“Your presence here is pointless.” The Blimpie’s gaudy graphics paraded like neon tickertape across its forward hemisphere. The thing floated in front of Dinty, drifting with the tiny breezes of the habitat’s environmental system. “Why have you bothered to come, Past-man?”
“Why ask? Your people profess to have all the answers, don’t they?” Although this was a calculated insult, Dinty Wollongong maintained a placid expression, giving nothing away. He did this by suppressing any micro-muscular spasms that might betray his emotions. His training must have worked. The Blimpie displayed more pictograms, but none showed subtexts of offense.
“Trying to guess reasons for the absurd desires of throw-backs like you is not my forté,” it imaged. “I can only presume you obsoletes don’t wish to be left out of the Council, however useless your attendance here now is.”
It took all of the Australian’s schooling to maintain his impassive facial mask as he politely said, “I do think it’s critical we reach some consensus.”
The Blimpie, which closely resembled and was about the size of a child’s pink balloon, pictured a shrug equivalent. “We see no overwhelming necessity for it. The biospera is an immutable fact.”
“Yet, you’re here, attending. That in itself says something.”
“Whatever it may say, Past-man,” a string of pictograms with strong negative emphasis on the word past-man now appeared on the Blimpie, “I doubt your capacity for comprehending it.”
Now it was Dinty’s turn to shrug. His was elaborate, meant as a physical counterpoint to the Blimpie’s two-dimensional stream of graphics.
Then he said, “If we can put aside our biases, then surely your people can do the same? Prejudice in any species is an unworthy attribute.”
The Blimpie councilor wafted away down the corridor. Two of its many black eyespots slid around its upper hemisphere, reversing position, so the Blimpie could still regard Dinty.
“Don’t denigrate prejudice, Past-man,” it picted as it went. “Disliking vicious beasts can be a good thing. Survival-wise, that is.”
Then the Blimpie shot away at a higher speed, burping out tiny jets of hydro
gen gas to propel itself. It trailed twin tendrils, like tethers, below it. The Blimpie headed in the direction of a biolock at the end of the passageway. It seemed intent on escaping into the hellish upper atmosphere of Jupiter.
No doubt, Dinty thought, it needs what passes for a breath of fresh air after talking to a lowly human. Shaking his head, he headed for his quarters.
Jayne Wong, his junior councilor, waited for him there.
“You heard?” he asked.
Liquid almond eyes blinked up at him. “And saw,” she said. “Your implants worked perfectly. Your reading of the pictograms and your self-control seemed flawless. You were very good.”
Dinty passed one hand through tight-curled, black locks. “Never mind the sheep dip,” he said. “As our resident expert, what’s your professional opinion of the encounter? You do have one?” His tone held a sudden edge to it.
Jayne’s pale features immediately blanked, revealing nothing.
“You’re giving yourself away,” Dinty said and then smiled.
“How? Remember, I taught you the discipline. I know how to use it.”
Dinty’s smile now turned into a wide grin, his teeth a white contrast against chocolate skin. “
That’s the whole point, Councilor,” he said after a moment. “As you’ve told me, it isn’t just how you use it, but when. I ticked you off. Rather than show it, you resorted to suppression techniques. Dead give away in itself.”
“Absence of feelings can be as obvious as feelings,” Jayne recited, as if by rote. She smiled then, her brown eyes sparkling. It made an otherwise average face pretty. “Guess I’ll have to work on that one.”
Dinty slumped into one of the two lounge chairs the room boasted, sinking into its supple softness. “We’ll both have to,” he said, “if we expect to get anywhere at this Council. “But back to my point, did you notice anything?”
“It didn’t catch your deliberate insult. Even though a ‘mog, it’s still relying on our body language and facial expressions to determine much of what we’re really saying. It’s not changed where it counts by human standards, in here.” Jayne tapped an index finger against a blonde-haired temple.
“Yeah, and that gives us a small edge in negotiations, one we desperately need.” The Australian, senior of Earth’s two representatives, attempted a smile. Dinty wasn’t entirely successful at it. Then he added, “That’s one of the biospera species down, now only a thousand to go.”
