Karma Among the Cloud Kings
By Brian Trent
Fifty thousand feet above Tempest’s highest clouds, Antarag Vel-heth invites me to sit beside him in the lobby of Lindorm Refueling Station. It’s a desolate, littered expanse of tables, party-streamers, and plastic people with unceasingly flapping jaws.
“What… what are they doing?” I whisper, sweating despite the room’s merciless air conditioner.
“Eating,” Antarag winks. “Talking.” His pitted skin stretches like a weather-beaten tarp across a knobby skeleton and skull of aquiline protrusions.
The plastic people have no food that I can see. One of them leaps up from its chair, arms raised in silent declaration while the others applaud with rubbery hands. Discolored mouths swing open and shut on cheap hinges.
Antarag grins at me with pained, frank interest—I wonder when the last time he’s had a real, flesh-and-blood female visitor up here with him. He knows I’m from Bellcap 51. He knows we’re all Jains there, with our shaved heads, monastic robes, and vows of celibacy. Still, my eyes dart nervously to his holstered pistol.
I ask, “What are they eating?”
He taps his forearm gauntlet. Menu options unfurl in neon petals. “That one’s eating steak and potato pancakes,” he says, pointing to one guest whose plastic body appears to have been assembled Frankenstein-style from at least six different modular components. ”Those two girls are eating sushi—” he motions to a pair of androgynous mannequins who are miming the use of chopsticks, bringing invisible morsels to their skeleton jaws. “We’ve got blihabi caviar, fresh raspberries, Osirian felsacs, comet cakes, beef stroganoff, flame-roasted marrow. Name it, I’ve got it. Ten million foods from across the galaxy.”
Antarg has lent me a spare visor; I fit it over my eyes and ears. The plastic people disappear and I now see them as they see each other: a revelry of beautiful men and women. The men are square-jawed and chiseled. The women are elegant and buxom; my eyes stray to the jewelry sparkling at their throats and fingers. Thudding music weaves among the sudden babble of voices.
“A pretty girl like you, Preema, should have jewelry like that,” Antarag says, following my stare. He has changed, too: the sickly-looking Ladder Controlman is now a muscular brute in a diamond-studded suit. No longer balding, his scalp has grown a lustrous mane like a cobra’s hood.
I lift the visor; the beautiful people vanish back into plastic monstrosities. One falls out of its chair, and the others erupt into silent apoplexies of laughter, clutching their plastic bellies, tilting their heads back like a nightmare of howling skeletons.
“We do not wear jewelry,” I say, feeling dampness hatch across my shaved scalp.
“And you don’t eat meat, right?” he presses me, rotating his chair, legs splayed in a crude invite.
“We do not eat meat. We do not eat physical food at all.”
He nods, eyes prowling over my shapeless robe as if he can see straight to my lean, brown, twenty-two-year-old body. “No food, huh? So where do you get your sustenance from?”
“Photosynthesis? Shouldn’t your skin be green, then?”
I make the green receptors flush into visibility on my face and hands. Each one displays itself in radiant Sanskrit. Each curve and loop signifies a Jain value: Peace. Nonviolence. Knowledge. Truth.
His grin widens a millimeter. “Do those things appear all over your body, Preema?”
Ignoring this unwelcome lechery, I say, “Their real bodies are in orbit, waiting for their ships to refuel. Would they not prefer real food, then?”
“Illusion is more satisfying, girl.”
“But even if it looks like real food, how do you convince them that it has taste and substance?”
Antarag draws his arm around my shoulders, wires dangling like weeds off his neurocast suit. “Most of it is just vibration,” he says proudly. “The neurocast suit vibrates at key frequencies along the jawline. It creates whatever parameters of resistance a meal should have. The shrimp is crisp, the steak rare, the felsac pops between your teeth.”
“But the taste of the food…”
“Are you craving something? You are, aren’t you?” His fingers tickle the gauntlet holodisplay. “How about glass noodles? That’s an ancient Buddhist delight, you know.”
“We are Jains, not Buddhists.”
“You’re a flesh-and-blood woman with a real body beneath that robe,” he counters. “Put on one of these suits and you can try anything you like—any sensory delight—without breaking your damn vows. And not just food.” Antarag points to a dusty sofa, where two grinning mannequins thrust and grind against each other, a mirthless war of attrition that has produced the stress fractures I’ve observed on many-a-pelvis here. “I don’t understand how you all hang out in Bellcap 51, guys and gals together, and no one does anything.”
“It is one of our oaths,” I explain, and drinking in the view of the nightmarish party, think: does this man have any oaths whatsoever? What are his values?
A third voice intrudes into our conversation—I’d almost forgotten that Indrani had accompanied me up the space elevator. She is Bellcap 51’s matronly, middle-aged supervisor and my direct commanding officer.
“Antarag?” Indrani asks. “If Preema were to wear your visor, would she look like you to the guests?”
The Ladder Controlman barely acknowledges the older woman’s presence; his eyes are locked on me. “Yes. Everyone here can be anything they want, even me.”
Indrani’s eyes shimmer purposefully in her aged face. “Borrowing someone’s karma. Interesting. Don’t you agree, Preema?”
Antarag rubs his chin thoughtfully. “As I recall, one of your sacred oaths is to always tell the truth.”
“To never tell a lie,” I correct him, motioning for his visor. “May I?”
He absently hands me his visor. “I’d like to ask you something, Preema. And I expect you to tell me the truth.”
