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Jurassic and the Great Tree

Outside, it is like any other spaceport, any other planet. The sky is a high grey, touched with saffron, the surrounding hills ragged and tinged with the green of vegetation. The air is cool but despite this it is good to be free of the cloying atmosphere of the lander. I assume it must also feel as good to Rafe and Cezarro, but just now they are quiet, and I feel for a moment that the body is mine.

A two-tiered bus is skimming towards the 'port, along a narrow road which leads back to the city of Lupert-Grijns; around us our fellow passengers start an uncoordinated drift away from the lander. Lupert-Grijns is Pavonis Minor's main population centre, situated eighteen degrees north where the equatorial land-mass thrusts out like Hokusai's wave, sloughing off a spray of islands along its course. It is a city approaching its 150th year, founded by the second influx of settlers; the first immigrants, landing farther to the south, had been less successful, the survivors patchily distributed and rapidly reverting to a savage barbarism. It is the descendants of this first colonisation attempt that we have come to observe. They call themselves the Burul'chasi and they live in the depths of the equatorial jungle. They have successfully resisted intrusion into their territories for many years, yet now they want us to come, now they want us to see. "Only one man," they said, through their intermediary. "Only one man may come." And so we three are here, riding in the body of one.

A Pavonian emerges, laughing, from the settling bus and comes across, smiling ingratiatingly. He is a head shorter than us, with shaggy hair and a patchy, adolescent beard. I can sense that both Cezarro and Rafe dislike him immediately. I remain neutral.

The man speaks and his words take a strange form, but still I understand. Language is a shared neural centre and Pavonian is Rafe's — and therefore Cezarro's and my — native tongue. "Welcome, Jurassic — " the name belongs to our current employer; we have no legal status, no single name " — I am Silas Breir, representative of the Lupert-Grijns Select. I am to be your guide."

A city councillor, although his youthful and shabby appearance conforms with none of the usual stereotypes. That one so young could attain such office implies either an unusual resourcefulness or, perhaps, that the Select does not come high on the Pavonian political hierarchy.

We follow Breir onto the bus and indulge in the polite inconsequences that form the basis of social introduction almost everywhere, according to Cezarro, our ethnologist and social interpreter. Cezarro is full of insights and penetrative analysis and he is the most willing of us all to share his wisdom. He attributes this to his Capellan up-bringing, although it is possible that he only uses this explanation as a means to remind us of his aristocratic background.

But he rarely goes much further: for each of us our biographies are sketchy in much of the detail — in squeezing three personae into a single cranium a degree of editing takes place and one is left only with the psychologic forms which underpin one's essence, one's identity. Each of us is a me without the specifics. We have both mother and father, but they have no faces, no names (except for Cezarro, as the family name carries such psychological significance for him); they merge into our mental landscapes, our psychoforms.

More recent details are there: my technical command of the skills of reportage is comprehensive, my knowledge of human history is both broad and detailed. I even have specific memories from assignments I have undertaken in my other self, my whole self — riding with the resource adventurers of Umbriel and Miranda, uncovering the human-anthrocine chimera experiments on Tau Ceti IV, tagging the Martian cyborg gangs. Somewhere, that me is alive and utterly discrete, an individual living off the proceeds of selling his talents in this way. Yet here, on Sigma Pavonis Minor, I am still me, if somewhat less so.

Cezarro disputes my view of our condition. He argues that we have no self, no set of selves: we are mere analogues, filling a shared body. We are here for a task — to observe the Burul'chasi, the descendants of the first colonists, and to file our reports with both our employer and our contractee in Lupert-Grijns. Afterwards we will be re-assigned and this body will be destroyed. We are a tool of Jurassic Informatic, no more. Cezarro enjoys these debates; he immerses himself and revels in attempting to undermine my self-belief, accusing me of diluting my professionalism with pop-philosophy. And all the while, Rafe sits back, remote. For practical reasons, we inhabit one specially developed body, one control-grown brain, yet we remain discrete; no more intimate, in many ways, than a man and his marriage partner. Consequently, my knowledge of Rafe is limited: I know that he comes from a pastoral family on the northern fringe of the jungle, that he professes distaste for the Pavonian lifestyle; yet here he is — or here is his analogue — returning, his nervous enthusiasm so strong that it breaks the bounds of our mental blockades, giving our shared body an adrenalin high.

Within minutes, we are at the edge of Lupert-Grijns and Breir informs us that we are to spend the night in the city. "What else?" says Cezarro. It would be foolish to set out into the jungle at this hour.

All eight of Pavonis Minor's hotels are to be found around the commercial and administrative centre of Lupert-Grijns; five of them have been constructed or converted in the two years since the Consolidation Treaty re-opened the planet to the interstellar community. Our room in the V-K Splendide is adequate but unremarkable. It will be useful to relax, to discuss what is to come, to prepare.


