CHAPTER 5

Yana [Sanskrit]: Vehicle, conveyance. The different schools of Buddhism are often called “vehicles” since they are different ways of traveling toward the same goal: enlightenment. Hinayana (the small vehicle) centers around monastic life. Mahayana (the large vehicle) is more populist, teaching all people to strive for compassion. Vajrayana (the diamond vehicle) has a mystic bent; a number of Vajrayana sects practice esoteric rituals to gain spiritual purity. Tarayana (the starry vehicle) arose after humanity left Old Earth; it concentrates on the psychology of freeing one’s mind from unskillful ways. While there are doctrinal variations among the schools, history has seen very little actual conflict (as opposed to, say, Protestants and Roman Catholics in Christianity, or Sunni and Shiite Muslims). Differences are more a matter of emphasis than of outright dispute.

When we got back to Pistachio, my first priority was clothing. Luckily, I had a spare uniform in the Explorer equipment lockers, not far from the shuttle bay. I could get dressed without having to sneak half-naked through the ship to my cabin.

While I was in the equipment area, I found a Bumbler and checked myself for alien tissue. The scan was solid black: Balrog deposits from my head to my toes. If I slashed my wrists, I’d ooze spores instead of blood.

It was quiet in the equipment room. I sat on a bench for a while, wondering if I’d cry.

I didn’t. Enough was enough.

By leaving to get a new uniform, I missed the uproar surrounding Pistachio’s exit from Cashleen vac-space. The Cashlings refused to give departure clearance until they received reparations for the damage done to Zoonau’s ropeways. Our Technocracy embassy on Cashleen wanted Li to come back and make some token appeasement — not necessarily an apology, but at least a repentant gesture. Li wanted to gesture at the Cashlings, all right, but not in a contrite manner. Captain Cohen wanted Li and every other diplomat off his ship, to free up passenger space for Muta survivors. Festina just wanted to get under way as soon as possible… and since Class One missions took priority over other concerns, she had the clout to cut short the yammering.

In the end, Li and Ubatu ordered the rest of their delegation to go down to Cashleen, where the team of diplomats would smooth the ruffled feathers of the Cashling government. Li and Ubatu themselves remained on Pistachio… partly from a ghoulish desire to see what would happen on Muta, partly from an urge to keep riding Festina’s coattails, and partly from the need to get out of the Cashleen system before the authorities pressed charges. Still, we divested the ship of ten unneeded diplomats, which gave Cohen more room in the passenger section and gave everyone else something to smile about… except possibly Tut. He was still unconscious, and would stay that way for five more hours. Festina suggested that Tut be taken to the infirmary, and Cohen said he’d “take appropriate measures.”

Considering Cohen’s feelings for Tut, that might have meant leaving Tut’s body on the bare floor of the shuttle bay and letting him wake up on his own.

Pistachio pulled out of orbit and headed sunward to recharge the ship’s energy envelope. The envelope was commonly called a Sperm-field: a milky sheath that formed a pocket universe around the ship and let us move at faster-than-light speeds through the universe outside. Charging the field in a star’s chromosphere was a new procedure — until recently, the navy had believed Sperm-fields would be torn apart if a ship got too much solar radiation. Then between my junior and senior year at the Academy, all the textbooks suddenly changed to say that a solar bath made Sperm-fields stronger… and every ship in the navy abruptly became ten times faster.

Science marches on.

Anyway, the voyage to Muta would once have taken two weeks; now, we’d get there in a day and a half. We had precious little time for preparations.

The instant we left Cashleen, Festina called a meeting in Pistachio’s small conference room. Only Captain Cohen and I were invited… but Li and Ubatu showed up too and Festina let them stay. (She whispered to me, “They’ll just cause trouble if I kick them out. They’ll be nuisances here too, but at least I can keep an eye on them.”)

When everyone was seated at the conference table, Festina convened the meeting. “All right. We have thirty-six hours to develop a plan for the landing. First step: reviewing available information about Muta. There’s quite a lot — Starbase Trillium has forwarded files obtained from the Unity. Every bit of data they have on their settlements there.”

Li gave a derisive snort. “Every bit of data? I doubt it. Those bastards hate sharing anything with the Technocracy.”

“Admittedly, they seldom talk to us,” Festina said. “In this case, however, they have no choice. Withholding information from a rescue mission would endanger our lives and the people we’re trying to save. The Unity has to tell us everything they know, or they’ll get in trouble with the League.”

Ambassador Li looked dubious. Perhaps he had unhappy past dealings with the Unity. No surprise: the Unity and the Technocracy had been at odds for centuries, with plenty of resentment built up on both sides. This state of tension wasn’t a war — not even a cold war. More like the huffiness between a divorced couple who want to conduct themselves with decorum but simply can’t stop bickering.

The Unity had divorced itself from the Technocracy three hundred years ago: a mere century after our ancestors left Old Earth. The cause of the breakup was irreconcilable differences over the raising of children. Children like me. Bioengineered.