The tone in his voice tells me something’s wrong. I stiffen, realizing too late that he’s known all along, that he’s been playing us, drawing us into a comfortable web. I lick my dry lips and say, as calmly as my galloping heart will allow, “Yes?”
He raises an eyebrow and his pitted skin flushes to a deep scarlet; it’s like looking at raw meat. “Why did you come up here today, Preema? What’s the real reason you people stopped by for a visit?”
And just then, the security alarm goes off.
We had fled a paradise planet to come to Tempest.
Two years ago I was a twenty-year-old girl tending the gardens of a Jain village on Midsummer’s Dream. Now I toiled in a hydrogen-collecting station among the clouds of a bitter, lonely world. Tempest is Shakespeare System’s only gas giant. It supplies planets, moons, and space stations with fuel. It’s clouds are dotted with atmoprocessing stations—the Bellcaps—tethered like flowers along the metal vines that trail off Lindorm Refueling Station, fifty thousand feet above us.
My job on Midsummer’s Dream: grow vegetables.
My job on Tempest: climb into a tight-fitting biosuit and walk vertically along the Bellcap spires to keep them clean of debris. Tempest’s atmosphere is littered with scraps of bygone processor stations, built in haste by colonists who didn’t appreciate what relentless winds could do to man’s handiwork. Each spire is a three kilometer-long lance through Tempest’s cobalt-hued clouds. Each collects planetary hydrogen day and night, pumping the gas straight up to Lindorm Refueling Station where ships from across the solar system come to refuel. A gas pump for spacefaring society.
Walking the spires, cleaning them of the constant debris flurries, is dangerous work.
It would be easier to take the lift.
“And this is why we never take the lift,” Komal explained over my headset, the day before I met Antarag Vel-heth and his party of plastic people.
I looked to his boots, gaping at the easy way he was balanced on only one foot, the other paused mid-stride just inches from a slug clinging to the spire like an oversized raspberry. It’s one thing to know that our magfiber boots form a molecular bond with the spire. It’s quite another to be this sure-footed while walking it. Glowing debris whipped through the air like confetti, bursting as they touched the electrified bristles which lined the spire like thorns on a rose-stem.
“Think of all the slugs crushed by the lift before we arrived,” Komal explained, his bearded mouth frowning behind his faceplate. He bent to cradle the specimen in his hands. It flattened its rubbery body in fear, and Komal petted its striated flank reassuringly, saying, “Thousands, maybe millions, of undocumented murders. They are safe now that we are here.”
No harm to any living thing, that was the Jain oath of Ahimsa.
“I forgive all living beings,” whispered Komal, uttering our sacred prayer, “and may all living beings forgive me. All living beings are my friends. I have malice towards none. I—”
The shockwave twisted me and for an instant, I thought my boots had lost contact with the spire. I screamed and fell forward on the vertical spire, striking my hands out at the last second so my gloves, arms, and knees would bond with the nanosteel. My stomach almost emptied the water I had swallowed an hour ago. In that moment, I imagined the report that would reach my old friends on Midsummer’s Dream: Preema Goswami, 22, fell thousands of feet to her death. Tempest’s Jains made her walk outside in a storm out of fear for stepping on a slug…
Komal finally tossed the specimen into the wind. It snapped open its frills and, like an umbrella, caught an updraft to vanish into the debris-strewn clouds. Only then did he turn his sensitive eyes on me; his was a worn, deeply-lined countenance set in that bushy beard. “Are you all right, Preema?”
I harnessed my anger. “Yes, Komal. Nice of you to notice that I almost—”
As I lay glued to the nanosteel, I turned my head south. An immense debris strand had become coiled around the end of the spire. Blind luck, really, that it had missed the electrified bristles. It made me think of the ancient custom of tying a string around one’s finger to never forget. Its two ends undulated like a pair of waving arms, unfolding and twisting in mindless, wind-driven merriment.
I rose carefully to my feet. The fiery ribbon danced, its arms snapping in bullwhip-like gyrations with enough kinetic energy to—
“It looks alive, doesn’t it?” Komal asked behind me.
“A little,” I admitted, steadying my feet. The ribbon’s contortions suggested the jiva of life. But I knew—everyone knew—that Tempest’s pollution was ajiva: nonliving, artificial matter. The only living creatures on Tempest were slugs, and they were immune to the electrified bristles, so no harm was being perpetrated.
Malice towards none.
Across three kilometers, Supervising Officer Indrani spoke through my helmet radio: “Preema? Ladar is showing a large piece of debris stuck on the spire.”
“I am looking right at it,” I replied. “I shall remove it.”
“Good.” A hesitation. “Are you okay, Preema? We heard you cry out…”
“I almost fell.”
A very long pause. Finally, Indrani found her voice and said, “It wasn’t your karma to fall. But please be careful. Ladar measures this scrap at six meters. That could whip you off the spire if you’re reckless.”
I unclipped the extendable clawhand from my tool-bet belt and advanced on the dancing red strand. “I am never reckless, Indrani. Proceeding now to remove the—”
A second piece of debris smashed into me from behind, snagged around my waist, and tore me off the spire into the endless blue.
Komal was sixty years old and he rarely did anything to challenge that fact, but as I tumbled off the spire into the clouds he must have found a reserve of youthful reflex. His hand clamped around my ankle. I screamed again, dangling like a caught fish. The clawhand dropped, bounced off the spire, and spun into the cobalt troposphere below me.
