[This is a segment from Freedom's Scion, the sequel to my novel Which Art In Hope. Consider it a teaser; the voyages of Althea Morelon are taking me some time to complete. And yes, Althea’s vessel was named after this website...or was it the other way around?]
By the time Liberty’s Torch had reached the outer margins of the G2 star’s system, Althea had slowed to 50 miles per second. The lidar returns she had interpreted as evidence of habitation while in the cometary zone had grown far stronger. A large artifact with a visible-light reflectance of nearly 100% orbited the third planet from the primary. She corrected course minutely and slowed still further.
The object was all too obviously a space station. It was emitting electromagnetic radiation in regularly spaced pulses, at a wavelength of 1215 angstroms. Liberty’s Torch’s receivers classified it as an attempt to communicate. Althea braked still further and activated the recorders, but made no immediate attempt to interpret the signal stream.
Should I reciprocate? Probably it would be no more intelligible to them.
She activated the communications laser and spliced in the voice output.
“To the entity or entities aboard the space station,” she intoned, “This is Althea Morelon, mistress of interstellar vessel Liberty’s Torch. My people call our world Hope. Our primary is about...” She paused for thought. “About as far from here as light will travel in eleven of your revolutions around your primary star. My intentions are peaceful. I wish to make contact, but I’m uncertain how to proceed. If you can interpret this message, please respond in kind with your rules for a visit to your system and for docking with your station. Liberty’s Torch will loiter here until I hear from you.” She disconnected the voice output and waited.
If they can tight-beam Lyman-alpha radiation that I can detect from the cometary belt, they have to have one helluva power source aboard that station. I’d better play very, very nice.
The answer arrived at once, in a musical alto voice.
“Welcome to Loioc system, Mistress Morelon. We have awaited your arrival with much pleasure. Please brake to approximately one-fifth of your current velocity while we analyze your vessel’s hull and compose docking instructions.”
Althea put a tight rein on her rising excitement and complied.
The Loioc were bipedal and humanoid. Unless the pair that awaited Althea in the station’s docking bay were non-representative, they stood somewhat shorter than Earth-derived Man. The more closely she focused on either one, the more apparent were their subtle deviations from Terrestrial humanity. Their proportions were slightly different, possibly owing to having adapted to a stronger or weaker gravity. The resting angles of their limbs diverged slightly as well. Their faces were exquisitely beautiful, as human as anyone could wish, and their smiles as welcoming as any she had ever seen.
She doffed her helmet and took her first breath of their air. It was rich with oxygen, and carried a subtle hint of sweetness.
“Yes,” the one on the left said, “our respiratory needs are a good match for yours as well. Welcome to our home, Mistress Morelon. How may we make you comfortable?”
“Well,” Althea said, “for starters, you could tell me how to address you.” And maybe fill me in about how you learned to speak English.
The one on the left nodded. “I am called Efthis. My husband,” she said, turning to her left, “is named Vellis.” She took his hand, and he gazed at her in evident affection. “No doubt you are curious about my mastery of the English language.”
Althea chuckled. “Well, yes.”
“These past 1500 years,” Efthis said, “Hope has emitted radio signals of sufficient variety for us to deduce virtually the whole of your tongue. Indeed, we have watched your world from the beginning of your ancestors’ flight from Earth. We have long looked forward to meeting you.”
“Is yours a spacefaring race,” Althea said, “apart from this station?”
“It was once,” Efthis replied. “No longer. In fact, this is the only offworld presence our race maintains.”
Althea frowned. “Why?”
Efthis’s gentle smile acquired a hint of world-weariness. “Let us say we saw all that we wished to see, and somewhat more.” She glanced at her husband and nodded toward the interior, and he nodded in response. “Come, let us refresh ourselves together, and I shall tell you whatever you might wish to know.”
They turned as one, and Althea followed them into the depths of the station.
“I don’t believe it,” Althea said.
Efthis cocked a hair-thin eyebrow. “Surely your people enjoy a warm bath after a day of exertion?” She swiftly divested herself of her coverall. Vellis followed suit, and the two climbed into what was plainly a large hot tub.
But in company with a couple of aliens? All right, they seem to be very nice aliens...so far, anyway.
Oh, what the hell.
She unzipped her vacuum suit and stepped out of it, then removed her own coverall, tossed it aside, and took a seat in the tub facing her hosts.
Vellis’s eyes immediately fixed upon her, wide in undisguised fascination. He looked pleadingly at his wife. After a moment’s reflection, she nodded.
“Vellis would like to touch you,” she said. “Would you permit it?”
