Oct 23, 2016

Gharks and Hoos

cover art by Darrell Sweet
The Alastor star cluster was an invention of Jack Vance. One of the 3,000 inhabited planets of Alastor cluster is Marune. In his novel, Marune: Alastor 933, Vance introduced us to Efraim, ruler of the Rhune realm of Scharrode.

The ending of Marune: Alastor 933 is a tease; we are left wondering about the futures of Efraim and Maerio. Efraim and Maerio have been happily united as a Trismet, the closest Rhune equivalent of a married couple, but their future is uncertain. At the end of Vance's story, Maerio asks, "Will we be content to live as Rhunes?"

Fan Fiction Disease
I've previously imagined events on Marune and in Alastor cluster that take place after the events described by Vance in Marune: Alastor 933. The idea is that Alastor cluster was a kind of gigantic genetics workshop where a concerted effort was made to find human gene combinations that would allow humans to take control of the Bimanoid Interface.

If Efraim carries a special set of genes that allow him to make use of his Phari ensosymbiont, then there must also be an interesting story that explains the origin of Efraim and his special genetic endowment. I like to imagine that this is a story that was first told in the Ekcolir Reality.....

Gharks and Hoos
in the Ekcolir Reality
Efraim stood on the Grand Balcony of Seilneuthur Keep and rested a hand on the crumbling stone of the parapet. Beyond the Keep was a high, almost hidden nook of the green valley of Scharrode. A wall of snow-crusted peaks lay before Efraim, providing a bright backdrop to one of the many lovely places in the Rhune realm that would, at some time in the future, be his to command and lead.

Efraim did not like to think about the approaching time when he would become the 80th Kaiark of the realm. That would be the day of the death of Jochaim, Efraim's father.

Efraim had been a frequent visitor to Seilneuthur Keep ever since he had first discovered its hidden importance and learned of its secret function. In a cavern below the Keep was the factory where gliders were manufactured for the warriors of Scharrode.

Seilneuthur Keep was well-haunted, a home to thousands of ghosts. Those ghosts were all that remained of the many men who had, down through the centuries, given their lives to defend this fortress. Only a very few of those dead soldiers, the Kangs and Kaiarks, had ever known the full strategic importance of Seilneuthur Keep. Efraim imagined that he could feel the eyes of those ghosts glancing at him and peering over his shoulders.

Two years previously, the Kaiark Jochaim had told Efraim the truth about the hidden function of Seilneuthur Keep, but he had not revealed to Efraim the secret entrance to the glider factor. Efraim had spent much time unsuccessfully searching for a way into the hidden cavern below the Keep, and now he was resigned to waiting just a few more days until the time when he was scheduled to receive from Jochaim his first briefing as an adult Kang of the realm. Efraim's thoughts swirled with wonder and expectation at the many secrets of the realm he would learn from his father. Somewhat nervous over the prospects of soon having to take on adult responsibilities, Efraim had come to the remote Seilneuthur Keep in order to enjoy some peace and quiet away from the bustling activity of Benbuphar Strang and preparations for the investiture ceremony that would formalize his rank as Kang of the realm.

Suddenly, Efraim heard a familiar voice in his mind: "I've already given you hints about the general nature and scope of the secrets that Jochaim has yet to reveal to you." Efraim spun around, looking for his ghark. In the distance he could see several watchmen on their patrols, but no wobbly apparition. "I'm right here."

Efraim turned and saw the ghark, floating in midair just beyond the parapet. Her pointy teeth glistened like icicles and the wind seemed to stretch and smear the magical material of her body. Her lips never moved when she spoke: her thoughts penetrated directly into Efraim's brain. Efraim knew that he need not speak, but he felt it was important to emphasize the fact that he was a man, a corporeal being, so he spoke out-loud to the ghark. Efraim asked, "Why must you disturb me now, O wicked beast of the fo mur?"

The ghark was amused by Efraim's name-calling. "Just the usual, my lad. I've been watching your future and I'm forced to make another correction to your life."

