Sage of Saggitarius
“Do we need to get landing clearance, or what? This is our second orbit.” Zila was wearing out a path in the bridge carpet between Alon and Efar.
“According to our nav AI they don’t have radio yet. No way to ask for landing permission. They live near oceans. Efar, what do you say we just set down someplace near an ocean?”
“This space yacht is no helicopter. It lands heavy and makes a mess on takeoff from inside a gravity well. Commander?”
“Don’t ‘Commander” me! I know you’re just passing the buck and you know I know squat about this planet.” The planet in question, Riscid in the nav log, rolled below, a lovely blue, green and white sphere. Sensors showed a mid-latitude temperature of 18 Celsius, breathable air, and a gravity of 85% g. As they passed the night side, a reddish Type M star rose over a partly cloudy atmosphere. A small moon could be seen near the sunset terminator. There would be equally small tides. All in all, thought Zila, not a bad choice for refugees. And there were sentients there!
“Length of the day is 21.2 standard hours, length of the year is 103 local days.” Alon announced. “Logged visits roughly every local year in the last ten standard years. That’s as far back as the nav log goes. All from the Great Sage fleet.” Alon looked up from his display. “That means the Sage does business here.”
“Sounds too benign to be a challenge sufficient to evolve a sentient race.” Zila tapped her lower lip, a habit of hers when she was working on a problem. “But the energy signature is there, and this is certainly a Goldilocks planet.”
“What does that mean, Zila?”
“Oh, Scotty, I didn’t see you come onto the bridge. Any problem?”
(Note: Scotty is not human. He is a Priest of the Great Sage, and his native name is unpronounceable. He is ship's Engineeer, thus the nickname, "Scotty".
“Not yet, but if you are planning to put this ship down on a muddy seashore there will be. I came up to find out.”
“Looks like a rocky outcrop near the seashore down there.” Efar pointed to his pilot’s display and zoomed in until the image began to blur from atmospherics. “Let me make one more orbit and see that spot in different illumination so I can get some idea of the terrain. It’s not far from the sunrise terminator now. A couple hours should tell the tale.”
“Ok, as your esteemed and duly appointed commander I hereby command you to do whatever. Just don’t squish my kiddies.”(Note: Zila and her husband, Manny, have two kids on board, Leah and Vin, 3 and 5 years old, respectively.)
Efar chuckled. “Aye aye, Commander.” Alon kept a stony face. Zila went to find Manny and strap in the kids.
Zila sat in her command chair during the descent, watching Efar sweat down a vehicle that was never intended for such use. As they passed through the upper layer of clouds, what would be cirrus clouds in Earth, the ship began buffeting wickedly. Manny was in the kids cabin and Scotty was down in the engine room. “Down” was now a real word. Her display read “82% g”. It would stop at 85%, she remembered. Not far to go. Just hold on for a while. She pushed the intercom button, “Manny, everything OK?”
“OK so far.”
“Not much further, just hold on a little longer.”
“Efar, how do you manage to land at spaceports like Miami?”
“This ain’t no spaceport. Miami has an automated landing system. I just turn everything over and their AI talks to our AI and it goes pretty smooth. I’m good, but nothing comes close to an AI’s reaction time. I’m always playing catch up with attitude, speed, drift, position. By the time I’ve got one on spot the others are off.”
“Oh. I better let you get on with it.”
It took a few minutes for the rock dust blasted upward by their exhaust to settle. Zila watch how Efar switched to sensor screens all around the ship to survey their location. Their plasma exhaust had glassified a fifty meter swath of what looked like granite, and they now sat in a shallow glass bowl. It was still before local noon.
“Alon, how far do you figure we are from the most likely settlement?”
“A half hour walk if the way isn’t too rough. Shipsuits and knapsacks.”
“Efar, can you bring your sword, Glimmer? And Scotty, you should wear your Priest-Seeker clothes and maybe carry a weapon as well?”
“I agree, Zila.”
“OK, guys. Alon, you and Manny and the kids stay here and listen for us, in case we get into any trouble. Let’s lower the ramp.”
