Authors: Penny Publications
Tags: #Asimov's #457
Derek Künsken has built genetically engineered viruses; worked with street children in Latin America; served as a Canadian diplomat; and, most importantly, taught his eight-year old son about super-heroes and science. Derek writes science fiction and fantasy in Ottawa, Canada, and can be found at
"Schools of Clay" grew from musings about how a species' life cycle might evolve to incorporate time travel and how selection pressures would act upon that cycle.
The workers' revolution began on the hive's nine hundred and third day, when the Hero pulsar was above the horizon to the north. A pod of predatory shaghāl emerged from behind a small asteroid to the west. The exhaust of their thrust was shielded by their bodies, but the point shines of their souls were visible to those in the colony who had souls. The shine was just slightly blue-shifting.
The skates were not ready. Only half the princesses were fueled in the launch tubes of the hive. Indecision washed over the colony. Skates and souls yelled over each other. Then, a thousand tiny reactions bloomed. The colony panicked. The flat, triangular skates hopped along the regolith in different directions on steely fingers.
Diviya stood above the rising dust, on a mound of mine tailings. He had been meeting with a half-dozen revolutionaries in the slums past the worker shanties. None of his revolutionaries possessed souls, so they could not see the shaghāl, but the panicked radio bursts from the hive alarmed them. Some thought that a squad of hive drones had found them.
"Oh no," Diviya said.
"Flee!" Diviya's soul crackled to him in the radio static. "Save the princesses!"
"Diviya, the revolution isn't ready!" Tejas said. Tejas was a soulless worker, made of carbon-reinforced ceramic. He was triangular and f lat, with a single, lightly abraded lens on the vertex of the leading edges of his wide fins. "The workers are not assembled."
Hours away yet, the shaghāl split into two pods. The first pod of predators continued toward the hive. The second angled to intercept the migration, before it had even launched.
"The whole colony is already late," Diviya said. "The revolution must happen now." Nearby, three skates hopped between the dusty mounds of mine tailings toward the hive. Their radioactive souls shone hot behind their eyes: tax farmers, coming from the farms to join the migration.
"We have only minutes," Diviya said in a radio discharge. He felt sick with doubt. He led his followers forward.
The revolutionaries leapt upon the three tax farmers. Diviya screamed out his own fears. The violence against kin was surreal, matching the strange panic that exploded all over the colony as its last hours played out.
The tax farmers struggled, stirring graphite fines in the vanishing gravity of the asteroid. The revolutionaries pinned the tax farmers upside down. Their steel fingers waved uselessly and their mouths were exposed. Diviya's conspirators held tight to the frozen subsurface.
The tax collectors cried out with crackling radio noise that carried far on the great asteroid. But while the colony was launching the migration, no one would notice. Too many hurried to save the princesses, the princes, and themselves.
In this chaos, the workers' revolution could become real.
One of the three tax farmers appeared to be a landlord by the brightness of his soul. He was the most dangerous. Beneath the hardened carapace of boron carbide, his soul spattered the hard, energetic radiation from uranium and thorium, and the soft, diffuse glow from tritium and potassium. The landlord's soul spoke frantically. Diviya's soul was strangely quiet; it feared Diviya.
The landlord's rows of short legs waved helplessly and he was hot. His soul heated the landlord's whole triangular body. Although it was a sin to waste reaction mass, Diviya did not put it past the landlord to pour the stored volatiles over his soul, launching himself, and everyone on him, into orbit. They could not hold him if that happened.
Diviya reached into the landlord's mouth with the pry and pliers that doctors carried. Deep in the landlord's mouth, Diviya pried back supporting metal bands made to hold the soul. The landlord understood what Diviya was doing and in his horror released a cool spray of thrust from the trailing edge of his fins.
But then Diviya had the soul free and he held the rectangular cake of radioactive isotopes in the shine of the pulsar. They all stared and listened in awe. Only Diviya had ever seen a naked soul. These revolutionaries were farm workers, ore processors, and haulers of regolith.
Diviya turned to Tejas. The skate turned onto his back, exposing fingers blunted from months of scratching frozen nitrogen and graphite from around hard chondrules. Charged regolith dust grimed his open mouth. Diviya set the still-screaming soul within Tejas' mouth.
Any skate could have a soul. Souls gestated in the large ore plants within the queen, near the kilns where the skates themselves were fired. Diviya had been chosen to be a doctor and received a soul only by chance. The soulless could farm volatiles, but could never find radioactive isotopes in the regolith, or fly from the asteroid. Diviya fastened the bands, locking the soul into place. They turned over the newly ensouled skate.
The panic of the hive heightened. The throbbing radio signals from the queen signaled that she was preparing to launch the first wave of princesses. Diviya hurried to remove the souls from the other two tax farmers and place them into Barini and Ugra.
The souls beamed their fear and outrage in radio static. Once, hive drones would have come and arrested them all, but this was the end of the world the souls had preached.
Far off, above the great bulk of the queen, the leaders of the migration launched. Bursts of hot volatiles, brief ly visible through the thickening dust, launched princesses at tremendous velocities. Six. Seven. Eight. Waves of princes and their courtiers threw themselves into space after the potential hive queens. Then, a wave of slower-moving, uncoordinated tax farmers and landlords. Diviya's soul began speaking, at first in quiet, fearful tones, but then more strongly.
