Sanders recalled the rumbler. His motion on the control board before me seems to have brought me back as everything in The Merrimack comes into focus around me.
The Goatmen are staring at us again.
Galen brought to our attention the insects. Or to the lack of them. We studied the recordings of the past few days and discovered that the insects have neither parasitized nor symbiotized the Goatmen from the latter's advent to the present. Perhaps time has taught the insects that the Goatmen's thick coat is too much to get through.
Strange. Co-evolution should not have allowed that.
755015:500 - Sanders consented to an attempt at open communications. Aside from the robotics and the collar, I'll be going alone. I suggested a holo for first contact, in case these creatures are hostile. Policy and the others went against my suggestion, and I was selected as Odd-man-out. No robotics indicated anything like these Goatmen, so no xenopologists were assigned to this crew.
This isn't what I was trained to do and I don't like it.
755015:940 - When they saw me walk around the Blind, all immediately lowered themselves to their knees with their arms at their sides and hands on thighs, fingers pointing inward, their backs straight and their faces always towards me. I felt like I was entering an Aikido class. The way their arms arc out from their bodies I can only think of "I'm a little teapot short and stout..." Jeremy so loved that song. I would sing it to him and dance, positioning his little body to the lyrics of the song. Ah, well.
As I approached, in unison they held out their left hands and bent slightly towards me. One of the Goatmen communicated. The communication was audial, but was in the infrasound range as I felt it more than heard it, like feeling the vibrations of a big bass drum as a parade marches by. The vibrations stopped and, again in unison, they extended their right hands, still bent slightly in my direction. I was told by a friend from Nambia that most white men smell like goats. The wind has changed and, if this is how we smell, we should bathe more often.
If they used audial communication, I would try the same, hoping my voice was neither beyond their hearing nor painful to their ears.
"My name is Gordon Banks."
They communicated amongst themselves, this time in the audible range. What I immediately noticed was the physical cues to communication. When one spoke, he leaned towards his listener and extended his left hand, then showed he awaited a reply by extending his right hand. The listener kept his back straight until he spoke. During conversation -- as opposed to communication -- both leaned into each other and their hands darted forward and back quickly but rhythmically. During oration (if that term can be applied) the listeners sit with their backs straight. The patterns for conversation and communication followed when more than two Goatmen were engaged.
I remember that my reaction to their physical cuing was the amount of respect it showed for speaker and listener. I wondered if this physical cuing was ceremonial or cultural.
Their voices remind me most of excited horses and sheep, a combination of high bleating, neighing, and low bellowing. It is obviously a complex language. As they went through their posturings the wind brought several subtle smells to me. Could there also be an vomeronasal component to their communication? How I wished for a Goatman's nose! Is the grotesque physical animation necessary due to the torpidity of the face? Does their vomeronasal sense supplement that? And if so, how subtle and sophisticated is it?
Why did none of the robotics reveal this culture here? Why are there no other such creatures or cultures anywhere else on this planet?
They extended their left hands again (a sign of placation or offering?) and bent towards me. When the one Goatman -- I've decided to call him Gomer, it is as close as I can get to his name -- spoke, I tied in the translators. He is, I think, a middle-aged male of some importance. "You are from the ..." He made a sound at the end of his question that the program couldn't translate.
Again their right hands came forward. All stared at me, waiting. I spoke into the collar, "Can the computers give me anything on that last phoneme?"
Sanders answered me, although I could hear the others in the background and imagined them all huddled around the holo watching and taking notes. "Something tied to their mythology is the best we can do. Some kind of primary cultural icon, we think."
I wanted to echo "We think?" but know Sanders was incapable of an original thought unless the flight manual expressly indicated it. Instead I said, "Thanks. I'm talking with fifteenth-century Christians and am about to say, 'Jesus Christ? Holy Spirit? Sorry, I have no idea what those are.' I hope their culture is more aboriginal."
I tied in the translators and spoke. "Can you understand me?"
Their left hands came forward, all grunted which the translator expressed as "Yes," and their right hands came back.
"Sanders, can you get me covered if what I'm about to do doesn't work?"
"You're covered, Banks."
I kneeled down and leaned towards them, extended my left hand and prayed the translators had integrated enough of their language into its core. "Our languages are different, friends, and your words are strange to me. Perhaps my language has different words for..." and here I had the translator echo back the phoneme it could not parse.
The Goatmen became agitated.
I spoke to the collar, "What's going on, Sanders?"
"Why don't you start backing up. They don't look happy."