Komal struggled to lower me to the spire; my suit’s magfibers latched on and secured me once more. Heart pounding, I stared at what had struck me: Another long strand of debris, this one a brilliant sapphire blue. It seemed to hover in the storm, weaving in and out of the wind like a stubborn eel fighting an ocean’s undertow.
“Komal!” I shouted. “Are you seeing this?”
At that moment, the scarlet ribbon unraveled from its perch. Despite the way it had been knotted, it untangled itself and flew down towards the blue one.
“Jiva!” cried Komal.
The strands intertwined. Red, blue, melted into one another to achieve a fierce, throbbing violet. They braided, like two phosphorescent serpents wrapping around each other. The bonding shivered in the wind, undulating to keep position, to avoid being driven off into the gulf of sky.
And then, before our astonished eyes, the double-strand began to climb through the storm. It threaded in and out of the wind, and once more adopt its knotted perch at the spire’s end. It wrapped itself securely around the spire like a sentient ribbon preparing itself into a bow.
“Jiva,” I whispered in agreement.
The debris was alive.
“What happened out there?” Indrani demanded, once we had returned to the Bellcap. She folded her arms like a scornful schoolteacher, her brown face drawn in sharp lines and plateaus, black hair buzzed into a fuzzy stubble like little magfibers of their own. The entire Jain occupancy of Bellcap 51 sported the same haircut. Genderless solidarity through depilation.
We were still stripping of our biosuits, and it was bad form for Indrani to intrude in our half-naked state, especially with Komal there. It wasn’t the antiquated Jain prohibition about men and women seeing each other naked that bothered me, but the urgency in her voice, which suggested high emotion, which upset tranquility, which violated Aparigraha, the oath of detachment from physical concerns.
Which reminded me of my own terror out there on the spire. I could still taste the bitter tang of adrenaline in the back of my throat.
Rather than cover up his partial nudity, though, Komal dressed without haste. True Aparigraha was not to hide from anything; Buddhists were fond of the parable in which two monks encounter the name of Buddha scrawled in the dirt, and while one tries to avoid stepping on his name, the other trudges right over it, footprint marring the word as he goes. Why? Because attachment to a word is still attachment.
“The two strands combined,” I said, donning my standard white monastic garment.
“You were reckless,” Indrani declared. “You weren’t watching your surroundings.”
“I was watching,” I insisted.
“You could have died, Preema.”
“Then I guess that would have been my karma,” I snapped.
Indrani’s scowl deepened until her face looked like an iron mask bolted over high pressure. “You didn’t complete your mission. You left two large pieces of debris out there on the spire. They might clog the filter.”
“They are not debris,” I countered. “They are jiva.”
My superior officer sighed. “The debris are polyresin fragments left over from the last generation of processing stations.” She was practically quoting verbatim from Lindorm’s technical manual; she was also upset, I could tell, because she became more animated and careless in her choice of words when gripped by high emotion. “If unattended, they’ll clog up the filters. Our job is to keep the spires running efficiently.” Indrani turned her displeasure on Komal. “Preema is not alone in failing her duties. You too turned your back on those strands. Why?”
Our bearded companion offered no reaction to her question. Without his suit helmet, Komal looked like a figure of sandstone, his messy tangle of gray beard burying the lower half of his face. Jains do not lie. Lying is a terrible crime, attracting negative karma around the soul. But neither are we compelled to incriminate ourselves. Silence has many uses.
Indrani seemed to glide over to the intercom. ”Geeta, Parul, suit up and proceed to the airlock.”
“Those strands are alive,” Komal said finally. “They are not mere pollution. We have been lied to.”
Indrani released the intercom button and shook her head. “They are pieces of string in the wind. They are scraps of older stations, built in haste by colonists who didn’t appreciate how strong Tempest’s storms could be. Everyone knows that.”
“The two strands willfully went after each other.”
“Coincidence. The wind drove them together.”
“They combined for a purpose,” he insisted.
“Your belly lint also combines. Does that have jiva, too?”
Komal regarded her stolidly. “Belly lint contains bacteria. So yes, jiva is present and you should know better.”
One of the walls slid open and Geeta and Parul entered the chamber. Geeta was as old as Komal; I remembered that on Midsummer’s Dream, they had been married before our small community decided on total commitment to Jain vows. I remembered them walking together, hand-in-hand, in the grassy, sun-lit fields of that vibrant world. Now they stood beside each other without emotion, a pair of mahogany chess pieces which, as the universe often forgets, was an Indian invention.
Parul was the only non-Indian among us; a blue-skinned Jain immigrant from the nearby world of Winter’s Tale, a mean distance of just 700 million miles away.
“Be at peace,” Parul said, sensing the tension. “What has happened?”
“Komal and Preema disobeyed an order,” Indrani explained. She touched the wall and it dissolved into a viewscreen. The spire appeared, coiled by the purple twine whipping and snapping in the storm.
“Proceed with the removal,” she said. They suited up and went through the airlock, clawhands jingling at their belts.
Indrani began to climb up into the dining module. “Komal, I want you on ladar duty. Preema, follow me.”
It was time to eat sunlight.
