Reckoners of Clay and Flesh
It was 3.30 pm local time when Sanders got the call she was dreading.
She was standing three meters outside of the Reborin stone circle with
two of her graduate students, and already it felt that she had spent
the entire day arguing. The circle was composed of a number of weirdly
sculpted stone pillars. They were roughly rectangular, composed of a
greyish blue stone, though here and there this darkened to patches of
inky blackness. From a distance the stones looked like the terrestrial
megaliths ancient human cultures had set up millennia ago on Terra. A
closer glance, however, revealed their true, alien nature. In places
they had been hollowed out, grooved and corded till they were
surrounded by sinewy buttresses and vaulting. They looked less like
human megaliths than like the weird stacks of the American southwest,
carved and sculpted by the wind, as decorated by a medieval mason. In
addition to the weird shape of the stones themselves, here and there
shallow hollows had also been carved into them. Some were empty, but
others still retained the obsidian flakes that had been placed in them,
cemented with a clay mortar or slip.
Around them were placed the expedition's machines, the theodolites and
scanning probes surrounding the stones, red laser light cutting the air
as they attempted to build up a detailed 3-D model of the monument.
Drones had already flown overhead, capturing further images of the
circle and its components in visible light and the near infra-red.
Alongside these images, various small droids quartered the surrounding
area, moving back and forth over patches of ground as their instruments
measured the small changes in the local magnetic field to locate
objects and artifacts that may have been buried long ages before,
artifacts that may hold clues to the circle's purpose and significance.
It was routine stuff on a routine spring day, out on the Reborin
steppe. The undulating greenery of the local vegetation, a small
two-leafed planted with a rough resemblance to terrestrial grass,
spread out around her in all directions. Above her the yellow sun shone
intermittently through the lowering gray clouds. 30 metres or so to her
north lay the tents and motor vehicles of their camp, tracked trucks
and wagons for negotiating the local quagmires and marshes. Inside one
of the tents, she knew, Chou and his team would be monitoring the
information as it came in from the droids and scanners, assembling the
mass of pixels and data, crafting them with subtle algorithms into a
coherent set of images.
Or they would, if only they could first decide how many of the dam'
stones there actually were. In front of her, two of her graduate
students stood, Radek and O'Malley, and argued about how many each
image seemed to show. Radek was a tall, lean young woman, clad in the
brown and khaki fatigues they had all adopted for fieldwork. Her black
hair was pulled back into a ponytail, secured with a purple sparkly
band. O'Malley, in contrast, was a short, thick set man, balding, with
short yellowish hair, and sandy beard. The sleeves of his shirt were
rolled up to expose muscular forearms. One of these, the left, bore a
long, convoluted tattoo incorporating a mixture of designs taken from a
variety of cultures. Before he'd joined the programme, O'Malley had
worked his way across the system on a variety of engineering projects.
These had sent him laying pipes and putting up girders and cabling
across the regolith of perhaps half a dozen moons and two worlds,
before he finally washed up on the shores of Reborin. Once there, he'd
become fascinated by the Reborin indigenes themselves, so fascinated,
in fact, that he enrolled in the local indigenous archaeology
programme. No-one quite knew what the designs meant, but the most
likely explanation was that they were the marks of one of the labour
gangs he'd served on, when he'd first stepped into space.
Sanders herself was of average height, with light brown hair now
slightly greying. Like the others, she wore the drab fatigues and stout
boots of the field explorer. And now in front of her she could see
Lipman marching from the command tent. He stood in front of her, a
couple of metres away. “Boss wants to talk to you. It ain't good.”
Her heart sank. She'd been expecting the call, but had still hoped it
wouldn't come. “Okay, Jim,” she replied simply. “I'll take it in my
crawler.” He nodded, turned, and the two of them walked back across the
steppe towards the waiting vehicles. Behind her, she could hear puzzled
voices saying querulously, “But if you look here, on image #19, it
shows you quite clearly that there are eleven, not nine.”
