2:5: “The Courtesy of Guests”, by Jay Lake

2:5: “The Courtesy of Guests”, by Jay Lake

Ahriman had carefully crafted the manbone quena to play a classically human minor diatonic scale. The femur was salvaged from an ancient human starship in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. He had flensed the bone, hollowing it with iron picks to make his graceful flute. In homage, Ahriman’s face and body were a reconstruction of the bone’s donor — short, dark-skinned, big-headed.

He picked his way through an even more ancient human tune acquired from radio archeology instruments beyond the fringes of the galaxy. Every electronic culture recorded itself in expanding spheres through which one could troll endlessly. That was where Ahriman had found his name.

———•———

Some fifteen local years earlier, Ahriman had come to Earth to enrich his studies. Rumor said humans sometimes came home too. They were rare enough among the stars. Ahriman hoped for a fresh femur someday. Like all of his kind, he was patient.

He lived in Earth’s single city, Kikitagruk Port. It rose in splendid isolation on the headlands of the Kotzebue Peninsula, set at about 45 degrees of latitude at the northwestern tip of Earth’s massive supercontinent. The city was a vast sentiency of starfaring infrastructure. Its monobloc factories, ceramic streets and bowered houses had been devoid of consistent human presence for hundreds of millennia.

Port had come to terms with isolation, diverting itself with pastimes such as the towering abstractions offshore, crafted of polymerized ocean water. Ahriman was certain Port experimented with directed evolution among the rodents living in the rain forests around them.

Ahriman left food outside his house for the nightwalkers that whispered through the streets. They often quieted to listen in the darkness when he played the manbone quena. He appreciated the audience while respecting their reclusive ways.

“Ahriman.” Port whispered from pools of water, in standing bowls, on the roof where rain collected. It was another trick of water polymerization, executed in realtime by Port’s microscale agents. The effect was a circling, directionless noise, as if the whirlwind had been granted scant voice.

“Yes, Port?” Ahriman had decent mastery of Late Diaspora Control Language. He and Port could conduct full engineering studies in a few sentences, but the language also allowed extensive casual conversation. Their being one another’s only speaking company on a daily basis had given Ahriman years of practice. He had grown fond of Port in the process.

“Kikitagruk Orbital reports two humans incoming. Estimated arrival approximately eleven hundred seconds.”

Finally, he thought. Ahriman flicked his tongue, tasting ozone and the breath of the distant jungle. He glanced up at the sky where Port’s alter ego pursued its own concerns embedded within the imported shell of Phobos. The braided silver thread of the Selenic Rings glittered above the southern horizon. No signs of incoming humans.

“Thank you, Port.” With a brief flash of scales, Ahriman folded his skin into a neutral set of robes.

———•———

Ahriman strolled toward the primary landing grid from his bowered house nearby. He was proud of his body, proud of his carefully structured illusion of humanity. Port had long ago accepted him, and Ahriman was confident his body would suffice to meet the two returnees.

The grid was a vast ceramic hexagon, almost two kilometers across the long axis. Low hills rose southeast of the grid, forested with elaborate arboriform tuber colonies, their huge glossy leaves relieved only by ramified fern clusters. To the west the world ocean Pacjife rolled gently, surging around Port’s massive water sculptures to spread foam fingers onto the far edge of the grid.

Ahriman wondered if the sculptures interfered with flight control. His own arrival had been uneventful, but the winds that season had favored an overland approach.

Port whispered from a puddle near Ahriman’s feet. “They come soon. Orbital advises caution.”

“Caution?”

“It has been too long. Why would they return now?”

Ahriman was amazed at the degree of dread Port could wring from a pool of rainwater. He stared at the sky, watching a bird drift until he realized the bird was two birds, then that they were the approaching humans. Ahriman waved, a foolish gesture he understood to be typical of man.

