All the Stars Within Our Grasp (Chapter 7)

Tens of millions of years ago, Epocha was a verdant paradise, a planet covered in crystal-clear rivers marked by ferocious rapids and endless forests of sky-embracing trees in which dwelt a species of very clever arboreal rodent. Their civilization evolved in tandem with their environment, with neither the grand works of the Epochi nor the forests that had once been their home crowding out the other. At least, this was the assumption made by those human ecologists who trekked to the Epochi home world during the early centuries of the Exterran Federation. They expected to find a model for ecologically kind development that they could replicate, but instead found blocks of artless concrete buildings with implausibly straight rows of ugly rope-like trees growing all around. As they discovered, the Epochi had not adapted their civilization to nature; they adapted nature to their civilization. This was just the first of many unpleasant surprises about humanity's new neighbor.

The Taleweaver gave its occupants a first-class aerial view of the Epochi civilization as it entered the atmosphere of the home world. It wasn't a pretty place, not even for a lifelong urban dweller like Jennifer. Yang Yizhen, who had spent years among the skillfully-tended gardens of the Taiyang governor's courts, surely found it even uglier, but his expression was one of energetic curiosity.

The Taleweaver shuddered slightly as the slender legs dug into the soft earth. "All right, everyone, we have arrived," said Tommy, throwing his passengers a thumb's up. "This is one of the institutions where they fix Epochi who don't fit in."

"No name on the building," said Jennifer, staring at the display before her.

"And these buildings are truly identical, varying in no apparent detail," added Yang Yizhen. "Are you positive that this...Morgi is in this facility?"

"Epochi buildings never have names, it's not their thing. You'd better get used to that. Anyway, I followed the coordinates right here, so..." Tommy tapped the button to release the entry hatch. "Good luck! I'm rooting for you."

The Epochan air had a chilly edge to it, a quiet breeze that made the uniform rows of trees dance in time. A central path through the foliage led to the entrance to the great stone cube. There was no ornamentation, no carvings of cultural touchstones or elegant fixtures to distract the eye from the brutality of the place. It was nothing more than was needed, nothing less than what was demanded.

Yang Yizhen drew his robe tighter to hedge out the cold. "How are we to access the building?"

"We lie." Jennifer stepped to the heavy metal doors and lay a hand on the cool surface. "We're here on behalf of the Taiyang Empire to study their ways and culture."

Yang Yizhen's eyes went wide. "But it is a dire offense to deceive another in the name of the Empress!"

"How important is this quest to you?" said Jennifer.

Yang Yizhen pointed his eyes to the ground. "Very well. I shall do as you do, though it displeases me."

Jennifer nodded, secretly glad that her traveling companion was coming to understand her way of doing things. "I don't know how far we can get without an official decree, but-"

The doors abruptly drifted open, gliding without effort despite their apparent bulk. On the other side was a diminutive figure - nearly a head shorter than Jennifer - clad in a brown and grey robe that nearly blended into his similarly dull-colored flesh. His eyes sat on either side of prominent snout-life face, topped with tiny pricked-up ears that flicked about to face the new arrivals.

"Humans? An unusual and unexpected arrival." The creature's voice was disconcertingly level, as though it were being generated elsewhere by an ancient electronic toy and piped into his mouth. "What would be the precise nature of your visit?"

Jennifer placed a hand on Yang Yizhen's shoulder and drew him to her side. "We're emissaries and researchers from the glorious Taiyang Empire. I go by Jennifer, and my associate..." He was trying to put on a neutral expression but Jennifer could clearly see the anxious tension in his eyes. "...goes by Yang."

The creature scanned the pair with his eyes, not looking so much as probing for some unseen flaw. "So a human empire has shown an interest in the body of the Central Will? Interesting. Hmm...your kind clings stubbornly to the concept of personal names. The cells of the body no longer have need of such things. However, those cells that travel among the unenlightened often find use of personal monikers. The cell to whom you speak is called Crom in such cases, and you may use this name if it is easier for you."