She closed the door to the crawler slowly, dimming the windows with a
few deft gestures. Taking a data slate casually from her desk, she
pressed its touchscreen lightly. The holotank set atop the desk glowed
with a greenish light, before Samuels' image gradually coalesced from
the mass of pixels. He was a short, fat man, with an elaborately
sculpted haircut, which had been fashionable with mid-level execs two
decades ago. Time and fashion had moved on for everyone except Samuels.
He looked solemnly out of the crystal of the tank.
“Morning Jo. I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you.”
“Morning Steve. Is it...?”
“Yeah, it's what we've all been expecting. They're closing you down.
I'm ordered to tell you to finish what you're doing there right now,
and then pack up and get back to Dragan.”
“But they can 't, not after all this time.” She felt her face redden
with anger. “Do you know how long it's taken to put this together? To
get the funding from Council? Just how much sheer time and effort was
spent negotiating with the Reborin, getting them to accept us? And this
is just the tip of the iceberg. There's still so much we don't know
about them. So much they won't tell us about their culture, about
themselves. We spent years talking to them, trying to show we were in
good faith and going to do it properly and with respect. Now all that's
junked.” She leaned forward. “Steve, you know this is going to put
Indigenous Studies on this planet back at least ten years. We might
never get another opportunity to examine one of their circles again. We
only got to look at this one because the moiety that it's entrusted to
died out about a century ago.”
Samuels shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, I know, Jo. All of it. But the
administration at the moment doesn't consider Xen-- Anth a priority.”
He used the contraction for Xenology—Anthropology, or simply
Xenoanthropology, the overarching discipline that considered human
anthropology part of a wider discipline of the cultural studies of
intelligent alien species. Or at least, those species which were
sufficiently close to humanity in terms of biology, psychology and
social structure for some commonalities to be found between them.
“Look, we both heard President Hsia's State of the Colony Speech.
Adelward is in danger of falling behind the other worlds of the Halifax
system. We need to concentrate more on the practical sciences. We need
to encourage innovation and enterprise, in order to realise the golden
dream of the Founders. We have a sacred duty to them, to repay their
great sacrifices and trials, to build the better society they saw
before them when they landed here a century and a half ago.”
“Yes, I know the speech. I can almost recite word by word, I've heard
it so many times. But this is vital. Can't you do something to stop it?
Or at least give us a few more days extra so we can get just that bit
more done? Please.”
“Well, I'll have a word with Mary Wang. But I don't know if she'll be
able to do much. And we've got some of the public on our side. There
have been demonstrations already in Dragan, Ringtown, Novigrad about
the civil rights issue and the way the indigenous culture's been
treated. This latest cut's going to look like another part of that, no
matter what Hsia says about his administration respecting all cultures,
and his much-publicized visits to the reservations. But there are
enough people, who'll back him on it. Folks are seeing their children
look offworld for jobs, talk of moving to some of the bigger, older
worlds, like Istadt, Nebovy, La Cite. They want jobs and opportunities
here. And also, frankly, there's a lot of racism around. There are a
lot of people, who feel the Reborin already have it too good at our
expense. They're supported by our taxes, given medical treatment free,
also courtesy of the Adelward taxpayer. And they're sitting on valuable
land, which they haven't exploited and aren't ever going to. Land rich
in resources. And the farmers want their share. The Farming Coalition
complained last year that the land allocations were too small, and now
with the bad harvests over in the eastern counties, there's going to be
more unrest. There's a lot of land hunger out there in the sticks.
People are eying up all that land the Reborin have and aren't using,
and they want their share.”
“But even so, this project isn't stopping anyone from doing any of
that. And this could lead to greater opportunities in the future.
Better prospects for cross-cultural understanding. Come on, surveying
just this site isn't taking up millions of credits that could be better
spent elsewhere. It's hardly even a drop in the ocean. If we could have
‘til the end of the week...”
“I'll have a word with Mary, as I said, see if I can get you a four
more days' grace. But that's all I can offer. And I may not even be
able to give you that.”
He nodded slightly and stiffly, indicating that the conversation was over.
“Okay, Steve. Thanks for trying.”
Samuels smiled a brief, bright smile back before turning off the screen.
