Chapter 27. The Face of Kintu

Long ago, long long ago.

Kintu giant comes down from north.

Nothing.

No earths, no stars, no people. Kintu sad. Kintu lonely. Very lonely. Nothing nothing nothing.

Kintu breathes in. Breathes in what? Breathes in nothing.

Chest swells, big big big. Round. Mouth of Kintu here. Navel of Kintu there. Breathe in, big big big, blow in, all that nothing.

Skin pops, pop pop pop. Worlds. Stars. People. Popping out of skin, pop pop pop. Still breathes in, in in in, big big big.

Here. Now. The Face of Kintu. Here. See how skin pops, pop pop pop, new baby worlds, new life, things to eat. We live where, on Face of Kintu.

The Staff of Kintu. People die, people don’t die. Inside the Staff of Kintu. Happy happy happy. Live how long, long time, long long time, forever.

In future, long long time. Kintu throw Staff, long long way. Throw Staff where, to Navel of Kintu. People live on belly of Kintu, long long time, long long way, how happy, happy happy happy.

Everyone else what? Dead.

The transition pain dissipated, like frost evaporating. He felt the hard bulge of the arms that carried him, the iron strength of biceps.

His head was tipped back. He saw the white fleshy underside of a tiny beardless chin. Beyond that, all he could see was black sky. Some kind of wispy high cloud, greenish. A rippling aurora.

His weight had changed. He was light as an infant, as a dried-up twig.

Not Earth, then.

He could be anywhere. Encoded as a stream of bits, he could have been sent a thousand light-years from home. And because Saddle Point signals traveled at mere light speed, he could be a thousand years away from a return. Even the enigmatic Earth he’d returned to, the Earth of 3265, might be as remote as the Dark Ages from the year of his birth.

Or not.

Now a face loomed over him, as broad and smooth as the Moon, encased in a crude pressure-suit helmet that was not much more than a translucent sack. The face was obviously hominid, but it had big heavy eye ridges, and a huge flat nose that thrust forward, and a low hairline. Thick black eyebrows, like a Slav, wide dark eyes. Those eye ridges gave her a perpetually surprised look.

Her. It was a female. Young? The skin looked smooth, but he had no reference.

She smiled down at him. She was a Neandertal girl.

There was black around the edge of his vision.

He was running out of air. His suit was a nonfunctioning antique. It was all he had. But now it was going to kill him.

The girl’s face creased with obvious concern. She lifted up her hand — now she was holding him with one arm, for God’s sake — and she started waving her right hand up and down in front of her body. Those thick Russian eyebrows came down, so she looked quizzical.

She was miming, he thought. Pain?

“Yes, it hurts.” His radio wasn’t working, and she didn’t look to have any kind of receiver. She probably couldn’t speak English, of course, which would be a problem for him. He was an American, and in his day, Americans hadn’t needed to learn other languages. Maybe he, too, could mime. “Help me. I can’t breathe.” He kept this up for a few seconds, until her expression dissolved into bafflement.

With big moonwalk strides she began to carry him forward. Inside his bubble helmet his head rattled around, thumping against the glass.

Now, in swaying glimpses, he could see the landscape.

A plain, broken by fresh-looking craters. The ground was red, but overlaid by streaks of yellow, brown, orange, green, deep black. It looked muddy and crusted, like an old pizza. Much of it was frosted. From beyond the close horizon, he could see a plume of gas that turned blue as it rose, sparkling in the flat light of some distant Sun. The plume fell straight back to the ground, like a garden sprinkler.

And there was something in the sky, big and bright. It was a dish of muddy light, down there close to the horizon, a big plateful of cloudy bands, pink and purple and brown. Where the bands met, he could see fine lines of turbulence, swoops and swirls, a crazy watercolor. Maybe it was a moon. But if so it was a hell of a size, thirty or forty times the size of the Moon in Earth’s sky.

His lungs were straining at the fouling air. There was a hot stink, of fear and carbon dioxide and condensation. He tried to control himself, but he couldn’t help but struggle, feebly.

…Jupiter. Think, Malenfant. That big “moon” had to be Jupiter.

And if that was a volcanic plume he’d seen, he was on Io.

He felt a huge, illogical relief, despite the claustrophobic pain. He was still in the Solar System, then. Maybe he was going to die here. But at least he wasn’t so impossibly far from home. It was an obscure comfort.

But… Io, for God’s sake. In the year A.D. 3265, it seemed, there were Neandertals, reconstructed from genetic residue in modern humans, living on Io. Why the hell, he still had to figure.

The blackness closed around his vision, like theater curtains.

He drifted back to consciousness.

He was in a tent of some kind. It stretched above him, cone shaped, like a teepee. He couldn’t see through the walls. The light came from glow lamps — relics of the high-tech past, perhaps.

He was lying there naked. He didn’t even have the simple coverall the Bad Hair Day twins had given him in Earth orbit. Feebly he put his hands over his crotch. He’d come a thousand years and traveled tens of light-years, but he couldn’t shake off that Presbyterian upbringing.

People moved around him. Neandertals. In the tent they shucked off their pressure suits, which they just piled up in a corner, and went naked.

He drifted to sleep.

Later, the girl who’d pulled him through the Saddle Point gateway, pulled him through to Io itself, nursed him. Or anyhow she gave him water and some kind of sludgy food, like hot yogurt, and a thin broth, like very weak chicken soup.