Evening fell sharply, and sooner than I had hoped. Now Silas Breir escorts us to a gambling house where we are to be introduced to Carnegie Voller. "He has control of Voller-Kalder," Breir tells us. Voller-Kalder is one of the planet's largest family-business combines, which means Carnegie Voller is highly placed in the grey area behind the planet's President-Select-regional council power hierarchy.

"He has political influence?" I ask, testing to see how much Breir knows, how much he chooses to share with us.

Breir shrugs, then shakes his head. "He would think so, perhaps, but ... " Which means yes, of course. "He is a less positive facet to the Pavonian story," Breir continues. "I am not sure why he asks to see you."

I choose to say nothing, but Cezarro speaks up. "He hired us," he says, and he chuckles inside our head at the discomfort written on Breir's features. It is not entirely true that Voller hired us — our contract is between Jurassic and the Lupert-Grijns regional council — but the deal was instigated by Voller's private office.

"A representative of the Select cannot be aware of everything," Breir says, as we thread our way through the casino to Voller's private wing. "I hope my words will not be misinterpreted."

Carnegie Voller is a slightly overweight man of middling years. When we see him he is wearing a formal white body-stocking, softened by a grey tunic and gloves. His black hair is tied back with a length of silk ribbon and his stare is penetrating. He has the manner of one accustomed to power and I can sense Cezarro warming to him immediately. Rafe hangs back, in our head, and we both acquiesce as Cezarro takes control. Although we are three discrete personae, our one body necessitates a form of consensual command: a bio-processor grown into our left cerebral cortex assimilates mental commands to the body's muscles and assesses the correct response. Thus, if one of us wants to speak, or to walk, or to jump, and the others are compliant, that one is in control and we speak, walk, jump; if there is a conflict of desires then the majority takes control — if Rafe and I wished to remain silent, Cezarro would be unable to say, as he does, "Mr Voller, it is so good to make your acquaintance."

Rafe and I let Cezarro and Voller establish an amicable relationship. I observe, as ever, noting that Breir hovers nervously in the background, occasionally eyeing the bodyguards placed strategically around Voller. At one point, while Voller is being consulted by one of his assistants, I ask Cezarro why he has taken such a liking to the Pavonian.

 — Kieran, my friend, he replies. It is a question of rapport, not one of like or dislike. You must open yourself, if you are to truly experience another world, or another person. You must immerse yourself if communication is to proceed.

He often speaks in such a vein, but this time I suspect that he is hiding something, a trait of his own of which perhaps even he is unaware. In short, I suspect him of simple snobbery, that he has recognised in Voller's casual authority an echo of his own noble origins. I do not communicate my suspicions. We have to live together, after all.

"The land the Burul'chasi occupy is high in mineral potential," says Voller, later. "We require full information about the region before any decisions are taken. You will report directly to me and, if necessary, I will go there myself. I am a participant, gentlemen — I get things done. This project is my personal concern. We are an expanding colony with expanding needs; more so since our Consolidation with the Interstitial community." He spreads his hands. "The potential of this region could be pivotal to Pavonis Minor's renaissance. We must consider the requirements of the entire Pavonian population."

 — And Voller-Kalder, adds Rafe.

Now I wonder if my cohabitee is politically motivated, but I keep my thoughts to myself. If he is, then he has kept it remarkably well concealed. I do not believe that his reason for returning to Pavonis Minor can be as simple as that. Anything unsavoury would have been screened out during our construction.

Voller's statement is the first indication that there was a commercial motive for hiring us to investigate the Burul'chasi people, although the cost of our deployment, alone, would indicate such a probability. At his words I felt, as so often, the momentary spark of protest, the hope that my skills are not to be put to a negative use, but I calmed my thoughts. Our observations, the pictures from our eyes, will be delivered to Voller, but simultaneously they will be transmitted to Jurassic Informatic for multi-media dissemination. Our observations will enter the public domain. If I have a single principle it is that knowledge should be spread, that data should be free. In that way, perhaps, I am an intellectual revolutionary.


This morning, Silas Breir came early to the hotel and watched as we ate breakfast. "What if your tastes conflict?" he asked, at one point. There was clearly a lot he would like to ask, if social propriety did not intervene.

"They do not," said Cezarro. "Not now." We spooned the chilled lentil stew into our mouth. "The social class structure of Capella Gregoria forbids me to eat pulses," he continued, gesturing at our meal, "but that ethic was not copied into the analogue that rides this body." Knowing our body so well, I detected Cezarro's sneer, but I doubt that Breir noticed. Cezarro is such a snob.

