John stood and gunned up his courage. “We need to talk.”
Colophinanoc’s manipulator digits didn’t stop their movement, their rhythmic squirming in and out and around the small basket he made. The eyes, the two at the top, swiveled toward John, the antennae dropped back—something John had learned was one of a dozen shows of minor annoyance.
“About what? Is there something wrong with the nets, the shelter, or the gardens?”
“Nothing like that,” John said. The problem was more vague but so very important. “We just… I need… humans are troop animals, we rely on each other. Too much solitude is not healthy for us.”
“You are not solitary, your dorm is not five meters from mine, and we are within ten meters of each other almost all the time.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. You need to talk more to me.” He was far past the point of embarrassment; it felt good to finally just say it. “I need to talk more to you.”
The vermicular manipulation digits stopped their work at the basket. “About what?”
This was the hardest part. In his head, over weeks and months, John had prepared dozens of answers. Here at last what came out of his mouth was: “Anything.”
Colophinanoc’s antennae lashed and flickered: confusion, perturbation. Also, from the twist at their bases, John suspected he was a little a little hungry. “I take time to speak and interact with you.”
John fought down panic. “Yes, and I appreciate it. But, for my long-term mental health, I need more.”
“How much more?” The other eyes, the mid-line ones, looked from the basket to his face. Another bad sign.
Pestering, that was what John was doing. That’s how a Kinri would view it. Like a little yappy dog or a Cygnus Crawler that can’t keep its tentacles to itself.
“About two or three times more.”
The segmented fingers stumbled at the weave.
Before things could get worse John suggested, “Kirni go through a social phase, when they are hatchlings. I need about that much.”
“Juvenile Kinri band together because adult Kinri are fundamentally solitary creatures.” Colophinanoc stood suddenly, always surprising how fast given the bulk of his oblong dome-shaped body. He half turned away. “What you are asking is not easy for an adult to do.”
John’s fear surged then morphed into anger. Colophinanoc had to make it difficult. He exhaled, willed himself to stick to the strategy, stick to what he had planned. Which was to give his alien comrade a choice. A false one. “Well…the AI can fulfill some of the need.”
Colophinanoc turned back, antennae down, all eyes on him. “You spend too much time with the AI, you should not run down the batteries and you should be working.”
“You are right, and you must understand that my need for interaction will overcome the need to work and I will waste time and the AI’s battery power. That’s why we need to talk.”
Kinri were not anti-social. It wasn’t like if one fell and hurt itself, another or multiple others, wouldn’t help it. They held doors open for each other, that kind of thing. But they were fundamentally solitary. John had been bringing reed-like plants for a week to the shelter–a week in which Colophinanoc had made baskets, mats, roofing by roofers and wall material, all pretty much without a word.
John had the numbers, the dry simple damnable numbers, committed to memory. Thirty seven standard hours in a Xephon day; fifteen days in a Xephon week; three weeks in a Xephon month (measured against the phases of the largest of the three moons); and eleven months per a Xephon year.
They had been marooned on Xephon for eight weeks, local time, almost six months earth-standard. John had hoped he’d last until week ten before he started begging.
Colophinanoc found his place in the basket weaving. “What do I need to talk about?”
Somewhere in John’s back muscles relaxed. He let himself think, dream for an instant that this was going to work. “Tell me what you were doing six cycles before the Marblehead left Pirus Three.”
Colophinanoc’s minor mandibles moved, like they were chewing on a thought. John knew what that thought was: What difference did it make what I was doing six cycles before the ship left? It drew in a large and very human-like breath: a sigh of resignation.
“All three levels of consciousness were obtained at 600 hours, and because I needed to get to the knot cluster posted by 10:00 I opted to clean myself before eating.”
“Did you use water?”
John knew he was pushing it. “Air dry or towel?”
The Kinri hunkered down a bit and John’s back tightened.
“Tell me about the pre-launch meeting.”
“The six representatives of the sub-knots of Ctlinatlit District met to decide on the re-allocation of cooling lubricants for the communal metal manipulating units.”
“Drop forges or lathe?”
“Okay. Drop forges. Go on.”
It was a good start. Later John could ask about the six knots and how they related to each other and many other things. He had hundreds of other things to ask that he had pieced together in the three and a half months they had been marooned on Xephon.
The afternoon rains came, as they always did. A gentle rain that would last until right before sundown then the long eighteen-hour night and the only sound would be the bugs and the lapping of Crashdown Lake.
John sighed, resigned and oddly content.
Five years, three months to go—Xephon time. Eleven standard earth years.
“Anyway, then Nanooni, he looks right at the kid and says, ‘ribbed’!”
Colophinanoc regarded him with the top eyes–the mid-lines watched the water. “This leads to a challenge?”
“No. Socially awkward.” John knew he should be watching the lake, but he wanted the Kinri to really get it. “Like discovering you’ve left a chunk of carapace cuticle hanging from your genital hump.”