As I’ve said, gene-tinkering is illegal in the Technocracy (except to cure serious medical conditions and in a few other strictly regulated situations). Most artificial enhancements are also banned: amplification chips in the brain, subcutaneous armor, and similar augmentations. The laws aren’t always obeyed — on every planet, there are people like my self-centered mother or Ubatu’s haute couture parents who believe laws only apply to others — but in general, Technocracy citizens are pure Homo sapiens without too much embedded hardware or unnatural DNA.

The Unity, on the other hand, don’t accept a priori limitations. Their ancestors questioned the ethics of remaining merely human. Why, for example, would you force people to make do with “natural” babies when science could produce children who were healthier, happier, and smarter? Wasn’t it cruel to create inferior offspring when superior children were possible? How could you justify the continued production of weaklings and cripples when it was entirely unnecessary? It wasn’t fair to the children, it wasn’t fair to the parents, and it wasn’t fair to society.

Similarly, why balk at modifying humans after birth? If, for example, people opted to live in a deep-sea colony, why not give them gills? It was a simple surgical procedure that solved a host of problems. Without it, one needed bulky and expensive machinery to survive (scuba tanks, air-pumping systems), and even then, there was always the risk of accidental failure. The Technocracy claimed that tampering with human essence was “immoral”… but how could it be immoral to protect people from drowning?

Those were the kinds of questions that started the schism. A group of humans who disagreed with the Technocracy’s ban on augmentation quietly vanished from the neighborhood of New Earth. Fifty years later, the same people and their children resurfaced as the Unity: industrious, placid, and annoyingly sane.

Technocracy doomsayers might have expected the Unity to become hellish cyborgs: brain-linked mutants with robot arms, and wheels instead of feet. But our Unified cousins remained human in appearance… mostly. Those in specialized jobs modified themselves as needed and changed back when they were finished. If they had any qualms about getting fingers amputated and replaced with welding torches, they kept it to themselves. Probably, they took such changes in stride and wondered what the fuss was about — members of the Unity were irritatingly well adjusted. (They looked like they never screamed at their mothers.)

In a way, the Technocracy and the Unity acted like two halves of a broken family in a broadcast comedy. Our half was made up of ne’er-do-wells: the ones who fought and hollered, whose government was perennially corrupt and whose lives were an ongoing fiasco of greedy ineptitude. Their half consisted of the ever-polite gentry, unfailingly well behaved and earnest, but clueless about how to deal with their brash, obnoxious relatives. They were embarrassed by our crassness, while we were peeved at their wholesomeness. Both sides preferred to avoid each other… and when circumstances forced us together, we always began with “This time we’ll make it work,” but ended in our usual roles: the Technocracy as squabbling buffoons and the Unity as stuffed-shirt prigs. Like a divorced couple, we brought out the worst in each other.

But like a divorced couple, we weren’t utterly blind to each other’s strengths. Members of the Unity sometimes admitted they might be a little too obsessed with control; they planned and planned and planned, but if they encountered an unexpected obstacle, they knew they had trouble with spontaneous improvisation. Their process of reaching a careful consensus meant they seldom got caught by surprise… but if a surprise did come along, they were slow to react. They weren’t stupid or uncreative; but centuries of genetic tinkering had bred out “lone wolf” impulsiveness, and that sometimes left them at a disadvantage.

On the other hand, I didn’t like lone wolves myself. Explorers survived through teamwork and forethought, rather than going their own impetuous ways. No plan could anticipate every contingency, but thinking ahead was far better than leaving things to chance. One should never depend on luck.

So, unlike Li, I admired the Unity. In particular, I admired their survey teams — the only people in the galaxy who might equal our own Explorer Corps. Their equipment and training were just as good, their advance planning was better, and they actually had their people’s support. Unity surveyors were treated like heroes: lauded by the public and held up as examples. Little girls and boys grew up longing to win a place on first-landing teams.

Contrast that with Explorers. I wondered if the Technocracy had staffed our corps with pariahs just to be different from the Unity. It wouldn’t be the first time our government had been that petty.

But in the Unity, surveyors were the best of the best… and Muta had been settled by survey teams. Every last colonist was a trained surveyor: elite, bioengineered for genius, and augmented to the n th degree. If the entire populace had still been wiped out with only time for a single Mayday…

…how much better could Explorers do?

Each of us at the conference table had a vidscreen with access to all the files on Muta. My first action — and probably the first action of everyone else present — was to send my personal data agent tunneling through the files in search of “hot spots”: juicy information it knew I would care about.

My agent was almost as old as me — software that had grown by my side, learning my likes and dislikes, developing algorithms to winnow fields of data down to the most meaningful grains of fact. The program had changed a great deal over the years… especially when I entered the Academy and was forced to pay attention to information I’d never cared about before. The software and I had both endured a radical reeducation; but we’d got through together, and now my agent could zip through the files with a skilled Explorer’s eye.

Ultimately, of course, I’d have to read everything in detail myself — nobody who understands computers trusts them completely. But I could rely on my software servant to provide me with a good first overview, and to highlight key words or phrases I’d found important in the past. Considering how little time we had before reaching Muta, such shortcuts were valuable.