“Uh...” Oh, why not? They’re probably puzzled that I’m not just as curious about their bodies. “Sure, okay.”
Vellis flowed across the water between them so swiftly that he was upon her before she realized it.
“Upon her,” indeed. The Loioc male immediately wrapped himself around Althea, arms and legs both. He squirmed against her in a powerfully erotic fashion. His erection probed for her vagina with no pretense to the contrary. The surprise of it paralyzed her.
“Efthis,” she croaked, counter-squirming to keep Vellis’s phallus from finding the orifice it sought, “just what is Vellis doing?”
Efthis frowned. “He’s trying to merge with you. I would have thought that was obvious. Are you offended?”
“Uh, no, but...” Are you? “Why?” And why hasn’t he said a word since I arrived here?
“You’re very beautiful,” Efthis said. “Wouldn’t a male of Hope want to merge with you? Or is it not permitted for some reason?”
“Well, uh, yes, it’s...permitted,” Althea said. You think I’m beautiful? Vellis’s squirming was becoming frenzied. He had begun to whimper with frustration. “But this is...a bit sudden.”
Efthis shrugged. “It’s up to you. Enjoy him as you wish, and for as long as you wish.”
I’ve got to ask.
“Maybe later.” She forced her arms between her and the squirming Loioc male and thrust him forcibly away. Vellis shrieked at the separation. He wriggled frantically in an attempt to re-establish the embrace.
“Efthis,” she said in a carefully controlled tone, “Vellis is mute, isn’t he?”
Efthis frowned again. “Of course. Isn’t it obvious?”
Althea nodded, holding the agitated male firmly away from her. “Is it by accident, or was he born that way?”
The Loioc’s frown deepened further. “Born that way, of course.” She emitted a whistle of elaborate modulation. Vellis immediately ceased to struggle against Althea’s restraint. She relaxed her grip, and he returned to Efthis’s side with obvious reluctance.
“Well,” Althea said, “you must love him very much.”
“Love?” Efthis said. “How does one love a nonsentient?”
“Vellis is incapable of rational thought. He’s been conditioned to be loyal to me. He knows nothing of love, no more than an animal of the field.”
“But...” Althea groped for words. “Your husband?”
The Loioc woman nodded. “Yes. He husbands me. He fertilizes my eggs, when and as I permit. He need not be sentient for that.” She leaned forward to peer more closely into Althea’s face. “All our males are nonsentient. Just as yours will be, in time.”
Vellis protested with a whimper that was nearly a howl, but Efthis spoke sharply and stamped one delicate foot, and the Loioc male became submissive. At his mistress’s direction, he went reluctantly into a room whose sole occupants were a thin mattress, a hassock, and a large box filled with some crumbly substance, sat upon the hassock in a peculiarly canine fashion, and bowed his head. Efthis swung the room’s door, a grate of closely spaced metal bars, closed with a muted clang and twisted a knob that sent a deadbolt home. She turned back to Althea with an expression of chagrin.
“I must beg your pardon,” the Loioc said. “Despite all the study we have made of Hope and its people, I had momentarily forgotten that you allow your males to remain sentient. Indeed, that fact has caused no small amount of consternation among our people. We have awaited true, bidirectional intercourse with you with great eagerness for that reason among others.”
We allow our males to remain sentient?
“I had assumed,” she said, measuring out the words, “that this...condition was a consequence of some unfortunate cosmic phenomenon. Maybe a radiation field that sweeps cyclically through the galaxy, or something like that. You...engineered it? Genetically?”
Efthis had led her to a rather conventional-looking kitchenette, complete with sink, faucet, counter, table, and chairs, and bade her to sit. The Loioc pulled open a large metal cabinet, extracted a pitcher and two glasses, and brought them to the table
“This is called ‘kiara,’” Efthis said. “It’s a fruit juice, moderately sweet, with a mildly acidic tang. You might enjoy it. Would you like to try it?”
“Efthis...” Althea said, “I do appreciate your hospitality, but how do I know it’s not toxic to me? Just because we look alike?”
Efthis smiled. “I had your body chemistry analyzed while you were in the bath with us. Our metabolisms are nearly perfectly identical. What would poison you would be equally lethal to me, if not more so.”
“Why did you do that?”
The Loioc gestured at the pitcher. “To know whether we could do this, for one thing.” She poured generous helpings of juice into both glasses and passed one to Althea. “For another, so that I could be certain that my body-maintenance devices can repair you, should you come to any harm while you are my guest.”
Althea started to say got my own, thanks, and held her tongue.
