Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Dream-Quest of Old Kolum, Chapter 1

“The Dream-Quest of Old Kolum”

© 2013


Jordan S. Bassior

I.  The Itorloo

A thin wind blew over the cold scrublands that had once been Ohio, stirring the low bushes to meaningless motion.  The sun was setting, and somber shadows stretched across the plains, shivering with the movements of the branches that cast them.  It was a landscape of abandoned desolation, and only his reading of ancient records let Zhoran the Historian know that the flat-topped rise a half-mile from the low hill on which he and the other three Itorloo stood was the burial mound of an ancient building.

He drew a small scanner from his belt:  directed invisible energies at the low hill.  Through his implant, apparently hovering over and within the tell, he could plainly see the tracery of gates, halls and chambers:  what had survived of this structure after the devastation of the War for Mastery and some two hundred fifty thousand years of the action of natural forces.  The upper sections were long-destroyed, but the lower parts almost perfectly matched the plans Zhoran had extracted from the Archives.

“There,” Zhoran gestured at the hill, uploading the data to their teamnet.  That is the Kolum War Memorial Museum.”

Major Rinnar, the military commander of the expedition, peered at the hill, his ice-gray eyes widening in astonishment as he examined the outline of the ruins.  “So much,” he said.  “How can so much have survived the ages?”

Engineer Danara, producing her own scanner and pinging the hill, smirked with satisfaction, her pudgy features lighting up at the vista of ancient technology thus revealed.  She brushed a wisp of coppery red hair from her high brow.

“That’s phased ceramalloy composite construction:  the walls are three feet thick and the main structural members more than a bit overbuilt.”  She focused her scanner.  “Yep …” she said, “the surface layer of porcelete was just a decorative shell.  You can see here…” she continued, uploading, “where the shell’s been vaped right off the north face, probably by the same antimatter explosion that’s still making some of the debris give off traces of gamma radiation.”

She looked at Zhoran approvingly.  “You were right, Historian!  The Museum wasn’t just abandoned, it was wrecked in the Master-Wars.  Upperworks torn right off – you can see some of the towers lying to the south, where they must’ve flew right after the shockwave snapped them from their bases.  Part of the upper floors were slagged down by the thermal pulse, but their ablation absorbed enough of the energy to save the floors beneath.  Probably didn’t even get too hot down there:  if there were survivors, they might have been able to escape by the travel-tubes – see there, some of the tunnels are even intact today.  But what was left was just a radioactive heap of slag; and there’s no guarantee that any of the lower passages were easy to find.  No wonder it was never salvaged.

“But it stood up to everything our ancestors and two hundred fifty thousand years threw at it.  Damn.  The Etarlee may’ve been soft, but by the Will, they sure could build!

Major Rinnar glared down at her..

“They weren’t the ones who did the building, and I hope you remember that.  It was our remote ancestors, their slaves, who did all the hard work while the Etarlee lounged about in their pretty pleasure-domes.  That was why our ancestors fought the War for Mastery:  to win our freedom.  I hope that you aren’t forgetting your most basic education, Engineer!”  His eyes had narrowed dangerously; his hand unconsciously twitched in the vicinity of his holstered blast-pistol.

To her credit, Danara did not flinch.

“Of course not, sir!” she replied.  “Like all true Itorloo, I know that the War for Mastery was needful to win our freedom from the parasitic Etarlee!”  It was said quickly, like a lesson learned by rote, which is exactly how she had learned it in elementary school.  That it had been learned and recited in such fashion did not mean that she doubted its truth:  it was indeed the only truth that most could believe or even postulate about their racial history.

Major Rinnar relaxed slightly.

Zhoran felt the need to correct a possible misconception.

“Sir,” he said to Rinnar, “I do not think that the good Engineer meant the slightest disrespect to the History or Destiny of our Race.  Rather, she was merely pointing out that our decadent predecessors possessed advanced technologies, which it would very much be in the interests of the Race to learn.  Is that not precisely the purpose of this expedition, as authorized by the Council of Masters?”

Rinnar briefly scowled, then nodded.  “That is true,” he admitted, “and of course I meant no accusation of wrongful speculation.”

“Of course not,” agreed Zhoran, and Danara nodded, as if to indicate their complete harmony on the issue.

When Major Rinnar turned his attention back to the tell, she gave Zhoran a sidelong glance.  “Thanks,” she mouthed silently. 

Zhoran smiled, and dipped his head by way of acknowledgement.

The fourth member of their party, who had remained mute during – and in truth seemed bored by – the technological and historical discussion, now focused intently on something he saw on the hill.