“Yeah, so there we were–” He looked over. “Can you get us a little closer to the fan tree?”
Colophinanoc’s long mobility legs hung over the edge of the small boat and barely made ripples as he changed course. This operation had to be done just right. Scare he fish too much and they’d bolt to the deeper part of the Crashdown lake.
John, in the prow, gathered up the net, folding it carefully and making sure the stone weights were spaced just so. The conversations had to go just so, too. He’d been cautious about how much chatter he engaged in on the lake; Colophinanoc was a captive audience. It was crucial that Colophinanoc didn’t feel like a captive audience.
If that happened, Colophinanoc would surely suggest that they leave off the fishing boat and work on the traps—which they did separately. It had not taken long for Colophinanoc to come up with a dozen or more tasks that they did separately.
He waited; watched the sunken fan tree where they had herded the fish. In his impatience, the words came to fast. He couldn’t wait anymore. “Yeah, so there we are, Sully and I, trying not to bust out laughing at Nanooni and—” the slightest shiver runs through the reed boat, Colophinanoc shifting, Colophinanoc getting sick of him.
John dropped it, standing in the silence for a long time. Then: “I think we need to rebuild the east wall.”
Because tasks, jobs, concrete things were the best way to get back on the alien’s good side. But even knowing that, it still took maneuvering. “I think we’ve been getting more rain this season. Got some rotten spots, and those attract the borers, which just tear it up that much more.”
“Have we gotten more rain?”
A fish! A glimmer of silver in the murk of the fan tree’s limbs. Then another, then a storm of them. With a twist of the hips that fed into the twist of his shoulders John let the net fly out into a perfect circle on impact with the lake. It was a trick learned, a skill he had practiced, over the long days, like Colophinanoc’s silent rowing.
John let it sink for a bit, then started hauling it back. “Yeah. A few extra minutes per day, a few extra days per season—it adds up.”
The top eyes swiveled to look back at their composite shelter. The east wall wouldn’t be visible from here, but later John was sure Colophinanoc would inspect it. And the kinri would find the bad spots, because John has very carefully worked bad spots in, even going as far as putting eggs from a borer bug nest into it.
He hauled the net in, bursting with a wriggling silver bounty—as always.
The survival shelter packed into the escape pod measures five by five meters, lifts up about three meters, and can be guyed out by spikes, or sandbags, and/or the pneumatic ribs. Insects, or Xephon’s equivalent of them—more like a shelled jellyfish—were pretty much the only threat. They probably could reduce the lifespan of the shelter down to four Xephon years. So John and Colophinanoc had built a second shelter around it.
“One more cast?” John suggested.
Folding the nets for a throw John dared a question, “If it comes to it, how many bundles of reeds do we need to re-build the east wall?”
“Standard arrangement? I gather, you weave?”
“That is the most efficient way. If it comes to it.”
Things were going well. He didn’t want to push too hard… but he didn’t want to miss an opportunity, either. “Think we should move the sour-root harvest up, or maybe the red-berry planting back?”
“Red-berry back. Sour-root will stay good for quite a while.”
They discussed it—as John knew they would. Something real and tangible, that was the kind of thing that Colophinanoc could discuss, and John could take the discussion to strange places and “what ifs” and various other things which would be annoying, but bearable, to the kinri.
He only hauled in half a net-full at the crossbar-and-buttress tree they had sunk here years go. They rowed the boat back and beached it on top of the area where John had buried wood-gnawing beetles.
It was a trick he’d learned.
“It isn’t a sound,” Frank said, “so much as a smell: A gamey odor, that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.”
John paused outside the shelter, stopping along the track he had worn. “Dammit,” he said. “Should we try the south door?”
On the tablet screen Emo Frodo pushed into view. “South?” he said. “Always bad luck.”
For a while Frank had been Francine, but that had just made John incredibly horny. And although Colophinanoc wouldn’t care if he caught him masturbating, getting caught masturbating to an AI wasn’t something John was willing to endure. That the kinri was watching him pace and play make-believe was bad enough, but John had quietly convinced himself that maybe Colophinanoc was learning something about human interaction.
Whatever, Colophinanoc was one thing, but getting through the impending crap-sandwich Frank had set up for him was another. “South door, then.”
“If you insist,” Emo Frodo said with a shrug, reaching for the handle, “but mark my words…”
“Not you,” John snapped. “Sir Farts-A-Lot is our door-opener.”
“By the eternal winds of the great gorge of Brahamanat!” the knight said, shoving Emo Frodo aside. “It shall be done!”
On the screen the warrior grunted as he rammed into the door with his shoulder and it gave in. Beyond a gang of orcs looked up from their sbobet poker game. The princess looked up too, before tilting back her crown and throwing her cards down. “I fold, you sons of bitches!” she shouted.
