Optical Orifice of The Beholder

by K.G. McAbee

It was a wonderful day for a battle.

Riln'a grouped his stones and shells in the accepted pattern for Interrelational Receptivity, with a secondary grouping of Dysfunctional Acceptance. It was a radical pattern, true--but he was feeling argumentative, and more than a little irritated with ArGre.

ArGre had always had a lamentable tendency for tardiness. More than once she'd arrived several milliseconds late for their diurnal discussions on doctrine and its diversities. To be late, in Riln'a's studied opinion, was on par with cannibalism when it came to rudeness, though certainly it was not nearly as unpleasant as public digestion.

He glanced up at the sky, calculated to a nanosecond the exact position of the second satellite beaming pale against the brightness of the Great Star, and looked around the clearing. The megacanths swayed in a gentle breeze, causing their shadows to twist and turn on the ground, interweaving in intricate patterns similar to the ones he and ArGre would soon be casting. They had long before agreed that the shadows could be used as part of a grouping if esthetically necessary, though as always, points would be deducted for a geometric derivative.

A crashing in the surrounding undergrowth heralded the approach of ArGre. She surged into view, loaded down with a collection of stones and shells, ready for a long and no doubt acrimonious discussion.

Riln'a waggled his digit tendrils in carefully calculated greeting.

ArGre tumbled her shell and stone collection in an untidy pile and settled onto her three rear pseudopods, projecting the remaining four at random about her.

Riln'a sighed, expelling atmosphere from three of his five blowholes. Damn ArGre's perspicacity to the eternal cold! She had already scored points with a seemingly artless but in fact carefully contained Pattern, consisting of an algebraic discontinuity within a logarithmic diversion.

He could see that it was going to be a long transit.

*

"Team Captain, there are some animals at the far edge of the clearing."

Lieutenant Storrs eyed the creatures warily as he waited for the captain of the survey team to answer.

The captain was kneeling in the gray-green foliage that carpeted the clearing. Her attention focused on the equipment spread before her; she gave no sign of hearing the nervous lieutenant's statement.

Storrs took a few steps closer towards the things. They were massive amorphous animals, with several thick limbs protruding at odd angles. One beast was covered in reddish fur, the other in what appeared to be rough blackish skin.

He kept his hand on his side arm as he repeated his information to the captain, a bit louder this time.

Team Captain Nicholls looked up from the display before her. She was actually chewing on a frond of the springy ground cover, Storrs noticed. He tried to hide his shiver at her filthy habits. Gods, it hadn't even been processed!

Two other members of the team hovered, their hands full of samples, waiting for their turn at the analyzer.

"Well, watch them," said the team captain, her tone just short of testy as she reached to refine a display that waggled all over the screen. "Let me know if they come our way."

The lieutenant nodded. He was nervous; it was his first time on the ground as an accredited member of a Requisition and Recovery Team and he didn't want to muck it up.

Actually, it was his first time on the ground, period.

Ever.

In his life.

He was struck with an uneasy jolt of memory...

"It's evil to leave Ship," his sister Vara had muttered, in that positive tone which brooked no argument.

His sister was a Phobe, one of a growing group who believed that the passengers should never leave Ship.

Ridiculous, of course. Ship needed supplies and the Crew couldn't do all the requisition-and-recovery work themselves.

Storrs didn't believe that the Rec-Rec Teams were inherently evil--after all, they contained crew members as well as passengers. But he wasn't sure about the safety of visits to the surface of planets. Uncanny, the thought of standing on the outside of something that was rocketing through space, instead of safely on the inside.

Still, he had passed the test to join a Rec-Rec Team. The teams were sent out to find anything useful on the surfaces of the planets that Ship passed by in her brief time out of hyperspace. It took a huge amount of mass to keep Ship going, and only just less to supplement the diets of her inhabitants.

Storrs moved a bit away from the squabbling team members--"That switch! I know it's that switch, how many times have I done this? Not often enough, I'd say!"--and wondered when he would be accepted as one of them, allowed to enter into the good-natured bitching that went on between the members. It was what he wanted more than anything, that feeling of acceptance.

