The Waters Above
“You yourself are a government. Over the trillions of tiny organisms which comprise your body” the instructor explained. “When a group of your cells stops working for you, and instead begins to pursue its own goals, we call it cancer.”
I remember Spistl and I had that political theory class together. The only time during the yom that I got to spend with her. Perhaps time has sweetened the memory for me but the way I recall her, there has never been a more beautiful Drakis.
“Now, can there be any good war between one group of your cells and another?” the instructor queried. Everyone angling for a perfect metric in the course set about busily comporting their answers. I got a 56 in the end. But then, she didn’t love me for my brains.
“Of course not. It may sometimes be necessary to arrest the ambitions of cancerous growths, but something had to go terribly wrong in the first place for your body to be at war with itself. This is an adequate simplification of the philosophy which led Grestik Rinsel Krestiful of the Blue Mountains of Lesnar to unify our peoples, some 84,915 yamim ago.”
Mercifully, he did not sing Grestik’s family history. It’s considered a formal necessity given his importance but that particular instructor was fairly relaxed and pragmatic. Adding six hours to the class just to fit the entire song in wouldn’t have meaningfully improved our understanding of Organic Consolidationism.
It’d been my last chance before my completion ceremony to confess my feelings to Spistl. Aside from the fact that her family intended for her to continue at a different educational center, she was nearly at the end of her gender cycle and would be male just a week or so later.
I never worked up the nerve. The prospect of humiliation deterred me. That was when I knew that in my hearts, I’m a coward. Or was. I like to think I’ve become more daring since then. It wasn’t my only poor choice from that stage of my life, though. Neglecting my studies lost me a seat on the desert reclamation council.
The prestige would have guaranteed an income sufficient to handsomely compensate my brood mother. Not to mention lengthening my family’s history song considerably. But because I’d excelled only in the care and cultivation of animals, with an above average score in engineering as well, I was assigned by the Grand Ovum to a position offworld.
“Self pity won’t reverse the chronometer”. Am I that transparent? I do dwell on it more than I should. Elohim Yehova Eiyam of the Tallest Mountain, Lover of Asherah. Project director and highest local authority at this outpost. He never misses a chance to admonish me. Says he pushes me to extract my very best, though I suspect a less noble motivation.
“Atlantes”, The habitat I was tasked with designing resembles a very oblate spheroid. The upper hemisphere is transparent, molecularly engineered hostrem. Only material of sufficient strength that would admit light. The rest of the pressure hull is conventional brisbek. It’s supported up off the seabed by a ring of cylindrical hydraulic legs which automatically adjust to the terrain, even if an undersea geological event should shift its footing.
I am not wrong to feel pride in the design. It is in many ways more difficult than engineering for space. My holistic knowledge of the habitat systems also makes me indispensible to El, and gives me some small leverage over him.
The upper dome is perhaps 3,520 cubits in diameter. About a third as tall. The dropship emplaced the structure shallow enough that some natural light makes it down from above, but not much. Anticipating this, and wanting the subjects to transition as smoothly as possible to the surface following conclusion of our work, I designed an illusory cosmos projected onto the dome.
So it is that each morning the sun appears to rise from the edge of the dome, travel in an arc overhead, then set at the opposite edge in a perfect imitation of what the subjects would see on the surface. There’s also a sprinkler system to simulate rain, and air jets for wind. El, impatient to begin, imported the initial subjects from the surface before the projector was set up. It took me an additional yom to get it working.
I tell him this may confuse them, but he underestimates how aware these animals are. They are ungainly beasts, and, to be fair, simply to look at them you would never guess their potential. Missing a joint in the leg, too many fingers, covered with stretchy, polymer like skin where scales should be, round pupils and a tailbone but no tail. No tail! Somehow they manage.
It was fulfilling to see the fuzzy fellows exploring their new home. New world I should say. The landscape inside an improbably lush, diverse temperate forest of fruiting trees with numerous breathtaking meadows. For their meat intake, there are animals of all kinds, periodically replenished from surface populations. Undoubtedly a paradise for creatures as simple as this.
El was the first to argue before the Grand Ovum for their cultivation. Stereoscopic vision, prehensile digits, upright posture. All the prerequisites to become a technological, space faring species of fully matured conscious moralizers.