Things moved quickly, each character shouting battle cries or pithy quips. Left to their own, John knew they’d get slaughtered—again. He had to allocate!
“Get Sir-Farts-A-Lot to the Chieftain. Big Wang does the grasshopper jump to the archer, and Emo Frodo, you duck under the table and kneecap that little guy.”
“What about Hermionie Bangher?” Frank asked.
“Lightning bolt! Always lightning bolt!”
Hermione skidded to a halt. She faced the screen, took the cigar out of her mouth and said, “Such a tone! Technically, I am Frank’s character.”
“You want to be a corpse with a wealth of unused charges?” John pointed out. “Lightning bolt!”
A message popped up on the screen– twenty seconds! Where had the time gone?
Watching the four adventurers act like middle-school cut-ups and arguing with Frank, that’s where.
The big fighter only got three steps into the room before an orc spear caught him in the chest. Emo Frodo took two steps and then Hermione’s lightning bolt hit him right in the back.
“What the fuck was that, Frank?”
The ten-second warning!
“Hermione’s still suckin’ wind from the ignoble retreat from the lair of the lizard folk,” Frank pointed out.
Big Wang landed on the table next to the archer, leveling him with a blurry-fast kick to the gut.
Another message: Zero.
The screen darkened. “Gotta shut it down, buddy,” Frank said. “See you next week.”
“Extension! Time extension!”
The toad-cold grip of Colophinanoc’s ropey fingers wrapped around his wrist. “Do not damage the AI.”
“I’m not gonna damage it,” John shot back. “Another five minutes. I’ve been working toward this encounter for weeks.”
“Put the AI down.”All of Colophinanoc’s eyes were on him; the alien’s body was titled back and down.
Fuck them both. “I’m not gonna—”
The first mobility limb lifted up. A Kinri could punch hard.
“Alright, alright.” He let go and watched as Colophinanoc put the AI back in its case. “See you in a week, Frank. This isn’t over.”
Xephon 3 was, as near as the combined opinions of John, Colophinanoc, and AI Citizen #25399 (the first-aid AI didn’t really count) could tell, a lot like earth toward the end of the Devonian period.
Crashdown Lake was maybe seven meters deep. The lifeboat stuck up from it into the air, maybe four meters. Who knows what the added radiation from the lifeboat’s engines and batteries would have on the life here… probably nothing, but John couldn’t help wondering, and sometimes even dreaming.
The lake was a good thing: a provider and a protector. It teemed with fish, small ones about the length of his hand and various other things–the shelled fish, which seemed like an odd combination between a fish, a clam, and a jellyfish.
John was not a biologist by training, he was an yttrium maximization specialist, but how much good was that now? None! And in the three years, local, he had been here he had forgotten the vast amount of it. Except for the time he spent three months boning up on it, which seemed like a lifetime ago, now. He had become a biologist in an amateur fashion, and by now his very thorough survey of the life around Crashdown Lake on Xephon-3 was pretty firmly detailed. He’d used the medi-kits magnifier and, of course, everything had a camera these days.
Xephon had predatory fish, about thirty centimeters or so long. They hadn’t quite evolved a hinged jaw yet, so outside of a bad hickey there wasn’t much they could do to him. With Colophinanoc’s chitinous plates, they couldn’t do anything to the Kinri.
On the landward side, there were plenty of plants, a few of them got about as tall as John if he stretched his hands up as far as he could. Most were shorter, knee-high. There were land creatures, the strange shellfish that had come up on land and lost most of their shells. Most. They kind of had an empty clamshell they carried concave side-up and in this they somehow kept their strange jellyfish symbiots—which seemed to, maybe, feast on the abundant spores and floating midges that drifted into them.
There was no grass, just a kind of plant that grew about mid-shin high then burst out into dozens of thumbnail sized leaves.
John’s pursuit of amateur biology had started as a necessity; an inventory of what grew where and what was edible and what was a pest; had transitioned into a hobby to give him something to talk about that both he and Colophinanoc had a stake in; and was now getting to be a low-grade obsession.
“Well,” John said, “it looks like our boat-beaching structure is doing the trick.”
He ran his hand over the hull of their third fishing boat. They had spent a day or two collecting the larger plants that grew higher up in the hills and building a frame upon which to lay their boats, saving them from infestation by the wood-gnawing beetle. It had been Colophinanoc’s idea.
“It does look like it,” Colophinanoc said.
“So what happened after your accounting cadre was re-assigned to Elnotracon?” John asked. He’d have to figure out how to get wood-gnawer eggs on those boats…
Colophinanoc took a slow breath through his lateral spirochetes. The Kinri was trying to figure out a way to piece it together in a way that John would find interesting- John could tell, and he appreciated it. The slight backward tilt of the body, the splaying of the antennae, a slight twitch in the heavy manipulator limbs, and of course the telltale sign of Colophinanoc’s fingers wiggling on their multi-segmented joints, as if it were spinning its words into a story.
