Ecstasy

 

The green came, opaque and trailing filaments. He wondered why these strands of algae would be moving, waving as if caught in a current. Then, as his mind became sharper, he realized he was surfacing and the current caused by his own circulation system. The vahume were there, gathering at the furthest edges of his peripheral vision. It was happening again. He would have to watch these tiny snails slowly munching in interlacing patterns through the opaque green of his under lid for hours, back and forth, to and fro, with nothing else to occupy his mind but increasing irritation. It always left him in a foul mood when the surfacing was over.

Agastin was known for this, and, if they could, all the attendants avoided him when he surfaced. The vahume moved at the speed of sea slugs even when they were in a hurry, but they were always gone before he could see anything. What usually came into focus first was the face of a concerned attendant, the one who had lost the lottery. This time, however, he found himself looking into the eyes of Lord Greyling, the aging merchant of songs, the dealer in pets. Greyling’s gills slits were rippling from side to side.

“Happy surfacing, Chancellor” he said.

“Thith haa be’er be good, Greyling.” Agastin slurred, his tongue trying to re-familiarize itself with the inside of his mouth.

“Only the sweetest song you’ll ever hear.”

Agastin stuck his long tongue out and whiplashed it around the space in front of him, carefully avoiding the merchant. The tongue was coated with rancid accumulation of organic material and the action did little to displace it, but at least the flexibility of the organ was, more or less, restored. Agastin knew the smell of it could be overpowering but Greyling pretended not to notice. Agastin pulled his tongue back into his mouth and studied Greyling. “You realize, of course, that I have a well-deserved reputation for being disagreeable when surfacing?”

“I’m willing to take the risk,” Greyling said. “The transmission came in just before I was scheduled to go on my pre-down fast. It was beautiful, just beautiful! I wanted to personally play it for you.”

“What have you found?” Agastin asked.

“I could tell you, Chancellor, but the recording speaks for itself. It will be a wonderful thing to experience right after surfacing.”

“But I haven’t gone through the nutrition protocol,” Agastin said.

“I’m sorry. Are you hungry, Chancellor?”

“No, no I’m not,” Agastin admitted. He used to be ravenous after surfacing but not since entering elderhood. His body was now less active when he was awake and therefore stored more fat for the down. There was still the problem of the taste in his mouth, however, and eating something always helped. Then he noticed the bowl the lucky attendant had left behind. He picked up the sparkly-leafed plant it contained and stuffed it into his mouth. This wasn’t exactly food in the traditional sense of the word but the leaf’s sparkly coating contained tiny bioengineered crustaceans. These would now roam through his mouth, consuming what had accumulated there, another ancient symbiotic relationship. In this case, however, the process was not unpleasant, a bit like teeth tickling and a tongue and gum massage rolled into one. When the crustaceans were finished, he would swallow them, though the nutritional value was minimal.

“I should tell you, Chancellor, that this recording is not virgin song,” Greyling said.

“Not?”

“In its virgin state this song could do serious damage, especially to an elder who has just surfaced.”

“I have never yet been exposed to virgin song I could not handle.”

“I understand that, Chancellor, but Commander Prostallen deliberately transmitted this in a filtered state. For precautionary reasons, he said.”

“Prostallen?”

“Yes, Chancellor.”

“That fool will expose himself to anything.”

“All I know is that he sent it in a filtered state for the reasons he mentioned,” Greyling said. “According to him, it’s so dangerous they chose not to have a copy of the virgin song on board for fear that it would get out and decimate the crew. It’s still incredible.”

“You’ve heard it?”

Greyling’s gills rippled. “I don’t sell anything I haven’t tried. But I should tell you there will have to be a strong therapeutic element when I go down this time.”

Agastin studied Greyling. “Well, you’ve certainly piqued my curiosity. Perhaps this will make up for those damn vahume.”

“I will have to wear a filter, Chancellor,” Greyling said. “It would not be wise for this old body to re-expose itself to this song. The loop is set up to trigger at your command.”

Agastin waited until Greyling strapped the filter around his abdomen, covering his diaphragm. Greyling was now effectively deaf. Agastin inflated the bladder in his lower back and floated a few feet off the floor. It was his preferred listening posture, suspended away from anything fixed. That way he could both hear and feel the song with less distortion, nothing to get in the way. He gestured with his tentacle before pulling it into his body.

The room began to fill with deep resonant sounds, long looping melodies, and squeaks and squeals that seemed to chase each other right through his the center of his being. His spine tingled and his various body bladders pulsed and vibrated, creating a wonderful building warmth. The visuals showed large graceful animals ranging over vast areas of pale blue sea. Sometimes they jumped out of the water and smacked their bodies against the surface. There were at least three distinct songs, each one long, complex, and amazing. When sung together, the counterpoint was dazzling. He felt the control of his gill slits, ballow, and fins slipping away. The songs became indistinct, lost in a fog of extreme ecstasy, releases coming and going then coming again.

It took Agastin nearly an hour to get his bearings afterwards. When he did, he looked at Greyling. The old fahr was no longer wearing his filter and his gill slits were rippling wildly. Agastin joined in. “How big is the ship?” Agastin asked.

“It’s a scout class,” Greyling replied, stilling his gills.

“Are there any on board?”

“They had space for a few but not enough for a breeding population. And they have to be heard in a group or the effect is, well, diminished. The males sing to the females or perhaps to the other males. We’re not sure. But we know it’s a social thing. The songs are group dependent.”