So, an overview report, courtesy of my agent. The Unity had approached Muta with maximum caution. A single survey team had landed and stayed in one place for several months, carefully monitored by an orbiting luna-ship. Then another team put down on the other side of the planet, in a completely different type of ecosystem. Three more teams set up camp a month later, again in different terrains. All were watched closely for five full years, always with at least one luna-ship ready to evacuate everyone at the first sign of trouble. Finally, another four teams were assigned to “points of interest” from earlier observations, with another full year of monitoring. Only then did the last luna-ship depart, leaving the Mutan teams to continue gathering information. If all went well, the Unity had planned to start full colonization in another ten years.

Not bad, I thought. More patience and caution than the Technocracy would have shown. Of course, the Unity knew something had scared off or killed the Greenstriders. Moving in too many people too quickly was an unacceptable risk. The longer they held off on full settlement, the more chance the survey teams would find whatever threat lurked on Muta.

But so far, the teams had turned up nothing… or at least nothing my data agent noticed. The agent’s report had a few lines at the bottom summarizing geological, hydrological, meteorological, and other findings, but they simply confirmed what I’d already been told — Muta was a first-rate planet for colonization. It was highly Earth-like, but too young to have evolved intelligent life. More precisely, it had reached its mid-Triassic period, with abundant land vertebrates and lots of ferns. Flowering plants weren’t due to arrive for another fifty million years; but the Greenstriders had thrown everything off schedule by bringing in their favorite crops, a supply of pollinating insects, and various other lifeforms they liked to have around. (Pets. Farm animals. Ornamental shrubs. The Greenstriders always surrounded themselves with the comforts of home, and to hell with the indigenous ecology.)

I clicked my vidscreen’s controls and proceeded to the next section of the agent’s report: key words and phrases. The top word on the list was naturally “death” — always an Explorer’s number one concern. But the word only appeared in innocuous contexts (“Average death rates of microorganisms…” “Protomammals dissected after death…”) so I scanned down the other entries for anything noteworthy. Some of the words were simple (danger, threat, risk), while others were technical terms I’d never heard of till I reached third-year planetology. None of the references rang any warning bells… until I reached a phrase that always caught an Explorer’s attention: Capsicillium croceum.

It was a species of tree noted chiefly for fruit shaped like small yellow chili peppers. Definitely not native to Muta — it was too biologically sophisticated compared to Muta’s fernlike flora, and besides, Capsicillium croceum had been recorded on more than ninety other planets. In fact, there’d been plenty of these “minichili” trees on my homeworld, Anicca…

I found myself remembering a morning when I was twelve: the first clear day after months of monsoon rains, and everyone wanted out into the sunshine. Even my mother deigned to leave the house; by that time, I did most of the shopping so Mother didn’t have to be seen by others with her bare thanaka-free face, but she could still bear a little public scrutiny under congenial circumstances. I wanted to go to the market where we might see pretty things… including a certain boy who’d watched most keenly when I danced at a recent street masque. But Mother wanted to visit a temple — and after her usual maddening hour of vacillation, she chose the Ghost Fountain Pagoda on the edge of town. (She thought it would be less crowded than places in the city center. I told her every temple would be crowded in such lovely weather, probably more crowded than the market, and couldn’t we go shopping instead? But with the sky so clear and the temperature perfect, I was in too good a mood to start a major fight. Besides, I could prowl the market later by myself, once my mother got her fill of fresh air.)

Like most temples on Anicca, the Ghost Fountain Pagoda was ecumenical — open to Buddhists of every denomination, and anyone else who might drop by. We therefore shared the walkways with saffron-robed Theravada monks and nuns, their heads shaved and their begging bowls full of donations from sun-happy passersby… with hawkers selling favorite Mahayana icons — prints and holos and statuettes of the saintly Bodhisattvas who symbolize various virtues… with Vajrayana mystics engaged in their perennial rituals, spinning prayer wheels, banging drums, chalking impromptu mandalas on the pavement… and with those of my own school, Tarayana, “the starry vehicle,” not monastic, populist, or mystic, but more oriented toward psychology. We Tarayana adherents were respectful but dubious about showy religious practices, and therefore kept a restrained distance from the temple’s more exuberant devotees. My mother (convinced as always that she was somehow exceptional, a jewel apart from the common crowd) disdained the “superstitious breast-beating and mumbo jumbo” of the older sects in favor of the “pure scientific spirituality” of our own. Sometimes I secretly felt the same, wondering what the no-nonsense Buddha would have thought of PARINIRVANA BRAND INCENSE-STICKS™ or the man and woman practicing Neo-Tantric sex in the middle of an open sunny glade; but I refused to admit I agreed with my mother on anything. I put money into every begging bowl we passed and bought a bag of pricey red sand to sprinkle ostentatiously on patches of gravel I pretended were especially holy.