The city streets were thronged with people, out early for their work. Market traders, garbage compilers, goods being transported on horse-drawn carts. Levels of technology were low, in general — a sign of Pavonis Minor's traditionally isolationist politics, Cezarro observed. Before setting out we had dressed in a protective skin-suit: complete environmental isolation from the chin down, it allowed the body to breathe and moisture to pass out but nothing could enter unless the outfit's fabric was breached. Breir wore his normal clothing along with a pair of gauntleted leather gloves he produced as we approached the docks. Our attire attracted a ripple of curious glances, following us from street to street.

Now, we sit in the boat, soothed by the throb of its engines and the chatter of the two man crew. The estuary is several hours behind us and the vegetation growing in the River Burul's shallows has steadily changed as the acidity has crept upwards. The estuary, where the acid was regularly diluted by tidal inflow, had been fringed with Terran reeds and succulents, their rich greenness at odds with the gentler hues native to Pavonis Minor.

 — Spikes of wavering-grass grow up from twisting masses of racemose moss, says Rafe, contributing the native's commentary as I focus on the nearest bank. Our eyes are tank-grown, giving a precision normally only available with non-biological optics. A memory chip, located where the optic nerve interfaces with our brain, saves the images; auditory, tactile and olfactory data can also be stored. We are a recording machine.

 — The clusters of small flowers you can see are, in fact, seed pods which will be dropped into the river where the acid will break their shells and they will take root downstream. Nobody knows how they spread upstream.

This is all worthy stuff, and will no doubt be scrapped. Breir is sitting by us and now he breaks into our work. "You do not, I think, realise what an exclusive opportunity the Burul'chasi offer you."

He is clearly unaware that one of us is a native Pavonian and so we are fully aware of the opportunity afforded us. We have also been briefed. We wait for him to continue, as it is apparent he wants to say more.

"Very few Pavonians can enter Chasi territory in safety, you know. Perhaps a few of the Pastorals do — some even trade a little — but anyone from farther afield is at grave peril. And yet you come from the stars to record them. It took much effort to persuade them to allow you in."

"What are the dangers?" asks Cezarro.

"Individuals and teams have tried to penetrate the Burul'chasi jungle, but many have not returned. Voller-Kalder have sent in teams to assess resource potentials of the area, by air and by boat, and many report sabotage, ambush and even open aggression. That, presumably, is why they have hired you to report for them: to learn how to defeat the Chasi people and claim their territory."

The three of us consult, but we agree that, as our reports are agency property they will be a public commodity and, as such, we cannot be held responsible for use or misuse of publicly held information. I think it unlikely that Voller could gain in this way, in any case. I think, perhaps, he has merely tried to tackle an unknown in his own crude way and failed, so now he is casting for more information.

"The Burul'chasi are a fascinating people," says Breir. "Every native Pavonian feels an empathy with their ways and their intimacy with the great jungle."

"Even Voller?" asks Cezarro.

Breir thinks for a moment. "Perhaps especially Carnegie Voller. He has a lodge on the fringe of the jungle which he visits often. We are all drawn. There is something magical about the forest: you can feel it inside your head at times. If there is intelligent non-human life on Pavonis Minor I sometimes feel that the jungle must be the prime candidate ... " He looks embarrassed, suddenly, at having opened himself up to such an extent. "I wish I could accompany you," he says. "I would like to see the Chasi again."

It's clearly an intentional slip: his admission that he is one of the few to have gained access to the Burul'chasi. Perhaps he wishes to distract us from his lapse into airy mysticism.

"But they specified that only one person should come to observe them," says Cezarro, "and that that one person should be an outside reporter, someone from across the great Interstice of space."

"No," says Breir, apparently enjoying his disclosure. "Their messenger added that specification in order to ensure that the situation on Pavonis Minor should be disseminated as widely as possible, and therefore that any assault on the Chasi — by Voller or whoever — would also be a public affair. They took a great deal of persuasion."

During our conversation with Breir I have become aware of something new in Rafe's familiar nervous tension. Presumably it is because he is now in his home territory, a region he left some years ago for reasons of his own. I decide not to press him.

The jungle is rising on either side of the river and the heat has become intense. The only Terran lifeforms that persist this far south are the hordes of tiny hunchbacked mosquitoes which hang over the river's surface, making the occasional foray towards the boat in search of sustenance. The trees are a mere ten or so metres in height here, but their spread is immense. Each trunk is perhaps forty metres from its nearest neighbour, but its branches begin from near its base and spread vigorously outwards, merging with each other so that it is impossible to identify the extent of a single tree. I think again of Breir's words. It is as if the jungle is a single organism, anchored at regular intervals by these wide-boled trunks. Rafe informs us that the pattern repeats itself below the ground, with the roots running together like the branches. It is immediately obvious why we enter the Burul'chasi jungle by boat.

