Negotiations (Part 2)
“Hey, Erasmus!” Conrad whispers. “Rassy! Wake up!”
After the first word I was awake, of course. It is strange how even transcendi need to sleep, or at least most of them do. Something must hardwired into human’s psychological makeup beyond just the electrochemical rejuvenation of normal sleep for a biological. More than one construct person has self terminated, drifted into catatonia, or gone quietly (or violently) insane due to what was later known as hyper pseudo neural overload – or over stimulation due to lack of ‘sleep’.
I open my eye receptors to look at Conrad, who is literally inches from my face.
My. What a way to wake up.
“I finally figured it out! You know, what has been bothering me for so long.”
“Lots of things bother you. Anything in specific?” I ask.
“What the Progenitors look like! I figured it out!” Conrad exclaimed. “Rhinoceros beetles!”
I think about it for a second. Yes, there is a certain resemblance between Progenitors and beetles in general. The Progenitor’s carapace acts much like that of an Earth insect’s exoskeleton, and the spiky protrudences of the rhinoceros beetle does look like the head tusks and skull crenellations of the Progenitors. But there the comparison stops, for the Progenitors also have an internal skeleton and are bipedal, with a form that is vaguely like humans. Only they are a lot bigger.
“Yes, they do look like rhinoceros beetles,” I reply to mollify my friend.
Conrad puffs out his chest, quite pleased with himself.
“You know, they’re all extinct,” I comment.
“Progenitors? They most surely are not!” he replies, giving me his ‘You Are So Stupid’ look.
“No. Rhinoceros beetles. Unity had maybe 1% of the 500,000 species of beetles on board, and even that wasn’t a very diverse genetic spread. And we only brought along useful beetles, or beetles we thought would be useful. The rest all died with Earth, along with everything else,” I continue wistfully.
Conrad is clearly irritated. His simulacrum does a nice job simulating veins bulging out on his temples and tightened jaw muscles.
“Will you STOP with that Gaian prattle!? They all died 300 years ago. So what? You can’t bring them back, so whining about it won’t do you any good. Plus, now we can create any type of beetle you want, or make artificial beetles! Science trumps nature! Good ‘ol Zak had it right all along. Now, can you believe that Deirdre is wringing her hands about extinctions on Planet! Nowadays nothing has to be extinct, even old geezers like us!”
I am silent. We’ve had this argument thousands of times, and there is no new land to tread. Conrad takes my silence for and admission of defeat and puffs up a little more.
We should almost be at University Base by now, as Beta Crossing, our last connection, is a half-hour behind us, and literally a world away. It’s easy to loose track of distance in time in a mag tube.
“Tube, ETA to University Base?” I query.
“Twenty one minutes,” the Tube responds in a silky voice.
“Well, time to get ready. Is all your stuff pulled together?” I ask in a falsely inquiring voice.
Of coarse that sets Conrad off. He immediately starts fussing with his one-meter tall pile of baggage. That is a good thing, since it gives me time to reflect. Without meaning to, Conrad has opened up an old wound, although it isn’t one due to our usually good-natured arguments. I have always been a little distrustful of unbridled technology, which, when you think about it, is more than a tad problematic. I owe my prolonged life to technology, and my current incarnation is owed to advances in digital sentience and sentient econometrics. Humanity has had sentient computers for hundreds of years. But, there was always that crucial something that made the link between an organic and digital existence problematic. Why is that? It isn’t because we don’t have the computing power or the expertise in nanoware. Is something lost during the transfer? The answer has to be yes.
After all, if we recreate a rhinoceros beetle it will always be what we think it was or what we think should be – never what is was. There will always be a subtlety that we can’t get quite right. What have I lost in my many regenerations, downloads, and finally transmutation into a transcendi? I’ll never know, but it can’t help but make me feel less human because of it. That is what I fear, that is my wound.
“Ah, it’s good to be home!” Conrad exclaims. He looks around with a wide smile on his broad face. His eyes fairly glint with barely suppressed excitement as he gazes lovingly around at the familiar Grand Pavilion of the University Tubeway.
“Yes, good old home. Your home, that is,” I jibe in response. Conrad doesn’t notice.
