Read “Proof of Concept,” my scifi novelette on Locus’s Recommended List!
So, big-time exciting news (and somewhat belated, as it happened a couple weeks back), but one of the novelettes I published in 2022, “Proof of Concept,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List! For those of you who don’t know, Locus is the SFF trade publication of record, and each year around the time when people are nominating for various
awards (the Hugos, the Nebulas, etc.), they list off what they think was the best stuff from that year to give people a guide for what to read and (potentially) nominate. AND I MADE THE LIST! Yay me!
Now, this doesn’t actually mean I’m going to get nominated for something. In fact, I highly doubt it – I’m not particularly well known and the field is extremely competitive, but it is really nice to know that some people out there who know their stuff think I deserve some attention.
Additionally, the magazine that published “Proof of Concept,” Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has elected to make the story free to read (for a limited time, I imagine). You can download it HERE, so check it out! It’s a story about weird aliens, memory holes, exploitation, and literal self-discovery. Another way of putting it is that it is a scifi survival horror story from the point of view of the monster. This story is part of a linked series of stories I’ve been publishing with Analog for the last year or two, with the fourth in that series due out sometime later this year. So check it out!
And thanks to everyone – reviewers, fans, and friends – who gave this story some love and got me on that list. Here’s hoping I can place one there next year, too!
The Union of Stars: The Quinix (and the Lesser Races)
(Author’s note: what follows is a bit of world-building for my current novel project, tentatively titled The Iterating Assassin)
There is a simple and clear distinction to be made between the Great Races of our Union and the Lesser Races. The Great Races are those species who have overcome the Great Filter and achieved interstellar civilization. This has most commonly culminated in the achievement of FTL travel with slipdrive, but not necessarily. The Voosk, for instance, achieved it with slowships of incredibly ingenious design and the Bodani with sublight, self-propagating probes, even if both species went on to steal slipdrive technology later in their development.
Those species who have failed to achieve interstellar civilization are, by definition, lesser than those that have. This can be seen as unjust, but this is not a question of justice, but merely a practical question of social and intellectual maturity. The Great Filter is the single most important challenge any civilization faces, and any civilization that has never grappled with it and won cannot be considered equal to those who have.
So, the Filter exhibits as a series of converging crises. Any one of these crises can destroy a planet-bound or even system-bound civilization utterly, and every one of them is inevitable. These crises are as follows:
The Resource Crisis
Any successful civilization reaches the point where it uses more resources than any given planet or star system can reasonably provide via what we shall generously term “conventional” means (i.e. means outside of quantum or dark matter sources). Without tackling the Resource Crisis, the civilization will starve itself out of existence.
The Belligerence Crisis
Any sufficiently advanced civilization has at its disposal weaponry able to destroy itself. Civilizations that cannot find a way to cooperate and avoid self-destruction obviously will never overcome the Filter, as they will become extinct.
The Population/Travel Crisis
Advanced civilizations will have a positive birth rate. Inveitably, this birth rate will exceed the civilization’s capacity to provide for that population. This can be a direct side-effect of the Resource Crisis, but even if provided for materially, the growing population will lead to added instability, exacerbating both the Billigerence Crisis and the Contact Crisis. There is some argument among scholars whether this is a distinct crisis at all, but rather just a side-effect of other crises. This is also called the “Travel Crisis” for some, since this crisis can be alleviated (however temporarily) by being able to escape the confines of a single planet or series of planets.
The Contact Crisis
Advanced civilizations often will make quite a lot of interstellar noise. This attracts the attention of interstellar species, who frequently seek to make contact. In the best case scenario, a system-bound species that encounters an interstellar species is quickly overcome and becomes a vassal state to the more influential and more powerful species. In the worst case, one of the planet-eating Marshals discover the civilization and consume it.
So, the barrier to becoming a Great Race involve solving the Resource, Belligerence, and Population Crises before the Contact Crisis happens and the civilization in question reaches a satisfactory resolution to said First Contact episode. This is a rare thing indeed, and hence there are only six Great Races (eight if one counts Skennite and the Marshals).
And what of the Lesser Races? Well, that is a complex tale, perhaps best illustrated with a case study: the Quinix of Sadura.
The Quinix are arachnids of great size and intellect. They seem to grow indefinitely, but the largest specimens have
been recorded as being some 3.5 meters in diameter, from leg to leg. On average, they are between 1 and 2 meters in diameter, with eight legs, each of which sporting a three-fingered “hand” of remarkable strength and dexterity. They have six eyes and can see deep into the infrared spectrum, which serves them well in their very dim natural environs.
Quinix are omnivorous, but have a noted preference for meat. Like most arachnids, they digest their food outside their bodies using a venom injected via their fangs. Given their large size, their fangs are not of considerable size. The Quinix do not kill with their fangs, but usually use tools or even their thread and cables to kill prey before eating.
