The Needs of the Many
by William Alan Rieser
There was major shuffling in the Luna City Confederation conference room as the examiners assembled and sat down to query their witness. That man let out a sigh, sitting nervously before them, his fingers drumming the chair rhythmically as he failed to achieve nonchalance. He had the odd feeling of surfing on an ocean shore and discovering suddenly that the consistency of the waves had been altered from buoyancy to an unsupportive lace gelatin. The world was in crisis and the first person they wanted to talk to was him.
"You are aware that the last transmission from Ponely 5 was a warning?" asked Kaitor, the chief inquisitor, without bothering to introduce the others.
Immediately upon hearing those words, a feminine image impinged the witness's imagination. He couldn't help but ask himself if it had anything to do with her.
"I just heard," replied Leopold Fonella. "I was one of the emissaries when it was colonized three years ago." He was biospheric analyst and specialized in colonization startup procedures. When on Earth, his job at the Galactic Consulate amounted to filing and collating territorial reports from the multitude of systems as they were submitted by similar analysts. It couldn't be about Kosheta, could it.
"What is your interpretation, considering your expertise?"
"It makes no sense to me. On first landing, there were some indigenous life forms according to sensor readings. Six amorphous residents were seen conferring when the ship stabilized itself. Later, when the crew set up a camp, one of the creatures infiltrated the perimeter barrier and started chewing on a strut, as though it could eat carborundum. There was never an attack on humans. The crew ran it off with a sonic beam as I recall."
"That could be significant, that they eluded the barrier field yet were affected by sound."
"Not any sound. It took some experimenting. We never did figure out how they avoided the shield," admitted Fonella. "They weren't harmed in any way but they did react negatively to certain combinations of digitized pitches."
"And according to your report, they were never seen again."
"No, sir. The crew spent a month trying to track various species. All the big ones that we referred to as Ponelians went underground and did not return. That was why we decided to start the colony, although I'm sure they must have studies us as a species. They ceded the land so easily. If they considered us intruders they would have put up some kind of squawk. I personally never saw any other surface creature except for the nightingale hawks."
"Excuse me, but they are not in your report."
"That's because they migrated almost instantaneously with the Ponelian evacuation. They never reappeared after the first day but we traced the birds to another part of the continent. They were avian predators who killed their prey with sonic darts. Quite beautiful, actually, which is why we called them nightingales. We never saw any particular interaction between them and the Ponelians because they avoided each other."
"Your description of the creatures leaves a great deal to be desired."
"We only saw them the one time, the six I mentioned. Surely you are aware that we were not contacted or even aware of a Ponelian civilization until our base was established and the initial colonists had arrived. In fact, it caused quite a stir when they made their presence known to us." Kosheta wasn't a creature. Couldn't they understand that? No, to them she was a Ponelian. They would never comprehend her beauty nor his infatuation.
"Yes. According to your logs, a bipedal form, looking astonishingly like one of us, suddenly appeared at your dome portal one morning and begged admittance. And if that is not amazing enough, it spoke perfect English, this singular entity. Is that correct?"
"Essentially. Except that it was definitely female." Why did he have to go through this? Wasn't losing her torture enough?
"And just how did you establish that information, former emissary Fonella?" asked another voice from the panel, a rather distinguished figure in comparison to the others and one whom Fonella thought vaguely familiar.
"She had articulated breasts and told us that she had borne children, the same as with our species." Oh no. Nothing like an earth female at all. When it came to pleasure, Kosheta was superior to anyone or anything. Could their lenses view that intimacy?
"I see," continued the new inquisitor. "Did it occur to you that the creature may have been an adaptive species, one that was capable of assuming a deceptive form after studying you and the crew, that it might actually be a spy or a soldier with a private agenda?" There it was. She was only a deceitful creature to them. It would never be otherwise and he was being held accountable because they suspected he knew something. But she couldn't have been using him, he decided. No beings were sophisticated enough to get inside his mind and take without his knowing. Could she have done that?
"No. We had no reason to suspect anything like that. We knew that changeling societies were not unheard of. I've even experienced a changeling myself on Geren. There were no indications that she had any such attributes."
"Yet you surmised a small civilization underground because of what this entity told you and you did not question the fact that she spoke our language which most species find exceedingly difficult to master?"