Unabashed, I continue. “I always thought the Tubeway was Romanesque in tone.”
“What?” Conrad responds. I finally get his attention.
“No, no, no. It is pure University – unique, mutable, ever changing, beautiful, and functional. It is a wonder. No surface ever shows ware, since they are self repairing. In minutes, or seconds, a wall can change color, or change into a window. Given a little time and programming an entire building can be altered. Nanos have transformed society, and the University leads the way.” Conrad is waving his arms expansively and vaguely around the Pavilion.
I nod absently. To me the Grand Pavilion looks the same as before. With muted colors and tasteful accents in gold, the striking arches that define its form rise into the heavens, and to me seem to frame the sky. In a strange way it reminds me of the long-vanished medieval cathedrals of old Earth. In a way this is – a temple to progress, to technology.
Throngs of people and vehicles pass along the courtyard of the Grand Pavilion, and even more in the ped and insti-tubes pass overhead. Conrad and I are simply one of tens of thousands in Planet’s most populous human city.
I know this is one of Conrad’s favorite topics: the University and all its glory.
“So, how many people are here at University Base, now?” I prompt. Of course I can query the information through my faces, a database, and my interfaces, but who am I do deny my friend his simple pleasure?
“We topped 160,000 people a while ago, with a few transcendi like me thrown in for good measure. UB has been the biggest city on Planet for over a hundred years. The first years were pretty touch and go, but crawler convoys filled the gap, and after we got the tree farms and hybrid forests up it was easy sailing. Oh, I remember the boom years! Back then, the amenities and resources were so plentiful that people just streamed in from all over Planet! We got Gaians and Morganites, and even a few Cyborgs, and of course lots of off landers from provincial burgs and farmers. We grew at over 10,000 a year, if you can believe it! Our growth rate was phenomenal until our infrastructure topped out. We’re still working on that.”
I look around appreciatively at the productive bustle around me. “Yes, it is impressive.” Conrad subsides into reverie as we walk, and I simply subside into silence.
160,000? By comparison, the smallest burg in an arcology on Earth was three times this number, and some arcology complexes were over 100 million by the time Earth blew itself to pieces. But, Humans evolved on Earth and it was our environment. For Planet this population is monumental considering the challenges facing humans: a hostile atmosphere and an alien ecology. Unless you keep a positive atmospheric pressure in all buildings nitrogen narcosis sets in. Its acute effects on humans are bad enough: lethargy and apathy, and general mental slowness. Chronic low level exposure has proven to reduce human life span and health considerably, and to significantly reduce fertility. Of coarse, severe acute or chronic exposure if fatal. The ecology isn’t very friendly either, as the Chiron lifeweb attacks humans as vigorously as it does native life even though we are from a different biosphere, and we have little natural defense. Several ambitious University types have suggested terraforming the entire planet, but we simply don’t have the technology, or the wisdom, to do that. How do you get rid of the heavy Chiron gravity, as the planet simply has too much mass? Or deal with the fact that there is 2.5 times the atmosphere than there was on Earth, and that most of that is nitrogen? And if we do make it Earth-standard for gravity and atmosphere, how do we keep the ecology from collapsing? It is tailored to its environment and, while robust, such a change would have catastrophic consequences. Chiron simply wasn’t made for humans.
The environment must make all the difference. The largest city on all of Planet isn’t human, after all, it is Progenitor. Specifically, it is Usurper. Courage: To Question puts University Base to shame, and that is a topic that does not come up in polite conversation here, or in any human city. It is a looming threat. Just ask the Cyborgs, the few which remain…
It is a topic that always depresses me.
“Rassy, stop gawking! Pay attention! Come on!” Conrad almost shouts impatiently.
I deploy a fourth tread to catch up to Conrad, who has finally figured out how to make his luggage sled follow him. I wondered when he’d figure it out – all he had to do was ask it to follow, after all.
As I speed forward I scan the pandemonium around me. All this human activity is heartening and I can feel the dreary beginnings of a funk lifting. The Grand Pavilion fairly bristles with movement and purpose. University citizens have a certain flare with how they carry themselves, as if they have a clear purpose and nothing will stand in their way. Individually UoPers are pretty average when compared to the extravagance of the Morganites, cool severity of the Cyborgs, multicultural richness of the PKs, or the serene elegance of the Gaians. The UoPers stand out because of their self-assuredness and confidence, since they are by most accounts the leading human faction on Planet.