Jayne’s delicate eyebrows dipped into a frown. “There aren’t nearly that many.” She flopped into the other seat as she said this. “Yet,” Dinty said, qualifying her statement. “There will be. With humanity constantly transmogrifying into different species for new environments, just give it time.”
“’The biospera is an immutable fact,’” Jayne said, quoting the Blimpie. She flashed him a wry grin.
“Yes, but how are we mere earthly humans to cope with it?”
“We must.” Jayne said this in a firm tone of voice. “If the Council of Sentience forbids earthbound humans to transmogrify, we have to establish some consensus with all these outworlders that do.”
“No, that isn’t it. What we really want is to establish our own rights in an ever-diversifying group. It’s pure self-interest, of the survival kind.”
Dinty stretched, sprawling long legs out onto the carpet. He let one of them Jayne felt brush against her in a feather touch, a tentative gesture of closeness. She didn’t move away, but neither did she seem to notice.
He hissed a slow sigh, like a teakettle cooling, before saying, “Let’s face it. Since the Freeforms seized the moon, we’re trapped, locked up on Earth with no real place to go.”
Jayne twitched shoulders in a tiny shrug. “Not to worry. Our definition of humanity is darned inclusive. They’ll go for it.”
“Don’t be too sure of that,” he warned her. “That gasbag may be one of the worst, but many of the others aren’t much better. When you’ve dealt with them, then you may have more doubts about the outcome.”
Jayne made her way to the Central Chamber for the Council’s opening convocation. Being mostly procedural, Dinty felt it could safely act as her baptism of fire, one that wouldn’t involve serious repercussions should she make mistakes. Moreover, he was busy, flooded with a host of quantum-encrypted messages from Earth. All were marked URGENT.
The metal-walled corridor Jayne traveled was crowded with all manner of things, some walking, others crawling, creeping, or even floating. The humidity made it feel even more claustrophobic. It was set too high for standard human comfort.
She glanced at three yellow Tentaculars. Their slimy appendages boosted them along the walls. Octopus-like suction cups let them hang from the ceiling, dripping down in impossible positions.
Like elephant snot, she thought, remembering an old joke from her time at UCLA. Several Blimpies bumped and drifted ahead of her. Their dangling tendrils dragged along the synthetic carpeting.
Arrogant windbags, she thought. Like flatulent machine guns, they made steady farting sounds as they expelled excess hydrogen. Pictograms flickered in neon colors back and forth across their hemispheres as they “talked” to each other.
Two Europans, looking like squashed turtles, scuttled along the floor behind her, watching her with expressive blue eyes set on the ends of centimeters-long, twin stalks. Their chitin-covered legs made clicking sounds as they moved. They carried orange breathing cylinders strapped to their tan carapaces. Gengineered for the moon, Europa, they could no longer breathe normal air.
A silver remote lurched along some meters ahead of her. Its tall metallic frame, hunched to fit the confines of the narrow hallway, made it look like some mechanical preying mantis. Jayne could hear its servos whining like dentists’ drills. The sound was just as annoying.
Dinty was right. The various species of humanity were getting more numerous all the time. The Blimpies of Jupiter now massively outnumbered original humans. With the resources of such a gigantic planet at their disposal, theoretically, they could control the entire solar system. That is, if the Freeform types that preferred hard vacuum would let them. After all, it was hard to win against what amounted to fleets of living spaceships.
Overwhelmed by her people’s predicament, Jayne entered the chamber. It was brilliantly lit, vast, being all curves and sweeping vistas. Enhanced ones had created it along with the rest of Sentience Station. This year, the thing hung in the upper Jovian atmosphere, a courtesy to the powerful Blimpie bloc. Next time, it would be near Pluto, out of deference to the pluton crowd. Such feats as shifting this new station, or engineering the gravity generators employed here, were child’s play for the newer, computer-symbiotic species.
