Beyond the Sky: Chapter 33


  Captain Benson opened the barometric chamber, amid a slight hiss of outrushing air. Glint Sparkhands took a ginger step out, remaining close to the wall and with one of four hands behind his back. His clothes were simple denim and cloth, patched together, and to his chest was clipped the plastic rectangle of a transistor radio. His skin and quills changed color erratically, fading from hue to hue. Trying to camouflage, Benson realized—staring at each of them and deciding who he ought to hide from the most.  
“Give him some space.” Benson motioned. Velli remained in place. “Never seen one this close?”
“Indeed not.”
“Myself as well.” Takji’s long Fesk neck craned downward.
“Nor have I stood before Day People so long uncontested,” Glint said.
Benson said, “I hold no ill-will towards you or your species. Is what she says true?” He nodded towards Velli.
“It is. I was there.”
“Then you may yet be able to give us something in return.”
They reconvened in the meeting room, with the table and Lempusian tank-chamber. Glint, for his part, remained quiet as Captain Benson explained his new circumstances, either getting it or thinking he was growing mad.
Benson took a seat, while Velli stood near Selva and Takji remained on the other side, Toras interspersed beside her. Glint pounced atop the table, sitting like a cat with his long tail swishing. “Tell me what happened.”
“The Slavers used gas,” Glint answered. “I grew sick.”
“He said it did something to the Burrowers,” Velli added.
“Yes. They acted strange, confused. Then the workers grabbed their things and...left.”
“Just walked out the door?” Benson’s eyebrow raised.
Velli said, “It was closed when we arrived.”
“The warriors must’ve done it. They retreated to the nursery and sealed themselves in. When I recovered, the tunnels were deserted.”
“Suggestions, Carter?” asked Benson.
The artilect’s voice replied, “Perhaps a chemical weapon?”
Takji’s ears drooped. Benson knew enough Lemurian emotion to recognize that, now. “You know something?”
“It’s...” she paused. “We were—”
“May I remind Her Majesty—” Toras interjected.
Takji raised a hand. “There’s a prototype. For a chemical compound, tailored to Slee biology.”
“Of course.” Velli made a gesture that equated to a human rolling her eyes.
“It was a prototype! I had no idea it’d been put into production, much less passed to some Jepsei thugs!”
Benson said, “Does the right hand always know what the left is doing, on your world?”
“We didn’t develop it for slavery. It’s meant for the Amalgamation; they have more Burrowers than us.”
Benson refrained from asking why that made it any better.
“Commonalities between Shadowstalker and Slee biology likely account for its diminished impact on them,” Carter said. “I doubt it can affect other Lemurians.”
“That’s what we figured.”
“What, specifically, is its method of function upon Burrowers?”
“I’m no expert, but,” Takji paused. “It does something to their...communal coherence? Pheromones?”
“Colony collapse.” Benson scratched his chin, and nodded. “The Slee are eusocial, their labor and reproduction divided by biology. Our homeworld has similar creatures—nothing so complex, of course—which also organize into colonies. And sometimes, they contract a disease which causes the workers to desert.”
“This chemical weapon must act in similar manner,” Carter added. “Elacmagolintec introduced it to their air supply, rendering their workers disoriented and fearful. In their fright, they abandoned the city. Probably an instinctual response to danger.”
“After which, the slavers took the warheads,” Selva said. “That’s where it stops making sense.”
Velli pointed to Glint. “He had something to do with it, he told me as much! Where are the bombs?”
“I do not know.”
She shouted a word Benson didn’t know. “You said you wanted to burn us to ash!”
“Why?” Benson leaned forward.
Glint opened his mouth, but Velli cut in:
“Because of everything we’ve done. Even slaves hate Shadowstalkers. In Mespreth—” she glared at Takji “—they are little more than vermin, driven away whenever anyone needs their land. Or wants to make a point.”
Takji countered, “And how many times have they slit the throats of entire households? They belong in darkness for a reason!”
“But try as you might, you’ll never be rid of them.” Even Mespreth had been outraged by the pogroms of King Delvar’s predecessor. “The Shadow Friends are right, the best we can do is leave them alone. They hide, it’s in their nature.”
“Evolutionary history.” Benson leaned back, pondering. “Ever since we learned your planet had multiple intelligent species, I’ve been wondering why.”
“Same as I’m wondering why you didn’t die of loneliness before flying into space,” Takji said.
“The best I can come up with—and Carter agrees—is an event in your distant past, some tens of millions of years ago, drove several disparate lineages to evolve towards sapience. It would’ve been gradual, but as each grew smarter the others faced pressure to do so as well. Now, on Earth there were once several species of intelligent hominid, yet only mine survived. We outcompeted them, either killing them off or just doing better at surviving.
“But here, your species are so different no two share the same habitat. Each has its own preferred niche. Your ancestors were plains-hopping endurance hunters, Velli’s desert omnivores hardened against heat and drought, and Toras’ forest trappers. Each specialized into its own survival strategy, at which it beat the others.”
“I don’t see the Nevi beating anyone,” said Takji.
“Indeed, they’re an odd case. Domesticated, in a word, by the other sapients. A kind of evolutionary bargain where they gave away full control of their destiny in exchange for protection. The Shadowstalkers, I speculate, did the opposite.”

Cover image: by Arek Socha


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