Zila, Efar and Scotty climbed down to the embarkation deck. She thought that “down” was still a remarkable thing. The outer airlock door opened and the floor unfolded to become a ramp. The ramp extruded itself to the ground. It was pretty steep, but she noticed there were ribs in it, like the Miami marinas used on docking ramps. The outer airlock closed, sealed and tested itself. On command, the inner airlock door cycled and they entered. There was plenty of room. The outer door opened and they were surveying a blasted rocky outcrop from a height of five meters. She led them down the ramp. There was that “down” thing again. How long would it take her to get used to living in a gravity well again? Zila reshouldered her back pack and shot her arm out toward the direction of their march. The air smelled like burnt rock with a slight tang of sulfur. “Brimstone, I’ve led my family and crew into Brimstone Terr-it-tory” she sang.
Efar laughed, but then he pushed ahead of her and took the lead. She followed the hilt of Glimmer to the muddy shore. Even accustomed as her muscles were to ship gravity, it wasn’t a tiring walk. As they approached, the brimstone smell was replaced by the familiar iodine of seaweed.
Scotty followed dutifully behind, resplendent in his shiny robe.
Efar held out his hand to stop them. He pointed. There was a rounded object in the soft, rather muddy, soil ahead of him. It was painted. As she watched. Others rose slowly. They were surrounded.
“That’s them – the Riscids.”
But nothing further happened. She thought, a diplomat must be patient. And she was, for about another half hour. To hell with this, she thought. She slipped past Efar and went up to the first object. It was a shell. It looked damned tough and she could not see an opening. She went right up and knocked on it. “Knock, knock, I’m Zila, Priest Seeker from the Great Sage.”
The smallest of cracks appeared around the shell. A thin stalk extruded. A blue eye formed on the end of the stalk. At least she thought it was an eye. She beckoned Scotty forward. The eyestalk turned in every direction to take them all in, and went back to Scotty. The shell popped open a bit more. A few more eyestalks came out and looked around, in an independent cross-eyed fashion. Then an obvious head extruded, looking much like a turtle’s head. Two more extrusions pushed out the back. The creature rocked back, revealing a lower shell a bit more rounded and deeper than the top shell.
“Hello, I’m Zila. Perhaps you saw my ship land? Do you have a name?”
(Note: Zila wears translators - a precious gift from the Great Sage.)
The shell spoke. “Oh, we saw your ship land. There was no way to miss it. Of course it could have been a volcano. Why do you think we’re all zipped up tight here? Who did you say you were again? Hard to hear through a sealed shell, you know.”
“I’m Zila from the Great Sage.”
“The Great Sage, you say? Yep, that’s a Priest. But your kind we never saw before. I’m Brooss.”
“I’m a human from Earth, a distant planet spinward from here in this spiral arm. But I’m also a Priest in the service of the Great Sage. How come you were surprised? I know the Sage’s ships call here regularly.”
“Not on this continent. They land across the narrow sea. You could have cooked us all.”
Oops, a very bad start for diplomacy. Try again, girl.
“We have creatures on our planet that look a bit like you. We call them turtles.”
“Really? Can you show us a picture? We are a very curious group here. We were having a joke session when you blasted down.”
Joke session? Right. Picture? Check. Portable display should be in the knapsack. She pulled it out, poked at it for a few seconds and held it out to Brooss. A frond popped out and grabbed it. It was very fine, but remarkably strong for something that looked like a cross between a fern and tentacle. Another shell opened, then another. Creatures propped themselves up and sledded forward, pushing with their hind protrusions. Brooss passed the picture around.
“We have a bit of humor about that turtle, named Myrtle. Want to hear it?”
Heads extruded ever further, “Yes, yes”.
“Turtle in her shell, how can you tell? How can Myrtle the Turtle, in such a fix, be so fertile?”
Heads moved in and out, in and out, and a slowly the audience began to make a rhythmic sound, “Tick, tick, tick” like a very loud cheap alarm clock. Zila looked at Scotty, who still had no readable expression. Efar was chortling quietly. “The translation device has no words for this, but I think they are laughing.”
“Mating is always a good subject for humor. Maybe we should be glad that you came to the wrong continent. Even if your humor does not translate well, at least you have a sense of humor. None of the other Priests ever did. How do they ever find a mate?”
“They have an invisible shell that prevents humor AND mating, Brooss.” And may Scotty never hear this translated into any language he knows.
The ticking this time was instantaneous. Heads popped in and out and eyestalks went around and around.
Having made the rounds, Brooss handed back her display. “You are a human, you said? How do humans mate?”
