By Steve Bowers (2017)
The great drogue parachute that had carried my lander to the surface suddenly opens a thousand vents and collapses. With a very short puff of retro rockets the lander is on solid ground. Nice touch-down, I think; and it is a beautiful day in this location, here on the surface of this unnamed world.
That is to say, it has no name in the gazetteers except a soulless catalog number (which happens to be JD 2666201c, if you are interested). I do know that it is inhabited, and I also know (thanks to the catalog) which great Power claims this world for its own, but little more. This little speck is just one planet among millions of similar worlds in our corner of the galaxy, worlds which had been altered by extreme technology to resemble Old Earth in climate if not in geography. So many worlds that a few are forgotten backwaters, never visited by outsiders.
Just the sort of world that I specialise in.
You might call me an anthropologist; me, I prefer to call myself a *humanologist*. There are plenty of intelligent species out there to study nowadays, most of which have been developed from the wildlife of our ancient homeworld; I like to specialise in those species which have developed from humans. A pretty varied bunch, I can tell you; I am not included in this set myself, so perhaps my perspective is a little skewed.
So, humanologist, here is a world about which the outside universe knows nothing, except that it is believed to hold a human derived species, and it is a protectorate of the isolationist Utopia Sphere. If the Sphere archai permit me to make contact with the population here, and to leave with my memory and research materials intact, this world could supply some excellent academic fodder. A long shot, perhaps, but that is what I do.
Outside the lander there stretches a steppe-like parkland; a little dry and scrubby, but pleasantly warm. A few grazing animals can be seen about a kilometre way. They had been closer until the retro's fired, but this sort of craft makes minimal fuss when it puts down, so they hadn't gone too far. Perhaps a sweep with a broad spectrum scope might turn up a couple of locals. Why not; I've always been lucky.
Yes; there they are; quite distant, hiding behind some unknown species of scrub. Big eyes too, under heavy brows; they probably have good eyesight, so don't need to come any closer. Well, I'll give them something to look at.
Check the breather; yes, the atmosphere is fine for my kind, a little thin perhaps. I open the door at the top of one of the landing legs, and swing to the ground. No ladder of course; my kind laughs at ladders.
A great slap of my hands on the ground in front of the landing site, which is my way of celebrating planet fall; this display raises a cloud of dust, and that should be visible to my eagle-eyed observers.
Next I hold my long arms up in an open gesture — 'Look, no weapons'.
Not true of course — the lander has plenty of firepower and a deadly launch motor (to get me back into orbit it needs quite a bit of punch). In a pinch I could get it to take off and hover over any opponent's location- that would maroon me here, of course, at least until the backup lander comes to my rescue.
But here, in the peaceful Utopia Sphere, I hope that will not be necessary. I anticipate that the natives of this world will be friendly, or at least sophisticated enough to welcome me. The Sphere never gets involved in conflict (unless attacked), and reports no strife whatsoever within its population; as a humanologist I am interested to see what kind of perfect specimens inhabit these secretive worlds. As a matter of fact few reports of any kind ever come out of the Utopia worlds, and so this is pretty much new territory for my field of expertise.
A little more luck; the watchers are standing in full view now, and actually walking toward me without apprehension. Surely they have not seen my kind before — unless there are nonsophont primates on this world; the Utopia Sphere only lists a single intelligent species in this system, and I can see that they are pretty much human.
No fear of strangers, especially one as strange as me, eh?
Interesting.(For the record; mental log recording restarted after eighteen local ten-days.)
I have taken the unusual step of allowing a local inhabitant (actually two of them) to enter my ship. We have carried a light wooden ladder out to the landing site, and now we are inside. These people would have had great difficulty clambering into the craft without it. This human, a bright young individual fairly high up in the tribal hierarchy, is called N'avid; for some reason he has brought along one of the young unattached women from the village, despite the fact that he has recently been consorting with a quite different, and supposedly married, female. His current companion is called Salima; he calls her Sali. Now that I have learnt their language reasonably well, I have come to realise that as well as being something of a ladies man, N'avid has a sharp and sarcastic sense of humour.
Certainly he has engaged me in a number of jesting debates about where I came from — he says I am from a particularly detested tribe (the Mawe) on the far side of the continent, and not an ape at all. I have even arm-wrestled with him on several occasions, to demonstrate my greater upper-body strength. He pretends to entirely disbelieve the fact that I come from a far-away star, and from a planet orbiting that star not-too different from this one. So I have decided to give him just a glimpse of the inside of the ship, to see if he is capable of apprehending the true situation, and to try to find out if he has any preconceived notions about galactic society.
"It is dark; where are the lamps? Or do you feel your way around in the dark, Mawe?"
