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Authors: Michael Bishop

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General, #Life on other planets, #Genetic engineering


BOOK: Transfigurations
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Well over six years ago Egan Chaney disappeared into the mute and steamy depths of the Calyptran Wilderness on the planet Bosk Veld. "Don't come after me," he wrote before leaving us, "I won't let you bring me back." Nevertheless, despite what many people persisted in believing in the interval between his disappearance and my recent return to Earth, we made repeated attempts to rescue Chaney from the Wild and to discover what had happened to him.

None of those attempts was successful, and the last such endeavor before Elegy Gather's arrival took place only about a year ago: a privately financed expedition led by the Bhutanese explorer Geoffrey Sankosh, who once made a solitary descent into the major caldera of Nix Olympica on Mars. Sankosh managed to shoot a stunning holographic film of an Asadi female giving birth to twin infants in her arboreal nest, but he found no trace of either Chaney

or the huge winged pagoda that Chaney had described so meticulously in his journals and in-the-field tapes.

On the night before young Gather was due to take the shuttle bringing her out of probeship orbit to the surface of BoskVeld, I took a long walk around the perimeters of Frasierville. As I walked, I carried on a one-sided conversation with Chaney's ghost.

Egan, I thought, you must be dead.

I had supposed as much six years ago—only weeks after he had left us—but I had always believed that one day we would stumble upon his glowing bones and so establish my supposition as fact. No such luck. Chaney continued to elude us, and there were nights when nearly inaudible trillings from the jungle reminded me of his rueful and laconic laughter.

Are you still out there? I asked his ghost.

The base camp from which Chaney and the rest of us had worked we now called Frasierville, and plasma lamps on tall vanadium-steel poles made an eerie presidio of what had once been a jumble of quonset huts and storage sheds on the boundary between the rain forest and the twilight desolation of the veldts. The infirmary in which Chaney recuperated after Eisen and I answered the summons of his flares had become a hospital, albeit a rather small one. Wood-frame dwellings had taken the place of our prefabricated dormitories, and a dozen of our most senior scientific personnel had imported their families to share with them the backbreaking joys and the poignant midnight nostalgias of the pioneer. I was an exception because I had had no family to import, and I lived alone in one of the dilapidated quonsets from base-camp days.

As I was walking that evening, I heard a baby cry.

Think of that, Egan, I addressed my old friend's ghost: BoskVeld remains a mystery to us, but we are actually bringing children here. An overeager colonial authority has approved the

immigration of five thousand families during the coming fiscal year, and a policy of computer-directed homesteading will soon determine the fate of the grasslands, steppes, and savannaJis that give this planet half its name. Such changes in only six years! A baby!

Are you happy you're safely dead, Egan?

Chaney would never know the ambivalent pleasure of tasting a breakfast cereal made from a grain hybridized for BoskVeld's soil and climate. The human palate might suffer, but our human pride told us that the accomplishment was sweet. Whilais. That's what our agrogeneticists called that grain, and already I could envision children running through fields of its delicate reedlike stalks and devouring breadsticks baked from its coarse pinkish meal.

I couldn't escape the topic of children. This was probably because the following morning Egan Chaney's daughter would set foot on BoskVeld for the first time in her life and it seemed imperative to me that I anticipate and prepare for her arrival. Seven years ago I had had no idea that Chaney had once had a family, had presumed him a bachelor like myself. Tomorrow morning, though, I would come face to face with a young woman whose existence shamed his failure to acknowledge her and whose purpose was to succeed where Chaney's most stalwart colleagues, not to mention the famous Geoffrey Sankosh, had met only frustration and defeat.

That night, then, I sought amid the lacework of stars that so reminded Chaney of "flaming cobwebs" the orbiting star of his daughter's probeship. I think I saw it. It was hard to be certain.

In any case, there came together briefly in a glittering arc of sky Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior, the trio of moons whose winelike bouquets of light had intoxicated him so cruelly during his field work among the Asadi. In memory of Chaney I tried to feel drunk with homesickness for Earth. But all I managed to feel was a nagging anticipation of the dawn.