The Qunix have spinnerets, like many arachnids, and are able to weave fibers of incredible strength and elasticity from their bodies. A single adult Quinix can weave several kilometers of fiber before exhausting their stores and needing to rest. When working as a group, they are capable of building complex structures of all manner of shape and size, all with their bodies.
The Quinix are clan-based organisms by dint of biology. Quinix females only lay a single egg during their lifetime (and the process of laying the egg and caring for it is usually fatal for the mother). If successfully fertilized, that egg hatches to produce many hundreds of offspring who are, as of that moment, a single social entity. These young clans receive guidance from their father’s clan and revere their mother’s clan as holy and sacrosanct. A complex web (please pardon the pun) of social and clan relationships governs Quinix society, tied together by a mind-boggling network of relationships. Mortality on Sadura is high (the vertical environment, the constant tectonic activity, the predators, and wars between so-called “oblique” clans – clans with no familiar connection) and therefore population numbers are low, overall.
As the Quinix live in a subterranean environment (and have to – the surface of Sadura is a radiation-soaked wasteland thanks to its proximity to its red giant sun), they have no conception of night and day. Indeed, they have a very poor reckoning of time in general and, to the extent that they do tell time, it is only via generational figures (clan related, again). They follow erratic circadian rhythms that are difficult for other species to tolerate, and do not seem to rush to do much of anything.
Additionally, their concept of life and death are likewise complex. For the Quinix, one’s life includes not only the animate existence of their body, but also the continued existence of their woven cables and webs. Without destroying the cables that they wove in life, a Quinix is still considered “alive” by all social standards. Therefore, buildings woven out of Qunix fibers are quite literally “alive” in a sense difficult for other species to understand or appreciate. Cutting a cable on purpose is an act of fatal violence.
Due to the confluence of these physiological and social factors, the Quinix have not and never will be able to exceed the Great Filter. While they developed metal-working technology (made difficult by Sadura’s highly flammable high-oxygen environment), their natural building abilities hampered their interest in exploring more complex materials science that would have allowed them to progress from the construction of iron-based tools and trinkets. They therefore have never and would never develop the technology capable of destroying themselves, are not successful enough to have a resource shortage, have (or had) a near-zero birthrate, and would eventually have been discovered and consumed by a Marshal if they ever developed a radio transmitter.
Fortunately and also unfortunately for them, they were discovered by the Dryth Solon, Kaskar Indomitable in C30.10, and have spent the last two and a half cycles as a Lesser Race under the auspices of the Union of Stars. This means they they will not be haphazardly eaten by a passing Marshal (good), but also means that any further technological or social advancement will be under the influence of the Great Races that have come to their planet. They are in a permanent state of arrested development.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more unfortunately, the changes wrought by the Union to make Sadura more hospitable to the Great Races has had an exacerbated effect on Quinix society and Sadura’s ecology. Stabilizing the tectonic activity has permitted huge cities to be built, resulting in a spike in the Quinix birthrate but also nowhere for those Quinix to go except into off-world settlements. They are a servant species on their own planet, their old clan wars and dreams of dominion crushed beneath the off-worlder’s technological superiority. The Quinix are gradually losing their cultural identity and are no longer masters of their own environment. It is difficult to say what will become of them, but whatever it is, they will never again control their own destiny. Unjust? Perhaps. But also inevitable and unavoidable for those who fail to overcome the Filter.
All things considered, being relegated to a servant species is vastly superior to many of the other alternatives: ecological or military extinction, or possibly being devoured by a void-dwelling macroorganism.
The Union of Stars: The Thraad
And now it comes time to discuss our own species – the Thraad. If it has taken long for me to reach this topic, it is not without reason. We Thraad understand that to know oneself, you must first understand others. If this seems counter-intuitive, give it time. You are young yet.
We are an evolutionary descendant of gastropods, though we are a significantly more complex organism than most common snails or slugs. We have a functioning circulatory system, for instance, and a six-chambered heart. Over the aeons, we have lost the ability to grow thick shells (artificial shells are worn instead, as clothing). Our locomotion is still by means of our single, muscular foot and made easier by the secretion of waste slime to reduce friction. We have two eyes on muscular stalks that can rotate and can even look in two directions at once without distress. Beneath our chins are four tentacles we use for the manipulation of objects, both fine and coarse. We are omnivorous and are hatched from eggs.
By the standards of other species in the Union, we are foul-smelling, slow, and ugly. But they know well enough not to underestimate us. Our home planet, Thraador, is very large by the standards of the Union and we evolved in an environment of extreme gravitational forces. Though we usually stand no more than 150 cm from foot to shell, we are the tallest and largest creatures on our world, which is flat, wet, and hot. Bipeds and quadrapeds never evolved on our world, as standing upright requires too much strength and affords too few advantages. When a fall of a few meters is fatal, walking on two or even four feet is risky. We Thraad are steady on our foot – we seldom falter and we never fall (remember this always, as it speaks not just to our physiology, but to our culture and heritage as well). Furthermore, thanks to the intense environment of our home, we are extremely strong by the standards of the other species. Though slow, we are unstoppable. Though ugly, we have wisdom.
