Jack McDevitt

Chapter 14.

Man has always considered himself the peak of creation, the part of the universe that thinks, the purpose for it all. It's no doubt gratifying to think so. But the universe may have a different opinion.

— Marik Kloestner

Although Borkarat was not the Mute home world, it was influential. This was where policy toward humans was formulated and, when possible, sold to the various independent political units of the Assemblage. This was the place where representatives met. And from which, during the recurring periods of hostility with the Confederacy, action was directed.

No shots had been fired between Mute and human warships for a few years, but the long conflict still simmered. Nobody really knew what it was about, any longer. Neither side was interested in real estate belonging to the other. Neither side actively threatened anyone. And yet there it was, a living antipathy, drifting down the centuries. Politicians on both sides got support by promising the voters to be tough with the aliens. (I wondered how the Mutes could have politicians when their minds were more or less open to all.)

The term Assemblage was a misnomer. The loose group of Mute states, worlds, duchies, outposts, orbital cities, and whatever else, were more a social grouping than a formal political entity. But they could react in concert with stunning efficiency. Some observers argued they could already see the stirrings of a group mind.

I was relieved to get off the Komar. I stopped at the service desk, where another human avatar in my image presented herself and gave me directions to get to the museum at Provno.

The shuttle I wanted was marked with a lightning bolt designator. It was crowded and I had to push in. There was nothing more revelatory of the alien nature of Mute society than boarding that vehicle and watching the Mutes interact with each other, make way, stow their packages, move their children into seats, quiz each other over who gets the window, and do it all in absolute silence. Well, maybe not absolute. There were of course the sounds of rustling clothing, closing panels, and air escaping from cushions. Harnesses clicked down into place. But there was never a voice.

I had by then been more than a week in the exclusive company of Mutes, and I was learning to ignore the sense of being exposed to the public gaze. Just don't worry about it, I told myself. But I couldn't resist occasionally glancing over at a fellow passenger and picturing myself waving hello.

There was usually a physical response, a meeting of eyes, a lifting of the brow, something. Occasionally they even waved back.

I tried to think warm and fuzzy. And in fact, my reaction to these creatures, the primal fear and revulsion I'd felt in their presence, was diminishing every day. But as I sat on that shuttle, trying to read and comprehending nothing on the page, I was a long way from being comfortable.

We dropped into the atmosphere, descended through a twilit sky, ran into some turbulence and a storm, and finally sailed out of the clouds beneath a canopy of stars. Below, cities blazed with light.

A female flight attendant stopped by my seat. "We'll be landing in seven minutes," she said. I couldn't tell where the voice was coming from.

I spent the night at a hotel just off a river walk. Ashiyyurean architectural styles, at least on Borkarat, are subtly different from anything we've employed. Human structures, whatever their cultural tendencies, are static. They are symmetrical, and however eclectic the design, one always detects balance and symmetry. Mute buildings, on the other hand, are a study in motion, in flow, in energy. The symmetry is missing. Seen from a distance, my hotel looked incomplete, as though part of it projected into another dimension.

I ate in the restaurant, surrounded by Mutes. And I'm proud to say I held my own. Stayed at my table, worked my way casually through my meal, and never flinched when a nearby infant took one horrified look at me and tried to burrow into its mother's mammaries.

I wondered how early in life the telepathic capability began. Could a child in the womb communicate?

Two humans, male and female, showed up. They saw me and came over. You'd have thought we were the oldest of friends. At my invitation, they sat down and we exchanged trivia for the next hour. They were from St. Petersburg, one of the ancient terrestrial capitals.

I think I've mentioned that the Ashiyyur do not use spirits of any kind. I read somewhere that there are no comparable drugs for them, and they do not understand the human compulsion to drown our senses. So the glasses we raised to each other that night were tame, but we made promises that we'd get together back home. Amazing how close Andiquar and St Petersburg became.

I slept well, except for waking in the middle of the night after an especially realistic sexual dream. And there I was again, wondering if the Mutes could pick up nocturnal stuff as well. Had I frightened the children on three floors? No wonder they didn't like having people around.

I thought about the couple I'd met at dinner. They were young, recently married. But I bet myself that tonight they were sleeping apart, and probably drumming up more emotional vibrations for any Mute antennas paying attention than a good old-fashioned romp would have. Muteworld is not a place for a honeymoon.