“Pinonicy wasn’t too happy about it,” the alien said.
“But she was six weeks pregnant, right?” John asked.
“But she still hadn’t told anybody who the father was?”
“No. She went a sperm-bank and found a high-caste donor.”
A sudden tilt forward and the Kinri said: “What? Did I not draw it out enough?”
“No you did not! Of all the rituals that humans find interesting those involving mating are the most fascinating.”
“I did consider that,” Colophinanoc said, leaning back. “But given that the end result was just that she went to the repro-center—a common enough activity—I assumed you’d be let down.”
“Well, yeah, but still, draw it out.”
“I thought I would tie up that thread so I could focus on Kyolnican’s ongoing saga of hiding his culpability in the missing Hexacron Credit scheme.”
‘Saga’ was a big word, and certainly not the one that John would have picked, but again he appreciated the effort. “Okay, that’s fine. Go on.”
“You’re doing the thing you do with your face when you’re mad.”
Colophinanoc lifted a limb and touched John’s forehead with a cold digit. “That vertical crease in your skin. You do that when you look into the sun, when you calculate soft-shell nosh-bug hatch rates, and when you’re mad.” A second cold touch right under his hairline, “and this part, this tightens up when you’re mad.”
“I’m not mad,” he said, backing away a step. “I swear.”
“Also, you swear when you are mad.”
He wasn’t mad, but he had been calculating. Six years, standard Earth measurement, for Colophinanoc to catch onto the boats. He hadn’t caught onto the gnawers in the walls yet. Seven and a half Earth years left until estimated rescue-day. “Look, I’m a little disappointed, that’s all.”
“Well, from a troupe-monkey point of view things probably get more interesting after the hatchlings arrive and Trachinanaoc and Provnalic vie for adoption rights.”
The Kinri leveled off, turned and began marching back to the shelter.
His calculations and tricks fled. “No, wait! I’m not mad, I’m just Joshin’!”
Colophinanoc didn’t slow down, and John jogged back in front. “Seriously, I’m not-”
The Kinri’s inner and outer mandibles were closed up tight—a classic look of confusion.
Colophinanoc eased past him. “Your extra twenty minutes are up for this morning.”
There were three things that Colophaninoc seemed to actually enjoy: accounting regarding their selective breeding program in the garden (after three Xephon years they had almost doubled the width of the edible part of the Xephon okra. … it had to be okra…), their fishing expeditions into Crashdown Lake (especially when they had to do the five-step method to lure out the toe-suckers and spear them), and the wide patrol.
The wide patrol was more of an exercise thing, it was about a ten mile circuit, first east down the coastline of Crashdown Lake, then a turn north out into the plain, through Four Big Brush Bands and within sight of ‘Nyukle Head ridge, a turn west over the Five Feeder Creeks, and then eventually back south.
Most times they went together, a six-hour trip if they didn’t stop for lunch, which they often did at Lunch Ledge. But Colophinanoc had lately been taking it alone. Mostly as an exercise thing, as he could run much faster than a human could. Three hours for him to take the run.
Odd that for all the loneliness, John felt less alone when Colophinanoc was on long patrol. It was, he had come to think, the fact that the Kinri was less than 100 yards away from him most of the time that had really struck him. He was so close, and yet remained distant. One thing Colophinanoc had never said, in all their time together, was that he was glad John was here. That wasn’t 100% true. He had often said that he was glad he had a partner, a helper, that this had been easier since there were two of them as opposed to one. But he had never said he was glad for the company. That he liked John? Not one fucking time.
John had, several times, enough that he hoped—to a Kinri at least—that he wasn’t coming across as creepy needy and stalky.
He was almost certain that Colophinanoc went on these runs to get away from him, to get a little solitude. And sometimes the solitude reminded John that he indeed did need Colophinanoc. Needed him for another three Xephon years.
Sometimes, at first, John had used the solitude to run the AI, but either Frank had ratted him out or the Kinri had figured out what he was doing. There had been argument, so he had to quit.
Now John used the alone time to snoop a bit, just a bit, in Colophinanoc’s dorm. Human curiosity was something that the alien just hadn’t quite figured out. What was he looking for? A diary, maybe, or a voodoo doll of himself—anything really.
He didn’t find anything. He never did.
Sometimes, when he was really alone like this, the thoughts would come to him. The six ways he could kill himself. And those thoughts always led, damnably, to thinking of the dreams. Usually it was a stone, right into the joint where Colophinanoc’s dorsal anterior plate met with his posterior cephalic plate.
Sometimes, in his dreams, he tips the boat and breaks each wormy limb and thick digit as Colophinanoc tries to struggle back in, before finally pushing him deep into the water and holding, and holding.
