Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Reckoners of Clay and Flesh

by David Sivier




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 individual megalith.

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 slates.

“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.

“Tablets?”

“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.”

“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 quasi-biology.

“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.”

“Yep.”

“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 retina.

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 it up?”

“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 planet's Net.

“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 discriminate them.

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 centuries.”

“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.”

“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 further in-system.”

“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 link.

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 steppe.


THE END


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 Jupiter."

E-mail: David Sivier

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