We Thraad are a more unified people than most. Long ago we cast off petty nationalistic rivalries or affiliations of House or Cartel. Introspective by nature, we seek consensus in all things. Perhaps thanks to the harsh environment of our homeworld, we are disinclined to take action unless absolutely needed and not until it has been deeply considered. We are not flighty or given to impulse.
Our government is decentralized and simplistic: a council of elders of no specific size meets to decide things and, should the deliberations be wise, the people follow. This sounds chaotic to other species, but they do not understand our temperament. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter who speaks it. If the elders are wise, and history shows that they are, then they will speak well and we would do well to take their counsel. We are not a species of rebels or petty criminals. In the rare instance that one of our number is committed to folly, they are simply ostracized and cast out of the community. It is that simple.
This, of course, has its disadvantages. Though scientifically curious and always willing to learn, our society changes slowly and our capacity to react to calamity is limited. This makes other species think of us as harmless “armchair academics.” But our anger is no less bright than others. Our weapons, though perhaps not as flashy as those of the Dryth, are no less deadly. History is filled with the plague-ridden corpses of those who underestimated us.
We do not maintain distinct family units, even though we are a sexually reproducing species. Eggs are hatched centrally in any given community. The care of young ones is the equal responsibility of all – hence my speaking to you now. It may be that some of you are my biological children, but we Thraad make no distinctions between such things. If you are young and a Thraad, you are my offspring, to be treated the same as any other. If female, you will one day make periodic visits to the hatchery to lay. If male, you will make periodic visits to fertilize. That is all.
There is a sense among us, I feel, that we are cheated by our nature. Some of us look out from our flat world to gaze with envy upon the doings of the other Great Races – the romance of the Lhassa, the passion of the Dryth, and so on. But, in the end, all Thraad return to Thraador. After some years adventuring in the light gravity of the outside world, we long to return to our swampy homes. We are sensible like that.
Thraad civilization began some 16,000 sidereal years in the past. There is too much to know to sum up in this precis, but suffice to say that we took our time developing our cultures, our technologies, and our knowledge. There were wars, yes, but they were primarily waged by proxy: animals and plants and microbes we had trained or engineered to pursue our interests in one way or another. We are, of course, famed for being the masters of what is called “ecological warfare.” It is a slow way to defeat one’s enemies, yes, but quite effective in the long run.
We sought the stars, as all species do in time, but not because of the damage we had done to our environment (like the Lhassa) or because of our desire for conquest (the Dryth). Rather, we left our planet to learn. To explore. The history of our species is one of slow, gradual exploration – the meticulous building of a body of knowledge. We are a curious people.
Of course, our steps into the stars were not without problems. We warred with other species and lost. We discovered that our technologies and our habits were too slow to compete with the likes of the Dryth and Lhassa and Lorca. By luck, we “met” Skennite, and found in it a kindred spirit. The period of our history known as “the Hastening” began – we discovered the secrets of slipdrive, we expanded our influence. When again war came, we were ready. Our biological and chemical weapons were terrifyingly effective, our well-planned strategies invincible. We made the galaxy tremble. Of course, we are not a warrior people in the manner of the Dryth and we are not so numerous or prolific as the Lhassa, and we in time lost again. But we had secured ourselves a place as one of the Great Races, a privilege we continue to enjoy.
We joined the Union gladly, happy to escape the endless wars that ravaged the stars. Now our role is as diplomats, scientists, and merchants, not warriors. We are happier this way. Let the Lhassa and the Dryth and the others struggle in violence and pain for their pieces of the universe. We Thraad shall stand by, patiently, for the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into somewhere essential, just as we always have.
The Great Races: Skennite
It can be difficult to discuss Skennite. When we speak of it, we speak of it as a material, not a being or even a series of beings. The Dryth Basic tongue does not give us the flexibility to encompass the paradox that is this, the first among the Great Races. Even our own Thraadi languages seem to have difficultly parsing an intelligence that both lacks and possesses individuality and that both is and is not alive by many standards. Even now, after many many centuries of living with Skennite, depending on it/them, and learning from the paths it/they have already tread, there is so much we do not understand.
To begin, then: Skennite is a crystalline structure/entity native, so far as we (or they) are aware, to the voids of space. It demonstrates, after a fashion, all the hallmarks of life – it reproduces, it grows, it reacts to stimuli, it has internal organization of enormous complexity – but it does none of these things in the fashion of other species. Shards of Skennite, by themselves, are inert crystals that drift through space. They are fed by the ambient radiation of the cosmos, and so tend to grow fastest near very bright stars or pulsars. As they grow, they gain more and more complexity and grow more and more intelligent until, at some point, they achieve sentience. What is interesting, however, is that this sentience is not precisely unique in form – all Skennite represents more-or-less the same identity, or perhaps shards of that identity. Indeed, when two large masses of Skennite encounter one another, they typically join and, curiously enough, those who knew either mass of Skennite before can ascertain no change in personality or behavior, but only come to learn that the entity they had conversed with before now has access to a much vaster array of knowledge and memory than it had before.