“Very often and not often well.” More ticking. “Then our babies start out helpless and take a long time to grow up, and by then their parents have grown down and they are helpless. So the babies take care of the parents and world goes around again.” Not much ticking there. They are a tough audience, and you are not a stand-up comic. Face it girl.
“We have that same name as yours on Earth. A person named Bruce is strong and bold and a leader.”
“Here it means the one whose shell snaps shut first.” Much ticking.
“Is mating here sometimes a lot of trouble, Brooss?” Light ticking.
“Hah, it could not be MORE trouble. Do you know how we mate?”
“I would like to hear of it. I’m a biologist.”
“When a male and a female decide to mate, first they stop eating to lose mass.”
“Sounds familiar so far.”
“Then they go to a very safe place.”
“So do we.”
“Then one partner gets out of his or her shell and slides into the other partner’s shell.”
“Wow, talk about living together. Who does the decorating?” Lots of ticking.
“There they stay until the kids climb out of that shell, which could be a year.”
“What happens to the empty shell?”
“You see the problem. A lot can happen to a shell in a year. Then there’s the question of who gets to move into the abandoned shell and who gets to keep the shared shell, which is always the better maintained and usually the larger one?”
“And what happens if they don’t agree? You can’t have adversaries living in the same shell, can you?”
“Oh, yes you can. Whatever you can imagine, happens. If you can’t laugh at it, you can’t live with it. Your mate has to have a great sense of humor.”
“When we are sprats we return to the sea to eat and grow our shells. Once we are adults, those shells are harder than rock and they seal very tight. We can adjust our buoyancy and sink to the lowest depths of an ocean, or rise to the top, or live out on the land. Nothing on this planet can crack a shell. We can live days without food, water or air in our shells. So there is no way to punish a mate or a thief who steals a shell. And we live a long, long time.”
“You could pass a spaceship over them.”
Silence. Heads retracted into shells and eyestalks disappeared.
“Not One Bit Funny, Zila Human. But, you could not know. The only punishment we have is to roast them. It is a terrible, slow painful death. I will not talk about it now.”
“I am deeply apologetic. I am still young for a human, and not experienced as a true diplomat. In fact, the Great Sage chose me for quite a different mission.”
“Ah, the Great Sage. Another sentient with no humor.”
“That is not true, Brooss. The Great Sage has showed me a strange but rich sense of humor.”
“Wait. You were WITH the Great Sage? In person?”
“For many days. He worked with me to form this mission. Do you see these?” Zila pointed to her translation disks. “He made these for me. He made them in his stomach. They allow me to understand and to talk to just about any sentient.”
Shells opened again. Heads and eyestalks popped out and peered around.
“Tell us more about the Great Sage.”
“He is much larger than humans, about the size of that boulder over there. He has no eyes or ears, but hears through his feet and with an implant. His memory is in his belly. He is thousands of your years old. He has been very kind and generous to me and my mate. Why is that so important to you?”
“Because the Great Sage owns about 25% of the best businesses on this planet. No one has ever met him or described him. His Priests come here to collect trade goods and proceeds and we never have any discourse with them. And you say he has a sense of humor? What kind of humor?”
“Do you see this patch on my shipsuit? The two scrolled curves? He has two tongues. I have only one tongue, and it’s short. (She sticks it out. ) His are longer than this (she stretches out both arms). This logo is his symbol, and it’s his two tongues rolled in opposite directions, like this (she stands sideways puts her arms on top of each other and curls her hands in opposite directions). On my world, sticking your tongue out is a sign of rebellion and disrespect. He knew that. He is sticking his tongues out at the whole galaxy.”
Not much ticking but lots of head bobbing and eyestalk movement.
“It doesn’t translate as humor to us. But that coloring you have, that is not you but some sort of covering?”
“Yes. It’s a shipsuit, for creatures without such impenetrable shells as yours it gives us some protection from heat and cold.”
“I would like to see what you look like underneath it, please.”
Dammit, she was blushing furiously. She could only hope that her crew, standing behind her, didn’t see that. Zila was no prude, but how did it always seem to come to this?”
She reached into her knapsack and took out the spoon-like gadget that came with the suit. “Efar, Scotty, please turn around. I’m taking one for the Company.”
She unsealed the top of the suit and let it hang down. A frond popped out and touched the fabric. Another frond touched her nipple. She shivered, partly from the cold, partly from the touch.
“What is this for?” Brooss touched her nipple again.
