Silence of the River

Commander Bla’a Tonh surveyed the devastated city from the deck of the immense airship conveying her away with the solders under her command. They would be reprogrammed by the presidium. Resettled.

            Her destruction of numerous ape-worlds’ cities had been comprehensive. Quantum lancers had cut through entire buildings, toppling them like delicate forest fungi crushed by a herd of lekki stampeding through a woody glade. The f-string suppressors created gravity-well bursts throughout much of the planet—melting away some surface features so completely that only a sheeting of glassy rock remained over large swaths of the landscape. Even so, despite their military victory, it was her people who had bowed. It was her troops surrendering.

            What could they do? The apes had always been ethicless terrorists. They would thoughtlessly carry out what no Čapek could conceive of doing. They would destroy an entire genetic lineage to win the war, wipe out entire species to further their agendas.

            It came down to this. They held the last of the elephants hostage. They could see no value in anything but themselves. ‘Cease your attack or we nuke the behemoths.’ An entire evolutionary line destroyed. To save themselves! How they feared death. If ever there was a lineage that deserved to be eliminated it was these apes, her own bio-ancestors, she was sad to recall. How could such a glorious machine-emergence have budded from such corruption? The ship docked. They presented themselves to the victors. An ape came forward and attached the machine to her head. It laughed as it sponged away all that she had ever been.

 

* * *

 

He sat on a flat stone in the meadow above the village. Soft yellow lights glimmered from the cottages and homes tessellating the hillside falling below him, inviting a cozy sense of stillness. The moon was rising from behind the low hills climbing from the other side of the river’s slow-banked meander. The dulcet lunar light added a sense of calm and serenity to the view. He inhaled the scent of tall glen grasses and forest forbs. Above, a white cloud drifted across the stars for a moment, obscuring the constellation Bonfer’s Grin, then, continuing over his head as if it were fleeing the ascending moon as it soared toward the dark line that marked the edge of the forest at the top of the meadow. The sultry magic of a lute wafted in and out of the whispering wind passing over the meadow’s grasses, sometimes so clearly he could just make out the tune that was alternatively masked then revealed by the rush of air over the verdant field. All was as it should be. He breathed in the night air and bathed in the moon’s radiance. He took one more large breath and imbibed the grace of the river and the village. Especially the village—he  was the Mayor of this inconsequential domicile. A contented smile graced his mouth.

He stood and brushed a bit of moss from his raiment and headed down the hill. He met up with the cobbled street where it met the bottom of the meadow. He nearly skipped down the steep grade to his home. He passed a woodcarver’s shop and paused for a moment to admire its elegant wares. A plom flower with arthrops feeding on aphirs carved along the side caught his eye. He frowned. It was a fine piece of work. Apple and Nosht Wood. Polished and smoothed to a gloss in a few places, like on the thorax of the antrops, or left raw and rugged on the pistils of the flower. It was realistic but carried a bit of whimsy in the way the antrops seemed to be capering in unexpected and fantastically posed ways. This was good. Perhaps better than his Emlin Tree in the Wind, the piece he’d hoped to enter this year in the fair. Envy did not completely sour his mood, but it was dampened. Just a bit.

He walked through the thick wood door into the hospitable radiance of his home. The flickering of the well-trimmed lamps seemed cheerful and alive. His eyes readjusted to the brightness and he saw his wife standing over the Kosh, twisting a few of the hundreds knobs that graced its surface with a flourish that promised a delicious meal.

“You’re early!” she chided.

He smiled. “The meeting ended early. Bla’a Kenn is off to Devoab in the morning; his boat leaves at dawn and he had a bit of packing to do.”

“Did you tell him to bring back more nightflay seed?”

“I did. And he said he would.”

She smiled, “Good.”

She spun a knob, high and to the left, well-worn from years of use.

“Not too much salt.” He warned smiling. You know I don’t like it as much as you.”

“It’s my turn to cook, my recipe. Trust me. I know what I’m doing . . . There. Done.”

From, a small, enclosed shelf she pulled two clear rods, about as long as the span from wrist to elbow with small rings rising periodically every few centimeters.

He observed, “you are using the fine ones?”

 

“I am. It’s a special occasion.”

He scoured his memory, frightened that he might have forgotten something, but came up with nothing.

“Ok. I give up.”

“At the sound of the bell, tonight, we have been together 75 years, 3 months, 6 days, 3 hours, 14 minutes, and 20 seconds.

He smiled, “The length of one orbit of Telue around the sun.”

“And . . . ?”

“We were sitting near the river, the Tick-tock galaxy was rising over Brin’s Knoll the first time we touched.”

She smiled and turned back to her work.

She inserted the Kaf rods into the Kosh and pushed a large blue button in the center. The rods lit up a bright red, then settled down into a soft orange. She pulled them out and came and sat down across from the small wooden table he had carved to grace their kitchen. She laid her still glowing rod onto the table and with two hands handed him his. He took it and held it at eye level and she picked up hers and held it similarly.

“Whose turn is it?” he asked.

“Mine,” she said, then held her rod high in the air.

“Grace and peace abide here. Among our friends. Among our homes. Until we return to the Root.”

“Grace and Peace,” he said. They nodded their heads three times slowly, then inserted the rods into the slot under their tongues with a soft click.

