Viscous Circle, page 1
Copyright © 1982
Chapter 1 Mission
Chapter 2 Rondl
Chapter 3 Cirl
Chapter 4 Quest
Chapter 5 Invasion
Chapter 6 War
Chapter 7 Dream
Chapter 8 Campaign
Chapter 9 Monster
Chapter 10 Woman
Chapter 11 Tangent
Chapter 12 Double Circle
Chapter 13 Cerberus
Chapter 14 Maze
Chapter 15 Vicious Circle
Chapter 16 Moon Fair
Chapter 17 The Lie
Chapter 18 Triangle
Chapter 19 Trap
Chapter 20 Reality
Three million years ago a galaxy-spanning civilization vanished, leaving only scattered evidences of its operations, in the form of derelict Ancient Sites and a strange pattern of surviving species. Some Sites are merely huge earthworks, long eroded and overrun by vegetation and development; others contain valuable artifacts of intense interest to scholars and technicians; and some few are "live" with operative equipment, sometimes self-animating. All contemporary cultures of the known universe eagerly seek such Sites within their spheres of influence, as the technology of the Ancients was beyond anything known today.
For example, all cultures now suffer from Spherical Regression, being unable to maintain an advanced level of civilization at their perimeters. This represents an inherent limit on their expansion, and is thus a considerable annoyance. The Ancients seem not to have suffered this regression; they had some secret that enabled them to maintain their civilization at its optimum level throughout its entire region. Thus the discovery of a functioning Ancient Site is generally the signal for a mad intercultural scramble, in which the usual restraints of civilization hardly apply. Yet often the effects of such discoveries are other than anticipated, and have galaxy- or cluster-spanning ramifications.
Many of the technological innovations that have transformed contemporary interspecies society derive from the knowledge of the Ancients as discovered in their Sites. Two of the three major systems of transport and communication are examples: Mattermission and Transfer. Mattermission is the virtually instantaneous transmission of objects and creatures across interplanetary and interstellar distances. However, this mode is so expensive in energy that it can only be used on special occasions. Unrestricted use would result in the deterioration of the substance of the galaxy in that vicinity, as the binding atomic forces weaken. That is not healthy.
Transfer is the artificial shifting of the aura, or soul—which includes personal identity, consciousness, and memory—from one person to the body, or "host," of another. This system uses approximately one millionth the energy of Mattermission and automatically equips the Transferee with the language and background of the host, even when that host is a completely alien creature. With Transfer, interspecies commerce is feasible, and larger Spheres of Influence are practical. Empires can be formed and maintained.
An entire framework of Transfer has been developed, with many specialists. The Society of Hosts assumes responsibility for the welfare of hosts temporarily deprived of their auras. Its motto derives from Kipling: "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,/Lest we forget—lest we forget!" The Transferee who forgets his origin will fade into nonexistence. The military has trained people with intense auras to be transfer agents, who transfer to hosts among the cultures being spied on. The work is dangerous, since if the alien host dies before the mission is concluded, the visiting aura dies with it. But this is a notorious, dashing sort of employment with unique rewards. Many seek it; few achieve it.
This is the story of one such agent.
Ronald Snowden launched himself into the tube with his customary verve and plunged like a cannonball through the rocky heart of the planetoid. Some termed these orbiting chunks of material asteroids, he thought, but that was wrong; they were not small stars, but small planets. As such they had become quite useful to man, serving as way stations and isolated training camps and mines for assorted substances. Why, even gravel for concrete would be prohibitively expensive if lifted by the ton from the surface of a full planet! In a planetoid belt, gravel was cheap; one had only to seine it from space and float it to the construction site.
Ronald was a grown Solarian male verging on the nether side of prime, but at the moment he was like a boy, complete with the tousling brown hair and self-satisfied grin. He narrowed his gaze to make the details of the travel tube blur, and thought of himself as a zooming rocket.
When he came to the residential region, he caught hold of a bar and swung himself into the crosstube with the neatness of fine muscle tone and experience. He enjoyed token gravity and hated to return to full weight. But that was a necessary evil; if he ever allowed his system to atrophy in null-G, he would be unable to set foot on a full-mass planet without horrendous and possibly lethal complications.
Ronald popped into the residential cylinder. The volume of it spun about him, since the entrance was in the axis. This, too, he liked; he drifted, as it were, in the center of this miniature world. What self-centered philosophies he might evolve to explain this phenomenon! I, Lord of all I survey...
But he had business. He could not dally in idle indulgence, however tempting it was. He was not lord of anything. He had no rank even among the personnel of this station; he was just an employee. A rather special employee, to be sure, but no more than that.
He drew the fins out from his sleeves and trouser legs, locked them in place with practiced shakes of his limbs, then stroked through the warm, damp air for the rim. Soon he was moving swiftly down, as the atmosphere helped him along and centrifugal force bore him outward. He guided himself toward his sector and his lot, banking sharply and running in the air to take the abrupt one-gravity landing. In his exuberance he overshot, and knocked down a cornstalk.
