1.12 The Gates of Death (I)

After a long bath (she indulged, and figured that she had a right to indulge at this point), Katja met with Kubiri and Sunaram for a quick lunch. Then, as Katja and Kubiri prepared to leave, Kubiri and Sunaram said their farewells.

Sunaram: "Kubiri and Katja! The Universes are vast, and it is likely that we will never meet again. But if you are ever on the Samar world of Samtana, and can visit the Island of Orva, which has beaches of pink shell and clear waters with just the faintest hint of blue, then find the little village on the northeastern shore, where the great rocks rise out of the sea, casting up their seaspray. Then ask for me, Sunaram, and if I am there, we will spend a day on the beach, watching the children play in the waves. We will listen to their songs weaving with the rush of the tide and we will speak of beautiful things."

Kubiri: "Sunaram, the Universes are vast, and it is likely that we will never meet again. But if you should ever be in the Samar system of Nibiru, take a shuttle to the sixteenth moon of the second gas-giant, and visit the domes there, which are sometimes called Harsan-Narsidya. Ask for Kubiri, and if you can find me, we will go out to the Tower of the Crystal Flats, and from there look out upon the sparkling and crystalline fields as the planet, with its great rings, rises in the sky; and as we watch, we will speak of beautiful things."

And then they were off. Not staying in one place was starting to be second nature.

Katja and Kubiri practiced more of the language. It was slowly becoming more clear, but it was not easy. It was like having learned a language long ago, so long ago that it had been forgotten, and then being exposed to it once more. What seemed like gibberish at first slowly began to make sense, as first one phrase then another sounded familiar, and the phrases slowly came together to make some sense, although sometimes they did not. It took effort. She had to concentrate to follow the sounds. But it was like have a natural talent for the language. She also found that she could speak it, although it was in short, fragmentary phrases at first, and the sounds of the language were very difficult to make. Some of the consonants had to be coughed more than spoken.

When she tired of that, they talked of various other things. At one point, she asked, "Kubiri, do all Samar always wear hats?"

To which Kubiri replied, "Let me put it this way. There is an old Samariska proverb about the importance of always remembering the essentials that translates roughly as, 'The world may be falling down, but don't forget your hat.'"

They also talked about the mission.

"I have been looking at the data for the particular society in question," said Kubiri, opening his tablet. "We have received information from the Limmer, who have been monitoring it. It is very partial and often approximate, but some things can be said about it." He turned the tablet toward her and showed her a screen consisting entirely of a series of numbers in various colors.

"This," he said, "is the Samthyrian Empire. This first number here indicates that it, like the Syylven, approaches being a single-species civilization -- 'approaches' because there are often incidental species, pets and domestic work animals and so forth, who are partially integrated into the civilization. This next string of numbers has the biological defaults for the civilization. As I mentioned before, they are very similar to the Syylven; we do not have precise information, but on all points where we do have information, they are indistinguishable from your species, and so can be classed as secondary ylfoids. The next series of numbers are basic information about their economic system -- as with the Syylven it is primarily a money economy, but it has a much smaller credit component and much greater gift and barter components, making it a bit more like the Samar economy than the Sylven economy is. The next series indicates political structures, which, despite being an Empire, are mostly decentralized and weak; a large amount of self-governance and government by consensus is expected, and where more is needed, one would expect it usually to be provided by the local government rather than the central government. It is a federal commonwealth system with personal union in an Emperor, a supreme governing body, superior even to the Emperor, and a complex system of contractual and hereditary allegiances. Then this whole long series of numbers gives general information about its custom and culture. The thing that stands out most is that its customs and cultures tend primarily to be timarchical, honor-based. Part of what makes it stand out is the next series of numbers, which give us estimated population and a rough picture of the distribution. I can see why the Tanaver would find it an interesting and distinctive society; it is a galaxy-wide empire of secondary ylfoids with a highly unified timarchical culture."

"Is that unusual?" said Katja, who hadn't recognized some of the words Kubiri had used, and had to guess about several others based on roots.

"'Unusual' is not the right word. It's theoretically impossible. Ylfae and other primary ylfoids are capable of coherent societies on a massive scale, but while you secondary ylfoids have many virtues, large-scale coherence is not generally one of them. They tend to have difficulty even getting out among the stars, much less spreading across a galaxy. Secondary ylfoids would not ever be expected to achieve a civilization that large without active assistance, which seems to be lacking here. And if they did achieve it, one would expect it to begin disintegrating within a generation or two, but this has been long-term, with only minor scuffles. And even if they did achieve a civilization this extensive, and even if they did manage to keep it for generations, it should not have a culture this coherent. Relative isolation of one part from another would on its own lead to significant deviations; while honor-based segments would survive, one would expect that the bulk of the culture would break down into something based more on a mix of profit or pleasure. I cannot even imagine the mechanisms that would result in an honor-based culture this sophisticated. The sheer energy and effort that would have to go into maintaining it even against ordinary random drift boggles the mind. Mystery upon mystery; it is a society that should not exist. I suspect we are missing some crucial information. But, if this information is even roughly accurate, it bodes well; they are suspicious of strangers, but are unusually xenodochial, almost at Samar levels. If you can win their trust at first, things should go quite well."