"We helped her adapt in order to communicate better but she had a rather astounding natural comprehension, true."
"Indeed!" said the inquisitor, his voice rising in anger. "Was it 'we' or was it you personally that assisted this entity."
"I participated along with others. Is that a crime?" Here it comes, the misapplied blame. Why couldn't they see that he was helplessly in love with her?
"And precisely when did you disobey standard colonization ethics and establish a sexual relationship with this allegedly female entity?" This man clearly disliked beating about the bush and with this question he zeroed home on Fonella's weakness.
Fonella fidgeted demonstrably before answering. He suddenly recognized exactly who the man was that asked that question and knew, without a shadow of doubt, that his privacy was a myth, that news of his indiscretion was well disseminated. He stopped talking to himself, tried to erase Kosheta from his brain and focus on his problem.
"It was on the 37th day of her visitation, Confederation Ambassador Langstrom Joh. I know who you are now. I'm sure you've been told that by the Ponely 5 administrator and I won't deny it. I know it was wrong. I have no excuse."
"Oh, it was a great deal more than wrong, but we'll come to that in stages. Did you or any of the crew or colonists witness any other entity aside from this lone female?"
"Not by the time I left. No."
"Just the one?"
"We made the standard investigations. Wherever they were congregating, we couldn't localize the place. She, Kosheta, insisted we would meet them at the appropriate time, but that didn't happen when I was there."
"At what point did she present you with her gift?" said Kaitor.
"That was just before I left, when she knew I'd be returning to Earth and would probably not return for several years. It seemed a harmless enough pet though none of us could figure out what it was. I mean, it was so tiny, the size of a mouse. It certainly did not appear to be dangerous and she assured me that it would cause no trouble."
"No trouble," intoned Langford Joh, letting the words linger in the stillness of that statement. "Did she explain how to care for her gift?"
"Just to say that it was asexual and would eat whatever I did, that if it was happy it would reproduce. She thought I might like to present newborns to my friends."
"Which, of course, you did. It never occurred to you that she was actually asexual, did it? That she was studying you like a blueprint? Assessing you for a deeper purpose? Tell us about it."
"After the return voyage, during which I ate nothing and did not feed the creature, I brought it home to my apartment once it passed quarantine. I had a sandwich and coffee, that's all. There were some leftover crumbs which I offered the little fluffball but it ignored them. Later I put them on the windowsill for the birds. I didn't observe it capture and eat a bird, but it must have. There were feathers on the floor."
"And then what?"
"Well, I imagine you've seen it too, considering what has happened," said Fonella, hanging his head in shame, remembering the first feelings of betrayal. "A black bubble seemed to grow out of its side. It got shiny and burst out, revealing a second creature exactly like the original. I couldn't tell them apart. One ate an ant, the other a roach. They made my apartment insect free in a day. The next morning there were four of them. They didn't need cages because they weren't destructive so I let them roam about. I had a party that night with four or five close acquaintances. Lot's of food and drinks. My guests were enchanted by the creatures and tried to feed them but without success. I call them slangs. Oh, I almost forgot. One of the slangs caught a fly. That really impressed my friends and they wanted to adopt them. I only kept one."
A third examiner spoke up next, an officious bean counter type.
"Your friends seem to have repeated your performance. The duplications soon got out of hand. Before anyone knew there was a problem, these slangs reproduced themselves into hundreds of thousands of entities. That was before any of us knew that they required other life forms to replicate themselves. In less than a month, these alien beasts rid New Miami of geckos, mosquitos and most other pests."
"I read the downloads. I know how it happened."
"You know," said Langford Joh offensively, "but you did nothing. Surely you were aware of something abnormal after the Floridane broadcast. Didn't it strike you as odd when these entities were attributed to the eradication of the entire rat population? Did you suspect nothing when the swamps were found to be free of all life forms?"
"I was unsure," said Fonella meekly, clearly lying. "I didn't know it for a fact. It just seemed to me that they were useful in containing pesky rodents and insects. Everyone I know felt the same way, that they were beneficial."
"You could have called someone, the Consulate, the Embassy. Do you realize what you have done because of this omission? Don't bother answering. We know your response. Tell me, former emissary Fonella, have you ever seen just how these entities ingest their food?"
"They seem to hypnotize or paralyze their prey into immobility. I don't know how, only that earth species haven't been able to resist. They have no mouths, so I assume they absorb material through their pores."
