Executives of Neon Death
by Ian Cordingley
They have never imagined us in the future.|
How could we imagine them in the past? — Al Purdy
Between two fingers he held the data cube. Sliding it into his skull jack, he tapped it into place with a little click.
What are you doing? The question had wandered in and out of his mind all day.
A stupid question: tonight they were burning the coral.
Along the low hills and in the valleys, small orange pockets of light and wisps of grey smoke complemented the setting suns. The smoke rose from the groves where the coral had been planted, some of the plants almost man-high. Care had been given to avoid destroying any vital terrestrial plants, but of course there would be casualties.
“No more, no more!”
Covenant crowds jumped and shouted. The burning was over so some fire-friendly revellers had started small grass fires and some heaps of plastic and cardboard were set on fire. Singing and happiness rang out. In orbit above them, the so-called “Uplifted” were probably watching them, maybe even listening. Certainly the revellers shouted hard enough.
“What are you doing?”
He rapped the recorder with a finger. Of course, the voice would not have come from that.
A young woman was walking ahead. She was smiling. Brenda.
Brenda. It sounded as though another voice was in his head.
“How are you?”
“Excellent!” she said. “Taking pictures?”
Nicholas laughed. “A day to remember.”
He fumbled the recorder over his forehead to take her in. She was wearing beige field clothes, a little smoky-smelling, with her sleeves rolled down. The wind was always cool but had perceptibly dropped a degree. Nicholas had stayed behind to catch the burnings along the hills. He was plainly dressed, clothes billowing off his frame.
As anticipated, it started early. The Covenant of Blood had been waiting for some time. The Colonial Compact was still mired in debate. Today the Covenant would take action.
Over the radio they heard the Compact's impotent protests. The Uplifted said nothing, circling the planet in their ship, silent and taking the moral high ground.
The Compact may have been slow but they were anything but stupid. Two generations after arriving, after a quarter of a million-year voyage, not to mention the wait for the thawing and the greening, the Uplifted showed up and explained their mission to help “uplift” them to the galactic standard, one to which the Compact indignantly replied they had never agreed.
The whole thing had been decided while they were sleeping. And that had been a generation ago. Graves and the others had folded. While the Compact dithered and procrastinated, the Covenant acted.
“The last are done!” Brenda declared. “You should have seen the saplings. They went up well, better than the larger ones.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Something about the sap. Awful smell though.”
A simple still camera dangled from her wrist. “Let me see,” he requested.
She sat down next to him. They cycled through the stills. Nicholas shook his head. “Not the same.”
She had images of people storming where the coral was grown, tearing down the fences and wires supporting the plants. Some posed like clowns around the trees as they burned or were ignited. Brenda was an excellent photographer, excelling at capturing the crowds standing around the fires. Expressions of wonder on their faces: We did it!
“I thought you said I was good.”
Nicholas smiled, giving a comic shrug. “Yes,” he said, “but you're...”
“Sorry for being traditional.”
He smiled, tapping his rig. “Four senses,” he explained, “recording into the ultraviolet and infrared. Closest thing to being here without being here.” He leaned in close to her, his head almost ramming into her chest. “For example...”
“I have to take in everything, even the smell. The cube will keep that. For posterity.”
His earliest memory of Brenda was seeing her naked at maybe two and a half. They had grown up together and their mothers had secretly hoped they would grow closer together. Brenda smiled, brushing hair out of her face. Tonight they were young and seemed rooted in infinity.
“Come on, we're moving into town.”
Town, of course. Home. Where the Compact was probably holding an extended session to deal with the vandalism.
Ah. I know now.
Nicholas did not know what was worse: hearing voices or having such unreliable, stupid ones.
Yes, he thought, town. The town. Not the only one but their largest, their capital.
“Will Coll be there?”
Brenda nodded. “It'll be a war of words between Graves and him. And I doubt Graves will know what to say.”
This is crucial. No, not his imagination. Definitely another voice speaking inside his head.
“Coming,” he replied. He rubbed his temple, his head suddenly feeling very heavy.
“Who are you?”
I am watching.
Nicholas felt a twinge of fear. “From above?”
From... ahead, in time.
“The future? Pathetic excuse.”
No. You and I are attuned.
He froze. “Who are you?”
I am an observer. I cannot hurt you.
He stumbled forward, following Brenda down with the rest of the group, back into the town. Celebrations and probable confrontation with the Compact to follow. He welcomed it.
“What do you want?” He glanced around quickly hoping nobody noticed him muttering to himself.
I am watching. I cannot interfere. I cannot hurt you or influence you.
Tonight: the start of the coral riots. Subsequent civil war. Covenant of Blood is infamous.