Sanders slumped back in her chair, her right hand to her mouth,
pondering what she could do next. She leaned further back in the
chair's padding, the dark mixture of anger and sadness pressing down on
her. She felt exhausted and bitter. Those couple of sites they were
currently digging weren't much in themselves. Indeed, on its own the
circle probably wouldn't take much more than an afternoon. But these
were just the start. If this was done properly, and with the right
respect to the Reborin and their heritage, it could open up even more
sites for investigation. The Reborin were notoriously reticent about
their culture. The stone circles were the best-known aspect of that.
They even featured on Adelward's official site in the system Coretext.
But no-one knew what the circles really meant, nor what the Reborin
were doing when they dressed them every so often, as they painted them
with abstract, geometrical motifs in ceremonies lasting for days.
She was lost in thought, pondering the fate of the expedition, and of
the black hole forming in next year's budget as the year's round of
cuts started to kick in, when she gradually became aware of a chime.
Caught off balance for the moment, it took her a moment to realize it
was the holotank again. She leaned forward to tap the air in front of
it for it to come on. And received the first of a stream of calls.
It had been nine O'clock that morning when Wouters had got the call on
his data slate from Zeleny back at the university. A tall man with a
pony tail and a carefully cut and barbered goatee, he'd just finished
breakfast and as about to lug the gear out to one of buggies for the
day's digging, when his slate had gone off. Swiping his hand over it,
he was surprised to see Zeleny's face smiling back at him. “Hi, Jim,”
she grinned. “You remember those chippings you sent in two days ago
from the quarry? We got the results back last night. I would've sent
them on to you, but it was past ten when we'd finished checking them.
I'm going to talk to Jo later, but I wanted you to know first. You were
the person who found 'em, after all.”
Of course, he remembered the chippings. They were from a site a couple
of kilometres further north from the Circle, at what the archaeologists
called the quarry or the factory. It was there that the monoliths had
been mined, the Reborin hacking them out of the raw rock of the bare
ground. Several of the rough outlines of monoliths had been left in
situ when the site was abandoned three centuries ago. And so they
stayed, mute stone fingers stretched out across the ground, some still
attached by umbilical struts that the pre-contact masons had not
severed. They had waited out the centuries for their sculptors to
return, and hack away their last connection to their natal rock, before
taking them to the Circle site for final shaping. Surrounding them were
odd shaped flakes of rock, the chippings made when the Reborin masons
had hacked the stone pillars out of the ground with their bronze axes
and hammerstones. Wouters remembered these chips. He and three others
from the team had spent a morning picking them up and packing them into
the evidence bags. After properly surveying the quarry and its
contents, of course. Each bag had been numbered according to the
He also remembered the chippings for another reason. It had been
another foul day out on the Reborin steppe. There had been a drizzle in
the air, and the groundwater had finally thawed after the winter
freeze. The place had been swimming in mud forming a clayey slick over
everything. It had got on their clothes and skin as well, so that after
spending a whole day setting up the tapes, droids and theodolites,
they'd all be glad to get back to the crawlers for a shower.
But that clay had held something, a closely guarded secret that made it
far different from simple mud. A secret it had finally given up to
Zeleny and her spectroscopes back in Dragan. A secret she now wanted to
share with Wouters.
O'Malley had gone back to the tents. He lounged back in his collapsible
chair under an awning, scowling at the sky. He wasn't a superstitious
man, but it didn't seem to matter what you did, the scanned images
never seemed to show precisely the same number of stones. Or did they?
What if it did show the same number, but that each time the stones
themselves were slightly different, so the orientation of the photo
seemed to have changed, even though the drones and droids taking them
had been meticulous. Or perhaps they weren't? Perhaps there had been
something wrong with them instead? He shook this idea off. No, they'd
all been up and running their preset courses, stopping at their
allotted intervals, as regular as clockwork.
