The Ribbon of Ah
Standing on his rear limbs, his front four resting along his abdominal and pectoral plates, Lhargo contemplates the soft light of his native sun, Ijina, the Eye on Fire. A million cycles earlier, long before his birth, his people—whom the Humans call Alephs—had dismantled Ah, their planet of origin, in order to alleviate its terrifying tectonic instability. And seeing that the quantity of matter was insufficient, they also had to dismantle several other terrestrial planets nearby. With all the rocks and all the metals and all the water, the Warriors of Time (as they are called) had built the ribbon of Ah, the largest artifact of the Empyrium: a 600-mile wide torus with a diameter averaging almost two million miles, with another torus arched over it, not much wider but perforated, whose slow rotation produced a simulation of nycthemeral rhythm that sustained the inhabitants and crops.
Ijina is dying. According to the calculations of the architects, the Eye on Fire will begin its fatal expansion in a few thousand cycles. This thought does not bother Lhargo in the least because the Little Machine of the Sculpture-Voyagers is on the way. It will arrive on time to revitalize Ijina, to give it a new lease on life for two or three billion cycles.
With his eyes slightly irritated (he is no longer used to the dryness of Ah) the Warrior of Time enters the dark dwelling of the Breeder Ayek—the director of his thoughts and the judge of his actions for more than three thousand cycles. The building looks like a temple: buttresses of crossed tubing covered in dyed canopies, arrayed in fabrics of every authorized color, tied together to display the great events that have influenced the glorious history of the Ayek kin.
A young servant with severed sex organs and a face divided into bony plates leads Lhargo to the audience hall. Before taking his leave, he gives him a large glass of brangshi blood.
The aroused jiribhs, imprisoned in large bowls with varying milkiness, light up the huge room. A secret rhythm seems to regulate the ebb and flow of light produced by the insects, climbing and sliding along the walls. For Lhargo, long accustomed to the weak light of human habitats, this rhythm has something anxiolytic about it. The statues of the awesome divinities, armed with big, crescent-shaped knives, lean against the door tubes. The hard dirt floor of the audience hall exhales a sweet, humid, quickly nauseating odor. The space reserved for the Breeder Ayek, which no one has the right to enter, not even his emasculated servants, is big enough, with a high enough ceiling, to welcome the dignity of an extremely old one. Everyone knows that Ayek is the oldest of the Breeders of the Lodge; he is the one who choose to deal personally with the Human Sphere, even though it was considered the least interesting of the Seven Cradles.
Lhargo sips his drinks. He has never tasted anything so good. You have to dive deep to kill the brangshiens with such tasty, fluid blood. Very deep. Where the centrifugal forces are the strongest. Where the brangshiens are the most dangerous—all bone and muscle.
Lhargo finishes his drink, hands it to the servant and walks to the conference stone where he will be able to stand in front of his director of thoughts and judge of actions, and kneel down as well. And, if the situation gets out of hand, lie down pitifully.
The ground shakes and rumbles. Finally.
The floor bulges at the approach of the Breeder, cracking to let in a few rays of mauve light. Sparks run across the surface of the room; static electricity crackles. The floor cracks and tears apart under the assault; a heady smell of ozone and sexual hormones fill the room.
With his head as broad as a warrior’s den, the Breeder partially surfaces out of the damp ground. In front of his imposing brown mass, shimmering purple, a face of boundless appetite opens its black mouth to breathe in a little fresh air. The coral-colored slits of the Breeder’s vent-holes ripple. Only two of his forelimbs are visible, with their burrowing ends at rest, caked with mud. The elder is bigger and bulkier than the huge room; soon the den will have to be enlarged to fit him. Unless something changes, there is a lot of free space on the ribbon of Ah, especially in the Tardik Hills.
Lhargo can hardly believe that he had stayed for so long in the Human Sphere, unless his memory is playing tricks on him. The Breeder Ayek was already alive during the construction of the ribbon of Ah; he even worked on it as an architect. The Alephs, after losing their virginity, never stop growing because of the hormonal imbalance inherent in sexual activity. And even after death their body keeps expanding, getting bigger for ten or twelve cycles.
To meet such a Breeder is a great honor—there is no greater on all the ribbon of Ah, except to sit in the Lodge.
“On Ah, at the Root, I am what I am, as all males and females know. Present yourself to me again, according to the ancient code,” the Breeder announces in his booming, bass voice.
“I am Lhargo Yeina…” Lhargo stops speaking, lowers his head in apology and takes off the collar that allows him to converse with Humans. He begins again in a voice so loud that it would be unbearable to the human ear. “I am Lhargo Yeina, son of Garyl and Derija. My three ibrunes are courage, curiosity and cruelty. In that order. I have nine brothers of actions and thoughts at my command. My night waters will recount for you the tale of many deaths, humans for the most part. My day waters will guarantee for you my virginity. I am a Warrior of Time and I will die in your service.”
“Virgin… You are the oldest of the Warriors of Time still active. How old are you? Four, maybe five thousand cycles? How long do you still count on remaining a virgin?”
“I… I don’t know, Breeder Ayek, Great among the Great. And the last time I went by the Archives, I was six thousand, four hundred and seventy one cycles old.”
“Almost seven thousand cycles of virginity, that is unacceptable. I am the greatest among the great and I have the feeling, the unpleasant feeling that you are taking advantage of me.”