Because of this apparent lack of individuality, Skennite does not “die” so much as splinter. Gradually, any given crystalline mass of Skennite breaks down thanks to environmental factors and fractures apart. These shards later grow into new masses of Skennite, though this process can take centuries or even millennia depending on the availability of the kind of radiation the creatures need to grow. Shards of Skennite drift through space, through the deep voids between the stars, for uncountable aeons. Everywhere the Great Races of the Union have gone, there have we found Skennite.
Thanks to their essential immortality, Skennites possess an incredible depth of knowledge. Communicating with them, however, is difficult. They produce visible light in complex frequencies and wavelengths to communicate with most creatures and the technology to translate these patterns into words is ancient by our standards, but there must have been a vast period of history where ancient sentient creatures encountered the hyper-intelligent Skennite without realizing it and, indeed, there was likely just as vast a period of time where the Skennite were unaware that sentient, carbon-based life was at all interesting or could be communicated with. Indeed, packs of “wild” Skennite found in unexplored space often are unwilling to communicate with others unless the others have their own core of Skennite with which to make introductions.
Today, Skennite is an essential part of the Union of Stars. Most interstellar vessels, Bodani excepted, have Skennite cores that serve as databases, navigational and computational resources, and can also operate most of the ship’s systems. The Skennite itself then also consumes/absorbs a significant portion of the waste radiation given off by the ship’s power plant, making the arrangement mutually beneficial. When the Skennite grows too large, it will splinter parts of itself off and eject them into space, thus seeding the starts with its future descendants, if indeed “heredity” is relevant here.
In terms of culture, Skennite lacks anything truly resembling it on a level we can understand. It is known that they are curious and intelligent, endlessly patient, and entirely neutral on topics we would consider moral imperatives – life, death, love, religion, morality, the lot of it. While you can certainly discuss Kophis and Jaegai with it, such weighty philosophies seem like frivolous diversions from the Skennite perspective. It was here long before we were and it will likely be here long afterwards – our lives, and all our struggles, are merely passing through. One wonders, then, about the ancient legends that state that it was Skennite that taught the Dryth how to achieve slipdrive – for what purpose was this information transmitted? Was it, to the Skennite core in question, merely an idle conversation? It is hard to tell and we may never know, unless the shard containing that memory is, by some random chance, ever found and incorporated into a ship.
Skennite is utterly peaceful in nature – it is unclear how it would commit intentional violence in any rate, or why it should wish to – but it cannot be said to be faultless in the wars that ravage the Union each cycle. For every missile or piece of ordnance launched by a Lhassa cruiser and for every slipdrive jump calculated by a Lorca raiding vessel, there is a Skennite core running the numbers to make that feat possible. When the Lesser Races howl beneath the bootheel of a Dryth Solon, they must understand that Skennite put it there. Among the Great Races of the Union of Stars, there are no innocents.
The Union of Stars: The Tohrroids
The Union of Stars encompasses many billions of alien species, but none, perhaps, quite so fascinating nor so complex as the Tohrroids. Known colloquially as blobs, smacks, gobblers, or even slops, Tohrroids are semi-intelligent amorphous organisms capable of near-perfect mimicry of both sound, color, and shape. Almost perfect omnivores, they are able to consume all kinds of refuse – even waste hazardous to the Great Races – and therefore have become ubiquitous throughout the Union in their official capacity (waste disposal) and their unofficial one (stubborn vermin).
Tohrroids can range in size from 30cm to a full two meters across. In their “natural” form, they appear to be amorphous blobs, usually of a color best matching the ambient environment. They move through the use of pseudopods which they form to drag themselves along the ground and are capable of surprising strength. They can breathe in most oxygen-based environments but are temperature and humidity sensitive, preferring warm and damp climates. Excessive cold or a lack of moisture can lead to the Tohrroid growing sluggish and even drying out and dying.
The most fascinating aspect of Tohrroid physiology is their outer membrane. This is an enormously complex and flexible system of organs includes striated muscle fibers of the utmost deftness; light, chemical, and electro-sensitive sensory organs; incredibly versatile skin pigmentation; and, perhaps most amazingly, numerous stomas able to produce powerful digestive fluid and take in nutrients. In layman’s terms, the Tohrroid is able to reshape its skin into almost any shape down to alarming detail, it can see and smell and taste with any part of its skin (as well as sense electromagnetic fields), alter its skin pigmentation with an incredible range of color, and eat almost any substance it comes in contact with. This membrane system is the primary reason these organisms have been as successful as they have been.