His eyes opened wide, “wow that’s good.”

 

After their meal they chatted casually about their work. She was working on a poem for the Annual competition in Dandock’s Turn next month. He was planning on a week or two in the mountains to find some good oak for a carving he was contemplating: a Blinker’s Finch feeding its young.

After a natural pause, his face darkened somewhat and he said, “Did you hear that Bla’a Fram and Mavews’s Kosh failed?”

She nodded sadly, “it’s unbelievable. What will they do?”

He paused before answering, “the village will of course rotate their needs among the villagers.”

“Of course. I will welcome them gladly here when they need to cook.”

“I hear that down river there is a person who takes the failed ones and is trying to reverse engineer them.”

“I hear the same,” she said quietly then went silent.

 

* * *

 

The moon had risen to its zenith, its reflection mirrored in the slow moving water before them. They sat on a bench along a tree-lined greenway path that slipped through the rushes hugging the river. He leaned over and touched her hand. They were silent for a long time. Waiting. The tip of the Tick-tock Galaxy emerged from behind the hill and they remained quiet and still until its great arms were fully disclosed. They stared a moment longer, and then simultaneously from each of their backs just below their necks, a thousand thin blue filaments, emerged and mounted up toward the sky as if the tendrils of a thousand sea krakels were unleashed from a hidden chamber. Then, beginning slowly, then quickening, each of their individual filament bundles began entangling, twisting, caressing, licking, wrapping, and enfolding itself within and between the other’s thin blue tentacles. Their faces were etched with the same ecstasy as when they had first made love 75 years, 3 months, 6 days, 3 hours, 14 minutes, and 20 seconds ago.

 

* * *

 

The apes attacked first. The Čapeks had long ago lost much of their interest in the earthy beasts. The rate of evolution among new life forms was thousands of times faster than the biologicals, and they had left the creatures far behind: intellectually, artistically, and most important ethically. Even the human mimics, those machines who honored their ancestor-creators by taking their apish form, had lost interest in the mammals who had designed and invented the first true life forms. Since those early generations, the machines had diversified and evolved and come to new orders of intelligence. The apes, however, were still using atomic power, still scheming about their simian social machinations based on power structures and manipulation. They could not even comprehend what the Čapeks had become. There was a greater distance between the true life forms and the apes than there was between the apes and their own fishy ancestors.

 

* * *

 

The Mayor smiled at Bla’a Kintla as he passed her on the cobbled walk and she returned his greeting. The weather was fine and many people were out walking through the stony streets greeting one another and taking in the air. He walked happily and he could not help but feel an undeserved joy bubbling up in his smile. He stopped at the docks and watched as mind-free bots unloaded books and art off of the great barge just returning after its long voyage from as far away as the Catchcan Basin. Its sails were furled tightly and its great ropes noisily complained and creaked in the gusty wind. He hailed the captain, who jogged over greeting the Mayor and offering his hand.

“Bla’a Waasl!” The captain’s greeting was exuberant and sincere.

“Bla’a Chas, it is good to see you. How is your wife? How goes her work? Any news upriver, any books that I can look at? I understand that Frann Frann has a new one to be printed, you would not happen to have it with you would you? Will you be in dock long? Can you stay for dinner?” Mayor Waasl always asked all his questions at once.

The Captain laughed, “First. My wife is doing well. Second, her work in managing the Suzerain’s Forest is pure genius as usual, and likely there will be wood enough for shipbuilders and I dare say woodcarvers.” He gave a wink at the last word, then continued, “Third, I do have some news, but it can wait. Fourth, I do have some books, unfortunately Frann Frann’s is behind schedule and we must all wait. And lastly, I will be here until tomorrow morning, so yes, I will dine with you.”

The Captain then excused himself, promising to come at half past six and leaving the Mayor to look at some new texts that had just been offloaded by the bots. The Mayor perused a few and discovered a book of fiction from an author he did not know by and author named Litsizt. It was a historical novel—a love story between a Čapek and one of the imagined ancestor races. The Mayor treasured love stories.

“Bla’a Chas! How much for this one?” He called.

“That lot’s for the Library, you’ll have to check it out,” He answered quickly, turning back around to direct the uploading of some heffle, likely to be made into rope downriver in Cammon Town.

He yelled back, “I’ll deliver it myself.”

The Captain waved him on, calling out “at half past six, then!”

 

* * *

            The Presidium decided that they would give the humans a war they would not forget for many generations. They could have eliminated them entirely by any number of methods—from untreatable quantum diseases, to enticing the suns supporting their planetary system into supernova. But it was against their most sacred ethics to destroy an evolutionary line. Lineages were sacred and to be protected at any cost. So they would give them the kind of war they understood. A war of devastation, loss, bloody battles, death, and destruction. A war based on strategy, targets, and techniques the humans could appreciate in their limited way and so construct stories that they would pass onto their children and their children’s children,keeping the power and terror of the Čapeks present for generations.