"You are the director of this particular facility?" said Yang Yizhen.

A placid smile crossed Crom's fleshy lips. "You speak to the neuron that directs the impulses sent by the Central Will to manifest in this institution. If it is easier for you to call the cell with this function 'director' then you may do so, though it is not truly accurate."

Immediately Jennifer began to question the wisdom in visiting this planet, but they were far too deep in the weeds to turn back. "So, you'll grant us access?"

"The Central Will grants access to all who wish to understand the mysteries of the universe and the true nature of the body." Crom held the door open and gestured for his visitors to follow. "Begin your path to enlightenment here."

Plain slate corridor after plain slate corridor - such was the inside of the unnamed Epochi institution, a dour set of rooms and halls that were no more finely adorned than the outside. The furnishings were practical to an extreme degree, omitting anything not strictly necessary. Crom seemed to know his way around the passages, which was a blessing because they were identical to Jennifer's eyes. It was not just the rooms that were indistinct - all of the Epochi they passed bore striking similarities to Crom, not just their clothes or even their physical appearance but even their bearing and gait. They were a species of clones, and she dreaded the possibility that she might have to deal with more than one of them.

The walk ended in a room that bore the slightest of distinctions from those they had passed before. The furnishings were still spartan and drab, the walls the same flat gray as the corridors before it, but one of the walls bore a faint relief that resembled a stylized drawing of the prefrontal cortex of some advanced species. Pausing briefly before this relief, Crom slowly turned to face his visitors. "This is a rare honor for you. Few of your kind have ever passed through the threshold and entered the brain."

"It definitely feels different in here," said Jennifer. It was no lie - there was something subtly disturbing about this room, an amplification of something she had felt since landing on the planet.

"The unenlightened cells yet rely on their own incomplete senses and instincts to experience reality," said Crom, raising his hands skyward. "One day, the Central Will shall gladly incorporate the human race into the body, but it falls to the human cells to transcend their grip on a separate existence."

"The Taiyang also strive for the transcendence of the individual. While your philosophy and ours are distinct, perhaps..." Yang Yizhen cleared his throat and fell silent, muted by a glance from Jennifer.

"We're not ready to embrace your religion, but we do wish to learn more about your ways," said Jennifer. "This facility, for example. I'm led to believe that it's some manner of penitentiary?"

Crom chuckled, a strange staccato noise reminiscent of a rhythm instrument. "The 'prison' is a notion bound in the belief in the independence of flesh. This is a special manner of hospital in which the body strives to repair cells that no longer function as they should. This damage have given the cells delusions of independence, and they are drawn here and isolated to prevent further metastasis."

Jennifer listened carefully to Crom's rhetoric, nodding in all the right places. "And when the 'cells' are too damaged to save?"

"Ah, you wish to learn of the mutated cells." Crom tipped his head forward, a stray moment of emotion from the blunted creature. "The body has ways of fixing these cells, though all bear an undesirable cost. There is a mutated cell on site at present, if you would like to carry out a closer study."

Jennifer exchanged looks with Yang Yizhen. "That would be perfect, Crom."

Crom again waved for his visitors to follow and the three set off down another interchangeable hall. "Damaged cells report directly to facilities such as this for repair, but mutants are a special case. When they have developed a false sense of individuality, they feel they can make decisions independent of the body and of the Central Will. The mutants are known to resist our aid. They can be quite dangerous to the body."

"How dangerous?" The words gave Jennifer pause - clearly the Epochi felt that having a name was "dangerous," but even a zealot occasionally had genuine need to worry.

"This was once a warrior cell," said Crom. "A dozen cells came to bring him to the institution, and six of them required profound medical treatment to repair functionality. The mutant cell is now under restraint so as to not further harm the body."

"I see," said Jennifer. "And these treatments? The ones for the mutants, I mean?"

Crom paused at a door with a rare set of markings, their precise meaning a mystery but the size and boldness hinting at danger beyond. "Excision is always an option of last resort, though the Central Will disdains subjecting the body to such trauma. When conventional treatments fail, the fall back is a chemical solution that resets the cell to an earlier state. This renders it less useful to the body, though it can yet be productive. Only the specialized functions are erased."

