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Chapter 6

Grace

          Nemo slithered quietly along a tunnel toward Na's chamber, lost in contemplation. During the thoms (the octan equivalent of months) he had lived with and studied the rey, a remarkable thing had happened to Nemo. Initial abstract intellectual excitement and curiosity had gradually given way to enchantment, then respect and even admiration for this strange creature and the race he unwittingly represented.
          A lithe, suckered tentacle abruptly emerged from a side chamber of the passageway, startling Nemo. Two huge eyes poked out, and peered questioningly at him.
          "Na! Off to visit your rey friend again?"
          "Rafu – must you always sneak about, and frighten your comrades?? Yes, I am on my way to interview Na, but you know he's not my 'friend.' How could he be? He is a rey, after all."
          "Well, you could have fooled me. Why not simply admit to it? Indulging in such foolish, sentimental octomorphism does not go unnoticed. Though I cannot fathom your obvious feelings for the brute."
          "I wish you would stop chiding me about this. How many times must I tell you? He is simply a research project."
          "Nemo – just admit it! I have known you since our first yad in nursery school. When we enrolled at this university, you sought meaning to your life in academics and its traditions of detached objectivity. Just like me. But something has changed …"
          "Na is quite remarkable. I will admit only to that. His spirit is so free! Did you know he willfully left the security of his own herd and faced an unknown storm, just to experience its truth firsthand? His outward approach to life is so … refreshing. There is an apparent willingness to risk all, to immerse himself in the tumult, to be rather than to merely see."
          "There was a time you would have found this orientation reckless, and repellent. I certainly do. He is so disgustingly alien."
          "You should get to know Na better. Part of me has become enamored with the honesty and fullness of his approach to life. Though he does not always seem to understand his own motivations, and has sometimes applied his philosophy too rashly for his own good. Na still appears to be repressing selective memories of the ordeal that brought him to us."
          "Have you ever wondered if you are overlooking some dark aspect of Na's psyche, and romanticizing your subject's exotic personality? He may have been a maladjusted misfit back in his own tribe."
          "Yes; sometimes I do wonder. I have asked a neuropsych team to work on this, but they are of course having problems, as his mental structure is so different from ours."
          "By the way, I saw Ikta yesteryad. She asked me how you were doing. And said that she would like to get together with you over a meal of bloatleaf and knuts?"
          Nemo paused for an agitated moment. "Rafu, you really do enjoy startling me. Well, I really do not have the time these yads. The rey project is demanding all of my attention. Now I really must be off. Na is expecting me."
          Rafu whirled a tentacle in a sympathetic fashion. "Then be off. But please, consider what I have said."

          Nemo slinked softly into Na's chamber, and slipped the frequency transducer over his own bellan. He marveled again at the tuning of the low-frequency bands in which the reys conversed. Perhaps it was not so surprising that the octos had been oblivious to their chattering all those millennia. It had taken some time to piece together a language with which he and the rey could communicate. While conversation was in Na's frequency format, it was still strictly auditory, and lacked the rich imagery reys normally employed.
          "Na," Nemo whispered, concerned that his friend was asleep.
          "I am only daydreaming," Na responded wearily, adjusting his infrared and acoustic eyes. He twisted in his ill-fitting hammock to face Nemo directly.
          "About your tribe again?" Nemo asked gently. When Na did not respond, Nemo continued. "I have a new idea for your future. It is very risky, but you cannot stay here. This life is killing you."
          Na made a sound indicating sad amusement. "Nor can I return home, Nem. Even if we could heal this body and relocate my tribe, you know I could not bear the shame. Though I suppose I can't continue taking your drugs forever." Nemo had assured him repeatedly that the medications would have no detrimental long-term effects.
          "This does not involve your tribe. You have already learned something of our spacecraft. But you do not know the whole story."
          Na's eyes twiggled. "What could your spacecraft possibly have to do with me?"