Six years ago I compiled from Egan Chaney's notes, letters, and random recordings an unorthodox monograph about the hominoid Asadi.

Over a period of weeks, as the priority scheduling of light-probe transmissions from our base-camp radio room allowed, I sent the manuscript home piecemeal. Eventually the fragments were gathered, proofread, and published by The Press of the National University of Kenya in Nairobi, the same institution from which I had taken my graduate degrees in paleoanthropology and extraterrestrial ecological theory. The monograph was released as Death and Designation Among the Asadi, and it went through nine printings in a year's time, focusing an inordinate degree of public attention on the work of the Third Denebolan Expedition here on BoskVeld and incidentally apprising me of the fact that Chaney had once had a domestic relationship with a woman who was still alive. Thenceforward, royalties from the monograph were divided between the National University's research foundation and the surviving members of Chaney's unacknowledged but contractually lawful family. This arrangement persists.

Because our monograph has since appeared in nearly a hundred additional printings in sixteen languages, few people on Earth and the Glaktik Komm colony worlds have not heard of BoskVeld and the Asadi. Moreover, although the monograph deals exclusively with Chaney's field work in the rain forests, it has given the entire planet—officially, GK-World Leo/Denebola IV—an aura of romance.

Colonists arrived on BoskVeld with the name of the Asadi on their lips, even though their first priority after planetfall was to homestead the veldts. They came into Frasierville from the Egan Chaney Shuttle Field (for so we had eventually named it), spent a week or so listening to orientation lectures and outfitting themselves for the hard times ahead, and then departed in helicraft or veldt-rover caravans for the territories preassigned them by Colonial Administration. Only a few of these venturesome people took time out from their indoctrination for a look-see into the rain

forests, and those who did stuck close to beaten paths, tempting the sirens of romance no further than seemed politic. They knew that the real business of their lives lay elsewhere, even if the legend of Egan Chaney and the mystery of the Asadi had played no small part in enticing them to BoskVeld.

The trouble, of course, was that people didn't regard Death and Designation Among the Asadi as anything but a clever and compelling fiction.

Stay-at-home experts continued to dismiss the monograph as my own exploitative work of the imagination, meanwhile self-right-eously damning me for plundering the private and professional scholarship of a dead colleague for my own wealth and fame. The two accusations seemed to me mutually exlusive: Either I had composed a fiction to which I had put Chaney's name, or else I had unconscionably appropriated Chaney's legitimate field work for my own, but surely not both together. No matter. Most of the academic reviewers of Death and Designation Among the Asadi made both charges at once.

In fact, the furor created by Chaney's and my collaborative monograph seemed to substantiate his belief that unswayable pygmies of the intellect abound and prosper. They had been using the ineffectual blowguns of their wits against me for more than five years. Because 1 didn't return from BoskVeld to face them, many surmised that they had stung me to the heart. What use to Thomas Benedict on the fourth planet of the Denebolan system, they wondered, are the wealth and fame he's filched from Egan Chaney's suffering? And not realizing that I didn't give a damn about either riches or celebrity, they concluded I was afraid to come home and face them.

The truth?

The only thing I was really afraid of was something I also anticipated with high hopefulness: the arrival of Chaney's daughter, a twenty-two-year old woman who signed her light-probe communications Elegy Gather. My apprehension derived from the fact that young Cather put implicit faith in even the most credulity-

straining portions of her father's in-the-field tapes and journals.

Even I didn't go that far. I knew that Chaney had subjectively experienced everything that appears in our monograph—but having spent so much time in the Wild searching for demonstrable proof, I found it difficult to credit the objective reality of the ornate pagoda at which the Asadi had supposedly concluded their ritual of death and designation. The hard plastic eyebooks, or spectrum-displaying cassettes, that Chaney had brought out of the Wild with him were indeed tangible evidence that he had found something indicative of advanced technology in there, but not necessarily a towering building that cunningly eluded our discovery. I had to believe that Chaney had erected his imaginary pagoda on the ruins of a genuine structure about which he had read in an early monograph of Oliver Oliphant Frasier's.