"Come," Diviya said. "There is no more time!" Dozens of revolutionaries had crowded them. The soulless. They had put their faith in Diviya. They retreated at his words, stunned. And Diviya's heart cracked. Of everything that they had hoped for all of the workers, they only had time to save three.
Not even save. There was every chance that Diviya and his three ensouled revolutionaries would be killed by either the shaghāl or the migration itself. They were not princes, fed volatiles and radioactive dust by scores of workers. They had been given every nugget of frozen volatiles that could be smuggled out of the work camps, but it was probably not enough.
Diviya opened a valve. A trickle of the volatiles he had stored in his body passed over his soul, super-heating. A searing mix of water, methane, ammonia, and nitrogen shot from the spouts on Diviya's trailing edge, launching him over the hive. The great, sintered ceramic bulk of the queen, dwarfing all the piles of mine tailings, and studded with the launch tubes of the princesses, lay beneath him, shrinking as he rose. The ordered lines of skates carrying ore and volatiles to her had dissolved. They fled into her now for protection she could not offer.
Beneath him, a new volley of princesses burst from the tubes, shooting past Diviya. Their steel fingers were tucked tightly beneath them and the spray of their thrust sent shivers of aching attraction through him. A squadron of princes and their servants followed. Their wide, dust-free fins turned gracefully, briefly reflecting starlight from smooth carapaces of boron carbide, beneath fine, tight nets of steel mesh. They turned the webs of steel to face the Hero pulsar, absorbing its microwaves as they thrust.
Breath-taking. Intimidating. Kin.
Diviya and his revolutionaries thrust hard after them. The horizon of the great asteroid fell away on all sides, revealing the clean dark of space. The colony, with the hive and its halo of slums became a dark, irregular shape, lit only by the bright points of the few souls still there. Then the third and last wave of princesses launched, with every soul that could, even those who could only thrust briefly.
Invisible were the workers left behind, colorless as the dirt. He'd fought for them, tended their hurts, and had wanted to bring them on migration. Those brother skates tugged at his heart, but eerily, less than he expected. Diviya was enlightened, rational, but the strength of instinct surprised him. Diviya felt the urge to protect the princes, clouded with his attraction for the princesses. He needed to control both feelings.
His soul whispered the navigational liturgy to him and he wanted to follow its lead. His soul had migrated before, in a successful prince of a generation past. His soul carried the wisdom of flight angles through the vastness of space and time, how to block the shaghāl from reaching the princesses and the princes. Each soul knew the same way to the same spawning ground waiting for them in the future. But to his soul, those workers left behind were no more important than the giant shell of the abandoned queen after the princesses had launched.
The smaller pod of shaghāl proceeded to the hive. They were radio-reflective, not thrusting, but riding the Hero's Voice with mesh sails catching the powerful microwaves shouting out each second. The dying queen served by soulless skates would feed the predators. The larger pod's course would intercept the migration.
Diviya hopped over the regolith, arriving at Work Farm Number Seven. Several days of bribing low-level officials with frozen nitrogen had gotten him a permit. A big skate with a sleek carapace patrolled the edge of the farm. Under a thin layer of dust, the grand prince's insignia was visible, scored in the ceramic on both leading edges of his wide horizontal fins. The lens at the front of his head showed the hot radioactive light of his soul behind it.
"What do you want?" the tax farmer said.
"Someone called for a doctor," Diviya said. He tilted his leading edges lower, showing less of his own soul. The landlord's thugs were not worth antagonizing. From his gullet, Diviya pulled a thin sheet of beaten aluminum inscribed with his permit.
"Go back to the hive," the tax farmer said. "We got the lazy skate back to work."
"I've come all this way. I may as well check on the other workers," Diviya said.
The tax farmer threw the permit. "Waste your time if you want." "Thank you," Diviya said, retrieving the permit. Rows of steel fingers undulated beneath him and he hopped onto the work farm.
The farm was so large that the curvature of the asteroid nearly hid the great mounds of debris at the far end. The flat, triangular bodies of the skates moved over the regolith, digging and sifting with sharp fingers. Their radio sails were pulled tight across the tops of their wide horizontal fins, to feed on the radio and microwaves of the Hero's Voice.
The workers were almost all soulless. Some few were given weak souls to find radioactive grains during their sifting. Diviya had received a respectable soul. Doctors needed keen, penetrating sight. The tiniest injuries and earliest-stage material stresses could only be detected with radiation reflected back from ceramic carapaces.
Diviya passed a mound of regolith scraped from the surface of the asteroid, sifted for icy clays, hard nuggets of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and iron-nickel granules for the foundries and kilns within the queen. The tailing mounds were chondrules of silicates and magnetites. Atop the hill was one of the grand prince's landlords.
The landlord preached a droning liturgy from the apex of the mound, but the words were not his. The soul behind his eye recited the sagas for him to repeat. The metronomic rhythms of electrical buzzing and snapping carried some distance before they were drowned by the inscrutable mystery of the Hero's Voice. Tax farmers and other landlords heard the liturgy, and retransmitted it, complete with its numbing, repetitive rhythms.