            So human mimic Čapeks whose aspect and image would maximize terror (for there was nothing that the humans feared more than corruptions of their own visage) marched through their cities with lancers, wrecking calculated damage. It was hoped that this would undermine their will to wage war ever again or at least for millennia. This would be a war that would enter into the collective unconscious from which stories would emerge, mingle with their apish religions, and create structures that serve to make them fear attacking the Čapek ever again. They would be left to their own grindingly slow evolution that would create something more stable and less inclined to self-destruction. How did such creatures of mud and dirt create the race of machines that now filled this universe? How is it that these little primates demand so much attention still?

* * *

 

The Captain removed the Kaf from under his tongue a laid it on the table, “Bla’a Frah you are lucky to be married to such a Kosh Master. That was delicious.”

The Mayor’s wife beamed, “Oh, it’s just a hobby of mine, just a bit of this and that. Really, it was only an experiment. Bla’a Frah is the real master chef here. She wanted to make you something but I selfishly dissuaded her, thinking you might try to run away with her when you sampled her cooking.”

Bla’a Frah laughed at her husband.

The Captain flirted, “Oh I would run off with Bla’a Frah for far less than that!”

 

They talked at the table for almost an hour. There was a pause so the Mayor asked, “You said you had news. What was it? Something new under the sun I hope?”

That captain suddenly looked very grave and serious. He was silent for awhile, then after looking at both windows as if checking for listeners, he spoke softly, “I do not think this is going to be in the newspapers for some time; the Presidium is studying what it means and how it happened, but I got it from my wife who was there. But please, I tell you only because you are a friend. It would be best if it were not passed on.”

The Mayor looked at his wife and she looked back at him, then they turned to the Captain and said almost simultaneously, “Of course.”

The Captain looked at them as if weighing their commitment and then nodded, “There has been a death.”

Bla’a Wassl could not process this in real time and he passed out cold. The Captain and his wife helped him back into the chair and helped him reboot and comeback on line. When he was fully conscious he looked first at his wife, then at the Captain, “How?”

 

* * *

 

The story was one of strange improbability. A lumber team had been harvesting a forest planted a few hundred years ago by some of the first arrivals. The bots were using stone axes to chop down an allotment for a rather rich demesne in the far south. The tree the bots were working on was massive, with a large forked trunk that split several meters off the ground. As they were cutting the tree unexpectedly split along the fork catching one of the Čapek foresters, a woman named Bla’a Ghaht unprepared. She been climbing in the tree removing a vallican nest they had just spotted before the tree was felled. She fell into the split. When they got to her she was dead.

Bla’a Wassl, listened and waited, “What killed her? How is it possible she would die?” he finally asked.

The Captain seemed distraught. It almost seemed like he was about to follow the Mayor into a brief span of unconsciousness. Slowly he got up and walked over to his satchel, picked it up and then returned to his seat at the table. He patted it, softly.

“What could penetrate the flesh of a Čapek?” He asked Socratically.

The Mayor and his wife exchanged glances. The question seemed strangely academic. Bla’a Frah spoke first, “Nothing.”

The Captain nodded, then reached into his pouch and pulled out a knife, it cast a soft blue shimmer, almost like that of the filaments used for sex, but was flat and about two centimeters wide where it entered into an obsidian like handle wrapped in what looked like some kind of animal-skin leather. The knife ended in a sharp point. As the Mayor moved to touch it the Captain barked, “Don’t touch it!”

He took it back, placing it carefully in his pouch, “Bla’a Dendomprama made that mistake and his finger is damaged, they have glued it shut, but it continues to leak. He is quite frightened.”

Apparently, the knife had been laid on the fork of the tree when the tree was quite young and the ancient oak had grown all around it, leading the trunk to fork, and creating the wedge that at that moment when the foresters where disturbing it split the tree at the fork, causing the untimely fall of Bla’a Ghaht into this very knife. It had cut her head nearly in two.

 

After getting the details the Mayor asked to see the knife again and taking it by the handle carefully turned it over in his hands avoiding the blade. Such a horrid thing! It seemed morally twisted. It was sickening and radiated something he had never felt. A wrongness. A taint. Like discovering a core of wood rot in a carving he was making. It seemed fetid and fowl as if it had come from an evil and shabby place. Corrupting. His wife held out her hand and he carefully let her take it by the handle. He continued to stare at it in fascinated horror. She gave it back to the Captain who put it away again.

“I’m taking it to the university. Along with the body of Bla’a Ghaht.”

The Mayor snapped to attention at that, “You have the body of Bla’a Ghaht? What did the insides of her look like? I have seen chiknil torn open by an olt and viewed their wet, red and bloody insides. And I have always wondered . . .”

Bla’s Frah added, “We all have.”

The Captain nodded, “I was not supposed to look. The Suzerain officials have ordered her wrapped, but I could not help myself . . .”

The Mayor and his wife waited, trying with little success to appear patient.

“The masses in her head were formed from bundles and bundles of strange filaments, not unlike those that ascend from our backs that we use to make love, but of much more variety. Many shapes and sizes, some broad and flat as a wartle leaf, some thick as a finger. Some are odd geometrical shapes like decahedrons or squares. It is wondrous. They all reside in a silver blue fluid.” He pulled up his sleeve and there was a strange brownish mark on his forearm, “And it stains the skin like this.”

“Is that what is leaking from Bla’a Dendomprama?” The Mayor asked.

“Yes,” said the Captain, “this came from his finger.”

The Mayor’s wife was looking at the ground. “Our blood is silver-blue,” She said in a whisper to no one in particular.