He knew how ill he was.

He’d gotten radiation poisoning at the heart of that radioactive pile. He’d taken punishment in the mucous membranes of his mouth, esophagus, and stomach, where the membrane surfaces were coming off in layers; it was all he could do to eat the yogurt stuff. He got the squits all the time, twenty-five or thirty times a day; his Neandertal nurse patiently cleaned him up, but he could see there was blood in the liquid mess. His right shin swelled up until it was rigid and painful; the skin was bluish-purple, swollen, shiny and smooth to the touch. He got soft blisters on his backside. He could feel that his body hair was falling out, at his eyebrows, his groin, his chest.

He was sensitive to sounds, and if the Neandertals made much noise it set off his diarrhea. Not that they often did; they made occasional high-pitched grunts, but they seemed to talk mostly with mime, pulling their faces and fluttering their fingers at each other.

He drifted through periods of uneasy sleep. Maybe he was delirious. He supposed he was going to die.

His Neandertal nurse’s physique was not huge, but her body gave off an impression of density. Her midsection and chest were large — flat breasts — and the muscles of her forearm looked as thick as Malenfant’s thigh muscles. Her aura of strength was palpable; she was much more physical than any human Malenfant had ever met.

But what immediately stood out was her face.

It was outsized, with her eyes too far apart, nose flattened, and features spread too wide, as if the whole face had been pulled wide. Her jaw was thick, but her chin was shallow and sliced back, as if it had been snipped off. Bulging out of her forehead was an immense brow, a bony swelling like a tumor. It pushed down the face beneath it and made the eyes sunken in their huge hard-boned sockets, giving her the effect of a distorted reflection, like an embryo in a jar. A swelling at the back of her head offset the weight of that huge brow, but it tilted her head downward, so that her chin almost rested on her chest, her massive neck snaking forward.

But those eyes were clear and human.

He christened his nurse Valentina, because of her Russian eyebrows: Valentina after Tereshkova, first woman in space, whom he had met once at an air show in Paris.

Valentina was more human than any ape, and yet she was not human. And it was that closeness-yet-difference that disturbed Malenfant.

He slept, he woke. Days passed, perhaps; he had no way to mark the passage of time.

He got depressed.

He got frightened. He cursed Nemoto for his renewed exile.

He clutched his ruined old space suit to his chest, running his aching hands over his mission patch and the Stars and Stripes, faded by harsh Alpha Centauri light. He stared at his fragment of Emma, the only human face here, and wept like a baby.

Valentina tolerated all this.

And, slowly, to his surprise, he started getting better. After a time he was even able to sit up, to feed himself.

Valentina, a dirt-caked bare-assed Neandertal, was curing him of radiation poisoning. He couldn’t figure it, grateful as he was for the phenomenon. Maybe there was some kind of nanomachinery at work here, repairing the damage he had suffered at the cellular, even molecular level. He’d already seen evidence of how the Earth was suffused by ancient machinery from beyond the Saddle Points, from the stars.

Or maybe it was just the soup.

Soon Malenfant was able to walk, stiffly.

Most of the Neandertals ignored him. They stepped over and around him as if they couldn’t even see him.

For his part, he watched the Neandertals, amazed.

He counted around thirty people crammed into this teepee. There were adults, frail old people, children all the way down to babies in arms. But, he sensed, it would take a long time to get to know them so well that he could distinguish all the individuals. He was the archetype of the foreigner abroad, to whom everybody looked alike.

The women seemed as strong as the men. Even the children, muscled like Olympic shot-putters, joined in the chores. They used their teeth and powerful jaws, together with their stone tools, to cut meat and scrape hides — meat he presumed must have been hauled through from Earth, through the Saddle Point gateway he’d followed himself. They would bake some of the meat in hearths, if you could call them that: just shallow pits scraped in the ground, lined with fire-heated rocks and covered by soil. But the softer meat was given to the infants — and to Malenfant, incidentally, by Valentina. The adults took their meat mostly uncooked; those big jaws would chomp away at the tough flesh, grinding and tearing, muscles working, making it swallowable.

There was one old guy who showed some curiosity in Malenfant, a geezer who walked with a heavy limp, hunched overso that his belly drooped down over his shriveled-up penis. Malenfant decided to call him Esau. The Book of Genesis, if he remembered right: Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man.

Malenfant looked into Esau’s eyes and wondered what he was thinking. He wondered how he was thinking.

This is my cousin, but far enough removed he represents an alien species, an alien consciousness. The first thing my remote ancestors did, stumbling out of Africa, was to close-encounter the alien, these ETs of the deep past: the true first contact. And when the last of the Neandertals lay dying, in some rocky fastness in France or Spain or China, there must have been a last contact: the last we’d have for thirty thousand years, until the Gaijin showed up in the asteroid belt.

Hell of a thing, to be alone all that time.

The Neandertals had a portable Saddle Point gateway. When they set it up and used it, Malenfant goggled.

It was a big blue hoop maybe three meters high. They were able to step through it, with the characteristic blue flash, thus disappearing from Io; later they would reappear with sacks of material, much of it rock and meat and metal canisters, maybe containing oxygen. This must be their link to Earth, to the Kimera mine — the way he had been brought here.

