(A Langford Joh story)
by Willian Alan Rieser
Ambassador Langford Joh tried to relax in his private quarters on Luna, smoking his favorite old-fashioned pipe stuffed with simulated apricot-flavored tobacco. He poured himself a glass of Lunaberry wine from the decanter on his end table as the tendrils from his meltware chair massaged his body. He had commanded the computers and androids to be silent and not interrupt his thoughts, even in the most extreme emergency. That was a significant departure from his normal habits due to the most recent Prail communication from Manic.
The Prail were so advanced scientifically that they considered standard Confederation methods of communication to be hopelessly primitive. Not for them was the transmission by electrons, nor was Langford conscious of their recording messages with symbolic language. He often wondered whether the Prail libraries were confined mentally as a communal project, accessed when desired by individuals ... assuming there were individuals. Technically, he was personally aware of only a single entity, Nadirian, having learned the name from Consul Karaff during the Robain incident. He remembered Nadirian's contact during that crisis.
On that occasion, Nadirian simply appeared in his private chamber on the solar craft as a suspended amorphous area of brightness, out of which words entered Langford's brain without the benefit of speech. Yet he perceived them as English. Langford had a good memory and recalled Nadirian using the word "we," referring to the Prail. It was one of his few clues as to their nature, another being the events he witnessed during the Fetish incident, an event of such massive proportions that he could only conclude that the Prail were obviously multiple individuals. A further clue was provided when the Prail transferred the military pods for the Aegis crop. Again the transmission materialized from a suddenly appearing illumination with an implanted suggestion in his mind. This time, however, the communication was more physical and personal.
Langford was drying himself off from a bath and chanced to glance at himself in the bathroom mirror. His visage altered visibly into a multicolored geometric figure, startling him. His shock was instantly calmed somehow as Nadirian introduced himself with gentle thoughts.
"Fear nothing, Langford. We have spoken before."
"You are not what I imagined," replied Langford, intensely curious.
"Nor am I what you envision. It is better this way."
"You only contact me when you have something important to impart."
"There is civil war on Ophir."
"I know of it. A territorial dispute between the two major continents, Kadmas and Pallach. The Confederation cannot interfere."
"You must resolve this issue quickly."
"How can I possibly do that? What influence can I, an outsider, bring to bear?"
"They are sentient beings, members of your lofty Confederation. You will find a way." Langford sensed a certain haughtiness in the request, as though it were beneath the Prail to associate themselves with such an enterprise, that this was a puzzle for the lower species to solve. But he also sensed a rare concern, perhaps for the first time.
"Even if I convince the Confederation to act, which is doubtful, the Ophirians will not accept my authority. Aside from your asking me to do this, why should I get involved in such a disaster?"
"We Prail anticipate a unique visitation. It must pass near to Ophir and must not be disturbed by the chaos. Also, there is a reason that affects you personally."
"And that is?" This was entirely new, totally unlike his other Prail dealings.
"Your son has been taken by the Pallachians. They consider him a spy and intend to execute him. That should be enough for you."
The image disappeared suddenly and Langford was abandoned to ponder the situation. They knew where his son was, something the Confederation did not. The Prail clearly understood that he would certainly act to preserve his seed, Captain Iron Feather. They also knew that he would make every effort to draw the Confederation into the controversy. Failing to obtain their assistance, Nadirian was obviously aware that Langford would resort to every other means at his disposal. They understood him nearly as well as he understood himself -- and the revelation was uncomfortable.
Ophir had been a member of the Confederation long before Earth was accepted. They had sophisticated technology and were space pioneers before America declared its independence from Britain. Their scholars were recognized throughout the galaxy and were often used to arbitrate disputes on other planets. That they were now involved in a hopelessly damaging controversy was highly ironic. Langford, like most other figures in the political hierarchy, had been told that the dispute was territorial.
Personally, he had only met once with an Ophirian, its Ambassador Weyph Mubiche, an entity he respected. At the time, he considered Ophirians to be cultured and extremely reasonable, almost always arguing for peaceful relations between planets and in favor of free trade. Their endoskeletal appearance reminded Langford of the lobster back on Earth, but they were land creatures with multiple clawed appendages, each serving a separate function. That meeting was ten tears ago, just before Ophir surprised the Confederation by announcing that their interplanetary activities must temporarily cease due to a crisis at home.
Langford quickly planned a course of action. He would convene an emergency session at the Confederation's Consulate. At the same time, he would attempt to contact Weyph Mubiche personally to gather facts. Mubiche was a Pallachian and must respond to the fact that their prisoner was the son of an Ambassador.