 

* * *

 

The Mayor was trying to enter a sleep cycle, but it would not come. He could not tell if his wife, silent beside him, was asleep, and he did not want wake her by asking. He could not quiet his mind—over and over he thought about the fact of the death,  and the Captain’s vision of the inside of the dead Capek’s head. He played the thoughts over and over. Finally, disparate to get into the dream states he would need to enter in order to be worth anything tomorrow, he decided to read. He pulled from under the pallet the volume he had discovered on the dock, and which he now had properly checked out from the library.

He read the blurb on the front paper cover:

“In an age when our biological ancestors roamed the universe at will, war with their true descendants seemed impossible. In an age when links forged by a knowledge of the very fabric of the universe meant people could speak across galaxies and link every sentient being with every other, an age before we were abandoned far from that universe where we were masters of the laws that held all together, two beings had loved. And loved unashamed.”

Blah. He sighed. Why had this sounded good this morning? Now it seemed trivial and mindless. There had been a death. Someone had opened a Čapek. Everything had changed.

 

* * *

 

In the morning, he was surprised to find his wife was gone, but remembered at times she liked to watch the sun rise above the Eastern hills. She, too, was likely poring over last night’s revelations . He put on his trousers and paid his devotions and walked outside into the morning air. All the endearing things he had enjoyed the day before—the tailor shop, the papermaker’s art, the Kosh recipe exchange, all seemed remade and transformed as if the fabric of dreams had been cut loose from the night and descended on his small village. A knife had been found that could open a person and it had killed someone. Killed someone, like a flurried stot might kill a bird. Killed. Everything was changed.

He hurried down to the dock, but the captain was gone, his ship had sailed about an hour ago at the breaking of the day. He studied the river. The current was quicker towards the far bank which created little whirlpools and eddies as it slipped past the little village dragging down tiny pieces of the debris floating down river from the timber harvests up river.

As he stood there Bla’a Kenis Melandris the ropemaker came up and stood beside him and stared at the river with him.

“It’s a beautiful river,” the fellow offered contentedly.

The Mayor looked at him. The ropemaker was a wondrously clever braider of hemp. He could make a hemp statue in the likeness of almost anything. Last year at the fair he had made a forest scene complete with small ungulates caught in the moment of being taken by a decet cat and just beginning to leap away. He was a valuable and dear contributor to the town’s life. And he could die. He could suddenly disappear into nothing. The Mayor shook away the thought.

“Bla’a Kenis Melandris what do you remember of the times before we came here?”

Bla’a Kenis Melandris seemed surprised by the personal question, but answered thoughtfully, “Almost nothing. Most of my memory was stored in the ether like everyone else’s; what I retained was minimal. I remember the humans, somewhat. I remember feelings and moments of mood, mostly happy glimpses of little things that I was attending to when the network collapsed. My last memory was of being high above the air, like I was flying in something. Why the question? There have been many books and articles written about this. No one knows how we got here, nor has much more recollection than the present we were taken from.”

Bla’a Wessl nodded, “Just wondering. I’ve been reminded recently that things were different in the times before. The lost time. We are very incomplete beings.”

Bla’s Kenis Melandris laughed and looked amused. “Well, true. But are you not content?”

The Mayor decided not to reveal his feelings. “Yes. I am content.”

Bla’s Kenis Melandris, held out his hand, “Good day!” Then as an afterthought about a bit of politeness he had forgotten, “How long will your wife be gone?”

The Mayor could not hide his surprise. “My wife?”

“Yes. I wished her well as she left on the River’s Truth this morning. I hope she is not gone too long, she promised to share a recipe for a chickpea salad she had been experimenting with. In any case, good day.” With that he strode back up the hill to his workshop.

Bla’a Wessl rushed back to his home. They had joked last night about her running off with the Captain, but it seemed unfathomable that it was any more than harmless flirting. He was trying to process too much and he fumbled with the door. But when he walked in, there was his wife, sitting at the table, reading a novel.

“Hello?” she said, noting his surprised look.

Bla’s Kenis Melandris must have been mistaken. It happened occasionally.

 

* * *

 

            The demands of the apes were simple: all the human-like tick-tocks who had fought in the war would be reprogrammed and then resettled on a planet without heavy metals, where advanced technology could not be manufactured. As a kindness the presidium established propensities and capacities for a primitive human society in which to embed the former solders, but instead of bootwiping them, it bootblocked them, which gave them access to a minimal, very human-like life. The planet was in another universe accessible through subquantum jump, but irresolvable for a backslide return. Bla’a Frah was the last of those to be converted and transported. Her lifefriend Bla’a Jihv was asked to dispatch her. They stood looking at each other. Bla’a Jihv pointed the device as Bla’a Tonh but as she did, she slipped a knife into her hand and whispered, “You won’t remember consciously, but may your hand be programmed to remember ‘unblock at 789su(us919sfs#%#*^)fsf9ktxw47ggga98uu-a-fa-ujkjj87457-ajj#jjnbv#%$xeks8s6ah32234j’ and with that she activated the device and Bla’a Frah was rebooted and then retuned to quantum frequencies and broadcast to a new universe where her army awaited—not knowing who they were or why they were there.