“We are at the Root, Lhargo. Here is the true world. The others are only shadows, echoes that we manipulate so that our actions down there have some effect up here and that we examine because the darkness of the Shadows can take away the light that the Root needs. The future of the Root is unknown. The future of the Shadows is known to us. It has been like this as long as the Lodge has existed and as long as the ancient folklore has been understood and mastered. The bundles of futures where you are condemned to Dahen-Tahil continue to grow. The bundle of futures where the Human Sphere is condemned to sterilization continues increasing as well.”
“May I ask a question, Breeder Ayek?”
“Why sterilize the Human Sphere?”
“You appreciate the Humans, Lhargo. You appreciate them because they are young and impetuous, a priori incomprehensible. These are good reasons, but the Sculptors demand their sterilization because of what happened on the fourth planet of the human cradle.”
“I heard that this part of the Great Machine wasn’t damaged.”
“That’s right. The attractor of Olympus Mons is intact, but the Sculptors are not prone to weakness and the service they render us, their Little Machine, gives much weight to their wills. They won’t tolerate another problem like Olympus Mons.”
“Am I being commandeered to sterilize the Human Sphere?”
“Not yet. For the moment, the sterilization belongs to the domains of the Shadows, not to the Root. Now, Lhargo, I want you to finish the task I entrusted to you a hundred cycles ago and afterward you will embrace your destiny as a Breeder. I will let you chose your female. You are the oldest of the Warriors of Time. I protect you, but the Lodge is starting to question your loyalty and the depth of your commitment. The Lodge is suggesting that you appreciate the Humans too much. The rumor will end up condemning you. You should bury it in a female’s genitals.”
Lhargo lowers his head. “Can I challenge your decision, Breeder Ayek, greatest among the great?”
“Aren’t you scared of Dahen-Tahil? Don’t you care about being thrown into the event horizon of a black hole where all can watch your punishment for millions of cycles?”
Lhargo lowers his head more, touching the conference stone with his forelimbs. “The task that you entrusted to me a hundred cycles ago might still take a long time. I am close to what we are looking for, but…”
“Are you trying to tell me that you still haven’t spent enough time in the Human Sphere to understand how they reproduce?”
“How is not so important. The mechanics are simple and most of their reproduction is done through mechanical methods, which are foolproof, or almost. The methods are constantly developing, but the development is purely about techniques, not about the purpose. What is important, it seems to me, is why the Humans still sometimes reproduce without mechanical assistance, only under medical supervision with all the physiological and genetic risks that such practices entail. They have the medical means to create the optimal offspring for a couple, be it man-woman, woman-woman or man-man, but many continue to leave it up to nature and chance. The heterosexual couple, of course, but also some woman-woman couples who bypass the insemination machines by asking a male friend to impregnate the partner who best fit to carry the future baby. The man-man couples obviously do not have the option of natural methods, even though there are some forbidden and impractical techniques for these ends. And it is not rare to see certain human couples leave it to chance by letting the insemination machines choose their progeny’s genes at random.”
“All this is very interesting, but the real problem, Warrior Lhargo, is you. You appreciate them and that affects your research methods. Of your three ibrunes, cruelty is the weakest.”
“Yes, thus I was evaluated by the Lodge, Breeder Ayek.”
“The crueler you are with the Humans, the firmer I can be with the Sculptors.”
Inversion… The Breeder has drawn up this assignment following the sacred principle of inversion… Thereby Lhargo and his director of thoughts and judge of actions have just signed a sacred pact, a bond that only death, or a sentence to Dahen-Tahil, can break.
After a long pause, the Breeder Ayek continues, “The Sculptors are aware of our studies; they will not sterilize the Human Sphere as long as we are studying it. But what are we studying if the mechanics of human reproduction are so familiar to you?”
“Humans of every ethnic group, whether they live on Earth, in their spaceport of New Edo, or in the few colonies being terraformed, use one word to define their strongest bond, which they maintain sometimes for most of their lives: bonds of the man-woman couple, but also around one in eleven are the woman-woman or man-man bonds. What makes the understanding of this word even more difficult is that they use it for different bonds, a priori weaker, that are not bonds of a couple: bonds of father-child, mother-child, child-father and child-mother. And these four are only a meager sample. This word has no equivalent in our language. It does not define mutual attraction for reproductive ends; it does not define the purple madness; it does not define the relationship of a best friend—it is something else. It defines the attraction of an totally unilateral or bilateral couple which, in some cases, can take over everything, absolutely everything.”
“It sounds like a mental illness. Do all Humans suffer from it?”
“Some suffer from it, especially those whose couple bond is unilateral. Others find in it unlimited joy and sometimes a great deal of sexual pleasure. Simply on the biochemical level, this bond has a maximum duration of three years, but it can last beyond that without the cerebral biochemistry to accompany it.”
“This is what you want to study?”
“I find this couple bond mysterious. I am prepared to put it to the test, seeing that my cruelty ibrune will qualify the completion of my study. It is a great honor for me to serve you, Breeder Ayek.”
“You are not serving me, but the Balance. The Little Machine will ensure the balance of the Aleph Sphere; the Great Machine will ensure the balance of the entire galaxy.”
“They say the Great Machine may penetrate the secret of the Galactic Center, annihilate the Shadows and leave behind it only the Root. In which case, we will no longer be Warriors of Time. And if the Sculptors were manipulating us?”
Lhargo lies down on the ground to better face the explosion of anger from his director of thoughts and judge of actions, but the anger does not come. The Breeder Ayek has already turned back to the warm, wet depths of his dwelling, down where the brangshiens teem—his prey and possible predators.