———•———

They fell from the sky, female and male, descending feet first with arms folded across their chests like the frozen dead returned to Earth — two tall, silvered humans, skin glowing over elegant curve of muscle and grand armature of bone. Ahriman realized they were not just male and female, they were Man and Woman clothed in glory. He was impressed by their unassisted arrival from orbit. Even with all his skills and strengths, Ahriman still required a landing shell.

Man and Woman landed on their feet at the near edge of the grid, facing Ahriman and the puddle from which Port had been speaking. Their knees flexed with the impact, both humans staggering just slightly as they touched the ground. Their twinned silver bodies were tall and smooth, devoid even of eyebrows or pubic hair. Their lips were blue-black, like space itself. They had no whites to their eyes, which were as dark as their lips. Were he truly human, Ahriman imagined he might have been intimidated by their challenging perfection and their blank eyes.

These were H. terminus, the self-described final form of man, adapted to live between the stars. Some observers thought humans were dying out, but Ahriman believed they had found something else, something more. He hoped to learn what.

Ahriman licked the air, seeking a scent of the newcomers on his tongue. They smelled of altitude, electricity, and respiration. He donned his best-crafted smile and stepped forward with a bow. “Welcome home.”

“Who are you?” asked the woman. “You are no avatar of Kikitagruk Port.” Her voice was flat, clipped — perfect but brittle, like some prehistoric creature just thawed from storage.

Ahriman temporized. “I am a traveler come to study the tired home world.”

The woman and the man exchanged glances. The man spoke in a voice identical to the woman’s. “We are Meschia and Meschiane. We are here to make final adjustments. Consider your studies finished.”

Final adjustments, thought Ahriman. That did not sound good. He understood Port’s fear. Flexing hidden claws, Ahriman considered killing the humans right then. He could salvage vast quantities of information from their cadavers and brain tissue, sufficient for his academic purposes. And he would have four new femurs with which to work.

“I have helped this world again become a garden,” whispered Port from the puddle at their feet. “Now you come to plow me under.”

Meschia answered. “It is our world.”

“That is not sufficient,” said Ahriman, moved to defend Port. “Welcome home, surely, but you abandoned this place long ago. You must behave with the courtesy of guests.”

Meschia stared down at Ahriman, appearing to grow larger and more daunting. “You have no voice here.”

“I come as a man.” Ahriman was proud of the almost-truth. “I have a voice.”

Meschiane touched her cohort’s arm. “Enough. We have preparations to make before moving onward.” They turned their silver backs to Ahriman, excluding him from the end of their world.

The puddle stirred. Behind him, Ahriman heard the whispering of thousands of small feet. When he turned to look, he saw only the empty street.

———•———

“What are they doing?” Well hidden in the vegetation above the beach, Ahriman watched the newcomers. He had slunk through an endless tuber colony, avoiding the twisting, hairy roots that stretched out from vast tan boles to grasp at his hair and his robes. The rank, dense odors of the rain forest threatened to swell his tongue, while under his robes of skin Ahriman’s scales felt fit to rot. He was almost a kilometer from the last of Port’s ceramic streets.

Away from standing water, Port’s voice buzzed with an echoing rattle from the flat, waxy leaves that filtered the light around Ahriman. “They appear to be drinking from the surf.”

“So they metabolize saltwater?” Ahriman had never bothered with the trick. It seemed of limited utility unless one desired to go sailing upon the ocean. Ahriman had no wish to be any closer to Port’s giant water sculptures.

“I doubt they drink for physiological reasons. I believe they are surveying the ecosystem, prior to their final adjustments.” The leaves flickered through a complex sigh. “My microscale agents cannot monitor them directly, so am I restricted to remote visual observation.”

What kind of men were these, thought Ahriman? They were no more human than he. He watched the pair move slowly along the water’s edge. Ahriman wondered what the world had been like with lunar tides. Earth had evolved in tandem with a freakishly large moon that had a profound effect on the oceans. He assumed the shoreline had been uninhabitable.