The same metallic remote took up a standing position near her seat. Jayne ignored it. She focused her attention on the transparent wall across from her. It permitted the Freeforms floating in space there to observe events inside the station. They looked like so many mutated whales, metallic dolphins, and giant plastic jellyfish. Jayne, although impatient for things to start, was careful to maintain her facial expression in an uninformative façade.
“That won’t work with us.” The remote’s voice was devoid of all tonality, bland in the extreme. “We don’t rely upon body language to interpret your behavior.”
Jayne turned toward the insect-like thing. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me, I believe. You’re buying time, are you not, to mentally adjust to my statement?”
Ignoring its question, Jayne asked, “Who do you represent?”
“Not the interstellar traveling Tin Cans, as you are incorrectly surmising at this moment. I act for a Mentality group.”
“How could you know --?”
“Projecting the reasoning paths of baser life forms is easy.” The thing’s anthracite eyes observed her without expression as it spoke. Being artificial lenses, they could hardly do otherwise Jayne supposed.
“No offense intended,” it said.
“None taken,” she responded, dryly. “But, I thought the Mentalities usually didn’t bother to attend.”
The mechanical shifted position, as if trying to get more comfortable. Jayne knew that couldn’t be the reason. It was just a robotic remote for an absent entity. Or entities, she corrected herself. The Mentalities were not composed of individuals as humans defined them, but rather uploaded group minds.
“We felt the necessity of a presence at this one,” it said, “because of certain extrapolations we’ve made. They constitute a collapsing probability wave.”
She paused to reason out this indigestible lump of information, before saying, “Putting quantum physics aside for the moment, just what are you talking about?”
“Sterilization; its passage by this Council will constitute a first step down the road toward a series of interspecies civil wars, major ones.”
Jayne frowned. “Sterilization? What kind?”
“Wrong question, I’m afraid. It’s not what kind, but for whom. There’s a growing consensus your species is no longer viable.” “Yes, the Blimpies certainly think we’re obsolete, but…” her voice trailed away as realization dawned upon her.
“I see you’re now beginning to assess the possible ramifications.”
“You don’t…” Jayne swallowed and tried again, “You don’t mean that they’re planning to sterilize us?”
“I mean precisely that, but you haven’t understood the full implications. This isn’t about your not having any more progeny. They want your species excised completely from the biospera -- now.”
Jayne broke her discipline by letting her jaw drop. She didn’t notice though, nor would she have cared at that particular moment if she had.
“You’re not bloody serious?” Dinty’s expression was dark like thunder, eyes flashing like lightning. “Genocide? The Charter of Sentience forbids it!”
“That’s what I told the Mentality. It pointed out that the charter is amendable. Murder, to paraphrase it, is in the eyes of two-thirds or more of the beholders. Councilor, we’ve been blindsided. Forget our rights. We’re talking about extinction as a species!”
“Lord, don’t I know it! Did the Mentality say how they’re planning to do it?”
“They want to use a nano-virus that will put us all gently to sleep for good -- quite humane really.” This last, she said with a dripping sarcasm.
“Don’t we get any say in this?”
“Until the motion to amend the Charter is adopted, we do.”
“And the Mentality; what does it think? Is there any support for us at all?” Dinty now sounded frantic, looked it, too.
Jayne, tired of standing, sank into one of the chairs. She was worn to a frazzle and heartsick by what she’d heard at the convocation. Dinty continued to stand, apparently too agitated to sit.
“It’s not good,” she said at last, unable to hide the resignation from her voice. “The Tin Cans have been in touch with the Mentalities via quantum synch, but they’re ambivalent. Having left the solar system behind for good, I guess they just don’t care anymore. A few others, especially the Mentalities, are against it. The Mentality told me it adversely affects their learning curve.”
“What learning curve?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She waved a dismissive hand. “It’s something to do with M-Brane theory. Did you know they’ve created new universes by rubbing the ripples of M-branes together? They’re working on trying to open doorways to them. They want to leave this one as soon as possible. And they don’t want any unnecessary delays getting in the way.”