As he scanned the clearing, he moved closer to the creatures at the edge of the glade.

They did not appear to notice his approach. He moved closer still, curious about what they were doing. They didn't seem to be grazing the thick sward, or fighting, or mating, or much of anything but resting on their projecting limbs and staring at each other. Occasionally one would reach out a limb and stir a bedraggled pile of stones, shells and twigs that lay spread between them.

It was standard procedure to stay away from indigenous wildlife. The team was only there for metal ores to feed into the maw of Ship, and acceptable vegetable material that could be processed for the smaller mouths of her crew. Taking risks with animals was never condoned.

But Storrs had not seen many live animals in his lifetime, being third-generation Ship. His grandparents had told him stories of bears and tigers, stories told them by their grandparents back on old Earth. Not that there had been any such creatures alive, even in his four-times-great grandparents' time. Old Earth had been near barren then, even before the Ships had left her.

That's why there were Ships, naturally--the huge transports were taking the remnants of Earth's inhabitants to live among the stars.

Storrs' Ship was going to Cenara IV, in orbit around Betelgeuse; others went to more distant stars, he'd read. His Ship would reach its destination in four more generations, five at the most.

*

Riln'a saw the odd looking creature approach out of the corner of his lower right diagonal optical orifice, but the confrontation with ArGre was at a fever pitch and he couldn't take his attention away for more than a millisecond. ArGre had just motioned an intent to display a First Interdimensional Quartering, but with an unexpected twist. She had decided to position the display at right angles to the shadow of the nearest megacanth, creating a geometrical diversionary tactic that was almost--but not quite--unacceptable.

Riln'a could smell defeat, but as always, he refused to give up. After all, ArGre had been late by a factor of seven. He was determined that this could be used as a part of his own diversionary strategy.

He pulled in one pseudopod with an abrupt jerk and projected it out the opposite side of his body with even more abruptness, to grasp a jagged rock he had brought for just such a ploy. He added it to the meticulously constructed pile before him.

That would fix ArGre, he thought with satisfaction. A deep rumbling laugh came from one of his bellies.

Riln'a failed to notice the odd creature's sudden movement at the sound of his laugh.

Nor was he in a position to interpret it with any sort of clarity.

*

Storrs had never experienced these uncanny feelings before, but he knew just what they must be.

Surprise and shock, certainly.

But mostly fear.

"Team Captain!"

He'd approached closer than he realized to the two creatures, and correspondingly farther from the rest of the team. When the animal made its threatening movement and growled at him, he seized his weapon and glanced over his shoulder to call for reinforcements.

There was no one behind him.

While he had been engrossed in watching the creatures, the rest of the team had gathered up their equipment and moved away into the edge of the tall growths that ringed the clearing. Storrs could just see them, about two hundred yards away. Safely out of range, if the beasts decided to charge, he thought with uneasy satisfaction.

He set his weapon on stun and started to back away slowly, so as not to startle the creatures. They looked dangerous and were bigger than he had realized at first. He tried to count the appendages that jutted out from them, but each creature seemed to have a different number.

*

ArGre saw that she had been outmaneuvered. Riln'a waited for her to accept defeat gracefully, a cheerful smile on his right fore pseudopod.

She pulled in three limbs and rose to her perambulation height. A jolly giggle rose from her fourth belly.

One thing about ArGre, Riln'a admitted: she had always been a good loser.

*

Lieutenant Storrs snapped his weapon onto 'kill' when the second creature rose threateningly and growled even louder than the first. He took aim at the center of its massive body as it towered over him.

A beam of energy shot out from the phasor in his shaking hand.

Direct hit.

Unfortunately, the impact was on the center of one of the growths just behind the creature. A projecting vegetable segment burst into flames, blazed up eagerly as if it were impregnated with some sort of fuel--then fell to the ground.

It hit dead center of the untidy pile of rocks and twigs heaped between the two animals.

*

Riln'a refused at first to believe that their meticulous care in the construction of the Pattern had been wasted. He and ArGre would ordinarily have left it there, to be admired by others of their quotidian group, and as a source of inspiration to the younglings who were just getting established in the Game. To see it destroyed by a random blast of energy from the direction of the creature, after all their care, was disappointing to say the least. He projected an optical tendril toward the creature standing near them, wondering with one part of his mind at its oddly symmetrical appearance, while another part judged its esthetic possibilities and a third analyzed its unusual odor.

