Excerpt from Caliban

To tempt you a bit, I’m giving you a preview of my new novella, Caliban

Caliban


There can be an inherent bias in anthropological study. Perspective is everything.

Report from the Commissioner on Dreamweavers.

The problem with what Jabod McCullough asked was it didn’t make any sense. Why choose a permanent assignment Active on a quarantined planet? Tine asked that question.

“Because I think you’re incorruptible,” Jabod answered, his holo standing in one of the rocks Tine had been moving before the ping from his superior.

What was that supposed to mean? So Tine asked Jabod that.

“Let me answer by asking you a question: what are your aspirations?”

Aspirations? What was that? So Tine asked a third question.

“What would you like to see happen tomorrow, to you, to your brood, to your people?”

This was really going nowhere. Incorruptible. Aspirations. Tomorrow. Tine understood what those terms meant, but they had no relevance. Not for him. Not for any Caliban.

Instead of answering, he bent and put his shoulder to the rock he’d been moving to rebuild a floodwater diversion, and shoved, digging his hooves into what purchase he could find on the hard-packed earth. The rock gave, rolled, wobbled into the depression he’d made for it. Satisfied, he hunkered down to his haunches, looking out over the sere landscape—rock, dirt, desiccated shrubs of ochre, madder, sienna—and tried very hard to embrace those concepts Jabod put forward. Finally: “I would like enough food for my brood, to keep them safe from predators, to watch them learn enough they can survive.”

“And nothing else?”

He thought about that, about the things he’d been exposed to because of his privilege as an Active for the Interplanetary Criminal Investigations Bureau. All that information. All those holos of cultures and species, customs and regulations, an overwhelming glut of strange and stimulating experiences out there, so different from this world he called home here on Setebos. Most of all, there were those artists known as dreamweavers, people able to manipulate reality and create living stories. That concept challenged everything he knew.

He looked up to Jabod’s holo. “I would like to know more about dreamweavers.”

“Why?”

“Because they manipulate the senses and can make you believe what they create is real.”

“And that would benefit you how?”

“Were we to learn that skill, we would be better hunters, and better able to ensure the life of the brood.”

“So, your purpose is to protect the brood?”

“There is another purpose?”

Jabod took a few steps and his holo ended up standing again in the rock Tine had just shoved into place. He wondered if Jabod was doing this on purpose, or if Tine’s environment wasn’t registering in Jabod’s sensory display. It seemed ridiculous to be talking to a moving image of a human some light years away, and that thought brought him to the concept of time displacement, and once again to wrestle with what was real and what wasn’t.

He rubbed the oil exuding from his warts into his belly, feeling his leathery hide beneath his fingers, aware of the aridity of the air, the glare of the sun. In the distance, he could hear his brood: laughter, the rumble of a warning growl, the skitter of beetles across red clay. He struck out and snatched one of the copper creatures and crunched down. Such a satisfying sound, even if this one wasn’t particularly juicy.

“But I don’t understand why you think you need me for this assignment,” Tine said, shoving a wriggling antennae past his lips.

“Because you are the unexpected. Who would suspect you were working on an assignment for the Interplanetary Bureau of Investigations?”

Tine thought about that. There was plausibility to Jabod’s reasoning, but there also wasn’t. Any decent hunter knew it was better to sustain the illusion of normality to be successful, so why send in Tine? Further, how was Tine to make any kind of judgement about the success of this hunt—assignment, he supposed, was the correct term—if he didn’t know anything about his prey or his prey’s environment? For that matter, he didn’t even know what this assignment was really about. He said that. Jabod demurred. Tine growled.

“I can’t say anything more. I’m sorry, Tine. Not until we have you aboard an IPCIB ship where we know things are secure.”

Oil now exuded freely from Tine’s warts, rising with his own unease. He gave up massaging it into his hide. Jabod’s statement was rife with subterfuge. How could Setebos not be secure? No one could land on this planet without risking spore invasion, perhaps die because of it. So how was an IPCIB liner more secure than here? He extended his claws and studied the gold fluidic circuitry on them that allowed him connection to the outside world. “You’re sure spore withdrawal has been made safe?”

Tine watched Jabod’s body language carefully now, for signs any hunter of skill would note. There were subtle signals. A wariness. Was it anxiety over whether Tine would accept the assignment, and risk his life in spore withdrawal? Was it something else?

The problem was, there wasn’t enough information, and the only way Tine could obtain that information was to accept the assignment. He felt sure he was being manipulated. Maybe Jabod was also a skilled hunter. Even so, there was the lure of the dreamweavers, to meet one, perhaps many, perhaps even the Master dreamweaver herself, Ela. Wouldn’t that be worth it? Wouldn’t the knowledge he could gain from her benefit him and his brood?

Jabod took a few steps, his holo now sitting on the rock he’d been standing inside. The significance of that wasn’t lost on Tine.

Finally, Tine said, “I accept.”

He realized it came out in a bark, and that in itself was significant.

Jabod smiled and disappeared.

Tine snatched another beetle and crunched down. Every hunter knew you had to take risks. Surviving was hazardous. He wondered if he’d be successful in this hunt.

He stood and again set about shoving rocks back into a flood diversion. The rains would start any day now.

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