“Make gateways to their own private universes?” Dinty snorted in disbelief.
“Yes, but they won’t be knockoffs of ours. They prefer sheet-energy universes, ones without any matter in them.”
“Holy bloody Dreamtime!” Dinty exclaimed.
“Dreamtime? Yes, I suppose your people’s belief system could be a good description of it. It certainly wouldn’t be reality as we know it.”
Jayne was in her quarters napping when the alarm sounded, a klaxon blaring strident emergency. She awoke, groggy for lack of any decent sleep. It took precious seconds for her to realize there was trouble. When the nature of the situation dawned on her, she pressed her throat mike.
“What is that -- a hull breach? Dinty, are you there?” she asked after a noticeable pause without his responding.
“Yes, and that’s a negative on a hull breach,” came his scratchy-sounding reply through her ear implant. “Near as I can figure, there’s some sort of palace coup going on. My communications comp shows messages bouncing around all over the station. It looks like the Blimpies are trying to seize it for themselves.”
Another pause, shorter this time, and then, “I think they want the secrets of the gravity generators and maybe the other tech stuff, as well.”
“Good God! They could defeat the Freeforms and end up controlling the whole solar system with that stuff."
"Yeah" Dinty said, sounding exhausted. Fleetingly, Jayne wondered if he’d slept at all.
"And the tech-enhanced ‘mogs delivered Sentience Station right into their clutches by parking it here," he added in a grim voice.
Jayne reached a decision. "Dinty,” she said, “I’ll be right there.”
“You can’t. The Blimpies have smuggled weapons aboard. They control most of the station, including the entire residential section. They’re killing anyone they catch moving about the area, regardless of species."
“We’ve got to do something!”
“Yes, but what? The com reports some of the other ‘mogs are trying to make a stand near the station’s drive section. Still, without any real weapons, they can’t hold out for long. And once the Blimpies seize that area, they'll have complete control.”
“Those obnoxious gas bags!” exclaimed Jayne. That was when a thought struck her. “Hey, Dinty, they use hydrogen to propel and float themselves.”
“Yes…” he said, sounding hesitant. “That’s one reason they’re nicknamed ‘Blimpies,’ of course. They’re like miniature dirigibles. And the station’s atmosphere for most sections is a standard oxygen one. I get the point.”
But now sounding testy, he continued, “Jayne, there’s an obvious problem there -- it’s not as if anyone has a way to cause mass ignitions. Who uses lighters and matches these days, especially on a space station? Even if we had them, who could get close enough without first getting shot? Anyway, I don’t see just the two of us running around trying to blow up individual Blimpies, especially ones armed with particle guns.”
“I have an idea,” Jayne said. “Look, the environmental control center isn’t too far from my quarters. Do you think you can manage to help me get there?”
“I can try. But is this worth risking getting ourselves killed for?”
“We’ll see,” was her sober response. Then she told him her plan.
Jayne crept out of her quarters after first checking that her “street” was clear. She hurried down the corridor, paused at the first intersection, and cautiously peeked around its corner, looking both ways.
No one; it seemed the Blimpies were too few in number to be everywhere and this station was big! So, if Jayne was correct, then they’d only be watching the main points of ingress and egress to the residential areas. At least, she devoutly hoped that was the case.
She raced down the hallway to her right, her footfalls luckily muffled by the plush gray carpet. Three corridors more and two turns later, she almost ran head on into Dinty.
“You!” he exclaimed, apparently startled by her sudden appearance as she rounded the last turn. “You made it.”
Out of breath, Jayne just nodded.
“The environmental controls are this way.” He pointed to his left down another long hallway.
“I know. Let’s get going before we’re discovered.”
“Hey, wait for me,” he called after her, as Jayne took off running again. Dinty pounded after her.
They came to a halt at the primary entrance to their residential section. Jayne cracked the metal door slightly. She peered out. Just as she feared, an armed Blimpie floated there like some child’s lost balloon. It had a particle pistol, a so-called “p-gun,” gripped in one knotted tendril. The other tether hung empty.