The Museum of Alien Life Forms was located on an expanse of parkland on Provno, in a long island chain in one of the southern seas. The parkland area is largely devoted to public buildings and historical preserves. Landscaped sections are blocked off, often commemorating historical figures, sometimes simply devoted to providing quiet places for reflection. There are streams and a myriad small creatures that come begging for handouts from the visitors.

The architecture was hyperbolic, rooftops that surged like ocean waves, angled spires, soaring stalks. Crowds wandered through the area on long curved walkways that sometimes ascended to the upper levels. Everywhere there were leafy porticoes to which you could retreat simply to enjoy the play of nature. Everything seemed light and fragile, as ethereal as the sunlight.

Private vehicular traffic was banned in the parks. Visitors could enter by aircab, although the bulk of traffic was handled by an over-water maglev train. I'd never seen one before, and I have no idea how they handled the engineering.

The museum stood between two similar but not quite identical obelisks. It was made of white marble, and incorporated arcs and columns and rising walkways so that it was reminiscent of one of those children's puzzles that you can take apart and reassemble but it always looks different. A moving ramp took me up to the front entrance, where I was passed a wall engraved with Mute characters. I turned my translator loose on it, and it told me this was the Museum of Alien Life Forms. And that it had been founded on an indeterminate date. (The translator wasn't good at converting dates and times.) And that life forms from all over the galaxy were welcome.

I went inside, while Mute children looked alternately at me and the sign and giggled, while others just giggled and still others drew back in alarm. But I smiled politely and pushed ahead..

You might expect that a museum devoted to offworld biological systems would give you lots of holograms of the various life forms in action. But it wasn't that way at all. Maybe there was a sense that visitors could get the holograms at home. So what they had were display cases and exhibits filled with stuffed skins and heads.

They'd probably been picked for shock value. Giant creatures with a maw big enough to swallow a lander. Snakes that could have used me for a toothpick. Predators of all sizes and shapes, some fearsome beyond belief. And the prey, cute little furred creatures that could run fast. And damn well better.

There were plants capable of gobbling down a fair-sized technician, and multilimbed creatures that lived in the trees of Barinor, wherever that was, and stole children. I wondered why anybody would choose to live under such conditions. At least, with kids.

I'm happy to report there were no stuffed people. Maybe that was a concession to the fact that they occasionally had human visitors. They did have a couple of birds and lizards from Rimway, and a tiger from Earth. But the only human was an avatar, a bearded guy who looked like a Neandertal. He even carried a spear. When I approached him, he grunted.

Best foot forward, I always say. I wondered how many Mute kids were getting their first impression of the human race from this guy.

He was guarding the Hall of the Humans, an entire wing dedicated to us. The only other known technological species. It was big, circular, with a vaulted ceiling three stories high. Display cases and tables supporting exhibits stood everywhere. There were primitive and modern weapons on display, musical instruments, clothing from various cultures, a chess game in progress, and dishware. An alcove was fitted out to look like a business office. Many of the displays, where appropriate, were marked with a date and world of origin. There were headsets that allowed you to plug into the history of the various objects. And an array of books, all translations into basic Mute. I scanned them and found The Republic, Burnwell's Last Days of the American Republic, Four Novels by Hardy Boshear, and a ton of other work. On the whole, they didn't have a very representative collection. Most of the writers were modern, and there were desperately few classics.

And in the center of the room, on a dais, was my target. The Falcon. Mutes were queued up on a ramp, waiting their turn to enter the airlock. They were coming out the other side, through an exit that had been cut through the hull.

Department of Planetary Survey was inscribed up near the bridge, along with its designator TIV114. And, of course, Falcon. Its navigation lights were on. That was good news because it probably meant the thing had power. I'd brought a small generator on the possibility I'd have to supply my own.

There were maybe forty Mutes in the hall, but none of them was moving. They were all looking straight ahead, pretending to examine the various displays at hand, but the fact they were frozen in place gave them away. One female, standing near a statue of one of the ancient gods, was watching me, and everyone there was sitting behind her eyes.

She raised a hand. Hello.

I smiled and switched my attention back to the Falcon, telling myself what lovely lines it had, and how I'd enjoy piloting it. I tried to keep my mind off the actual reason for my visit. Gradually my fellow visitors began moving again. As far as I could tell, not one ever turned for a surreptitious look.

I strolled among the displays, fingering the data chip I'd brought for the download.

There were guide stations where you could learn about humans. I used my translator and discovered that we were high on the evolutionary scale, but remained a step below the Ashiyyur. We thought of ourselves as sentient, the guide explained, and in a limited sense we were even though our primary mode of communication was yapping. Okay, yapping is my translation. They said 'by making sounds or noise.' Take your pick.