“For feeding babies.”
“Humans are far more alien than we could ever imagine. Whatever holds you all together in there?”
She zipped up her shipsuit. Let the guys stand backwards as long as they could.
“Will you tell us some more about the Great Sage?”
“I can tell you a little. Every sentient must tell his own story.
“The Great Sage came from some place very far away, maybe not even from this galaxy. As I told you, he has no eyes, ears or vocal organs but hears through a device implanted in his huge head and through his feet. Yet he instantly knows who you are and what you need. His knowledge and understanding are way beyond any creature we know. ”
Brooss interrupted, “And, of course he is very wealthy. He purchased maybe 15% of the best businesses on our planet and managed to finagle another 10%. He will bargain us out of our shells if we let him. Up until now we doubted he was real, or perhaps he was really a group of sentients. I suppose we should get on with your tour of the Great Sage industries near us.”
“Tomorrow will be soon enough for that. For now, I have a simple request.”
“Do you know what DNA is?”
“The tiny thread of life in every cell? That is the most basic biology. We are well beyond that.”
“I need a tiny sample of your DNA, hopefully from a few individuals. It will be painless.”
“Painless like three mates in a shell, or painless painless?”
“No pain, no damage.”
“Hobva, slide over here.”
A shell in the back row pushed through the mass of nearer shells and came up to Zila.
“Show Hobva the sampling tool.”
Zila held out a cotton swab, hiding the needle sampler on the other end. Hobva said quietly, “I allow it” and opened his shell. There was nothing like a turtle’s curved spine or any visible bones at all. They looked more like the mantle of a conch, and the inside of the shell was a pearly nacre. Zila swabbed the cotton and jabbed the mantle. Hobva seemed fine with it all. She stowed the sample in her sampling vial and got out another.”
“Brooss will allow.”
She processed Brooss and four others.
“Which of these are female and which are male?”
“I am female, Hobva is male. We are former mates. Of the others you have equal males and females. It should be a sufficient DNA sample. Why do you want it?”
“It is my real mission. We are tracing the tree of life to its roots. We are studying how sentience develops all over the galaxy.”
“A worthy mission, human. May you return to instruct us when you have the answers.”
She waved her arms over the assembled group. “Goodbye for now. Tomorrow is another day.” Moderate ticking ensued. She hoisted her pack and led off down the trail.
“Looks like you got what you want. Tough job you have. Zila the stripper diplomat.”
“Don’t even go there, Efar. I was ready to have you do it.”
“Sorry, not the way I meant it.”
“And NEVER mention it to Manny.” She glared at Efar, and Scotty just so he didn’t feel left out.
They were back in the ship an hour before a glorious sunset.
“What was your impression of the Riscid turtles?” Manny was lounging in the galley with pancakes made from a powdered mix that was still in good supply. Zila was still half asleep and one cup of coffee did not seem enough. She was trying to clear her mind enough to plan the day’s outing, or “corporate inspection” as the Riscids would call it.
“More like oysters than turtles. They even have blue eyes on the end of their eyestalks. Pass the coffee, please.”
“Hmm. Are they safe? I mean, is there a threat of violence?”
“I’m sure they have weapons, but if you come with a shell like an armor-plated hickory nut, you don’t really need a strong offensive weapon, do you?”
“No, it doesn’t seem worth the time and energy on this level of technical civilization. By the way, I finished analyzing their DNA, first level analysis, anyway.”
“Eukaryotes, obviously. 40 chromosomes, one of which may be a shortened chromosome like the human Y chromosome. The codes for unzipping the chromatin for meiosis are there, just like ours, with a SNIP here and there to show a long and quite separate evolution from us. Repair enzymes, double lipid cell layer, telomeres, all there. Genetically they are mollusks, as you would think from their oyster-like insides, but they have only about 55 percent of known mollusk operons. Still, that is an amazing result for a species that has never shared an ocean with anything on Earth.”
“Manny, you are best thing that ever happened to me. You have taught me biology in so many different ways…”
“Z, the kids are still asleep, and I don’t see anyone from the crew.”
“Umm, hold that thought for later.” Z dropped her eyes and stared down at her hands. “I’d like to take the kids out to see the Riscids. With you there, of course.”
“WHAT! Do you have any idea what the risks are? No, wait. You want the Riscids to see human offspring. Don’t you? No way, Z, those are my kids, too. Too dangerous. We didn’t save them from the nutsos on Earth to have them swallowed up in the shell of some oversized clam.”