* * *
At the Consulate, four members of the inner council, friends of Langford, debated his unusual request. There was Caron Phel, the spidery rep from distant Ultigge, Byl Troif, the foliant from Suul who most recently assisted Langford during the Robain
incident. Also present were the historian from Cygnus, the stalactite-shaped Auby Jamp, and the Andromedan, Burruk Tahm.
"The assembly will not agree to breaking a precedent," insisted Phel.
"The By-Laws are specific about our not interfering in stand-alone civil disturbances," added Jamp. "If the conflict affected another planet, we could act, but as it is limited to Ophir, we cannot."
"That is not to say we can't help you privately, discreetly," offered Troif, the liaison from Suul's militant civilization. "If you have something in mind, perhaps an arrangement can be made."
"It's your only hope, Langford," added Tahm. "You cannot count on Confederation help in this matter, despite your son's difficulty. We sympathize completely, but are bound by our oaths."
"Can any of you tell me more about Ophir?" asked Langford. "I am only aware of the standard drivel, not the details."
"It's more than a territorial dispute," said Burruck Tahm. "No doubt that plays a part of it, but the disturbances escalated when certain protocols were ignored. Ophirians traditionally own up to their deeds. It's a point of honor with them, claiming responsibility for their acts, no matter how heinous they might seem to outsiders. Ten years ago, all the children of Bosk, a Pallachian city, were kidnapped. The perpetrators were silent and the juveniles were not returned, nor have they been discovered since. Kadmas became outraged when they were accused. That is how the hostilities began."
"Are they all of the same species?" asked Langford.
"Species, yes," answered Jamp, "but rival races. Similar to Earth crustaceans, if you recall Ambassador Mubiche. The differences between racial groups appear slight to outsiders."
"Do they bond with each other?" queried Langford.
"Mubiche once told me that has never occurred," replied Byl Troif, "that their lines are pure. Some sort of ancient prejudice that defies logic."
"Is there anything unique about Ophir?"
"It's 80% oceanic, 20% land masses, similar to Earth," said Phel. "They have two moons, Eog and Lom. Eog is unstable and volcanic. Ten planets in the system, one of which supports life. They mine the fourth planet, Ayak, extensively for raw materials. Before the crisis, Ophir traded art and logic services throughout the Confederation in exchange for equipment to assist them in oceanic farming."
"Farming? That does not equate with their technology."
"According to Mubiche, it was a new enterprise ten years ago."
* * *
"Ambassador," said Langford. "I am glad to find you alive and well."
"Alive? Barely. Well? Definitely not. Are you near?"
"I have a craft on Lom. I landed next to an abandoned base built on a mountainous spur."
"That would be Freedom Station. The words no longer apply. We haven't been on Lom in five rotations. I was not expecting you nor, in fact, any members of the Confederation. What is the purpose of your visit? The King of Pallach will not take kindly to it, whatever it is. We are beset with difficulties."
"Are you still farming the seas?"
"That is a strange question. Yes. We have to do so because it is the only food source left to us. Everything else has been destroyed in the war. Why do you ask?"
"The war continues unabated?"
"I'm afraid so. The atrocities mount daily. The kidnappings persist and both sides refuse to claim responsibility. It is a bloody impasse."
"Do the kidnappings ever extend to adults?"
"No. Always the children. It is the cause of this destruction."
"What of the royal families? Are they still as extensive as they once were?"
"That is yet another travesty. There have been so many killings that Pallach is reduced to its King and his son, Prince Tipaq. Kadmas is the same, its Queen and her daughter, Peliche. All others are dead."
"I may be able to help Ophir, Ambassador. This is not endorsed by the Confederation, as I am sure you know. I am thinking of an exchange that might prove beneficial to both of us. My son is your captive, somewhere in Pallach. He is not a spy."
"I do not know of such a thing. If he is in Pallach, I will find him, assuming the factions have him. A human then, interesting. What are you prepared to trade?"
"I'll tell you that when he is located."
* * *
Captain Iron Feather had been made to suffer torment and humiliation, even as a human being amongst hostile crustaceans. His craft had crash-landed on Ophir when its power system suddenly failed in passing the system. His only choice was a valley near the center of Pallach. As luck would have it, after he escaped the vehicle, it sank into whirlsand, gone forever. Ophirians traditionally lived in coastal cities or in the mountains, avoiding the vast Pallachian central valleys because of death traps such as whirlsand and other anomalies. Iron Feather, knowing only cursory data about Ophir, soon became intimate with the hopeless landscape and opted for
His luck worsened in the mountains when he chanced to discover an injured juvenile Pallachian in a wooded area. A whole village was searching for the youngster who had been lost for several days. He was attempting to feed the child some berries gleaned from a nearby bush when the village scouts perceived him. Noticing their belligerent attitude, Iron Feather tried to explain his predicament via the translator. Strangely, it refused to convert his words, though it did convey theirs.
