Marque of Caine – Snippet 31

Marque of Caine – Snippet 31

Riordan suppressed an impulse to rush out into the water in an attempt to disrupt or chase off the geel. It was a pointless reflex here, one that had been evolved for, as Thlunroolt put it, a different reproductory paradigm. But as unnecessary and inappropriate as it might be, it kept surging up whenever Caine was not consciously combatting it. At least conversation and questions were a distraction. “So how many eggs remain now?”

“Almost all. They are hard-shelled, laminate structures, not unlike your ballistic armors. Few predators can breach them. Once they hatch, though, the spawn are completely vulnerable. To survive, they must swim across the pond to where the Quickeners wait in the grottos.”

“Do they fight off the geel?”

“There is no need. The geel avoid the smell of mature Dornaani.”

“Well, that’s convenient.”

“No: it is a matter of evolutionary balance.” Thlunroolt’s mouth–visible now–twisted slightly. “There is ironic reciprocity between the geel and my species. When we are but spawn, they eat us. But when we are mature, we eat them.” The once-placid surface of the pool was now thoroughly hazed and flecked by their frenzied feeding.

“So, do the Quickeners, um, just scoop up the spawn and–?”

“Our young must demonstrate their own capabilities and their own choices. As I explained yesterday, they will choose among the Quickeners that line this side of the Breeding Pool. But they will have to follow that Quickener out upon the bank when he leaves his grotto at the end of this day.”

“The spawn are already able to walk?”

“Some. Most wiggle their way out and only then discover the use of their legs. But those which cannot are left behind for the waiting geel. This is our way.”

“So even once they’ve reached the other shore, this is still a dangerous day for them.”

Thlunroolt dangled a pair of noncommittal fingers. “Here among the First Calling grottos, it is more dangerous for the Quickeners.”

“Why?”

The old Dornaani gestured into the thick vegetation at their backs. “The predators you heard earlier.” He raised his head, neck corded by long, wrinkled folds. “They lurk nearby.”

Riordan shifted until his right flank faced the Pool and his left, the tangled cluster of goldenrod trees and day-glo green tubules that screened them from the deeper forest. “In the early days, those predators must have taken a terrible toll on your Quickeners.”

“They still do.”

Despite the warm air, Riordan felt a sudden chill. He examined his surroundings more closely. The Breeding Pool’s long use had smoothed or displaced any hand-sized rocks that might have once been there, and no weapon-worthy deadfall presented itself. “No one guards the Quickeners while they’re dancing in the grottos?”

“It could be arranged, of course. But it is not traditional, so they choose not to.”

“‘They’?”

“Those who come to reproduce in Rooaioo’q’s natural environment.” Thlunroolt waved a hand at the banks around them. “The Quickeners and Bearers are all here of their own accord. Many come from distant systems. I do not oversee their actions. Nor do I function as their Mentor. I merely maintain the facilities and ensure the continuity of the tradition. Some of those who breed here stay on. Most depart.”

“Okay, but why risk being eaten by predators?”

“There are as many reasons for accepting this risk as there are those who come to experience it. Most have become so committed to the concept of this traditional experience that they are not willing to modify it in any way. Many others believe that lessening any of the risks in this process–to the spawn, the Bearers, or the Quickeners–changes the secretions released, and so, produces subtly altered younglings. They assert that making the process safer also makes the surviving spawn–and so, us–less resilient and vigorous than in ancient times. ”

So part of the reason they come here is to play some primal game of Russian Roulette? Riordan glanced into the brush: no sign of movement. But it was so thick that he probably wouldn’t have detected a creature hiding within leaping distance. “Any idea how close those predators are?”

“I cannot say. They are patient, silent.”

“But you still hear them?”

“No: I smell their musk.”

Close enough to smell them? Great.

“They will not attack until the first of the spawn begin approaching the grottos and the Quickeners begin their kinesthetic repetitions.”

 “And what about us?”

“We are not in the water making the sounds that attract the predators. They will not be interested in us. Of course, if one of the qaiyaat is particularly ravenous, it may take a second opportunistic kill before starting to gorge. We would be a convenient second meal.”