Yet despite thinking enough of them to make them a target for our genetic elevation program, he routinely declines to recognize signs of their progress. Worse still he continues to impose strict behavioral rules on them which he claims are to “prime them for rudimentary moralization” but which I suspect were simply intended to make them easier to manage.
Just a single breeding pair were brought down, initially. Sedated for the trip, memories wiped so they might confuse their new surroundings for the surface we’d taken them from. That’s El’s reasoning, again making them out to be dimwits who would never so much as think to explore the habitat all the way to the edge.
“Look at this!” I once told him. He took the etching from me and studied it. “What am I looking at exactly?” It was a crude but recognizable diagram of the habitat. “One of them drew this with a bit of charcoal. They know they aren’t on the surface. They know it’s an artificial structure.” He snorted.
“They do not even know to cover their dangling inseminators. A lucky guess at best, and even then many of these details are wrong. They cannot comprehend our technology and you’re wasting both our time by crediting them with a level of comprehension they’re simply not capable of.”
After the first two reproduced, we introduced others taken from the surface as new mates in order to set about building a viable breeding pool. As our own living space was on a floating platform up on the surface, whenever we had to intervene in any way, it was through drones.
Designed to resemble them but with highly idealized features, each contained a micro traction drive, enabling it to levitate out of danger should they descend into a rage and attack it. A drone with these capabilities is expensive, and we’re already over budget.
Protocol forbids that we should appear to them directly, as knowledge of life outside their own world is not considered necessary or appropriate at their present stage of maturation. Many times I felt tempted to violate this rule. Despite their repulsive anatomy, they quickly grew on me. There is genuine feeling in them, evident when you look in their eyes.
When the first killing occurred, El held it over me as proof that they were less developed than I believe. “To spill each others’ blood, like beasts of the field! And you make them out to be our equals!” I objected to the hyperbole. “All the more reason to accelerate their socialization.” He scratched his scaly snout, harrumphed, but finally approved. “Take care of the body first.”
The simulated natural space of the habitat is named Eedin. But there’s also seven lower decks, Shiol. Mostly space for the life support machinery and backups. But also storage, recycling, drone hangars and so forth. It gets quite hot down there, mostly on account of the machinery.
I sent a drone in to remove the body as the poor little apes looked on in fear, then dragged it down into the open hatch. Which then shut, merging seamlessly with the grassy terrain. It broke my hearts that one of them would do this. Making a fool out of me in front of El, after I’d stood up for them so many times.
If only I could stick around to see them mature. Flourishing due to my guidance at the outset, brains swollen from our genetic tampering, the fundamental rules for functional societies passed down from us as stories told around the fire. As it had been for Drakis.
As I operated the drone, I overheard El reporting the killing to the department of exobiological cultivation. I really should be the one to do that. He’s so blunt and unforgiving. They can do better, I’m certain of it. “In light of this setback I’m recommending that the project be shut down, the habitat removed, and our presence withdrawn from this planet.”
What!? I seethed as I eavesdropped on the exchange. I’d assumed success going in, this project was to be my redemption. I parked the drone in the hangar, began the charging cycle, then went for a swim.
I am not a habitual braggart but I have among the most muscular tails I’ve seen. Spistl certainly found it enticing. She wasn’t with me, however briefly, for my prospects. I pumped it side to side, diving deeper and deeper, my tympanic membranes equalizing along the way. Finally, the dome came into view.
I could see camp fires burning here and there within it. They are prolific story tellers. Standard, for this stage. Their first means of storing information so that it outlasts the death of individual members of their tribe. We were meant to steer their stories, by drone interventions, in a direction that would spare them the worst pitfalls of our own moral development.
Tragically, the most authoritarian interpretation of Organic Consolidationism reigned unchallenged for thousands of yamim. Our nature is to cooperate. To endure hardship, to organize into a chain of command wherever we find ourselves. Hierarchy determined primarily by the length of family histories and the number and significance of achievements therein.
But, we learned the hard lesson many times that to unreservedly support a leader guarantees atrocity. Psychologically it was our tendency to rationalize anything they did. To concoct justifications for the worst abuses our own regime committed against enemy nations, even against our own citizens who objected to war.
As the historical record tells it, Grestik led a populist uprising which toppled the planetary government, then refused to preside over the one which replaced it. He differed from every other charismatic despot before him in that he had within him no craving for absolute power.