Makheel was a big Itorloo, some four foot eight inches tall and broad-shouldered:  he must have weighed almost a hundred pounds.  The suit of light infantry armor he wore made him look even bigger.  While the rest of the party had only blast pistols, standard issue for personnel venturing Outside, Makheel bore a big blast rifle, powerful enough to bring down a rocket car.  Now, he pointed that weapon at something on the hill.

“Vermin, sir,” he commented, in a voice which was startlingly high for such a big person.  “Towndogs.  I could pot some for us.”  The eagerness in his tone, combined with the size of the weapon, bothered Zhoran in a way he found difficult to define.

“Very well, Sergeant,” said Major Rinnar.

Meanwhile, Zhoran had adjusted his scanner to lifesign, and saw what had attracted the attention of the big noncom.  Atop the tell, running down the slopes, were a colony of prairie dogs, as they were in these days of Earth’s Dusk.  Commonly called tiktikallee, more formally Cynomys sapiens (the actual words Zhoran thought were derived from Etarlee rather than Latin, but they served the same function of scientific classification), they lived in organized subterranean towns, and were almost as intelligent as were the Itorloo themselves.  Magnifying with a blink, he could distinguish foot-long furry brown bodies, fight black eyes, snouts pointed at his party, whiskers twitching with curiosity.

Zhoran saw this only for an instant – then the prairie dogs, alarmed by their motions, darted for their dens.  Almost immediately came the flicker and crackle of the sergeant’s big blaster.  It was subtle – nothing like the glare and roar of that weapon’s wasteful ancestors – but on low power and wide aperture, the area of effect was rather like that of a giant long-ranged shotgun.  Against small unarmored targets, it was quite lethal.  Two of them flared into flame and fell, fur smoldering; the third, caught in the fringe of the area of effect, stumbled but managed to hurl itself down a hole.

Makheel smiled in satisfaction.  He turned to Major Rinnar, grinning broadly.

“Want some bush meat, sir?” he asked.

“That’s thoughtful of you, Sergeant,” replied the Major, “but we don’t know where they’ve been.  I’ll stick to my own supplies, personally.”

The Major glanced at Zhoran and Danara.  “The Sergeant and I will approach the hill on foot.  You two follow in the rocket-car.  We’ll rendezvous at the foot of the hill by 1800.”

“Yes, sir,” acknowledged Zhoran.

The two soldiers departed for the hill, setting a brisk pace.  Zhoran and Danara watched them for a short while.

“Troops and their weapons,” Zhoran commented.  “ I think Makheel did that just to have a chance to let off that miniature cannon.”

“Well,” pointed out Danara, “you can hardly blame him.  The Strahl-90 is a sweet gun.  Plenty of power, great sights, fine aperture control.  I wish they’d issued me one of them – as long as I didn’t have to carry it,” she added, wryly grinning.  “But I can’t say much for Makheel’s taste in food.  Give me some good old-fashioned vat-grown meatmeal, any shift of the cycle.  And plenty of it, with extra sauces!”  Her smile grew even broader.

Zhoran smiled back.  He had figured out why she was so overweight, though he wisely did not attempt to share his discovery.  Instead, he turned toward the car.  “Come on,” he said.  “The sooner we reach the site, the sooner we can set up camp – and have a real dinner.”

To that proposition, the Engineer enthusiastically agreed.

Neither of them much cared that two sapients had been snuffed out, and a third one condemned to an agonizing end, for the momentary amusement of and provision of a dubiously-useful meal for one whom they both considered to himself be little better than a brute, intellectually scarce the superior of his primitive prairie-dog victims.  Neither cared, because it was not in the nature of their kind to care, and indeed if either of them had cared, that one might have viewed the emotion as an indication of incipient insanity, and reported in to the psychotherapists for immediate reconditioning.

For they were Itorloo, the cruel Children of Men, the Master-Race of the Earth’s premature Dusk, who dominated by pain and fear all other life on their dying world.  They knew that their planet had once been of mighty consequence in the Galaxy:  homeworld of the Men of the Dawn, who half a million years before had exploded outward to settle a myriad of worlds in the Solar System and around the stars beyond.  That had been long ago:  the Itorloo had been born when Earth was already a backwater, and risen to power only after Sun and Earth alike had been drained and devastated in a terrible cosmic war.  Their interstellar cousins had gone on to become the high and mighty Star Gods –  meanwhile the Itorloo huddled in their subterranean cities on an exhausted and senescent sphere, and resented their state.  They vaguely believed that the Universe had used them unfairly, and that consequently it must be considered a harsh place, best met with a ruthless disregard for the fate of al other life in the struggle for survival.  In this belief, the Itorloo were not entirely mistaken – but they took it too far.


  1. "... In this belief, the Itorloo were not entirely mistaken – but they took it too far."