The pagoda lay in the middle of the Arboretum of Heroes: a park with concentric rings of trees and statues. The statues (bronze, stone, plastic, ceramic) depicted noble figures from myth or history — great warriors, enlightened sages, and tragic martyrs. Many individuals had been all three; there’s nothing dearer to my people’s hearts than an admired soldier who refuses to break some minor Buddhist precept and, therefore, dies horribly. The more pain and mutilation, the better. In Eastern legends, death is always part of the story. Even if a hero dies peacefully at a ripe old age, you have to include that death as part of the hero’s tale. Many Western champions just vanish into the sunset or “live happily ever after,” as if death passes them by… but in the stories I heard growing up, the time and manner of a hero’s death were never glossed over. Often, they were the whole point.

Which is why the trees surrounding the statues were Capsicillium croceum. The trees’ yellow chili-fruit contained a protein that acted as deadly nerve poison to most Terran creatures. You could always see animal corpses rotting in the shady groves — squirrels and sparrows, bees and butterflies, who’d nibbled on minichilis and died within seconds. Their decomposing bodies were left where they fell, as object lessons for people walking past: “One day, this will happen to you too.” The trees bore death in small fruit clusters, just as the statues carried reminders of death in the stories they evoked.

In fact, the entire temple grounds whispered of things long departed. Millennia before humans colonized the planet, Anicca had housed an alien race whom archeologists called Las Fuentes. The temple had been built on the same land as a Fuentes town… yet little remained of Las Fuentes now but the minichili trees they planted wherever they settled. They’d inhabited more than ninety planets in this part of the galaxy — planets now belonging to the Technocracy, the Unity, and several other intelligent species — but Las Fuentes had ceased to be, some sixty-five hundred years ago.

They hadn’t eradicated themselves by the usual means: war, plague, or nanite disaster. They’d gone much more quietly and deliberately than that. Before they went, Las Fuentes had cleaned up almost all trace of their presence — their cities, their farms, even their garbage dumps and cemeteries, all reduced to a fine sandlike powder. The thoroughness of this erasure drove modern-day archeologists wild with frustration; Las Fuentes had left virtually nothing our scientists could study for clues to the past. Ninety planets empty except for a few bits of bric-a-brac, one or two broken pieces of furniture… and Capsicillium croceum. The trees the aliens had planted everywhere.

Las Fuentes left one other set of mementos. On each of their planets they’d built hundreds of simple stone fountains, plus a network of roads joining every fountain to its neighbors. The fountains and roads were left intact when Las Fuentes eradicated the rest of their civilization. Most experts thought the fountains had religious significance — so sacred they couldn’t be destroyed, even when Las Fuentes divested themselves of everything else. I had my doubts about that; I disliked how xenoanthropologists used “religious significance” to label every alien practice they didn’t understand. But many human worshipers thought the fountains had religious significance too. Elsewhere in the Technocracy, Christians had constructed churches at fountain sites, Hindus had set up shrines to Vishnu or Ganesha, and Santeria worshipers conducted midnight ceremonies beside fountains in the depths of jungles. On Anicca, almost every Fuentes fountain had an associated temple or lamasery… including the Ghost Fountain Pagoda, where the pagoda was built around such a fountain, and the “ghosts” were Las Fuentes themselves.

Not that Las Fuentes were extinct… at least not in the usual sense. As Mother and I entered the pagoda (where a giant golden Buddha with lotus-petal hair and clothes of saffron spider-silk smiled in the fountain’s bowl), we passed holo images of Las Fuentes as they are today: blobs of purple jelly that shone with UV-indigo light.

Sixty-five hundred years ago, Las Fuentes hadn’t died; they’d leapt up the evolutionary ladder to transcend normal flesh and blood. They’d become purple jelly-things that could teleport at will, foresee the future, manipulate objects through force of mind, and violate most of the laws of physics.

Were powers like that sufficient compensation for becoming grape jam? Looking at the blobby jelly holos in the pagoda, I wasn’t sure if the transformation had been a fair trade-off. But then, nobody was sure of anything when it came to Las Fuentes. For example, no one knew how they’d managed their ascension. Juggling their DNA? Downloading their consciousness into nanite subsystems? Impressing their intellects onto the universal background radiation? Technocracy scientists would dearly love to replicate the Fuentes uplift procedure… but because Las Fuentes had erased their culture so effectively, our experts had nothing to go on when trying to reproduce the technology.

The new jelly-form Fuentes refused to explain what they’d done. They seldom interacted with humans; they maintained an embassy on New Earth, but the doors were usually locked. Once in a while, a mound of shimmering purple would materialize in someone’s home, make a pronouncement, then disappear again… but the jelly-things never stayed long enough to be analyzed, and they definitely didn’t answer questions from “lower beings.”

Rather like gods.

That’s one reason why Aniccans built a temple around a Fuentes fountain, and why we put purple jelly holos under the same roof as the Buddha himself. Powerful beings deserved acknowledgment. We didn’t worship Las Fuentes any more than we worshiped Buddha, but we liked having their images around for inspiration. Even my mother gave a little bow and chanted something softly as she passed the purple holos. A moment later, she said, “You pray too, Ma Youn. Maybe the spirits will heal your cheek.”