I recalled the nastiness, the hypocrisy, of trying to reconcile the Jain principle of Ahimsa— doing no harm to any living thing— with the biological necessity of consuming physical food. To clamp one’s teeth down on a living creature, tearing and chewing, swallowing it in a froth of saliva. To drop a once-living thing into that acid-pit of the stomach. To feel the extra, foreign weight inside my belly, a bitter mockery of growing a child in the womb. To willfully steal jiva and, in doing so, drive oneself further from salvation with each bite.
I remembered the Great Hunts on Midsummer’s Dream. The orgiastic revelry of an entire village melting into savagery. The Jain children with meat stuck in their teeth!
It was the reason we had fled Midsummer’s Dream. Midsummerans were a throwback culture eschewing most modern technologies; they lived in simple farming villages. We had believed it to be a good place for us, to form our own community away from persecution.
We had been wrong.
Midsummer’s Dream was a throwback world, yes, but to rampant bacchanalias, bloody hunts, and primitivism. At first they were welcoming to us. Slowly, the cruel whispers began. The pranks and abuses. The slain animals left on our doorstep or strung up in my garden.
But it was the Great Hunt which proved the final straw. A gruesome twice-per-year holiday in which Midsummerans gathered in the woods and hills, with their musical instruments and most depraved appetites. They would light huge bonfires. They would round up animals of all breeds, whipping them into a desperate stampede, and drive them through a gauntlet of human bodies while stabbing, tearing, biting, and devouring them.
As Jains, we did not participate in the horror. Two years ago, our doors shut against one of these grim bacchanalias, we awoke to discover that four of our youngest children had done what children do best: snuck out of their homes in quiet conspiracy to spy the secret rituals from a hilltop.
Except they hadn’t stayed on the hilltop.
Maybe it had been the music which lured them down to the festivities. Maybe a dare to get closer, and closer. Maybe something worse, a primeval impulse incited by the drums and chants and smell of blood in the air.
I had been the one to find them the next morning, with meat in their teeth and blood on their hands. Visceral trophies hanging around their necks, animal eyes and teeth and paws strung through with tendons like garlands from hell.
After that night of horror, we had fled Midsummer’s Dream. We had retreated to the orbital Jain Temple clinic where we submitted to the biogeneering necessary to make us complete Jains. The final physical step to true commitment.
We became autotrophs.
In the dining module atop the Bellcap, Indrani and I climbed into a pair of glowing coffers to absorb a raw solar meal. The blue light of Shakespeare, largest star for 200 light years, bathed a system of seven planets in a wash of energy that provided our daily nutrients. The light came around us like hot wax as I waited for Indrani’s scathing review of my spire-walk.
Less than a minute into feeding, she provided it.
“You failed out there today,” she said, eyes closed as she soaked the energy. Her chloroplasts flushed green across her face, hands, and neck, displaying Jain values.
“You were not there, Indrani. And Komal agreed with me.”
“Komal is not the commanding officer of Bellcap 51. If we fail our duty here, we shall be homeless once more. What world will take us next? What world is so ideally suited to the cleansing of karma?”
“I am sorry,” I grunted.
“You disobeyed my orders. If that debris interrupts the hydrogen harvest, Lindorm will want to know why. If they ask, I will have to tell them the truth.”
I must have made my resentment audible, because Indrani’s eyes snapped open to regard me with studious disapproval.
“I will have to,” she repeated. “As Jains we have sworn an oath to never tell a lie. We do not break our oaths.”
“Even if it means that I alone would be expelled?” I demanded, searching her face for any sign of the woman I had known on Midsummer for the first twenty years of my life. The blue light gave her a truly androgynous appearance, scorching away any feminine aspects. A brief memory arose— Indrani and I crawling through the grass to approach a jade butterfly. I remembered her smile, then. Remembered how she would tuck me in each night with a hug and kiss.
The intercom rang a single, chime-like note.
“What is it, Komal?” Indrani asked. “Have Geeta and Parul completed the mission?”
“Call up the external view of Spire 4,” he said.
Indrani touched the wall. We were suddenly looking out on Geeta and Parul. They were sitting vertically on the spire, a startling picture of two beings on the edge of karmic oblivion.
A huge purple flower had blossomed at the termination point. It had grown out of the double-strand and was unfurling ghostly, semi-transparent petals even as we watched.
“Jiva,” Komal insisted.
From the screen, our coworkers chanted in unison, “Jiva. It is jiva!”
Within the blossoming creature, new structures were forming before our eyes. I gasped as the quivering petals began to split and sprout, bizarre cilia-like tendrils shivering into existence from the flower’s edges. The cilia grew before our eyes and began to whip into the wind, as if trying to produce sonic booms, but lacking the length— at least for now— to succeed. I thought: It’s trying to communicate!
I turned to Indrani in triumph. “The debris is alive!”
“But we were told—”
“A lie,” I interrupted.
Indrani pulled herself out of the coffer and dropped to her knees before the screen. Her eyes were wet.
The ride up the Ladder took eight hours, during which Tempest’s atmosphere made a full super-rotation of the planet. Komal, Indrani, and I rode the elevator together; the rest of our group stayed behind to study the flower. Geeta supplied us regular updates by radio, and by the sixth hour she had a significant update indeed: a third fragment of debris, also blue, had tried to join the purple flower, but it brushed against the spire bristles and was fried. It now hung like a burnt prayer-flag. A dead thing flapping in the wind.
“Deactivate the bristles,” Indrani ordered, and she fixed us with a solemn, quietly suffering expression. “What are they?”
Komal sat lotus-style in the lift’s corner, gazing thoughtfully at the on-wall image of the exotic organism. “A life form,” he said flatly.