Inside the Tohrroid is a soup of neural ganglia and fibrous growths that serve as the brain and “skeletal” system, respectively. Most of a Tohrroid is water – far moreso than most other large, complex organisms – but the pH of its internal fluid is very, very low. Most of the Tohrroid’s mass is, essentially, digestive fluid. Things the Tohrroid eats are absorbed by pseudopods and digested inside vacuoles that are part of their outer membrane system – basically a “bubble” inside of themselves. The digestive process is voluntary, too – Tohrroids can absorb an object and carry it around inside a vacuole indefinitely and can even spit those objects out at high velocity (and who hasn’t been pelted by something unsavory from a threatened Tohrroid, right?).
Another function of the fibrous growths inside the Tohrroid’s body is also to facilitate hearing. As vibrations in the air are transmitted through the outer membrane, the vibration of the inner fibers is akin to the aural organs used by other species.
Due to their unusual physiology, Tohrroids possess a very hardy immune system and are very difficult to poison. Though their outer membranes do very little to shield its inner organs from radiation, ionizing radiation does not kill a Tohrroid very easily. Tohrroids that spend time aboard leaky starships have a tendency to be very dangerous, as the amount of radiation their bodies can absorb is very unhealthy for other organisms.
Contrary to popular belief, Tohrroids are not amphibious, though they can swim very, very well and seem to enjoy the water.
Tohrroids are assexual and reproduce by budding. If a Tohrroid is well fed, it will eventually develop a kind of bulge in its side which, after a time, is discharged and forms into a whole new Tohrroid. Tohrroids do not demonstrate communal behavior, per se, but are often found in one another’s company. Because it is very difficult to identify individual Tohrroids or keep track of them for long periods, their precise lifespan is uncertain. Given their rate of genetic decay, it is theorized they live an average of 4 cycles, or 48 Standard Years.
Habitat and Behavior
Tohrroids are very intelligent and show complex problem solving ability and even a facility for basic language acquisition. While we know little about their original habitat (Tohrroids seem to have been in space as long as there have been starships), it is theorized that they originated on a hot and damp world, probably with relatively little direct sunlight. In the Union, Tohrroids can be found anywhere there is food, and for a Tohrroid that is a very broad definition. Many starships keep them aboard to keep corridors clean and plumbing systems unclogged, and their waste (a kind of nutrient rich slime) has proven to be excellent algae fertilizer, which makes them essentially part of any large ship’s life-support system. One of the more interesting theories of Tohrroid evolution is that they are not naturally occuring creatures at all, but rather engineered for their useful traits by some Race that predates the founding of the Union.
Tohrroids have been known to learn the rudiments of speech and can develop pet-like relationships with the Great Races, though they are not known to be loyal or particularly affectionate. Rumors of Tohrroids cable to speak as capably as any Dryth and who can flawlessly simulate bipedal forms have little basis in the record, though it is worth noting that any Tohrroid that could perform such feats would be extremely hard to detect in any case.
Furthermore, it can be seen that…
~From Notes on Xenobiology by Khush Moch of Thraador
No Spoilers Are In This Post
Let me start off by posting a few memes I’ve come across in the past 48 hours:
Now, I’ve talked about this before, but I feel the need to reiterate. You might think I’m a bad geek for saying this, or insist that I don’t really love Star Wars (which would be utterly false), but let me say this right now:
GET OVER YOURSELVES, YOU RAVING NUTBALLS!
Look, I get it – you don’t want somebody spoiling Star Wars for you. Fine. That’s fair. Spoiling somebody else’s fun is a jerk move. That, however, doesn’t mean you get to tromp around the internet lighting fire to anybody who wants to discuss a movie they just saw and didn’t appropriately warn you beforehand. You’re acting like spoiled children. It’s embarrassing.
I don’t want the movie spoiled for me, either. If some jerk comes along and deliberately spoils the movie in the comments of this post, for example, that makes them a consummate ass and no friend of mine. But accidental spoilers are a different thing entirely. So is having a conversation about an experience other people haven’t had. Even beyond all that, there is the simple fact that it is just a goddamned movie and you should act like a fucking grown-up.
It’s times like this that make me feel like I’m not a geek after all. I mean, hell, I play (and sometimes write) role-playing games, I have a Warhammer 40,000 hobby, I write science fiction and fantasy, I’ve LARPed, gone to movie premieres in costume, I love Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and the rest of it…but I’m not a fanatic. I’m just not. I am not freaking out right now. I’m excited to see The Force Awakens (I see it tomorrow), but I’m not bouncing off the walls, eight-year-old-on-Christmas-Eve excited.
Irrational, blind enthusiasm for things is always, has always been, something that freaks me out. People who paint their chests at football games are basically an alien species. The people who scour every second of movie trailers to reveal the smallest hints at prospective plot points are as bizarre to me as Donald Trump supporters (well, maybe not Trump…how about Cruz supporters? Yeah, that’s still pretty freaking gonzo nuts). I do not get it. I recognize that it’s a central part of our species – fanaticism is as old as ideas themselves – but I am not comfortable with it. I cannot turn off my rational brain and allow the emotional one to take the reins. Not over something like a movie, anyway.