          "Let me tell you the whole story first. Then you will understand." Nemo looked thoughtfully into his companion's enigmatic face. "My people first learned to create and harness Drac bubbles 75 kilujopes ago. The details are lost in the annals of time."
          "Doesn't a Drac bubble reduce the weight of everything coupled to it?"
          "Yes. By equipping a transport vessel with a Drac bubble generator, the bulk of the vessel's effective mass could be reduced incrementally, down to almost zero. Buoyancy could then be controlled, providing lift to the top of the atmosphere. There, tiny ion drives could rapidly accelerate a nearly inertia-free ship to high speeds. This new technology allowed my ancestors to construct the first primitive spacecraft, in which they left our beloved planet to investigate nearby worlds."
          "When I first heard that you octos have artificial flying ships, I could scarcely believe it. Now you tell me you have had them for such an incredibly long time! Reys have had no inkling of this; we generally steer clear of the floating thickets. And your bodies seem so ill suited for such travel."
          "Early explorers traveled in pressurized chambers, under deep Jopian conditions. This we know from a few surviving records. But the scheme proved inconvenient. The life support equipment was bulky and unwieldy. Control of a spaceship was indirect, slow and awkward. So the octan astronauts were pruned surgically, to take up less space. Appendages were amputated, and artificial links to critical controls tied directly to the astronauts' nervous systems. Soon artificial sensory organs were included."
          "The astronauts willingly assented to this?"
          Nemo was unperturbed by the tone of the question. "There were countless volunteers. Of course, many psychological obstacles were encountered, in particular severe agoraphobia. But these were overcome by neurological and biochemical engineering. The need for an astronaut to move through a spacecraft was eliminated, and the size of the life support chamber greatly reduced. Eventually, only the brain of the pilot remained, kept alive in a small compartment at the heart of a vessel, and integrated to a host of artificial limbs and sensory devices."
          "It's hard to imagine freely giving up one's own body, with all its natural senses and feelings!"
          "The astronaut saw through artificial eyes: electromagnetic detectors sensitive to various frequency bands, acoustic detectors for atmospheric use. He communicated with the outside world using parallel transmission organs. He felt with artificial skin and tissue: millions of probes sensitive to pressure, temperature and radiation, distributed throughout the spacecraft hull and frame. The spacecraft became the astronaut's body, and moved according to his will. A new creature was born, as much at home in the depths of space as we are in the depths of our atmosphere, manned by octan volunteers who abandoned their planet-bound lives in the hives for the freedom of the skies."
          "Aha! A rhyme, at last," chortled Na.
          "I may be a bit slow, but I do catch on eventually. These spaceship beings efficiently explored the remainder of our suolar system. They traditionally traveled in groups of three, sometimes more. The first new world to be probed was our sister gas giant, Sattorn. But no life whatever was found there. Apparently the atmospheric dynamics of Sattorn does not permit life's evolution."
          "Nem, I know that various intermediate life forms exist there now. I saw them myself on your education disks."
          "Yes, but these were engineered and planted by my people soon after the first pioneers arrived – an experiment in planetary modification that was never properly followed up. Exploration of the inner, tiny rocky planets followed that of Sattorn. Of course, no life was expected there. The atmospheres of these planets are terribly thin, and temperatures extreme. But our astronauts found the surface of the third planet, Aerth, teeming with peculiar carbon- and water-based life forms. This world has been under surveillance ever since, with only minimal interference."
          "The Aerth simions – I have also seen them in the disks, Nem. They resemble octos much more than reys."
          Nemo's skin tensed. "Superficially, perhaps. But we have had a few – ummm – unfortunate interactions in the past, based mainly on a misunderstanding of their most peculiar psyches."
          "Do the simions truly have liquid protoplasm? And liquid blood??"
          "Yes, though it chills me even to think of it."
          "They must be so heavy, so ungainly. How ever do they move?"
          "Actually, they are quite nimble. Remember, Aerth gravity is only 42% local standard, and their oxygen metabolism is more vigorous than ours. Now, please let me continue; there is so much more to tell you."