I added, “The gametes of a developing organism, maybe. Reproduction through broadcast fission.”
Over the radio, Geeta added, “And it is still developing. We can see what looks like the start of a neocortical column. And a rim of parallel structures are reacting to the sunlight as the clouds pass by. I believe they are clusters of photoreceptor cells.”
“Eyes?” Indrani asked helplessly.
“Primitive eyes, yes.”
“It is clearly waiting for more debris,” I insisted. “It is even calling to the other pieces.” And I told her about the sonic booms.
My superior officer settled into a pained, contemplative meditation, while I allowed myself a tiny pleasure: my newfound sense of purpose. When had I ever been a decider in my life?
I continued, “The debris coalesces into a gestalt organism. Instead of needing a sperm and egg, it develops out of this fragmentary material. This material that we have been systematically destroying and disposing of.”
And I thought: What are the parents? Was there some bizarre garden of alien flowers down on the Tempestan surface, thrusting stamens out into the wind to shake loose this bioluminescent pollen? But that was impossible: planetary ladar, ultrasonics, and Doppler would have pinged back something that large.
I turned to Komal. “You suspected this all along.”
He gave me an inscrutable look from the floor. “I’ve been thinking about it since we arrived two years ago. I didn’t believe the polyresin explanation.”
Indrani was breathing heavily; panic squirmed in her neck. “We’ve broken the first vow, the law of Ahimsa.”
“We did not know,” I protested.
But she only repeated in her crystalline voice, “Ignorance does not excuse the damage we have done. We went from one Great Hunt to another.”
I thought of the Jain holy words: I forgive all living beings. May all living beings forgive us. All living beings are our friends. We have malice towards none.
For two years we had been collecting and destroying the debris in Tempest’s atmosphere. For thirty years before that, others had done the same. We had been interfering with the life cycle of an indigenous species!
“Something on Tempest is trying to breed,” I repeated. “And someone wants to prevent that from happening. Why?”
Komal shook his head. “I think they are already extinct. The debris are all that remain of them, like the pollen of a long-deceased flower. Whatever produced them is dead.”
“And that is why we must confront our employers,” I declared, snapping open the elevator shutter. The skies outside were black; we were seventy miles up now, in the highest reaches of Tempest’s atmosphere. My bones felt as light as young bamboo.
“We shall find out what’s been happening here,” I said. “We will put a stop to it once and for…”
I caught my fellow Jains’ expressions in the glass.
“What?” I asked, confused.
“Preema, how will confronting our employers help?” Indrani asked.
And Komal added, “Exactly. What do you think this confrontation will accomplish?”
I stared disbelievingly at them. “It will stop this cycle of evil!”
But he only said, “Great secrets have been covered by great expense and effort. Only great power can change that, and what power do we have?”
“We abandoned the horror of power when we left Midsummer.”
“Then why the hell are we climbing the Ladder?” I demanded.
He winced at my vulgarity. “It was your suggestion.”
And Indrani added, “You were bent on riding the Ladder, Preema. We did not want you
doing it alone.”
“I suggested it because we need to do something. Bellcap 51 is one of eighty different processing stations. We need to go to the source!” I hesitated. “If you disagreed with this course of action, why let me go at all?”
“Let you go?” Komal frowned, and he and Indrani exchanged a look. “How would we stop you? All living things must go their own way. You decided on this course of action.”
I shouted, “But I am only a kid!”
“You are an adult,” Indrani chastised. “We attempted to convince you that this was the wrong course of action. I explained that you’d be disobeying another order of mine. You disagreed with our reasoning.”
“Your reasons,” I countered hotly, “were for us to do nothing! You did not even think to deactivate the bristles until that third ribbon was murdered! You have not decided anything!”
“We decided to watch the flower grow,” she said. “See what it becomes to—”
“Watch the flower grow?!” My outrage boiled up and over the rigid walls of my Jain training, and now that it was out, uncaged and unchained, I clearly understood why the rest of the universe laughed at us. Why we were so readily the butt of jokes. How ineffectual we were even in the face of genocide! I even understood the perverse pleasure the Midsummerans must have enjoyed, seeing our youngest members falling straight down the evolutionary ladder with them into the barbarism they argued was the natural state of mankind. After all, wasn’t it barbarism—and audacity—that had propelled humanity to the stars? What audacity had we ever shown? We hadn’t fought for the living creatures of Midsummer’s Dream; we had abandoned them, their planet, and fled into the clouds.
Indrani regarded me with piteous, tortured eyes. “The Ladder Controlman is named Antarag Vel-Heth. He is the one you will be dealing with.”
My stomach sank. “Who I will be dealing with?”
“This is your decision.” Indrani hesitated. “Perhaps it is your karma to do this, Preema.”
“How do we distinguish karma from pure foolishness?”
“Following one’s karma opens the right path.”
“What do I say to him?”
“What do you want of him?”
“To stop killing the debris! To find out why this policy of murder was first enacted!”
“Then it seems,” Komal said, rising, “That you do know what to say. Follow your karma, honor your oaths. It is all we have left, Preema.”
The elevator car closed in on Lindorm Refueling Station.
Ladder Controlman Antarag Vel-Heth did not greet us at the airlock. He did not greet us in the hallway leading to the controller room. It was only when we entered the heart of his domain that he swiveled around in his chair to offer a brisk, welcoming salute
He was surrounded by a macabre dance of plastic people.