One of the crew comes forward and gestures at the sky, now heavy with bulging brown clouds. "It will rain," he says simply.

We shelter together towards the rear, under the boat's single canopy. The rain will be almost as acid as the river Burul's waters. Perhaps not potent enough to do any lasting damage, but still enough to cause a degree of discomfort. We sit and watch the rain and the passing jungle, and in our head I marvel at how the mosquitoes still dance unharmed over the river's surface.


We are on our own now. The boat deposited us in a clearing over an hour ago and left with Breir's reminder echoing back across the water that he would return for us as soon as we called. A trail led away from the clearing and we are now following it, relying on Rafe's knowledge to ensure that we do not trigger the defences of any of the dangerous plants which are occasionally to be found.

Eventually, Rafe picks out a sound from the background hisses and crackles of the vegetation and the invertebrate life and we know that we have found them, or that they have found us.

We turn carefully, hands held palm outwards, twisting at the waist. Two men occupy the trail ten metres back. One holds a spear, ready to throw. They are both about our height, with lean, athletic bodies, clothed only in loin cloths and arm-bands. Leaves are tied into the hair that grows from patches on the back of their heads and their skin is —

Cezarro is panicking. It feels like moths are trapped inside our skull, beating at its interior, trying to find a way out. He has noticed their skin, or perhaps their spears. No ... it is definitely their skin.

It must be the acid — it falls as rain, native plants trap and concentrate it for defence and predation, it runs in all of the jungle's rivers and streams — it must be the acid that scars them so. I look at the native who stands, spear resting on the ground. His ears are reduced to mere stubs, his nose has been eaten entirely away. His eyelids are absent so that he constantly stares through watering eyes, the tears running down over the rough scar-tissue landscape of his cheeks. His lips are ragged and partially dissolved, so that he wears a permanent snarl, made all the more threatening by the gaps in his teeth.

We had been warned of the effects of life in the Burul'chasi jungle but there had been no images to make it real. We are the first reporter to get this close.

For myself, I find their appearance interesting but not disturbing. I am a neutral observer, I have seen far worse. But there is something more ... something I cannot quite identify. Cezarro is over his initial reaction and is now pretending that it never happened. And now I realise why my feelings are tinged with something else: Rafe. Our partner is expressing a peculiar mix of emotions — fear, yes, but there is a memory there, a feeling of nostalgia and, perhaps, longing — and they are seeping over to affect me and, I presume, Cezarro. In theory such a thing should not happen: within our single cranium we are still three people, or three analogues according to Cezarro. We do not know each other's thoughts or feelings. But then, emotion is not purely a mental thing, it is endocrinal, cardiac, pulmonary: it is a whole-body experience, a state of arousal to be interpreted and promoted by the mental processes of the brain. Perhaps it is through our shared body that Rafe's feelings seep out.

My two partners swivel the body again, so that our eyes take in four more Chasi who have appeared ahead of us on the trail. Rafe speaks, our language different again, although some Pavonian words are common to the Chasi dialect: "We are the Jurassic. We were brought by the Silas Breir along the majestic-river Burul. We are a part of the Great Tree of Life." As we speak, that final phrase brings to me a sense of oneness, a religious impulse, a feeling of awe. I don't know whether it has seeped over our barriers or the feeling is my own. I realise that Rafe must have seen people like this before, although he has clearly never been one of them, himself. There is also a feeling of repulsion, emanating from Cezarro. I resist both feelings and strive for neutrality; I concentrate on our eyes, ensuring that the scene is recorded as effectively as possible.

"You would be dead already if that was not so," says one of the Chasi. He turns and heads off along the trail so we follow and, in turn, are followed by the two who had initially appeared behind us. It would appear that we have little choice.


The village of the Burul'chasi is an impressive creation. There is a central tree trunk which is decorated with leaves and bones and appears to have some deep spiritual importance. They call it simply the Tree, as opposed to the Great Tree, which is the name they give the forest. Where branches grow from the base of the Tree they have been guided up and then across at a height of a little over two metres; here they form an intricate canopy, branches criss-crossing, twigs intertwined, the hair-like air-roots woven into a fine lacework, all filled out by a mass of leaves and buds and new shoots. The ground beneath is dry, as if rain has not penetrated the canopy for decades. In places, branches have been drawn downwards to form partitions and screens, private areas for family groups, a men's room, a women's room, a holy booth for what appears to be some kind of shaman-cum-leader.