“They aren’t spirits, Mother. They’re aliens.”

“They’re smart aliens with advanced technology. That makes them better than spirits. Show them respect, and maybe they’ll help you.”

“These are just holos, Mother. The Fuentes aren’t really here.”

“You never know, they could be listening. Maybe standing right beside you, but invisible.”

“The Fuentes have better ways to pass the time than lurking in one of our temples. They’re higher beings, Mother. They must…”

I stopped — because the holo in front of us had become tangible. Not just a lighting effect, but an actual mound of jelly: shining UV/purple. It slid a short distance toward me and raised a pseudopod to my face… but before it made contact with my skin, the creature suddenly lurched backward with a sharp feline hiss. Like a Western vampire reeling away from a crucifix. The jelly bolted for the pagoda’s exit; and without thinking I ran after it, a twelve-year-old girl eager to follow anything strange. I got to the door and scanned the grounds, trying to see where the jelly had fled…

…and every statue in sight had changed. All the bronze warriors, the marble sages, the martyrs in terra-cotta — they were now possessed by aliens. The purple jelly had climbed up a chiseled image of the Holy Madman of Pegu, while beside it, the noble features of King Thagya Min were obscured by smears of what looked like crawling black sand. A granite rendering of Buddha’s lovable but dim-witted disciple Ananda was surrounded by a whirling cloud of dust; Hui-Neng, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch and founder of Zen, had scarlet lava dripping down the right half of his body, while the left had turned to glass. Through all the Arboretum of Heroes, not a single statue remained untouched: flames enveloped one, blue-leafed vines another, cottage-cheese goo a third.

I turned back to my mother, abandoning my usual hostility and just wanting to say, “Hey, Mom, come see this!” But the words were never spoken. My eye was caught by the Buddha in the fountain, entirely coated with glowing red moss…

In the conference room of Pistachio, I almost jerked out of my chair with a scream. Almost. But my “freeze-in-place” reflex had kicked in, and I made no sound, no movement. No physical reaction at all; but inside, my thoughts were racing.

Had any of that truly happened? Had my mother and I gone to the Ghost Fountain Pagoda on a clear sunny day? Was there actually something called the Ghost Fountain Pagoda on the outskirts of our town? Had I seen a purple-jelly Fuentes, had it recoiled from me, had the Buddha been covered with Balrog spores? The memories seemed so real — one hundred percent genuine. Yet they were also far-fetched: the Fuentes, the Balrog, all those other transcendent aliens casually manifesting themselves for no reason. And if something so strange had truly happened to me, why hadn’t the memory of the moss-covered Buddha leapt to mind as soon as I saw the pictures of moss-covered Zoonau? Why was I only remembering it now?

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I’ve awakened from a dream unable to draw the line between dream and reality. I may dream I signed up for some computer-run training course and come morning I have to take the exam, even though I haven’t done any of the lessons. For minutes after I wake, I lie trickling with sweat, trying to decide if I really did enroll in such a course or if it was just a figment of my sleeping imagination. Did I or didn’t I? Such dreams could be so convincing, I honestly couldn’t sort out the truth.

This felt like the same thing. Did I really go to that temple and see what I saw? Or was it just a false memory?

A false memory planted by the Balrog.

You demon! I wanted to scream. You demon, you demon, you demon! The demon’s spores were inside my head, and I couldn’t even trust my own memories. I truly didn’t know if those things at the pagoda had happened. The recollections seemed so real, but…

“Something wrong, Youn Suu?” Festina asked.

I must have made some noise that caught her attention. My body had finally unfrozen and given away my inner turmoil.

Now Festina was looking at me. Her expression wary. Regarding me as a spore-infected security risk. Her mistrust was entirely justified — my inability to judge memories true or false proved that. If I’d had any sense of responsibility, I should have declared myself unfit for duty and walked out of the room.

But I didn’t. I didn’t want to admit I was broken, and I didn’t want to isolate myself from Festina. I didn’t want to be alone.

So I mumbled, “I think I’ve found something,” and looked at my data screen, hoping there’d be something I could pretend was noteworthy.

I read the words, EXTENSIVE WELL-PRESERVED RUINS.

EXTENSIVE WELL-PRESERVED RUINS OVERGROWN WITH CAPSICILLIUM CROCEUM.

EXTENSIVE WELL-PRESERVED RUINS OVERGROWN WITH CAPSICILLIUM CROCEUM, DATING BACK 6500 YEARS.

What?

Quickly, I opened the corresponding file. Festina’s eyes still watched me. The computer displayed a survey conducted from orbit early in the Unity’s investigation of the planet. They’d sent robot probes to check promising areas for settlement… particularly fertile plains with plenty of rivers to serve as water supplies. Unsurprisingly, they’d found evidence of recent Greenstrider habitation — Greenstriders always sought out good farmland — but the Unity also found Capsicillium croceum, and ruins much older than the Greenstrider colonies.