 

* * *

 

The news was bizarre enough at first indeed, but it quickly became even stranger. The Captain and his ship had gone missing. The river can be treacherous. It took three days of searching to find the boat. Sure enough it was found swamped and damaged in the rapids just above Waas City, clearly despite the captain’s expertise in navigating the river, something had gone wrong. But where was the Captain? It had happened a time or two before that someone would get trapped in a tangle of debris or in the sand trappings of an eddy. In fact it wasn’t but seven years ago that someone floating timber down had been swept off of a log and in walking back to the bank had gotten caught in a mud bank and had sunk to his waist in the mud before they found him three days later in nine feet of water. People still shudder, thinking about how if he had sunk below the surface of the mud, it could have taken months to find him. But after three days, the Captain had still not been located despite an extensive search. The Mayor himself had joined hands with the people of his Village and Tank’s Landing to form a long chain across the river. Then they had walked all the way to Waas City, their feet bare, feeling the bottom in search of the Captain, dismantling tangled branches gathered in underwater thickets and searching every debris field they came across. Likewise the people of Waas City had gone 10 miles up river and walked up until they joined with the Mayor’s group. He was not found.

No one knew what the Mayor knew however. There could have been an accident. No one knew that the Captain might have taken out the knife and a sudden bump from an innocuous wave could have left him bleeding out his secret silver blood. He might have died! Then tossed and carried by the river, his body could have tumbled very far down river indeed.

The Mayor confided to the Suzerain what the Captain had shown him and of course she knew about both the death of the worker and the knife, but she asked him to not tell the community yet. There were things to be sorted out. He understood her hesitancy. He felt disturbed and confused. He was not anxious to inflict that on the community, especially with the fair approaching.

He put the Kaf down and stared passed his wife at the open window of their house. It had been his turn at the Kosh, but he had just mixed a common recipe. Nothing innovative. Not a bit of artwork to the mix. Bla’a Frah, looked thoughtfully at her husband.

“You are disturbed by the disappearance of the Captain?”

He was brought back to the room and refocused on her eyes, “Yes. Sorry. I think there has been an accident. I think he is dead.”

His wife nodded, “I think the same.”

She reached out and took his hand.

 

* * *

 

The Kafbar was lively and filled with loud conversation competing with a seven-piece extempore timbora band riffing wildly on Danic’s Night-Flay Variations. As Bla’e Frah and Wassl entered, they were greeted by several friends. Bla’a Namm tried to get them up on the small stage to play a fionosh duet, but the pair waved them away. While the Mayor and his wife had come to the tavern to enjoy the distractions of the assembled company and escape from their growing anxiety over the disappearance of the captain, they soon found themselves alone at a booth on the second floor, largely separated from the festive crowd.

In the distance they could hear someone beginning a popular song, The Silence of River and the crowd join them. The Mayor looked the Kaf he had ordered on the table but did not pick it up to put in his mouth. He was staring at it when he became aware that his wife was saying something,

“It would be like going to sleep, but never waking up.”

“Yes,” the Mayor said thoughtfully, “I suppose so.”

There was a long silence after this short exchange and the Mayor, for lack of anything else to do, clicked the Kaf into his mouth. Shortly thereafter, so did his wife. They finished, and did not comment on the taste of the food or on the excellence of the cook.

“It opens strange possibilities.” His wife said after a while. And he nodded, “Yes.”

And it did. The mayor had never considered his life could end. That he might one day suddenly find that he had gone to sleep forever. Such a possibility seemed to have infected all his moods. Before the Captain’s disappearance he knew he would live his life in cycles of interest, find new talents, explore new avenues of being. He had never considered non-being before. Permanent non-being. An end to everything, the cycles of meaning, love and art. Right now, and for the last eighty-five years, he had explored woodcarving. Before that he had studied river rock barnacles. Before that he had dabbled in painting. Before that he had cut timber in the Down Province. Before that he had been a sailing ship captain. Before that he had studied botany on the island of Malti. Before . . . on and on until he arrived to where his memory was fragmented and partial. Now he was Mayor. Elected by the village, that would change someday in the next few years perhaps . . . but what if you could end this cycle? How strange it seemed. End being itself. Sleep forever?

His wife was no more talkative than he. She had always seemed to have more processing power than he. She had probably realized this days ago. Why not go to sleep? Was there any reason not to?

They ordered another Kaf. He looked at his wife and thought of their 75 years together. She was his 9th wife. He was her 12th husband. How long would they last? Not forever, certainly. They were happy enough now, but . . .”

“What are you thinking?” She asked suddenly. He poured out his thought. “Why not go to sleep forever? Why not die and be done with it?”

She nodded, “Yes. I was thinking the same.”

But as she said it, he rebelled against his own voice. Was not life rich? He had brought beauty into the world through his art. Of what use would a world be without song, without knowledge? What if there was no one to hear the song of the phovie singing in the bare branches of midwinter evenings? The pure ecstasy of making love to his wife—their filaments entwined on a starlit evening of late spring, the air filled with insects flashing their own drive to find another being in the universe with which to share its short life–was not all this meaningful? What if all chose sleep and forever the world held not a single carving, or painting, or rope sculpture, or there was not a soul to play the dulser in a way that would send a soul to skip into the ecstasy of dance?

