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Chapter 18

Poy is offered a mysterious gift during a reality-two trance

The Gift

          Poy lounged in a gushing fountain of warm, soothing fluid under a spacious, transparent, pressurized dome protruding from the smooth skin of Loslo. She gazed in wonder at the purported supernova almost directly overhead. The brilliant interloper dominated the broad, rich swath of Milky Way flowing from the eastern to the western horizon. What was the guest star's meaning? Not that it needed to have any special significance, apart from sheer physical necessity. Would she lose her own sense of wonder after her transformation? The metons insisted her personality would remain intact.
          She studied the brilliant light intently. Was Suolig truly the Eye of Maddee (in a figurative sense, of course)? If it were in fact a supernova, what future worlds would be spawned by its magic alchemy? Or was Suolig something else altogether? Perhaps it was a powerful communication beacon, aimed toward the galactic center from the vicinity of Suol. Few of the metons were willing to seriously entertain this notion. Yet over a vast distance, even a narrow beam might spread enough to encompass the entire Los system. But what energy source could possibly power such a beam, and where was the embedded message? Why couldn't the star be a portent, a sign? Mainstream Omenite society had little tolerance for superstition, though irrational thinking could be so seductive on an individual level. Poy worried that if the metons learned how much she actually indulged in obsessive ritual and magical thinking to deal with stress, they would decide she wasn't a fit meton candidate after all.
          A haunting melody played in the back of Poy's mind. She abruptly plunged down the side of the fountain, into a levitating flow close to the floor, and scooted to an open hammock waiting nearby. She settled there, and plugged into the reality-two network. She wanted to utilize the system to compose and record a song for her tribe. It would be her farewell gift to them.
          Poy stared upward into Suolig, as she deftly slipped into a dreamlike trance, only loosely tied to the virtual reality generators. This format was popular among artists, as it allowed more direct access to the reservoirs of the subconscious mind. Images, rhythms, moods began to flicker through her receptive consciousness. Poy watched her own youngest daughter emerge from rolling fog, and dance against the twisting vapors of a gentle storm. A dull, heavy longing thumped through her wingfolds.
          Suddenly the dream snapped, and Poy found herself suspended lifelike above the windswept clouds of Omen, facing the strange star. What was going on? This was unusual. An oval door opened before her in empty space, beckoning Poy forward. A black-haired female simion in a thin, flowing gown of pure white silk appeared on the far side, silhouetted against a wild sky aflame with the same color as the new star. Her tawny face was pockmarked, as if by a plague only a disciplined, lucky few could have survived. Or were the marks scars, from flash burns? The woman stretched her mouth broadly from side to side, causing little hollows to appear in the skin on either side. Poy recalled from her studies that this was how simions kooted, or expressed goodwill. The gesture did somehow seem friendly.
          The woman approached, both hands outstretched and upright. As her palms touched Poy, she transformed into a lanky, light-skinned simion male, totally naked and exposed. Although he looked somehow comical, Poy pressed her own body against the vision. It was sensual, intimate, though not overtly sexual. The man pursed his lips, and pressed them softly between Poy's eyes. It felt like he was trying to thank her for something. Then he backed away, and became once again the simion female.
          Now the woman held out a strange, scintillating object in her hands. She appeared to be offering it as a present, and left the thing suspended in space directly in front of Poy. It was dazzling, mesmerizing. Poy counted at least 12 spatial dimensions in its physical structure. The interior was dynamic, alive with movement. Crystal-like planes and aspects shimmered in and out of existence. Tiny points of light swam about, like a swarm of sparkflies. Poy wordlessly accepted the gift, and the simion backed away. Then Poy realized that the package was far too complex to be the product of her passing imagination. Suddenly fearing both that she might lose the contents, and what those contents might contain, she quickly secured the object in a virtual lock box.
          A string of gleaming spherical habitats appeared behind the simion now. They floated in space, illuminated by the warm yellow-white glow of a familiar star. The woman's angled brown eyes beamed with kindness, just moistened by generous tears. She lingered, holding both hands upright and pressed together, as the doorway slowly shut.
          Poy abruptly snapped back to her previous mental state. Whatever just happened? What did this bizarre vision mean? Poy had never before had a virtual experience like this. Then again, she had never before faced transformative surgery into meton form in only eight yads, or confronted a mystery like the inscrutable "star" that flared in the precise direction of the rey home world. Perhaps the virtual reality network had been infected with a rogue virus? If so, it didn’t seem malicious. An infection was highly unlikely in any event, given all the system safeguards. She decided to return to her planned activity, and deal with this puzzle later.
          Poy launched a new simulation and immediately became a meton, sailing on a tight course around Los through surging waves of light. An enchanting electric harmony floated on the Losar breeze, whipped by a distant magnetic storm. It was somehow right, and Poy committed the music to memory. After playfully experimenting with a few simple variations, she recorded her favorite, then woke gently in her hammock, contented. It would be more than a roh before Poy realized that Suolig had vanished.