He suddenly became aware of the presence of one of the Reborin
observers, away to his left, watching. The Reborin were roughly
humanoid. They were bipedal with two arms and the same number of eyes
and ears. The eyes were slightly larger, and spaced further apart, the
nose shallower and the nostrils a sharper shape, like arrowheads. The
hair was different too, more like finely spun feathery cotton wool,
which rose to a crest down the centre of their heads and necks. Their
hands had six fingers, though of these, two were thumbs, placed either
side of the wide palm. This one wore a knee-length tunic, dyed with the
same geometric designs the Reborin carved into their monoliths. A cloak
of the same feathery stuff hung down his back, secured by a golden
brooch. On his legs he wore calf-length sandals like the kind of
military boots the ancient Greeks back on Earth had sported.
He noticed the man's cat-like pupils were resting, watching his left
hand. He had been idly drumming on the table. He had absentmindedly
struck the data slate, and the device had come on with its blue glow.
The Reborin looked down at his tattoos. Finally, he spoke.
“Mister Ommalli,” he said, with the sibilant intonation of the Reborin. “I see you are marked.”
“Yes, they're my 'tats. What about them?”
“I too am marked.” He showed a network of tiny designs carved into one side of his skull.
“Yes, very nice...” O'Malley fell silent, expectant. He felt awkward,
not quite sure where this conversation was going, not wanting to say
anything that might provoke the wrong reaction.
“Your arm is marked also, the arm you use to work your tablet. Your machine.”
“Yes,” O'Malley said cautiously. Surely the Reborin had seen humans
with tattoos before. And they had definitely seen humans with data
“I am also marked, to use my machines.” What machines? The Reborin
didn't have any, except the wheel and forms of primitive crane. “We
have tablets too.” He lifted up his hand, to show the same intricate
geometrical designs minutely tattooed on the palm.
“Yes – stones!”
“You mean like -?” O'Malley half-turned in the direction of the stone
circle, still standing those few metres away, resolutely defying any
attempt to count or number its constituent parts.
“Yes, but for me. My people. That one dead. Come. I show you!” The
Reborin turned, and moved purposefully out of the camp. O'Malley was
just rising when he turned around, and with a supple movement of his
arm, beckoned him to follow.
Zeleny flashed a series of images up at him as she spoke, schematics of
the stone and clay he'd sent to her in the plastic collection bags,
properly analyzed and labeled. Further diagrams spun up out of the
corners of the screen as she spoke of the constituent molecules of the
clay and rock themselves. “This is very interesting stuff,” she
purred,”'a bit beyond the usual muck and rock you people send me. Let's
start with the clay. It's mineral, but you can see here the strong
amino acid molecules bound into it. The clay's there acting as a kind
of supporting lattice to allow some quite complex molecular reactions
to occur. Self-sustaining reactions. It's really sort of like the
proto-life some of the old molecular biologists theorised might have
been the origin of life back on the primitive Earth. It's almost, but
not quite, a silicon-based life-form, something a lot of people have
speculated about, but which no-one's actually found.”
“Until now” she agreed. “But there's more to it than that. It also
contains these things. Looking at them, it seems they've got some of
the qualities of miniature electrical conductors. The way I see it,
this stuff is almost like a kind of liquid nerve.” She paused slightly
before resuming. “Now let's talk about the rock samples you sent me.”
“Okay.” Wouters leaned back, letting what she had said already sink in.
Usually when they got results back from the lab for geological samples
they sent in, it was mostly to get the kind of rock or soil from which
an artifact had been made. Comparing this with the surrounding geology
allowed them to work out where the object had been made, or at least
where the stone or clay from which it was made was quarried. This in
turn could tell the skilled, knowledgeable researcher how old an object
was, in the way that archaeologists in the 19th and 20th
centuries had used pottery styles to work out the age of the other
remains with which they were found. But this had gone beyond the
question of dating the inanimate pots, bowls and mud bricks usually
found. It looked to be taking them into a kind of archaic
“They're even more remarkable. I'd say it was your standard sedimentary
rock, very much like the clay you've got there, except hardened and
compacted down over millions of years. However, it's also very porous,
and also had some very active biological components, like the clay. And
we can see here also some quartz and other crystalline intrusions,
which also seem to act as electrical conductors and storage.”
Wouters nodded. “Go on”.
“Now I tested some of the chippings you sent me with bits of the clay.