"Definitely," commented Kaitor. "And did you know that they grow in response to what they eat? No? You should have been there when Alexis, my German Shepherd was taken. I had the misfortune of witnessing that event along with my wife and children. But, of course, that is the merest tip of the iceberg. A tiny slang ingesting a dog which was twenty times its size. Quite a site. Frightening actually."
"Nothing compared to the Madagascar episode," continued the bean counter. "4,000 of the world's rarest animals in a single day. Gone forever, except for the singular chance of reinitializing the forbidden clone labs. Extinct otherwise! That incident alone has caused every zoo in the world tremendous worry. Governments have been hustling to protect the endangered species like never before. Budgets have been compromised because of it. Industries are feeling the tremors of collapse. Science is at its wit's end to conceive anything that will defend these last species."
"That is not exactly a bad thing, the preservation attempts" responded Fonella. "At least the clones provide an answer, no matter how repugnant it seems. I don't mind being blamed for that but I refuse to accept responsibility for not knowing what the quarantine people overlooked."
"Responsibility!" said Langford. "You refuse it. And yet, you may be the only person to hold the key for solving this fiasco."
"You want something from me? Certainly. How can I help?"
"You can recognize these nightingale hawks on Ponely?"
"Yes, assuming you force me to go back there."
"A military team is being prepared to help you, along with simulator experts. You need to capture a specimen and develop a device that can reproduce its audible characteristics. Bringing the bird back to earth may be worse than releasing the slangs for all we know. Of course, you will have to test the device on Ponely to be sure. At the same time, you will have to revive the colony or decide whether it needs to be abandoned. A Consul will accompany you to make that final decision."
"What makes you think I will agree?"
"Doctor Chumelle?" beckoned Langford, addressing an austere gentleman who sat patiently waiting for his contribution.
"I have thoroughly analyzed a slang specimen brought to my laboratory. This morning, we made an extraordinary discovery. The slang are not simply Ponelians. The DNA is definitive."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that the match is unquestionable. They are hybrids. Your hybrids."
"Your children, former emissary Fonella," spat Langford. "Your bastards are threatening to destroy us. We have just enough time, now that they have invaded the sea, for you to return with a weapon and erase this infestation. When they start coming out of the ocean, aside from destroying much of the earth's natural processes, they will be coming after us. You were the dupe from the beginning. This is an invasion."
"A bold and cunning one," echoed Kaitor.
"Deadly unless we counterstrike," added the bean counter.
"You'll have to use a warp craft to avoid wasting any more time," said Langford.
"Now that I understand things from your perspective, I will certainly go. When do I leave?"
"Now," said Langford. "Consul Franks is waiting outside."
* * *
FIRST PONELY 5 MISSIVE - THE COLONIALS AND THE MILITARY DETACHMENT ARE MISSING WITHOUT A TRACE. WE FEAR FOUL PLAY, BUT THE PONELIANS ARE NOT IN EVIDENCE. FONELLA DISCOVERED AN EARLY RECORD WITH AN IMAGE OF A NIGHTINGALE. WE ARE TRACKING THEM AND HOPE TO HAVE SPECIMENS FOR THE SIMULATOR TECHS MOMENTARILY. FRANKS
SECOND PONELY 5 MISSIVE - FONELLA CONTACTED BY FOSHETA. IMPOSSIBLE TO CAPTURE HER BECAUSE SHE BROKE ALL RESTRAINTS AND WALKED AWAY THROUGH THE SHIELD AT FULL STRENGTH. SIMILAR PROBLEM WITH THE NIGHTINGALES. ADAPTED A FIELD LAB TO OBSERVE THEM AND REPRODUCE THEIR SOUNDS. DEVICE IMMINENT. FRANKS
THIRD PONELY 5 MISSIVE - WE ARE UNDER ATTACK. THE ENEMY IS BOTH MASSIVE, HORRENDOUS AND EXCEPTIONALLY NUMEROUS. FRANKS WAS ABSORBED IN THE FIRST WAVE. HANGING ON BECAUSE OF SIMULATOR SUCCESS. UNABLE TO ELIMINATE PONELIANS BUT THE DEVICE CAUSES THEM TO RETREAT. TEMPORARILY STUMPED. NIGHTINGALES OBSERVED REDUCING PONELIAN RANKS. UNDETERMINED MISSING COMPONENT. FONELLA
* * *
"It is confirmed, Ambassador Langford," said Kaitor. "They have been observed coming out of the oceans, lakes, rivers, streams .... everywhere. There is a report from New Prussia that the zoo there was overwhelmed."