He reminded himself, as he always did: “John, you will not engineer an accident for your only companion to relieve your boredom. No tripwires, no putting a hollow fern-log over Deep creek. You won’t put slick mud on that bit of trail that’s always in shade.”
John was masturbating with the AI; carefully. Francine could be a real life-saver sometimes. The evening’s rain pelted on the shelter’s roof, providing a little extra cover. Still, he had to be careful, outside the room he could hear Colophinanoc moving around.
John’s view of interstellar travel was common among the humans who had experienced it: it was like being stuck in a good hotel for three years. Well, he wasn’t trapped for the full three years, but the slow-metabolism meds only put you down for four months, and then you had to come out of it for about three weeks. Which, over the course of the trip would be eight slow-met intervals with seven three-week breaks; so he was trapped in a good hotel for a year plus. He was on his third break.
Of course, the Medicine Bear Four was equipped for it but in nine weeks one could explore every bit of a huge vessel:the gardens; the theaters, the plazas, the libraries. John had opted to learn the obo, which was much more frustrating than it should have been. He was in dormitory K this time around, and had put himself on the list for a roommate.
He was also on Cadre number 4’s soccer team to kill time, keep in shape, and try to recapture some of his youth. Post-practice, he and some of the team had gone to Nick’s Café Centaurian. It was a quite a place, as almost all such places were.
Aethulwulf M’Tugana sat across from him. “I’ve watched some of the video of the Bright Blue Sun team,” she said, “it’s going to be some tough competition.”
He had not watched the video of B2S cadre. Really, he was going to play, and he was bored but not so bored that he was willing to watch other teams practicing to try to get an edge. Teams they wouldn’t face off against for what? Three more months?
But Aethulwulf was that kind of person, and since she was the most interesting thing he’d encountered in his wake cycles he pretended to be more interested than he really was.
“Plenty of time to deal with B2S when the time comes,” he said, peaking his fingers together.
Aethulwulf nodded. “More practice is always good, though,” she said. “And it’s true: they’ve got a Huzmavah on the team.”
“Is that even within regulations?”
She shrugged. “Well, they are too big to play with the Sendulians, and the Kinri don’t bother playing, so they gotta work in with us humans.”
“Well, I worry that it might get a bad check or an accidental kick. Then it’ll—”
An alarm blared. Yellow lights began to flash. An automated voice began a chant he knew all-too well. “Emergency! Please follow the yellow track to shelter.”
“Christos!” Aethulwulf said, pushing away her plate and standing. “Another drill? Do they do this just to give us something to do?”
“You got me,” he said, “I think they do at least one every wake-cycle, but this is at least the second one this time.” He stood and swept up his drink—you could get fined if you didn’t get to the shuttle fast enough.
“You can get fined for taking that,” she said, nodding toward the new-olde-fashioned.
“Way ahead of you!” he gulped it and dropped the glass on the last table before they hit the door.
For a ship with only 1/5 of its passengers awake, the outer corridors filled up quickly. They followed the emergency lights along the wall. John nearly tripped over a pair of Sendulians and noted with a start that this time the lights were not directing them to the main tube, but had taken a hard right into a tertiary corridor.
Their line met another and the corridor suddenly seemed too small, too crowded. Then the ship shook. Another turn and the lights turned from yellow to blue, indicating they were at the destination—but this wasn’t a platform for an emergency shuttle, instead the left wall of the hallway had dozens of round opening for lifeboats.
Ahead of him, Aethulwulf ducked into a pod. In a few seconds, he got there, too. She, two other humans, and a Huzmavah crowded inside. He took a step and the Huzmavah extended a tendril—“Lifeboat’s at maximum,” it purred, another tendril pointing to the red lights around the entryway—yes. Of course, he’d passed the test and done at least two simulations, he should have remembered.
The ship shook again, and he jogged down the corridor, passing red-lit door after red-lit door, he swung into the first green-rimmed opening he came to.
A Kinri turned its bulky body and then its head toward him. Ordinarily, John would ask if there was space for one more, but in this case, he just plowed in. The Kinri backed up like John was armed. Oh man, it wasn’t going to like it when the lifeboat filled up—there was space for at least one or two more-
The lights turned from green to red and the door slid shut. Outside, beings passed, running.
The Kinri had said nothing. It, like John, had nothing but the clothes on its carapace. No, that wasn’t right, it had an AI pad, held in its squirmy digits.
The Medicine Bear Four shook again. At last the Kinri spoke.
“I do not think this is a drill.”
One of the best things about the back-up shelter idea was its long-term usefulness. Building it had been a challenge but it also required maintenance, which meant that they had to go up there periodically and work on it. And whenever they went to work on it, they usually had that much more work to do on the main shelter by Crashdown Lake when they got back. So it was really a double-bonus. Colophinanoc seemed to enjoy the work and the maintenance and that was a triple bonus.