There's definitely a reaction when they meet. See here--“another
diagram unfolded on the already crowded screen, blocking the previous
images. “I'll have to send this up to Rige over at biology to see what
she makes of it.” She meant Rachel Kent, a small, energetic woman with
a very strong off-world accent. She picked up the nickname 'Rige',
after she introduced herself. Her accent was so thick that the others
thought she said 'Rigel', rather than 'Rachel'. Rigel Kent was also the
name of a star, and there she was, researching exobiology, and so the
nickname had stuck. “But,” Zeleny continued, “at the moment it looks
very much like the combination of clay and rock together forms some
kind of semi-organic processing system.”
Wouters suddenly realised he'd been holding his breath. He gradually
let it out. “Woo,” he whistled, “that's some conclusion. I know it's
possible, but I never expected to see it myself.” Then a frown of
suspicion crossed his face, “You sure? I mean, absolutely sure. 'Cause
this is really big, revolutionary -”
“Yes,” she agreed. “It could win someone a prize from the Academy.”
“It'd be Adelward's first.”
“So we got to make sure this all pans out. That it's, er, rock solid.”
“Absolutely, 'Zeleny agreed. 'And I did. I ran the tests three times.
Different set of samples, everything properly sterilised. Now, as I
said, I want to get Rige to look into this, but I'm very sure she's
going to see the same thing I'm seeing.”
“Which means there's something else going on with the megaliths.”
“Yes. They're clearly not just passive monuments to mark the dead or
represent the gods or the power of the ancestors or spirits. There's
something active going on within them. Something alive, vital.
Something we don't understand yet.”
“But the Reborin do.”
“Clearly. And have been using for thousands of years.”
O'Malley trudged behind the Reborin. They had been walking through the
gradually undulating 'grassland' for what seemed an age, splashing here
and there through pools of mud, which oozed up out of the ground to
squelch underfoot. The landscape was broken up at odd intervals by a
stand of trees, or bushes. Eventually the Reborin came to a small
grove, a circle of this hemisphere's oddly formed trees. The Reborin
vanished inside. O'Malley peered in through the entrance, and saw the
Reborin standing next to another monolith. Like the others, it was
carved with the same buttresses and vaulting, with dark crystal plaques
inserted at random intervals. The Reborin motioned him in with a swift
movement of his arm.
“Our machine,” he said proudly.
O'Malley came forward, gazing closely at the monument. He lifted his arm to touch it.
The Reborin gently took hold of his forearm, and pulled it down. “No,” he said, “Not like that. I show.”
He suddenly produced a container full of the same liquid clay that had
flowed out of the ground around them, and daubed the chippings and the
unfinished monument back at the quarry. He put it down by his side,
produced a brush. He took the lid off the container, dipped his brush
in it, and began drawing a series of small, careful designs on the palm
of one tattooed hand. After he finished, he gave his hand one last,
careful inspection, before holding it out and showing it O'Malley.
“Like this. See.” He said. He then gestured for O'Malley to hold out his. “Now you.”
'Me?' O'Malley said, stupidly. He felt somehow lost at this strange, simple request.
“Yes.” The Reborin looked at him. “Won't hurt. Promise!”
O'Malley gave in, and pushed his hand towards the Reborin, feeling like
a small boy again, holding his hands out to his mother to show that
he'd washed them before lunch, and had clean fingernails.
The Reborin gently took it, and began tracing the same symbols on his
hand. After he'd finished, he pushed it back a little way, and gave it
the same appraising glance he'd given his own. Satisfied, he let
O'Malley pull his hand back. “Now talk to machine. I show, go first.”
The alien walked over to the monolith, carefully selecting a spot
between two abstract designs formed from crystals roughly inserted into
the monolith's surface. He then pushed his hand in the indentation, and
closed his eyes. For a moment nothing happened, and then his face
subtly changed. A series of expressions and small, twitching muscle
movements crossed his face. Eventually the tics subsided, to be
replaced by a look of intense concentration. The Reborin pursed his
lips, and appeared to begin mumbling under his breath. The moment
stretched. O'Malley watched, fascinated.
Then the alien seemed to snap out of it. His eyes opened, focused, and
he pulled his hand. He stood back for a moment, as if just coming to
himself after a deep sleep.