          Na wriggled in his hammock. "I appear not to be going anywhere anytime soon."
          "The spacecraft design I have described was very successful, and persisted with only minor changes for many kilujopes. But the spacecraft creatures were limited by their weak propulsion systems and organic brains to travel within our own suolar system. Reactive ion drives and gravitational fields were the only sources of acceleration in those yads. Although the craft were nearly inertia free, resistance of the thin extraplanetary medium restricted maximum speeds to about 0.1% the speed of light – superb for interplanetary trips, too small for practical interstellar journeys. In addition, the organic brains had lifetimes of no more than about twenty jopes."
          "And so, your people no doubt replaced them with artificial brains," Na offered in jest. But Nemo seemed pleased by his comment.
          "Techniques were in fact developed fairly early to manufacture synthetic brains. The original idea was to transfer the memories and personality of a living octo to a synthetic structure. The organic body would then be either painlessly destroyed, effectively shifting conscious identity to the synthetic form; or allowed to live, producing twin individuals from one. In addition to an extended life span, the synthetic format offered greatly enhanced mental powers. There was soon even interest in artificially creating completely new synthetic personalities, bypassing organic templates altogether. But the resistance to these ideas was astonishing, at least from our current philosophical perspective."
          "I can imagine," Na murmured wryly to himself.
          "At last, after an incredibly long stagnant period, a renaissance occurred. An important underlying factor was the development of a common consistent metaphysics and an associated ethics and religion, remarkably similar to the one we now practice. The logic was convincing, though a consensus was reached painfully slowly. Resistance to the synthetic brain concept withered. The voluntary destruction of an organic body following conscious transfer became socially acceptable, as fewer citizens viewed it as murder. Synthetic individuals, or synons, were granted full rights as sapient beings. Many of the emerging synon class opted for synthetic bodies analogous to their original organic ones. These octo-like synons are commonly called synocts. Those who instead chose spacecraft bodies became known as metons, to suggest a new stage in the evolution of life, beyond the biological, into creatures adapted to inhabit off-planet environments. Some hives adopted the custom of—"
          "Nemo – stop for a moment! Must you invariably lecture when you speak with me? I want to be your friend, not your student. And why is so little of this in my library?"
          "Sorry, I …" Nemo paused, then worded his response carefully. "Several of my colleagues did not feel you were … ready for it yet."
          "I must admit that I am having more than a little difficulty accepting what you are telling me. Where are these synons? I don't recall ever meeting one."
          "The metons normally stay off-planet, and synocts tend to congregate in their own floating villages. This university is quite retro, so we receive few synon visitors of any type."
          "Well, I did interrupt you. Please, continue."
          Caught up in his story, Nemo failed to register the note of sarcasm in Na's voice, and carried on as before. "During this same period, about 72 kilujopes ago, the Xam propulsion drive was developed. This drive pushes against the vacuum itself – the underlying fabric of space-time, as it couples to massive objects such as stars and planets – and so obviates the need for any kind of propellant. The Xam drive, coupled with a new matter-energy conversion process, provided our ships with a superior form of propulsion.
          "Acceleration up to ten percent light speed was now readily achievable. Higher speeds were shunned, mainly because radiation levels became prohibitive. The uppermost velocities were used primarily outside the orbit of Sattorn; they were excessive for normal interplanetary travel, and dangerous at the elevated densities nearer Suol. A final breakthrough was the introduction of neutrino communication, replacing a long-range system based on electromagnetic waves. Neutrinos barely interact with normal matter, and can travel immense distances with minimal distortion and signal attenuation even through solid rock. We could now communicate directly through the core of a giant planet!"
          Nemo's excitement was obvious. He paused for a moment to regain his composure, and recalled with a soft gurgle the latest simion search for signs of extraterrestrial life.
          "Nem, what's so funny? Or am I misinterpreting the sound you just made?"
          "No, I was just thinking how the simions currently look for aliens by scanning the sky at electromagnetic wavelengths. Yet no advanced civilization would use such radiation for routine long-distance communication, and we octos certainly have no desire to advertise our presence to the primitive Aerthlings." Or was he too being pretentious in thinking that his own race was so advanced?