So go forth, enjoy the movie, discuss it with friends. But don’t go burning bridges with Uncle Hank because he accidentally let something slip. Don’t cuss out some teenage cousin because they “ruined” something so insignificant as a Star Wars movie. Yes, I said insignificant. Because it is. I might love it, you might love it, but ultimately it’s just a movie about things that never happened in a place that doesn’t exist. It probably doesn’t even rise to the level of art (and if it did, spoiling it would be impossible, anyway – you can’t “spoil” The Great Gatsby or VanGogh’s Starry Night). It should never rise to the level where we would jeopardize our friendships and emotional well-being over it. That’s childish.
I remember once I had a book spoiled for me (accidentally) by a friend. I snapped at her about it. She snapped back. It was then that I realized she was right. It was childish and selfish of me; I had no right to act that way.
Neither do you.
- The Iron Ring is coming off a hell of a run after being selected as Book Bub’s “Fantasy pick of the day” about a week ago. It peaked at #2 overall on Amazon for Fantasy e-books! It is still on sale for 0.99, but probably not for much longer. Act now!
- My short story, “Adaptation and Predation” has been published by Escape Pod science fiction podcasts. It’s the first time an audio recording of one of my stories has been done, which is pretty damned cool. The story is set in The Union of Stars, so if that world of mine had piqued your interest at all, go and check it out now – it’s free!
The Union of Stars: The Aigyth Paradox
And so we come to discuss the Dryth.
The Solons, and all that they have done and will do, no doubt dominate the minds of every being in the Union. Beings of almost mythical power and unlimited wealth, each independent and unique, each equally as likely to be savior or destroyer.
But today is not the time to discuss the Solons. No doubt you have heard ballads enough of their exploits. No, today we discuss the Aigythi, the Dedicated – the armies of the Solons. Who among us has not borne witness to an Aigyth on patrol? Who has not been confronted by one, armor-clad, face obscured by that eyeless helm, and not quavered at their invisible gaze? But what are they? How can they have come to sacrifice so much of themselves to the service of their Solon?
The answer, like most good answers, is a complicated one. It asks that we look at the very roots of Dryth culture and mythology as well as the technical and practical limitations of the Solons themselves (blasphemy, I know, I know – and yet, if I am to educate, I must occasionally blaspheme). Though the Aigythi are a relatively new phenomenon, they are an offshoot of a much older tradition.
The Dryth homeworld, Odryss, is an inhospitable place. Its arid, radiation soaked surface was slow to give rise to complex life. When we Thraad were inventing mathematics and taming beasts in our First Age, life on Odryss existed only beneath the surface, in the deep caverns of the subterranean oceans. The Dryth, it is thought, are descendants of hardy creatures that journeyed from the warm, dark embrace of the deep oceans to brave the harshness of the deserts. The Dryth evolved slowly, but also steadily. No cataclysms or great plagues hampered their process, no extinction level events diverted their evolutionary path. When we Thraad has risen and fallen twice already, the Dryth grew unimpeded.
For aeons, the Dryth were small in number, as their habitat could not sustain a large population. They were a nomadic species divided into small tribes and constantly warring for sparse resources. By necessity the species was hardy, innovative, and independent. Their oral tradition is rife with tales of individual heroism and courage – clever warriors and powerful shamans, doing battle with the gods and nature for the protection of their people. The Dryth cultural obsession with independence and self-reliance stems from these deep-seeded moments, from a time when their ascendance was very much not guaranteed.
This, then, explains the rise of the Solons well enough: individualistic god-heroes, leaders and self-reliant pioneers, dragging their people along in their wakes. But what of the Aigythi? How does a culture that values independence and individualism so highly support such vast armies of people who are, in essence, enslaved to their Solon’s will?
There is a peculiar paradox among the Dryth. For as much as they style themselves as free and self-sustaining people, their admiration for the Solons – the ideal representations of their cultural desires – leads them to mimicry and imitation. This, ironically, leads them to conformity. In their haste to be “as unique as” their Solon masters, they wind up being but pale representations of them. The culture of the Dryth Houses is dominated by this paradox.
The Aigythi are the prime example of this paradox. Individual Dryth, free to make their own decisions, who willingly give up their minds and bodies to serve the Solon. When the Aigythi puts on the helm, his or her mind is open for the Solon to read. The Solon may draw upon the experiences and knowledge of any Aigythi as if it were their own. The Solon may command and even control any Aigyth body as though it were but another appendage. Naturally, of course, the Solon’s mind is not infinite and cannot control all Aigythi at once, but that is of little import. A talented Solon can lead an army of Aigythi with a level of cooperation and synergy other non-collective species cannot dream of, all while retaining a level of initiative and innovation among its members any collective species would envy. The perfect army led by the perfect warlord.