Long ago, Efraim had tried to tell his mother, Alferica, about the ghark. She had warned him not to speak of gharks and hoos and to shun them when they appeared. She had said, "If you ignore a ghark then it will stop bothering you." Then Alferica had died and his ghark was able to bring Efraim news from Alferica's ghost. Given that tenuous connection to his mother, Efraim never learned to shun his ghark. In fact, he had come to view her as a kind of muse or guardian angel. He proudly proclaimed, "There's nothing wrong with my life."

The ghark smiled indulgently at Efraim. "Of course, you cannot possibly know what problems will soon arise. Five days hence, your father will show you how to enter into the glider factory that lies hidden below your feet."

Efraim suggested, "You could show me the secret entrance today."

"I could, but then Jochaim would have to waste time and effort moving the entrance out of fear that it is too easy to find." The floating wisps of the ghark snuggled close to Efraim and he felt her fluid-like touch; something that seemed to penetrate the skin and directly stimulate hidden nerves below. "You must ask your father about the link between Seilneuthur Keep and Cloudscape Castle, the home of your mother."

Efraim tried to imagine what that link might be, but his imagination faltered. "Why must you play these games? Just tell me now. Do you know some secret about my mother?"

The ghark pulled back and began to dissipate on the breeze. "One day I will tell you how your mother died and why."

Efraim shouted at the departing apparition, "Tell me now!"

A nearby guard heard Efraim's shout and sauntered by. He asked, "Is all well, my Lord?"

Somewhat embarrassed, Efraim asked the man, "Do you ever hear voices up here?"

The patrol guard was well past middle age. He set his heavy pike down, leaning it against the parapet and turned his weathered face towards the snow-covered peaks. He inhaled a deep breath and said, "I smell ghark."

Efraim said, "You know me; I am Efraim, your Kang. What is your name?"

The man replied, "I am Nebrin, of the Haulk clan."

Efraim half leaned, half sat against the parapet. "How long have you been stationed here?"

Nebrin replied, "Half a year, since I was transferred in from the Airline patrol squad." He smacked at his right leg, "I'm getting too old for climbing."

Efraim had just sprinted up the Airline trail that morning. For a moment he tried to imagine a far off future day when such a climb would cause his old joints to protest. "Do you often encounter gharks up here?"

Nebrin shook his head. "More often we are visited by a hoo... they seem to be fascinated by this place. But we must not speak of such things." Nebrin hoisted his pike and marched off on patrol.

Efraim wanted to ask why hoos should visit Seilneuthur Keep, but he decided he should respect the taboos of his people. Efraim decided that he would ask his father about the hoos and why they might be concerned about this particular fortress.

During the next period of Aud, Efraim encountered his father in their shared rooms at Benbuphar Strang. Jochaim sat at a large desk working on his Book of Deeds. Not approaching too near, so as to not risk seeing Jochaim's work, Efraim called out, "Good day, Jochaim."

Jochaim set down his pen and spun his chair. "Ah, Efraim. Where have you been hiding?"

Efraim replied, "I went for a walk. I spent a night at Seilneuthur Keep then came back via the East Ridge."

Jochaim asked, "How go the repairs at Gimwe Ravine?"

"I crossed via the bridge and then wished I hadn't. It is still precarious and less than half repaired."

Jochaim laughed and casually pulled the rolling cover across the work surface of his desk. He rose, stretched and approached his son. "I'd warn you to not take risks, but there's too much of your mother's stubbornness in your blood." For a moment Jochaim reflected on the qualities of Efraim's character: an odd mixture of mischievous curiosity and appreciation for the joy of living boldly in the moment. "Your mother would be ashamed of how I raised you."

Efraim was no good at keeping secrets. He'd made plans to hold his tongue, but after Jochaim's casual mention of his mother, he blurted out a pointed question, "Did you ever take Alferica to Seilneuthur Keep and show her the sailworks?"