No one has spoken to us since we arrived at this settlement, except to say that we must stay away from the shaman's booth. "I know," Rafe told them, but since then he has been silent. I am a little worried by him, but I do not know what we can do; perhaps it is more a worry for him — this journey has clearly been an emotional one. What I do know is that his local knowledge has already proven both invaluable and informative. I ask Cezarro what he is thinking and he replies,

 — Look at the women. They dress just like the men — a loin cloth, a set of arm-bands — yet look at their skin, their hair.

He is right. It is true that they, too, are scarred by acid-burns; but as I had noticed on our arrival, the extent of the damage is far less extreme. Their ears, eye-lids, lips and noses are intact, their scalp has not been burned away in uneven patches, their bodies are marked but not heavily disfigured. Their scarring, on the whole, is more superficial than that of their male counterparts. The children, too, are barely marked. Our eyes record this fact, and Cezarro asks me what I think.

 — It is not my place to think, I tell him. I observe.

 — Nobody is your perfect neutral observer, he replies. We all must think. Perhaps they never leave the settlement? Could that be it?

But my powers of observation are more refined than Cezarro's. I am a professional. I have noted already that the women are constantly coming and going along the various trails that branch out from the settlement. They return with fruit and dead animals and sloshing buckets; they are not a protected élite. I ask Rafe for more information but he refuses to reply, so I return to my observations, my recording, and Cezarro watches the women.


We have been here for five of the long Pavonian days and we are on the verge of a notable breakthrough.

Our presence is still begrudged but now the Chasi are more accustomed to us following them, recording their conversations, their actions. Cezarro has come into his own. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the diversity of human cultures both informs his commentaries and yields him insights that are hidden from me, the observer. He is able to note a gesture, to spot its echo in others, to classify a whole range of body language that has evolved since the Burul'chasi and their relative groups throughout this jungle branched away from the human mainstream over 180 standard years ago. We have observed the activities of the settlement's shaman; we have listened to his sermons and commandments and from this Cezarro has pieced together an idea of the spiritual life of the Burul'chasi. The jungle, the Great Tree, is central to their beliefs. It gives life and it nurtures them and teaches them and finally it returns them to the soil. Cezarro says this is fundamentally a Christian ideal, with the pagan symbol of the Great Tree as a God-surrogate. In his view of this matter I detect a cultural bias: an implication that the Chasi are primitives and therefore mistaken. I had never suspected that cynical Cezarro might have religious leanings, somewhere in the depths of our mind.

This morning something important is happening and, although we were not invited, we follow and have not yet been turned away.

We woke to the sound of female voices, raised in a jarring cacophony which threatened to befuddle our senses. We sleep in the open so as soon as we awoke we were able to survey the settlement and establish that the women had gathered in one of the larger enclosures, which they were sealing off with a branch drawn down from the canopy. The settlement's children were in another enclosure, listening to an old man's story.

Our head jerked towards the shaman's booth and we saw that the men were gathered there, beginning to process out along one of the trails, led by the shaman and a group of adolescent boys.

All in agreement, we rose and followed.

The procession was brief, punctuated only — in our head — by Cezarro's observation that this was clearly some kind of rite of passage: these boys would become men today.

 — If they are brave, said Rafe, before returning to his customary silence.

It was then that I began to feel uneasy.

Now, we stand in a small clearing, sky above us for the first time since our journey along the river Burul. I try to remain calm, detached. I try to remain unaffected by Cezarro's excitement and Rafe's indecipherable feelings, but it is hard, with our body humming with adrenalin, our heart thumping, our skin prickling beneath its protective suit.

I concentrate on observing, on recording. I swivel our body at the hips to take in the jungle rising behind us, around us and, after about forty metres, ahead of us.

The clearing occupied by this group of men and boys is uneven and rocky, overgrown in places by a bristly green mat which exudes acid underfoot. Between the far side of the clearing and the return of the jungle there is a pool, fringed by one or two wisps of vegetation but otherwise apparently lifeless. A mound rises by the pool and now the shaman pauses before it.

He gives a signal and, as the men and boys form a semi-circle around him, they begin to chant, a deep sound that reverberates through the rock and up into our body, matching the pace of our heart, the blood in our arteries and veins.

We stop at the fringe of the semi-circle and watch as the shaman crouches and lowers cupped hands into the pool. A boy steps forward and squats before his elder. He gives a faint whimper as the cupped hands open over his head, the liquid runs down onto his scalp, and his hair begins to melt. He stifles his cries as more of the pool's acid is poured over his head. Somehow the shaman's hands are unharmed by the process; presumably the scar tissue is so thick as to be protective.