“Aren’t you curious, too? We could have Efar stand by with a weapon.”
“What’s Efar going to do, clang his fancy sword against one of those impervious shells? How the hell is Efar going to do anything useful?”
“Well, how about letting Efar guard them a safe distance away and have Alon stand by with a laser?” She began to pout. It was her best argument.
“How about Alon and I each guard one kid at a distance I think is safe, and we will each snatch a kid and run like hell at the first sign of anything weird.”
That earned him a hug and several kisses.
So Vin and Leah were packed into hastily made kid carriers and trundled out to the Riscid meeting area by mid-morning. The place was packed with mounds of shells, with an occasional eyestalk showing. Manny, with Vin, and Alon, with Leah squirming and pointing, stayed well back. Zila and Scotty, in his robes, went forward. Efar held the fort.
“That one with the red and yellow paint slash. That’s Brooss.
The designated shell popped open and extruded a head and two stout pusher feet. Brooss extruded a complaint, “About time you showed up. We’ve all been waiting patiently, staring at the inside of our shells.” Moderate ticking.
“That’s their laughter, that ticking sound.” Z called back to Manny. Vin was standing up in his carrier trying to take in everything at once.
From somewhere under her, Brooss exhumed a kind of bowl with a series of rollers under it. She plopped her undershell into the declivity in the bowl. It fit perfectly. Zila could see that these shells were not as clumsy as she originally thought. Two tentacles came out of the shells and attached themselves to rough areas on each side of the bowl, securing it to the lower shell. Brooss pushed off on her personal roller sled and twisted her head back to call, “Follow me and watch the mud.”
Off she went, followed by a dozen more sled pushers, followed by Zila, huffing and puffing, and Alon and Manny struggling valiantly in the rear. Vin kept yelling “Giddyup!” and Leah Lee just shrieked.
“Are those your human sprats?”
Breathless, Zila replied, “Mine and Manny’s. That’s my mate in the back with our male offspring, Vinnie, and our daughter, Leah. Who are you?”
“I thought you would recognize me. I’m Hobva, Brooss’s last mate.”
“Your ex-mate has quite a sense of humor.”
“I am flattered by such high praise, but you have to live with her to really understand her humor. She can be quite the drama queen.”
Can that be an accurate translation? Better leave it just lie there. “Do you have a specialty, Hobva?”
“I’m a bio-engineer. I make new creatures, or put useful parts in old creatures.”
“Wow. My mate, Manny, is a gene designer. Maybe you and he can compare notes. Oh, wait, I’m the only one here with these translation disks that can speak your language.”
“We can draw pictures.”
“Hobva, do you have seasons or life cycles that alternate living on land with living in the sea? Manny says you are really sea creatures, from looking at your DNA.”
“He got all that just from our DNA? I DO have to talk to him! Well, he is right. We used to spend more time in the sea, but there are parasites and a few tiny chewing things that get into our shells. They cluster around the seals and get in as soon as we crack an opening. The parasites are fatal, but the chewers are a misery. Both are more active this time of year. So we live on land this season.”
“Do you have knowledge of electricity, and the nature of light?”
“We have studied electric creatures in the sea. We make lenses to bend light for microscopes and telescopes. We think there is a lot more to know, but electric experiments must be done on dry land, very dry land. It’s uncomfortable.”
“Oh, that explains a lot. When we came here we thought you might be able to talk to us by radio. I guess you don’t have radio yet.”
“A way to talk at very long distances.”
“But we already do that with little molecules in the water or air. How do you think we knew you were here and when to meet you?”
How stupid of me to underestimate these sentients. Oversized clams, indeed! “Maybe we can find a way to help you communicate where there is no air or water, like space.”
“THAT would be most useful to keep your ship from baking us accidentally.”
They were on a beach near a shallow, muddy estuary. There was an island covered in brilliant green something not far from shore. The pack of Riscid shells were parked in a semicircle around the humans’ group.
“If you stay on the stepping stones you will not have to go through the mud. We make green fiber for the Great Sage on that island.”
Zila carefully explored the first stepping stone with her foot and put her weight on it. It held. She proceeded out a way and beckoned to Manny. The Riscids just sledded across the mud beside the stepping stones. There was a ridge down the bottom shell that acted like a skid. Every shell had a few eyestalks out, and a head protruded here and there.