Katja did not understand all of that, either, but she had been struck by a thought. "Tell me," she said, "do you have a dossier like this on the Syylven?"

Kubiri drew back a bit and looked at her carefully. Then he said, "Yes, we do. We have dossiers on all Protectorates and all Wards that fall under Samar jurisdiction throughout the Seven Universes."

"What does ours say about us?"

"It is usually not considered wise," Kubiri said slowly, "to speak with the members of the civilization in question about their civilization's file. Most civilizations cultivate illusions about themselves that become painful to uncover. And the information is often at only a very general typological level; what is typical can freely admit of significant deviations, and thus is not usually of much personal use for anyone within the civilization itself."

He considered. Finally he said, "But in this case I think we can make an exception." Without turning the tablet around, he navigated to another screen, also full of numbers in an array of colors. "This is the Syylven. You know, of course, your basic biological defaults, but two things are particularly noticeable, that distinguish the Sylven from other species of this general type. The first is manual and somatic dexterity; you are very good on the latter and excel even the Samar at the former. You are tool-users in an eminent degree. This combines with your neurophysiology in a very effective way: you are tool-makers as well as tool-users. With this kind of profile, it would be almost impossible for you not to have an extensive tool culture; so much so that you probably don't even notice the full extent to which you make and use tools. While there would be a great deal of variation, you will, under almost any circumstances, be a society of technicians. The second feature is that your neurophysiology is such that you are almost incapable of separating abstract thought from imagination."

"That sounds bad," said Katja.

"It is not. You are perfectly capable of abstract thought, it's just that it would be constrained by a very strong association with thought about sensory information, and not highly detachable, as it is with, say, the Samar. The typical Sylven would be better at working through tangible problems than very abstract problems; and probably would find intensive abstract thought very tiring and unpleasant. However, a certain sort of semi-abstract thought would fit your neurophysiology very well: you are born storytellers, and would have a very high degree of narrative comprehension, at least in general. Combined with your tool use, we can already form a rough sketch of your scientific progress: the typical Sylven would have a strong preference for mechanical explanations over other kinds of explanation -- mechanical explanations, of course, are at base stories that treat the universe like a set of tools, and what is more, they are stories, you can use to make more tools. You would have a strong tendency to rely on experimental conjecture and trial-and-error testing. A more abstract-minded culture would proceed more deliberately, working out the abstract theory on a much greater scale at a much faster speed, and would tend to be far more selective about their experimental work. But the Syylven would probably require extensive experimentation even to work out the implications of many of their theories. This makes scientific progress extremely resource-intensive, and thus subject in a high degree to economic constraints. You would tend to jump to implications by analogy rather than by any sort of rigorous path. You would do fairly well, but there are things completely out of reach of such an approach. The Syylven are capable of a wide range of social structures, but in all of them one would expect a large number of Syylven to have difficulty distinguishing  their private interest from the common good, and a yet larger number to have difficulty preferring the common good to their private interest even when capable of distinguishing them. Your societies would be highly vulnerable to usurious pathologies -- what is the Sylven phrase? 'Trying to get something from nothing.' It would appeal to your story-telling natures and to your weakness in abstraction, and would create an extraordinary tendency to self-destruction."

Katja felt deflated after this, particularly since she was certain that diplomatic Kubiri was avoiding some of the harsher things he could have said.

Kubiri must have noticed, because he smiled his Samar smile and said, "You see, you should not encourage me so much on these matters; once I get started it turns into a lecture, and who wants to be lectured? You must keep in mind that we can only track general tendencies and typical profiles: there would be considerable statistical spread on most of these things. The background profile would lead one to expect that you were completely bound to one system, but we see that this is not the case; you are a space-faring civilization. And these things are more sources of puzzles than answers. For instance, drawing."


"Yes. From what I've been able to see of your civilization, drawing is not an extensive part of your culture or your education. That is strange. It should be almost natural to you; you have the right hands, the right brains, for it. And it is a very useful skill, suitable for everything from art to scientific study to drafting. It should be an extensive part of your lives, like singing is for the Samar. But although I looked explicitly for it when I was researching your culture before I had met you, I saw no evidence of it. Do the Sylven draw much?"

"No," said Katja slowly. "I don't think we do. I certainly don't."

"You see? It is a puzzle. There must be some impeding cause that is not showing up in our data. That is the way of things. No Samar would dare rely on this sort of information to give more than a general idea of the kinds of solutions that might be most suitable to your society in general, and the kinds of problems that one would probably have to take care to avoid in those solutions. This can be useful information. But in the end the only way to get things done is to take things as they are rather than as you expect them to be; no matter how excellent one's data, no matter how rigorous one's simulations, there are always things that slip through the net."