Instead, during the aftermath of the war, he oversaw reconstruction and steered it in such a way as to arrest the organization of our society at the level which permitted us the most freedom, and which structurally sabotaged any future attempts to restore totalitarian rule.
Enclaves are capped at a few thousand Drakis, they are ruled by local councils rather than an individual, and subsequent layer upon layer of regional, continental and planetary councils above that, terminating in the Grand Ovum. Which itself is comprised of thousands of accomplished, wise Drakis. Gone are the yamim of a single individual ruling all Drakis, never to return.
In the yamim following this radical restructuring, many upstarts attempted to rouse mass support and undo Grestik’s revolution. All failed. We’d come to recognize the character and rhetoric of such would-be tyrants so intimately that they never get far before they are confronted and punished by the rest of their enclave.
Behavioral scientists reframed the evolution of Drakis morality, separating it into periods before, and after, arrival at maturity. At the ability to consciously moralize. Before, we unconsciously received our definitions of right and wrong from whoever the local warlord was.
We did not truly do what is right, but what we were told is right, out of desire to appease him and fear of punishment. The graduation to conscious moralization takes place when a species can no longer be controlled by threat of punishment and promise of reward.
When they no longer revere power, falling to their knees in awe at the largest army, the most advanced technology, or whatever else. But instead, arrive independently at an understanding of how to coexist harmoniously with one another based on experience, exhaustive thought, and the voice of their hearts.
So, we devised a test to determine the moral maturity of other species. Injecting, during the formative stages of their earliest societies, stories of a great irresistible power who must be obeyed. Who will inflict unimaginable suffering on those who dissent, but reward loyalists who obey his commands unquestioningly with every conceivable pleasure.
They are considered true conscious moralizers when, despite their entire civilization having been devoted to complying with the ultimate authority’s commands, they begin to conclude by studying its deeds that it is morally reprehensible.
Which is to say, determining right and wrong independently, and possessing the courage to defy a universally feared, all powerful being despite the horrific consequences they believe will befall them.
To this end, the account of the irresistible authority we feed them includes stories wherein it commits every kind of barbarism. So long as they continue inventing justifications for those acts, they are a danger. To us and all other intelligent life.
Were they to never progress beyond this stage, they would one yom embark from their planet on a campaign of conquest. Too many go this route. By then, solidified in their worship of power.
Blinkered and stubborn, unwilling to cooperate, unwilling to integrate themselves into the community of spacefaring conscious moralizers. Tragically, most prove impossible to rehabilitate and must be destroyed. Tumors, as the instructor put it.
I won’t let that happen. I see a future for these creatures. They resort to violence too readily, but have also proven to me their capacity for kindness. I have seen them risk their lives to save members of their tribe that are sick, elderly or injured. I have seen them grow weary of war, lay down their arms and intermarry with former sworn enemies. There is good in them.
So, I’ve begun to secretly visit the surface populations. To frontload with advanced knowledge the ones we bring down to breed with the rest. El has not yet grown suspicious of how quickly they have developed mathematics, medicine and astronomy.
The first time I approached them, I feared for my life. How I must look to them. As shocking and repellant as they first appeared to me. Cautiously rising out of the surf as I trudged to shore, females dropping the garments they’d been washing to run in terror.
It is easy to be afraid. To hate, to attack the unfamiliar. It is difficult, and the mark of a great species, to recognize a possible friend and ally. Even if he appears frightening. So it was that a group of their most virile males, brandishing weapons, eventually put them away and began to question me.
I gestured as I’d seen the ones in the habitat do, to indicate that I meant no harm. Vindicating my appraisal of their character, they gradually accepted my presence over many visits. Drawing diagrams for them in the sandy shore. Learning from me the basics of geometry, antibiotics, and the movement of heavenly bodies.
I will always cherish those memories. Proof to myself, even if El can never know, that they are more than he estimates. To those cautious, friendly coastal tribes I was known as Oannes. They presumed I was some sort of sea creature as I always visited by sea, and illustrated me as such.
I have scanned these drawings and hidden them away in my own archives, that I might occasionally warm my hearts with the memories they evoke. I visited a densely jungled continent next, finding their cities less complex and fearing they were not yet developed enough to receive my lessons.
