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Chapter 15

A nascent floating thicket deep in Omen's hot atmosphere, with several bulbous, interconnected plant bodies suspended from buoyant hydrogen bladders, near an upwelling river of fire

Eden Revisited
Jope +10L

          Ten jopes had passed since the first creatoids crawled out of the sulfurous swamps of Omen's moon-1, and felt the full weight of the sky. Now Na hovered alone over an isolated ice sea on the night side of the largest moon of Outpost (the long-accepted name of planet-5). The colonization had proceeded remarkably well. A rich variety of microbes had been engineered, and successfully seeded in Omen's atmosphere. Small multicellular organisms had subsequently been introduced, thickets established, and extensive building complexes grown from a modified strain of the remarkable Empire Bush. The first 256 biological octos had only recently been birthed in thicket nurseries. Yet Na had not recovered from the shock of discovering that Nemo could not be revived, that his friend was forever gone from his own line of reality.
          Na gazed toward the eastern horizon. Just beyond, powerful neutrino beams streamed out to uncertain targets. The communication system had been constructed in the hope that future generations would establish contact with other colonies, perhaps even with Jopitar itself. An extremely long-term project.
          For some reason Na had regained complete recall, including all the emotional flavors, of his former life as a rey. He looked in the general direction of Suol. They were all gone now, ancient history. Why was he still alive? Even Nemo, his only true friend. Dead. Beneath it all, he was such a failure. Why was he alive at all? He could barely stand it.
          The decision to colonize Omen was such a commitment. He couldn't speak with Ulixis about his dissatisfaction. How could he tell her that he ached to explore the galactic core? She wouldn't understand; it would only make things worse. He could hear her saying 'we need to talk.' But she would only point out something that would make him feel stupid, maybe accuse him of seeking revenge for Nemo's death. How was revenge even possible, if Nemo was the victim of inanimate forces? Still, he couldn't just leave – how could he live with the guilt, the sense of betrayal?
          Perhaps his dream of exploration wasn't such a good idea. It would be dangerous. Maybe he'd be crippled, survive to eternity with only half a mind. What if he couldn't return to tell his mates what he had discovered, what he had done? Yet who would possibly remain for him to tell? It was all so confusing.
          Sulking, Na decided to read from a selection of simion poems he had tucked in the corner of his mental library for some obscure reason. He could relate to the strange imagery much better now that he had spent so much time on terrestrial-type worlds of rock and ice.

AERTH CE2011 BEJ001e

The trail ends in a heap of talus –
an ankle-breaking jumble of house boulders
perched one atop the other,
tumbling into vaporous abyss.

A massif wall of gneiss and schist rears up beyond –
sheer, solid, constant
yet implacable, impenetrable, unyielding.
Glaciers of eonic blue tumble down Her flanks,
ancient memories locked within bottomless crevasses.

A newborn stone, cleft from its womb, rains down
to the shrieks of cousins below.
Haunting booms resound rough welcome.

Why do I trust no one, save this Rock?
She cannot be a friend, or lover;
a parent, perhaps.
What jungle web of relationship and awefull symmetry
lies hidden in Her crystal eyes?

I am heavy, without breath.
How could I have thought
that I could scale Her body,
penetrate Her mystery?

I long to slip into a glacier's crack,
and be ground to chert beneath Her massive belly.

A raven freely soars
before the shining cliffs,
stark shadow slipping over stone.
Hollow feather eyes ride unseen waves
swept up by midday's heat
into the billowed crown
of the Mountain Mind I seek.

But I cannot follow.
I am too heavy.

Suol mocks me from a lofty aerie,
set in a pool of impossible blue.

But I have no wings.

The chasm yawns and stretches
beyond my sweat-soaked woolen socks
and vibram soles.
Do twinkling stars or lightning
flash through the swirling clouds?

I open my arms to the mountain
leap into pregnant air.

