Read The Companions Online

Authors: Sheri S. Tepper

The Companions

Sheri S. Tepper
The Companions

IN LOVING MEMORY OF
KYBO, SKEETER,

TIBBY, BEANS, TIBESKIBO, SCHMUTZIE,

MOGUL, MELITZA, MUFFY, AND ALL THE

LEGION OF DEPARTED COMPANIONS,

AND WITH JOYOUS APPRECIATION OF

PUPUP AND LULABELLE, THE CURRENT

GLAD REVENANTS OF THE SPECIES

elemental, monumental, fine phantasmic elephants;

hairless hippopotami, huddled close as spoons;

riotous rhinoceri, roistering on grasslands;

tiny tender tarsiers, eyes like moons;

plump pied pandas, pretty as a picture;

gay, giggling gibbons, gamboling in the trees;

awl–nosed aardvarks, excavating anthills;

glowering gorillas lollygagging at their ease.

light on the leaf mold, feather-footed field mouse,

tiny as a hazelnut, the bloodthirsty shrew

off in the outback, wombat, numbat,

gone to have a meeting with kid kangaroo

bulky-shouldered bison, built like a bastion,

wily alligator, floating like a log

wolf in the wildlands, jackal in the jungle,

dutiful and diligent, man's friend, dog.

horrible hyenas, hairy noses quivering;

wildly running wildebeests, sometimes called the gnu,

laugh-provoking lemurs, loitering on tree limbs,

melancholy mandrill with his bottom painted blue

overbearing ostrich, fluttering his feathers

boulder-bounding ibex, helmed like a knight

curve-backed camel, king of the desert

prickly, stickly porcupine no animal will bite

big brown bruin bear, walking as a man does

toucan with a great tall trumpet for a nose

bald-headed vultures, vittling on vipers

(vultures will eat anything as everybody knows)

mad male orangutan, face like a soup bowl

curious xenopus, peculiarly made

quagga, quail, and quetzal, quaint concatenation
.

solitary tiger, strolling in the shade

loudmouthed jackass, braying jeremiads;

bald-faced uakaris, kinky kinkajou;

high hairy travelers, yaks upon the mountain;

bringing up the rear with Zebra and Zebu.

The moss world, so said one XT-ploitation writer who had reviewed first-contact images of it, was a Victorian parlor of a planet, everywhere padded and bolstered, its cliffs hung with garlands, its crevasses softened with cushions, every cranny silk-woven, every surface napped into velvet. Here were peridot parklands where moss piled itself into caverned outcrops of sapphire shade. There were violet valleys, veiled in lavender and wine across a mat of minuscule, multicolored moss beads. In that clearing the morning light shone on infant parasols, ankle high, that by noon had sprung upward to become umbrellas, guyed with hair-thin fibers, ribs flung wide to hold feather-light sails that turned softly, softly through the afternoon, shading the sporelings beneath.

Along the canyons were fragrant forests where every footfall released scents that evoked aching nostalgia, as though racial memory held sensations undetected for centuries: Cedar perhaps? Sandalwood? Maybe piñon or frankincense? Maybe something older than any of those? The riversides were endless alleys cushioned in aquamarine and jade, hung with curtains that moved like the waves of a shifting ocean, hiding, then disclosing—so it was claimed—the flame-formed inhabitants of this place.

If, that is, the Exploration and Survey Corps really saw them. If the people from Planetary Protection Institute really saw them. After each sighting the men sought confirmation
from their complicated devices and found no evidence of the beings they had perceived. The machines confirmed small grazing and burrowing creatures, yes; they confirmed tall, gaunt trees that served as scaffolding for the epiphytic fabric of the world, but these others…these wonders…Everyone described the same shapes, the same behaviors, the same colors. Formed like flames, endlessly dancing, an evanescent blaze in the morning, a shimmering shadow in the dusk. Rarely seen, unmistakable when seen, but never yet recorded…

“Along that ridge, shining, a whole line of them…”

“Right. I saw them. Like huge candles…”

What had they seen? That was undoubtedly the question.

A Garr'ugh shipclan of the Derac, a race nomadic by nature, had found Moss quite by accident when their clan-ship was sucked into an instability at one arm of the galaxy and spewed out in another. Subsequently, the exploration and survey of the three inner planets—the rock world, the jungle world, the moss world—were farmed out on shares to Earthian Enterprises. The Derac were accustomed to farming out work to Earthers. Humans prided themselves on their work—an emotion felt, so far as anyone knew, only by humans, as most other starfaring races considered “work” a sign of serfdom, which among them it invariably was. Earthers felt differently. They had their own Exploration and Survey Corps, ESC, and their own Planetary Protection Institute, PPI, a branch of the Interstellar Planetary Protection Alliance, of which Earth was a member. More importantly, Earthers were a settling type of people who seemed not to mind staying in one place as long as it took to do an adequate job of assessing new planets. Accordingly, Earth Enterprises, on behalf of PPI and ESC, was awarded a contract by the Derac to explore and survey, using, of course, the IPPA guidelines governing such activities on newly discovered worlds.