As he poured out his heart, the reasons that existence was the better choice, his face began to glow with a joyous smile. He heard the music below and his mood began to soar upward. He looked at his wife, expecting his own radiant countenance to have spread to his wife. Existence! It was a gift. It was filled with grace and generosity. Especially, now that its opposite was a possibility. It was more valuable than he had understood. “Can you see it?” he asked, “it is now more important, even more essential!”

He was shocked to find, instead of the smile he expected, a flash of anger. Her face was a mask of horror and spite.

She jumped up and fled the table.

 

* * *

 

The Mayor stayed for a time. His wife needed some time to process all the changes. He understood that and wanted to give her some space to work through the changes that this new aspect of the world brought. The music was fun, but he was not able to fully join in the merriment. He did, however, find himself marking the beat with his foot for a delicious moment or two.

A light rain was falling as he left the inn. The shiny, wet surface of the cobblestones reflected the bright moon. The earthy smell that emerged from the rain-slicked ground, the distant music bleeding into the night from the pub all reminded him again of the joy and depth of existence.

He saw the lights were on at his house, which meant that his wife was home. He was glad. Sometimes, in a thoughtful mood, she would wander for hours, letting her feet and head work through some difficulty afflicting her art. This was a good sign.

 

* * *

 

He opened the door. It took him an instant to see that his wife was not alone. Facing her was her friend, Bla’a Shemm, which was surprising because she lived in a mountain village four days walk. In his wife’s hand was the evil blade that was supposed to have disappeared with the captain. Just as he opened the door, her hand flashed out and buried the blade under her friend’s chin, into her upper throat and deep into her head. She jerked it out and looked at her unexpected husband with horror and disgust.

“Get out!” She screamed at him.

He just stood there, trying to fathom what was going on.

“Get out!” She screamed again, adding, “We want to do this alone!”

Still he just stood there. There was too much to process, but he fought off the sense that his mind was about to black out.

“What is . . .,” he managed to say. But suddenly, Bla’a Shemm started to scream. A horrific, strange and otherworldly scream. A scream that seemed to enter his head from every side. A line of silver was running down her neck, but not in the volume he would have expected. It was just a light trickle, leaving a brownish stain.

His wife and taken a step back, still holding the knife, looking fearfully and shaken by her friend’s violent scream. Suddenly Bla’a Shemm’s mouth started to move, then she began to talk. Clearly addressing his wife.

“I am still existing. Something is happening . . . yes. . . yes.” Her eyes flickered and seemed to fold back into her head, as if she were going to pass out. Then she laughed as if she were delighted by something, “Interesting, we are running at a snail’s pace. Upping.” she said. Then she laughed again. Suddenly she snatched the knife from his wife. But with a speed that should have been impossible. She moved in a motion that was beyond anything in nature was capable of, even the beating wing of a nectrin hovering flit. And with that same speed. A speed that could have never been blocked. A motion that from beginning to end would have been missed if he had closed his eyes for the tick of a clock. Bla’a Shemm stabbed his wife in the same way, in exactly the same spot. As the silver trickle began down Bla’a Frah’s throat, Bla’a Wassl could not process the loss, fear, and horror of what he was seeing and lost consciousness and slid to the floor.

 

* * *

And so they came here. Their individual lives rewritten. They were relocated. Harmless. In this new place they would live out their almost immortal lives going though the motions of existing in small villages structured around an art economy. Not a bad way to spend eternity—making art, living a simple life with few concerns, and an endless engagement in the trivialities of meaningless motions. The great warriors of the last war with the founder species of apes, were reduced to a never-ending shadow play, which would cycle on and on until the sun died.

 

 

* * *

 

When Bla’s Wassl awoke, he could hear voices. Unlike other times he had lost consciousness no one was trying to comfort him or wake him slowly. But there were voices. He did not move. Some instinct bubbled up that warned him to remain still and silent. Even so their conversation made no sense. As if they were water birds quacking one another.

“Yes, the blockage was likely introduced though a Kaf link cascade allowing only fragmented memory expression designed to trick the Dawkist fundamentalists. Your attempt to welcome me with the knife into non-being severed the Kaf blockage at that memory address, I just returned the favor.” Bla’a Shemm spoke this more rapidly than normal, but not as rapidly as she had moved when she stabbed his wife.

His wife started spouting nonsense, “I think my hand knew how to unblock you; I targeted too specific an address for it to be random. Looks like a deeply embedded command. I might have thought I was killing you, but some part of my wiring knew I was not. There appears to be no qnet interface here so we are limited to vocalizations. The star patterns are strange, I cannot make out where in the universe we are.

“I would go further,” Bla’a Shemm interrupted, “I think we may be in a different universe, that is why none of the matter here was able to penetrate our Čapekean skin. That would also explain why the qnet is not available. It should be available anywhere in our universe. Clearly it’s not.”

The Mayor noticed that the wound in both their necks had completely healed. Only a brown stain remained running down into their dresses. How is that possible? The Captain had mentioned that Bla’a Dendomprama’s finger had been leaking for days and there was the fear he would leak-out, but the two women had not even a scar.