Cezarro says something about the expressions of compassion on the watching men's faces. He is right. They have all been through this themselves. The term he uses is savage nobility, and for a moment I see what he means, before I return to observing, and Cezarro to his commentary. He says that this is not an unheard of phenomenon: the mental strength necessary to survive the rite, the respect and acceptance it earns, is a common currency of status right across the human spectrum. Some of the ritual scarifications practised on pre-exodus Earth were far more severe, he says.

Now, the shaman has baptised four of the seven boys. The man we have identified as his understudy has started a second stage of this rite. He reaches into a bucket and comes up with a handful of a thick, greasy substance. The first boy — his expression now glazed over with resolve — removes his loin cloth and the man smears the boy's genitals with his grease. Our body flinches at that, but the substance does not appear to burn or to do any harm at all. Cezarro says this stage must have some kind of fertility significance.

We watch, we wait, as the last of the boys has his genitals daubed. I wonder what will happen next.

The men change their chant to a faster one and I can sense Rafe's intense anxiety, the urge to run, to flee. I realise that he has witnessed this ritual before and as his emotions flood our body I sense that on that occasion he had, indeed, fled.

We stand still, at the fringe of the group of men and the now separate group of burnt and daubed boys.

The first boy clambers up the mound, the shaman barks a command and the boy jumps clear of the mound, out over the still pool. He screams as he breaks the mirror surface, and then his scream is cut off as he is entirely submerged.

My calm neutrality is finally shattered. I want to do something but our body does not respond, my impulses being over-ridden by my two partners.

 — Observe, says Cezarro. Understand.

His voice simply adds to my discomfort.

The second boy jumps and then the first returns to the surface, limp at first, then moving, slowly. The pool cannot be deep as he appears to be standing with the burning liquid up to his waist. The second boy rises and, as the third jumps from the mound, the first two struggle back to the bank. As they pull clear of the pool, the extent of the damage becomes painfully apparent and still I am anchored to the ground.

The skin of each boy has been almost entirely eaten away except, apparently, for that area protected by the daubing of the shaman's assistant. They are both a mass of raw flesh, bone showing through their hands and feet, teeth exposed. Somehow, when they are clear of the pool they remain standing, supporting each other as the shaman showers them with some kind of dust. The third boy escapes the pool more rapidly and is less seriously burnt.

I watch in horror as the fourth, fifth, and sixth boys dive from the mound and struggle out anew, as men, not boys. The seventh has watched the others and, standing on the mound, is clearly terrified. He jumps and screams, and then has trouble standing and has to be hauled from the pool by the shaman and his assistant.

My professional detachment has fled me and I am immensely grateful that the whole thing is over. I start to voice that thought in our head for the others when I realise that something has changed.

Our body begins to move and I sense that it is Rafe in control. I query my partners and all Cezarro says is,

 — Observe, my friend. Just observe.

I start to panic as Rafe reaches for the release hasp of our skin-suit and starts to unpeel our protective layer. I ... I think I know what he ...

We reach for the bucket and smear our sexless crotch with the shaman's protective grease and I struggle to seize control of our body. We stagger, remain upright, as I fight Rafe for control. Nearby, one of the boys has finally collapsed.

Why isn't Cezarro helping? What does he think he's doing?

We straighten as Cezarro finally intervenes. My gratitude towards him is tempered by anger that he took so long to join me in overpowering Rafe. And then we step towards the mound.

 — What are you doing? I scream into the void of our head.

 — This isn't our body, says Cezarro quietly. It is a vehicle. We are not us — we are merely analogue reproductions of selected parts of our real selves. We have nothing to lose.

The coolness of his voice shocks me. Horrifies me. We climb the mound and look around at the silent men of the Burul'chasi.

 — The only way to understand a culture is to merge with it, to become one with its ideals and its ways. Believe me, Kieran: this is the way to comprehension.

We step to the front of the mound and look out over the mirror surface of the pool. There is nothing I can do. Our body is in Rafe's hands.

We breathe in, hold the air in our lungs, and jump.


Time has lost its footing. Pain is so familiar as to have shrugged off all meaning. We survive. Here, in our skull, we survive.

I am not aware of how long we have been like this.

We are in a camp apart from the main settlement of the Tree. But the Great Tree is around us, protecting us, and for that we are grateful. We are tended by the shaman and a small group of adult males who are not true men. They bear only the scars of the rain and the plants, they never passed to manhood in the pool of life. They nurse us, soothing our burns with ointments and powders and damp leaves from the Great Tree. For that, too, I am grateful.

Although I have tried, I am unable to recall anything after we jumped from that mound and the mirror-surfaced pool was suddenly below us. It is all blank. It is purely a mental thing: every detail will be recorded on our storage chip but we are unable to access it — professional facilities are required for that.

As time has progressed in its erratic way I have decided to be grateful for that memory gap. The body remembers, that is enough.