Accordingly they came. They saw. They were conquered.

Two-thirds of the planet's surface was taken up by the
mosslands where the Earthers sought to answer IPPA's primary question: Did a native people exist? Time spun by, a silver web; they felt what they felt and saw what they saw, but they could not prove what they felt or saw was real. They thought, they felt there was a people, peoples upon Moss, but did a people really exist?

Did the men and women of PPI themselves exist? Their days on Moss went by like dreams passed in a chamber of the heart, a systole of morning wind, a throb of noon sun, an anticipatory pulsation of evening cool that was like the onset of apotheosis, a day gone by in a handful of heartbeats as they waited for something marvelous that would happen inevitably, if they were simply patient enough.

Patience wasn't enough. IPPA required specific information about newly discovered worlds. Was the ecology pristine or endangered? Were there intelligent inhabitants, and if there were, were they indigenous, immigrants, or conquerors? Did they occupy the entire planet? Were they threatened? Did they consider themselves a part of or the owners of the world on which they lived? Were other races of intelligent creatures native to the world, or had any been imported or rendered extinct? If there were various views on these matters among the inhabitants, might they be amenable to referring the matters to IPPA for resolution? These questions had to be answered! These and a thousand more!

Moss could not be opened to habitation, trade, or visitation until it was certified by IPPA. Moss could not be certified by IPPA until the information was received. The information could not be received until the blanks in the forms were filled in, but the blanks in the forms remained exactly that.

How could one determine prior claims from creatures that fled like visions? Were they inhabitants? Possibly, though they were as likely to be events. Often, truly, they seemed to be hallucinogenic happenings, light and motion flung together by wind and imagination. Perhaps they were a new kind of creature: ecological animations! Such suggestions
met with incomprehension back on Earth, where the carbon life-form branch office of IPPA was located.

Where IPPA was all judgment, Earth's own ESC made no judgments at all. The only task of Exploration and Survey was to record everything, to take note of everything, to determine the history of everything and establish not only how one thing related to another, but also whether each thing fit into a category that would be meaningful to intelligent persons of various races. Though Exploration and Survey Corps was a subsidiary of Earth Enterprises, a purely human organization, operated for profit and without any interstellar governing body, the Corps had to interface with IPPA and therefore used IPPA categories and definitions for its reports.

There was no IPPA category for beautiful. Humans had several times suggested such a category to IPPA, but no other race had a similar concept. Beauty was not quantifiable, said IPPA. The Tharst recognized a quality they called Whomset. The Quondan spoke of the quality of M'Corb. Neither race could define these things, though they said they knew it when they encountered it. IPPA did not recognize things that couldn't be defined and measured by proprietary devices, mechanical, electronic, or biotech. For IPPA's purposes, human beings along with most other beings were biological devices that lacked standardization. No race with such sayings as “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or “There's no accounting for tastes,” could pretend to define beauty in terms the various races would accept.

The lack of Beauty—as well, possibly, as the lack of Whomset or M'Corb—was crippling on Moss. How did one record odors that seemed to be presences? What was the meaning of these rioting colors: these flaming scarlets so joyous as to make the heart leap, these grayed purples so somber as to outmourn black? What was the relationship among these thousand tints and hues, pure, mixed, nacreous, opalescent, ever shifting? What profit was there in this giddy growth and incessant motion?

On Moss, the winds were sculptors, molding the stuff as it
grew, weaving tasseled ropes into swaying ladders from high branch to high branch, shredding chiffon tissue into feathered fringes along bare boughs, sometimes puffing beneath a fragile carpet and lifting it to make a glowing gossamer tent between the sky and those who walked beneath. Such constructions were often ephemeral, no sooner seen with breath-caught wonder than they dissolved into a momentary aureole suffused with sun-shattered rays of amber, scarlet, and coral. Strictly speaking, moss did not flower, but on Moss it pretended to do so, in clamorous colors and shapes out of drugged fantasy.

As their separate purposes demanded, ESC and PPI approached their tasks differently. ESC lived behind force screens on a small island in a large lake, an island that had been ringed and roofed with force shields then cleaned down to the bedrock with flame and sterilants to protect the workers from any Mossian scintilla afloat in the atmosphere. On the island, the Earthers walked freely, but when they came ashore, they wore noncons, noncontact suits. They did not breathe the air or drink the water on the mainland, they did not put their skin against the skin of the world. They received reports from PPI, which they remeasured and requantified before filing, or, if measurement was impossible, which they filed under various disreputable categories such as “alleged,” “professed,” “asserted.” With ESC, nothing was sensed directly; everything was measured by devices. It was said of ESC personnel that they were the next thing to hermits, monks, or robots, and it was true that Information Service selected persons who were loners by nature, content with silence.