He smiled at that. Recognition well-earned. Civil war? The Compact was foolish and slow but not insane. There were no hotheads on the council to initiate a war. Lecturing would follow, but not a war. They wouldn't dare.
Glancing around, ensuring no one saw him talk into his collar, he muttered, “Look, up there with all your fancy... things. Out there things are different. They're different here, too, all right?”
In his head Nicholas had arguments with uplifted and transcendent humans, appealing to something in their intangible minds to link his life to theirs, imagining standing before shimmering gold pillars of light or sleek chrome bodies, not pitching a fight in his head.
“We're the original, most basic form of humanity. That's worth preserving. You kept preaching about how important...”
That is not in dispute.
“Then what is?”
Among transcendent minds, general welfare of all variants of humanity was held as a great responsibility.
“We didn't ask to be a responsibility. We want to simply exist.”
Coral efficiency was...
“We don't care! We came here to make a new life, bringing everything we wanted. We want another Earth, not some abominations foisted upon us.”
“Hear hear.” Someone walked past Nicholas, whose eyes darted around for fear of witnesses.
Your environment remains very fragile. Earth-based life has a very tenuous foothold.
“It will take time but we will take hold here.”
Many have died because...
Nicholas closed his eyes sharply, trying to wrestle down the flood of bad memories: his father, Brenda crying over the grave of her aunt, Nicholas' arm on her shoulder.
“They were sick. The early days were a challenge. But we've grown stronger. We're growing stronger every day, without your help.”
The voice did not reply to that but Nicholas thought it was not because he had won the exchange.
“And what exactly do you want?”
To watch the night the galaxy burned. The night the great fire started.
“The galaxy?” Nicholas almost chuckled at the unlocked ambition.
Much of it. You haven't the slightest idea.
The crowd swarmed around the meeting hall. Nicholas followed them. It was a squat building made of native stone and roofed with spaceship metal, with high windows and true Earth wood, one of the oldest buildings in the colony.
Before the crowd, standing on a small platform, was Councillor Graves — grave-faced, trying to pat down the crowd's volume and, God willing, their temper.
“My friends...” he began.
“We're not your guinea pigs!”
Graves sighed, his look becoming more pained. He was a second generation, greying but still sprightly. The crowd around him was younger, eager for a confrontation. Graves was a temperate man, always trying to avoid a fight. Tonight, however, things appeared to be well out of his hands.
“Think of what this will mean for us. Think of the setback.”
“Terrestrial norms,” someone yelled back, “we're getting...”
“It took ten thousand years to warm the planet and make it green enough to develop a normal terrestrial atmosphere,” Graves continued. “We're still several centuries from complete normalcy. Coral will halve that time.”
“If we meet it halfway!” The mocker sarcastically emphasized Graves's repeated words.
Graves sighed. “Yes, there is a trade-off.”
“No!” he barked back. “We'll become stronger!”
Nicholas smirked. Stronger, stranger. We won't turn green or grow antenna, but... Graves always lost the crowd at that moment.
“Excuse me,” came a voice from the crowd, drowned out in sudden cheers.
Douglas Coll strolled forwards, smiling broadly. He was younger than Graves, of similar origins but different directions. Both were specially trained in biology, computers, groomed to be leaders and thinkers.
Graves sighed. “If nothing else, please ask the people to disperse. Things are tense enough with your help.”
“Oh, I'm not trying to pick a fight here, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that we're a little, um, piqued. All those injections and what not.”
“Laying all this at my feet? The vandalism, the mischief?” Graves asked.
“Well, if we were actually given a choice...”
“There was a choice and this was the better alternative.”
“If,” Douglas taunted, “you put this to a vote...”
“The Compact made its decision pursuant to its mandate as defined in the Colonial charter.”
“You made it so easily. Do you have any idea where coral comes from, why they want us to so enthusiastically adopt it?”
The affairs of the universe at large were beyond Nicholas. His family had come on a slow, bulky and overpopulated colony ship. Naturally the galaxy around them had developed: their world was held in trust. They arrived and thawed, and not long after, the transcendent emissaries came.
One of them was inside the council hall, probably peering out through the windows. If things got ugly and the crowd stormed the building, what would happen to him? The Covenant had not developed a policy for direct confrontation with the Transcendence.
“We were classmates,” Graves said. “We both know how coral works. Yes, it's alien, but...”
“You've seen how coral DNA doesn't exactly play nice with terrestrial life.”
“There are side effects, but limited and easily treated.”
“Easily?” Coll laughed. “And twice a day, more often depending on the season? Having to live with the creeping knowledge that on some level our genes are being rewritten?”