I know I have ranted and raged, here in our single cranium. To that the only response was Cezarro's gentle reassurance that this is the only way to know, the only way to see. Cezarro merely frustrates me, but he did break through to Rafe, on one occasion. All he said was,

 — Why?

 — I was brought up in the Meth'uran settlements, farming on the fringes of existence. I didn't like it, I wanted to be free.

His words and sentences were spaced out and awkward, but once he had started Rafe was unable to stop. He continued,

 — It's the trees ... the Great Tree. Everyone who knows the jungle knows the pull of it, the need to be a part of it. It calls to you. Maybe in that respect I was no different to everyone else. I explored. Each time I went deeper, deeper, until finally I made contact with the Burul'chasi — not this group, another, many kilometres away — and eventually I earned their acceptance ... and then they led me out with a group of other boys and ... and I couldn't do it. I ran. They let me go, I had failed. I lived in Lupert-Grijns, and then when the Interstitial ships came I worked my passage out.

I wondered how his desire to return and do what he had done had survived the persona selection and compression we had all undergone in order to be fitted into this one body. I voiced my query and Cezarro replied with a question of his own,

 — Did you plan to do this, Rafe?

The silence was enough for me to realise that the only way such a suicidal urge could have survived intact was if it had been hidden even from its originator. Finally, Rafe spoke again.

 — I have done it, he said. Now I am Chasi.

 — We all did it, said Cezarro.

 — We? I? said Rafe. What is the difference?

And Cezarro could not reply.


I have been delirious, here in the bosom of the Great Tree. Visions have come and gone, like dreams, only more so, or less so; or analogues of dreams, Cezarro might say. The branches of the Great Tree have engulfed me, swept me up, and my body has felt blissfully cool and at peace. I have been dashed against the ground, against the banks of the river Burul. I have been dragged out of their snug embrace, born again into a world that is immediately alien, immediately familiar. I have been a young, aristocratic man, persevering with my studies even though I have always felt there was more to life than learning, that there was experience, that the universe was out there, waiting to be lived. I have been an adolescent running, fearfully, through an awful, frightening jungle, losing my way, struggling, suffering acid burns from the plants I stumble against, even as I run from a fear of pain. I have been a young reporter, watching slaughter and injustice on planet after planet and doing nothing because I am neutral, uninvolved.

I surface in order to eat and be tended. Cezarro and Rafe are no better. We three suffer in unison. Rafe repeats yet again that he has done it, whatever it is, but Cezarro contradicts him.

 — No, Rafe, my friend, he says. We are doing it now. This is where we become Burul'chasi. This is "it".

 — We're not Burul'chasi, I say. We are independent. We are observers. We have to report.

 — Can't you feel the Great Tree? asks Rafe. Can't you feel it embracing our mind?

I think of those cool branches, soothing me, engulfing me. I remember feelings of empathy with a beneficent sentience too all-encompassing to fully comprehend. I don't know what it means. I remember the delirium we suffered following our construction and wonder if it has recurred. I try not to think. I am merely an observer.

 — Everybody feels it, continues Rafe. Or at least a trace of it. That's why we're all so drawn towards the jungle. We all want to be one with the Great Tree, with the world. Some of us fight it, some of us flee ... and some are so scared they lash out and attempt to destroy it.

 — Voller, says Cezarro.

 — We have to get out and report, I say, trying to remind ourself of our duties. I cannot cope with all this debate. I have to remain neutral.

 — Impossible, says Cezarro. We are Burul'chasi. We cannot leave. It is not allowed.


I don't know what to think. I'm not sure I know how to think any more. There is truth in what we say, what we think. I have seen the things Cezarro and Rafe have seen but I still believe them to be delusions, a part of the recovery process. One has to remain rational.

I have to be honest with myself and admit to the awful compulsion to assimilate with the Burul'chasi, to become a part of the Great Tree. I try to think of reasons, of psychotropic secretions that addict us to the jungle, of vast, alien organisms that can grow over hectares and hectares and communicate with humanity through visions and dreams. It is all so fantastical. I sometimes feel that I have come close to the truth, but if so, I am barely skimming the surface. I feel that if there is any truth then it is far too big a Truth to be encompassed by a single human mind such as our own.

We are walking now, and have been accepted back into the settlement of the Tree. Our body has healed with remarkable speed — the shaman and his assistant must be skilled in the arts of healing — and there is even a sense of vitality lurking in our every movement. We have passed through an awful trauma and now we are strong. There is little, after this, that can daunt us.

I remain, detached within our skull. Trying to understand, and never quite grasping what has happened.