"Any attacks on human beings?" asked Langford Joh.
"Not yet, but they appear in such swarms that it must be inevitable. Nothing we have can stop them. They absorb bullets and other missiles and seem to derive sustenance from energy weapons. We've tried many permutations of sound but nothing has worked so far. We simply must get Fonella's simulator as fast as possible, if only to halt them while we derive something more adequate."
"I quite agree. My contact with Fonella was disrupted. I am hoping it was a glitch and not something more serious. I've consulted all the sonic experts in the Confederation. Help is on its way from three systems, though none are familiar with Ponely 5."
"What else can we do? I can't stand this waiting. We need action. How about the Manics? Would they be willing to help us?"
"Perhaps, in our last extremity. I do, in fact, have a Prail stress signal prepared, but I'm certain they would prefer not to intervene. They would consider it impolite to impose their power on a juvenile system. I'd rather not use them for this crisis unless we have exhausted all other possibilities. I've been getting some odd reports from different areas. It seems that there are some species that can dissuade the slang here, but no one understands why."
"Really? Which ones?"
"Hummingbirds of all things, horseshoe crabs and polar bears. The slangs have made no headway against those creatures."
"Do they have anything in common?"
"I've got our best trying to reason that out as we speak. Nicholson suspects it may have something to do with the infrablue tracking tags used by the conservationists. Nothing definitive, but it's a start."
Suddenly there was a beep on Langford's global scanner, indicating an important message. It turned out to be several messages from different areas of the world.
"SHANGHAI UNDER ATTACK. THE POPULATION HAS PANICKED. THE SLANG HAVE BESIEGED THE CITY. NEO-TAIWAN OVERRUN. CONTACT LOST."
"EURO-DELHI COMPROMISED. MASSIVE EXODUS TO THE HINDU CUSH."
"OUTSKIRTS OF OLD PARIS COMPROMISED. FRENCH FORCES IN LEAGUE WITH EUROL TO STALL THE SLANG. BRITISH ISLES REPORT MAJOR THREATS."
"What does this mean, Langford?" asked Kaitor excitedly.
"It means, taken in conjunction with the bad news from Australia and the Middle East, that the slangs have already launched a major assault. If Fonella does not return immediately, we are in a bad fix. Ah, there is a new message from Ponely 5!"
"FONELLA CAPTURED BY FOSHETA FORCES. SONIC BARRIER PERFECTED. WARP CRAFT SABOTAGED. UNABLE TO DELIVER DEVICE. WARREN."
"Who is Warren?"
"An aide to Franks," replied Langford. "We have no choice. I'll have to personally go there with my ship and retrieve the device. It looks like I may also have to rescue those who have survived. Too bad about Fonella."
"Your craft? Is it capable of crosswarp?"
"Yes, according to Confederation engineers. I've never had to engage it. Now there is a reason. If I don't return in a few hours with help, Kaitor, then you and I will meet in oblivion. Wish me luck."
* * *
As Sol waned across the eastern scapes of the American continents, the sky turned blood red, casting forbidding, eerie shadows across a carpet of inhuman slang that undulated and bored its way into every abode where life cringed in its helplessness. Suddenly, there was a new presence in the atmosphere and a previously unheard sound began to pervade the air as it cut through the silence of imminent death with a song of deliverance. Langford Joh returned from Ponely 5 and with him came the nightingales.
Kaitor joined millions of others in a sigh of relief as the mysterious birds revealed their wizardry. The slang rolled up and dissolved in their billions as sonic terror cut swaths through their Mara Bunta-like legions. Seven hawk nightingales for seven continents. Half the population of Earth couldn't be saved and most animals were decimated but humanity won out. The clone labs were unsealed to rescue those who had been made extinct. When all was said and done, the combined representatives of the survivors met on Luna where Langford was feted and the nightingales introduced formally.