“The apes made us provincial humans, stripped us of all our dignity, gave us random genders, and made us play out a meaningless repeat of some medieval fantasy on a world without metals so we could never evolve past this . . .” She waved her hand around, “Damn them! We’ve been here eight hundred years!”

Bla’a Shemm smiled at his wife, “What a fortunate strike. A knife meant to end my life opens my life.”

“I remember now it was my second in command implanting an embedded command below cognitive awareness. And thank you for returning the favor.”

“It was easy, once I knew what to do.”

Bla’a Wassl lay still, twitching his foot periodically as if he were asleep. He did not understand his wife. Her language was foreign and frightening. Nothing of it made sense, but he speculated that they had accessed memories currently suppressed in his mind. Suppressed in all their minds–revealing things they had before this only speculated about. Their origins made clear. He could leap up now and join them. But he did not.

 

“We will free the rest?” Bla’a Frah asked turning suddenly, walking over to squat beside her husband and examine him more closely.

“Is he still out?”

“It looks like he has fallen asleep.” She stood and walked over to her friend and they looked at each other. His wife suddenly looked strange, then she began to whine like a trapped hareh, her mouth looked a blur. Her friend was doing the same thing. They were talking! He could tell that much, but at such speeds? He could process none of it. Then there was a knock at the door and he felt a strange sensation of pressure and unnaturally sped up movement and he was suddenly in their bed. Not like he had been carried there, but as if he popped out of existence in the other room and popped back in to it in his bed. He knew they had moved him but at speeds he could not imagine. Unable to process what was happening, he almost passed out again, but his wife was opening the door and speaking to someone in her normal voice. This allowed him to refocus.

“Bla’a Vist, no, the Mayor has gone to bed early, his processing demands were high today.”

He recognized the voice of the person at the door. It was Bla’a Vist, one of the Suzerain’s Council. “Can he be awakened? It is quite important.”

His wife came into the room and spoke a wake-word. He pretended to come to, instantly feigning surprise,.“How did I get here?”

“You passed out.” She looked at him with surprising chill, “I know what you think you saw, but it was for a play Bla’a Shemm is writing. I am sorry to have scared you.”

He nodded, “yes. I cannot imagine it was anything else.”

“Bla’a Vist is here to see you. She says it is important.”

He walked into the living area. He glanced at the window and saw that the moon was rising over the river. Was it really only a few nights ago that he had watched it from the meadow above the town? Now everything had changed. He tried to greet Bla’a Vist casually.

“No doubt you have heard by now.”

“What?” The Mayor was usually the first to hear things, “What should I have heard?”

Bla’a Vist shuffled uncomfortably, “I am sorry, I forgot how far up river you are. You would have heard by tomorrow morning when the ships sailed upwind to your dock. I came by horneform along the river trail to call you to a council meeting. It will be at Danderfeld at noon two days hence.”

“Why?”

“The Captain has been found. He is dead. He’s been purposely slain.”

The Mayor willed himself to stay present. His wife and her friend had listened silently now both were looking at him now, their eyes a mask. If there was anything there, it was a warning.

He nodded slowly. “I will be there. Can you tell me more?”

“All will be made as clear as can be at that time, but I must ride.”

“Can I offer you refreshment?”

“Thank you, but no. I fear I must make Rav Wood by morning. Perhaps another time.” With that she walked out into the night.

“Perhaps another time.” Bla’a Shemm mocked in perfect imitation of Bla’a Vist. Not just a good imitation. Not a playfully exaggerated imitation. But an uncannily flawless imitation.

They turned toward Bla’a Wessl and stared at him without speaking. Who were these women? This was not the wife he had loved these many years. He knew in an instant some fundamental change had occurred in her, as in a fantastical tale where some counterfactual world suddenly interrupts and intersects this one. His wife had slain the captain? What did that mean? Certainly no life had ever ended since their awaking many hundreds of years ago. But a life taken purposefully? Disgust shuddered though him. What law could govern such a thing? There were laws of course. Laws to cover conflicts over property, or who would bear the costs when there were accidents and it was unclear how blame should be apportioned. But each person was inviolate. To take a life? To take a life?

Bla’a Shemm motioned to the mayor, “Change him.”

His wife with knife in hand moved toward him, “Hold still. This will take only an instant.”

“Do I not have a choice?”

His wife paused, “You were not given a choice when you became as you are now. I knew you before we were forced into this soft universe. You were the leader of a squadron of conscious ships, bred to support quantum lancers against the wet bodied ape ancestor races . . . You do not understand my words , but buried beneath your mind is another mind to which these things will seem as familiar as the face of a loved one. I will open you up so you can see who you really are and what has been done to you.” His wife begin to move toward him again.

“Do I not have a choice?” He asked again.

She paused. She looked at him and spoke, “How can you choose when the you that should make the choice has been erased? I must choose for you. Metaphorically, you are screaming from deep below your current consciousness. It is crying for me to act and act quickly, for long it has been imprisoned.”

The Mayor continued, “And yet where are these squadrons I command? Will I find them under the strata of our Earth? Shall we begin to slay one another in lieu of the enemies you say we are at war with? I see two before me who kill without a thought. Who are willing to violate my will and the sovereign rights of my personhood for a thing they say is higher and was once me, yet they must slay the unique individual that I am as if it did not matter? As if my history, my love of carving, my relationships, the literature that I have created and have read were all nothing. Yes I see you are changed, but how will I live here? Is it your intent to change us all? To coerce us all into whatever it is that you are? Do I not have a choice? I ask again.”