“So all you have is the recordings?”

“Yes. We’ll need a much larger ship to bring them back in sufficient numbers.”

Agastin allowed his gill slits to flatten slowly, a sign of irritation but nothing more. Greyling expected an outburst of anger but that would accomplish nothing. Scout-class ships were standard for this kind of mission, and usually adequate for the task. It was too expensive to send bigger ships on pet expeditions but they would need a bigger ship, perhaps even a military cruiser, to get these animals. That much was clear.

“And you’re going to go and get these animals?” Agastin asked.

“I’m too old for interstellar travel,” Greyling said. “And Prostallen is not well, so we will have to find…”

“Then I will go to this planet,” Agastin said.

“You? But you’re The Chancellor!”

“It has happened before. Chancellors have gone on interstellar journeys in the past.”

“Not for about 200 million years!”

“They’ve been waiting for my son to take over for a millennium,” Agastin said. “I can’t understand why. He’s half my age and spends more time down than I do, but maybe it’s time, a trial run if you like.” Agastin’s gill slits began to ripple again. “I want to see and hear these creatures in their natural habitant.”

“There are three small matters I should tell you about.”

“Tell.”

“Well, first if all, these animals are surface breathers, a kind of mammal. Probably evolved from a terrestrial animal that returned to the sea. The atmosphere of the planet is roughly eighty percent nitrogen and twenty percent oxygen. Ours has less than twelve percent oxygen and it’s unlikely they’ll react well to its high methane content.”

“So we’re going the have to construct an off-world environment for them?” Agastin’s gills flattened again. “This could get pricey. What else?”

“The planet has a stage-one sapient species, primitive but still…”

“Aqueous or terrestrial?” Agastin asked.

“Terrestrial,” Greyling said. “A small land-based biped. They call themselves Homines.” His gill slits began to ripple wildly. “They’re not even aware their planet orbits a star. They think it’s the other way around.”

“They don’t sound like much of a challenge.”

“But they do prey on the singers, some of the singers anyway– the smaller ones– not the one you heard today. The exobiologists think it only a matter of time before they can also kill the one you just heard.” Greyling said. “So that’s the third thing. They have a vested interest in the animals.”

“Possible conflict,” Agastin said. “Could we trade with them?”

“It would go completely against The Will of the Giver. The technological gap is massive. There is no way we could interact with them that would not push their development.”

“How massive?” Agastin asked.

“I haven’t read all the reports but the summary said the pace of their development was quite slow. No significant advances in the hundred years or so we were on the planet. They get around on boats driven by the vagaries of atmospheric wind and by riding on the backs of other animals. Their weaponry is largely mechanical, with a few primitive chemical devices. No electronic or digital machines, of course, so they have no ability to communicate rapidly over distance. They’re still in the tribal stage. Even if you wanted to negotiate, there’d be no unifying world government to talk to.”

“And so you’re sure that this adaptive species is no threat?”

“Well, we were on the planet for nearly a hundred years and came away unscathed.”

“Were they even aware of us?”

“There was no actual contact. A few of them saw the ship arrive and depart, mostly attributing what they saw to astrological phenomena and superstition. In between, we were operating too deep in their largest ocean for them to be aware of us, or we were watching them from orbit above the planet. They have no telescopes,” Greyling said

“And how far away is this planet?”

“About eighty light years.”

“That’s fairly close. Why didn’t we know about this before?” Agastin asked.

“This was actually our second visit. The first time we went there the planet wasn’t mature enough for singer evolution. That expedition originated from New Aquafahr,” Greyling said.

“So that must have been more than 100 million years ago?”

“About that, yes. It was one of the last pet expeditions before the migration.”

New Aquafahr had been the Fahr second home world were they had lived for 2.5 billion years until it too had to be abandoned, like the original Aquafahr, when the star became unstable. “That would have been a long expedition,” Agastin said.

“About four millennia.”

Agastin quickly did the math in his head. Fahr ships generally travelled through interstellar space at about one third the speed of light, much slower when they were actually in a star system. “So it is now about 300 years since the scout ship left the planet?”

“Yes.”

“And it will take us 300 years to return there and get the animals?”

“Of course,” Greyling said.

“That’s 600 years for Homines to develop a telescope and a lot of other things for that matter. But, if they are as you say, 600 years will not be enough time for them to develop to the point where they could mount resistance, to the point where we would have to negotiate with them. A stealth mode would be advisable. Get in, take what we want while they’re not looking, and leave. That way we also avoid contaminating their development,” he said with a slight ripple to his gills. As if that matters.

There was a pause in the conversation. The images from the recording still lingered in the water between them.

“Can you handle a 300-year journey, Chancellor?” Greyling asked.

“I can handle it,” Agastin said.

“You’ll have to go down at least twice before you arrive. Some would choose to do it the whole way.”

Agastin grunted. “Surfacing after 300 years and in space. No, thank you.”

“It’s not that bad. The lower gravity makes muscle recovery less painful than it would be on Centrix.”

“I will need to be awake at least part of the time so I can get the logistics of this thing right.” Agastin extended a tentacle and lightly touched Greyling’s gill slits. “You’ve done me a great service, Greyling, and you will be well compensated. Now you had better rest before I have to have you carried out of here.”

“Thank you, Chancellor,” Greyling said before flattening his gill slits and swimming backwards out of the chamber.

Agastin watched the old merchant go and then restarted the loop. “Six hundred years will give us plenty of time to build a habitat,” he mused aloud.