They stood up and so did I. Then, one by one, their eyes ever on me, they walked away.
795015:500 - We have not seen the Goatmen for four days, although the casters clearly showed them going into the brush on the steppes rising to the Towers. I've run several linguistic routines through the computers, but there wasn't enough conversation to develop much lexicon, grammar, syntactical rules, etc.
Sanders just called me up. A Goatman is outside and the computers have identified him as Gomer. It is just as well. This morning Sanders handed me another communique from Robin, this one Private. I left it unopened on my desk.
795015:620 - He started in the standing talking posture. "Come to see our homes, Journeyer."
So I was 'Journeyer.' A name I could live with and one which made me laugh. Robin, I think, would agree with that name.
So be it! I would be 'Journeyer' and I would go with them. For once, I told myself, Robin could be right.
I mimicked their talking postures and said yes, I would come but had some things to do first. He'd have to wait until I returned.
His left hand came forward. "Just you. Not the others..." and again the program returned that impenetrable word.
"What others?" My first mistake. Just because they're simplistic doesn't mean they're simple.
Gomer stood up straight and stationary. The only indication of life the occasional flecking of nictating membranes over his eyes and slight steam jetties rising from his nostrils. If he pawed the earth I would have run.
Slowly he leaned towards me and his left hand came forward. "The others like you who are in the home who wants to be a rock." Then, as if weighted with finality, "Are there those like you other than those in the home who wants to be a rock?"
And here is where it happened, I realize now; I lied. This, I think, was a gift of Robin's; to lie with such easeful facility. I shook my head no and heard Tellweiller over the collar, "Say it, Banks. Shaking your head might mean you want to date his daughter."
"No. There are no others like me except in the home who wants to be a rock. There are things I need to travel."
He stared at me, those damn cerulean eyes of his never leaving me and, at the same time, giving me the feeling he might not have been looking at me at all or perhaps seeing more than me standing there.
I left him sitting as I returned to the Blind. When I returned to The Merrimack I saw him on the monitors, staring at the home who wants to be a rock.
Sanders came to me as I prepared my quarters for departure. "Have you read that last transmission?"
I gazed around me. "What transmission?"
"The one from your wife. It seemed pretty important. I --"
I know my gaze interrupted him. He could not know the contents of a Private message unless he believed the mission in jeopardy and expressed his concerns to CenComm. I felt color leave my face. "How have I jeopardized this ship or its crew?"
If he answered, I don't know, for it suddenly became clear to me that this log was under his inspection as well.
795015:790 - This is the last record I'll make on the ship. From now on, my only connection to the ship will be via the grid strapped to my back. The ship will receive holos of everything around me, the collar I'll wear is linked directly to a translator in the grid, and I'll be able to extend a two-hundred amp field ten meters around me thanks to Galen's and Nash's tinkering. Other than that, the ship will be a passive witness to my fate. I won't be taking food as Galen says the vegetation is high in both digestible carbohydrates and protein, vitamins and minerals, and it might be good not to eat ship food for a few days.
Jeremy and I once played a game called "Circles." One person named something and the next had to somehow link that thing to another thing. So on the game went until you had come full circle and the first thing was named again. Perhaps that is what's happening here on Aguirra. Soldier to husband to father to xenopologist. Ha! What am I to become when the game ends?
805015:700 - I am exhausted. Gomer could no doubt have made the trip from the blind to the top of Alpha Tower in an hour, maybe two. Rarely have I seen an animal so uniquely adapted to its environment. Because of me the trip took a little over a day, and I'm considered in good shape.
Gomer led me up and away from the blind in what I think was a slow pace for him. As the incline increased, he dropped to all fours and moved like a North American billy high in the Canadian Rockies. His toes act exactly as flattening rubber pads, thick soled and slightly prehensile, that spread and grab the rocks for support and balance. Walking bipedally, it wasn't unusual to see him leap against a rock wall, one foot flatten against it like a hiking boot and filling minute crevices to obtain purchase, and push off and forward with his other foot literally grabbing an outcropping which normally would block the way. All this and maintaining forward locomotion! At another point he had gone around a rivel ahead of me. When I came around he was suspended upside down from an upper ridge with no apparent support. His attention seemed fixed on the steppes leading to the other Tower.