Yet, for all its success, John found himself stressed. Everything was going fine, better than fine, really. But still, he was on edge. Grumpy. They were cooking up black-fin over the fire and the alien was going on and on about the spreadsheet issue of 3435. For the first time ever, John really wished that Colophinanoc would shut up.
“Whelll,” John said, “I guess I’ll start turning in.”
“You see the error was in cell D35,” Colophinanoc said, oblivious, “the logic string registry was an either-or, not an either-and.”
He had been talking—droning really—about this from Knyucklehead bench all the way down to Crashdown Lake and well into the night.
“Either, and. Got it. See you in the morning.”
“Well, Kaspinnun just about locked mandibles with me when I pointed it out. Before I announced it at the 10:30 efficiency meeting I could tell he was aware that I was aware of something. Normally he gave me a good meter of space when we passed each other in the east hallway—the ones with the windows that I told you about. Where it gets really hot. Usually he gives me a meter, but today it was only maybe half of that. Same thing he had done when-”
“I need to get some sleep, Colophinanoc,” John said, putting a little edge into his voice.
“We will pick it up in the morning, then.”
And the next morning as John’s annoyance grew into worry, they did.
They actually had two AIs. Frank was a generalist—the closest you could get to a human mind in a box. Their first aid kit had an AI, too.
A very dim-witted AI.
“Symptoms,” John said, “include fugue, confusion, and a reversion to a childlike social level.”
The AI answered: “Confusion regarding time, place, identity, or other?”
Ten more minutes until Colophinanoc was through with his run. John checked his notes; what had he said last time? “Identity.”
“Childlike social level indicates an infection by one or more of several pathogens. Most likely Estrella bacillus and Sphacelia segmentum”
He worked through them both, playing twenty questions with the first aid AI. Estrella was unlikely. It usually resulted from an infected wound and the other symptoms were missing.
But Sphacelia, that would match. It was already a part of the fauna of the vast majority of Kinri, and– and this really gave it away—was more likely to spring out in a high-altitude environment. How high up was Knyucklhead ridge, where they had built their back-up shelter? High enough, just maybe.
“Development?” he asked.
“In the young it stunts social development. In adult Kinri it often goes unrecognized until it begins to lead to professional development hindrance due to an inability to focus extensively on a task.”
“Coranosol, five hundred milligrams.”
John swallowed. “Lethality?”
“Generally non-lethal. Immuno-compromised individuals may experience further mental impairment.”
John sat and thought. Thought hard. Kirni went through a social phase, when they were hatchlings.
Seven minutes later Colophinanoc returned, sides pulsing as he got his breath back.
“A little slower than usual today?” John asked carefully.
“Do you remember how long we have until our next medical monitoring?”
“Two months, ten days.”
“Yeah…I’m thinking we should bump that up.”
“If you advise it.”
“I do. I’d hate to get so close to Rescue Day and then have one of us get sick or something.”
John added two-hundred and fifty milligrams Coronasol to the cocktail of stuff they took tri-annually.
At Crashdown Lake they very rarely needed fire except for cooking; up on Knyucklehead ridge the nights were colder, mostly because of the west winds, so a fire was necessary.
He stretched out, knees complaining. Twelve years, earth-time. And it was starting to wear on him.
“This highland Rock-Runner is excellent,” Colophinanoc said, taking another bite, shell and all.
“It really is,” John agreed. “Remember when we tried to hunt them with spears?”
“We are lucky neither of us broke a limb joint.”
“Glad that we got the three-step box trap worked out. Good thinking on your part.”
“Thank you.” The Kinri took another Rock-Runner and devoured it. “It is quite satisfying when a plan works out.”
John looked up at the sky, brilliant with stars, with the twenty constellations they had named. There, where a bead of the Abacus shared a star with the clip of the Great Fountain Pen, that’s where the rescue ship would come in three more years. He thought, briefly, of cell counts and their medical monitoring. Of the casual rambling conversations like this one, of Colophinanoc trying to run Big Fin Arwen in Frank’s game.
“Yes, Colophinanoc. Yes it certainly is.”
John had a plan. Five months, that was his timeframe. Five months Xephon time, a little over a year and a quarter Earthwise. That’s when he’d give Colophinanoc the full dose of Coronasol. Maybe the techs would not be able to tell that Colophinanoc had a low-level infection for so long. He assumed that knocking it all out would leave Colophinanoc without any real damage. Not that he didn’t secretly hope that Colophinanoc had some residual effect: ‘juvenile social state’ would be a plus, at least until Rescue Day.
“Yep,” John said, gently running his fingernail down the rope joint, sending a cloud of broken fibers “looks like we’ve had some kind of leak. Grass ropes are rotten clear through.”
Outside the primary shelter, Colophinanoc stood on his mobility limbs, his great sloping body turned as well as it could to view the damage. Crashdown Lake splashed gently, as always, beyond. “We may have to replace the wood for both the awning beams and the support beams.”