He toyed with the idea of going back through, trying to get back to Earth. Escape. But it would only lead him to the Kimera Engine, which would kill him; or if he evaded that, back into the clutches of Mtesa.

Maybe that was a last resort. For now he was stuck here.

What did Malenfant know about Neandertals? Diddly-squat. But he did remember they weren’t supposed to have speech. Their palates weren’t formed correctly, or some such. He’d seen them miming, and they were clearly smart. But speech, so went the theories he remembered, had been the key advantage enjoyed by Homo Sap. So here he was, the speaking man in the country of the dumb.

Maybe Reid Malenfant could teach Neandertals to talk. Maybe he could civilize them. He was fired by sudden enthusiasm.

He pointed to Esau. “You.” At himself. “Me. You. Say it. You, you, you. Me. Malenfant. My name. Mal-en-fant. You try.”

Esau studied Malenfant for a while, then slapped him, hard. It knocked him back onto the floor.

Malenfant clambered upright. His cheek stung like hell; Esau was strong.

Esau rattled through gestures: pointing to him, two fingers to his own forehead, then a fist to Malenfant’s forehead. He didn’t seem angry: more like he was trying to teach Malenfant something. Point. Fist to head. Point. Fist.

“Oh.” Malenfant pointed to himself, then made the fist sign. “I get it. This is the name you’re giving me. A sign word.”

Esau slapped him again. There was no malice, but again he was knocked over.

When Malenfant got up this time, he made the signs, point, fist, without speaking.

So it went. If he spoke more than a couple of syllables, Esau would slap him.

His vocabulary of signs started to grow: ten words, a dozen, two dozen.

He observed mothers with children. The kids got the slaps too, if they made too much noise. He started to interpret the complex rattle of fingers and gestures as the adults communicated with each other, fluent and urgent. He’d pick up maybe one sign in a hundred.

So much for the speaking man in the country of the dumb. He was like a child to these people.

It was a long time before he found out that the fist-to-head sign, his name, meant Stupid.

One day, when he woke up, everyone was clambering into their translucent pressure suits: men, women, children, even infants in little sacklike papooses. A couple of the adults were working at the teepee, pulling at the poles that held it up, taking up the groundsheet.

It was, it seemed, time to move on.

Holding his bubble helmet in front of his genitals, Malenfant cowered against the wall of the collapsing teepee, naked, scared, as the smooth dismantling operation continued around him. Malenfant had no pressure suit: only the NASA antique he’d worn to come here in the first place. What if the Neandertals thought it was still functional? If he stepped out on the surface of Io, the suit would kill him, in fifteen minutes.

Valentina came up to him. She was in her suit already, with the soft helmet closed over. She was holding out another suit; it looked like a flayed skin.

He took it gratefully. She showed him how to step inside it, how to seal up the seams with a fingernail. It was too short and wide for him, but it seemed to stretch.

It stank: of urine, feces, an ancient, milklike smell. It smelled like Esau, like an old Neandertal geezer.

Somebody had died in this suit.

When he realized that he almost lost his breakfast and tried to pull the suit off his flesh. But Valentina slapped him, harder than she’d done for a long time. There was no mistaking the commands in her peremptory signs. Put it on. Now.

This, he thought, is not the Manned Spaceflight Operations Building, Cape Canaveral. Things are different here. Accept it, if you want to keep breathing.

He pulled on the suit and sealed it up. Then he stood there trying not to throw up inside the suit’s claustrophobic stink, as the Neandertals dismantled their camp and the light of Jupiter was revealed.

Morning on Io:

Auroras flapped overhead, huge writhing sheets of light.

The Sun was a shrunken disc, low down, brighter than any star in the sky. It cast long, point-source shadows over the burnt-pizza terrain. In the sky, Jupiter hung above the horizon, just where it had before, a fat pink stripy-painted ball. But now the phase was different; Jupiter was a crescent, the terminator blurred by layers of atmosphere, and the dark side was a chunk out of the starry background, a slab of night sparking with the crackles of electrical storms bigger than Earth, like giant flashbulbs exploding inside pink clouds.

In a red-green auroral glow, the Neandertals moved about, packing up their teepee and other gear, loading it all onto big sledlike vehicles, signing to each other busily. Malenfant picked up his only possession, the remnant of his NASA suit, and bundled it up on the back of a sled.

When they were loaded, the adult Neandertals started strapping themselves into traces at the front of the sled, simple harnesses made of the ubiquitous translucent plastic. Soon everybody was saddled up except the smallest children, who would ride on the top of the loaded sleds.

Nobody told Malenfant what to do. He looked for Valentina and made sure he got into a slot alongside her. She helped him fit a harness around his body; it tightened with simple buckles.

And then they started hauling.

The Neandertals just leaned into the traces, like so many squat pack horses. And by the light of Jupiter, they began to drag the sleds across the crusty Io surface. It turned out that Malenfant’s sled was a little harder to move than the others, and his team had to strain harder, snapping signs at each other, until the runners came free of the clinging rock with a jerk.

Valentina’s gait, when walking, was… different. She seemed to lean forward as if her center of gravity was somewhere over her hip joints, instead of farther back like Malenfant’s. And when she walked her whole weight seemed to pound down, with every stride, on her hips. It was clumsy, almost apelike, the least human of her features, as far as Malenfant could see.