Ships refueling in Tempest orbit perch carefully above the station to receive their hydrogen. That period of refueling takes time. You don’t cross hundreds of millions of miles for a quick drink at the watering hole; you fill your tanks to bursting. Tempest has multiple ships in orbit at any time, guzzling away from the Ladder’s trans-atmospheric tethers. This means that the crews have time to kill. Time to socialize. To meet and greet the visitors from other worlds.
The thing about Tempest, however, is that it’s dangerous to take a shuttle down to the Ladder’s Control Station for a multiworld shindig. The gravity-well itself would burn up a lot of fuel, but that’s the least concern. There are storms here that are older than human civilization. Storms which, back when humankind was first learning to press wisdom into clay tablets on the birthworld, were already fomenting here on Tempest, gathering moisture and energy, churning in maelstroms now amber with the wrath of millennia. We had names for these storms; they were Tempest’s curious celebrities, and to enter the planet’s atmosphere was like feeding oneself to terrible alien gods.
The safer route was to neurocast into remote-controlled, fake bodies to pass the long hours.
Antarag rushed over to us, wires dangling from his head. He vigorously shook our hands in turn. “What occasion is this? Bellcap 51 honors me with a visit! Come in! The never-ending party’s in full-swing!”
Indrani and Komal bowed but made no effort to accept his invitation.
We had met Antarag two years ago, upon our immigration from Midsummer’s Dream to accept jobs manning Bellcap 51. He’d seemed a sweaty, ragged shell of a man then. The phrase “strung-out” had occurred to me, and now I saw this was truer than I’d realized. He was an emaciated thing. Unhealthy and unshaven, unshowered and unkempt.
It was difficult to concentrate on him, however, with the nightmare party of plastic people behind him.
Antarag saw my fascination. “Preema, was it? Here, try this!” He handed me a weighty visor. “This will let you see and hear what they do.” He noticed Indrani and Komal’s reluctance to get too close. Strangely, this seemed to amuse rather than offend him. “You guys don’t mind if Preema has a look, do you?”
“We each make our own decisions,” Indrani stated evenly.
The mannequins were terrible creations; they reminded me of holographic cutaways I’d seen of the human body. Jaws flapped, arms waved, bodies waltzed drunkenly and strolled with each other, rubbery fingers entwined as couples lurched off to private corners.
“What… what are they doing?” I gasped.
Antarag looked immensely pleased. “Eating. Talking.”
“What are they eating?”
Chuckling, he rattled off a lengthy list of foodstuffs. Steak and potato pancakes. Sundaes, raspberry tarts, and a litany of meat and dairy meals. Things stolen from other bodies.
Except in this case, the foods weren’t real. Nothing was being stolen.
Except life, I thought. The lives of those creatures on Tempest.
Indrani finally piped up from the doorway. “Antarag? If Preema were to wear your visor, would she look like you to the guests?”
The Controlman didn’t look away from me – I blushed under his hot stare. “Yes. Everyone here can be anything they want, even me.”
Indrani nodded. “Borrowing someone’s karma. Interesting. Don’t you agree, Preema?” She looked expectantly at me, and I suddenly understood:
Karma opens the right path.
Antarag rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “As I recall, Preema, one of your sacred oaths is to always tell the truth.”
“To never tell a lie,” I corrected him, and I motioned for his own visor. “May I?”
He handed me the visor. “I’d like to ask you something, Preema. And I expect you to tell me the truth.”
“Why did you come up here today? What’s the real reason you people stopped by for a visit?”
And just then, the security alarm went off.
Antarag Vel-Heth leaps up, cursing, wires trailing, and dashes down the hall to where the alarm was triggered. His pistol is in his hand and I almost scream, thinking of Komal—my grandfather— in danger.
“Now’s your chance,” Indrani whispers, looking stricken. “Quickly, Preema!”
I affix the heavy visor to my face.
I become Antarag.
Not the real Antarag, of course, but his idealized avatar – the bulging, muscular specimen of crude masculinity from a high gravity planet. The plastic people are replaced once more by beautiful illusions.
When I speak through the headset microphone it is not my voice, nor his, but a gruff baritone from his preferred play-list:
“How are you enjoying yourselves?” I ask them.
The crowd barely hears me. Only the nearest man, Captain Jason Finch of Winter’s Tale according to the ID bubble floating near his head, stirs drunkenly, a glass of liquor in one hand and a sultry, supple female clinging to neck. “Everything’s great, Antarag, as usual.”
“Good.” I hesitate. “Ever visit the Bellcaps?”
He squints at me. “The Bellcaps?”
At this, the girl around his neck jerks to attention. “Oh yes! Let’s hear more gossip! I love that last story you told about Bellcap 17! How can it be that none of them know Fenton is sleeping with Jezebel and Sinaga? I mean, they’re sisters! Don’t they ever talk?”
“I do not know,” I say truthfully. “Actually, I was wondering if there was any gossip about Bellcap 51?”
“You mean the freaks?” Captain Finch asks.
The woman’s eyes brighten. “Yes, the freaks of 51!” She laughs wickedly and grabs a fistful of grapes from a silver platter. I try not to think about her rubbery framework pawing at empty air.
Finch shrugs. “What about them? They’re like monks or something, aren’t they?”
My mind scrambles to respond. “Well… um… they are down there disposing of all that debris, and they, um, don’t even know what the debris is.”