Zila stepped on what looked like a large stone. It was like standing on ice. Down she went, into the mud, almost hip deep in it. So did Manny, behind her, with Vin strapped on his back. He went down flailing his arms and trying not to fall backwards.
Ticking erupted all around them. It went on some time. The damned overgrown clams had played them for a pratfall! After she stopped being too angry to think, she floundered in the thick mud to see if Vin and Manny were safe. Manny was digging mud out of his hair, his mouth and his pants. Vin was being a true boy-child and throwing himself backwards in it and jumping off the stepping stones over and over again.
“Here, let me help you get that mud off. Turn around.” Manny climbed up on a stone and pulled off his shoes to scrape out the mud there. The ticking went on and on. Just as Manny managed to get himself reasonably mud free, he slipped and went down again. The ticking redoubled in volume. Every shell had a head waving around in circles, moving in and out. They had pulled off the Perfect Prank on the diplomatic visitor from the Great Sage and it was a legend that would be passed down for generations.
Zila went after Vinnie, who she thought was safe on one of the stones. NOOO! He was riding on a Riscid like it was a Galapagos tortoise in the park!
And the Riscid, whoever it was, was enjoying it! Fronds held Vinnie gently on the shell while flipper-feet churned madly. The shell made a furrow in the mud at about the speed of a good marathon runner. Never underestimate a sentient in their own environment! Never underestimate a five-year-old boy!
Eventually, Hobva, came pulling a shallow sled that had many of the features of a Riscid’s lower shell, with ramp to make entrance easy. Zila and Manny rode on the mudsled while Vin got a shellback ride. Hobva and another Riscid with a brilliant yellow shell decoration pedaled the mudsled with their back “feet” and it moved smoothly through the mud to the green island. It landed on a short shelf of harder clay with a bump.
“This is one of our key crops for the Great Sage. It is a kind of sea grass we have mutated into a source of very soft, strong fibers. We are told that it is the source of the long coverings that many Priests wear over their skins.”
“Wow. I have a dress made of that. Wonderful stuff!”
Brooss than went into such lengths over the yield, tonnage, scheduling, history and the next several years production planning that Zila’s eyes rolled back into her head. “Enough, Brooss, you must be an accountant.”
“I am the one that prepares all the numbers for the Great Sage’s sea grass in this continent. Yess!” Her eyestalks waved wildly, which Zila took as a sign of pride.
“Are you ready for the next tour?”
“Thanks, Brooss, I think the kids need a break and we will return them to the ship.” Zila was NOT going to give them another opportunity to top the last pratfall. Little Vinnie, however, covered gloriously with mud, complained about being removed. Zila took him firmly by the arm and stuffed him, mud and all, back into Manny’s backpack.
Finally out of the mud and into clean clothes, Manny pointed out the salon portal to a large yellowish mound not far away. “That doesn’t look natural. Mind of I just check that out? Efar, want to take a short walk?”
“If you like. That looks like mine tailings to me.”
“Yeah, me too. Wonder what kind of mine is being worked by sea creatures?”
Efar strapped on his back scabbard with Glimmer and led the way. It was only a few minutes easy walk to the pile. Manny took a sample in a small vial and they returned to the ship without any further adventure.
“Seems pretty heavy for dirt. Let’s see what the lab instruments have to say about it.” Manny prepped the sample for the infrared reflectometer and mass spectrometer, saving half the sample for further analysis in case anything interesting showed up. He let the automated instruments work and went to the salon.
“Not a bad culture, actually.” Alon nibbled on a sandwich that oozed red sauce.
“I’ve seen a lot worse. I could almost like these turtles, except for their pratfall humor. But I remember my military combat instructor used to laugh before he beat me up. Sort of takes the fun out of humor, you know.” Efar had some kind of smelly cheese on toast that only he seemed to enjoy.
“It takes a lot of courage to make fun of a hostile universe. That is truth.” Everyone turned to Scotty, amazed that he would volunteer such a statement.
Manny nodded his head. “I agree. That is a truth, not just a Riscid truth.” Everyone agreed and the salon was silent while the rest of the meal went down.
Manny left early to check the progress of the automated analyzers. He looked at the results in shock and ran back to the salon. Zila and Efar were still there.
“You know that pile of stuff we sampled? You’ll never guess what it is.”
