Vigilant

Vigilant

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Two species lived in peaceful coexistence on the planet Demoth until a deadly plague wiped out millions of the winged Ooloms while leaving humans untouched, helpless to do more than ease the suffering of their alien friends and neighbors. Faye Smallwood saw the horror firsthand, caring for the plague victims in her father’s hospital. She was there when he discovered the cure that made him famous. She was also there when a freak accident killed him.

Desperate to escape her past, Faye joins the Vigil, a band of fiercely independent monitors charged with rooting out government corruption. To help in this struggle, her mind is linked to the powerful datasphere that regulates the planet… and suddenly, she receives a cryptic vision promising peace and healing. Instead, Faye becomes the target of unknown assassins in a sinister conspiracy that threatens to unleash a new and more deadly outbreak.

For humans and Ooloms were not the first species to inhabit Demoth. Somewhere in the ruins of long-abandoned settlements, something was left behind: an alien technology of unimaginable potential to build — or destroy. Enemy agents will stop at nothing to find it. Some of Faye's own people will kill to uncover its secret. With no one else to trust, she turns to the one person who can help unravel the mystery: Festina Ramos — explorer, outcast, ever-vigilant champion of those whom society deems expendable.

Vigilant
by James Alan Gardner

To Peter Fraser, who gave me a job, a computer, time to do what I wanted, and a lot of paper sneaked out the back door.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I acknowledge the people who helped me write/revise/polish this tome: Linda Carson, Richard Curtis, and Jennifer Brehl. Where would I be without them?

I acknowledge that John Brunner wrote The Stone That Never Came Down some twenty-five years ago and that I lifted a crucial aspect of the Vigil from it. (Wouldn’t it be spiffy if all the people who borrowed from Brunner actually admitted it? And wouldn’t it be spiffy if you, dear reader, went out and bought Brunner’s books to see what I’m talking about?)

Finally, I acknowledge that there was originally going to be a lot about politics in this book… but every time I tried to sneak some in, it stuck out like a sore thumb. Our friend Faye is so new at her job, no one would let her close to real political action. Besides, she joined the Vigil for personal reasons, not through any great urge to get involved in the democratic process. Oh well… maybe next book, the characters will get out of the way and let me pontificate.

THE STRUCTURE OF THE TECHNOCRACY

In a.d. 2454, the Technocracy consists of the following:

(a) Sixty-three planets with full membership (called the Core or mainstream worlds);

(b) Ninety-two planets with "affiliate" status (usually called the Fringe Worlds);

(c) Several hundred colony worlds founded by people who espouse some degree of loyalty to the Technocracy. Colonies range from small scientific outposts of a half-dozen researchers, to settlements of a few hundred thousand inhabitants.

The mainstream worlds share a single integrated administration. Fringe Worlds, on the other hand, all have independent governments, subject to various obligations as Technocracy affiliates (such as providing port facilities for the navy).

There is only one law that applies to all worlds: the single directive of the League of Peoples, unflinchingly enforced by races so far advanced beyond human intelligence that the directive might as well be a fundamental law of the universe: NO DANGEROUS NON-SENTIENT CREATURE WILL EVER BE ALLOWED TO MOVE FROM ITS HOME STAR SYSTEM TO ANOTHER SYSTEM.

"Dangerous non-sentient" means any creature ready to kill a sentient creature, or to let sentients die through willful negligence. The law makes interstellar war an impossibility; the only conceivable wars are civil ones, restricted to a single planet. Starships cannot carry lethal weapons — no laser-cannons on the hull, no guns for personnel — because those are automatic statements of non-sentient disposition. (Weapons for self-defense? Whom would you be defending against? The only beings allowed into interstellar space are sentients. By definition, they aren’t going to try to kill you.)

Intention counts: even if you are completely unarmed, if you travel through space with the objective of killing someone when you reach your destination, you are inherently a dangerous non-sentient creature. Therefore, you don’t reach your destination — you simply die en route. No one knows how the League can tell that you have murder in your heart — whether they read minds or see the future or have simply achieved omniscience. (The League’s senior races have had a billion-year evolutionary headstart on Homo sapiens; to describe them as godlike is belittling.)