Jennifer only hoped that Crom hadn't spotted the shock in her face. These were clearly credulous individuals, but even a complete idiot can spot contempt or fear when it is held before him. But if the director noticed anything, he did nothing to indicate it.

"Mind yourself in the next room," said Crom as he nudged open the door. "The body can be its own worst enemy."

"Visitors, huh? Well, this is a rare treat. Come in, get comfy."

Crom had opened the door onto what was - despite all protestations - clearly a prison cell, and the prisoner himself was a bit of a jolt. At first glance, Jennifer had assumed that she was witnessing some sort of holographic trickery, as the prisoner was identical in appearance to his captor. And yet on a second glance there were variations, the slight differences brought about by the rigors of life. Judging by the scars that crossed his slender face, this creature had seen his fair share of combat. There were scars on his arms as well, though these were partially concealed by the hefty steel restraints that connected him via short chains to the floor beneath him. Besides the prisoner himself, there was little in the room - only the chair to which he was bound and a platform that could have been either a desk or a bed.

"Our time is valuable. You may speak with the mutated cell, but be quick." With that, Crom slammed the door behind them, moving with more haste than he'd shown on their entry. The Epochi may not have individuality, thought Jennifer, but this one at least still showed some fear.

"Your name is Morgi?" Jennifer leaned against the wall opposite the prisoner, refusing to acknowledge that she was a little afraid to come within his reach.

"A good a name as any, I guess. It'll do until they shoot me full of brain erase juice, after that it won't matter." Unlike Crom, Morgi's voice had a rusty edge to it. "Yeah, I see how you're staring. Seeing double, huh? Well, that's what 700 years of aggressive genetic engineering will do for you."

"The director referred to you as a mutant." Yang Yizhen, showing uncharacteristic boldness, took a seat on the floor in front of Morgi. "Are you truly so dangerous to require such burdensome restraints?"

Morgi laughed, a gravel-flecked noise that hung heavy in the stale air. "Well, kid, it depends on who you are. When they caught on to me, they sent a dozen people to bring me in, and they were not messing around. Hell, neither was I. Put eight of the bastards in traction."

"Your friend Crom told us it was six," said Jennifer.

Morgi laughed, a gravely sound that only grew nastier as it echoed off the rough walls. "Yeah, everyone has a story. All depends on who you want to believe."

"You are a warrior," said Yang Yizhen. "I gleaned as much from your old wounds."

Morgi pointed at a pair of long scars on either side of his left eye. "Yeah, I saw you looking at this one. Picked it up on a campaign against some Kro'dyl skirmishers. Their bastard commander tried to take me out personally and damn near took my eye out. So I cut him clean in half!" His words disappeared in a resigned groan. "I hate talking about the past. So why the hell are you two here? You from Taiyang, I take it?"

"He is." Jennifer took a cautious step forward. "I'm from the Exterran Stretch. We're tracking a thief that's left our territory and we heard that you might be able to help us track him down."

"Can't imagine what I could do to help you find some crook. You know, unless he's Epochi or..." Morgi nodded knowingly. "...You're tracking him to the Cradle, aren't you? Shoulda figured. That's the only reason anyone ever comes here to see me."

"There's only one thing I don't understand," said Jennifer. "How exactly would you know the coordinates of the Cradle?"

"Hey, lots of Epochi know where the Cradle is. Well, the 'body' knows where it is. You guys love the way they talk around here, right?" Morgi stretched as best as he could with the shackles restraining his movement. "So here's how it is. They told you about the Central Will, right?"

Yang Yizhen nodded. "I assume that this is some form of divinity?"