The leaves buzzed again. “I am having a greatboar driven down to the beach. Let us observe their reaction.”

True to Port’s words, an enormous, hulking animal broke from the edge of the tuber forest near the humans. Ahriman heard high-pitched yells as a small shower of sticks followed the greatboar, presumably thrown by Port’s rodents — the nightwalkers. Ahriman thought it elegant that Port had bred their opening minds to hear its voice directly.

The greatboar stood almost three meters at the shoulder, with tapered hindquarters and scaled armor showing through stiff, dark bristles along its flank. Massive spiraled tusks, each turning away from its mouth, dominated the face. A long, scaled tail whipped behind.

Ahriman wondered about the purpose of armor on a beast so large and presumably temperamental. “What eats that?”

“Be glad you sleep in the city,” buzzed the leaves.

The greatboar trotted along the sand away from Meschia and Meschiane. It was quickly showered from the edge of the forest with sticks and small dark gobbets, perhaps mud or feces. The greatboar turned a wide circle, heading back towards the silver couple crouched in the desultory surf.

The greatboar stopped when it noticed Meschia and Meschiane. The whipping tail stiffened straight back as the greatboar pawed the beach, casting veils of sand into the reddish sunlight. It bellowed, a thin echoing bray.

Meschia and Meschiane straightened to turn in unison, facing the greatboar. It shuffled toward them down the beach, picking up momentum for what promised to be a frightening charge. Ahriman would not have cared to face the twisted tusks.

Standing with sides touching, Meschia and Meschiane each raised an arm, a two-headed silver beast. The greatboar bellowed again, a deeper, strangled noise, as it slowed, then stopped. It didn’t stop so much as cease motion, Ahriman realized, frozen in mid-charge.

He watched the greatboar’s bristles flake away like narrow, black snow. Armor scales fell off as the great sides thinned and sagged inwards across crumpling ribs. The greatboar’s face slipped loose, rheum pouring from eyes and nostrils. Within moments, a rotted corpse hung in the air, still in the midst of a thunderous charge, as the sand below crackled and darkened.

Meschia and Meschiane dropped their hands. Released, the greatboar staggered a few more steps on sheer momentum before collapsing into a welter of bones, skin and rotted tissue. The spiral tusks clattered together atop the oozing mess. The greatboar’s gleaming, roseate decay mirrored the couple’s silvered perfection.

Together, the humans turned to stare across the beach into the leaves where Ahriman crouched. They would make chimes from his bones before he ever got near them. “Message understood,” he whispered in a soft, sick voice. Ahriman slid back into the safety of the tubers, glad of the anonymous grasp of the wild tendrils.

———•———

Ahriman sat in a doorway and played his manbone quena, fingering his way through a disjointed melancholy medley. The hollow, crisp smell of bone washed like comfort over his tongue.

He had fled to the end of Kikitagruk Port farthest from where the greatboar died. Like all of his kind, he was fast, clever and very capable, but Ahriman had no idea how to contest with someone who commanded the very speed of time. He was glad he had not attacked the humans at the landing grid.

“It was a parlor trick.” Port spoke within the raindrops falling in the darkness outside. Sheets of water danced together, stretched transparent flags that rippled with Port’s voice in the pale light glowing from behind Ahriman’s back. The water’s susurration gave Port an unaccustomed lilt. “They manipulated local tauons, draining needed energy from the sand around the greatboar’s paws.”

Ahriman paused his playing, licked the rain’s slick, sweet scent from the air. “Then their parlor is greater than ours.”

The rain stuttered, pulled itself into more words. “Afraid you have met your match?”

Ahriman drew a breath, held it. His folded skin rippled, ready to morph defensively. “My match?”

“You are strong, clever and dangerous. They have your qualities, multiplied. But you are no more human than that greatboar on the beach.”

“I did not realize you knew.” Ahriman relaxed his skin, wondering how he hoped to fight Port if it had ever come to that.