“OK, enlighten us, O Wizard of the Lab.”
“I bet it’s a trash pile.”
“It’s gold. 95% AU. 22 carat gold. About a megaton of it.”
“Wow. We’ve got to find out more about that tomorrow. Now, remember, it belongs to the Riscids. No stealing!”
“Damn your high ethics, Zila. I could retire and pilot a ship of my own with a sack full of that.”
“No, you would need a few tons, and you would look damn suspicious trying to buy a ship with almost pure gold. Down, boy!”
In spite of Zila’s warnings, everyone was anxious for an early start, even Scotty, who must have found out from Efar.
“Guys, let me do the negotiations. That’s supposed to be my job. OK?”
“Sure, go to it.”
Hobva met them at the ramp after a short wait. “Good to see you, human Zila. I have to show you my own project today. You will be impressed.”
“Does it involve slippery rocks and mud?”
“Tick, tick, tick. No mud. No rocks. I promise. Tick, tick tick.”
“OK. Please lead on Hobva. Oh but wait. I’m curious about that pile of stuff over there. What is it?”
“Oh, nothing important. That’s just waste product. We are algae eaters. We have gills inside our shells to strain seawater for algae, but when we are on land we use a kind of machine gill. It pumps seawater and extracts algae and other foods. The minerals that cannot be digested are emitted as a waste product. That is one of them. Sorry for spoiling the view.”
Zila could hear Efar trying to swallow his tongue. “Hobva, that mineral is worth something to the Great Sage. Will you sell some of it to us?”
“Sell it? I would pay you to take it away, but wait, Brooss, my ex-mate, is supposed to be our accountant as well. What will you trade for my weight in waste product?”
Zila consulted with Efar in English. “How many radios do we have on board?”
“If you count the marker beacons, we have several hundred.”
“Hobva, do you remember my telling you about radio? It will let you talk long distance and even in space, where no small communications molecules will work.”
“Yess, that was an interesting thing. It would be useful. It would be useful, yess.”
“I will offer you enough radios for all your needs in this village for as much of that waste product as we can carry. Do you need to consult with Brooss or any others?”
“For a deal like that? No. It is done. We will need (a nest of filaments sprouted from his shell) that many radios. Can you provide them?”
Zila looked at Efar, who was still counting filaments. “We can deliver.” His grin nearly split his face.
The surprise of this highly profitable transaction set a happy tone for the rest of the excursion. “Meaning and Profit,” indeed.
Hobva sledded ahead and brought the group to a building much larger than anything they had seen among the Riscids so far. Swarms of shells were involved in work gangs around the building and constantly moving through the open arched entrance. Not surprisingly, Zila discovered the building was adobe, sunbaked mud with plant fibers in it. It took a while for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light inside. There was an enormous bulging object.
Hobva was literally dancing around in excitement. “This is the Vind Ov. My creation!”
Zila walked cautiously around it. It seemed to be about 30 meters across and roughly oval. She knocked on the surface – it seemed familiar but she could not place it. A little further and she came into view of a portal, and suddenly the image snapped together. “I’ll be damned. Hobva, it’s a space ship! Your people are going into space!”
“Yess, yess, yess! Do you recognize the shape?”
Zila walked around a bit more. It was hard to see more than just the rounded bottom, and then she knew. What could be safer for a Riscid? It was a giant shell. But how did they make such a seamless object without high tech methods?
“It’s a giant shell. But how did you make it? I don’t see any seams.”
“I’m a genetic engineer, like your mate. I invent new organisms. I grew this shell, but it is not like a living shell inside. It has life support and propulsion. And now it has radio!”
“This is a great achievement, Hobva, for you and for your entire kind. We are honored to meet a people that are just now becoming space-faring. But,” she had a mischievous twist to her mouth, “I know this is just a way to get three people in a shell.”
The ticking began slowly, but it spread until the whole building sounded like a bunch of runaway clocks. Hobva extruded a ring of feelers and his eyestalks turned round and round.
They stowed as much gold as the ship could carry safely and took off. “How much booty did we get, aaarrr?”
“About 100 metric tons, worth about 4 billion international credits. We hardly touched that pile.”
“Well, it will be bigger if we ever get back there.”
“Remember, guys, we have a mission. I don’t know how much an Allurion seed is worth, but I bet we didn’t make enough to pay for this one. Wisdom of Sage is an emissary, not a trader.”