“Uh oh,” she whispered. “I was afraid of this.”
Dinty looked over her shoulder. “Well now, that is a problem. How do we get past that thing?”
Jayne turned to him. “We need a diversion,” she said in a soft voice.
He just stared back at her for a long moment, before saying, “I was afraid you were going to say that. Looking for a volunteer, are you now?”
Jayne didn’t say anything. A strained silence dominated them for a long moment.
Then Dinty shrugged in a gesture of surrender. “Yeah, right, well it looks like I’m elected. Okay, Jayne. But for God’s sakes, do make this work, will you?”
“Yes, boss.” Jayne placed one gentle hand on his arm. “Please, Dinty, don’t get yourself killed. Just try to get it to follow you. They’re not very fast. Hopefully, you can outrun it.”
“Yeah, but it’s not the Blimpie I’m worried about. The p-gun it carries is what really concerns me. Okay, you ready?” He swept her with an appraising glance, as if sizing her up for the task to come.
Jayne nodded. “As I’ll ever be,” she said.
“Since the environmental center is to the right, I’ll try to get it to follow me to the left.” So saying, Dinty flung wide the door and stepped out into the corridor.
“Hey, you!” he shouted at the pink Blimpie, waving his arms about his head like some demented windmill. “Over here!”
With that, he took off running, zigzagging down the corridor. It took a second for the Blimpie to respond. Then it sailed after him, its weapon blazing. The shots were wild ones however, burning sizzling holes in the carpet and walls. Acrid smoke, smelling of ozone, wafted in a blue haze down the hallway behind Dinty’s retreating figure.
Jayne was just thankful the Blimpie seemed so unskilled at the use of the weapon, but then, she supposed there wasn’t much use for such on Jupiter. She doubted if they could even work in such a horrendously thick atmosphere. If fired, they’d probably just disperse their beams in all directions at once.
When the Blimpie had glided past where Jayne was hiding behind the closed doors, she shoved them wide. She raced down the corridor in the opposite direction from the Blimpie and the fleeing Dinty. Behind her, she heard a sudden distant scream, a very human-sounding one.
Not Dinty! She said this silently to herself as she kept on running. Please, God, not him!
Now her heart pounded as she raced. Her chest heaved with the effort to get oxygen. She breathed air in ragged gasps. Jayne tried to ignore all this and focus on her goal, the environmental control center. She had to get there. But as she ran, she continued to silently plead for Dinty’s safety.
It was as Jayne passed the entrance to the low-gravity residential section that she spied the first tragic signs of the Blimpies’ takeover. She paused there to catch her breath and take in the terrible scene. A Phobite and Diemon lay dead just outside the doors to their area, their remains partially charred by p-gun blasts. Verdigris blood lay pooled on the gray carpet about them, forming a shallow blue-green puddle. There was no sign of there having been any struggle on the victims’ part.
Murdered! Jayne glanced away, unable to look at the awful scene any longer. Now wearing a haunted expression, Jayne ran on. She was almost there. There more bodies along the way. They lay scattered about the floor of the corridor. Jayne averted her eyes from them and kept on running, doing her best to zigzag around the corpses.
Minutes later, she came to a halt. Jayne had a painful stitch in her side. Ignoring the agony as best she could, she entered the environmental controls sector. The facilities were unprotected. The pompous Blimpies had overlooked posting a guard there. It seemed they left a lot to desire as strategists as well as marksmen.
“Are you okay?” Dinty’s voice whispered in her ear implant.
Jayne paused in her efforts to figure out the environmental controls just long enough to activate her throat microphone. “I’m fine. Are you all right?”
A dry chuckle and then, “Hair singed a little, but okay otherwise. I’m hiding in one of the dining rooms under a table. The Blimpie passed right on by down the corridor, so I think I’m safe -- for the moment. How’s it going with you?”