Valentina wasn’t built for walking long distances, like Malenfant was. Maybe the Neandertals had evolved to be sedentary.

Malenfant did his best to pull with the rest. It wasn’t clear to him why he was being kept alive, except as some vaguely altruistic impulse of Valentina’s. But he sure wanted to be seen tobe working for his supper. So he added his feeble Homo Sap strength to the Neandertals’.

Thus, hominids from Earth toiled across the face of Io.

The ground was mostly just rock: silicates, big lumps of it under his feet, peppered by bubbles. It was basalt, volcanic rock pumped out of Io’s interior. Sulphur lay in great yellow sheets over the rock, crunching under his feet. Io was a rocky world, not an ice ball like most of the other outer-system moons; sized midway between Earth’s Moon and Mars, Io was a terrestrial planet, lost out here in Jupiter orbit.

Jupiter changed constantly, a compelling, awesome sight.

Io was, he recalled, tidally locked to its giant parent; it kept the same face to Jupiter the whole time. But the moon skated around Jupiter’s waist every forty-two hours, and so the gas giant went through its whole cycle of phases in less than two days. And Jupiter, meanwhile, rotated on its own axis every ten hours or so. He didn’t have to watch that huge face for long to see the cloud decks turning, those turbulent bands and chains of little white globules chasing each other around the stripy bands. But there was no Big Red Spot, he was disappointed to find; evidently that centuries-long storm had blown itself out some time in the millennium he’d been away.

Jupiter had a powerful magnetosphere, a radiation belt of electrons and ions locked to the giant planet, within which Io circled. Jupiter’s fast rotation made that magnetosphere whip over Io like an invisible storm. That was the cause of the huge auroras that flapped constantly over his head, energetic particles battering at the thin air of this forsaken moon, ripping away a ton of atmospheric material every second. Malenfant shivered, naked inside his old man’s suit, as he thought of that thin, fast sleet of energetic particles slamming down from the sky, pounding at his flesh.

But the Neandertals weren’t concerned. They pulled for hours, and the tracks of the three sleds arrowed across the flat landscape, straight toward Jupiter. Malenfant — a hundred years old and still recovering from radiation exposure — could do little but lean into the traces and let the rest carry him along.

He’d built up an impression that the Neandertals worked hard. They used their big gorilla bodies where Homo Sap would have used tools. Their bodies were under intense physical stress, the whole time. Malenfant observed that Esau’s body, for example, bore a lot of old injuries: scars and badly set bones. It was as if they climbed a mountain or ran a marathon every day of their lives.

But the Neandertals accepted this, an occupational hazard.

The compensation was the very physical nature of their lives. They lived immersed in their world. They were vigorous, intensely alive. By comparison, Malenfant, as the only available sample of the species Homo Sap, felt weak, vague, as if he were blundering about in a mist. He found he envied them.

The Neandertals sang as they hauled — sign-sang, that is. It was a song about the Face of Kintu. Kintu was one of the few words they vocalized, and it was, Malenfant recalled, the name of a Ugandan god, the grandfather of Kimera. The song was about Kintu blowing himself up with breath until stars and worlds popped out over his body, like volcanoes on Io. Kintu was God and the universe for the Neandertals, and the Face of Kintu — it took him a while to realize — was their name for Io itself.

The signing was functional for the Neandertals, for their magic suits had no radios. But it was more than that. It was beautiful when you got to follow it a little, a mix of dance and speech.

He had to be shown how to use his magic suit’s sanitary facilities. Basically the trick was just to let go. The suit’s surface absorbed the waste, liquid and solid; it simply disappeared into that translucent wall, as if dissolving. Most of it anyhow. On the move, Malenfant had no chance to open his magic suit, this shell he had to share with the stink of a dead old man and now of his own waste. The Neandertals clearly weren’t hung up on personal hygiene. After a couple of days, however, Malenfant was longing for a shower.

After a time, snow fell around the Neandertals, fine little blue crystals that settled over Malenfant’s head and shoulders, crisping the basaltic ground.

Valentina nudged him and pointed. Over the horizon, a geyser was erupting. It was the source of the snow.

The sparkling plume, tens of kilometers high, was venting into space. The plume was blue, sulphur dioxide. At the top of the plume the ice glittered brightly: Ionized by Jupiter’s magnetic winds, the charged molecular fragments shimmered with energy, a miniature aurora. At the base of the plume, lava was flowing. Perhaps it was liquid sulphur. As it emerged it flowed stickily, slowly, like molasses, but as it cooled it became runnier, until it pooled down the shallow slopes of the vent like machine oil.

A volcanic plume, glowing in the dark. It looked like a giant, twisted fluorescent tube: exotic, strange, spectacular. His heart lifted, the way it had when he first beheld Alpha Centauri. He might not understand everything he saw. But, he felt now, it was worth coming out here — worth exploring, worth suffering all the incomprehensible shit and endless culture shocks and even getting slapped around by Neandertals — worth it for sights like this.

The march was diverted to skirt the plume’s caldera.

Soon the party started to stray into an area where a kind of frost lay over the ground, thick and green-blue, probably sulphur dioxide. The ground started to get significantly colder under Malenfant, and he was shivering.

The party moved away from the frost, seeking warmer ground.