Jope +15L

          A forest of elongated bladders spired into the dense sky above the new capital city, suspending a sprawling, tangled network of public and private structures near the heart of Omen's south equatorial belt. Dubbed Omenia by its founders, the metropolis would be the center of government for the entire planet. But its open plazas and twisting tunnels were eerily empty and quiet, as the intended first wave of several hundred octan inhabitants had not yet moved in. Recruiting volunteers from the targeted third-generation octos, raised in comfortable villages scattered across the planet and generally less interested in the colonization effort than their elders, was proving difficult.
          Na hid from the ultrasonic illumination in a dim corner of the vast main meeting hall, paralyzed with a severe migraine. Metons were not supposed to experience headaches. Na surmised that there must still be unresolved conflicts in his neural pathways. Now he struggled to activate the mental feedback loops that would restore balance. Simions supposedly found relief from migraines by "crying"; Na wished at this moment that he too could shed tears.
          Both Na and Ulixis were scheduled to attend the departure ceremony for the first rey tribe, and then accompany the reys on their initial passage. The young adults had been raised in a mammoth simulation tank, designed by Na himself, which recreated the changing conditions of a passage cycle. Now the reys were eager to try the real thing.
          When he could delay no longer, Na nudged himself methodically toward the exit. One half of his mind raced, while the other languished in a stupor, as he forced his way through the round elastic portal and headed toward a broad outdoor amphitheater – 64 concentric tiers of open pits, hanging in a web from the sky. He scraped loose a few flakes of bark, which were left to a wobbly descent into the infernal netherworld below.
          Several mature first-generation octos waited impatiently in the innermost ring of pits, while eight young adult reys balanced gracefully on a gushing fountain of humid air at its center. Ulixis hovered serenely at the periphery. Na did not much care for the octo deputy governor selected to deliver a speech. While zor reports were superficially impressive, the official was a narrow-minded bureaucrat at heart.
          Na had seen to it that the reys learned to count, communicate, and sing in the tradition of his own birth tribe. Now he wondered which two of them shared his genetic lineage. Each had been created from original biological material, carried in a suspended state all the way from Jopitar. Of course the reys could have been reproduced artificially, using genetic codes stored in Na's data banks. One atom of ordinary silicon is indistinguishable from any other. Perhaps he and Ulixis were just sentimental. Or were they being cautious?
          As soon as Na slipped beside Ulixis, the deputy governor began zor address. Booming ultrasound filled the scene. "This is a unique moment in our history. For the first time, octo and rey join together, to build a new society. May we both multiply and prosper, filling the seas of this world in symbiotic harmony."
          Awkward silence followed. Na glanced at Ulixis. Was that it? Why no mention of a rey space corps?
          The speaker pushed a lever, and the fountain lurched sideways, spilling all the reys over the edge in a most unceremonious manner. Na and Ulixis darted after them, together with a pair of allotted creatoids. Down they went, in the ancient tradition. Down to the manna.
          Although he had been anticipating this occasion for some time, Na could scarcely believe what he was doing. He stared at the backs of the reys, wings spread instinctively into the rushing wind, and felt suddenly dizzy, as though he were in a distant dream. Faint voices he couldn't understand called to him through the dry mist.