“Now you.' he said simply. “Learn secret. Understand machine.
Understand Reborin.” He gestured for O'Malley to put his hand into the
same indentation. O'Malley shuffled forward, raising his hand. The
alien took it, and gently pulled it towards the monolith. He put it in
the indentation, gently pulling and pushing at O'Malley's fingers and
palm to put it in the precise same posture as his own. He then looked
at O'Malley's face with interest.
For a moment nothing happened. O'Malley felt slightly silly. He knew
this was important, that something was supposed to happen, but not
quite what. What if the effect he had seen on the alien was just
psychological, the results of years of cultural indoctrination and
expectation, so that the gestures and painting, the whole ritual of
approaching the monolith, brought on an internal experience, even
though the monolith was dead rock, like any other. Or perhaps there was
some physical cause, but it wouldn't work on humans. Humans were too
different, physically and psychologically for the magic to work, and
the world to give up its secrets. He was about to open his mouth to
form a question, when he momentarily felt giddy. He put his other arm
for balance, swaying slightly.
Bright dots formed in front of his eyes. They sharpened, coalesced into
shapes, symbols. He recognized these as entoptic images. Stars,
rectangles, wavy lines, and crosshatched designs formed, images he
recognized as the primitive shapes of the human ancestral visual
system, found in rock art and abstract tribal imagery across the world.
These then moved, twisted and flowed. New shapes formed, subtly
different. The symbols became strange, alien. Then they moved,
scrolling up and down, marching across the world just behind his
He also began to feel a strange, mental sensation, as if something vast
and deep had seized control of his consciousness, and was slowly
extending its tendrils into it, the roots and creepers of mind twisting
and burrowing and slithering across his own. At the same time, the rock
underneath his hand seemed to change texture. It too seemed to move and
flex like muscle, warm as flesh.
He felt sick, repulsed but fascinated. The effect deepened, the symbols
became sharper, clearer, through some kind of mental vision he began to
intuit, dimly, ideas behind them. At the same time, the sense of
alien-ness increased, and grew. He started to panic. With a cry, he
pulled his hand away, and fell back, the world a blur of shifting
symbols mixed with images of the real world, which flowed like mercury.
Abruptly, it stopped. He came to himself, flat on his back in the mud,
his heart pounding. The Reborin looked down at him, curiously. He
searched its face for clues to how it viewed his conduct. Would it have
caused upset, indignation at some involuntary desecration? Or maybe
some contempt, at the human's inability to cope with the experience?
But the face simply looked down at him with the same, bland expression.
He thought, though, he caught the muscles around the Reborin's eyes and
mouth curling into some sign of amusement. Or perhaps that was just his
own misperception of their alien features.
The alien waited quietly, not speaking.
O'Malley raised himself into a sitting position, shaking his head to
clear. “Wait”, he said, “'till the boss finds out about this!”
A few hours later, Sanders was back in her trailer, once again standing
in front of the holotank. She opened the line to Samuels.
“Okay, Jo, what is it? I hope it's good, because I've had a word with
Mary. She still open to ideas, but there's a lot of pressure this end.
A lot. There may not be a lot we can do. So, what have you got?”
“Oh, it's good alright,” Sanders said. “It's very good. It'll change
Reborin studies forever, and has real technological promise. One that
Hsia and the council will want to fund, and which will place Adelward
at the forefront of science and innovation in the Halifax system. The
benefits to IT could be immense. It isn't too much to say that we could
be looking at a whole new branch of cybernetics here. And it also
promises to bring material benefits to the Reborin, who are the
custodians of this science.”
Samuels looked at her coolly, his brow slightly furrowed into a
sceptical frown. “That's a big promise. Have you got anything to back
“Yes, very much so!” She began the complex weave of gestures in
mid-air, pulling up graphics and diagrams from the memories of the
machines around her, as their eyes read her hand movements,
interpreting them as metaphorical fingers, pressing down on an
invisible, Virtual keyboard, to send information rushing across the
“As you can see from this summary, “her fingers glided to highlight a
page of text and move it to the centre of the screen, “the monoliths
constructed by the indigenous lifeform, the Reborin, have fascinated
and intrigued scholars almost since the very days Adelward was
colonized. Previous xenoanthropologists recorded the ritual decoration
of these ancient artifacts with shards of the local crystal, and their
painting with mud from the surrounding ground.