          "At last the first of our living meton starships were launched toward Suol-2, the nearest suolar-type star at the time. A single gas-giant planet suitable for life was discovered there. Following this achievement, metons departed for promising destinations nearly every jope, sometimes in large fleets. Many carried frozen fertilized octo eggs, to establish colonies whenever and wherever habitable but unpopulated planets were found. The spore sacks of Jopitar's bush of life were mature and ripe. The sacks burst, spewing octan germ across the cosmos. Even at ten percent the speed of light, it still takes over 80 kilujope to travel the breadth of our galaxy. But enough time has now passed that octos presumably range across most of this star system."
          "Nem, I've seen no hint of such a wide-flung civilization. Your governance appears limited to this suolar system."
          "Ours is no empire. Effective interstellar communication is physically impossible, as far as we can tell. The fundamental limitation is the speed of light, an obstacle we have been unable to circumvent. A neutrino message requires more than six kilujopes to reach an outpost at the opposite end of the galaxy. Without periodic reamplification, even a narrow-beam signal disperses and is lost. So we maintain a limited large-scale communication network, and correspond mainly with the nearest star systems." Nemo screwed his face in a manner that Na found incomprehensible. While octos, like reys, do use sound to convey emotion, they also rely heavily on facial expression and body posture. "Maybe this is just as well. If it were possible to instantly jump from one part of the galaxy to another, we would be vulnerable to surprise attack. How could we sleep? We are much safer this way."
          Na was taken aback by this comment. He had never before heard any octo speak of an external threat. Did even the octos have their serpents? "Nem, I thought the octos had no effective enemies."
          "None that we know of," Nemo replied softly. "Though even now, octan brothers and sisters may be enslaved in a far corner of the galaxy. We once refused to acknowledge this possibility. But we have since had a few unfortunate experiences – for example, with the simion creatures."
          "What exactly happened, Nem? You referred to these encounter earlier."
          "We – err – misinterpreted the simions' viewpoints and intentions, much to the regret and harm of all involved." It was apparent that Nemo did not want to say more. "We know now that many other intelligent species exist. Some are warlike, others not. The more warlike ones tend to ultimately overextend and destroy themselves. But not always. No, there may well be distant races eager and able to destroy us." A wrinkled, sober expression molded Nemo's features. "A particularly frightening possibility is that a group of our own synthetic cousins near the center of the galaxy has turned against us."
          "Why would you think that?"
          "No messages have arrived from that region for over five communication cycles. And every high-speed probe sent to investigate has simply vanished about 50 light jopes from the galactic core, in the inner spiral arm known as D-4. Shortly after computer consciousness was first invented, it was recognized that a rogue synthetic intellect might decide to start its own race, and come to view its organic creators as inferior pests to be eradicated. Creation of any new synthetic personality without a direct organic imprint was banned, and additional safeguards were implemented to minimize this possibility. Although a small probability persisted, the time required for a significant risk to develop was so long as to be considered irrelevant. Whereas this was a reasonable perspective for our ancient ancestors, it is no longer valid for us. So much time has elapsed that the likelihood is now about 50% that such a hostile race has in fact evolved. They may be biding their time, quietly gathering strength until they feel strong enough to attack and overwhelm us."
          Nemo hoped he was not telling Na too much. If such an enemy existed, why had they not struck already? Had they destroyed themselves, leaving only a network of defensive sentinels? Had they reformed? Or were they simply not interested?
          "Even if we were to successfully thwart such an assault, the octan race would probably be changed forever. We could produce sufficient defenders only if large numbers of young adults all over the galaxy were quickly transformed into synthetic existence. Following a war, it would likely remain fashionable for adults to undergo this metamorphosis while still young, rather than wait for the infirmities of old age. Our foes may thereby ultimately defeat us from within. Synthetic octan descendants may lose respect for their organic brethren, even if they continue to protect our right to coexist. At best, biological existence through young adulthood may come to be viewed as an extended period of fetal development. Of course, many consider my attitude on this matter to be chauvinistic."
