are you insane? Provoke them and you're likely to get knifed.” E glanced furtively at the tools on Gadid's vest. “Or worse.”
Mouen said, “Fellows, we should assume they're monitoring what we say.”
“There is that. At this point we don't have much choice.” Stan rolled up the document.
Gadid sent, Much choice of what? They know we can overhear them. They may be feigning hospitality while planning an ambush. They could lure us into a trap, close a bulkhead, and suffocate us. They could slip hormones into our food or water.
We'll remain wary.—Chief.
“Well then.” Mouen smoothed er tunic then opened er arms. “Chief Noahee and kin, please join us as research fellows in the study of anthropology. We welcome you.”
Wary, sent Gadid, but he stepped forward saying, “Colleagues.”
Lizzie Newell is an author/artist living and working in Alaska. She believes in the human potential to cooperate and solve problems. Nearly all of her stories are about the planet Fenria, a world that greatly resembles Alaska. She designs her own books, including creating cover illustrations. As part of her art, she designs and crafts jewelry, costumes, paper sculpture, and composes haiku. She's published four novels. Sappho's Agency, The Fisherman and the Gene Thief, and The Tristan Bay Accord are available in independent bookstores and online through Amazon and Barnes&Noble. The Return of the Cybernaut Princess is available on Wattpad.
Fiction by Lizzie Newell:
"Under an Airless Sky" April 2020