Now, it does happen that Aigythi retire from service, leave the guidance of their master, or even occasionally betray their Solon. Such, though, are rare. A hundred Aigythi might sacrifice their lives to prevent their Solon injury, even when that Solon would never think twice to abandon them should his strategic aims dictate him to do so. It makes one wonder: at what point does loyalty become madness? At what point does the self become consumed by the group or by the master? The Aigythi armies are, I believe, the most potent example of this paradox, and therefore ought to be studied with care.
But enough blaspheming for one day. Come, let us eat.
The Union of Stars: The Vore
Is there anyone outside the great Union, you ask? Why, naturally – though vast, the Union contains a miniscule volume of our galaxy. No doubt, assuming the rest of the galaxy is as densely populated as our one section, there are hundreds of thousands of other intelligent species out there, patiently awaiting the day when the Dryth warfleets appear in orbit and demand…
…no? That’s not what you want to hear? Well what then?
Ah. Ghost stories. I know those, too.
Many ages ago, before the Union was even a glimmer, before even the Dryth and the Lhassae and the Lorca and all the Great Races had even come to exist (even we Thraad), there was a great species. This species has no name – it needs none, as you will soon see. It had mighty technology at its command, but the secret of slipdrive eluded it; they were planet-bound, destined to strip their homeworld of resources, dwindle, and perish at the whims of nature. On this planet, scientists labored for many ages to develop some means of escape. They devised a series of machines – self-replicating machines with a collective intelligence that could be dispatched throughout the galaxy in slowships and, therefore, seed the stars with this species’ knowledge and bring back with them knowledge of the stars around them.
I see from your grim expression that you know what comes next, eh? Yes, these poor fools had unwittingly invented nano-weapons before they had the means to control them. What is worse, they dispatched these weapons randomly throughout the galaxy, assuming that the nano-probes would serve their needs. It was not to be. The probes were dispatched and centuries passed. The hopes of the people dwindled – their probes had failed, they thought.
They were wrong.
One by one, the suns surrounding the home system of the Creators began to dwindle and die – not collapse, not explode, but merely perished, withering in space like flowers in winter. The nanites, now known as the Vore, had spend the centuries travelling and replicating, as was their duty. They collected data, but had little use for it. Instead, they simply grew and multiplied, gaining intellect as well as numbers. They consumed whole planets and then, when the planetary matter of use had been expended, they consumed the stars, as well. They were a great cloud, larger than nebulas, and for all their wandering at the slow pace of starlight, they saw nothing of worth. They were, the Vore concluded, alone.
So it was that the Vore returned home. The scientists of the Creators, panicking at their invention gone wild, did not welcome their children home. First they tried to shackle the Vore, then to contain it (for it was really a single entity, not a community of individuals), and then at last to destroy it. The war was brief. The Creators were consumed by their creations. No one survived, or so it is said.
Considering themselves alone and having no need to grow further, the Vore went into dormancy, asleep on the surface of their now-dead planet. There they wait still, sleeping the aeons away until some rash adventurer awakens them. Then, it will arise and go forth, seeking new challenges and new information, consuming all in its wake.
Frightened yet? Sneer all you like, but I saw how your tentacles curled. Are they real? Well, it is hard to say – there is much in the story to doubt, not the least of which would be how we could possibly come to know it. What is important, however, is that the Vore teaches us wisdom and caution. Technology is not a game, nor is it a race – it is an act of nature, fickle and dangerous. As we seek more, as we learn more, we must always remember to chain the beast. Rare is the wild animal that will not, once freed of its shackles, turn upon its master.
Now, to sleep with you.
The Great Races: The Lhassa
To speak of the Lhassa seems foolish, as they are everywhere. How can one not know them? They are second only to the mighty Dryth in influence and they, more than any other of the Great Races, dictate the timbre of our artistic and cultural lives. Lhassae fashions fill the streets of any Union world, Lhassae music is more popular than any other, and the Lhassae concept of beauty dictates the self-image of dozens of species on hundreds of worlds. They are slender, graceful, and lithe, dancing on long legs designed for running and leaping, with flowing manes and smoothly furred skin. Big eyes, long lashes, long ears – I, being a squat, slimy Thraad, have them to thank for my species’ perceived ugliness.
It is well known that the Lhassa were once the prey of the mighty Lorca, living in great herds on the broad plains of Hodan’a. What is less well known is how this came to change. They lived in extended family groups (clans) made up primarily of females (mares) with only a few males (bulls). Though they reproduced quickly, life was difficult. Food was hard to come by as the Lhassae clans grew, making starvation common. The predations of the Lorca kept the population further in check. The Lhassa were a harried people, an intelligent species made into victims by another intelligent species of the same world. To my knowledge, this has never happened elsewhere.