The ruins dated back to the days of Las Fuentes civilization. But Las Fuentes didn’t leave ruins. On every other world they’d colonized, they’d erased all remains of their presence.

I keyed my data agent to do a cross-reference. Yes: several similar sites had been found in other regions of Muta: sixty-five-hundred-year-old ruins and Capsicillium croceum, all in the sort of areas where Las Fuentes usually lived. The Unity had even followed up their findings — the last four survey teams sent to Muta had all established camps near ancient ruin sites. They’d then proceeded to excavate the ruins… albeit with extreme caution.

The surveyors had found artifacts. Lots of artifacts. Anything from simple tools (hammers, saws, hand drills) to high-tech gadgets of unguessable intent. Most were in terrible condition — what could you expect after six and a half millennia? — but a modest amount of equipment had avoided the ravages of time inside weatherproof containers. Result: the Unity had stumbled across a treasure trove of technology from aliens who were more advanced than anyone we knew and who’d never left so much as a thumbtack anywhere else.

I lifted my head and looked Festina right in the eye. “I have found something,” I said. “Something important.”

“Like what?”

I told her.

I didn’t get far into what I had to say — ruins, artifacts, Las Fuentes — when Li interrupted me. “Who are these Las Fuentes and why should we care?”

Festina didn’t answer. She was keying her way through the files, looking for the records I’d found… and perhaps she also disdained any professional diplomat who wasn’t familiar with a species that had an embassy on New Earth. I wondered about that myself; but there are hundreds of species, major and minor, with a presence on New Earth, and Li might not know them all. Especially not a race with a history of spurning all diplomatic overtures. I told Li, “Las Fuentes were an alien species who used to live in this part of the galaxy. Around 4000 B.C., the race transmuted itself up the evolutionary ladder. Now they look like heaps of purple jelly.”

“Oh,” said Li. “Those bastards. Useless.”

He sat back in his chair as if he’d lost interest. I suppose from a diplomat’s point of view, the modern Fuentes were useless. They refused to trade with humans, they wouldn’t talk about science, and they seldom even shared tidbits of information about the galaxy and its inhabitants. “Las Fuentes may not interact much with humans,” I said (trying to suppress my true/false memory of meeting a Fuentes at the temple), “but they’re still important to the Technocracy. We know of many alien species beyond human level, but Las Fuentes are the only ones who ascended within reachable history. Not long ago, they were at the same evolutionary level we are now. Then they developed some process that let them become something superior.”

Li rolled his eyes. “I don’t consider purple jelly my superior.”

Ubatu muttered, “I consider orange marmalade your superior.”

“Now, now,” Captain Cohen said.

“The point is,” I said, “of all the races above us on the evolutionary ladder, Las Fuentes are the most recent to climb there. If you count 4000 B.C. as recent.”

“Actually,” Festina said, “the most recent Fuentes ascension was two years ago. I was there.”

She’d spoken softly — a quiet statement that caught the rest of us off guard. I felt my automatic “freeze reflex” kick in again… just for an instant, then it was gone. Li opened his mouth, then shut it. Ubatu’s mouth was open too; her hand came up to cover it.

“Admiral,” Cohen said, “you’d better tell us about it.”

“I met some Fuentes,” Festina said. “Possibly the only two left who hadn’t ascended.”

Li and Ubatu leaned forward eagerly, but Cohen and I eased back in our chairs as if we were about to hear bad news. I don’t know why the difference. Maybe because diplomats treat secrets like currency — the more they have, the more they can spend at opportune moments — but captains and Explorers treat secrets like bombs to be disarmed: nobody tells us classified information until it’s festered into a crisis we’re expected to fix.

“When the majority of Fuentes transformed themselves,” Festina said, “a few couldn’t bring themselves to take the plunge. Too afraid of radical change. Personally, I don’t blame them. Who wouldn’t be horrified by the thought of becoming a mound of jelly? I’d consider it healthy to say, ‘Fuck that,’ and get on with your life.

“But those who refused to ascend,” she said, “never forgot what they’d turned down. It must have preyed on their minds constantly; they just couldn’t get past it. I suppose they might have been lonely — missing the world and the people they’d known. Perhaps they also suffered from survivor guilt… or shame. Anyway, the holdouts never made anything of themselves; they just wandered the galaxy in the last Fuentes starship, no purpose but listless survival. The only work they could bring themselves to do was to sabotage up-and-coming races they thought might eventually become threats… but even for that, they couldn’t muster much energy. As if they’d died when the rest of their kind ascended.

“So one by one, the remaining Fuentes gave in. They still had the means to transform themselves; and each year, a few of the holdouts decided that risking change was better than centuries of going nowhere. By the time I found where they’d been hiding, there were only two left — two pathetic specimens. Physically, they were fine, even after six millennia. Las Fuentes must have had superb antiaging treatments. But mentally… what would you expect from creatures who’d lived a hundred lifetimes in fear of taking a leap of faith? I admire caution, but eventually one’s spirit shrivels. The last two Fuentes were the most soul-shriveled beings I’ve ever encountered.”