His wife shot out of the house as if jet propelled. She was a handsome red-tressed woman whose esthetic countenance was marred at the moment by anger. "You clumsy oaf!" she cried. "You trampled my garden again!"
Ronald was obviously at fault, yet he wished she had not been so quick to take issue. She seemed not to be concerned whether he had suffered any injury. She cared more at the moment for a cornstalk than for him.
They were four and a half years through their term marriage. In half a year they would either renew for another five, or let it lapse. Their actual decision would have to come before then, to enable the changeover, if it came, to be smooth. Traditionally, promiscuous affairs were tolerated in the final three months of a term, as people compared each other to the remaining options. Generally the reality was considerably more staid than the tradition, and serious couples never experimented at all. Still, the matter bore consideration. Ronald had been conscious of the approaching deadlines, but not thought seriously about them. Perhaps it was time to do that thinking. Perhaps, in fact, Helen had already done so, and her attitude was showing it.
Yet he had to be fair. He had landed carelessly. He would have been just as annoyed if she had broken any of his puzzle-sculptures or his three-headed dog statuette memento. Their marriage should not be allowed to founder on trifles; it should be settled rationally.
"I admit fault," he said. "Name my penance."
"Penance!" she snapped. "How can you fix a broken stalk? That corn is done for! Besides, you haven't stowed your fins."
Ronald quickly snapped his arm fins
"If you knew how hard it is to grow corn out here in space..." Helen resumed.
She would not let go of the trivial. Well, if that was the way it was, that was the way it was. He would have to meditate on what kind of woman he would prefer next time. Certainly not one who nagged a man about stalks! "I'm sorry," he said, and stalked inside, conscious of an inappropriate pun. Stalk—stalked. It wasn't funny.
Then, in the inexplicable way of the sex, she changed attitude. "You must have an assignment. Of course you were distracted. Let me make you some tea."
Ronald used no mind- or body-affecting drugs idly, tannic acid among them. But it didn't matter; this wasn't real tea. Nothing available here on the planetoid research station was non-nutritive or habit forming in any physiological manner. Some people took coffee, cocoa, cola or wine as purely social devices, since caffeine and alcohol and cocaine did not exist here. Helen liked the associations of tea, so she brewed dainty cups of it on special occasions. Sometimes, on cues known only to herself, she made demitasse instead. It was her way of apologizing for a display of anger.
Ronald indulged her in the ritual, accepting tea, sanitized sugar, and genuine reconstituted imitation cream in a pseudo-china cup on a decorated saucer. Helen had a flair for serving that he had always appreciated; it was her special indulgence, similar to his zooming through the low-gee tunnels, and she was at her best when honoring these forms. He realized that tea had historically been used as a social mechanism, giving form to encounters that might otherwise become awkward. He recalled the joke: "I'm sorry I had to put poison in your tea, dear." "That's all right; it was delicious." Then he glanced at Helen with a muted flash of uncertainty. Poison? But of course that was a foolish thought; she would never poison anyone, and in any event there was no such chemical on the planetoid or in it. If she did not wish to stay with him, she had only to wait six months.
She proffered him a little plate of delicate cookies. Ronald took one and nipped at its rim. He knew it was thoroughly fortified with all manner of nutrition, but it tasted just like vanilla wafer. She was really pulling out the stops!
Helen looked a query at him, and Ronald had to tell about his mission. "There's an unincorporated region about a hundred and fifty parsecs out, not halfway to Mintaka. Of no interest to anyone except obscurity scholars, until this moment. We picked up a galactic rumor that there is an Ancient Site there."
"An Ancient Site!" she exclaimed, almost spilling her tea. Only the grossest amazement could cause her to forget herself to that extent. "The whole Galaxy will be charging into the area!"
"No, it's only a rumor. Been around for centuries, never verified. Mirzam's checked it out more than once in the past couple hundred years, and Mintaka ran a survey there last millennium, and even Sador in its heyday sent a crew there. Now Bellatrix, the closest Sphere, has a station there, but if they found any Ancient Site they never developed it. No one has been able to find the thing, so the other sapients have concluded it's a false lead."
"All those other Spheres have existed longer than Sphere Sol," she said. "How do we know better than they do?"
"Solarian snooping. There's a local species, sub-Spherical. They're sort of spinning circles. All different colors. Like hollow-centered Frisbees. No society; they just float about magnetically, somehow. We call them Ringers. Seems someone transferred to a Ringer host, maybe a research nut, just to see if it could be done, and there in this thing's quaint mind was the memory of its visit to a kind of shrine where its ancestors learned to fly—and when that Transfer traveler came back, he realized that shrine must have been an Ancient Site in excellent repair. So now we're pretty sure it's true; there is a Site there. We don't know exactly where; that wasn't clear from the secondhand memory. But it almost definitely exists. So now all we have to do is find it, before any alien Spheres catch on to our hot new lead."
"Why didn't you put that Transfer traveler on a total readout and get the specific data? There's always a lot more in the mind than can be consciously recalled, especially when Transfer is involved."