“So you’re completely self-sufficient here? Food, clothing, medicine, energy, diversions all taken care of?” She sniffed at the glass of kiara. Its aroma was as Efthis had described it: moderately sweet, with a citrus-like tang. Unsure of the proprieties but unwilling to proceed solely on Efthis’s assurances, she set the glass down and pushed it a little away.
Efthis nodded. “Completely. It was a condition of the assignment. To be supplied with our necessities from groundside, with all the complexities and intrusions that would entail, would be entirely too troublesome for all concerned.”
“But you could return to the planetary surface if you chose, couldn’t you?”
“Oh yes,” Efthis said. “We have a one-way vehicle docked on the other side of the station.” She smiled. “Believe me, from time to time these past eight years, I’ve felt the urge to return. However, my relief won’t be ready to assume her duties for another two years, so it would be viewed with disfavor.”
She and her...husband must have a lot of ways to keep occupied.
“Concerning your earlier question,” the Loioc said, “yes, we quenched the sentience of our males by decision and design. Before we did so, our world was riven by every kind of strife and madness. Loioc males were quite as aggressive and proprietary as yours, and we females could do little to mitigate their tendencies toward violence and destruction. The nations of our world were almost continuously at war, until the breakthrough.
“About six millennia ago, a great geneticist isolated the constellation of genes and alleles that give rise to a brain capable of sentience and rational thought. It was well that she was female and discreet. She immediately conceived of the application to the pacification of our race, and set about assembling a team that would construct a nanomachine that would unmake the sentience constellation in our male progeny. As soon as they were certain it was effective and safe, they flooded our waters with the devices. Within fifty years, there was virtually no violence among us.”
She glanced back at the door of Vellis’s cell. “We had a few regrets, of course. Society was more dynamic, and more interesting, before we unmade our males’ minds. But the consensus was that social and economic stasis would be a small price to pay for the elimination of the horrors male aggression had brought us. At any rate, that door is closed forever. The nanomachine is self-replicating. The waters of our world are saturated with them, and they can never be seined out.”
Althea suppressed her desire to shudder and did her best to smile.
“If you had asked your men whether they would agree to be...pacified that way,” she said pleasantly, “do you think any great number of them would have said yes, do it?”
Efthis shrugged. “Possibly not, but what does it matter? The moral imperative was too obvious to permit resistance. We know all too well what develops when male aggression is permitted to operate unchecked.” She waved an elfin hand. “You would not find a Loioc anywhere below who’s unsatisfied with the arrangement.”
Except the ones who can no longer say so.
“I think the women of Hope would have a different opinion,” Althea said. “We love our men as they are. I can’t imagine perpetrating the sort of...adjustment on them that you’ve inflicted upon yours. In fact, among us what your great geneticist did would constitute an unimaginably vile crime, the rape of an entire species. She would be ostracized for life if she were even to suggest it.”
Efthis smiled indulgently. “Is that why you haven’t touched your kiara, Althea?”
Despite her resolution to maintain her reserve, Althea felt a snarl form on her features.
“What do you think, Mistress Efthis?”
“I think you need not deprive yourself,” Efthis said. “You’ve been thoroughly infused with the nanomachines since a few seconds after you stepped into the bath. We are no more willing to allow your males than ours to pollute our galactic neighborhood with their violent ways. You will be the instrument of their gentling.”
A tidal wave of fury surged within Althea Morelon. She reeled from her sudden, all but overpowering desire to smash, kill, and lay waste around her.
“When I return to Hope,” Althea ground out, “the men of my world will very likely construct and commission an expeditionary fleet—a well armed fleet—and send it here. I can’t be certain what they’ll do when they get here, but I doubt you and your sisters below will find it pleasant.”
The Loioc’s smile turned superior.
“Then you will not be returning to Hope.”
“Oh? Do you have a way to stop me?”
Efthis rose from the table, turned toward a dim corridor into the station, and indicated that Althea should follow.
“The mechanism you see via this viewscreen,” Efthis said, “occupies most of the volume of this station. It generates a high-intensity muon flux that permeates the galactic disk for two hundred light-years around. It’s powered by our sun, it’s self-repairing, and it cannot be turned off. Alone of all the children of Earth, you have learned how to negate the effects of that flux and relax the so-called speed-of-light limitation. But since you passed within the cometary belt, the flux has been far too intense for your ship’s onboard superluminal drive to countervail. Nor will it avail you to exit our system on fusion thrust alone, for the suppressor has already infiltrated and taken command of your drive. You will not achieve interstellar velocities again unless I permit it.”
Althea gazed in silence at the huge, faintly humming machine that held her prisoner.