We were described as having some admirable traits. We were loyal, reasonably intelligent, compassionate, and could be friendly. On the other hand we were known to be dishonest, vile, violent, licentious, treacherous, hypocritical, and on the whole we ran a society that had lots of police and needed them.

Individuals tend to be docile, said the guide, and may usually be approached without fear. But when humans form groups their behavior changes and becomes more problematic. They are more likely to subscribe to a generally held view than to seek their own. Elsewhere: There seems to be a direct correlation between the size of a group and its inclination to consent or resort to violence or other questionable behavior, and/or the predilection of individuals to acquiesce when leaders suggest violent or simplistic solutions to perceived problems.

This is the collective reaction phenomenon.

Several of the books were described as providing an especially incisive view of human mental limitations. I was beginning to get annoyed.

I kept an eye on the Falcon as a I circled the hall, trying to tamp my thoughts, wondering again about telepathic range. More Mutes came in, and while I was wandering among the exhibits looking as casual as possible, they joined the line.

Realizing the line was not going to go away, I took my place at the rear. There were about a dozen in front of me, including two younger ones, not quite adult, but not children either. Both female. I saw them react, saw one touch the other's elbow and pull her robe more tightly around her.

I'd had it by then. I tried to send a message. To all who were listening. People who need to feel superior by accident of birth usually turn out to be dummies. I didn't know how to visualize it, so I don't imagine much of it got through, but I felt better afterward..

The hatchway onto the bridge was open so I could see the instruments and the pilot's position. But a blue restraining cord was drawn across the entrance and a sign read DO NOT ENTER. There were two chairs, one for the pilot, one for a visitor or technician. I thought this is where they had been, Margaret Wescott at the controls, and Adam in the auxiliary seat. I looked through the viewport at the gray museum walls, and wondered what had been visible to them.

In front of the pilot's seat, and to its right, was the reader. I reached into my pocket and touched the chip.

The AI's name had been James.

I leaned over the cord, acutely conscious of the others around me. I would have liked a few minutes alone. "James," I said in a whisper, "are you there?"

There was no vocal reply, but a green lamp came on. I wasn't familiar with the Falcon instrument panel. Still, some aspects remain identical from ship to ship, and from one era to another. The green lamp always means the AI is up and running. First hurdle cleared. (I assumed they'd disconnected the voice so James wouldn't startle anyone.)

The cord was too high for me to get over, so I lifted it and went under, and proceeded directly to the reader, ignoring the stir behind me. I inserted the chip. "James," I said, "download the navigation logs. Any that are connected with Dr. Adam Wescott."

Another lamp came on. White. I heard the data transmission begin. I turned and smiled at the Mutes standing behind me. Hi. How you doing? Enjoying your visit? I tried to think how this was routine maintenance. Instead it occurred to me that the Mutes might suspect I was trying to steal the ship, that I was planning to take off with it, blast out of the hall, and head for Rimway. Trailing Mutes all the way. I could see the Falcon rising over Borkarat's towers, then accelerating for deep space. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get the image out of my mind.

No such scenario of course was even remotely possible. The museum had removed a bulkhead to make an exit. The engines were at least disengaged and probably missing. And there wouldn't have been any fuel anyhow.

The chip whirred and hummed while the data collected over more than a decade flowed through the system. I looked over the other instruments, the way a technician might, just doing a little maintenance, got to adjust the thrust control here.

More Mutes were crowding up to the guide rope to see what was going on. I imagined I could feel them inside my head, checking to see whether I was deranged. It occurred to me they might conclude this was the way inferior species behaved and think no more of it. And I wondered whether that had been my own thought, or whether it had arrived somehow from outside.

A couple of them moved away but others took their places. I watched the lights, waiting for the white lamp to change color, indicating the operation was complete.

I straightened the chairs. Looked out the portals. Checked the settings on the viewscreens. Straightened my blouse.

I wished I'd thought to bring a dust cloth.

I looked out the portals again. Two Mutes in blue uniforms were converging on the Falcon.

The lamp stayed white.

The crowd began to shuffle, to clear out of the way. I heard heavy footsteps. And of course no sound of a voice anywhere.

Then the authorities arrived. Both in uniform. Both looking severe. But then, with an Ashiyyurean, how could you tell? I tried to cut that idea off at the pass. Tried to transmit Almost done. Just be patient a moment more.

They stepped over the cord. One took my arm and pulled me away from the reader. I looked back. The lamp was still white.