They were walking over hot spots, he realized. But the hot spots must shift. Io, plagued by volcanism, squeezed like a rubber ball in a fist by Jupiter’s tidal pumping, was resurfaced by lava flows all the time.

So the Neandertals had to move on, wandering over Io, in search of warmth from the ground.

It was one hell of a lifestyle. But they seemed to be happy.

About twice every Io day the caravan stopped.

The Neandertals didn’t always set up camp. They would unload scuffed and scarred pieces of equipment, boxes the size of refrigerators or washing machines. They plugged their magic suits into these, at hip and mouth, for a couple of hours at a time. The mouth socket supplied food, edible mush that tasted of nothing.

Malenfant didn’t know how his magic suit kept him supplied with oxygen; he wasn’t carrying a tank. The suit must somehow break down the sulphur dioxide air and scrub out carbon dioxide from his lungs. Maybe the hip socket extracted stored waste, carbon dioxide and urine and fecal matter, for recycling. Anyhow the boxes seemed to recharge the magic suits, making them good for another ten or twelve hours.

The suits just worked, without any fuss. But the Neandertals only had a finite number of magic suits, and seemed to have no way of manufacturing more. If some sad old geezer hadn’t died, there would have been no magic suit for Malenfant. What then? Would they have abandoned him? Well, he hadn’t been invited here.

He had no idea how old all this equipment was. It was clear to him somebody had set up this Neandertal community on Io. Somebody. The Gaijin, of course. Who else?

He had yet to figure out their purpose, however.

Every time the Neandertals stopped they checked over the Staff of Kintu.

This was a metallic rod, about the size of a relay baton. It seemed to be their most precious artifact. It was just a pipe a half meter long, of a metal that looked like aluminum, and it seemed light. Sitting in Io frost, the adults would pass the Staff from hand to gloved hand, checking its weight, fondling it, signing over it. The songs they sang, about the breath of Kintu, concerned the Staff. Maybe it was some kind of religious totem. But it was too easy to assume that anything you didn’t understand must have religious significance. Maybe there was more to it than that.

Malenfant envied them their community. Ignored even by the children, he felt shut out, lonely. He felt eager to learn to talk.

Malenfant observed signs, copied them, and repeated them to Valentina.

At first he had been able to grasp only simple concrete nouns, straightforward adjectives: a hand raised to the mouth for “food,” for instance, or a rubbed stomach for “hungry.” But, more slowly, he learned to recognize representations of more abstract thoughts. Two forefingers brought together harmoniously seemed to mean “same” or “like”; two pointing fingers stabbing each other was “argument” or “fight.” There seemed to be a significance in the hand shapes, their position relative to the body, and accompanying nonmanual features like body language, posture, and facial expression. And there was a grammar, it seemed, in the order of the signs. Get any one of the elements wrong and the sign made no sense, or the wrong sense.

It seemed to him that several signs could be transmitted at once, using fragments of multiple words. The Neandertals were not constrained to speak linearly, a word at a time, as he was. They could send across whole chunks of information simultaneously, at a much higher bit rate than humans. And, it occurred to him, these new reconstructed Neandertals must have devised their rich, complex language from scratch, in just a few generations. After all, there could be no way of retrieving the lost language of their genetic predecessors, the true Neandertals.

It was a wonderful, rich mode of communication.

He tried to avoid getting slapped. But he was punished if he got the signs too badly wrong.

“You don’t know your own strength. I’m an old man, damn it!”

Slap.

When the Neandertals lay down to sleep, out in the open, they did it in their magic suits, out there on the bare surface of Io.

He picked out the constellations — and the pale stripe of another comet, a huge one, its double tail sprawled over the sky. And in the direction of Orion there was something new: bright flares, like distant explosions, scattered over a shield-shaped patch of sky. It was a silent, unending firework show, as if there was a battle going on, out there at the fringe of the Solar System, a defensive fight against some besieging invader.

War in the Oort cloud, perhaps. Were the Gaijin battling Nemoto’s star-cracking aliens out there, on the rim of the system, defending Sol? If so, why? Surely the Gaijin’s motivation had little to do with humanity. If they fought, it was to protect their own interests, their projects.

And, of course, if there really was a comet-scrambling war going on in the Oort cloud, it had one dread implication: that the Crackers were no longer out there, at Procyon or Sirius, but here.

Sleep came with difficulty under such a crowded, dangerous sky. In the end he burrowed under his bulky NASA pressure suit, seeking darkness.

After maybe a week, to Malenfant’s intense relief, they set up camp once more. It was at a site that had evidently been used before: a rough circle of kicked-up soil, scarred by hearths.

Inside the teepee the Neandertals immediately stripped off. After a week locked into the suits the stink of their bodies almost knocked Malenfant out.

There was a great spontaneous festival of the body. The kids wrestled, the adults coupled. Malenfant saw one girl pursuing an older man — literally pursuing him around the cave, her vulva visibly swollen and bright red, until she’d pinned him down and climbed on top of him. Then they slept together, in great heaps of stinking, hairy flesh. There was no lookout; presumably there were no predators on Io, no enemies.

Malenfant hunkered in a corner, generally ignored, though Valentina and Esau brought him food.