I’ve caught up with Conrad and he is ignoring me. He must be squirting his old friends here at University Base, and he is probably planning a party - he always does. And he always invites me, and I always go. Conrad has a knack, probably related to his linguistic skill, to get in with the glitterati of any city. He has friends everywhere. Every party is an event, with Conrad and I as the main attraction. There aren’t that many transcendi, after all. After a few polite questions to me most of the attention swings Conrad’s way. He loves the attention, and I don’t mind. I simply observe. The social dynamics are fascinating, and that is my forte.
Speaking of rare transcendi, I notice that no one is watching me. I am rather unusual in appearance, you know. You’d think that they’d seen transcendi all the time.
But, no. I probably look like a utility bot to them, and they are common enough.
Maybe I should change my utilitarian body form. Imagine, after living for 350 years to be considered a disposable window washer!
“No, no, and no. We are at war with the Progenitors...” Prokor Zakharov starts.
“No, you and Aki are at war with the Progenitors,” Deirdre corrects in a calm voice.
Zak casts her an irritated glance and then continues.
“After what they have done, we should all be at war with them! Aki’s people were almost exterminated, and the entire populations of Lab One and Gamma Flats recently executed! 140,000 people! Dead! But still you prattle on about negotiations? What is there to negotiate?” Zak exclaims to the group, but pointedly at Deirdre and Lal. Both have been holdouts in the age-long war.
Deirdre is composed, as always. “What happened to Aki’s people is truly a tragedy. However, it happened early in our history on Planet. In those times we couldn’t understand anything the Progenitors said to us, or us to them. We were, and still are, new to xenobiology. Misunderstandings are inevitable, and those all to frequently lead to war. How could any of us fight against a battle ogre when our colonies could barely maintain a breathable atmosphere after Landing? And Aki had the singular misfortune to land near Conqueror Marr. Lal and I gave her people colonies for their refugees, since humans take care of their own.”
In silence she continued to herself ‘But you, Professor, didn’t help Aki one bit when she needed it’. It was an ugly truth that bore no repeating. Her soft eyes bored into the Good Professor, trying to understand his mind. To her he seemed unstable and myopic. Reaching out with her mind she touched Zakhorov. As usual, it was impenetrable, and imperturbable.
Zak abandoned Deidre and Lal and turned to Aki. “What say you? You have suffered the most at the hands of the Progenitors.”
Aki stared straight ahead as she answered in a cold, flat voice. “The Progenitors are a threat, and must be dealt with. Negotiations with them have yielded no return. It is illogical to continue.” She turned her head slowly and directly toward Deidre and Lal, who were sitting side by side. Her pale face and light yellow hair stood out in sharp contrast with the burnished silver cybernetic implants she had on at the top of her skull.
“The Progenitors must be exterminated,” Aki stated. Her eyes glinted and were almost, almost, devoid of emotion.
Lal, as usual, avoided her piercing gaze. He always thought it was like looking into a data holo – deep and never ending, fathomless. Lal thought, ‘Aki is almost as alien as the Progenitors.’
Zak smiled. Aki was predictable, and he didn’t believe for a minute all the Cyborg ideological gibberish about logic and purity of thought. ‘She hates them,’ he thought, ‘and that serves my purpose.’
All eyes turned to Morgan, who sat in his perfect azure Zon’lin suit. When he realized he was the center of attention he put down his holopad. He had used the otherwise boring Council meeting to catch up on some forecasts.
After a moment of consideration he began. “The Progenitors are the gravest threat mankind has met, or is likely to meet,” he said, silky smooth as ever.
Zak beamed triumphantly and started to speak.
Morgan put up his hand to stop Zak’s victory speech. His ivory colored cuffs and old-fashioned cufflinks sparkled in the diffuse light. In fact, Morgan’s entire visage generally had a sparkle about it.