"An alien," they shouted. "Who are you and what are you doing with our child?"
His response was gibberish and the villagers suddenly became hostile captors, especially because they concluded that by his feeding the child berries, he was fattening the infant for consumption. Try as he might, they could not intuit his incomprehensible sign language or attribute his gesticulations to anything other than malevolence. They had a more significant suspicion.
"He is the Bosk killer."
They bound him in strong vines and dragged him to the village. There they convened a council to decide his fate. Since most technological devices were destroyed in the war, they could not communicate their discovery instantly to the remainder of Pallach, though they did send crawlers to the cities proclaiming their find.
* * *
After a month of constant interplay between Langford and Mubiche, the Ophirian Ambassador finally had news. He had been getting more and more depressed of late because Prince Tipaq was missing and the King was insisting on great reprisals against Kadmas. When it was learned that Peliche was also missing, Mubiche morbidly saw the total destruction of Ophir in the near future.
"I am ready to trade, Ambassador Joh." They had been addressing one another on a first-name basis prior to this conversation. Langford perceived the new formality as serious.
"I am aware that most of your technological achievements have been destroyed, Ambassador Mubiche. I, however, possess an infra-blue scanner aboard this ship. I have just confirmed the cause of your difficulties."
"What did you find?" queried Mubiche, suddenly grasping for any sort of reprieve from the daily atrocities.
"An Ophirian type of which you have no knowledge. It lives hidden in the sea. I have concluded that your ocean farmers destroyed many of their nesting places, killing their young inadvertently. They responded in kind, by raiding your cities. You could not detect them because they appear as invisible to your eyes. I will bring you the proof. You will be able to convince the Kadmasians that this war can now end."
"Wonderful, and yet, horrible."
"And my son?"
"I bear sad tidings, Langford. The news reached me before I could act. He was found by a mountain tribe. They thought they caught the killer of Bosk. Apparently his translator failed. This tribe is more primitive than those who live on the coast."
"Is he alive?"
"I have lost 28 sons and 13 daughters in this disastrous conflict. I sympathize completely with your pain."
"They executed my son?"
"I am terribly sorry, Langford."
"How did he die?" choked Joh.
"Traditionally, the mountain folk execute criminals by casting them into whirlsand."
"You will, of course, return his body to me."
"I'm afraid that is impossible. His body is not recoverable."
Langford absorbed his tragedy stoically, pausing only long enough with a mournful sigh to indicate his extreme sadness. But he then spoke words that filled Weyph Mubiche with awe, offering hope where before there had been nothing but misery.
"I am not alone, Weyph. On this excursion, since it is such a delicate matter and so easily misinterpreted, I did not permit any other entities to accompany me, though I do have a virtual bodyguard of artificials. In addition to the proof I promised, I also possess
the means of Ophir's resurrection, a way to rapidly recover from your destructive trauma. I warn you, the idea is new and radical by your standards, but I am certain it is the only way to secure a future."
"What are you talking about? We are decimated and reduced to savagery. All that we have gained over the centuries is now rubble."
"You will, of course, have to modify the ocean-farming techniques. I can't do that for you. When I transport to the surface, after I punch in your coordinates, I will be bringing you another surprise, your missing Prince and Princess. They have mated, Mubiche, rather against traditional Ophirian prejudices. A newly blended brood is imminent. It will assure the persistence of your civilization and bring harmony to your planet."
Langford did not linger very long on the Ophir surface, only just enough to receive the gratitude of Mubiche and a host of Pallachians after receiving the royal couple from his hands. Both Tipaq and Peliche were so obviously in love that millennia of dark thoughts and ancient taboos were eradicated with a rapidity that none could have foreseen. Both praised the Earth ambassador extensively for his sensitive attitude, numerous good deeds, and wrenching personal sacrifice. He returned to his craft quietly in a moment when the Ophirians were otherwise absorbed.
* * *
He intended to return to Earth permanently and retire from his Confederation responsibilities. The coordinates were set properly in the control console and the engines engaged. Mysteriously, though, the ignition failed. Langford questioned the computers and tasked them to discover the cause. They also failed.
He sat heavily in the console chair amidst his preferred darkness of the cabin's dim illumination and pondered this latest obstacle. Slowly, the contours and geometry of the cabin melted into a yellowish corridor of soft light. There was a slight feeling of forward movement as he felt himself being tugged by an irresistible force.
Time diminished in his tears, thinking about the death of Iron Feather. The thought occurred to him that perhaps he was having a stroke, that somehow the universe was granting him an eternal bond with a much-loved son, but it was not so. Gently, almost imperceptibly, a tiny dot of incandescence grew before his eyes into a recognizable shape. He searched his memory.