They wanted me to go with them and I was in no position to decline. They half-carried me back out through the airlock, and through a gawking crowd that now made no effort to hide the fact that they were watching. We exited the hall, went down a ramp, across a lobby, and into a passageway.

I was helpless. I was projecting all the protests I could manage. But nothing worked. You couldn't talk to these guys. Couldn't use nonverbals. Couldn't even use the old charm.

They hauled me through double doors and into a corridor lined with offices. I realized I wasn't simply being ejected. We were headed into the rear of the museum.

The doors were made of dark glass, and Mute symbols were posted electronically beside them. One opened and I was ushered inside. It was an empty office. I saw an inner door, a couple of tables and three or four chairs. All standard Mute size. My guards released me. One pointed to a chair and I climbed onto it.

They stayed with me, both standing, one near the door by which we'd entered, the other by the inner door. I wondered whether my chip had finished loading yet.

We waited about five minutes. I heard noises on the other side of the inner door. Then it opened. A female emerged, wearing clothing that resembled a workout suit. The color was off-white. The suit had a hood, but it lay back on her shoulders.

She looked at me, and then at my escorts. They seemed to be exchanging information. Finally the escorts got up and left the room. Apparently I was not considered a threat.

The female reached into a pocket, produced a translator on a cord, and draped it around her neck. "Hello, Chase," she said. "I'm Selotta Movia Kabis. You may call me Selotta."

Even under the circumstances, it was hard not to laugh. I gave my name and said hello. I did it verbally so the translator could pick it up.

She stared at me. "We are pleased you decided to visit us today."

"It's my pleasure," I said. "This is a lovely museum."

"Yes." She circled me and took a chair opposite. "May I ask what you were doing in the Falcon?"

No point lying. The translator wouldn't help her read my thoughts, but I wondered whether she really needed it. "I was trying to download the navigation logs."

"And why were you doing that? The Falcon has been in the Human Hall as long as I've been here. It must be twenty-five years."

"It's been a long time," I agreed.

She concentrated on me. Made no effort to hide the fact she was in my head. "What's the Seeker?" she asked.

I told her. I described its connection with Margolia, and then explained what Margolia was.

"Nine thousand years?" she said.


"And you hope to find this place? Margolia?"

"We know that's a trifle optimistic. But we do hope to find the ship."

Gray lids came down over her eyes. And rose again. The corneas were black and diamond-shaped. She considered me for a long moment. "Who knows?" she said, finally. "Find one and it might lead you to the other."

"As you can see," I said, "I need your help to get the information from the Falcon."

She sat quite still while she considered it. Then she seemed to come to a conclusion. The door to the passageway opened. I turned and saw one of the guards. Selotta motioned him forward. He had my chip in his right hand. I wondered if it might be possible to grab the chip and run.

"No," said Selotta. "That would not be a good idea."

He handed it to her, turned and left. She inspected it, switched on a lamp, and took a longer look. When she'd finished she turned those diamond eyes directly on me. I got the distinct feeling she thought she was talking to me. Suddenly she seemed surprised. She shook her head in a remarkably human gesture and tapped the translator. "It's hard to remember sometimes I have to speak."

"I guess," I said.

"I was asking whether you don't have some qualms about the possibility of a living civilization out there. Your own people, after nine thousand years. You have no way of knowing what you might find."

"I know."

"No offense intended, but humans tend to be unpredictable."

"Sometimes," I said. "We don't expect to find a living world. But if we could find the original settlement, we could retrieve some artifacts. They'd be quite valuable."

"I'm sure."

I waited, hoping she'd give me the chip and wish me godspeed.

"Perhaps we can make an arrangement."

"What did you have in mind?"

"You may have your chip."

"If — ?"

"I will expect, if you find what you're looking for, a generous bequest."

"You want some of the artifacts?"

"I think that would be a reasonable arrangement. Yes, I will leave the details to your generosity. I believe I may safely do that." She got up.

"Thank you, Selotta. Yes. If we succeed I will see the museum is taken care of."

"Through me personally."

"Of course."

She made no move to hand over the disk. "Chase," she said, "I'm surprised you didn't come to us first."

I stood there like a kid in the principal's office. "I'm sorry," I said. "I should have. To be honest, I didn't know whether you would allow it."

"Or try to grab everything for ourselves."

"I didn't say that."

"You thought it." She put the chip on the table top. "I'll look forward to hearing from you, Chase."

November 2005
Ace Books
ISBN: 0441013295


Updated by webspinner