A look of puzzlement came to Jochaim's face. "Why do you ask?"

"Please, father, don't deflect my question with another question. What is the connection between my mother and sail making?"

Jochaim threw himself down in a chair and rested his chin in his hand. "Very well, since you ask, I might as well tell you." He narrowed his eyes and gazed at Efraim until he also took a seat. "As you well know, your mother grew up at Cloudscape Castle, which is situated on the far western boundary of the realms. What you may not know is that her father was a creature with Majar ancestors."

Efraim was certain of his royal Rhune ancestry and startled by the idea that there was Majar blood in his immediate family. He bounced to his feet and shouted, "What?"

Jochaim raised a hand, "Calm yourself. Yes, you are genetically part Majar yourself, Efraim."

Efraim felt his heart racing. He demanded, "How is this possible?"

Jochaim shrugged, "Well, in fact, it all goes back many centuries to when the Connatic established control over Marune and ended the war between the Majars and the Rhunes. The Rhune realms were placed under a strict technological embargo aimed at limiting the available means for mass slaughter. Warfare between the Rhune realms became ritualized and each realm lacks the needed offensive power to conquer its neighbors. There have only been minor territorial changes during the past several centuries."

Efraim knew well the history of his world and he asked impatiently, "What does that have to do with Alferica? Get to the point."

Jochaim explained, "Of course, there has always been a great temptation to skirt the Connatic's law and break the embargo against offensive weapons. The remnants of the Majars have not been averse to helping Rhunes murder each other. Anyhow, down through the years, several Majar scientists worked secretly in the Rhune realms as arms merchants, technologists or scientists and a few of those even managed to father several children with Rhune women. Thus, we Rhunes are not as pure a breed of human as you might previously have imagined."

Efraim shook his head in wonder. "I see. And are you going to tell me that we have a Majar scientist working in the sail factory under Seilneuthur Keep?"

"Well, almost." Jochaim went to a nearby cabinet and slid open a drawer. He pulled out a heavy glass-sealed photograph. "This is one of them, what we call a Tre." He handed the photo to Efraim.

Efraim gazed upon the image: it showed a person who looked rather alien, with large eyes, similar in some ways to those of Efraim's ghark. "A Tre?" Efraim had never heard that term before.

"The Tre are a strange breed...  part Majar, part Rhune, part something else. There are a few small colonies of Tre scattered through the realms. They are all secretive and they do secret scientific work in violation of the embargo. We have a small team of Tre who work at Seilneuthur Keep."

Efraim handed the photograph back to Jochaim. "I don't believe it. How could such a fantastic secret be kept?"

Jochaim placed the photo back in the cabinet and returned to his seat. "I used to ask myself that question, then my ghark explained the mystery to me."

Efraim blurted out, "Your ghark?"

"Relax, Efraim." For a few moments Jochaim examined the nails of one hand, as if he were trying to think of a good way to tell the story of his family's dealings with gharks. Efraim waited impatiently as the seconds dragged slowly by. Finally Jochaim began, "Before she died, your mother told me that you had already met your ghark while you were just a baby. I suspect that many Kang and Kaiarks are haunted by a ghark." Jochaim glanced over his shoulder. "Little is left to chance in the Rhune realms. My ghark is here right now, watching over me."

Efraim looked around the room but could see nothing unusual. Then he sniffed and could detect a subtle scent... something alien. Now that Jochaim had mentioned the possibility, that odor acted on Efraim's mind and suggested the presence of a ghark. "Hallucination?"

Jochaim slowly shook his head. "I long ago gave up trying to understand. Yes, maybe these gharks are entirely in our heads, although some men have claimed to be able to smell them. Olfacotry hallucination? I don't know. Alferica had a theory..."

For a minute, Jochaim sat silently, lost in thought. Efraim sat, locked in anticipation. What other revelations were to come? Finally, Jochaim spoke again, "Alferica said that the Tre had been created as a means to channel some selected genes from the Majar into the Rhune genetic background. Her father had been a Tre and so Alferica called herself a third stage vector. Before she died, she hinted that the real test would come at the fourth stage. By that, she meant you."