I gasped and his attention was broken. I heard two pops and he fell -- a drop of several meters -- twisting in the air like a cat and righting himself. The place where he "stood" under the ridge was moist but evaporating quickly, and there was moisture under his footprints now as he walked. It was then I noticed the extremely pronounced musculature and venous markings between his knee and ankle and ankle and pads, markings and musculature which previously hadn't been apparent. I'm guessing these creatures have evolved the ability to control the contour of the soles of their feet and excrete a mucous, thus creating a suction cup.
He looked towards Beta Tower. "Tomorrow," by which he meant today, "they begin their Passage."
The climb only grew more arduous and I told Gomer to stop often. He didn't seem bothered by this. Perhaps he considers me a juvenile?
A curious thing did happen, once. I started to slip and Gomer stared at me. I flailed at the edge. Suddenly he was between me and the precipice, gently butting me back into the direction I should travel, his butting as gentle as a mother covering her young in a blanket yet as forceful as a cat chastising her kits. From that point on he always walked between me and the fall line of the Tower. When the path wouldn't support two abreast he fell to all fours and moved over the edge until more trailspace became available and he could again join me on the path. One could believe they evolved from quadripedal spiders until you see their eyes.
Later, at a particularly difficult pass for a biped, I told him I could go no further. He sat and, of course, stared. Eventually I could draw a breath without rasping. My legs, I knew, would ache for several days due to the lactic acid build-up in them. In addition, the rarified air was forcing me to hyperventilate in order to force enough oxygen into my system and I was starting to feel the cold through my suit.
I looked up at him, silhouetted by the setting sun, the sky clear above but a gentle mist settling over the Tower. On three sides of us were gray crags and skettles of rock. Underfoot and in occasional mounds were bluish green scrub plants. To the other side was the high plains of Aguirra and, far away and below, the lowlands were the colony would one day be. A wind blew, smelling of O3 and summer storms and my attention went back to him. As the wind blew, his fur ruffled and filled, swirling around him and protecting him, bleeding away the cold the way a hirsute man's pelt bleeds away water as he rises from the sea. All the while his impassive, immutable face stared down at me, the only change in it being the nictating membranes that covered his eyes when the winds blew directly into them.
I saw myself clearly in his eyes, then as if surrounded by clouds and mists when the membranes came over them, then clear again, and wondered how he saw me.
The winds started to grow more violent and I realized that, indeed, another storm would soon be pummeling the altiplano and all that grew out of it. What oxygen I had been able to glean before seemed to be robbed from me as the pressure dropped and the winds increased. The pain in my lungs was tremendous as they struggled to ventilate me, my blood to irrigate me. My heart began pounding in response to my body's demand for more oxygen.
Why hadn't I thought to bring O2 shells with me? I could feel my vessels dilating within me to carry rich red life where it was needed and my brain felt as if overcome with fever as oxygen starvation took hold.
On my knees, the Goatman standing on a rock a meter or so over me, I leaned towards him and reached, genetics moving my left hand forward more than any understanding of his culture, and fell unable to speak, unable to look up at him due to the setting Astarte's rays piercing into my skull.
His three fingered hand swamped about my wrist. I was suddenly aware of his strength the way one is suddenly aware of a powerful undertow, being caught and going under, panicking, either to drown or to ride the wake and rise later, eventually making for shore.
I remember feeling the nails of his fingers against my skin. They were hard and cold, like the hooves of a cow in a winter field, but his fingers and palm were warm, near hot in this fairyland through which he guided me. His grip was strong but not violent as his fingers wrapped about my wrist and up my forearm.
He brought me forward, his muzzle a few scant centimeters from my face, and stared intently at me for a moment, as if inspecting me, unsure of what I was or what he was with me, then pulled me closer still until his lips engulfed mine, and he breathed. He pushed his own air into me, filling my lungs with oxygen his body didn't use. His free hand he placed on my belly, feeling my respirations through my suit, monitoring just how much to exhale before letting me breathe again. His eyes never wavered from me as he did this, as he resuscitated me, all with one long, shallow breath like a diver rising without tanks from far beneath the sea.
My body and brain, craving the life he gave me, took too much too fast, I think. I remember him ripping the flesh of his arm with one of his horny nails, making a gouge just wide enough to cover my lips, then making a fist until he bled. He gripped me by the neck then and held my mouth over his wound, holding me there and squeezing his fist. I fought at first but there was no point. Even at my best he was many times stronger than I. He held me there until I drank one, maybe two mouthfuls of his blood.
The skies turned red and I felt myself falling completely into his arms after that. I don't remember if he picked me up, led me, or carried me. I remember nothing until waking up some moments ago. I checked the equipment and all is functioning within specs, so I'm assuming Sanders and the others got everything on holos.