Elegy Cather believed otherwise. Nearly eight months before this little history of mine opens, I had checked my box in Frasierville's radio room and found this unexpected communication:

Dear Dr. Benedict,

The residuals from the American edition of my father's book on the Asadi have put me through the Goodall-Fossey College of Primate Ethology here in East Africa. I have done field work with both chimps and baboons in the Combe Stream Reserve in Tanzania. You must know that I am grateful to you for making this possible. By editing and seeing to the publication of my father's work, you have given me both the financial support and the incentive to obtain my degree as a primate ethologist.

But for my initial fear that I might not succeed here, I would have written to thank you long ago.

Maybe I am over that hurdle now. The Nyerere Foundation of Dar es Salaam has just provided me with a grant to study the Asadi on Bosk Veld. In addition, the colonial authority of Glaktik Komm and Kommthor itself have approved my

application for an interstellar visa. I will arrive aboard the probeship Wasserldufer IX before the end of the year.

You should know, Dr. Benedict, that it is my intention not only to study the Asadi but to determine without doubt the fate of my father. I also wish to vindicate the reliability of his final in-the-field reports, even those that seem most suspect. In fact, as soon as I had learned of the failure of the Sankosh expedition to find either my father or his notorious pagoda, I put in for my grant.

Although skeptics describe the pagoda as an architectural Yeti or Sasquatch, I believe in its existence and think we can demonstrate its reality to our own and others' satisfaction. (I say "we," Dr. Benedict, because I have hopes of enlisting you in my cause.) All that is necessary is a new approach to the problem, one that Sankosh didn't know to attempt and that even your people in Frasierville have never thought to try. The time remaining to me here in the Reserve I intend to spend preparing for my arrival on Bosk Veld.

Heinrich Schliemann took Homer literally and so managed to discover and excavate the ruins of Troy. The Iliad was Schliemann's guidebook.

I believe in the literal truth of my father's final tape, which you have published in his ethnography as "Chaney's Monologue." I also proclaim the accuracy of all his previous field work and reportage. Why shouldn't I? Schliemann wasn't related by blood to Homer, as I am to Egan Chaney, and yet Schliemann's faith in the historicity of an ancient poem led him to great discoveries. I would be a traitor to my heritage if I didn't invest my father's words with at least as much authority as Schliemann found in Homer's Iliad.

I'm looking forward to meeting you.

Cordially yours.

Elegy Gather

After this first communication. Elegy Gather relayed to me via

light-probe transmission four or five additional messages, none of which went very far toward explaining how she hoped to succeed where dedicated, intelligent, and experienced adults had met only tangled jungle and the palpable mockery of their own rank sweat. That's why I was looking forward to meeting her, too, and that's why I was a little frightened as well. How long would it take Elegy Gather to discover that she was on a fool's errand, thus dashing her youthful hopes along with my grey and haggard ones?

And I? My name is Thomas Douglas Benedict, but call me Ben. I originally went to BoskVeld as the Third Denebolan Expedition's junior paleoxenologist, in the wake of Oliver Oliphant Frasier's discoveries near the Great Galyptran Sea and the disaster of the Second Expedition. For a good while, though, I was merely a general flunky to those with more formidable scientific credentials than mine.

I was in my late thirties. My most marketable skill was not my university training but my ability to pilot that all-purpose variety of Komm-service helicraft known familiarly as the Dragonfly. I had learned to fly them during the closing years of the African Armageddon, which threatened to end humanity's tenure on Earth in approximately the same general area where it may have begun.

At an age when most literate adults are settling into positions of executive responsibility or at least securing the career gains of their youth, I had been languidly finishing up my graduate work in Nairobi. By rights, I ought to have been further along. It's impossible to grab at the hostilities in Africa as an excuse, because I had frittered away a decade of my life before landing in Luanda with a contingent of foreign mercenaries, and immediately after the conflict I took my sweet time "recuperating." When I finally reached Nairobi and used my status as a Pan-African veteran to enroll in school there, I caroused as often as I studied, and only my late acquaintance with a woman older than I who had

BOOK: Transfigurations
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