However, study of these artifacts was almost impossible due to their
sacred place in Reborin culture, and lingering distrust amongst the
Reborin following the racism and abuse of the indigenous creatures by a
faction of the first colonists. This has been made much worse in recent
years by an uptick in racism and the demands for the confiscation of
little-used Reborin lands for the benefit of human settlers,
principally agribusiness and mining companies.”
“Yes,” Samuels allowed, “we know all this already. But go on”.
“Frankly, the Reborin are afraid of cultural appropriation. They are
afraid we'll steal their culture, while continuing to marginalize and
But this programme has been a major breakthrough. Simply gaining the
trust of the Reborin enough for them to allow them into this area is a
triumph in itself. But there's more. This after, one of my students,
Patrisk O'Malley, was taken by one of our indigenous co-workers on to
the step, where he was personally allowed to make physical contact with
one of these artifacts. To actually touch a monolith. This is an almost
un-heard of privilege.”
“It is quite an achievement,” Samuels concurred. ”But, it's still far
from solving this problem. Unless you have something else for me, I'm
afraid the situation will stay the same. Chang will still be forced to
close the programme as a waste of money.”
Saunders held up a hand. “Yes, but this is where it gets interesting.
O'Malley was ritually painted with some of the Reborin ceremonial
symbols and designs on his hands before he was allowed to touch the
megalith. He then experienced a range of psychological and
physiological effects: entoptic imagery, followed by quasi-numinous
feelings and a sense of immense connectedness to the artifact.”
“All stuff which we've noted before in relation to human culture.
Humans have been seeing strange, geometric designs and symbols appear
in their heads while performing shamanic rituals since the Ice Age back
on Terra. These ecstatic states are, in many cases, part of ritual
observances in which rock art is created. That's been known for
“Yes, but in the case the effects have an external cause. They're not
just the standard neurological experiences produced by the usual
mechanisms of trance – fasting, repetitive motion, dancing and music –
and so on.” Saunders reached across the invisible console in front of
her, and pulled up another document, carefully adjusting its position
so Samuels could see it.
“We've been allowed to examine some of the debris from the monoliths.
Pieces that have flaked off over the centuries, and simply been left
lying in the mud. They're fascinating. Other people from my team, Ken
Wouters, Lisa Zeleny, and Ri--” she checked herself, “Rachel Kent,
subjected the flakes to analysis. If this is correct, it means that the
monoliths themselves aren't simply stone. There a completely new form
of sedimentary rock, containing quartz intrusions and with a very high
incidence of complex hydrocarbons. They look very much like the kind of
early structures some scientists back on Earth theorized in the 20th
century formed the first lifeforms on Earth. It was suggested that the
clay formed a supporting scaffolding for the biochemistry, which later
formed the basis for fully organic life.”
“Okay,” Samuels said, “It corroborates some of the early theories about
the origin of life on Earth. That's the basis for a great scientific
paper, but the problem of maintaining funding for all this remains.”
“No, there's more. Much more.” Saunders continued. “The quartz
intrusions also interact with this chemistry, forming complex links.
These, in turn, cause subtle changes within the crystal lattice,
transforming them into highly efficient information storage devices.
They become, in effect, quasi-archaeobiological silicon chips.” She
looked at him expectantly.
Samuels started to sit up, thinking. “I can see where you're going with
this. And it does look promising. A whole new field of Information
Technology. The tech boys and girls will love it. If it's true,' he
warned. 'But what about access. How can anyone get at any information
that's stored in the device. There are no viewscreens, printouts nor
anything else that would allow someone using it like a computer to
obtain the information stored inside.”
“Oh, it's true. And there are no problems with accessing its data. The
Reborin do it every time they meet to decorate the things.”
“You don't mean the painting with mud, and the ritual touching of the stones.”