    On what ground does one say/know that "they took it too far"? How far would have been "far enough"? Are they morally culpable for "taking it too far"?

  2. ... and, when the planet is well and fully dead, will it matter that they "took it too far"? For that matter, does it matter before the planet is dead?

    1. Oh, as to religion ...

      The Itorloo are semi-atheists who believe in what would best translate as "The Spirit of the Race," which could be viewed as the composite life force and destiny of their whole species. They believe that every race has its own spirit, but that the Spirit of the Itorloo is superior to those of all other races and thus is destined to rule the Universe. The essence of the Itorloo Spirit is ruthless courage and engineering brilliance.

      As you might imagine, given that they share their universe not only with the Star Gods, who stelliform whole systems into Dyson-sphere power generators, but many lesser interstellar races mostly descended from the Dawn Men, this faith takes a lot of self-delusion. But they believe that in time their ruthless courage will triumph: first this planet then another, while the indecisive and weak other races are uncertain about what to do, and the foolish mercy of those other races will allow the Itorloo to triumph in the end.

      They base this belief on the fact that the Star Gods chose not to destroy them when the Itorloo wiped out the Etarlee, the Gentle People and previous dominant species on Earth. Since the Star Gods claimed to value the Etarlee, this forbearance is incomprehensible to the Itorloo save as extreme weakness. The current cycle of Itorloo culture has decided that since the Star Gods have left them alone for many tens of millennia now, this means that the Star Gods have (inevitably) become decadent and weak, leaving the field clear for the Itorloo Triumph of the Race.

      That's the level of understanding that, say, Zhoran has of things, with the addition that he knows some secrets of the past forbidden for many Itorloo to know. Most Itorloo simply believe that the Star Gods were so amazed at the brilliance and completeness of the Itorloo victory in the War for Mastery that they fled the Solar System in terror at the Itorloo awesomeness. There's a lot that even Zhoran doesn't know, as future chapters will reveal.

      The resemblance of the Itorloo culture to 1930's fascism was probably quite intentional, given that "Seeds of the Dusk" was first published in 1938.

      As to the moral issue, from the Itorloo point of view, if they failed to recognize that their own racial superiority gives them the right -- nay, almost the duty -- to abuse other races where-ever safe, they would be either conscious Race Traitors or insane. So, their religious morality impels them to be even crueller than they normally would be: in fact while the Itorloo are biochemically primed to be more aggressive on the average than are humans, a lot of the things which make them so noxious are cultural rather than genetic in origin.

    2. ... and, when the planet is well and fully dead, will it matter that they "took it too far"

      Yes, of course it does. The potential existence of the Itorloo is not necessarily coterminous with the planet. In "Seeds of the Dusk" the Itorloo are planning to conquer Venus, exterminating the Venusians, as a springboard to further survival and perhaps expansion. Had the Itorloo searched for friends instead of waging wars of extermination, they might very well have survived the death of the Earth, or even learned how to slow its death. This is exactly what the main race the Itorloo were trying to destroy in "Seeds of the Dusk" knew how to do -- to change the water cycle so as to extend the lifespan of Earth's ecosystem.

      For that matter, does it matter before the planet is dead?

      The Itorloo certainly believe that it does, and this is a point on which I would agree with them.

  3. The Itorloo are by our standards paranoid and sadistic, traits which lead to their annihilation on Earth in Gallun's "Seeds of the Dusk," because they treat the Seeds as enemies long before the Seeds have done anything inimical to them; and the (specific) sadistic violence that Zar the Astronomer displays toward Kaw of the Crow Clan in that story help doom the Itorloo. It is notable that the sapient prairie dogs apparently share the Earth with the Seeds without too much difficulty, as shown by the situation in "The Eternal Wall"

    in which the prairie dogs have become the dominant species at least in North America. So they certainly "took it too far" in the Galluniverse, since their hostility toward all other sapient life led to their at least extirpation on Earth (it is possible that some Itorloo survived elsewhere).

    Had the Itorloo not chosen paranoid hostility, they probably could have cooperated with the Seeds to return the Earth to a greater degree of habitability. Had they made friends on other planets, they might not be as bound by the limitations of the Earth's resources. So yes, it mattered to the Itorloo because it directly impeded their survival, both on Earth and on other worlds.

  4. Now it is quite true that Rinner, Zhoran and their little party know none of the events in "Seeds of the Dusk," since the story is obviously a prequel to SotD. It is also true (as I thought I made obvious) that the Itorloo believe a rather biased and racicalist version of their own history, so that even Zhoran the Historian is unaware of how badly their attitude has hurt their race in the past. What I did in the last two paragraphs was a POV switch from third-person limited to third-person omniscient -- which perhaps I should have made more obvious, since those kinds of shifts can be tricky.