I never thought I’d find a machine that’s an abomination, all by itself, just because of what it can do.
“What’s the price for my freedom?” she said at last.
Efthis turned toward her, a glittering metallic torque in one hand.
“You must wear this. It contains an advanced artificial intelligence, equipped with a full suite of environmental sensors, that will sense any attempt to violate the ethical constraints programmed into it. It also contains a generator capable of shocking you into unconsciousness, which will activate at any attempt, even a dubious one, to commit a violation or to remove it from your body.” Her expression became smug. “It’s how we restrain our few remaining lawbreakers without having to incarcerate them.”
“How clever,” Althea said. “I suppose I’ve no choice. But may I ask a question first?”
Efthis cocked an eyebrow.
“How do your sisters travel the galaxy?”
The Loioc frowned. “We don’t. The suppressor’s speed-of-light restriction binds us as firmly as any other world within the machine’s radius of effect.”
“But a race as advanced as yours must be working on something, surely?”
Darkness touched Efthis’s features. “Of course. We’ve been researching teleportation for centuries, but so far it’s remained out of reach. Entropic effects arising from the energies required fatally disorder anything we try to teleport.”
“I see,” Althea said. “Has it ever occurred to you that those effects might be due to an even more advanced race’s suppression of your desire to wander the stars?” She gestured at the viewscreen. “Just as you’ve used that machine in there to confine the peoples around you?”
Efthis’s mouth dropped open. She glanced at the huge machine, Althea moved with sudden, violent speed, and the Loioc fell to the floor unconscious.
“Bitch,” Althea muttered as she hoisted the smaller woman into a fireman’s carry. “Never tell a Morelon there’s something he can’t do. Now just where do you keep your stash of rope?”
It took a while to locate the reentry vehicle Efthis had mentioned and secure the unconscious Loioc female inescapably in one of its seats. It took still longer to persuade the badly frightened Vellis that Althea meant him no harm, that it was safe to leave his cell and go where she directed him. Eventually she had the two properly strapped into their anti-acceleration chairs and ready for launch.
One more thing to see to.
She returned to Liberty’s Torch, powered up her voice recorder, and dictated a brief message.
“This is Althea Morelon, mistress of interstellar vessel Liberty’s Torch from Hope, approximately eleven light-years out toward the galactic rim. I’ll be returning to Hope in just a little while, to tell my compatriots all about your society. I expect my reports will make them very angry. I expect that they’ll decide to do something about you...and that the time you’ll have to brace yourselves for our next visit will be a lot shorter than you’d like.
“As you can see, I’ve returned your sentinels—excuse me, your gaolers to your loving arms. Don’t treat them too harshly. They did their best. They just didn’t reckon with having to face a Morelon. Anyway, try to smile about it all. I’m leaving you a present. Before I depart your system, you’ll have the same interstellar potential I’ve contrived for us of Hope. Think you’ll be able to make use of it without the help of your menfolk?
“That’s all for now. Althea Morelon signing out.”
She transferred the recording to a memory cartridge, returned to the reentry craft, and tucked it into a pocket of Efthis’s coverall. As she made to leave, Vellis looked up at her and whimpered.
“Sorry, fella,” she murmured. “I can’t do a thing for you. Maybe we’ll be back to help your kids, some day.”
She stepped out of the hatch and closed it behind her.
When Liberty’s Torch’s sensors showed the reentry craft to be safely beyond Efthis’s station, Althea seated herself at the command console, reached for the fusion drive igniter, and took a deep breath.
What right did they have? How on Hope—strike that; how in the galaxy did they convince themselves that this was their prerogative?
Women have been civilizing the men of Hope for fifteen centuries. We’ve never needed to geld them. They’ve fought no wars. They’ve taken no slaves. They’ve erected no States, which is where all the other horrible ideas always came from. Maybe doing it our way, with love and devotion and lives filled with family and enterprise and riches, just seemed to the Loioc women like too much work.
The more fools they.
She lit the fusion drive, sent power to the attitude thrusters, and slowly circumnavigated the station.
The fusion plume bathed the station from end to end. It was tough; it had to be to accept, contain, and direct the energies required for its duties. But it wasn’t nearly tough enough to resist temperatures kindled in the heart of a star. Within minutes, the shell of the station had softened and turned to slag. The shell and all its contents were no more than plasma shortly thereafter.
Althea nodded in satisfaction and made to exit the system.
As soon as I’m under Cerenkov drive, I’m getting into the medipod. With luck, it will find the nanites and strain them out of me. Without...
She had to be certain she’d been thoroughly purged of them before she would allow herself to return to the surface of Hope.