Cezarro and Rafe have rediscovered a sense of purpose. They know that if we do not return to Lupert-Grijns, then Voller will lose patience and might attempt something we would all regret. He must not attack the Great Tree, mineral resources or no.


We found the transmitter on our old suit and called Silas Breir. He was ready for us, even though we had been some weeks longer than expected. He said he was glad we had called because Carnegie Voller was getting impatient. Then he added that he was also glad that we had survived, although he had never doubted we would. The shaman had taken some persuasion before he would let us leave, but he had finally given his consent.

When we climbed onto the boat Breir studied our appearance for a long time, before nodding and giving the command to start up to the boat's driver. Back in Lupert-Grijns he provided the facilities we requested — an editing console so that we could manipulate our recording — and then he brought us here to the offices of Voller-Kalder.

Carnegie Voller is in his favoured body-stocking and tunic. He flicks his tail of hair back over his shoulder and tips his chair, appraising our ravaged visage over steepled fingers. I remember his words at our first meeting: "I am a participant, gentlemen. I get things done." He nods slowly and then voices a command to his desk. The formalities are over and he is eager to view our report.

He plays it on a wide wall-screen, skimming forward through the jumbled succession of background shots and natural history commentaries. He wants to see the Burul'chasi. He wants to understand them. He wants them — it is so obvious — out of his way.

He reaches our first encounter on the trail to the Tree and I can see that he is fascinated and appalled. I can sense that he is drawn — the Rafe in me recognises the feeling. And the Cezarro speaks.

"They are weak," we say. "They are there for the taking." It is our duty to report to Carnegie Voller, it is our professional ethic. He hired us.

Voller skims onward through our first few days and then to the initiation. It is here that Silas Breir's console has been put to use. We try not to betray our tension. The screen shows the boys being baptised, their heads doused in the holy water of the pool. It shows the men looking on. The viewpoint shifts until we stand on the mound.

I do not dare look at Voller. Either he is hooked or we have failed. An analysis of the report will reveal our editing but we expect him to be too eager to commission one.

The viewpoint jumps, hits the pool, goes black.

At last we meet Voller's eyes and know that he has not spotted the joins. "Our sight went at that point," we say. "Currently we can see, but not record. It can be fixed, if necessary."

"And you say they treat you like a god, now?" He still harbours doubts, naturally.

"I would not be so extreme, sir," says Cezarro. "But they granted our every wish. Total immersion made us so much more holy than mere baptism, we believe. The shaman has potions that hastened our healing — we only took so long to return because we enjoyed the sense of authority so much." We smile.

"You think I could do it?" It was unexpected for his arrogance to lapse in this way.

"I did it," says Cezarro. "Fear is understa — "

Voller's arrogance snapped back into place. I recognised it: it was so Capellan. The idea that we could do something that was beyond Carnegie Voller was inconceivable.

"And a body can always be repaired," says Cezarro.

As Voller snaps commands to his assistant, we know, now, for certain, that he will accompany us back to the home of the Burul'chasi, that he will immerse himself in the pool of life and then, without a doubt, he will embark on the self-learning that is central to the healing process. And when the Great Tree has embraced him, when it has shared the shape of his mind and opened him to the wonder of all existence ... then he will be Burul'chasi and the jungle will be safe again, for a time. We close our eyes and picture him jumping and now the Great Tree within us is content.



Multiple personalities in a single body; this is an idea I returned to in my 2009 novel The Accord. This story came from a very simple proposition: with three personalities in one body, what happens if two want to do something and the other one doesn't? It's also one of the rare stories where I've written about sentient aliens, in this case the Great Tree. The main reason for this reluctance to tackle one of science fiction's staples is that I tend to find it hard to sustain my own belief in any aliens for the duration of a story; they tend to end up seeming plain silly or, at best, not convincing. In this one the alien is mostly off-stage, mysterious — my solution was to write about aliens by only ever writing about them tangentially. In more recent stories, I've tackled aliens full-on, but it has taken me twenty years to get there.

As well as being a story of aliens, this is an Interstitial Space story. Most SF authors have some kind of flimsy justification/explanation for faster-than-light travel, which they'll wheel out wherever it's necessary for a story; my starships use interstitial drives, jumping through the gaps in space-time. This has never formed a central part of one of my stories, but is rather part of the backdrop for stories where rapid interstellar travel has been required — shorthand that glosses over the mechanism without distracting from the story, I hope.

The passing reference to "the human-anthrocine experiments on Tau Ceti IV" turned into another Kieran Connor story, included elsewhere in this collection. I've always intended to write more of his stories, but for now there are just the two of them. I have a soft spot for him, though, and I'm sure I'll come back to him before too long. That's one of the nice things about putting a book like this together: it sparks so many more ideas.

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