"You're telling me? I'm in the business!" But Ronald was happy now, telling his secret. "Couldn't. He wrote out his report, then went back to his Ringer host on a scrambled setting; couldn't recall him. Guy must have been addled, but his report seemed straight. So if it can be verified—"
"An Ancient Site!" she repeated, awed. "All the key technological breakthroughs of Galactic history have derived from Ancient Sites. Matter transmission, Transfer of auras—"
Ronald set down his cup. "I see you still remember your school lessons of so long ago." When she did not dignify the slur on her age by reacting to it, he continued. "So I'm to transfer to one of these Frisbee animals and search for the site. If its location is in the creature's memory, I'll bring the information back. Or someone else will; there are a dozen of us, male and female, transferring in. Shouldn't take long to do it. Funny no other Sphere ever thought of this simple expedient: ask the local animals."
Helen considered gravely. "Transfer is your thing; you're like a child with a zap-gun when you get a chance to transfer."
"Naturally. That's why I signed." Though there had been some bad moments during his breaking-in period. That three-headed dog...
"Each time you go, I wonder whether you'll make it back."
"You knew my business when you took the term marriage. Five years, or till nonreturn do us part. I live for Transfer, and I can't think of a better way to die, if die I must."
"So naturally you aren't swayed by the obvious risks. But I am."
"What risks? As missions go, this is routine."
"No mission involving an Ancient Site is routine!"
"Apart from that, of course. But we aren't supposed to go to the Site itself, just ascertain where it is. So in that sense this is an ordinary venture, with an ordinary alien element of challenge."
"Except that several alien Spheres with a lot more experience than ours have failed to crack this riddle. You can bet they did not give up easily—not with a preserved Ancient Site dangling as the prize. It can't be easy to find."
"I told you: we're using Transfer to explore not space but the memories of the natives."
"And you think the other Spheres didn't?"
Ronald paused. "It does seem odd. They really should have thought of that."
"I submit that they did—and lost their Transfer agents."
"Lost them? Even if that were so, we did have a Solarian who made it back, so—"
"And stayed only long enough to make a note, maybe to explain things to his relatives, then went back into Transfer covering his trail. He made sure he would not be recovered. Does that suggest anything to you?"
"You think that was part of a pattern?" His wife had a disturbing propensity to reason things out in ways he had not. This was one of the things that made her worthwhile. "That all those aliens either died in Transfer or chose to stay there, so no information ever got back?"
"You know no aura can be recalled from Transfer if it doesn't want to go. In the old days they needed to build Transfer stations in alien territory to ship agents back. Now they can recall specially trained and adapted agents by using special equipment—but only if those agents are ready and willing, and trying to return. Sounds to me as if that first Solarian Transferee was afraid they'd trace his location, mattermit a unit out there, and force him back to his human host. So he made sure they couldn't. That's no ordinary matter. Coupled with the failures of the other Spheres—"
"I see you don't have much confidence in my desire to return to you." There was a bitter edge to his voice; that matter of the cornstalk still rankled.
"Touché. But I'd hate to have you want to return and be too befuddled by something in the Ringer nature to make the attempt
"And you with half a year remaining in the marital term," he said mockingly. "I'll give you a release now, if you want to avoid the inconvenience of—"
"That is not necessary," she said sharply. Then she smoothed herself visibly and took another tack. "Suppose the creature doesn't know where the Site is? Suppose none of them do?"
"Then we'll simply have to look for it. We've got to locate that Site. Sol's dominance of the Segment is at stake. System Etamin, with its Polarian-Solarian cadre and its circle-thrust logic, is coalescing as the real nucleus of human-oriented space. Sol will never regain her position unless she has the power of the Ancients. We have to have that Site."
"For politics?" she inquired. "That's all it means? A game of one-upmanship with Etamin to see which System shall carry the scepter?"
"The power of the Ancients means more than politics. But yes, that's the essence."
She shook her head so that her hair flung out in a way he had always liked. A woman was supposed to choose a man by his intellect, and a man to choose a woman by her appearance. Ronald doubted that was always the case, but Helen's appearance had certainly attracted him. "What's going to happen to the creatures?"
"The Ringers? They don't matter."
"Don't matter! If someone transferred to one of them, the creature had to be sapient. They must have rights—"
"No they don't. The Ringers aren't listed in the Galactic Index. They have no Sphere, no organization, no physical artifacts like spaceships. Legally they're animals."
"How many species are in the same political vacuum? What about the Magnets we use on the big sublight ships? You really believe they're animals too?"
Ronald sighed inwardly. Helen was a creature of causes, and she had been on the case of the Magnets for as long as he had known her. The Magnets resembled nothing so much as self-motivated cannonballs, and were useful as watchdogs aboard ships where real dogs would have trouble getting around. He didn't want to work into another argument. "Helen, I don't set Spherical policy. I can't be concerned about every stray creature that gets in Sol's way. That Ancient Site is important!"
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