"Allow me to present the Jengle from distant Lohenna. We must welcome them to the Confederation and reward them for their deeds here on Earth and Ponely 5. Naught but the original slang, brought by Fonella, remains and it is in their custody. Fosheta is a criminal from their system. They have been tracking the slang for eons. The Jengle, you see, are policemen who are dedicated to preventing the slang from doing what they nearly did to us. This is their equivalent of a Captain. Captain Trope!"
He was an immense hawk-like entity, different from the Earth variety in that he possessed four eyes, his feathers tougher than steel. Otherwise, except for size, the Jengle nightingale equated well as an avian and its predatory features were quickly complemented by its intellect.
"You must forgive us," said Captain Trope in the translator as he addressed the representatives within the dome. "When your colonizers first appeared on Ponely 5, we were engaged in a technique that forces the slang, those we call the Burrid, into dormancy. We were unaware that Fosheta escaped. The consequences were almost disastrous and we blame ourselves for not realizing the truth sooner. It is fortunate that Langford Joh arrived when he did. Normally, we are bound by oath not to interfere with other species, but Langford persisted, achieved contact with us and convinced us that we shared a common goal. It is not surprising to us that you could not conceive the sonic panacea. It took us centuries to find the necessary extra-galactic tones.
"By rescuing Fonella, we were able to ensnare Fosheta and the entire scheme laid bare. A most devious adversary, these Burrid, but they cannot withstand Jengle technology. Ambassador Joh has kindly offered to exchange your light technology for our sonic mechanisms, to prevent this from occurring again within your Confederation."
"Where is Fonella now?" asked Kaitor. "He has a lot to answer for."
"Indeed," replied Trope. "It is he who now guards Kosheta in her hibernation chamber on Ponely. He now realizes that she used his body to program her brood for the colonization of earth. I will return to Ponely soon to add his single offspring to that cage. He will then accompany us in triumph to Lohenna, with your blessing, and serve as the emissary from Earth while we apply for admittance to your Confederation. At some future point, we would like to receive Ambassador Langford Joh to add his name and your planet to our League of Sentients. It is a great honor in our system."
"Then all is concluded," stated Kaitor blandly and the reps began to applaud. "The human losses, of course, are irreplaceable. No restoratives can bring back the entities who were ingested, though I have given permission for the clone labs to commence the resurrection of other species. We have bypassed the threat."
"Not quite," said Langford. "There is still more for us to do. Three of our indigenous species were resistant to the slang, even as humans were before Fosheta altered that condition by mating with Fonella. We must now scour the Earth for signs of adaptive newborn. The slang may have created another threat. Captain Trope will assign a Jengle officer to assist us with a Lohenna scanner capable of such detection. Still, searching out Burrid cribs will be a lengthy task."
"Necessary," added Trope. "We cannot allow them to breed. You see, they are but the first wave from Uxdal, a distant galaxy. Even we Jengle, who have been containing them since time immemorial, do not know what next to expect. The rumor is that they are so overpopulated that our galaxy is considered by them to be little more than nourishment."
"Yes," said Langford, "which is why I am going to propose something to the Confederation. It is not for us to wait on them. It is we who must visit ourselves upon Uxdal and make them see the futility of digesting our galaxy. We must convince them that we are not worth the trouble. We must be......unpalatable."
"And just how do you propose to do that?" asked the commissioner of zoological preservation. "These Burrid already knew of the Jengle, yet they came."
"I neglected to mention something," said Langford Joh with a slight smirk. "Fonella's child and his mother reacted violently in the presence of an icon. It was accidental but revealed a link we never would have suspected otherwise."
"What was it?" asked several people.
"The Prail symbol. The instant they saw it, they cringed in recognition and literally shrank into protective shells. I think our friends, the mysterious Manics, are going to prove themselves quite beneficial to us if their icon can inspire such fear."
"But we know so little about them," complained Kaitor.
"True," replied Langford. "It comforts me that they exist even if they are pure energy beings. I will beg permission for an audience and try to solidify our relationship. The worst that can happen is that they will ignore us."
"Forget it. So long as the Prail know the Burrid, we have an option."
"Sure, Langford, unless the Prail turn out to be something worse."
"That would defy the logic of their existence. The Prail are both the mystery and perhaps the saviors of the Confederation."
Story © 2002 by William Alan Rieser email@example.com
Illustration © 2002 by Ehrad firstname.lastname@example.org
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