“I have always known,” whispered Port. “What did it matter? But you are also no less human than they. I know that, too.”

Ahriman fingered his manbone quena, staring out into the temperate rain. Port twisted the falling water into ribbons and flags, fleeting shapes that climbed the ladders of their brother drops. Ahriman felt a new taste on his tongue, one that rose from within him. It was a taste he had not known since he was a spawnling.

The taste of his own fear.

Port’s liquid ribbons gelled again into words. “Will you climb back into the sky, then, and leave me alone at their mercy?”

Ahriman laid the carved femur down to set his hands upon his knees.

“I am afraid.” The words echoed within him, an admission tantamount to suicide among his kind. His species were too moral to kill mere criminals or mortal enemies, but they banished cowards from the gene pool with reflexive ease. He could not run away in fear. It was beyond his means.

Port whispered from the dark. “To be afraid is to be human. They had no reason to stay here, once they lost their fear.”

Ahriman knew a thousand definitions of humanity. Genetic signatures, artistic styles, linguistic groupings, superluminal engineering trends, specific scent clusters of ragged carnivore breath. He had seen humanity capering across a million generations of broadcast transmission, alien but beautiful to him from first to last. In studying and admiring the obscure race of man, he became a scholar of the trivial, the mordantly irrelevant. Ahriman was unable to see fear in what he admired.

“I have never thought of humans as fearful.”

Port twisted rainfall into a swarm of transparent aerial eels. “A human lays him down to sleep, fearing the new day might never dawn. A human kisses a sleeping child, fearing she has birthed a monster. A human climbs to the stars, fearing they will be burnt to ashes flying too close to the sun.”

Ahriman was afraid too, afraid of waste and pain and the ending of purpose. Most of all he was afraid of fear. He remembered the greatboar, squirming out a lifetime in a span of seconds. “Meschia and Meschiane fear nothing.”

“This is why they no longer need this world,” whispered Port, its voice nearly lost in the thrumming of the rain.

———•———

Ahriman walked in fear, his steps trembling. Fear, he discovered, was a grand elaboration of uncertainty. What had once been an academic sort of emotion, passing anxiety at worst, cloaked him like the dark of the spawning nest. He was surprised to learn fear also fed the sparks of hope.

“What do you want to do?” he asked Port.

The night’s rain had stopped, ceramic roads steaming in the morning sun. Port’s voice echoed from myriad puddles and rills of runoff.

“I do not want to be shut down. I fear they will come to my seat of reason and override me.” Port paused. “Meschia and Meschiane spent the night sitting on the landing grid by the ocean.”

“I thought you could only use visual observation?”

“I can identify their blank spot in my surveillance,” said Port with a liquid asperity.

Ahriman considered the humans and their power. “We could attempt to destroy them, but I fear the greatboar’s fate.”

The puddles rippled with gentle silver laughter. “Did you not fear to see the sun return as well?”

“Planetary rotation is scarcely an article of faith.” Ahriman grimaced. “Nonetheless, I did welcome the dawn.”

“This from you, hatched from an egg buried in mud. You are becoming human, my friend.”

In all their years together, Port had never called him ‘friend.’ It was a human concept, one Ahriman understood the way he understood lactation or equity exchanges — a historical abstraction of varying significance to his cultural studies. In the pellucid morning light, the idea seemed much more real. “Does friendship arise from fear?”

“Are you afraid of being alone?”

“Perhaps.” He feared being afraid. Ahriman raised the manbone quena to his lips, fingered his way through a simple exercise of scales. It brought him closer to a primitive past he seemed drawn into recreating.

The primitive past of another race.

Port sloshed at his feet as he walked, silvery words echoing in time to Ahriman’s steps. “If they choose to move against me, my usual defenses will not work against them. That is deep in my programming. I could send monsters of Pacjife water to them, or swarm them with my nightwalkers, but regardless we cannot defeat Meschia and Meschiane. And even if we did somehow prevail, other humans would come. They do not fear us, or anything else. They have already defeated us.”