ArGre was not so concerned with the niceties. She had often been accused of acting in a rash and impetuous manner, and her actions enhanced what had until now been mere rumor to Riln'a.

She rose up to her full height and spread three of her pseudopods at full extension towards the symmetrical creature, in the accepted form of Quizzical Inquiry Leavened with a Dash of Peevishness.

Riln'a accepted her abrupt departure from common courtesy with tactful concern. He projected a pseudopod, widened it at the end, and beat out the flames that threatened to spread to the adjoining megacanths.

*

Lieutenant Storrs backed away from the threatening beasts. A hasty glance over his shoulder showed no other crewmembers in sight. He took a deep breath, tried to quiet his jittering nerves--then took careful aim at the black-skinned creature that seemed to be the most dangerous. For an instant he wondered how the other beast knew to put the fire out before it spread. Perhaps these creatures were intelligent? It had been the dream of some of the Ship's people to meet with intelligent life forms in their journey, although the Phobes, of course, rejected the possibility of any intelligent life outside of Ship.

Storrs tightened his finger on the trigger guard. A tight beam of death shot straight for the center of the threatening animal.

*

Riln'a was distracted by the spreading flames and could never explain later precisely what had happened. He knew that ArGre had been confronting the symmetrical creature, which had responded by waving a limb at her--a limb that projected a beam of energy at a sub-visible level.

ArGre had no doubt analyzed the subatomic structure of the energy beam, appreciated its unique inherent Pattern--and then absorbed it before it could damage less perceptive life forms.

By that time, the creature that had projected it had backed away, turned and disappeared in the direction of a group of similar beings. Riln'a could see them at a distance factor of seven point three. He attuned his semi-orbital vision tendril to focus more clearly through the clouds of smoke still rising from the smoldering mess at his base.

He could see three to the factor of two minus three beings--an elegant number that he took several nanoseconds to appreciate and experience. They were all of that strangely symmetrical shape he had seen in the first creature, though varying in degrees of height and thickness. He felt a surge of excitement. Perhaps they were a new species of animal? Or a throwback to the misty past, when it was theorized that lifeforms had been the more primitive symmetrical shapes?

Riln'a pondered this as ArGre settled herself after the unwarranted consumption of so much energy.

He hoped she wouldn't have indigestion.

*

"Gather all the equipment! Syzynczi, grab those samples!"

The team captain cast a quick look around at her crew, her gaze lingering on the pale lieutenant. He was shaking, his weapon hanging loosely in one hand.

"Storrs? That creature absorbed a full blast? You're sure, now? Positive?" she rapped.

The lieutenant nodded, his mouth open. "Yes, ma'am."

"Then let's scramble, people!"

The team members huddled together, touching, bits of local flora dropping from hands and pockets.

"Beam us up, Control."

*

After his experience on the surface of the planet, Storrs decided that he was not cut out for the Rec-Rec Team. He resigned his commission and decided to study as a med-tech. He found it easier to forget the threatening beasts in the gleaming antiseptic medical bay.

After a time, he decided to join the Phobes. He was quite popular at the weekly meetings. An elaborate and careful description of his frightening experiences outside Ship was sure to coerce new members into joining.

There were hopes that they would never reach Cenara IV at all.

*

Riln'a and ArGre decided to spend the next three orbits of the Great Star debating the existence of symmetrical intelligence and linear lifelines. They attracted quite a crowd of determined elders and fresh-hatched younglings. Several of the younglings were vociferous in their denunciation of the existence of symmetrical beings. One, ArGre's new matrilineal grandaunt, actually spouted the heresy of Outworld Intelligence!

Well, thought Riln'a, shaking his third quadrant brain case in amusement, she's young this life term. She'll learn.

It was shaping up to be a rancorous discussion.

He was sure he was going to enjoy it.


This story originally appeared in Challenging Destiny.

2002 by K.G. McAbee. All rights reserved.

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