          "You mention repulsing an attack, Nem. Yet your people are pacifistic. What exactly could you do?" The turn of the conversation deeply disturbed Na, filling him with a sense of insecurity and foreboding.
          "Octos may be pacifistic, be we are not absolute pacifists. We support the right of every sapient being to believe and act as he sees fit, but only to the extent his actions do not interfere with the same rights of other sapient beings."
          "Then you would be willing to kill an enemy? I myself have killed at least one ribbon serpent, though I am not sure it qualified as a fully sapient being."
          "Ribbon serpents may be sentient, but they are not considered sapient. Though yes, I would be willing to kill even a sapient being, but only as a last resort, and generally find the idea abhorrent. Most octos believe that any infringement of another sapient being's ability to freely act should be the minimum possible, and should never exceed the offending violation. Have you seen our Principia Ethica? As demonstrated there, any other position is ultimately contradictory. How else can we expect others to treat us as we believe they should?"
          "So, you would not kill an enemy to stop him from enslaving another?"
          "No … But I would be willing to physically restrain him in that situation. If invaded, we octos would probably first try to defend ourselves with defensive shields; sabotage the attackers' weapons; or even flee, if a safe haven existed where we could live free from threat. At least the risk of external aggression motivates us to ceaselessly develop our technology."
          "I have read very little of your philosophy, Nem. To be honest, I don't understand your need to analyze and prove everything. Aren't some truths unprovable, contradictory, or even unknowable?"
          "Your mystical rey religion! In some respects, you are perhaps correct. But this does not preclude the development of a consistent system of logical knowledge. The roots of our current philosophy can be traced all the way back to the ancient philosopher Fleegello, a rather mysterious, controversial character who was not widely known in his own era, and supposedly died a roguish pauper."
          "That word – pauper. Although I have learned its definition, I have trouble relating to it. Illness, neurosis, even insanity I can understand; but material poverty means nothing to me."
          "No, I suppose it would not. How could it? We should discuss the concept further sometime. I wonder what being a pauper meant to Fleegello? In any case, he introduced the underlying tenets of our philosophy, based primarily on an intuitive approach. Although he dreamed of rigorously deducing all philosophic knowledge from a set of basic principles most rational persons could agree on, he was generally unsuccessful. It fell to a group of followers a few octujopes after his death to apply the principles of logical deduction to fulfill his cherished goal – at least, to the maximum extent possible. As demonstrated by these same logicians, no closed deductive system can encompass all reality. And as Fleegello himself recognized, certain features of any belief system can never be proven, but must simply be accepted."
          "My point exactly! How can you prove anything from outside a belief system? You would have nothing to base your judgments on."
          "Yet belief systems can be fundamentally different. Early in our history, octos tended to place faith in inanimate objects and idols: a shiny trinket, a towering plant colony, a sculpted image."
          "Or a shining suol, a mighty storm, a revered ancestor. We reys have our own ancient traditions, though they are oral and not written."
          "The octan idols became associated with powerful gods and goddesses, who were supposed to protect obedient followers. Behaviors favored by a chosen deity – loyalty, cooperation – were seen as virtuous, while disfavored conduct was evil. The wills of the gods were divined by oracles and priests, based largely on omens and visions. As these religions and their attendant cultures evolved, the number of major deities diminished, while the relative importance of the associated belief systems grew. Many became frankly monotheistic. Most remained authoritative, only the focus shifted from the immediate will of a capricious spirit to the mandates of a holy text written by ancient, presumably inspired prophets. The fundamentalist sects attracted many followers, as they offered security and clear purpose in a threatening, confusing world."
          "Many reys are also drawn to such rigid convictions."