“These control panels aren’t nearly so easy to figure out in real life as they seem to be for heroes in holo flicks, but I think I’m getting it. There,” she added after a moment, “that should do it… I think. Now all we can do is hunker down and wait.”
“And hope,” added Dinty, but he didn’t sound very hopeful as he said it.
It took some time before Jayne noticed the change. Then her nostrils started to burn. When she breathed, her throat felt dry. The humidity had to be near zero now. Judging by the muzzy feeling in her head, the oxygen content was definitely higher. Still, she waited. There was nothing else Jayne could do.
“I think it’s happening,” Dinty said much later over her implant. “I just heard an explosion out in the hallway. I’m going to wait just a little longer and then try to make it back to my quarters. I want access to the communications console there. You stay where you are. Stay safe.”
“Don’t worry, I will. Dinty…”
“Be careful,” was all she could bring herself to say.
“Believe me, I intend to.”
After another wait that seemed interminable to her, Jayne again heard from him.
“It’s working,” he said, sounding excited. “Reports are coming in from all over the station. The Blimpies are exploding. They don’t seem to know what’s hit them. They’re in retreat. The Martians report they’re leaving the station as fast as they can. Jayne, you’re brilliant! How ever did you think of it?”
“It was something I saw the other day,” she said, “when I was going to the Council. I noticed how their tendrils dragged the carpet the entire time they traveled. It hit me when we were talking about trying to ignite their hydrogen -- static electricity! Get the humidity low enough and they’d build a charge up from brushing along the synthetic carpet. Then up the oxygen content some and when they touched metal -- spark and boom!”
“Boom, indeed.” He said it dryly. “It makes you wonder why the tech-enhanced missed that danger for them when they built this place.”
“Maybe they didn’t,” Jayne countered. “The humidity was awfully high here all the time, so it wasn’t a problem then -- no sparks, and not a high oxygen content.”
“Well, we’ve won,” Dinty said much later. They were in his quarters. “The Jovian government has formally apologized to all the Council members, including us. An outlawed Blimpie faction was behind the coup, or so they say. That’s probably a lie.”
“But the Council’s buying it?”
Dinty shrugged from where he sat in his chair. “If they don’t, it means a devastating war for everyone, so they’re allowing this as a face-saving out for the Blimpies. But everybody knows the truth. And the plans for our sterilization are finished now, having been primarily promoted by the Blimpies. What's more, the other ‘mogs will closely watch them from now on.”
Jayne smiled and then said, “And Earth’s been elected to the new permanent presidency. Now there’s a personal coup for you.”
“It seemed like a good idea to the Council. That is, after the Mentalities explained that terrible interspecies wars were otherwise unavoidable according to all their predictions. They think we Earth types are best suited to help mediate any arguments. Who better?”
“Pick the Neanderthals who are no threat to anybody to preside; meaning us?”
Dinty nodded. “Enlightened self-interest did the rest, but barely.”
“For this battle, yes.”
“We’re still being manipulated,” Jayne cautioned him. “We’re just pawns to them, ultimately expendable.”
“For now, we’ll just have to accept that fact and take what we can get. The important thing is you’ve bought us precious time, Jayne.”
“But at what price? Eventually, this station is going to be a mess. Trying to arbitrate between endless emerging species will be an immense undertaking. It’s going to make for one long and delicate dance, I’m afraid.”
“Like angels dancing on the head of a pin.” He said it in little more than a murmur.
“Never mind, just an obscure historical reference. Anyway, we should celebrate. You’ve given us hope, Jayne. Or should I say, Madam President Pro Tem, because I’m delegating you to that post. I’ll stay on as ambassador. But tell me, how do you feel about presiding over the Council? Can you handle it? After all, this is one pinhead that’s going to get very crowded.” Then he grinned.
Jane shot him a suspicious look by way of a response. Then, she mentally shrugged. He was such a difficult man! And yet, she was growing so fond of him. This, when she thought about it, probably wasn’t a good thing in the long run. It could be a major mistake. But, so what? After all, she was only human…. At least, she mentally amended, for now.