When I awoke, there were several females surrounding me and I was covered with their hairs. I can only guess that, realizing I was going into thermal shock, they lay around me to keep me warm. I was in a depression in the rock surface, not exactly a cave, but leeward, deep enough and with enough of a leading overhang to keep one relatively free of wind and rain. The rock surface itself was covered by plaited hairs, I think serving as a rug. Branches and leaves of some strange tree were woven into walls and roof around me.
I am in someone's hut, I suppose. Someone important, no doubt.
My first impression is that the females are built like diminutive males. All about me have narrower muzzles and foreheads, thinner necks, slightly shorter legs, and less massive shoulders than the males I've seen previously. They have four teats clearly visible due to hairless areas in their undercoats. This is not evidenced in the males. The females around are obviously of different ages although I have no way of knowing what their exact ages are as yet. Also, there is neither reddening nor swelling of the female's teats. This leads me to believe there are no nursing kids in this camp, unless none of these females are mothers. I can say that, as a whole, they stink. They exude an odor similar to an overripe, rotting melon which seems to lodge like a wedge in my sinuses slightly behind and immediately between my eyes. This odor is stirred or freshened when they move and they move a lot. It's damn near killing me.
Shortly after awakening, they brought me a heavy, bluish green porridge. I buried my head in it as doing so alleviated the scent of these women. It filled my nostrils like a fine but foreign liqueur, was sticky to my lips and tasted like sweetened cauliflower; all in all quite invigorating. I drank three good size bowls before it occurred to me I might be depleting their stores. They continued to offer, however, so I continued to drink five more bowls full. As I finished the last bowl I realized my breaths were coming easier. It wasn't until I had finished the last bowl that I realized how much better I felt. The porridge, I think, is sedative, elixir, and re-oxidant. Small wonder!
Gomer came while I ate. He assumed the kneeling position I've described previously, my little aikidoka, and waited. His nictating membranes rose from the corners of his eyes slowly, near eclipsing his irises, and his lids lowered. I did not know if he could even see me. His nostrils flared and he breathed slowly, evenly, the calm power in his body a mockery of the lack of it in mine. A moment later he got an erection which he stroked slowly and shamelessly. The females left, taking their musky scent with them. Do the females control the matings here? Again perhaps through some vomeronasal sense? Are their matings ritual, ceremony, or purely atavistic? That they have a culture is obvious, how much that culture has stripped them of their genetic coding is not. Do they divorce? Do the females take the young and leave the males lonely and far away? Perhaps that was the hallucination I had. For that matter, what is going on with Robin and Jeremy? Sanders, I'm sure, will know. By-the-Book Sanders who, probably even as I enter this, is asking for a psych addendum to my files.
Gomer has spoken. The translator was not hooked in so I had to ask him to repeat. "You talk when there are none who will hear you."
"What do you mean?"
"Your sounds are not our sounds. There are none here to understand."
"The sounds are for myself."
"You sing your own history."
What an interesting phrase; to sing one's own history. Yet it seemed so true, so accurate. "Yes, I do."
"Share them with me. Teach me to sing your songs."
Ah, so social contagion finally rears it's ugly head. That I could not allow. "There's nothing to share. I make it up as I go along."
Gomer, who was kneeling while we talked, sat back at that. He stared at me with those damning eyes and unreadable face, then picked up the last bowl I'd been given. There was still some porridge sticking to the sides of the bowl and, lifting the bowl to his face, his tongue flipped out and rasped the bowl dry. He seemed to bow then, placing first his left hand on the ground before him then his right so that a triangle was formed between the first fingers and thumbs of each hand, then bowing at the waist, next sitting up and placing first right then left hand on his hips and finally rising. He took the bowl with him and left.
What have I said?
Could it be that his culture has no concept of stories or songs for entertainment? Are all their traditions oral? If they have writing, I have not recognized it as such. Are all their oral traditions morality lessons, history and folklore? Are none of them purely for entertainment? Robin would be proud. I've happened upon a planet of Presbyters.
Or at least a plateau of them.
Before Gomer came I was commenting about the porridge and the effect it's had on my breathing. I've also noticed there is no pounding in my ears and my heart isn't racing. At these altitudes, I am not surprised to discover they feast on plants which are both water and oxygen retainers.
Article © Joseph Carrabis. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-10-21
Image(s) © John Scullin of Skolenimation. All rights reserved.