So the longer I sit here waiting like a respectful guest, the greater the chance that one of these qaiyaat is going to grab me before I find a weapon. Keeping a woefully inadequate rock cocked back in his right hand, Riordan parted the foliage with his left, gritting his teeth against the primal terror of pushing through a blind wall of dark, unfamiliar brush.

A few meters on, enough light filtered through the goldenrod trees and tube bushes to illuminate the forest floor in rough patches. He found a promising, arm-length piece of deadfall. It crumbled in his grasp, rotted through by the pervasive moisture. Shouldering his way deeper he noticed a more sizable rock underfoot, wrestled an obstructing fern aside with both his strength and body weight, but discovered that it was a completely useless shape. He peered into the thickening brush, wondered if it was worth going any furth–

Behind him, there was a splash and then a keening wail which cut off as abruptly as it started.

Damn it! Riordan, already smashing back along the gap he had left in the brush, had never heard a Dornaani cry out in desperation, was chilled by the similarity to a human child. He burst through the last tangle of bushes in a spray of leaves and tubules, squinting into a sudden flare of daylight. He saw a shape rising out of a crouch at the edge of the water, hauled back the rock in his right hand as he prepared to block with, and probably lose, his left forearm–

The shape was Thlunroolt’s.

Riordan’s pulse was still loud in his ears. “You’re okay?”

Thlunroolt stared at him. “If I was not, I would no longer be here.” He shifted his stare to the rock in Riordan’s hand. His mouth twisted slightly.

Riordan tossed it away angrily: damned useless piece of– “What happened? I heard–“

“A predator struck three grottos over. I suspect we have lost Glinheem, may his final enlightenment be full.” The old Dornaani looked after the discarded rock, then back at Riordan. “You are impetuous. But then again, you are human. I see why Alnduul has become fond of you.” He turned back to the water, watching and listening.

Listening for another of his own kind to be grabbed, like a wide-eyed frog plucked off a lily-pad. Christ, how can he just sit there? Caine took a deep breath, reminded himself that this wasn’t his planet, wasn’t his species, and, most of all, wasn’t his fight. Because fighting was not what the Dornaani did in this situation. But that silent recitation of the facts didn’t still the urgent heartbeats straining against the back of his sternum, straining for release, for action–

Thlunroolt had turned back, was staring at him. “You are . . . distraught?”

Caine realized that his breathing had become faster, deeper, that he was leaning forward, toward the angular shapes of the huts and shacks that he had seen yesterday. He nodded toward them slowly. “Those buildings: are there any . . . tools . . . in them?”

“Yes, but not many.” Thlunroolt’s eyelids edged down a bit. “And none that you would find useful.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am familiar with your species. You wish to fashion weapons.”

Screw the subtle approach. “I do. Can you blame me?”

“I do not blame you. I merely reiterate: those of my race who come to this place wish it to be as it was. This means eschewing any tools, and any actions, which separate them from that experience.”

Riordan nodded. “And I will honor those constraints.”

“The only constraint upon you is that you may not enter the Breeding Pool. Other than that, you may come and go as you please. There are no limits on your freedom of action.”

Riordan’s field of focus tightened until he was only aware of the old Dornaani’s face. He carefully repeated the phrase: “There are no limits on my freedom of action?”

“That is what I said, human. You are free to do what you will.” Thlunroolt turned away. Riordan looked back toward the huts. Their sides were fashioned from thick logs: useless. But where the thatched roofs protruded out past the doorways, they were propped up by sturdy, narrow shafts of wood set in the ground. Ready-made spears. Caine started to rise . . .

And then sat again, slowly. No. He could leap up, fashion weapons, go hunting the qaiyaat who, unopposed, would no doubt kill many Quickeners this day. But in so doing, he would also destroy the experience for which these Dornaani had traveled dozens of light years: to breed as their first ancestors had. To ensure that their spawn would possess a greater measure of the vitality that was slipping swiftly from their race. To live a real experience, not some virtual imitation of one.

Caine realized he was still sitting very erect, tense, poised for combat. He forced himself to exhale, to sink back into a sitting position and acknowledge that here, his instincts could only mislead him. He had been invited to observe, not intervene.

If Thlunroolt heard his restlessness, or noticed the stillness that followed, he gave no sign of it.

Leaving Riordan in silence as reason and reflex continued to struggle within him.

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