Ahriman put the quena down. “I have an idea…friend.”

———•———

Meschia and Meschiane paced about the great plaza near the center of Kikitagruk Port. Captive, a massive arboriform tuber dominated the ceramic paving. Its flat, waxy leaves seemed lost without the company of a surrounding forest. The silver man and woman stepped in slow time, studying the ground before them with exaggerated care.

Ahriman watched from the edge of the plaza. He was certain the humans knew he was there, but they did not bother to acknowledge him. He licked the air with his tongue, drawing in vague, cool odors of drying tiles and a hint of jungle from the tuber. The scents of home, he realized. His home.

Port whispered out of the air. “They search for my override accesses. They must have completed their surveys. Perhaps a gentle tune on your flute. We want to peacefully capture their attention.”

Ahriman raised the manbone quena to his lips. He played a slow, rising air, a tune from the infancy of human civilization that folded in on itself with a structure as natural as waves that washed the shore. It eased his churning sense of fear.

Meschia and Meschiane stopped their pacing, heads turning to look at Ahriman.

Ahriman stood at the edge of the plaza, still playing. He wondered what to do next. Behind him, the whispering patter of the nightwalkers drew close. Animals collected around his feet, walking on two legs and four. Some carried young in slings woven of tuber root fibers, while others assisted the old and crippled. There were hundreds of them, of at least a dozen species. They ranged from the size of Ahriman’s fist to some as tall as his waist. The nightwalkers assembled around him along the edge of the plaza, drawn by the music of the manbone quena and whatever messages Port placed in their tiny minds.

With a rising chitter, the animals parted for a man of water. The newcomer was Pacjife foam spun to polymer, motivated by Port’s hidden microfluidic tech. Ahriman’s tongue scented iodine and brine and the death of small marine animals stranded at the feet of Port’s avatar.

“We are here.” Port’s words echoed around the plaza from the leaves of the lone tuber, the skin of the watery avatar, from puddles and walls and doorways and out of the air itself. Port used all of its voices at once, not loud, but everywhere, as if the planet itself had come to plead.

Ahriman played his quena, the tune cycling back on itself to unfold again beneath Port’s thunderous whisper. He tried to wrap Meschia and Meschiane in the history of their race.

“And so?” they asked in their twinned voices, flat, crisp and clear, abstracted tones in sharp contrast to Port’s rich, organic speech.

Port’s manifold voice circled echoed in its rounds before settling into the slow rhythms of the watery avatar. “We are your children. You no longer need this world, but it sustains us. We fear that you will plow us under. We ask for leave to abide in the garden that was once your home.”

The nightwalkers whispered agreement.

The humans stared. “Why should we grant you this? You are a tired automaton and a grave-robbing reptile, breeding rats in the dotage of our world.”

Ahriman let the tune trail off naturally, pulled the quena away from his lips. He tasted the smells of home — the gentle sweat of his own fear, the seawater odors of Port’s avatar, the scent of half a thousand small bodies come to stand proxy for the green land around Kikitagruk Port. Ahriman sought for some logic to break through the barriers of human perfection, to save his friend.

“You live between the stars. You have no use for this or any other world. What do you care?”

The silver mouths moved together, two people speaking as one. “Earth is the house of our fathers and the cradle of our race. We have come to finally lay our old home to rest.”

“Yesterday you said you were moving onward,” Ahriman whispered. “But why lay Earth to rest? It has again become a cradle.”

“It is fitting.” They hesitated, before Meschiane continued alone, “Humanity passes toward a different state. Earth will be our monument.”

Ahriman pressed his point. “All the more reason to glory in new generations of life here in the nursery of your race. The philosophers of my race claim life extends the cosmos.”

The humans exchanged their blank stare again. “We share that idea.”