Sometimes — when the light was low, when he caught a woman or child out of the corner of his eye — he thought of them as like himself, like people. But they weren’t people. They were no better or worse than humans, just different — a different form of consciousness.

It seemed to him that the Neandertals lived closer to the world than he did. That intense physicality was the key. Their consciousness was dispersed at the periphery of their beings, in their bodies and the things and people that occupied their world. When two of them sat together — signing or working in peaceable silence — they seemed to move as one, in a slow, clumsy choreography, as if their blurred identities had merged into one, in the ultimate intimacy. Malenfant felt he could see the flow of their consciousness like deep streams, untroubled by the turbulence and reflectiveness of his own nature.

Every day was like the first day of their lives, and a vivid delight.

Malenfant wondered how it was possible for such people as these — intelligent, complex, vibrant — to have become extinct.

Extinct: a brutal, uncompromising word. Extinction made death even more of a hard cold wall, because it was the death of the species. It no longer mattered, truthfully, how sophisticated the Neandertals’ sign language had been, whether they had been capable of true humanlike speech, how rich was their deep-embedded consciousness. Because it was all gone.

The Neandertals had been brought back for this short Indian summer to serve the Gaijin’s purposes. But this had not cheated the extinction, because these Neandertals were not those who had gone before; they had no memory of their forebears, no continuity. The extinction of the Neandertals, in the deep past of Earth, had buried hope and memory, disconnected the past from the future.

And now, Malenfant feared, the time was drawing close for an extinction event on a still more massive scale: extinction across multiple star systems, so complete that not even bones and tools would be left behind for some future archaeologist to ponder.

Valentina woke him with a kick. She beckoned him, a universal gesture, and handed him his suit.

He got dressed groggily and followed her out of the teepee.

Out on the surface, he relieved himself and looked around. Io was in eclipse right now, so that the pinpoint Sun was hidden by Jupiter. The ground was darkened by the giant planet’s shadow, illumined only by starlight and by an auroral glow from Jupiter, which was otherwise a hole in the sky.

As the warm fluid trickled uncomfortably down his leg, he stumbled after Valentina, who had already set off across the crusty plain.

There were five Neandertals in the party, plus Malenfant. They were all carrying bags of tools. The Neandertals moved at a loping half-jog that Malenfant found almost impossible to match, despite the gravity.

They kept this up for an hour, maybe more. Then they stopped, abruptly. Malenfant leaned forward and propped himself up against his knees, wheezing.

There was something here. A line on the ground, shining silver in the starlight. It arrowed straight for the swollen face of Jupiter.

Malenfant recognized the texture. It was the same material he’d seen trailing from the roots of Trees, in orbit: material that had been found on the surface of Venus.

It was superconductor cable.

The Neandertals, signing busily, pressed a gadget to the cable. Malenfant couldn’t see what they were doing. Maybe this was some kind of diagnostic tool. After a couple of minutes, they straightened up and moved on.

As they trotted, the eclipse was finishing. The Sun started to poke out from behind Jupiter’s limb, a shrunken disc that rose up through layers of cloud; orange-yellow light fled through the churning cloud decks, casting shadows longer than Earth’s diameter.

The dawn light caught Io’s flux tube. It was like a vast, wispy tornado reaching up over his head. The flux tube was a misty flow of charged particles hurled up from Io’s endless volcanoes’ sweeping in elegant magnetic-field curves into the face of the giant planet. And where the tube hit Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, hundreds of kilometers above the planet’s cloud decks, there was a continuing explosion: gases made hotter than the surface of the Sun, dragged across the face of the giant planet at orbital speed, patches of rippling aurora hundreds of kilometers across.

Io, a planet-sized body shoving its way through Jupiter’s magnetosphere, was like a giant electrical generator. There was a potential difference of hundreds of thousands of volts across the moon’s diameter, currents of millions of amps flowing through the ionosphere.

Standing here, peering up into the flux tube itself, the physical sense of energy was immense; Malenfant wanted to quail, to protect himself from the sleet of high-energy particles that must be gushing down from the sky. But he stood straight, facing this godlike play of energy. Not in front of the Neandertals, he told himself.

Soon they arrived at a place where the cable was buried by a flow of sulphurous lava, now frozen solid. After a flurry of signs, the Neandertals unpacked simple shovels and picks and began to hack away at the lava, exposing the cable.

Malenfant longed to rest. His legs seized up in agonizing cramps; the muscles felt like boulders. But, he felt, he had to earn his corn. He rubbed his legs and joined the others. He used a pick on the lava, and helped haul away the debris.

He couldn’t believe this was the only length of superconductor on Io. He imagined the whole damn moon being swathed by a net of the stuff, wrapping the shifting surface like lines of longitude. Perhaps it had been mined from Venus, scavenged from that ancient, failed project, brought here for some new purpose of the Gaijin.

The Neandertals’ job must be to maintain the superconductor network, to dig it out. Otherwise, such was the resurfacing rate on this ferocious little moon, the net would surely be buried in a couple of centuries or so. The work would be haphazard, as the Neandertals could travel only where the volcanic hot spots allowed them. But, given enough time, they could cover the whole moon.

It was a smart arrangement, he thought. It gave the Neandertals a world of their own, safe from the predations of Homo Sap. And it gave the builders of this net — presumably the Gaijin — a cheap and reliable source of maintenance labor.