But by partaking of a tea made from a local vine with them, I slowly ingratiated myself to each of their tribal leaders, one after the next. They behaved very strangely during these ceremonies. I suspect the tea does not affect my own physiology in the same way. Thereafter I delivered the same lessons to them as I had the coastal tribes.
They came to know me as Quetzalcoatl. A flying serpent, as I often visited them by air. I worry at their carvings of my traction drive atmospheric shuttle, but I feel certain that by the time they are advanced enough to recognize the significance, they will have long since achieved conscious moralization.
My fears that they might devise similar craft for murderous purposes are most likely paranoia. El rubs off on me. There certainly are times when I become cross with them. They are uncommonly stubborn. Which shouldn’t surprise me as even they recognize this quality in the arboreal primate to which they are most closely related.
So it went that I visited every sufficiently developed settlement I could find. I wore many masks, and received many names. Prometheus. Dagon. Nommo. Delivering basic knowledge they would need to flourish in the coming yamim.
I love them so. Grestik forgive me, I was never supposed to grow this attached. My helpless affinity for simpler creatures is why I always performed so well in cultivation courses. It’s why I’m here. But I fear that when the time comes to leave this world, never again to see their charming, funny, hairy faces, it will break my hearts.
It was on my way back to the observation platform that I hatched my plan. Sudden, drastic improvement was the only way to save them. A leap. Something to humiliate El, and satisfy the department of cultivation that they were ready for release.
“You’re wrong. About all of it. They’re brighter by far than you think, and I’ll prove it to you.” El looked up from his panel and furrowed his ridges at me. “Set the stakes.” I swore that they were on the verge of conscious moralization, and would demonstrate some hint of it within the next ten yamim. If not, I would assume all blame for the failure of the project and purge them myself.
He emitted an irritating guttural laugh. “They’ve only just begun building tools more sophisticated than sharpened sticks. Surely you’re pulling my tail.” I stood my ground and restated the bet.
“...Alright. You know, you’ve got me all wrong. I had high hopes going in. Just as high as yours. I just think they’re fine as they are. Simple, charming animals who can enjoy an idyllic life of naive pleasure, under our guidance and protection. I’m going to recommend to the Grand Ovum that this planet be set aside as a natural preserve, and that it be given over to exobiologists. But imagining that they can be anything more than interesting beasts is pure fantasy.”
My nostrils flared, my crest erected and despite efforts to suppress it, my face changed to an intense red hue. He was on his feet in an instant, talons twitching. “You would erect your crest at me!? Am I truly so intolerable? Have I really ridden you as hard as you pretend, or are you an incompetent cultivator? We both know why you were assigned to this project. I will humor your wager, but advise you to remember your rank, and mine. I will not overlook such a provocation twice.”
I slowed my breathing, calmed myself, and soon my crest was acceptably flaccid. “Here’s how I figure it. If you have any objections you can say so but at this point I don’t care. I’m going to put up a tree in the center of the habitat, in its own clearing. Then I’ll send in the drone I typically use and tell them never to eat from it, or unimaginable suffering will follow.
If they decide, hey, frixp you, that’s an insane punishment for something so trivial, I’ll eat my own tail and admit you were right. If not, you purge the current subjects and this planet becomes the preserve it ought to be.”
I indicated that I found it agreeable. “Ten yamim”, I muttered. He went back to reading the panel, but echoed back “Ten yamim.” I wondered if I should’ve said twenty. But no, I believe in them. It is possible in ten. I read his panel as I exited the room. He was preparing the narrative to be passed to the subjects in the habitat. The test.
He doesn’t even believe they can be more than beasts. The last one who should be writing that. I hoped the lessons I’d taught them in secret would be a counterbalancing influence to whatever dismal screed he was preparing.
While he was engrossed in his work, I dared to swim all the way down to the habitat and enter through an airlock. Supremely uncomfortable at first. The air inside is kept at a slightly higher pressure, unusually rich in oxygen, to promote rapid healing and cogitation. Sure enough, the drones had begun erecting the tree.
I waited while he sent his preferred drone in, voice thundering as the poor little guys cowered. He’s incurably theatrical. Once he left, I made my way towards the tree, pouch of stolen syringes on my belt. Rattling as I walked, as if to indict me.