“The very same. The mud contains the same complex hydrocarbons and
biochemistry. These are partially absorbed by truly organic biochemical
structure, such as that of a person, and the silicon matrix of the
stones. When in contact, they form a biochemical bridge allowing
information to cross between the two. Quite simply, with these the
Reborin don't need readouts, printers, screens or holographic displays.
They simply stand and take in the information they want or need.”
Samuels whistled. “That's quite a theory. I don't suppose you have any more evidence?”
“Yup.” Saunders pulled up yet another piece of text and graphics,
thrusting it into the front of the stack of script and diagrams already
filling the screen. “This is more from Wouters, Zeleny and Kent. I
believe that these monoliths could form an enormous, planet-wide
information web, which could contain tribal data for the Reborin going
back thousands of years. And the Reborin today showed that they're
willing to share this knowledge with us. Under certain circumstances,
“Of course,” Samuels sighed, and smiled sadly at her. “This is all
great for the field and the department. I can see where you're going
with this, and, if you're right, it has massive potential for a new
field –xenoathropological IT. But unless there are practical benefits,
Chang will still want to close the programme. And Hsia is still under
pressure from the Human supremacists and other racists. They still want
their land, and they aren't going to be impressed with this new
information about supposed ancient IT being used by the Reborin.”
“But others will,” Saunders stated. “The young kids, who think that the
Reborin have had enough of a shitty deal from us. The various humanist
philosophers and religious leaders, who are preaching rapprochement
between Human and Reborin. We can make an appeal to them. And if you
want practical benefits, go to industry.
This offers a whole new direction in Information Technology. It could
potentially lead to better biochips. Or at least, ones that are more
fashionably wearable. Plus the fact that we don't know what else is
contained in those megaliths. We've always considered the Reborin to be
a primitive people, based on the superficial resemblances between their
culture and ours in the megalithic age. But they're not. They're a
highly advanced, sophisticated people, possessed of a technology that
could actually be in advance of our own. What we've got to do now is
learn to use and apply it, without exploiting the Reborin.”
She could see Samuels concentrating on the screen, watching his
expression change as he sifted through the documents. “Hmmm, yes, but
there are precedents already for this.” He looked up. “We do what
Belardinelli and his team did when they encountered the Shuor and their
system of steam-driven flight. We can set up a corporation with the
Reborin to exploit this technology, giving them the majority shares and
key decision-making conditions. At the same time, we can integrate this
with the uni's IT department and seek commercial partners, who will
enjoy privileged access while subject to the necessary ethical codes
and restrictions. At the same time, the legal and educational
departments will have to find some way of working with the Reborin to
make sure they remain fully aware of the rights, so they don't get
screwed over as so many others have done in the pass. This is all going
to be a lot of work.”
“But worth it”, Saunders replied. “Look, if this goes right, it'll give
us the economic filip we need. The Reborin get the recognition they
deserve as the custodians of their ancient technology. At the same
time, the IT industry gets a whole new area to explore, which could
lead to breakthroughs we can't dream about. The xenanth department will
get increased funding, and the economy gets a further boost from
finding practical applications for all the juicy discoveries the IT
companies have made. And if all goes well, that means we won't see
increasing numbers of kids leaving Adelward to try and find jobs
“A new age of prosperity, and Hsia gets elected for another four years, is that right?” Samuels said drily.
“Well, perhaps not quite like that, but -” Saunders responded,
detecting the implied criticism in his tone. But Samuels put up a hand
to stop her.
“No. What you've done is good, good.” He beamed. “I can sell this to
Chang and the committee, and then it's up to them. But this is all
good. I'll get on to it immediately. Of course, I can't promise
anything, but it all looks rosier than it did this morning.” He cut the
Saunders lent back in her chair and began to clear up the data on her
screen. A shaft of sunlight suddenly lanced in through the caravan's
windows. She looked up, and saw that a break had formed in the nearly
ubiquitous cloud cover. The winter sun was shining on the Reborin
© 2017 David Sivier
Bio: "I am an archaeologist with a long-standing
interest in space and SF. I have contributed articles on SF to The
Zone, and had a couple of my short stories published in Zest and
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