Efraim felt offended that his parents had kept such a secret from him for so long. "So, I carry some Majar genes. But what is a 'Majar gene'? We all.... Majars, Rhunes.... everyone in Alastor cluster, we all originated on Earth."

"Alferica imagined that all of Marune was just a small part of a complex human breeding project." Jochaim shook his head in wonder at some old memory. "She blamed the Fwai-chi."

Efraim demanded, "What do the Fwai-chi have to do with it?"

Jochaim shrugged. "I don't know. Alferica would talk for hours about the Tre, gharks, hoo, Fwai-chi and... well, it seemed an endless collection of myth and fantasy. I wish I had paid more attention. For me, the bottom line was that Alferica arranged for some Tre scientists to work at Seilneuthur Keep and start our drone project."

Efraim asked, "Drone?"

"We now have solar-powered unmanned sails, drones, that patrol our boarders, particularly our border with Eccord. Alferica had warned me that Kaiark Rianlle of Eccord had his own way of skirting the Connatic's arms embargo; that's why Eccord is one of the few realms that has managed to grow. Come with me. I was going to wait until next week, but why wait?"

Efraim followed his father into the maze of the castle mirkways. Jochaim paused next to a dimly lit and bare stone wall. Suddenly, part of the wall pulled back, creating a new passage way. Jochaim walked into the black opening and Efraim followed. Efraim saw a faint glow above and they went up a metal spiral stairway. At the top of the stairs was a locked door that opened when Jochaim pressed his hand to the door handle.

Efraim found himself in a small room lit with the glow of a dozen video displays. In the display images, Efraim could see various views of the border between Scharrode and Eccord, some obviously originating from an aircraft high above the ridgeline. Jochaim spoke to the person who sat in front of the display console, "Ki-tee! Meet Kang Efraim."

With mechanically precise movements, Ki-tee turned and looked at Efraim. In the dim illumination, Efraim could see what looked like large Tre eyes staring at him. Jochaim explained to Efraim, "This is a robot. A mechanical man." Jochaim spoke again to the robot, "Ki-tee! You will now follow the orders of Efraim, just as you follow my orders."

Ki-tee spoke with an air of boredom, "I will warn the Kaiark of Scharrode if forces from Eccord attack."

Jochaim added, "Yes, and you will also give your warnings to the Kang. He now shares my responsibility to defend Scharrode." Jochaim took hold of Ki-tee's hand and pulled a ring off of the robot's finger.

Jochaim led Efraim down the spiral stairs, through the mirk-ways and back to their parlor. Suddenly taking hold of his son's hand, Jochaim slid the ring onto Efraim's finger. "This is a radio-receiver. If Ki-tee detects an incursion from Eccord, he will send a signal, alerting us so that we can mobilize our troops for the defense of Scharrode."

Amazed by what he had seen, Efraim asked numbly, "How did you get a robot here on Marune?"

Jochaim laughed, "For a price, the Majar arms dealers and the Tre can get anything past the Connatic's embargo. Money can move mountains, or at least hide an illegal weapons factory inside one. Actually, Alferica could not fully explain the mysterious origins of the Tre. She warned me to only trust the gharks and to treat hoos as the enemy. Apparently there are two distinct human genetics projects on Marune with one being run by the hoos and involving Eccord and the royal family of Kaiark Rianlle."

Efraim nodded. "I see. So the gharks are our patrons. But why two such secret projects?"

Jochaim shrugged. "There are many mysteries. All I can tell you is what Alferica told me. She believed that eventually the two projects must unite. Each is trying to create a combination of Majar and Rhune genes that will allow for telepathy."

Efraim sank down into a chair, his knees weak and limp. "Telepathy?"

Jochaim paced across the floor in front of his son. "Alferica claimed that the Fwai-chi will detect any telepathic humans that are bred on Marune. Just before she died, Alferica told me that it was her hope that you would father children by Kaiark Rianlle's daughter, Maerio. She thought that your children might have telepathic powers."