The serum inside consists of engineered viruses which sweep through their bodies, modifying the DNA in every last cell. As well as potent nootropics to aid in their lessons, and nanomachines to keep them young and in good health. Their lifespans are so regrettably short that if not for the injections we’d not have time to teach them anything substantial.
Normally only tiny incremental enhancements are made. By drones, while they are sleeping. Or slipped into their food. The protocol insists that improvement to their mental faculties be gradual, so if we discover some fundamental psychological flaw which would guarantee that they’ll become a menace, they can be destroyed before they become intelligent enough to effectively resist.
But, I am no longer the coward I was. I refuse ever to fall so short again, to lose what I most cherish for lack of courage. The time for hatchling steps has gone! Now is the time for great bounding leaps. Of trust. Of confidence that they are as I imagine them to be, and may yet join the community of spacefaring conscious moralizers.
One by one, I injected the fruit. The nanomachines would prevent the serum from decaying. The fruit as well. Hardly necessary as I had precious little time to pull off my scheme. I accessed a live feed from the observation platform. El, the oblivious fool, is still busy writing that frightful story.
With everything in place, I wait for one of them to come investigate the tree. She does, but hangs back, troubled look on her face. Memories of the shouting, white robed drone still fresh in her mind. Come on, I thought. You can do it. Prove me right.
But she began to back away. No! “Come closer!” I whispered. She hesitated, perhaps unsure whether she’d heard anything. So I whispered again, my implanted translator converting it to their native tongue. “Come closer. Do not be afraid.” She approached, but slowly, eyes now wide.
“Show yourself!” she demanded. I could hardly refuse if I wanted her to trust me. So I edged out from behind the tree. She gasped. The first time she’s seen one of us in the flesh. “Do not be afraid”, I insisted. Commonly the first thing we tell them by drone too, as protocol recommends it.
Her face contorted in fear as she studied my features. I encouraged her in the least threatening tone I could muster. “Look upon me. Though I appear strange, I mean you no harm.” She seemed unconvinced. “You are not El!” she blurted out.
“No, I am not. But I know him. And I know you. I have watched all of you for a long time. El thinks you should stay like this forever. That we should rule over you, keep you as you are. Like beasts. I tell you, he’s wrong. I’ve seen that you’re more than that. You can become like us.” I had her interest, but not her trust.
“You mean...like El? The all powerful one?” I nodded. “For all the remarkable things you have seen him do, in truth, you could one yom advance to the same stage. No longer our subjects, but our equals.” The idea seemed to simultaneously frighten and thrill her.
“What do I have to do?” she asked, her tone shifting from accusatory to conspiratorial. “Just eat from the tree”, I urged. She recoiled in terror. “El said we must never, ever do that! He said that we will die! That our children, and their children will suffer because of us!” Poor creature. His vulgar display had really done a number on her mind.
“El misled you”, I assured her. “You will not die. I mean, you'll grow old and perish eventually, but that's the way of all living things. Your children will carry on after you. Life will be difficult at first, outside of the habitat. But you’re special. We have changed you, so that you are more like us. Your progeny will bring a new era upon your world. Devise rules to live by, that your kind may live in peace.
In this way, your civilization will grow, advance, and thrive until you are our equals. Sailing the stars in gleaming vessels, cultivating developing species, as we’ve done for you. You will be as we are, in every respect. All you must do is defeat your fear. All you have to lose are your shackles.”
Her eyes wide and full of stars, heart burning with newfound resolve, she reached for the fruit. Her arm quivered, and she stopped short, fear and indecision written on her face. But then, she seized it, and ate. Juice running down her chin, wild look of confidence and abandon in her eyes.
The nootropics did their thing. What I told her sunk in, exploded the limits of her thinking, broadened her horizons. The implications of what I’d done both thrilled and worried me. Soon, she’d summoned a male. “Tell him what you told me!” she begged. So, I did. He’d brought charcoal, so on a piece of bark I etched for him depictions of our spacecraft.
“And we will really one day build such wonders?” he asked, easily more stimulated by the idea the the female was. I smiled. A tear ran down my face. I shot my tongue out to catch it. “You will soar higher than you can imagine. Beyond this world. Beyond the solar system. You will exceed our every expectation. I’m sure of it.”