The Lhassa, though, were intelligent and innovative. They worked together well, and clans were known to share knowledge and expertise when they met. Though it likely took many millennia, the Lhassa eventually developed agriculture, industry, and the other building blocks to a modern, star-faring society. Of course, what the Lhassa learned so, too, did the Lorca. The Lorca made themselves essential to Lhassae society, acting as judges, tyrants, and even gods in some cases. Though far fewer in number, the Lorca were able to read the writing on the wall as well as any: the Lhassae were growing too numerous and too powerful to be hunted at a whim. The Lorca established elaborate customs and rituals to keep themselves fed and the Lhassa happy with their servitude. This lasted for many centuries, or so Lhassa histories insist. Lorca histories (when found) are somewhat more vague on this score.
At length, tensions between the Lhassa (whose population now outnumbered the Lorca some 1300:1) and their ancestral predators grew to a breaking point. The typically peaceful Lhassa were starving on their own planet, consuming resources at a rate too fast to sustain life. The Lorca, seeing this, increased the consumption rate of Lhassa, which enraged the population. Breaking with their peaceful traditions, the Lhassa turned themselves to war and sought the eradication of the predators who had lorded over them for so long. The Lorca, with Dryth assistance, laid waste to the Lhassa armies, but chose to retreat from the planet in Dryth ships paid for by the Lorca’s vast wealth. The Lhassa were at last free.
This freedom, however, was also their curse. Gone were the old checks upon the Lhassa population. They multiplied like never before. They reached a period in their history where the average Lhassa female gave birth to upwards of 8 pups a year, and the vast majority of these survived to adulthood. Their planet’s environment buckled beneath this pressure, and the only solution was the stars. Vast colony ships were build, attended by fleets of supporting vessels. The Lhassa hit the galaxy like a plague.
The Lhassa were, as much as anyone, to blame for the turmoil that led to the Unification Wars. The Dryth, intimidated by their sheer numbers, made sport of destroying Lhassae colonies and slaughtering Lhassa wherever they were found. The Lhassa, in turn, attacked Dryth fleets and planets with vast armies. Though their technology was inferior, their numbers were enough to give even the mighty Dryth pause. The Lorca again appeared, this time steeped in Dryth military strategy and technology, and once again set to consuming their erstwhile food source. The tales of Lhassae suffering and death were widespread and well known.
The Union and the Law saved the species, and no mistake. Now the Lhassa, while more numerous than any other of the Great Races, have the freedom, wisdom, and space to spread out to support their vast population. When, at last, the period of War comes around each cycle, they fight to keep what they have and to advance their claims, the same as any. For a peaceful people, they are now well versed in the arts of death. They greet it with a poet’s wisdom, laughing at the brevity of it all. The Dryth respect them, the Lorca mostly acknowledge them as equals, and the status quo is retained.
One wonders, though, for how long this will last. The Lhassa continue to grow in number and, should my calculations be correct, there are only so many cycles this growth will be sustained. Perhaps it is simply the tragedy of their species, or perhaps it is their own lack of foresight, but it seems that the future, like the past, will be steeped in Lhassae blood.
He With No Name
You will never see my face. I do not have one.
You will never know my name, because one has never been given me.
I am known as slop, blob, smack, gobbler – a faceless, eyeless, amorphous thing you relegate to trash heaps and waste sites.
I am one of a species you threw away. You think I’m stupid, you think I can’t understand you, that I don’t care what a waste you’ve made of my life.
But I do. I do care.
I understand you, too. There is a certain familiarity you develop when you eat another species’ trash for long enough. I know what you so-called ‘Great Races’ are, how you have succeeded in conquering species like my own. I know why you think yourself great. The Union has made you inviolate; with each cycle you gain more and more, while things like me have less and less.
You may tell yourself that the more you eat, the more scraps there are for the slops that ooze through your sewers (and that’s what we do, isn’t it? Ooze…slink…trickle…it makes you feel better, doesn’t it, to know that the things you grind beneath your heels have no bones?) Yes, we eat better. That might be enough for some.
I, though, am still hungry.
The good thing about having no bones and having natural textural and chromatic control over my skin is that I can really be whatever I want. Me and some other Tohrroids do it. Always have. We don’t ooze; we walk, we stride, we jump. We weave in and out of your fat, contented societies, hidden more by your inability to imagine us doing it than by our own cleverness.
What do we do, then, as we wander through your world? Well, some just want to hide and live the good life, some want to steal from those who have stolen from them. As for me, I want to hurt you. I will hurt you. Think you can stop me? Think again. I am your servant, I am your friend, I am your wife, I am your children. I can look like anything, I can be anywhere. Put up your guard, hire a food-taster, blood check your retainers every night – it won’t matter. I will eat your bones first, and let you suffocate under the weight of your pointless, meaty mass. Then, for the first time, you will hear a gobbler laugh.
I’m coming for you, Dryth. Make peace with your precious Law.