Monday, May 26, 2014

Story H: An Innocent Question, by Joe Blaylock

Story H
An Innocent Question

“Backwards, you say?”

“Yes. Left to right. Idiots human subset write also top to bottom.”

“Surely the preferred direction of writing is arbitrary.”

“Gods say not. See also stupidities your other. Zones time many. Nouns follow descriptors. System measurement adequate but universal not. Flow electricity plus to minus. Humans backwards ways many.”

“Well, we don’t have a single planetary government to set or enforce standards.”

“Problem also. Gods like not. Humans sloppy. Query: we fix.”

My heart raced as I considered the offer of Zyrgi Subcommandant Rax.

We had been chatting, I thought idly, over refreshments at an interstellar reception being held at the Utopia Planitia Assembly House. It was an honor that I'd even been invited – my invitation specifically said I was not permitted a guest – and I hadn't expected face time with any Zyrgi, much less the Subcomanndant. Nor had I thought he'd put such a query to me.

We'd been on Mars for nearly a hundred years when First Contact came in the form of a swarm of evangelical Zyrgi spontaneously docking to airlocks from Neptune all the way in to Upper L1 just ten years before. They wanted to tell us about their gods and their mathematics.

Mathematics, we had a use for. Gods, not as much. Certainly, some people converted, but lots of them were just window shopping, and the total human population of Zyrginix Faithful was barely a half million. Not even enough to justify their own space station, but there were a few places – mostly on Earth – where they had significant enclaves. Owensboro, Kentucky springs to mind.

A decade before, I was on Charon Station, operating remote survey vehicles assaying some of the larger Oort objects for suitability as superstructures for human habitation. It was a boring job, and I didn't actually believe the project would fly. Mostly I was there to get away from my old life. My ex boyfriend had emigrated to Europa to join a post-human collective and I, so attached to my heartbeat and lungs, hadn't gone with him. I figured I needed to stay busy, and really get far out. You can't get much further out than Charon.

I was at the controls of the core sample driller operating on Eris when power generation at the station failed, and everything became eerily quiet and terribly dark. I unstrapped from my control chair and opened the hatch to the corridor, where weak phosphorescent paint applied to the walls and floor would allow me to safely navigate towards the backup generator.

Charon Station is tiny. A single hallway, with the living quarters at one end, the power plant at the other, and in between, the control room on one side and the airlock on the other.

It was also unreliable. The Station had originally been dug by a group of pioneering asteroid miners in the mid last century who had this idea they would built use Charon as an outpost for surveying the Oort cloud for usable material. They went over budget just getting the automated diggers out that far, and the vacuum-sealed tunnel sat unused for more than sixty years. When it was refit for an exoplanetary observatory a few decades before, it had been done mostly by grad students and not very well. My project, funded by the United Nations and Habitations, was underfunded and understaffed and the Station got only the most cursory of updates before I was moved in.

All of which is to say, I wasn't particularly surprised the power had gone out. I had the procedures for bringing up the backup power systems, debugging the primaries, and switching over pretty much by rote at this point. I wasn't worried about the power outage.

What surprised my was that the airlock across from me was occupied by an octopus. If you've seen pictures of thy Zyrgi, you know what I mean. They're not octopi, of course, but the resemblance is remarkable. I admit that the exterior lung is a giveaway, but I was pretty fixated on the tentacles. I stepped to the window, and it waved. I waved back.

A tentacle flailed, and the intercom button was struck, and the being I would eventually know as Raxix said, in that remarkable parrot-like voice, “Greetings we send. Zyrgi Blanu we are. Grant you the peace of the gods we will.”

The peace of the gods could sound like a threat, but I'd grown up around door-to-door preachers and I thought I knew what was going on. It turns out, I'd guessed right.

The Zyrgi organized every aspect of their lives along the lines of their religion, and the Zyrginix Gods were an awfully persnickety lot. What they wore on what days of their calandar, what they ate, how they mated and procreated – almost every aspect of their lives was circumscribed. I suppose it's not so different from many of the remaining human religions.

Still, while evangelical, they weren't pushy. They didn't have a concept of holy war – or really war at all – organizing everything along the lines of commercial exchange and voluntary participation. But their ideas of voluntary and their ideas of commerce could be slippery.

A few years before, a minor Zyrgi functionary was visiting one of the larger Zyrginix Faithful enclaves on Luna, and asked them what they wanted. They said they wanted to serve the gods better. Within hours, a nanobio swarm much like those used by the posthuman collectives had infiltrated the lunar air ducts, and every human being with a sucker-shaped tatoo on their arm had begun to transform into a Zyrgi.

So I had to consider carefully. It was absolutely within Zyrgi technological capabilities to alter the neurobiology of every human in the Sol system. On the other hand, if we insulted their gods, they would leave, and take their advanced physics with them.

Was Submcommandant Rax asking me whether humans should be fixed? Or whether human institutions should be fixed? Or whether they should show us a better way?

“Please, no. We must struggle towards the gods on our own, or the reaching them won't mean anything. But we must struggle among the stars.”