          Neris, Na and Ulixis lingered above the frigid surface of Loslo one thom later, just outside an entry portal into the central computing facility, following a prolonged meeting concerning several mysterious data packets apparently downloaded from Suolig. Poy hurried toward them in her new meton body, eager to hear what had been learned.
          "Poy!" Neris called in greeting. "You seem to be flying much better now."
          "Yes," Poy replied, "there was only a minor glitch in my neural mapping. It seems we reys still have a few surprises for the neuroengineers."
          "You must be wondering about the meeting," Ulixis suggested.
          "How did you guess? Information is being strictly screened, and remote access is limited, even for those of us with clearance. So, what is the latest news?"
          "At least four other individuals, all plugged into the virtual reality system at about the same time, received packages similar to yours," Na reported. "Yet the experiences were not identical. Two, like you, were greeted by simion images, while the others encountered octos or metons. Even the offered objects appear to differ in subtle ways. They are all extremely complex, and carry an immense amount of information."
          "Those simions were NOT simple images," Poy insisted. "They were as real to me as any of you are here."
          "In any event, there has been considerable success in deciphering the package contents," Na continued. "Unlike our experience with the voidling, there appears to be appreciable overlap with our own technological perspective. The common interpretation is that, rather than comprising a simple message, the Suolig beam carried a complex interactive AI program, somehow capable of downloading itself into any compatible computing system it encountered. The imagery suggests that it originated in our old suolar system, many kilujopes after Na and I departed, though the images could have instead been pulled from our own minds."
          Now Neris spoke up. "Many organics have begun referring to the downloaded material as The Gift.
          "Several metons originally suggested it might be a Trojan Horse, sent here by a malevolent artificial intelligence," Ulixis countered.
          Poy did not understand. "A Trojan what?"
          "The expression refers to an ancient Aerth story," Neris explained. "Information should be available to you in the global data banks."
          "Oh, yes… Thanks. This instant access to information is taking some getting used to," Poy murmured." Wait – the simions once used those creatures for transportation? How was that possible?"
          "Look a little deeper," Neris urged. "The original Trojan Horse was a hollow, oversized statue, constructed to only superficially resemble a biological horse."
          "Oh, I see now," Poy replied after a few nocs of additional investigation. Still, the thought of a simion riding even the smaller organic creature made her feel vaguely ill.
          "The fear was that the packages comprise some kind of advanced virus," Ulixis resumed, "perhaps preparing the way for a coming artificial intelligence."
          Poy thought such concerns overblown. "But they haven't done anything."
          "The packets could in principle be waiting for the right conditions to self-activate," Ulixis argued, "to create or do who-knows-what. They may even be responsible for the Suolig beam itself."
          "Viruses that self-propagate across the galaxy at the speed of light," Na pondered aloud.
          "Nonetheless," Ulixis continued, "the current consensus is that the packets instead constitute a light-speed colony ship from Suol! About half of the stored data appears to be code for extensively augmented octan SNA and simion DNA, plus personality and memory imprints for some 12 octan and 10 simion individuals."
          "Though the genetic information is so modified, so intentionally evolved, that the octans and simions would barely look familiar to us now," Na added.
          "In this interpretation," Ulixis carried on, "the remaining data is a blueprint for manufacturing a device to recreate these individuals."
          "What about the 'vessel' for the information?" Neris questioned. "We now know that the Suolig beam was relatively narrow; its intensity rapidly fell to zero outside the Los system. But then, how could it ever have been directed to target us? The odds of such a beam randomly hitting us are near zero!"