I will the cabin lights on, using direct neural interfacing. Sali squeals. N'avid laughs. He is taking this remarkably well, I think. He takes off his short cape.
"There is not very much to see, N'avid; the best things are hidden in the walls. This is my bed; in my language it is called an acceleration couch. Apart from that there are just a few tools over here ready for use. I don't have names for them in your language; in my language this is a Microscope, this a Theodolite. this a Stereocam. You might like to see how that works."
Using my neural link I switch the cam on, and N'avid is instantly fascinated by the tiny moving images it displays of himself and his woman friend. She is a little frightened of the camera, but I can see that N'avid is quite prepared to reassure her. He seems to be using this little outing to impress her with his bravery; a very human behaviour pattern.
I switch the cam off remotely, and after examining it closely to no avail N'avid gives it back to me. He can't make it work without a neural interface, and it loses some of its appeal to him instantly. The whole ship is controlled by neural interfacing; it has no control panels or buttons for this innocent citizen of the Utopia Sphere to accidentally activate.
"This is the thing I brought you here to see; it can show you my world. Just a short look is all I can give you."
I extract the Encyclopaedia Everythingana from its slot in the back wall; it is a book-sized database, opening like a lo-tech laptop to display the simple screen and adaptable keyboard. These tools have to be simple- they are used to reboot entire societies after a technological collapse, so the keyboard starts off with only a few functions then gradually increases in complexity as the user becomes more skillful. All the information necessary to develop a medium tech society is encapsulated in this tiny device — plus the routines necessary to educate the user or users enough to understand that technology. These devices have saved several lost or abandoned colonies from barbarism — a rebooting process which takes decades.
I am going to use the Encyclopaedia to show N'avid a few scenes from my home world, an exposure which will last a couple of moments. As he doesn't have a neural interface, I can't think of a better way to show him images of my homeworld, apart from routing them through the tiny viewfinder of the Stereocam.
"Here is my star; it is so far away that even the light takes four hundred years to get here. We call that star Ao Lai; it is actually two suns, each a little dimmer than your own. My world is this one, we call it Grace." I use a word meaning innocent gracefulness in his language. N'avid watches as the small screen displays images of the cities on my home world so far away; civilised orang-utans like myself driving vehicles, building structures, meeting the citizens of the other ape worlds and even a few humans. Suddenly the image disappears.
"Is it gone?" N'avid said, disappointedly.
"No, you just switched it off with your thumb. But I think you have seen enough — "
The image flickers back to life; N'avid has managed to switch it back on again. He laughs, and proceeds to repeatedly switch it on and off, making the image flash; the young woman laughs in her turn. I gently take it away from him and distract him by showing him the microscope.
As we are leaving, Sali slips, making it necessary for me to help her down the ladder. N'avid is left in the craft alone for a little while, and he seems a little uneasy when he finally emerges. N'avid hurries me along as we walk back to the village, a couple of kilometres away; the woman lags behind carrying his cape. Is she carrying something else as well? I can't quite make it out.(log resumed after three local days)
Finally after three days of hospitality in the village I manage to get back to the craft. Everything is in place, but the Encyclopaedia smells strongly of human contact. Perhaps N'avid smuggled it out and hid it somewhere so they could examine it, then smuggled it back later. The craft confirms this, showing me a visual recording of N'avid replacing the Encyclopaedia late yesterday evening. The idiot spacecraft comp should have alerted me immediately, but I forgot to tell it to do so. I only told it to stop anyone from taking anything; I said nothing about someone putting something back Even so, the ship should have acted on its own initiative; don't tell me that it is getting cranky and wilful in its old age. Hopefully that won't happen again; I've given it very strict orders to prevent anyone entering the craft at all now. Except me, of course.
Well, N'avid can't have learnt much in a couple of days- just enough to whet his appetite for knowledge about the outside universe. Perhaps he'll believe me now.
This evening I am extending my language skills once more with Chitila, the matchmaker. She is the closest thing to a tribal leader in this society, and I have learnt much from her. She wears an intricate piece of jewellery which is obviously handmade, yet I have seen a number of very similar items worn by other tribal members, including Salima. The headwoman is currently explaining the system of land ownership in her village to me. She seems impressed and somewhat surprised at my quick grasp of the language; I lack the words to explain to her that it is a purchased ability, a neural implant grown into my speech centres which cost me a tidy sum.
She indicates the uncultivated region upriver of her hut; several hectares of seemingly untouched land.
"This is tunga tunga. We all own tunga. This is everyone's land."
"So this not like the argu argu, the cultivated fields we saw yesterday. Different people own different fields, different argu, yes?"
"Yes, Not like the argu argu. But we own this land too; tunga tunga is not wild land. There are many creatures living here, many food plants that grow best by themselves. We own them too."