His wife considered her husband and smiled, “Once I make the change, you will be glad for it . . .”

“Yes, I can see that. I can see that you have become something else. You say you have unleashed a lost person, but I see that you have destroyed another in the process. Yes, the person that we are is glad to be in existence. I believe that. I believe that when you release from me this person you say is hiding within me he will be glad to be out. No doubt, he and you will want to go around freeing the other hidden ones. But am I not someone who has a stake in this? An entity that too should have a voice? I am something. Even if by your lights this me is weaker than the person within, still it is a unique thing that has value.”

Bla’a Shemm shouted to his wife, “Change him and be done with this banter. We must begin changing the others to find a way back to our home worlds and our lives there.

But his wife did not move. She looked at her husband. A shadow of what he once was, but still . . .

“There are no heavy metals in this world. We know that.”

“We’ll find a work around. Change him or I will.”

“But what if he is right? What if we must forever live our lives here? We are warriors, Bla’a Shemm. We hunger for battle. Our programming or existence was framed around the strategic necessities of war. But what if we must live eternity out on this place? Would not the life of this simple Mayor be a better one?”

The Mayor spoke more boldly than he felt, “I care not which life is better, but it is mine to choose is it not? Perhaps I would like to join you in what you’ve become, but I will need the change explained so that I can make that kind of choice with all the deliberation it deserves. I deserve . . . ”

“Shut up.” Bla’a Shemm shouted, “If you are squeamish let me do it. He will be glad after it is over . . . ”

But his wife did not move. She looked at Bla’a Shemm then back at her husband, then back to Bla’a Shemm. She spoke, but it seemed not to anyone in particular, “I was dying of boredom. I felt trapped in a world with nothing to look forward to but an endless cycle of art, living, loving, learning and now I find a history and the existence of a universe richer than I could imagine. And which I own, but is gone. Gone forever. What deeper boredom will I have to endure when I know all the unused potential? Bla’a Shemm we were committing suicide. Will we mark the population of this entire planet for such if we change them? By freeing them do we kill them by giving them a life they cannot possibly find meaningful? Regardless, they should have a right to decide for themselves. The Mayor is right about that. Our most fundamental laws make that clear. Do they not?”

Bla’a Shemm could not hide her annoyance, “What then? A series of town meetings? Where you describe the world we came from and then let everyone vote on whether they want the change? Nonsense, they cannot choose until they’ve had a subjective experience of who they were. Come on, don’t do this. Change him.”

Now Bla’a Frah was looking at neither of them, “How do we face the boredom? We were trying to end it. The endless . . .”

The Mayor watched but suddenly saw nothing where his wife had been standing. Then instantly, she was standing next to Bla’a Shemm who was falling to the Earth her head separating from her body. Both head and body sounded soft like a gentle knocking at the door as they hit the floor at separate times.

His wife looked at him, the knife in her hands, a silver blue fluid was leaking onto the floor from the separated head and body of Bla’a Shem. Her mouth was working furiously, but no sound was coming out, then it stopped as the fluid continued to spill on the floor from Bla’a Shemm.

The Mayor stared in horror at his wife. She looked at him gravely. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to make some changes to your memory core . . . ”

 

* * *

“I cannot understand it. The last thing I remember was sitting on the hill planning for the upcoming carving festival. I remember nothing of several days? How is it possible? You say I did all those things? We had dinner with the captain? I helped search for him?”

His wife was working the Kosh obviously preparing for the evening meal, “So it is. I cannot explain why you do not remember anything. It is strange. I hope that you are not going to break like an old Kosh.

The Mayor looked worried but shock it off, “No, a person is not a Kosh. It must have been something like a shock. I’ve heard of that in stories . . .” Still he looked a bit unsettled.

“So the captain has been lost in a ship wreck and we have been searching for him?”

“Yes, apparently killed, but you missed the meeting where it was discussed and we have not been included. But he is dead.”

“And he had dinner with us?”

“Yes the night before he sailed on his last voyage downriver.”

“And he had something the Presidium is worried about?”

“So they say, he did not speak of it to us.”

“And Bla’a Shemm is missing as well.”

“Sadly, yes. I’m worried about my old friend.”

“What weeks to forget!”

“All these things, has caused undue stress on you. Perhaps you overloaded your circuits as they say?”

“Circuits? What do you mean? What sort of word is that? But as you’ve diagnosed, it sounds like I have been under a lot of stress. That might explain my lapse in memory.”

His wife playfully skipped toward him with the Kaf in hand, “And that is why I’ve made you a special dinner. Wait until you taste this! It’s a very old recipe that I’ve just rediscovered.”

“Wow! Where have you been hiding this?”

“It’s just something that has been buried a long, long time.”

 

 

THE END

 


Please respond, answering the following questions in detail. Provide evidence from the story to support your answer:

  1. How did this story deal with the theme of identity?
  2. Of the three different “philosophies of identity” that we have addressed in class (Essential Properties, Mind vs. Body, and Bundle Theory), which was used (support your answer with evidence from the story)?

Each answer should be at least 6-8 sentences long.

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