PPI, on the other hand, had to experience a world to make judgments about it, and its people fell into Moss as into a scented bath, only infrequently coming up for air. Baffled by change, assaulted by sensation, each day confronting a new landscape, PPI people spent days at a time forgetting their purpose. The seasons were marked by shifts of color, by drifts of wind, by smells and shapes and a certain nostalgic
tenderness that came and went, like a memory of lost delight. Time, on Moss, was a meaningless measurement of nothing much.

PPI was abetted in its lethargy. Exploration of the world Jungle, in this same system, had ended in a disaster dire enough to demonstrate that impatience might be a mistake. If one hurried things, one might end up as those poor PPI fellows had on Jungle, where both men and reputations had been lost and nothing had been discovered as compensation. PPI could not explain its failure. Back on Earth, those in command, who had no idea what a jungle world was like, or indeed what any primitive world was like, decided that PPI had been overeager, had pressed too far, too quickly. ESC, responsible for housing and protecting the team on Jungle, had allowed too much liberty, too quickly. Do not make this same mistake, they said, on Moss.

Obediently, ESC people on Moss considered, reconsidered, weighed, and reweighed, becoming more eremitic with each day that passed. Gratefully, PPI personnel on Moss added Authorized Dawdle to the snail-creep imposed by the planet itself. Dazedly they wandered and dreamed and fell into intimacy with the sounds and smells and visions of the place. Finally, after years of this, the Moss folk rewarded them all by emerging from the shadows onto the meadows along the shore, and dancing there in patterns of sequined flames. Every off-planet person on Moss saw them. Every recorder turned upon them recorded them. Every person saw the curved bodies of the Mossen, as they were subsequently dubbed, aflutter in a bonfire of motion, gliding and glittering in a constant murmur of musical babble that might have been speech. If they spoke.

Who knew if they spoke? Did they have powers of perception? Did they see their visitors? They showed no sign of it except when one man or another wanted a closer view and attempted to approach. As anyone crossed the invisible line, the Mossen vanished, floating upward in a spasm of light, the carpet of their dancing floor raised beneath them, veiling
them from below. Moss itself was a wonder, a marvel beyond comprehension. The Mossen who inhabited it remained a mystery, an enigma that baffled understanding.

The ESC island was just offshore of the meadow where the Mossen danced. The compound of PPI lay on the shore beside that meadow. The compound contained a number of individual houses-cum-workstations gathered around the commissary hall, where meals were prepared and meetings held. The outsides of the buildings had been mossened with green and yellow, red and gray within a day of their erection, though the insides, inexplicably, remained unfestooned. The largest building served as a headquarters, and it was there that Duras Drom, the mission chief, sat at his console, sifting his records, searching for something, anything to help him out of his dilemma.

What he found only complicated it.

“When did this report from ESC come in, the one about the ships?”

His lieutenant gave him a thoughtful look as though from a distance of some miles. “What report?”

“Here,” said Drom, pointing. “Earther ships, old ones, up on the nearest plateau.”

The other man, Bar Lukha, rose and stumbled across the room and back, pausing briefly to look over Drom's shoulder. “Dunno. Haven't seen it. Sage must've entered it. There, let's see, what's today? Hmm. Looks like fourteen, fifteen days ago.”

“They found ships! And nobody mentioned it!”

“As you said, old ones,” said the other, dismissively. “Mossed all over. Nobody in them.”

“They're
Hargess
ships!”

“Really? Hmmm. I suppose the Hargess Hessings might want to know about it.”

“You suppose so, do you? Of course they'll want to know about it. Even families with enough money to send off whole fleets of ships on damned fool errands are interested in what happens to them!”

“Ah.” Bar Lukha shook his head as he passed his dreaming gaze across his fellow as though scanning shadows. “They've written them off, long since. They've been lost up on that escarpment too long to be of concern. It's no wonder nobody saw them until recently. You really want to open things up…”

Drom cursed, quietly, thoughtfully. Though the persons who had traveled in those ships or had owned those ships, or their heirs, might have a reasonable claim to the planet itself, the process of exploration and categorization, inconclusive though it was, had advanced so far that no one would welcome a suggestion to start over. Such a suggestion would infuriate the Derac. And others.

He had no intention of suggesting it. He would simply forward the report. Let the higher-ups suggest whatever they wanted to. His soul told him this world should be left to the creatures who occupied it, but he could find no hard evidence of intelligent life. He had only one concrete fact to use as a bar against this planet being opened up, visited, utilized, colonized, destroyed, but he did not wish to mention that one thing.

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