"I see. This is a common land, a common, as you described the day before last."
"No, the common is downstream. The common is where we raise our herds. Do you know nothing?" She laughs, entirely without malice.
I am completely taken with this species of human, even though they look a little strange to my eyes; because of the fierce short wavelength radiation from the local star, a class F5 dwarf somewhat hotter than the norm, these people have purplish black skin and heavy brows. But they consider themselves and each other beautiful, and are the most good-natured and content humans I have seen for a long while.
Chitila is explaining to me the difference between tunga and common land, which involved grazing rights; I understand most of what she is saying at first. Grazing and browsing herd animals are not allowed on the tunga, for a start. Then a list of exceptions, which I quickly lose track of; it is easy enough to store her words as an audiovisual file for analysis later. Later tonight, that is; I'll replay everything that has happened today (including this log) and pick over it while the people here think I am sleeping.
Sleep was long ago made optional on my distant world; it is nice to have some rest and dream every now and then, but not every night.
"What is that animal?" I ask her. In the deepening gloom I can see a large pig-like creature foraging. It is difficult to estimate its size, and even its shape, with accuracy in this light. But the matchmaker knows the creature well. "That is Bauru. Good eating. Difficult hunting." And she laughs.
We walk back to the village, with its elaborate, comfortable huts. She tells me who is the best hunter, and who among them has caught a bauru recently. Mostly men, it seems. The males concentrate on hunting, in the tunga tunga parkland and, sometimes, it seems, in the wasteland beyond. There is a measure of wasteland between villages, where no land management occurs, as far as I can gather from her words. After six months with these people, I have a fairly good grasp of their tongue, thanks to my implant; but many words have subtleties which escape me yet.
Tonight Chitila has promised to show me one of their most sacred rituals, one in which they contact their ancestors and through them, the Gods themselves. As we make our way to the ceremonial field at the centre of the village through the deepening twilight, we are watching the stars slowly appear. Beta Arae is bright on the horizon, twinkling like a fireworks display. I am keen to pursue this subject, to find out the extent of the headwoman's knowledge of interstellar matters and of galactic society. She seems interested but not exceptionally so.
"The Little Eye is home of greater Gods, those who advise our local Powers. These are matters of great santu, but these matters do not trouble us much." Santu is a local word, implying religious and devotional matters, and also with a secondary meaning related to unavoidable fate.
"Do you know anything about the other stars and those who dwell on the worlds around them?" I ask her.
"Not much, little Ape-from—the-Sky; but you say that one of those stars is your home. You are a fine person. Maybe then I am wrong, and I should learn more about people who live in other worlds."
"I can only tell you a very little about the worlds in the sky, although I know much; for one thing it would take too long, and I would not have enough time to learn about your people. And that is what I came here for. For another, your local Powers that rule your world might not want me to fill your head with stories from the great outside; if you want to know more you will have to ask them."
"N'avid has told me much about your world;" she said, and my interest in this conversation sharpens. "He said that you told him a great deal about it, and even showed him a vision of the people there."
"And what did he tell you?"
"He said that you came from a world called Grace" She uses the Anglic word, not my clumsy translation. So N'avid had been exploring the Encyclopaedia on his own, eh? I have broken the first rule in the humanology textbook; Don't expose primitive peoples to high technology. But the Utopia Sphere culture on this world is very obviously a case of an advanced society artificially maintaining its people in a primitive state by artificial means — I feel little obligation to play along with that little game.
But at last we have reached the ceremonial field.
And now the promised ritual begins. Seated, the fires are behind our backs; we enclose a dark space shaded by our bodies. My hairy back protects me from the fire's warmth at first, then begins to feel uncomfortably warm. The headwoman sings and chants a long, low prayer, and I can only just understand about half the words. Finally three of the menfolk twist round and sprinkle some sort of dust into the fire. The fires sputter, and turn green.
Moving in the shadowed space between us there is a small animal, barely glimpsed. It could be a lizard, or even a land crab of some kind; the shifting shadows are deceiving. But no, it is a small desert mammal, a rat or similar with a long snout and glittering eyes. I think it is a jerboa.
"We greet you, our fathers and mothers," The headwoman says.
"My children," the rodent says, in a tiny voice you have to strain to hear.
"We give thanks for the bounty of the grasslands and of our fields and pastures. And for the many gifts you have brought us, now and in the past."
I have to guess at the exact content of this formal prayer, as it uses much language I am not familiar with.
"Yes, yes, Zsu-zsu; your prayers are welcome. Now be a good girl and tell us all the latest. How is N'avid behaving himself, as if I didn't know, eh?" In the darkness you could just see the lower jaw of the jerboa move as it speaks.
"Oh you know, he never changes, Old One; he is a bad lad. Shiosa is very upset."