          "A few progressive religious groups maintained a trend away from dogma and doctrine toward reason, individual choice and responsibility. The belief systems of these sects evolved toward acceptance of more abstract general principles: the virtue of reason, of consistency, of tolerance. We now see this as the distinguishing trait of more advanced religions. Any central deity becomes the self-actualized realization of a principle, secondary to that principle, rather than the absolute arbiter of right and wrong. Religion and philosophy become one."
          "But Nem, surely you have carried this trend to a nonsensical conclusion. Your current mainstream religion is supposed to be founded on the principle 'X equals X'! Isn't this true by definition?"
          "You do not yet understand. Even after you define a term such as equals, you are free to either use the definition consistently, or contradict it as you see fit. What you do depends on how you value consistency and consistent truth – the general pattern 'X equals X.' The belief that consistency with all things is not important, that it is acceptable to deny objective reality for the sake of personal comfort or gain, is the origin of what we call evil."
          "Actually, reys have a related view of evil. We believe it stems from an individual denying that others are a reflection of the self. This can lead a person to place his own needs and desires above, rather than equal to, those of others."
          "The philosopher Fleegello lived during the period when our current ideas concerning right and wrong were beginning to crystallize." Nemo paused for a moment, and flexed his head in a puzzled manner. "Those were strange times, unbelievably long ago. I find it hard to understand how we so readily accept the veracity of the existing records. Fleegello himself supposedly helped form a nonpartisan organization to develop and promulgate the new philosophical understanding. This far-flung group is now remembered as the League of Universal Associates, or LUA. Members of one of the more progressive religious sects of the time, the so-called Unitorians, apparently attempted to organize a parallel political party. Unlike the LUA, this coalition must have been short lived, though its core goals were eventually fulfilled, and its ideas integrated into all aspects of society. While our philosophical understanding has undergone tremendous development over the intervening jopes, including many curious and unexpected twists, the basic underpinnings have remained much the same."
          "Your moral restraint continues to puzzle me, Nem. It seems to go against your very nature. Octos are so aggressive and manipulative in most other ways."
          "As you so enjoy pointing out. I must admit, we do not always live up to our ideals; it is a constant struggle. But consistent ethical convictions appear logically undeniable to most modern octans."
          The two exchanged sober glances. Then Na added earnestly, "I pray to the Goddess that your people never fall victim to an alien race. Your strange religion could also fall, or worse, be twisted and perverted beyond recognition."
          Nemo contorted his face, and warbled a melancholy koo – the octan equivalent of a smile. "That is the nature of war, as I understand it. But we stray from my original purpose." He paused briefly, then launched into an awkward, obviously rehearsed statement. "In summary, I have solicited the Colonial Council to offer you the opportunity to become the first rey in history to be transferred to spacecraft consciousness."
          Na was stunned. What had his friend just said? It sounded like complete gibberish. But Nemo continued, undaunted by Na's flummoxed expression.
          "The council has agreed, pending final approval by the Neuroanalytic Board. You must understand that the required psychological and neurological testing would be intensive and exhausting. Even if you were found fit, in your special case the operation would be risky. But if successful, you would then be free to leave this place, this planet, as a meton, and find your destiny among the stars. You would again ride the currents – not of wind and cloud, but of gravity and time."
          Nemo was proud of himself, his unprecedented offer, his irresistible presentation. But Na did not seem especially impressed.
          "Why do you joke like this? You can't think that I would be interested in such a thing, even if I believed it possible!? How do I know your scientists aren't merely interested in turning me into this cycle's experiment?!"
          Nemo was taken aback by Na's reaction, in particular his apparent rising level of hysteria, and uncharacteristic display of mistrust. Had Nemo misjudged his charge? Had he indeed fallen into the trap of wistfully idealizing a primitive culture and one of its members?
          "Please calm yourself, Na! No one is going to force you to do anything."
          These words managed to penetrate Na's rising terror, and he felt a twinge of embarrassment. The abrupt anxiety attack had caught him off balance. Of course Nem would do nothing to hurt him. How could he have doubted this?
          "I am sorry, Nem. Please forgive me. I feel so confused. This must be an honor that you offer, yet it is so unreal, so alien to me."