Neandertals were patient, and dogged. On Earth, they had persisted with a technology that suited them, all but unchanged, for sixty thousand years. They might already have been here, on Io, for centuries. With Neandertals, the Gaijin had gotten a labor pool as smart as humans, not likely to breed themselves over their resource limits here, and lacking any of the angst and hassle that came with your typical Homo Sap workforce.

Smart deal, for the Gaijin.

All he had to do now was figure out the purpose of the net itself: this immense Gaijin project, evidently intent on tapping the huge natural energy flows of Io. What were they making here?

Without a word to Malenfant the Neandertals jogged off again, along the cable toward Jupiter.

Malenfant, wheezing, followed.

When they got back to the teepee, they found Esau had died.

Valentina was inordinately distressed. She hunkered down in a corner of the tent, her huge body heaving with sobs. Evidently she had had some close relation to Esau; perhaps he was her father, or brother.

Nobody seemed moved to comfort her.

Malenfant squatted down opposite her. He cupped her chinless jaw in his hand, and tried to raise up her huge head.

At first Valentina stayed hunched over. Then — hesitantly, clumsily, without looking at him — she lifted her huge hand and stroked the back of his head.

She looked up in surprise. Her hard, strong fingers had found a bony protrusion. It was called an occipital bun, Malenfant knew, a relic of his distant French ancestry. She grabbed his hand and pulled it to the back of her own scalp. There was a similar knotty bulge there, under her long black hair. Here was one place, anyhow, where they were similar. Maybe his own occipital bun was some relic of Neandertal ancestry, a ghost trace of some interspecies romance buried millennia in the past.

Valentina’s human eyes, buried under that ridge of bone, stared out at him with renewed curiosity. Her breasts were flat, her waist solid, her build as bulky as a man’s. And her face thrust forward with its great projecting nose, her puffed-up cheekbones, her long chinless jaw. But she wasn’t ugly to him. She was even beautiful.

The moment stretched. This close to her, this still, Malenfant was uncomfortably aware of a tightness in his groin.

Damn those Bad Hair Day twins. He hadn’t wanted any of this complication.

He tried to imagine Valentina behaving provocatively: those eyes coyly retreating, perhaps, tilting her chin, glancing over her shoulder, parting her mouth, signals common to women of his own species the world over, in his day.

But that wasn’t the way Neandertal women behaved. They were not coy, he thought.

It may be humans and Neandertals couldn’t interbreed anyhow. And for sure, a few hundred millennia of separate evolution had given them a different set of come-on signals. He began to understand how it might have been back in the deep past: how two equally gifted, resourceful, communicative, curious, emotionally rich human species could have been crammed together into one small space — and yet be as mindless of each other as two types of birds in his old backyard. It was chilling, epochally sad.

He thought of Valentina’s massive hand grabbing his balls, and what was left of his erection drained away.

The Neandertals held a ceremony.

They pulled back the groundsheet of the teepee to reveal the brick-red ground. The teepee filled up with a pungent, bleachlike stink: sulphur dioxide.

Briskly the Neandertals dug out a grave. They used their strong bare hands, working together efficiently and cooperatively. A meter or so down they started hauling out dirt that was stained a more vivid orange and blue.

Malenfant inspected it curiously: This was, after all, the soil of Io. The dirt looked just like crumbled-up rock, but it was laced with orange, yellow, and green: sulphur compounds, he supposed, suffused through the rock. There were a few grains of native sulphur, crumbling yellow crystals.

The deeper dirt looked as if it was polluted by lichen.

Some of this was colorless, a dull gray, and some of it was green and purple. Malenfant had never been a biologist, but he knew there were types of bacteria on Earth that flourished in environments like this: acidic, sulphur-rich, oxygen-free, like the volcanic vents on Earth. Maybe there was actually some photosynthesis going on here. Or maybe it was based on some more exotic kind of chemistry. There could be underground reservoirs where some kind of plants stored energy by binding up sulphur dioxide into a less stable compound, like sulphur trioxide; and maybe there were even simple animals that breathed that in, burning elemental sulphur, for energy…

Scientifically, he supposed, it was interesting. But he was never going to know. And he wasn’t here for the science, anymore than the Neandertals.

And anyhow, Malenfant, life in the universe is commonplace. And so, it seems, is death.

When the grave was dug, they lowered the body of Esau into it. Valentina got down there with him and curled him up into a kind of fetus shape. The girl surrounded the old man with a handful of artifacts, maybe stuff that had been important to him: a flute, for instance, carved out of what looked like a femur.

And Valentina tucked the totem rod, the Staff of Kintu, into Esau’s dead hand.

After that Valentina stayed in the grave with the corpse a long, long time. There was a lot of signing, back and forth; Malenfant couldn’t follow many words, but he could see a rhythmic flow to the signs, as they washed around the grave. They were singing, he suspected.

When at last Valentina clambered out, Malenfant felt his own morbid mood start to lift. The Neandertals started to throw Io dirt back into the grave.

Then, just before the grave was closed over, Esau turned his shrunken head, lifted a sticklike arm.

Opened gummy eyes.

The Neandertals kept right on kicking in Io dirt.

But he was still alive. Malenfant froze, with no idea what to say or do.

Stick to your own business, Malenfant. Be grateful they didn’t do it to you.