"Where is he? Come forth, boy"
"I am here, Old one."
"Oh dear oh dear. What are we to do with you. N'avid. I was once your great grandmother, boy. How do you think you make me feel?"
"Sorry, grandmother. But I didn't hurt anyone."
"No? Don't you think Shiosa is hurt?"
"No-body made her go with me. I didn't twist her arm."
"No; but you knew she was upset after Ghan left her. You were taking advantage."
"We were both drunk. She is as much to blame as me."
I realise that the ancestor spirit is the real thing; a living human being who has been uploaded at some point before her death and has become a guardian angel for this tribe. I have heard of this kind of thing before; many Utopia sphere worlds maintain some sort of electronic afterlife, a heaven for their deceased citizens. But this is the first time I've seen it used in this way, involving an ancestor cult. Obviously an animalist aspect to the local belief system too, judging by the fact that the spirit appears in animal form; fascinating.
"Boy, you should have thought about her children. Ghan has done the right thing now, and has come back to his family. Would you have looked to her children as he does? No woman is safe when you are drinking. … And what of the fields you borrowed from Thaasa? His son is of age now; he wants to give them to his boy."
"I have had those fields for ten years, grandmother; Thassa has never said he wants them back. I offered to give them back once, and he said no."
"What did he say, N'avid? And how long ago?"
"When I had them for a year or so, I asked him if he wanted them back; he said 'Don't worry about it".
"I think you will find he has asked you for those fields back, many times, over the years; and you have always said next year, next year. Well, boy, it is next year now. Time to give them back; you have had them long enough."
"I will talk to him again, grandmother."
Despite the admonishments N'avid has received, he seems cheerful. I find it difficult to believe that a human like him can relish a society like this, where every move is watched by omnipresent and powerful ancestors. Despite the fact that humans are social animals, much more so than my own species, there are often individuals hike this one who prosper not by following the rules of society, but by bending or even breaking them. He certainly seems content now, even smug. Perhaps he has been affected by the visions he obtained from the Encyclopaedia than I expected.
The ancestor spirit speaks again, in a voice barely audible.
"Now, I will talk to the stranger among you."
I realise that the ancestor spirit is addressing me.
"I am here," I say.
"Ape from the Sky, you have been careless. If the consequences of your actions on this world do not achieve the results the Gods desire, then they will be forced to act in a most direct way."
"I'm sorry- what are you talking about exactly?" But I think I am beginning to guess.
The ancestor-spirit jumps up onto a carved rock. It addresses the whole congregation.
"My children, it is time for your gifts; the Gods return your offerings in like kind, as always. Here is the necklace you gave us, my brother's son; and here is its mate, to be given as a gift to whomsoever you please."
The lower part of the carved rock opens, showing that part of the carving is in fact a pair of small hinged doors. Inside is a handmade necklace, very fine- it looks like the work of the best jewelmaker in the village, one of N'avid's many relatives. Next to it is an exact copy, with all the same minor imperfections which indicate its handmade origin. Only a nanotech replicator could produce such a copy.
"I thank the ancestors and the Gods," says the craftsman, as he takes them both, and presents them each to a different woman (both close relatives, if I recall correctly). I think I can see now how this society manages to maintain its comfortable lifestyle without too much industry; the craftsmen only have to make one copy of each item, and the Gods will replicate it for them. The hierarchy of this society is remarkably flat and egalitarian, and this replication of valuable objects must help to maintain that flat hierarchy.
"Now the next gifts come with a warning; the Gods have passed on the message to me that these objects are more powerful than you can yet realise, and if they are not used well, the Gods will take them away again. You do not know what changes these gifts will bring; but believe me, my children, you soon will. Soon you will be innocents no longer."
With foreboding I stand up to see better; the small rocky doors open again, and there are two book-sized pieces of electronic equipment there, already open and displaying a welcome screen.
N'avid must have brought the original here three days ago and copied it; these are copies of that copy. In a matter of days there will be dozens of them; I bet the Utopian Gods even disabled my ship's intruder alarm; it all makes sense now. I feel dizzy, and fall back stunned.
"Your Gods must have planned this;" I manage to say. "I wouldn't even have reached the surface of the planet with this device if they didn't want your people to get hold of it."
"Ape from the Sky, you have simply placed temptation in the way of these people, and they have succumbed. Now they can begin to grow and develop in their own way, a new beginning; starting from such a peaceful and well-balanced society we have high hopes for them. Do not feel ashamed; you have done the will of the Gods."
Is it a law of the universe then that temptation must always enter into paradise? And when these people come to make legends of their fall, will they tell of an orangutan in place of the more usual serpent? I don't know the answers right now, as I watch N'avid proudly present the headwoman with a copy of the e-book of knowledge.
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