“But they eventually ascended?” Ubatu asked.

“Eventually.” Festina spoke the word as if there was a great deal more to the story but she preferred not to go into details.

“How?” Li asked. “Did you see the process?”

Festina nodded. “You probably know Las Fuentes left thousands of fountains behind. Those fountains produced a fluid called blood honey. Bathing in the fluid brought on the transformation.”

“They changed into purple jelly?”

“They changed into creatures who looked like jelly, given our limited vision.” Festina shrugged. “I’ve met a number of elevated beings; none looked like much to human eyes. Does that mean ascended creatures aren’t impressive? Or could it be that Homo sapiens aren’t perceptive enough to see what’s really there?”

Li made his usual face of disgust. He clearly hated any suggestion that humans weren’t the crowning glory of the universe; but he was reluctant to contradict the celebrated Admiral Ramos. Instead, he changed the subject. “So these fountains,” he said. “They’re the key to the transformation. Have we studied them?”

Festina shook her head. “They’ve been dry for thousands of years. Nothing left to study… except for the one used by the Fuentes I met.”

“And what about that fountain?”

“It’s no longer available.”

We waited for her to explain. She didn’t. In the silence, a thought struck me; I did a quick search on our files. “There were no fountains on Muta,” I said. “At least none found by the Unity.”

“Interesting,” Festina said. She sat back in her chair with a pensive look.

“These Fuentes,” Cohen said. “We had a lot of their fountains on my home planet… but nothing else. Before they ascended, they cleaned up, right? Pulverized all traces of their civilization?”

Festina nodded.

“But Muta has ruins,” Cohen continued, “as if the Fuentes didn’t have time to clean up. They just left things as is.”

“I see where you’re heading,” Ubatu said. “We know there’s something dangerous on Muta — something that attacked the Greenstriders and the Unity. So maybe it attacked the Fuentes too. They might have started some settlements, built things up for a few years, then suddenly got taken by surprise.”

“Right,” Cohen said. “And this happened before the Fuentes began their process of ascension — before they built the fountains, which is why there aren’t any fountains on Muta. Later, when the Fuentes were cleaning up in preparation for ascension, they couldn’t erase their abandoned colony on Muta because they were too afraid of whatever was on the planet.”

Ubatu nodded. “That’s why there are Fuentes ruins on Muta, unlike everywhere else. They didn’t dare go back to clean up.”

“It’s possible,” Festina admitted. “But if so, I’m more worried than ever. Sixty-five hundred years ago, Las Fuentes were much more advanced than we are. The few Fuentes artifacts that survive are technologically superior to anything we have now. If Las Fuentes had such high tech and were still scared of whatever’s on Muta, we’re really going to have our hands full.”

So what else is new? I thought.

We studied the files for several more hours but found no hints of what might lurk down on Muta. The Unity had been thorough in their investigations; they’d checked as many possibilities as time and personnel allowed, yet they’d turned up no unusual threats.

Of course, their knowledge had gaps. For one thing, the files contained almost nothing on activities in the past six months. That was how long it had been since the last luna-ship visited the planet and received downloads of survey team findings. It would have been nice to know what the teams were doing just before they went non-comm… but the Unity swore they didn’t have that information.

Perhaps, as Li suspected, the Unity was hiding something from us. Or perhaps we’d received everything the Unity had, and it just wasn’t as much as we hoped. A handful of survey teams can’t possibly learn all about a planet in just a few years. For example, the Unity knew almost nothing about Muta’s oceans: a serious problem, considering that three-quarters of the planet’s surface was covered with salt water. I couldn’t help remembering the Technocracy planet Triomphe, which once housed three hundred thousand human colonists… until an army of intelligent octopi had emerged from the deeps to exterminate every man, woman, and child.

On Muta, rampaging octopi wouldn’t be an immediate problem; the Unity had located their settlements well away from ocean shores until they could explore the marine world in depth. But the seas weren’t the only unexamined source of hazard. There were also vast numbers of unknown microbes living in the atmosphere, water, and soil. The teams had done their best with their limited time and resources — almost a third of the people on Muta were studying microscopic life-forms — but there was so much to learn, they could easily miss some microbial species that was lethal to human life.

On the other hand, microbial action was unlikely to silence everyone on every survey team simultaneously. The teams were spread all over the planet, in widely dissimilar ecosystems. Different microbes would be present in different proportions, growing at different speeds under different conditions in different individuals. How could natural germ activity strike down everyone in the same instant?

And if not natural germ activity, what about unnatural? Deliberate bioweapons. That was also possible. At the Academy, we studied a recent bioengineered plague on the planet Demoth. The plague organisms had been created by nanotech “death factories” left over from a long-dead culture that had destroyed itself through germ warfare… and even though the aliens who made the factories had died millennia ago, the factories were still perfectly capable of analyzing Homo sapiens and producing a lethal disease precisely tailored to human metabolisms.

Thinking about that plague, I remembered something important about Demoth’s epidemic. The source of the disease had been discovered by a karmic avalanche named Festina Ramos.