“You're being hyperbolic for the sake of it.”
Saying Coll won the crowd wrongly assumed Graves had any chance of winning it.
“What do you think of him?” Nicholas asked.
A good man. Naïve.
“You don't know the half of it.”
Nicholas took the sudden quiet as the approximate of a shrug.
“Why exactly are we having this conversation anyway?”
Attuning is very difficult, and there is always the risk of contamination.
“Is that why you're not seeing through Graves or Coll's eyes?”
Precisely. But things will develop as we have anticipated.
“Maybe you'll be disappointed.”
Perhaps. But that has not happened so far.
Chance. Do not get arrogant. Attuning to the perspective of ancestors is tricky, and contact such as this happens occasionally. But that is why we must take precautions.
“Like changing the future?”
An impossibility... Unlikely, but the best observer is a quiet one.
“What will happen after tonight?”
The Transcendent will adopt a harder line towards baseline and baseline-like. Less charitable. Mechanicals will fill the gap. You've kept abreast of galactic politics?
“No,” Nicholas growled, resenting the condescension.
Lines are developing and factions coalescing. Your world is between several, and after tonight, things get interesting. Mechanical versus synthetic/transcendent: two thousand years of history trace back to this night. Baselines are up for grabs, furthering their influence.
“Sorry, mechanical?” Tempting as the idea was of having an ally against the Transcendent, it seemed responsible to inquire as to what the conditions were.
Fusion between human and technology. They're a relatively recent faction who will offer to exterminate the coral provided you agree to a limited concession.
“Small price to pay, I guess, if...”
In actuality, coral will become the commodity of greatest importance to your world. You will help other planets bloom.
“Are there still... normal humans?”
Yes, in pockets. As the most abundant human variant, it survived easily. Within regulations, of course. Can you glance a little to the left?
Just checking something. No. All right.
Nicholas looked back at Brenda, remembering why they were here: the night she noticed a green, allegedly harmless stain on her forearm. That was early in the cultivation of the coral. Graves had promised that as long as instructions were followed, everything would be all right, complications small and minor.
“Three a day now,” she had said.
“How do you feel?”
She looked pale. “I feel dizzy. And I can't eat tonight. My stomach's a wreck.”
For a moment Nicholas was reminded of a bulletin on the community network: an accusation of complicity in several deaths in the community by Graves and his “damn weed.”
Brenda fumbled with her injector. Nicholas steadied her hands.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” she said, “the doctor said it was okay.”
She applied it to her arm. She winced.
“Go lie down.”
She nodded. “I think I'll be okay.”
Inspecting his skin for... differences had become a local pastime. What had once provoked chuckles had slowly become a whispered shame. Eventually, grumbling on the network had become organized anger. On the boards, in his inbox.
Written in screaming letters: Can't they even leave your blood alone?
Outside, Nicholas thought he could see the sickly yellow clouds of pollen and seed drift past.
“Its going to heavy this year,” he said. Maybe he would be up to three a day soon, protecting his fragile DNA from God knew what. Where had the damn coral came from?
“How much longer?” Brenda had asked.
“Just for another season,” Nicholas replied, curtness growing in his voice.
By this point, Graves observed he had lost any attempt to reason with the mob.
“I've only wanted us to grow, prosper and thrive! It’s all...”
The voice purred. Whenever it was, perhaps it was leaning forward.
A sharp metallic snap came from somewhere in the crowd. Nicholas' head darted as he attempted to trace the origin of the sound. Nothing but heads with angry faces. A pity.
Graves's eyes froze. His mouth opened but nothing, no sound or words, came out. He fell backwards.
For a moment the crowd was silent. Everyone had the same idea filtering wordlessly through their heads, only lacking a suitable trigger.
Even Coll looked surprised but immediately he seized the moment: “Now! Now, dammit!”
The human tide surged forward more on instinct than direction. A face disappeared from the window. Several sharp cracks were heard as Compact security attempted to lock the doors before the crowd swarmed them.
Tonight the war begins, like a rolling pebble initiating the avalanche.
Four hundred years. Starting very soon.
Nicholas felt very light as if he was suspended from a string above the town, the rabble almost a whisper beneath him.
This was an important day.
Nicholas felt the precise second the voice left him.
Brenda was taking pictures of the windows shattering and the doors falling back on their hinges. They exchanged glances. She was stunned by the cold look in his eyes.
Nicholas strode away from the meeting hall, looking up. What were they thinking up there? Were one or two of them waiting for them to riot and confirm their suspicions, validate their prejudices?
He popped the data cube out of his rig. Tossed to the ground, it was crushed in no time flat.
Copyright © 2012 by Ian Cordingley