It was Manic. He was being summoned by the Prail, taken by their amazing technology across the galaxy almost instantaneously. The multi-colored clouds of Manic were penetrated by the yellow beam that carried him within their amorphous uncertainty. Abruptly, he was aware of the kaleidoscope of patterns and colors surrounding him as he was borne below the planet's surface into the very womb of Manic's elusive core.
He was deposited at last on a pure obsidian surface, directly in front of what appeared to be a circular, silvery device. He had to blink when he realized that he was confronting an entity within a throne-like enclosure. It's features were totally alien to his mind. Nadirian was a golden presence inside that mechanism, possessing a body of shifting proportions and swirling visage.
"Not a pure energy being as I led you to believe. Forgive the canard, Langford, but it was necessary."
"I admit to curiosity, but why have you brought me here against my wishes?"
"Because you are to be honored as few have ever been. I am such a one. This mechanism has sustained me for 50,000 of your years. Inside this miraculous device, I have been able to steer the destiny of many deserving life forms and prevent the violent elements from expanding their influence. I have used you, ever since the incident you think of as Fetish, to achieve my aims. You have been selected to be my successor."
"Selected? By you?" Langford was stunned.
"Among several others, but you were my choice."
"I don't understand."
"I know. I told you of the visitation. You have passed not only my tests but also the severe examinations of the Prail."
"I thought you were of the Prail."
"The Prail are extra-galactic thought entities who entrust the ordering of the universe to worthy servants. They are true energy beings, far in advance of species like you or even myself. To accomplish their great undertakings, they provide their servants with a mechanism such as this one."
"I have no desire to be so honored, Nadirian."
"You seek oblivion because of Iron Feather. That too is understandable, if somewhat selfish, but your actions at Ophir convince me that as my protege, you, are the perfect choice. Still, you have the right of refusal, though it will personally disappoint me. However, it will make no difference."
"There is nothing left for me, Nadirian. I have reached the ebb of my desires. It isn't that I do not appreciate your confidence, but my strength and convictions are leaked out of my soul. I have given all that is possible for me. You cannot entrust further responsibilities to a weakling such as I."
"The Chair of Prail will fortify your spirit with a new strength, that which will reveal wonders to your sagging soul that you cannot now conceive."
"Choose another, Nadirian. I am no longer worthy."
"I did not choose you, Langford. I merely suggested you as a possibility. The Prail chose you, and they are coming here to certify the transfer. They do not err for they can see into the future. You will be ensconced, even as I, whether you will it now or no. All things are possible within the confines of this mechanism, even the restoration of that which has ceased."
"Are you the only living entity on Manic?"
"Yes, but I can simulate countless others to aid me in my machinations, as you have witnessed. All of it is created by my imagination and intellect. I have judged yours to be ready for this enormous task. The Prail have agreed."
"How have you retained sanity in this loneliness?"
"By seeking entities such as yourself to carry out my missions."
"What of the implied ennui?"
"There is none, nor will you experience any time when your services are not needed somewhere. The mechanism will direct you to the multitude of endless problems."
"And you? Has 50,000 years been enough to satisfy you or them? Will you be put out to pasture now?"
"Life is endless, Langford. The Prail will convert my body to their own form of energy. Just as you have succeeded against the various oppositions, so have I. When you sit in this chair, I will be granted a higher plane of existence, one without the cares and concerns that have occupied me for so long."
Langford became speechless with this revelation. Nadirian, to inspire Langford's withering courage and fortitude, brightened a panel on a nearby wall. The former Earth Ambassador of the Confederation peered quizzically at the image displayed and associated the form with that of his son, languishing within the mystical whirlsand of Ophir.
"He is not dead, Langford, merely overwhelmed by the narcotic effect of the sand."
And then, almost as if the whole scenario proceeded according to cue, the Prail were there, hundreds of entities praising his name and accomplishments. As Nadirian suggested, his objections, if he retained any, were moot because the transfer was simultaneous. Once seated in the mechanism, he found that all sensations were vastly amplified, excepting the normal discomforts of aging. His skin radiated a different texture and hue, reminiscent of the golden features that Nadirian had presented. And within his body, he felt a massive, radiant energy.
"I am now truly Prail," said a gratified Nadirian from a white mass floating in the chamber.
"Will I see or speak with you again?"
"I will be your mentor until you no longer require my assistance."
With that, the Prail simply vanished. Langford was granted a vision of them traversing the void to their home environment in a faraway galaxy. The very first thing he attempted was the rescue of his son, depositing Iron Feather in his private craft that still rested on Lom. By the time he awoke from his stupor, he would be treated to a most unanticipated conversation with his father.
Story © 2003 by William Alan Rieser email@example.com
Illustration © 2003 by ehrad firstname.lastname@example.org
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