          "The beam," Na replied, "contained extensive information in addition to The Gift. Apparently, it was sent out from the suolar system in our general direction – the home world knew our broad plans – and eventually began to intercept our own transmissions in the opposite direction. It must have then somehow refracted itself to home in on the source. That a beam moving at light speed can be programmed to do this is remarkable! Perhaps neutrinos, which move a bit slower and experience time on their passage, are involved."
          Neris posed the obvious question. "So – is The Gift a blessing, or a curse?"
          "Perhaps it is both," replied Na softly. "We may yet both benefit and suffer from associated novel technology. It might also provide an update on developments back in the suolar system. We thought we had permanently lost touch with the home world."
          "There is no planet in the Los system suitable for simions," Poy pointed out. "Would it be ethical to reactivate the simions here?"
          "They might prefer to live off-planet at this point in their evolution," Na offered. "Nonetheless, the consensus is that we not attempt to reconstitute any of the travelers here, in the Los system, mainly for security reasons, but also to reduce the risk of culture shock. An unoccupied star system that has both Aerth-like and jopian worlds has been located less than 0.1 light-jope distant. We could attempt to animate our guests there and, if successful, help them set up a new colony. It has been our intent all along to establish new colonies in this stellar neighborhood."
          "In any event, the packets should remain quarantined," Ulixis urged, "isolated in secure systems, until we learn more."
          Na gently scoffed pionic chaff. "If isolating them is even possible."
          Poy was mildly disturbed by the implications of the discussion. "We are set to leave with the Nos Ul-Na on our grand voyage in only nine kews! Is it really wise to leave now, in the midst of such uncertainty?"
          "There will always be new problems for the Los colony to contend with – be they natural disasters, voidlings, or suspicious gifts," asserted Na calmly. "The colony is strong, and well equipped to handle them. I doubt our staying longer would make any difference." Then he gestured neutrinically into the starry expanse. "Nothing in this universe is certain," he added, "except for the underlying logic of consistency."
          Neris was more skeptical. "So you aren't worried about fools like Broroo gaining more influence on the Planetary Council? How could he seriously consider attempting to upload one of the data packets into the local voidling complex?"
          "The decision has been made to bring copies of the data packets with us," Ulixis interrupted. "We should be able to keep them sufficiently isolated, while continuing further study. Future discoveries can be remotely shared with the Los colony for some time to come."
          Poy quietly wondered exactly how this decision had been made. "Will we then attempt to spawn creatures from the data packets during our voyage? If we succeed, how could this possibly be fair to them? After all, our ultimate intent is to establish a meton-oriented society. The poor souls could wind up feeling little more than our slaves."
          "That is highly unlikely," Ulixis retorted. "The suolarians arrive with a 15 kilujope jump in technology. Also, they would basically be post-octan and post-simion biological-synon hybrids, who might feel more comfortable among us than in the biological-based society on Omen."
          At last Poy deferred to her elder, though she remained unconvinced.

          Several short kews later, Neris was parked with a pod of rey metons in a restricted zone just outside the main north-polar entrance into Nos Ul-Na. Only nims before their grand departure, this was the sole portal still open. How strange to be finally leaving, Neris thought, gazing back at distant Omen. This was the only home she had ever known. But such was not the case with Father Na or Mother Ulixis. Though each had now spent much more time here than in the old suolar system, Jopitar was still their birth world, the womb that had shaped so much of who they are. And now, they are leaving yet again, to … what?
          The appointed time had come. Neris and the others slipped inside the mighty megon, with one final glance backward, as the broad iris diaphragm began to narrow. Before Neris knew it, the portal was closed tight. And the inevitable acceleration had begun.