John dug a little deeper, the wood underneath was weak, not near as bad as the rope, and probably still had a lot of life left. Why hadn’t he thought of engineering something like that? Eh, it would give them something to do. “Yeah, it looks pretty weak.”
“Where is the leak?”
“Not sure.” The roof of Crashdown Mansion was made of thatch, and it was over the old emergency shelter from the pod. But from his angle he couldn’t see very far into the space between them. “We may have to take down the wall of the old shelter.”
Colophinanoc’s antennae waved, with a little counterclockwise spin. “We may have to replace the wood from both the awning beams and the support beams.”
“Well yeah, but on the old shelter, I’ve always worried that if we take it down we won’t be able to get it back up. Like we’ll tear something somehow. It’s aged well, but it has still aged.”
Colophinanoc walked into the shelter, turned and looked at him. “We may have to replace the wood from both the awning beams and the support beams.”
“I heard you the first time, Colophinanoc.”
The alien turned, taking in the shelter. “We may have to rrrrrrreplace the wood from both the awning beams aaaaaaand the support beeeeeams.”
“Hey!” John said, alarmed. “You okay? Colophin—” the alien surged forward, ramming him. John hit the ground hard, breath bursting from his body. He came to with the faded blue of the artificial fiber shelter waiting above him. Outside, Crashdown Lake sloshed and Colophinanoc spewed a stream of absolute gibberish. Gibberish crossed with spit, crossed with John’s world ending and three Xephon months being a lifetime away.
Rolling to his side and then pushing to his feet, John part stepped, part ran out. Colophinanoc stumbled, falling to his belly, in the water. In the stuttering way of the Kinri, he stood back up, walked second-knee deep into the water and stood, shouting out the nonsense sounds.
John walked to their packs. He knew a couple hundred Kinri words. What Colophinanoc was shrieking were none of them.
Two snaps, a tie, and he had Frank out of the pack and out of its protective bag. Frank kicked on and John swiped away the low battery warning. “Frank, what is he saying?”
Colophinanoc backed out of the lake, shook off his legs, fell hard to his belly and struggled back up. All the time he slurred and stuttered and shouted.
Frank’s screen held the usual graphics, the usual amounts of memory use, the usual amounts of planning for the Second Round of The Sound of the Music of the Spheres that was the playground for their three hours a week of Emo Frodo and Big Fin Arwen. “I don’t think he’s saying anything. I think he is just making noise.”
He tucked Frank under one arm and yes, yes, something was very wrong with Colophinanoc and and and it couldn’t be his fault. It had to be something else. Anything else. He fumbled out the first-aid AI.
Colophinanoc walked from Crashdown Lake’s lapping waves toward him, garbling and gibbering.
“I think he’s talking about the primary nurse from his hatchling clutch,” Frank said. John dropped the First Aid AI and pulled Frank back out, held it in both hands.
“What’s he saying, what’s he saying?”
Frank’s screen held the usual graphics, maybe with a higher amount of processor use, and then Colophinanoic’s manipulative limb lashed down, smashing the tablet in half.
That he didn’t dig up Colophinanoc’s skull was something that John felt strangely proud about. Such a decision was made easier by the discovery of Colophinanoc’s lone footprint by Slick-Mud Creek. He had found it by accident, when he was jogging the circuit that Colophinanoc used to run. And, honestly, he was probably doing the same thing that Colophinanoc had done—who knows how many years ago—which was taking a few steps off the path to take a shit. And there they were, two prints of his mobility limb pads, perfect in the clay, which in turn was covered by the wide leaning trunk of a tongue-leaf tree.
Luck had protected it and now he had built a small shelter for it. A shrine, really, it would be best not to lie to himself about it—that’s what Frank would have said if he still worked.
“Keep the second print,” he reminded himself. “Keep it.”
The first one he had ruined by running his finger along the edge, outlining each long toe in the star-shaped impression.
“It had broken down pretty fast,” he reminded himself, as he always did. He wasn’t going to dig up Colophinanoc’s skull. He wasn’t going to ruin the second print.
“I remember reading, a long time ago—reading it a long time ago, and it was about something a long time ago.” Colophinanoc had trouble sometimes understanding that kind of statement. He sometimes needed clarification. Colophinanoc wasn’t there, he knew that, and although John talked to himself at the camps, he didn’t talk to his dead friend unless he was at the shrine.
“Anyway, back on Old Earth there were these rock carvings—people and animals and stuff. This was early on, pre-tech, stone-age. And they also have footprints carved into the rocks. People used to think that the footprints, which are life-sized…the other carvings are not, so people thought that they were the footprints of the gods.”
He wasn’t going to try to take a mold of it and make more prints. He had put one of the deep green jade stones in it, in the perfect print. When the rescue ship came, he would take the stone with him, to represent the footprint that represented Colophinanoc.