I’m gambling, and my heart stops as I behold their puzzled expressions. I had been counting on the idea that they knew about the debris. Someone here must know!
“Antarg,” the captain starts, “What do you think they’d do if we told them? Pray hard in our direction?”
“Told them what?”
“About the jellies!” the woman shouts. “They talk about it on the bridge sometimes. Were they really that dangerous?”
Captain Finch strokes her hair absently. “It took fifty years and an entire armada to subdue them. So yeah, they were pretty fucking dangerous, Darlene.”
Treading carefully even as my stomach knots, I try a further prompt. “Did you see it these jellies for yourself, Finch?”
He gives me a sharper, more perplexed look. “What are you talking about? Are you drunk? Truly drunk? You hoarding the real stuff down there in your prison?”
“I am not drunk.”
“Then you know perfectly well how we killed them together, my friend!”
“Oh,” I say, and then quickly, truthfully, add, “I’d like to hear you tell the story. I’m guessing Darlene would as well.”
He sits straighter in his chair, looking uncomfortable. “Antarag and I were part of the armada, Darlene. We didn’t have an armada at first. It started with exploratory ships dropping into orbit when we first got into this system. Those early captains must have shit themselves when they saw how many jellies were floating in Tempest’s atmosphere! There were millions! Huge, floating gasbags!”
“And you popped them!” the woman giggles. “Popped them like balloons!”
The man hesitates; the grim intensity on his face is no illusion, and I think about how the neurocast transmitter must be accurately portraying his real face from whichever ship his body is in. “No,” he mutters, “Not as easy as popping balloons. When the first ships arrived, there was no fighting because those jellies were merely curious about us.”
“They were intelligent?” I cry.
“Fucking brilliant. When they realized our intention was to take the planet’s hydrogen, they began a systematic opposition. Started harassing the building crews. So we took to building in space, where the jellies couldn’t get at us. But once we eased the Bellcaps into place, the jellies would dismantle them. Pried them apart at the seams and threw them down to the planetary surface.” He motions for something more to drink.
I can’t get him a new drink; I didn’t have Antarag’s holodisplay menu gauntlet.
“A drink!” Finch demands. “Antarag?”
Thinking fast, I lean forward and pluck a half-filled glass that is already on the table and hand it to him. He imbibes the clear fluid, makes a face. “You know I drink cognac! Get me some!”
“Finish the story,” I say. “I really, really want to hear this. So does she.”
“Yes,” Darlene encourages, flinging another grape from her fist into the air and catching it with her teeth. “Didn’t you tell me they shot lightning out of their bodies?”
“Plasma,” the captain corrects her. “Bright, hot plasma that turned our equipment into fireworks and flaming wrecks. We tried all kinds of defensive measures. After some 17 trillion tradenotes wasted on that shit, we petitioned the IPC Congress for an attack fleet to subdue the natives.” He shakes his head in disgust. “Bunch of weak-kneed elitist philosophers! We needed the hydrogen! Do you have any idea how the economy would collapse without it? But the IPC was content to sit on their asses, whining about genocide. Genocide applies to people, not gasbags.”
I can’t help myself. The words blurt out of their own accord. “But they were intelligent, you said! Brilliant.”
“Brilliant and deadly.”
“How did you kill them off?”
Captain Finch is silent for a while. He’s forgotten his request for cognac. “Had to go behind the IPC’s back. Got together thirty mercenary ships, costly as hell. Then…” His eyes focus on some faraway point in space and memory.
“Then?” I prompt, feeling sick.
“Then we showed up in high orbit and started blasting the things to smithereens. Practically set the atmosphere on fire doing it.”
Darlene applauds, grapes flying from her hands.
“I wasn’t finished!” the captain’s eyes are hard. “Even with all those ships, the gasbags put up a hell of a fight! They split up into roving bands and shot at us with plasma. Took down half our fleet! We had to park further and further out from Tempest, staying out of range. Practically had to squint to see what we were shooting at.”
“But you cleared them out,” Darlene says, confused by his anger. “So all was fine!”
“All was not fine! It took years to kill them all off, do you hear me? We started calling them the Cloud Kings, because ‘jellies’ didn’t do justice to their cunning, their sense of purpose. A king defends his kingdom, right? And these things had a world to defend. When we finally cleared them out… there was debris. Pieces of them everywhere. And that’s when we discovered those pieces could reunite! They would reconstitute with the memories of dozens of outraged predecessors! And they remembered! Remembered our tactics and weapons! They started the fucking war all over, again, only now we had fewer ships, and the fucking IPC was setting up a local system office. We barely put the jellies down again. The bristles…” He nods, satisfied, though I imagine that his real body in its high-orbital ship is shivering and sweating as he relives the sweaty hell of old days. “The bristles keep them dead.”
For a long moment he says nothing more. People get up and skip off to private corners for secret intimacies. Even Darlene soon tires of his silence, and she leaves for entertainment elsewhere.
Finally, Finch scowls at me. “You’re an asshole, Antarag. You know I can’t stand remembering those days! You think you’re something special, maneuvering yourself into this king-shit post, but look at you! You’re a glorified maitre d’!” He stands and hurls his empty glass to the floor. Fragments shower our feet and instantly dissolve into pixels. At the same time, a replacement glass appears on the table, but by then Captain Finch has already vanished too, abandoning the party altogether like a discontented spirit fleeing newly consecrated land.