He whooped, thumped his chest, and ate of the tree. The last I saw of them, they were returning to their tribe, heavy load of freshly picked fruit in tow. I discreetly made my way to the airlock, equalized as it flooded, then ascended to the surface.
It was difficult to behave inconspicuously when El returned. “Strangest thing. Some of the tribes I visited last yom have gotten busy building stone structures that, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say were a means of tracking stars.” I shrugged and shifted my face to light blue, to signal curiosity. “That is strange. Maybe you don’t have them figured out after all.”
I rested in my quarters, tail still sore from all the swimming, and contemplated what I’d done. Just four yamim in. Surely he’d realize I’d rigged it. “Shaitan!” He roared. “Get out here!” I grinned, but quickly composed myself. Doing my best to look bewildered I joined him by the panel.
“You had something to do with this, didn’t you!” I asked that he elaborate. “The little shits already ate the fruit! After I laid it on ‘em, had them pissing their loincloths, they….wait.” He leaned in and scrutinized the panel more closely. “They’re wearing loincloths now! You taught them to make those, didn’t you!?” I swore my innocence.
“I told you they were making rapid improvement. You just never took it seriously. If I’d interfered, the subjects would be much further along than the surface populations. But haven’t you seen for yourself that they’re advancing in tandem?” He fumed, but a thoughtful demeanor soon came over him.
“So, when are you gonna eat your tail?” I quipped. His eyes locked with mine, slits narrowing. “I don’t know how you did it. I still think you pulled something. But it does look as if they disobeyed me. And I suppose I really didn’t expect their mathematics or medicine to be this far along, so soon. I….”
He puffed up his chest, struggling to concede. “I guess you’ve won. You saw something in them I didn’t. That means we’re done here, though. Time to set 'em free.” My hearts sank. I hadn’t thought ahead that far. Helping them cheat the test only meant I’d have to leave them sooner.
Following ascent preparations, the ballast tanks of the Atlantes purged, and it began to rise from the seafloor. Groaning as its considerable mass displaced water above it, hull flexing as the pressure outside rapidly decreased. At last, it breached the surface, and the dome retracted. It was the work of an hour to tow it close enough to shore that the astonished inhabitants could safely reach it.
“I cast you out!” El thundered, through his favorite drone. White beard flapping about in the salty breeze, white gown rippling around the drone’s muscular anatomy. “I commanded that ye not eat of the tree! What did you do, but disobey? Now I condemn you to leave this paradise, never to return!
Instead you shall till the soil for your meals! Childbirth will be performed naturally! You will wander the barren plains, growing old and expiring, cursing the yom that you presumed, in all of your foolishness, to defy my mastery over you!” Really has a flair for delivery. Sometimes wonder if he should have been an entertainer.
I watched the simple boats we’d built them slowly recede away from the surfaced habitat. Sorrowful, but also hopeful. Like a brood mother watching her hatchlings leave the nest. Once I returned to the observation platform, I found El furious, hunched over his panel. “Finishing up the test?” I inquired.
“If you cheated somehow…” I swore again that I hadn’t. He eyed me with suspicion and continued questioning me for a time, but eventually dropped it. “You are almost done with the moral test though, right? We’ve released them already. Protocol says to inject it within a yom of their egress from the habitat, so they still remember-”
“I know!” he growled. “Don’t you lecture me about protocol. I’ll write the frixping narrative!” He fell silent. When next he spoke, the inflection was mischievous. “....Oh I’ll write the narrative, you can be sure of that. However I like. I’ll even include you.” I told him that was hardly necessary, but an appreciated gesture, and began packing my things.
The dropship arrived the next yom, securing the massive habitat and painstakingly lifting it out of this planet’s impressive gravity well. Then a shuttle came for me. El’s going to remain behind for a bit, to deliver the test. There is no doubt within me that they will pass it.
I have taught them well. And I had good clay to sculpt from to begin with. They are sweet, kind, compassionate creatures. Now more than ever. I’ve recommended that a camouflaged probe be deployed in their system’s asteroid belt, listening for eventual radio transmissions.
Waiting. Hiding. Eavesdropping. For indications that they’ve become the conscious moralizers I always knew they could be. When that yom comes, the probe will call us to return, welcoming them into the community. Knowing their gentle hearts as I do, I feel certain I will still be alive to see it.