  5. "What I did in the last two paragraphs was a POV switch from third-person limited to third-person omniscient -- which perhaps I should have made more obvious, since those kinds of shifts can be tricky."

    I expect that they can. I saw/understood the shift.

  6. "What I did in the last two paragraphs was a POV switch from third-person limited to third-person omniscient ..."

    Yet, based on your comments altogether, it seems that the "third-person omniscient" POV you employed is rather limited to utilitarianism, consequentialism, and relativism posing as universalism, or even as transcendence.

    Apparently, one knows/says that they "took it too far" not judging by any universal or transcendent standard, but because … at some point in the future … the total consequences of their cultural decisions turned out to be very bad for them collectively. By that same standard of evaluation, had the consequences turned out as they had believed they were bound to turn out, one would not, could not, know/say that they had “taken it too far”.

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  7. Yet, based on your comments altogether, it seems that the "third-person omniscient" POV you employed is rather limited to utilitarianism, consequentialism, and relativism posing as universalism, or even as transcendence.

    Morality is an overall strategy applied by an entity toward playing the game of life. The strategy the Itorloo have chosen, and then become locked into by their own totalitarian technocratic culture, is a self-limiting one because it makes co-operation with non-Itorloo difficult (for that matter, it often makes cooperation between Itorloo difficult when not under strongly hierarchical leadership): it ultimately leads to the downfall of the Itorloo as a whole in "Seeds of the Dusk."

    The error the Itorloo have made is structural and indeed predictable through an unbiased application of games theory. In other words, it is not so much that the Itorloo happened to be unlucky in "Seeds of the Dusk," it is that whenever they interacted with non-Itorloo of potentially equal or greater power than themselves they were risking some sort of disastrous outcome. This is inherent in their amorality toward non-Itorloo and their irrational belief in Itorloo racial superiority.

    To make the obvious analogy, it is not that Nazi Germany was unlucky in the especially-severe winter of 1941-42, or the unfortunate consequences of Japan's Pacific aggressions coupled with the Axis Pact, or simply fell into simultaneous war with America, Britain and the Soviet Union. It is that the overall Nazi strategy of contempt for all other races and idealization of military action for the sake of military action made something like the military disasters of 1942-43 inevitable (and note: these were inflicted on Germany by the very alliances among her rivals she had forced by her own actions; the loss at Stalingrad was to Soviet troops riding American-built trucks and the loss of North Africa to a pincers of American troops landing in French North Africa and British troops driving west from Egypt).

    Likewise, the Itorloo lose to what on the surface appears to be the random arrival of the Seeds of the Dusk coupled with their inability to get any of the other races of Earth on their side. But the Itorloo made the Seeds their enemies: the Seeds are in fact friendly to other Earth-life and build the canal-system which in "The Eternal Wall" is preserving the remnants of Earth's ecosystem. And the Itorloo choose to try to exterminate all other Earthlife in that story, making an alliance impossible.

    Not a "universal" or "transcendent" standard? The logical superiority of mutually-beneficial co-operation to blind aggression is built into the very structure of mathematics, which is probably anterior to the Universe itself! Compared to something like that, the Sermon on the Mount is but a local planetary expression of a principle bigger than the whole space revealed by our widest-ranging telescopes.

  8. Could the Itorloo have predicted that something like their annihilation by the Seeds would happen and have avoided their fate? Yes, but much of the Itorloo culture was an effort at blinding themselves to this reality: specifically, their assumption of racial superiority coupled with the belief that the racially-superior have no obligations to the racially-inferior. With those two beliefs, they made it impossible for anyone to co-operate with them long-term, and when coupled with the third assumption that the "Spirit of the Race" demands conformity to true Itorloo-ness and hence cannot permit ideological deviation, they made it impossible for any Itorloo supergenius to figure out the superiority of co-operation and (more importantly) apply it to the Race as a whole and disseminate this knowledge widely.

    Consider what would happen to any Itorloo who tried. He would be judged unsane and either liquidated or psychologically-reconditioned, depending on the depths of his perceived insanity and his value to the Race. There probably have been the occasional stubborn Itorloo who tried. Zhoran the Historian has glimmers of the truth, but only glimmers, and he values his own survival too much to push the issue. You see in this chapter that Danara is somewhat naive and nearly commits what Orwell would call spoken thoughtcrime: Zhoran (who has liked and valued her from first meeting her) quickly speaks to shield her using the Itorloo's own Race logic.

    Could the Itorloo have used the Sermon on the Mount, or its equivalent? You bet they could. It's their tragedy that they don't receive (or accept) such a message. It could have saved their whole civilization.