          A few yads later, the reys approached the feed zone. Na had regained his composure, and decided to consult Ulixis about some nagging concerns. "I can't stomach the octan governor. What's his name … Nurco? Things used to be so simple. If we needed something, we would consult each other and decide what to do, using our own initiative and judgment. Now there's an endless chain of mandated procedures and reports for every project. If we don't complete every form to the letter, there's hell to pay. And why? Does anyone really believe all these oversight groups and regulations improve anything? They seem to have sprung from the abyss overnight."
          "You know we are not the only ones affected by our decisions anymore," Ulixis demurred. "The organics had to be brought into the equation, on their own terms. We cannot keep them out of the decision loop."
          "It seems to me they're trying to freeze us out of the loop."
          "Tension has always existed between our kind and the organics. It is natural and inevitable. Can you imagine how they must perceive us? We have little choice but to encourage the organics to take responsibility for their own affairs. The alternative is for us to become some sort of parental demigods. In the long run that would be disastrous, not to mention immoral."
          The reys were arrayed below Na and Ulixis in a traditional V formation. One of the males began drifting harmlessly to the left, and a creatoid hurried in to nudge him back into line.
          Na seemed not to notice, and continued venting his frustrations. "But the octos have been ignoring our advice, and filling positions of authority with individuals more interested in personal power and prestige than in good governance. Just look at the way Nurco plays upon public fears. He takes legitimate concerns, and twists them into shortsighted, self-serving policy! Lately he has been encouraging the attitude that all activities should be absolutely safe and risk free. The populace seems impressed that the workplace accident rate has been cut in half. But most of this reduction was achieved by forcing a work slowdown! What price was paid for this?"
          Below, the same wayward rey began roaming to the right in the V formation. The creatoid again doggedly pushed him back in place. This time, the male appeared to become mildly annoyed.
          Once more, Na seemed not to notice. "The bureaucrats are bent on establishing cookbook standards that are easily verified, and are uncomfortable with anything else. Now that Omenia is built, the regulatory climate can only get worse."
          "Perhaps, if we can find octos willing to live there. I realize these bureaucratic tendencies are insidious and stifling, but some method of maintaining standards is necessary. The system will likely be self-correcting in the long term. Many octan managers are already getting fed up, and ready for a change. Some checks and balances would be a good start. Less micromanagement by the regulators, and more reliance on competency requirements, would help."
          Na had difficulty taking the long view. He wasn't even so sure that things would eventually improve. What if it took another ten jopes? How would he endure? Even so-called reformers often had their own hidden agendas. "Nonetheless, how many of the octos currently show little or no respect for us, or for what we are trying to accomplish here? After we created them!"
          "They did not ask to be created."
          "Do you really believe that's relevant?"
          "I believe it is what many of the octos are feeling. That they did not ask to be born, to assume responsibility for our project, to achieve life only to face the prospect of eventual death."
          A sudden commotion among the reys distracted the pair from their argument. A complex of appetizing hot springs was just coming into view.
          "Look! A ribbon serpent!" shouted an excited female as a pack of diminutive serpents appeared briefly, then vanished ghostlike directly below them. A tribe of miniature reylings flitted through the murk ahead of the pack. Na and Ulixis had decided not to introduce standard serpents on Omen, but had created a dwarf variety instead, together with a prey population of small, primitive rey-like creatures. Both predator and prey carried on as if Na and his companions didn't exist.

          The manna was plentiful and the storms mild through the remainder of the passage. Na stared gently at one of the female reys as she and the other organics slept, arrayed in a tight V formation while they swept down from the cloud tops. Her name was Neris, and her hide had a beautiful aurburn complexion. It was also mottled with tiny frickles. Na had always been attracted to females with frickles. He watched Neris' cloaked eyes twitch, and recalled what organic dreaming was like. As a meton, Na could put himself into a dreamlike fantasy trance, but the experience was normally more under his conscious control.
          Neris' eyes fluttered open, and she hurriedly looked about for the other reys, a trace of momentary panic evident. Her search briefly touched Na, before moving on. But in that instant Na's psyche latched onto her. He gazed longingly after Neris, praying that she turn back toward him. He had to connect with her, share with her what he was feeling, what he had once known. Yet his heart was paralyzed. What kind of monster must he appear to her? Forbidden flashbacks of his ancient tribal life welled up into Na’s awareness. He had once tried to lose these memories, but without them, how could he still be himself?