The inescapable truth is that no human has ever beaten the League; not in the twenty-fifth century, nor in all the years of recorded history. Dangerous non-sentient creatures — murderers — have to consider themselves grounded the moment they cease to respect sentient life… the moment they become non-sentient.

Sometimes people wonder if non-sentient beings can ever become sentient again. By rehabilitation. By repentance. By redemption. And if a killer has a true change of heart, will the League accept it? Or are you simply condemned forever by the person you once were?

Always an interesting question…

THE SLACK DEATH

I want to tell you everything, everything all at once.

I don’t want to be plod-patient, setting it down in sequence: first the plague, then the cave-in, then the years of Other Business, when everything seemed like a burden to get out of the way before real life could start. Everyone knows this is real life, it’s all real life, sixty seconds of real life every minute, no one gets less.

But you can take less. All the time you’re swimming in the ocean of real life, it’s so precious easy to keep your eyes closed and just tread water. Even so, if you’re lucky, you might be caught in a current, a current that’s carrying you toward something…

No, too simplistic. We’re all caught in currents, dozens of the buggers dragging us in different directions sixty seconds every minute, and it’s never as obvious as people want you to believe. You live through a day, and at the end you grumble, "I didn’t do anything"… but second by second you did do things, you occupied every second, just as you occupy every second of every day.

Here’s the thing, the crucial thing: your life is full. And if you don’t realize that… then you’re just like the rest of us, but that’s no excuse.

I want to tell you everything, everything at once. I want to explode and leave you splattered bloody with all the things I have to say — kaboom, and you’re covered with me, coated, dripping, deafened by the blast. A flash of instant knowledge: knowledge, not information. Burning hot. Blinding bright. Blasting down the ingrained walls of carrion-comfort cynicism.

How can I do that? How? The peacock can show its whole tail at once; but I can only tell you a story.

The story starts with death. If you weren’t there, on the fair green planet Demoth in the year 2427, you can’t imagine what the plague was like, and I can’t convey the enormity of it. No one stayed sane — no one. All of us who lived through those days came out the other side mumbling under our breaths, quivering with twitches, tics, and phobias. Real bitch-slapping nightmares of bodies in the streets.

The bodies weren’t human. That was the ugliest part of Pteromic Paralysis, the slack death — us Homo saps were immune. Death counts rose by the day, and we were lily-pure untouched.

It only killed our neighbors.

Our neighbors were Ooloms, a genetically engineered branch of the Divian race: basically humanoid, but with scaly skins that changed color like wide-spectrum chameleons… from red to green to blue, and everything in between. Ooloms also came equipped with glider membranes on the general model of flying squirrels — triangular sails attached at wrists and armpits, then running down their bodies and tapering to a point at their ankles. Their bones were hollow, their tissues light, their internal organs spongy with air vacuoles rather than solidly dense. Given Demoth’s forgiving gravity (.78 Earth G), Ooloms had no trouble flapping-gliding-soaring through city or countryside.

I was a countryside girl myself back then: fifteen years old, living in a fiddly-dick mining town called Sallysweet River, population 1600… one of only four human settlements in the vast interior of Great St. Caspian Island. Around us, tundra and trees, stone and forest, stretched proud unbroken — wilderness all the way from my doorstep across a hundred kilometers to the cold ocean coast.

Not that it made me feel small. I was as full of myself as any girl I knew: me, the beautiful, blond, smart, occasionally even sexy Faye Smallwood.

So much for the "before" picture — before the plague. After? I’ll get to that.

It was late summer in Sallysweet River when we first heard tell of the disease. My father, Dr. Henry Smallwood, was the town M.D., always reading the medical newsfeeds to me and giving his on-the-spot opinion. A session with Dads might go like this: "Well then, Faye-girl, here’s some offworld laze-about who’s come to Demoth for a study of our poisonous animals — lizards and eels and what-all. Can you imagine? He wants to protect us all from snakebite or some fool thing… as if there’s a single creature on the planet that wants to bite us. Complete waste of time!"