“Council Chair, I am not done,” Morgan interjected politely. “However, war is a costly business, and not one to be taken lightly. Most of our economies can afford it (Nwabudike privately exempted Aki, who had only five bases of medium size), but do we want to? While we gear up for war the Progenitors will keep expanding. That, in reality, is why they are a threat. They have the largest land masses under their control, the largest populations, and therefore most of the resources.”
Deirdre and Lal looked at each other. They had hardly expected reason from Morgan, even if it was a strange type of reason. The real reason was more likely that his people wouldn’t stand for troops on foreign soil under his high-flying and socially unstable free market economy.
“So, I propose a compromise,” Morgan continued. “We try diplomacy, and we send our best. I believe ‘our best’ are on the way.” Morgan glanced first at Deirdre, who nodded. Her top diplomat and operative Erasmus was en route. Then Morgan eyed Zakharov, who also nodded. The last he had heard his operative Conrad was with Erasmus on his way to University Base.
“ We can try the path of reason,” Morgan inclined his head generously toward Deirdre and Lal. Deirdre had the uncomfortable feeling he had read her mind, but dismissed it. Then Morgan gave a subtle smile, seemingly meant for her alone. Deirdre shivered inside. “But, if reason fails, then force will have to do. And it will have to be overwhelming force that assails the Progenitors from all sides. Professor, your forces will provide the firepower. Mine will provide more…indirect means the desired end.”
With that Morgan smiled amiably, his white teeth standing out sharply against his ebony skin and steel-grey hair. His body language and demeanor all said ‘This is the most reasonable coarse, and surely you see the wisdom in following it.’
Lal pursed his lips. “What do you mean by ‘indirect means’.” He had a deep-seated suspicion of what it meant but needed confirmation.
Morgan’s smile took on the look of a predator baring its fangs. “My dear Commissioner, the most powerful technology against the Progenitors isn’t a shard projectile weapon, or even a planetbuster. It is retroviral engineering: genetic warfare. Near genocide can be inflicted at a population center by one simple operative team. Two or three teams can almost wipe out a city. If you wipe out their population and economic base then you eliminated their ability to resist. The availability and control of resources is the key to war, and, indeed, are the cause and objective in war.”
Lal sputtered, “But.. that’s an atrocity! The UN Charter forbids it!”
“No,” Morgan replied, with an icy calm. “The UN Charter governs human affairs, and the Progenitors are not human.”
The Council room was silent for a moment.
“Nwabudike,” Deirdre started, “they are sentient creatures. They have rights, too.” Her voice was clear, but soft. It was evident she knew she was treading on infirm ground.
“They are sentient being who care nothing for the UN Charter, and who would slaughter humans like so many animals, or vermin,” Morgan stated unequivocally. “They have their own totally incomprehensible sensibilities. Be ware of superimposing human mores on them. When you do that to an animal it is called ‘personification’. What is it when you do it to an alien?” Morgan asked rhetorically.
Morgan continued to look intently at both Deirdre and Lal. Both maintained eye contact, but didn’t respond. In doing so they tacitly yielded to Morgan.
Zakharov started to nod vigorously. “Fine, fine, fine. Your proposal is adopted, Morgan, and I second it. We will try one last time to negotiate with the aliens. Then the gloves come off,” Zak stated hastily. “Now, I call for a vote.”
He looked around the room. Aki gave a slight nod, as did Deirdre. Finally, and reluctantly, Lal did, too.
“Excellent!” Zak said, a smile blazing across his face. He absently brushed an unruly lock of white hair out of his face, placed his hands on the table, and then sat down.
“Now,” he continued, “I have some ideas for our negotiation team. And a couple back up plans!”
The Planetary Governor had obviously planned for this eventuality, or he might just be consumed with one of his famous creative bursts. Zak could be myopic and fixated on his plans, but he was just as liable to abandon them when a new and presumably better idea came along. This creativity was his greatest strength, even if his occasional lack of focus drove those around him to distraction. Zak’s closest associates considered him mutable and erratic, but altogether brilliant.
‘Of course, I’ll tell my esteemed colleagues some, but not all, of my plans.’ Zak thought to himself. ‘They simply don’t need to know. And some of them can be a little squeamish…’
Zak chortled to himself. The irony of the plan was delicious, and he was sure that Conrad would love it!
[This message has been edited by Hydro (edited March 24, 2000).]