“But I think that it wasn’t the gods. I think it is the footprints of the departed. Footprints for ghosts. Maybe on special times, equinoxes and solstices and things, the dead could come back and stand in their appointed places.”
He ran his hand along the odd crater that was the second print. The appointed place would have been at the shelter at Crashdown Lake, that’s when he was going to give Colophinanoc the full Coronasol dose.
He and the stupid first aid AI had figured it all out, perfectly. The stupid first aid AI was stubbornly consistent: the Kinri, weakened by an ongoing Sphacelia segmentum fungal infection had caught a secondary bacterial infection–probably a local bug.
It had been working. It had been working perfectly.
The First Aid AI was very insistent, very stubborn on this issue.
He ran his finger along the edge of the first print, careful not to disturb the green Jade stone. As careful as he was, he knew he would ruin the print. Not ruining the print was his religion.
Doctor Chelchenan eased in, side-stepped to the wall opposite. “Kanalacalone has been asking after the human’s—John’s— status.”
“Kanalacalone has approached me as well. As to the human, John, I have been happily surprised by him,” Captain Nenotican said. “I have always heard that humans are very needy. He has hardly said a word. Is he healthy? Healthy enough to go into a met-slow compartment?”
After the Medicated Bear Four disaster, ships of all types from the Five Sentients had been pressed into service for the rescue. She did not want to lose the being they had spent so much time and energy finding, or have him come out of met-slow only to find that some pathogen had been ravaging his body systems.
The doctor considered. “I am about to log my official report. The human John is quite healthy, physically.”
Nenotican thought a few moments. The bell to her door rang again. Chelchenan laid his antennae back, top eyes rolling slightly.
“Come,” the captain said.
The door opened and Kanalacalone, the biologist, stood in the opening. He took a step, saw both the doctor and his captain in the room and stopped at the threshold, walking legs drawing in a bit.
Nenotican, happy they weren’t crowded in the small room together, indicated the doctor with a wave of her antennae. “The doctor has told me you have been asking about the human John.”
Kanalacalone stood a little taller, laced and unlaced his manipulative limbs. “Yes, Captain. The human John has done a great deal of investigation on life forms on Xephon, and since he was marooned in an area that the initial surveys did not cover I am eager to discuss it with him.”
Kanalacalone turned his top eyes to the doctor, adding, “If Doctor Chelchenan believes he is ready for that level of integration.”
Nenotican, knew the ship’s doctor could be touchy if questioned too closely, and the three of them so close together probably didn’t put him in the best mood.
“The doctor was just giving me an update. Doctor?”
“Yes, the human John seems to be very healthy, by human standards.”
The biologist perked up, “And how is he to be around?”
“You could ask him yourself,” the doctor said.
“You know what they say, “talking to a human is like feeding a Cygnus crawler—it will just want more.”
“It appears,” the captain said, “that many of the stereotypes of human behavior are exaggerated. The human John has hardly said a word.”
“It seems that Colophinanoc socialized him quite well,” Kanalacalone said. “Perhaps he can stick to the topics at hand.”
There was one thing that stuck out in Captain Nenotican’s mind. She was no expert on humans… “Should we be concerned about the human John talking so much in its sleep cycle?”
The doctor lifted his antennae and his arms. “I don’t think we need to be concerned. Their brains never quite settle to the first level of consciousness. It is a complicated thing.”
Chelchenan dipped his antennae—annoyance. Whether it was annoyance at the biologist or at the complexity of the human John, Captain Nenotican wasn’t sure.
Doctor Chelchenan perked up. “Still, they all do that; noises and words at that low level of consciousness. Some more than others.”
“This is well,” the captain said.
Kanalacalone took half a step into the room. “Is it well that the human John talks to the AI Citizen number two-five-three-double-nine and to Colophinanoc in his sleep, and that he answers for them?”
“That is a bit more unusual,” the doctor said. “I have done some research and it is common for humans to have imaginary co-workers. Especially in the juvenile phase.”
Not a problem then. That was well.
Kanalacalone worried at a one of his thoracic plates. “Doctor Chelchenan, the human John hasn’t tried to bond with you?”
The biologist thought on it for a while. Captain Nenotican could see his scientific curiosity vie with his worry of being bonded to the human John.
Finally Kanalacalone tilted back. “I may approach him after a few met-slow cycles.”
“That will be well,” said Nenotican.
The biologist left and moment later Doctor Chelchenan followed.
The captain considered: it was well that the rescue of Xephon had gone as planned, it was unfortunate that Colophinanoc had died before they got there, but well that his death was not in any way their fault.
She moved back to the center of her chamber. It was good to be alone again.
Copyright 2018 Adrian Simmons
About the Author
Adrian Simmons is a reader, writer and editor. His essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Internet Review of Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons. His short fiction has popped up in Andromeda Spaceways, and Lackington’s. He is one-third the editorial team of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.