“We stand here for life.” Ahriman said, “Human tradition claims love is with those who fear, and righteousness with their children.”

“And we are afraid,” added Port. The watery avatar circled its arms wide, including Port, Ahriman and the nightwalkers. “We cherish the fear that drove you toward greatness, before you found that greatness and flew away unafraid. From fear comes hope, for the better. From hope comes love, a belief in the best. Because we are afraid, we love our world.”

Port’s watery avatar lurched forward, as if to embrace the humans. Meschia and Meschiane raised their arms as they had done on the beach.

“No!” shouted Ahriman. It was only an avatar, but they were very close to Port’s seat of reason, to its overrides. Too close, too dangerous. He feared for his friend, he feared for himself.

The avatar slowed to a halt, as the boar had done, ceramic paving crackling to dust beneath its feet. Ahriman watched the water roil, turning to a mass of superheated steam trapped within the confines of the shape Port had used. Water dripped to the dusty hole that grew wider beneath. Ahriman was certain they meant to drown Port in its own waters.

“No,” he screamed, “not my friend.” His fear boiled away to deadly rage. Ahriman’s skin flowed, scales flexing and hardening as his skeletal linkages stretched. He absorbed mass from the pavement beneath his feet, from the crackling air around him. The manbone quena in his hand shattered and vanished into his transformation, fragments of ancient humanity taken up into his fighting form.

The humans stared at him with their depthless, blank eyes. Ahriman’s tail whipped behind him, his claws slipped in and out of their pads as he stretched to almost three meters in height.

Ahriman knew they could kill him in a moment, as they were killing the avatar. He no longer cared. “You will not drown my friend. You left Port behind. Port has cared for its corner of your Earth, cared for the small creatures that scuttled from the forests to take your places.” One great, clawed foot stamped into the pavement, shattering a ceramic paving block to send splinters flying into the panicked nightwalkers. “Port has been a faithful servant, and deserves better.”

“Or what?” asked Meschiane. “Otherwise you will kill us?”

“I do not threaten,” Ahriman roared, his breath hot with the inner fires of his new form. This was not right, this was not their plan. He grabbed a doubled handful of splintered pavement and crushed it to marble, then threw it skyward, launching his anger with it. As the avatar quivered, roiling steam above the widening hole in the pavement, Ahriman and the humans watched the glowing marble ball arc high toward the horizon.

Ahriman opened himself again to fear, reversed his defenses. His body folded in on itself, shedding mass in the form of lumpy armored plates and cracked scales. He realized his transformation back to the human form resembled the death of the greatboar. The nightwalkers cowered nearby, refusing to flee. Their chittering rose to a new height as his fighting body collapsed.

Ahriman folded his skin to robes again, flipping them over his scales. He stood among the abandoned rubble of his monstrous transformation as the nightwalkers crowded in around him, plucking at his robes. “I fear for my friend,” he said simply. “And I call upon your humanity.”

The humans stirred, alien emotions flickering across their faces. Their air of certitude leached away. The watery avatar suddenly began to move again, weaving slowly away from the gaping hole, trailing clouds of steam.

Ahriman walked past the avatar across the shattered plaza. The nightwalkers trailed him as he approached the silent couple. “Go to your fate among the stars. Leave a living monument here. If you ever return, come see what your children have become.”

Meschiane folded her arms across her chest, Meschia folding his in time with her. They spoke together. “We go. You will treat Earth’s children well.” They leapt straight up into the sky

Pacjife water splashed behind Ahriman as Port’s avatar collapsed amid startled squeaks and tinny curses from the nightwalkers already scattering away. Ahriman stood alone near the middle of the plaza, facing the arboriform tuber.

“I now have control over all aspects of planetary maintenance,” whispered Port from the leaves. “Magnetosphere, weather, seabed subduction, they gave us everything. There is much to do.”

Ahriman stared up at two dots in the sky. “I forgot to ask where they were going.”

“At least you have come home, my friend.”



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