          Na entered the dark auditorium with trepidation, through a back entrance. He had already broken several requested engagements with Ulixis, and he could put her off no longer. Na spotted her waiting motionless near the raised dais at the opposite end of the hall. Ulixis spoke first.
          "We have to talk."
          "Is something wrong?"
          Silence. "Na, you must realize that something is wrong. You have withdrawn from every one of our projects over the past two thoms, save monitoring the reys."
          "The octos don't need me anymore. You said yourself they are better off on their own."
          "How can you say that? We are equal partners with the octos – no more, but certainly no less."
          "Well then, we have an honest disagreement."
          "But that is hardly all. You have been avoiding me as well. We used to share, confide our hopes and fears. But no more. Na, I cannot possibly relate to the organics the way I can to you. They are so different from us. I have been so lonely!"
          "There will be other metons soon enough." How could he have ever decided to stop being a rey? What fit of stupidity had seized him? Of course, he would be dead by now, but what was wrong with that?
          "How can you say that so impassively? How can I tell you how much I miss you? This was supposed to be our home, our family. Na, what is wrong?"
          Na barely heard her lonely plea through his own fear and confusion. He blurted it out. "I want to become a rey again." He braced for the inevitable explosion, shifted to flee, but didn't for some reason.
          Ulixis sighed muonic static, as her frame of mind shifted. "I am not really surprised." She paused a few nocs. "I worried that this was bound to happen sooner or later."
          Na felt numb, and Ulixis' response was unexpected.
          "You never really took the time to resolve the psychological issues involved in your transformation to a meton, or even in the separation from your birth tribe. It was all too easy. The underlying contradictions were not adequately explored. Since you were the first rey ever to be transformed, it was unclear what counseling was needed or appropriate. I am sure that Nemo meant well, but he rushed the operation."
          "What choice did we have? I couldn't continue the way I was living, and I certainly couldn't return to my old tribe." Could Nemo have drugged him, and tricked him into consenting to the surgery?
          "But why exactly did you leave your tribe in the first place?"
          "Like I've told you, we were desperate. There was so little food."
          "But to abandon the security of the tribe under any circumstance, and take your only child? That makes no sense."
          "I don't want to talk about this with you. How could you possibly understand?" Na wished he had never broached the subject.
          "But you have to talk about it. If not with me, then with someone else."

          Na huddled in the womb-like security of the deep ice cave, beside the entrance to Nemo's aging tomb, as he slipped into a fantasy trance to explore his feelings. His therapist for the past eight thoms had suggested this experiment. Soon Na imagined that he was a simion, hiking a demanding mountain trail. It helped when he pretended he wasn't himself.
          Na hiked for rohs, through a changing landscape. His attention focused on the immediate task – one foot in front of the other; don't slip or trip. Pace yourself – breathe in, out; in, out. His lungs burned; his legs were heavy as osmium. Where was this getting him? An old simion poem came to mind:

Sheer walls rise around me –
left, right; forward.
I must climb on, but
claw in vain at callous stone,
knuckles scraped red as the sandrock cliffs.
Where is my verdant valley,
the velvet slopes and splashing waters?
Whence this bare box canyon?

But the path is dumb and blind.
The only way now is

Failure drags backward
over unforgiving slag.
Dust devils lift grey heads
above the craggy ramparts,
whirling terror up the withered trail.

Why did I stumble?
When did I fall?
Wind blows ghost notes
through my hollowed bones,
pressed now like veins of autumn leaves
flat against the desiccated earth.

I long for shade trees
and cool pools again,
the warmth of an impassioned hand.

Where are the promised alpine meadows
of bilberry, diapensia and sedge,
sprinkled with sprigs of fresh spring snow,
where goat kids dance and
children play?

          Na awoke to stare at the ice. Would he never grow beyond his youthful flaws, his original sin? He still based decisions on fear, rather than hope; dwelt on the negative, rather than the positive. Was he so afraid to tempt fate? Did he trust so little, feel so unempowered?
          Na felt pain well up inside. Why had Que and Nemo left him? How had he abandoned Ki? Now he had a family again. Ulixis was his mate, and the reys and octos his children, in every sense of the word. Neris reminded him of Ki in so many ways. Why didn't he embrace them all? Would they shatter? Was he afraid they were time bombs? Or a clever trap, a well-camouflaged ribbon serpent? He recalled a fragment of another simion poem:

You are perfect
in your imperfection;
the fulfillment
of a possibility
in the mind of God.