I’m sliding the visor off my face when crude hands wrestle me out of the chair.
Controlman Vel-Heth stands me up and shoves me into the midst of Indrani and Komal. He waves the pistol with menace, his eyes clouded in a rage that seems entirely out of proportion to the alarm. Here’s a man not used to being challenged or deceived, I think.
“What were you doing?” he demands of my grandfather. “Tell me straight! What were you doing in the storeroom, Komal?”
“Weapons are not necessary. We are pacifists. We will not fight you.”
“Then answer me, old man!”
Komal sighs in his beard. “I was distracting you,” he says.
Antarag’s eyes sharpen. “From what, you bastard!”
Komal remains silent. The Controlman closes one eye and draws a bead on Komal’s knee, and I crazily think: he’ll never walk with grandmother again.
“Stop!” I cry. “Komal was distracting you from what I was doing!”
Antarag nods vigorously. “I figured that much. What were you doing, you little bitch?”
“It was my idea to come up here, and that is the truth. I…”
I thought of all the creatures which had been murdered. A genocide over decades . An entire species driven into oblivion.
Controlman Vel-Heth roars, “Tell me!”
“I wanted to…” I stammer, looking guiltily to the plastic people with a pained expression. “You know.”
Silence has many uses.
Komal turns away in disgust and marches back towards the elevator. Indrani shakes her head sadly and mutters, “Oh Preema!”
But Antarag’s eyes bulge in astonishment. A grin cracks his knobby face and he throws his head back with a hideous laugh.
“You wanted to get your rocks off?!” he shouts in his high-pitched cackle. “The good little Jain girl wanted to sow some wild oats! Ha!”
I hang my head in shame. Not any shame that I feel. The shame that we all deserve, all those who participated—willingly or not—in the murder of an entire planet.
Antarag stomps around in a circle, holding his stomach with his pistol-hand. “Oh! You little lying whore! Haha! The perfect little people of the perfect little faith!” He rushes over to me and grasps my shoulders. “Did you eat steak? Or was it a different kind of meat you wanted to put in you?”
Indrani cuts in and takes my hand. “We are done here,” she snaps, leading me away from room, towards the elevator. I catch a glint of pride, not anger, in her eyes. She squeezes my hand in a rare allowance of emotion.
“Thank you, mother,” I whisper.
“Thank you, daughter,” she whispers back.
And from behind us, Antarag cries out, “You people made my day!”
Strange, I think, how utterly genuine he sounds as he says it. Even madmen can, from time to time, speak the truth.
Eight months pass.
Twelve more teams of Jains immigrate from Midsummer’s Dream, replacing Bellcap teams who are only too happy to abandon their tedious, low-paying posts. Once they’re settled in in their own Bellcaps, Komal pays them personal visits and explains what has been happening. He tells them of the genocide on Tempest. And they are only too happy, after hearing the tale, to deactivate the spire bristles.
The jellies—the Cloud Kings— have been growing and multiplying, as a result.
They are truly immense creatures, and yet I know it’s unlikely they’ve attained the full girth of adulthood in only eight months. Already they are half as large as the Bellcap stations. They grow out of the debris which continues to accumulate here in greater and greater numbers. Piece by piece, the ancient race is putting itself back together.
Intelligent? Yes indeed. Indrani and Parul devised a rudimentary system of communication involving pulses of colored light. The Cloud Kings gather around the Bellcaps now like friendly balloons. They allow the airborne slugs to alight on them, as must have been the pattern long ago. They don’t tell us much, but we have managed to convey our intentions. In return, they have expressed their thanks. They have promised not to hurt us.
As in, the ones who helped them. As in, the ones who stopped the genocide and allowed them to come back from the dead.
Now, I stand outside on the atmoprocessor spire with Komal and Indrani and Parul and Geeta, watching the Cloud Kings depart. They fill the sky above us like fiery halos ascending towards heaven.
“What triggered their flight?” I ask. “Where are they going?”
“They did not tell us,” Komal mutters. “The ladar showed them moving off in an unexpected migration. We asked them what they were doing, but they did not respond.”
My stomach knots and I swallow down a welling of emotions I do not care to identify. “They have all changed to the same color,” I observe as they ascend out of sight, converging like tiny fires on Lindorm Refueling Station. “They have been blue or green or violet for months. Now they are all red.”
My grandfather nods. “The colors derive from their emotional state. Blue and green are closest to friendly curiosity. Violet appears to be a state of equanimity.”
“And what are they feeling now?”
“Rage,” my grandfather says, his voice tinny in my headset. “Every last one of them is filled with rage…”
About the Author
Brian Trent’s speculative fiction appears in Escape Pod, Pseudopod, ANALOG, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Great Jones Street, Daily Science Fiction, Apex (winning the Story of the Year Reader’s Poll), COSMOS, Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, and numerous year’s best anthologies. The author of the historical fantasy series RAHOTEP, he is also a 2015 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award finalist and Writers of the Future winner. Trent lives in New England, where he works as a novelist, screenwriter, and poet.
About the Narrator
Ellora Sen-Gupta is a (currently Boston-based) biomedical engineer who often disguises herself as a voice over narrator and photographer among other roles. She has a great love of animals, miniatures, miniature animals, books and comics, exploring, tv cartoons, etc. Ellora is happiest when she is traveling the world with her family or friends but can also be delighted to sit home with her pets and some arts and crafts and/or Netflix.