          Nemo brightened. Maybe there was hope after all. "Think about it, Na. That is all I ask."
          A wave of mixed feelings flooded Na. There was something utterly repugnant and horrifying in the thought of losing his natural body, the one bestowed on him by the Mother. But to be free to fly again, to seek a new purpose! Might not this too be a gift from Her? Even if his own torn body could be repaired, how could he ever return to his tribe, or any other rey society? Every moment would bring tormenting recollections of his failed past. Might he yet be desensitized to the memories of his misjudgment and the tragedy that haunted him? The drugs worked imperfectly. His mind reeled. Nem had mentioned bioengineering. But how could Na leave this new soul mate? How could he not?
          "I seem unable to think straight at the moment. How can I explain to you what I'm feeling? I promise to consider what you propose. But please leave now. I must be alone. I am sorry, but I must. Wait – before you go. Tell me, what will become of our friendship? You're the only real friend I have."
          "Do not worry about that, Na. Whatever you choose, after all we have been through, we will always be close – one way or another. You have given me a gift that even time cannot erode. There is one more thing, though. Should you accept its offer, the Colonial Council may request that you perform one or more missions for it in exchange. These tasks may be confidential; even you may be ignorant of all their facets. Until later …"

          Nemo slipped deliberately through the dark, winding tunnels back toward his simple dwelling space, once more satisfied with his performance. He had in fact not told Na the whole story. For one thing, Nemo had volunteered for conscious transfer himself. He hoped to join Na and one other recruit, to travel together in the ancient traditional meton triad. This arrangement seemed most appropriate for such a novel undertaking. But Nemo was under strict instruction from the council not to inform Na, before Na made his decision. Na must decide for himself, must demonstrate motivation to carry on independently, in the event that Nemo were disabled or even killed.
          Rafu abruptly poked his head from a side pocket in the passageway, into Nemo's path.
          "Rafu – You must stop greeting me this way!"
          "Nemo, you sly serpent. When were you going to tell me about the Colonial Council meeting? I just heard about it from Ikta."
          "I did not think you would be interested."
          "Supportive is what you mean. Well, I am interested. What was the final vote?"
          "Very close, only five to four in favor. The preliminary debate was particularly heated and controversial. What an ordeal."
          "I know you better than that. Confess – you relished the whole affair. I suppose a few of the more conservative council members insisted that conscious transfer to spacecraft be strictly limited to octos."
          "Yes, you know the old argument – the transfer of alien personalities is too unpredictable, the possible consequences too ominous. But I found an ally in Cerces, a neurosurgeon on staff at the medical school."
          "Cerces! How did you get the nerve to ask her for help? She's about as preeminent as they come. A bit fringe though, I have heard."
          "Yes, she is at that. Which is precisely why I sought her out. We argued that reys are even better suited to spacecraft consciousness than octos. The outcome of conscious transfer should in some ways be even more predictable for reys. They are, after all, fliers by nature. Their personalities and thought patterns should fit naturally into the meton mental frame. Na in particular seems ideally suited."
          "The octan mind certainly is not constructed to manage and control free flight. We are designers, builders, manipulators by nature, not pilots."
          "My point exactly. The nerve networks needed to accommodate spacecraft reflexes and behavior are imposed somewhat unnaturally upon the octan personality, sometimes generating unexpected conflict. Yet even with this unassailable logic, I know at least one councilor voted in favor of the proposal mainly on the conviction that Na would never accept the offer."
          "Ikta mentioned something about a second request?"
          "Yes, the council also agreed to consider establishing formal relations with a few rey tribes." Nemo kooed to himself. It had not been necessary to explicitly reveal his fantastic dream of a rey space corps.
          "You are joking, of course?"
          "Certainly not. If the rey personality does prove ideally suited to spacecraft consciousness, could not a symbiotic relationship emerge between our races? I envision the conscious transfer of entire rey tribes, forming coherent space fleets to spearhead the exploration and colonization of yet uncharted realms."
