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!"

(Which was and wasn’t true. Neither Ooloms nor humans were native to Demoth — Homo saps had only been around twenty-five years, and Ooloms about nine hundred — so to the local animal population, we smelled disgustingly alien. Nothing in the woods would ever try to nibble us for food… but they’d be fast enough to give us the chomp if we stepped on their tails or threatened their young. I’d never say that to Dads, though; before the plague sent us all stress-crazy, I was his own little girl, and so swoony fond, I never questioned him. When I felt like a fight, I picked one with my mother.)

So. One trickly hot evening, Dads looked up from the newsfeed, and said, "Listen to this, my Faye — they’re reporting a rash of complaints from Ooloms all over the world. Teeny numbnesses: a single finger going limp, or an eyelid, or one side of the tongue. Investigators are expressing concern." Dads snorted. "Sure to be psychosomatic," he told me. "A grand lot of Ooloms have worked themselves into a tizzy about some idle nothing, and now they’re having demure little hysterical breakdowns."

I nodded, trusting that Dads knew what he was talking about.

But.

It got worse. More victims. In every last town on the planet. Symptoms slowly spreading. A patient who couldn’t move her thumb today might lose all feeling in her little toe tomorrow: one muscle after another shutting down, turning to strengthless putty. It usually started at the extremities and worked gradually in, but there was one man who didn’t show a single symptom till all the muscles of his heart, slump, went slack. The night they reported his case on the news, the exodus began.

Ooloms and all other Divian subspecies have an instinct to isolate themselves when they’re sick. "Oooo," as my father put it angrily, "we’re feeling plumb poorly, better separate ourselves from the herd so we don’t infect others. The cack-headed idjits."

Dads hated that communal instinct. Because of it, infected Ooloms didn’t stay in cities or towns where they’d be close to medical facilities; they headed for the woods, the wilderness, to be on their own. Their species had no trouble living rough out there — they’d been specifically engineered to thrive on Demoth’s native greenery. Leaves and bark pulled from trees, seedpods hanging by the hundreds all year round… the Ooloms could eat, they could glide, they could wait, as the paralysis crept stealthily through their bodies.

They stayed out there, isolated and degenerating from disease, as summer surrendered to wistful fall. Then they began drifting back, when their muscles had frozen to the point that even such grand hunter-gatherers could no longer fend for themselves.

In my dreams I still see them floating in the night: paralyzed bodies black against the stars, gliding over Sallysweet River like kites cut free of their strings. They waited till they were inches near helpless… barely able to control their direction of flight. The ones we found often had branches lashed to their arms or legs with cord-vine, to give themselves a more rigid flying structure after major muscles failed. Most tied their mouths closed too; otherwise, their jaws fell open, and they swallowed insects during flight.

So the Ooloms surrendered in the end… the ones who didn’t leave it too late. They gave themselves up to humans and let us fight the disease on their behalf. In the shieldlands of Great St. Caspian, that meant the Ooloms headed for Sallysweet River.


When the last shift at Rustico Nickel left work at dawn, the miners would go around town with wooden carts, gathering the bodies that had landed overnight — on roofs, across the Bullet tracks, spread-eagled over the hoods of ore-carriers… wherever the Ooloms’ haphazard flight took them. From there, the body carts trundled along dirt tracks and wood-slat sidewalks till they reached our backyard — a crude field hospital slung together by my father under yellowed-canvas tenting. The Big Top we called it. Or the Circus.

Every human with time to spare helped out under the Big Top: feeding Ooloms who couldn’t feed themselves, or fiddling with catheters, enemas and what-all, for those who’d lost the muscles to keep themselves clean. Sometimes it seemed the whole town was there. My best friend Lynn, Lynn Jones, liked to say, "Everyone’s run off to join the Circus." The schools closed for the duration of the epidemic, so all my friends lent a hand — some working long hours, others coming in skittish for twenty minutes, then disappearing when the stink and suffering became too much to bear.

I could stand the stench; it was the death that squeezed in on me. Our patients’ hearts turning to motionless meat. Diaphragms going slack. Digestive systems no longer pushing food through the intestines, and people rotting from the inside out. Eight weeks after Dads read me that first medical notice, Ooloms started to die in the Circus… and they died and they died and they died.


In those days, I slept with my habitat dome set one-way transparent so I could see outside. Roof and walls were wholly invisible, and I’d moved my room far apart from other bubble-domes in our compound, so their lights scarcely reached me. Bed at night was like lying in open air, vulnerable to storms and stars.

My mother (who grew up mainstream and oh-so-proper on New Earth) thought only sluts slept clear. She couldn’t stop making remarks about her "exhibitionist" daughter; she was fair frantic-sure I pranced naked around my room, pretending people could peer in as easily as I could peer out.

That they could see me. That I wanted them to see.

Just my mother’s feverish imagination. The death-filled weeks of the plague had sent her spiraling into shrill neurosis, where she believed everything I did had some perverse sexual subtext. Truth was, I kept my dome one-way clear so I could tell if an Oolom crash-landed nearby. I hated the thought of a paralyzed body caught in the honey bushes outside my habitat. Not that I was stirred by concern for some poor person suffering… I just got the cold icks, worrying there might be a limp, corpselike thing lying unseen on the other side of my wall.

One morning, it happened: a gray drizzly dawn, with the rain beading and runneling down the dome, making a soft patter that keeps you in a fuzz between waking and sleep. Lovely. Dreamy. Then something slapped against the clear roof of my room.

The sound barely penetrated my doze. Gradually I became aware the timbre of the rain had changed, now spittering off wet-washed skin rather than the dome’s invisible structure field. I opened my eyes…

…and found myself staring up at an Oolom woman, plastered against the dome like a drenched sheet on glass. Her face was spread wide as if she were screaming.