I glanced at her grim face. Was she tortured by the possibility that history was repeating itself?

On Demoth, the plague had claimed sixty million lives.

A lot of death. A lot of death.

At six o’clock ship’s time, Captain Cohen was called away to talk with the Executive Officer — routine business about the next day’s arrival at Muta. Festina took the interruption as an excuse to adjourn our “conference”… not that we’d been conferring much. We’d read the files in silence, Festina and I concentrating on planetological data while the others went through daily logs and personnel reports. Ubatu and Li got the occasional snicker from what the Unity chose to record (“Lieutenants Yardley and Juarez fined ten credits for disturbing the peace through contentious disputes on the taxonomy of slime molds”), but none of us found any glaring clues to Muta’s hidden danger.

In retrospect, we shouldn’t have expected obvious warning signs. Unity surveyors were smart and cautious. If they’d run into overt prospects of danger, they’d quickly evacuate their settlements. Even if they didn’t have a luna-ship waiting to take them away, each team had an emergency escape shuttle that could blast off from the surface and go into stable orbit until help arrived. According to the files we’d received, all those shuttles were still on the ground. The teams had been completely blindsided — they hadn’t seen what kind of trouble they were in, and, reading their records, neither could we.

So the meeting broke up. Li and Ubatu invited Festina to dinner in the VIP suite, but she said she wanted to inspect Pistachio’s landing equipment. When the diplomats had gone, however, she sat back down in her chair. “Youn Suu?”

“Yes?”

“How do you feel now?”

“No different than usual,” I said. Which was true. Whatever the Balrog might be doing to me, I couldn’t sense the changes… any more than I could tell if my “memories” of the aliens at the pagoda were real or artificially constructed.

“Have you checked yourself with a Bumbler?” Festina asked.

I nodded. “The Balrog has spread everywhere.”

“If I were in your position,” Festina said, “I’d be terrified. Probably screaming my lungs out.”

“I doubt that.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t scream out loud. But inside my head…” Festina shrugged, then gave a bitter smile. “Inside my head, I’d beat myself up — saying a normal person would scream and what was wrong with me that I never had normal reactions? But I’d still feel like shit.”

“I feel like shit too,” I assured her.

“Good.” She smiled. “That’s a normal reaction.” Then she said, “You know I can’t trust you, right?”

I suppressed a shiver. “I don’t trust myself.”

“And that partner of yours…” Festina made a dismissive gesture. “When we get to Muta, I’m tempted to go down solo. I’m the only one I do trust.”

My turn to make a dismissive gesture. “But you can’t go solo because it violates regulations. No one can go into danger alone when other Explorers are available as backup.”

“The precise words of the regulation are ‘when other competent Explorers are available as backup.’ Between myself, Captain Cohen, and Pistachio’s doctor, I’m sure we could find grounds to declare you and Tut unfit for duty.”

“I don’t doubt it.” I looked at her. “But you aren’t going to do that?”

She shook her head. “The Balrog clearly wants to take part in this mission. If I said no, it would find a way to tag along in spite of me — probably by taking over your body and doing something drastic.”

A prickle of fear went through me. “That would be bad.”

“I agree. So I’ll let you come to Muta. I just won’t trust you.” She looked at me with sad eyes. “Which means I’ve already ordered the ship-soul not to let you near the Explorer equipment rooms unless I’m there to watch you. I can’t take the chance that the Balrog will use you to sabotage our gear. I have previous experience with the goddamned moss. It likes to play games.”

Festina waited for me to say something. I didn’t. After a moment, she said, “If it’s any consolation, I’ve told the ship-soul to keep Tut out too.”

“Will you let him go with us to Muta?”

“I haven’t decided. Do you want him along?”

“Yes. He’s part of this too.”

“Is that Youn Suu speaking or the Balrog?”

“I don’t know.” I took a breath. “From this point on, I’ll never know who’s speaking, will I?”

“No. You won’t.” Festina lowered her eyes in thought, drumming her fingers on the arm of her chair. “Okay,” she finally said, “I’ll give Tut the choice. This is a dangerous mission — possibly lethal. He can decide for himself whether he’ll volunteer.”

I thought about the Balrog giving me a similar choice down in Zoonau. If I’d known what it would entail… suddenly I was conscious of the tiny pain from the wounds on top of my feet.

Festina must have seen some change in my face because she asked, “Is there anything I can do?”

An idea popped into my mind: a way to check whether the pagoda incident actually happened. “Arrange for me to call my mother,” I said. “Tonight. A direct link as soon as possible.”

“I can authorize that.” The navy seldom allowed direct calls home, but the great Admiral Ramos could undoubtedly pull strings to circumvent the bureaucracy. “Anything else?” she asked.

“Yes. Kill me if I start talking like a brainwashed zombie in love with the damned moss.”

“Do you think that might happen?”

“I have no idea what I think. I don’t even know who’s thinking.” My eyes felt hot. Before I embarrassed myself by crying, I walked stiffly from the room.

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