Efraim knew little of Maerio. They had met several times during formal visits between royal families of the realms. Efraim asked with wonder and awe in his voice, "How is it that such secrets are kept? What would prevent me from speaking of this to anyone, even someone like Maerio?"

Jochaim smiled a weary smile. "You will find, as I have, that you are unable to speak freely to anyone about the gharks and the Tre. The only exception is for others who already know the secret. Now, Efraim, there are other secrets that I must share with you. The most important of these is our ancient pact with the Fwai-chi..."


Later, after sharing all of the Kaiarkical secrets with Efraim, Jochaim took Efraim to Seilneuthur Keep and showed him the devious entry way to the underground sail factory. Efraim was introduced to the Tre who built and repaired drones for Scharrode: two middle aged Tre and a squad of Tre robots who were programmed to do the careful manufacturing work. Efraim studied the two Tre with fascination, gazing into their large, inhuman eyes.

Jochaim was in a hurry to return to Benbuphar Strang, but Efraim told his father that he wanted to stay at Seilneuthur Keep for another day and study the drone-making process. As Jochaim set off towards Benbuphar Strang along the Airway trail, Efraim went out on the balcony where a few days previously he had last been visited by his ghark. He spoke to the wind: "Why did my mother have to die?"

His ghark appeared, seemingly standing beside Efraim on the balcony. She replied, "I think you can guess."

Efraim had long felt another whispering voice in the back of his mind, distinct from the ghark. He muttered, "Somehow I've never believed in telepathy."

The ghark tried to explain, "More accurately, you cannot be allowed to believe in human telepathy. However, I can tell you about telepathy... you simply will not be allowed to remember what I tell you. There are multiple channels of telepathic communication. Your brain is tuned for one such channel, a channel that is different from that used by the Fwai-chi, and also somewhat different from that used by Maerio."

Efraim asked excitedly, "Maerio is telepathic?"

"You and she can only communicate subliminally, at a subconscious level. In any case, such technology-assisted telepathy is only a side-effect of other brain processes that are the real reason why you two were created."

A realization came to Efraim. "You could not allow me to be distracted by a sibling who shared my telepathic channel. So, Alferica had to die."

The ghark explained, "There are easier ways to prevent siblings from being born, as was done for Maerio. In your case, we could not allow you to grow to adulthood and be seen side-by-side with Alferica."

Efraim felt a chill run up his back, but he had to know why. "Why so?"

"We needed a male version of Alferica to pair with Maerio. You are a clone of Alferica, with just a small chromosome swap."

Efraim knew just enough about genetics to understand what he was being told. The ghark continued, "To create you, we used Jochaim's Y chromosome and we also provided you with a copy of your father's zeptite endosymbiont, so you are a mixture of Jochaim and Alferica... just mostly Alferica. It is startling how much you resemble her." The ghark began to fade away, slowly becoming transparent.

Efraim knew that the ghark was ready to depart. He demanded, "Wait! You and these Tre... you're no hybrid of Majar and Rhune. Who... what are you?"

investigating the Kac'hin
"I am a Kac'hin. We Kac'hin are an ancient device for processing genes. We created the Tre as a useful mixture of Majar, Rhune and Kac'hin genes. Of course, no human can be allowed to know of such things, so you will be made to forget all of this."

The ghark drifted upwards, rising above the stone parapet. "Anyhow, 'death' is actually a relative term. Alferica was removed from Marune, but her genome is useful. New versions of Alferica will be created on other worlds. And her replicoid is still here with me, in the Hierion Domain. She's waiting to see her grandchildren. Now, I must go... and you must forget most of what I have told you."

Efraim watched the ghark disintegrate and fade away and he savored the odd aroma that lingered in her wake. He was left thinking of Maerio and wondering what he would be allowed to say to her the next time that they met.

Next: a short search in Deep Time
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