After that, he found it difficult to sleep. He kept hearing scrabbling, scratching at the ground beneath him.

He was startled awake.

There was a bright electric blue glow coming from under the groundsheet, leaking into the teepee’s conical space. A glow, coming from the old geezer’s grave.

Malenfant had seen that glow before: a thousand astronomical units from Earth, and by the light of other Suns, and in the heart of an African mountain, and even here, on Io. It was the glow of Saddle Point gateway technology.

He tried to ask Valentina, the others. But he didn’t have the words, and they slapped him away.

A while after that — it might have been a couple of days — the Neandertals lifted the sheet and started to dig out the grave.

To Malenfant’s relief, the stink wasn’t too bad, perhaps masked by the sulphur dioxide. Maybe the wrong bacteria in the soil, he thought.

Valentina reached down into the grave and pulled out the metal Staff. She showed no signs of the distress she had exhibited before.

The Neandertals, with little fuss or ceremony, started to refill the grave.

Malenfant got close enough to look inside the grave. It was empty. He felt his skin prickle, a kid at Halloween.

He tried to get a look at the Staff. Maybe it was the cause of that electric blue Saddle Point glow, the disappearance of the corpse. But the girl hid it away.

A party set out along the cables once more, Valentina and Malenfant included. Malenfant kept to himself, ignoring the fantastic scenery, even ignoring the aches of his own rebuilt body.

His head seemed to be starting to work again, if reluctantly. And slowly, step by step, he was figuring out the setup here.

This arrangement with the Gaijin wasn’t all one-way. There was a reward for the Neandertals, it seemed, beyond the gift of this remote moon.

He thought about the electric blue Saddle Point flash that came out of old Esau’s grave. Saddle Point teleport gateways worked by destroying a body so as to record its quantum-mechanical structure. Every passage into a gateway was like a miniature death anyhow. Maybe the Staff of Kintu, that little metal artifact, stored some kind of recorded pattern, from the dying old geezer.

Maybe Esau — and perhaps all the Neandertals’ ancestors, stretching back centuries — were still, in a sense, alive, their Saddle Point signals stored in the Staff. No wonder the Neandertals took such care of the artifact. Maybe that was their reward, to live on in the Staff, until…

Until what?

Until, he thought, they had gathered enough energy, with the huge engines that encased Io. Until Kintu was ready to throw his Staff, all the way to his Navel. Just like in the songs.

He grinned; he had it. That Staff, rattling around in some Neandertal backpack, was no totem. It was a fucking spaceship.

And that was why they were gathering all this energy, from the natural dynamo that was Io.

Malenfant, excited, grabbed Valentina’s arm. “Listen to me.”

She lifted a hand to slap him.

He backed off and tried to sign. Wait. Tell me, you tell me. Staff of Kintu, Navel. You go Navel, in Staff. Navel what Navel, what what what. “Oh, damn it. What are the Gaijin making here? Antimatter? What is the Navel? Is that where the Gaijin are heading?” She slapped him, knocking him back, but he kept going. Navel. “Kintu has belly, belly, Navel… I’m right, aren’t I?” Speak true know true. “I—”

She prepared to slap him again.

Beneath his feet the ground felt suddenly hot. It was like standing on a griddle. He backed away, instinctively, until he reached a place where the gritty dirt was cooler.

Valentina hadn’t moved. She was looking down, as if baffled. The ground was starting to darken, its shade deepening down from the ubiquitous red. Blue gas erupted around Valentina’s feet, like a stage effect.

It was a volcanic plume, opening up right under Valentina.

When the ground started to crumble, he didn’t even think about it. He just lunged forward, fists outstretched. It seemed to take an age to arc through Io’s feeble gravity.

He hit her on her shoulders as hard as he could. Despite her greater mass and low center of gravity, she toppled backward and fell away from the vent toward harder ground. She was safe.

Malenfant, on the other hand, was helpless.

He was falling in desperate low-gravity slow-motion, spread-eagled, right down into the center of the vent, which had opened up into a bubbling pit of dark molten sulphur. He could feel the skin of his chest and face blistering, bubbling like the sulphurous ground. Evidently his magic suit wasn’t going to protect him from this one.

He laughed. So it ends here. At least he’d gotten to know the answer. Some of it, anyhow.

There were worse deaths.

The sulphur bubbled up over him, and the pain was overwhelming.

But there was a strong hand at his neck—

After that, only fragments:

Lying flat. No feeling anywhere.

Stars overhead. Vision bouncing. One eye still working? Being carried?

Walls around him, lifting up, a circle of thick-browed faces.

…Oh. A grave. He was the old geezer now. He tried to laugh, but nothing seemed to be working.

A rain of blackness over him. Dirt. It spattered on his chest, his face. Pain stung where it hit exposed flesh. There were hands working above him, big powerful hands like spades, scooping up dirt to throw over him. Valentina’s hands, others.

The dirt landed in his eyes, his mouth. It tasted of bleach.

I’m alive. They’re burying me. I’m alive!

He tried to cry out, but his throat was clogged by dirt. He tried to rise, but his limbs had no strength, as if he was swaddled up in bandages.

The dirt rained on his face, a black sulphurous hail. He couldn’t even move.

There was something in the corner of his vision. A metallic glint.

A flash of electric blue light.

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