          "No one can accuse you of a lack of imagination. But who would volunteer to mingle with those … disgusting creatures."
          "Someone named Nemo, for one."
          "I am sorry. I just cannot …"
          "Think about it! Octan ships have long favored the sedate, outer spiral arms of the galaxy." Just then, Nemo spotted a pair of ents scurrying across the floor, scouting for crumbs from an octan meal. These tiny ant-like creatures (or pests, depending on your perspective) nested inside the shrubs of the floating thickets. Nemo fought an impulse to reach out a tentacle and squish the bugs, but instead watched them disappear into a crack, and returned his attention to Rafu. "Rey spacecraft might be drawn, like ents to nectar, into the inner, more turbulent regions. The few colonies established near the galactic core before communications broke off were plagued by transport problems. Enlisting volunteers was difficult, due to the complexities and hazards of travel there."
          "Yes," Rafu replied soberly. "A few of the inner colonies reportedly began creating artificial personalities to inhabit their spaceships, and even programmed some of these metons to reproduce themselves. How could the inner colonists have risked this? Were they in so desperate straits? Everyone knows such practices are irresponsible and hazardous. That's why they have been strictly forbidden here for ages."
          "The Colonial Council is desperate to determine the fate of the inner colonies, and remedy any negative developments there."
          "Now I understand … Yet all this hinges on your research subject first accepting the council's offer, and then getting the approval of the Neuroanalytic Board."
          "In my gut I am confident that Na will consent. And I would not worry about the board. Its members will bend or even break every rule to participate in such an historic operation. Poor Na. I pray he does not become another faceless cadaver, an incidental sacrifice on the altar of progress. But is there any other choice?"
          "Assume for the moment that the incredible does happen – that the rey agrees to the operation, and it is successful. Whatever will you do when your new friend departs? You will never see him again. You have been so obsessed with this project, I hate to think how you will handle the inevitable letdown."
          Nemo turned slightly and stared down the tunnel, breaking acoustic contact with Rafu.
          "Nemo – you did not! Did you? Why, you have not even finished your studies. You have yet to sire offspring!"
          After an awkward silence, Nemo faced Rafu. "You always could read me. Yes, I have volunteered for conscious transfer myself. How could I let Na fly away alone? Promise you will tell no one. I am not ready to deal with that agony."
          Rafu replied with obvious sadness. "If that is what you want. You should have at least a few thoms before surgery is scheduled. I do not envy you, trying to explain your decision and bidding farewell to all your family and friends. Not to mention the gauntlet of tests and studies you must endure."
          "Thank you; I know I can count on your integrity."
          Rafu brightened suddenly. "Have you decided what to do with your personal belongings? I noticed some neat artifacts from the Otkin-Utalk Project in your lair."
          "I should have guessed you would not be interested in my texts or manuscripts. I do plan to seal an antique League of Universal Associates trinket in my … spacecraft core. All student participants in the project were given one. The other relics must be returned. I might give my jewelry to orphans back in the birth hive."
          "Well, my old friend, I wish you the best. Be sure to tell me when you are to depart; I want to be there to see you off."
          Nemo whirled a tentacle in farewell, and hurried away. A few thoms – that was all he had to prepare himself emotionally and spiritually for the exciting yet terrifying leap into the unknown. Nemo felt the flow pulsing through the corridor over his damp skin. Never again would he know these dark, secure places. He shuddered, and slunk impulsively into a shallow pit on the wall. Why was he so weak? He must begin conditioning tomorrow. Tomorrow.
          A majority of Nemo's people still preferred to live out their lives "naturally," as organic creatures. But a significant fraction considered synon existence the final stage of life. These individuals were biologically conceived, born and raised; birthed and reared their own biological young; then underwent transformation into synthetic form rather than succumb to old age and death. An increasing percentage of synon converts were choosing the meton metamorphosis. Nemo was very young for conscious transfer. But his desire and motivation were strong and positive, his overall psychological profile no worse than most. His instinctive fears and phobias could be altered. If he so desired.