"Something like that," said Morgi. "The mind or the soul of the universe, is what it is. Anyway, they think that there are a whole bunch of souls of the universe, and they're all jealous of the Central Will. Somewhere along the line, they whipped up this dingbat theory that these evil consciousnesses are trapped in rogue planets. We don't have much in our little empire by way of science, but we do have the greatest catalog of non-solar planets around. Anyway, while they were looking into the depths of space, they happened to see your generation ships speeding right this way. A few calculations later, and..."

"...They know the trajectory the ships took," said Jennifer. "And they calculated the coordinates from that."

"Well, coordinates of the system, anyway," said Morgi. "You know, gravity stops you from hitting the target dead-on. But I can give you that trajectory and the calculated coordinates. I can even clue you into certain obstacles in the way."

Yang Yizhen sprang to his feet. "Then our quest can proceed as planned!"

"Hold on," said Jennifer. "How are we supposed to get you out of here to use this info? You're bolted to the floor!"

Morgi eyed his restraints. "There are ways. Matter of fact, as long as you're here I can put my own plan into effect. You two willing to join in on a daring escape?" He didn't wait for the response. Striking his chains against the floor, he called out: "I've seen enlightenment! May the body absorb me again!"

Crom appeared at once in the door of the cell, his poorly concealed fear eclipsed by an equally transparent joy. "The body receives information from the cell. Is the cell prepared to rejoin the body?"

"The Central Will decides, the cells respond to its impulses." Morgi's voice had changed, the hard edge partially obscured by a staccato monotone that closely mirrored that of Crom.

Crom bowed his head. "Then summon the neurons."

Crom vanished through the door, reappearing moments later with a cadre of four other Epochi - or perhaps these were five new individuals, as there was no clear way to discern Crom from the new arrivals.

"Is the cell prepared to receive and transmit the command signal of the Central Will?" said perhaps-Crom.

Morgi's body went slack, his hands falling limply to his knees as he turned his eyes skyward. "There is no individual flesh. I am the body and the body is all and everything."

"The Will speaks," said the perhaps-Croms in unison.

"The cell must submit to the Will," said Morgi. "The cell shall always submit to the Will when the Will speaks."

"The Will speaks," echoed the perhaps-Croms.

Jennifer was awestruck at the sight. It was not the chorus of identical Epochi, or the sight of the shackled Morgi renouncing his individuality. What amazed her was that this ritual was going on before her eyes and that Crom and his friends not only didn't care that outsiders were present, but that they didn't even seem to notice. Yang Yizhen, for his part, seemed even more awkward than usual. A man with his training in protocol must have felt obliged to respect such an intimate ritual by not watching it, and yet his curiosity demanded that he not miss a second.

"Then it is settled." Perhaps-Crom bowed his head again, and the other Epochi produced keys and moved with haste to unlock Morgi's many restraints. The shackles sent up an eardrum-rending clatter as they struck the ground, a terrible reverberation that spoke to their impressive weight.

Morgi rose from his chair with a wince, massaging each liberated limb. "...The cell awaits a function."

The chorus of Epochi closed their eyes for a few seconds, after which perhaps-Crom stepped forward with his edict. "As the human cells were present for the repair, the Central Will chooses to modify this cell from guardian to proselytizer. You shall return to the human domain and educate the human cells on the presence of the Will."

"In our society, it's customary to ask permission before..." Jennifer caught the words in time to change their tone. "...arranging a cultural exchange, but the Empress should be very pleased."

Yang Yizhen fell to one knee before perhaps-Crom. "We thank you for your openness and grace."

"And the Central Will thanks you for your participation," said perhaps-Crom. "The cell may now leave, that it may return with many others."

"To the good of the body," said Morgi, flashing a wink at Jennifer and Yang Yizhen. "The cell shall depart at once."

Jennifer and Yang Yizhen led their new crew member out of the facility, trying in their own ways not to be off-put by Morgi's skillfully faked neutral facade. Jennifer was constantly on guard, fully expecting that one of the Epochi would spot some little error and bring all of the cultists down on them. Morgi was in fine form though, acknowledging his fellow "cells" as naturally as Crom had. He didn't let the mask slip an inch until the three departed the gray edifice and reached the clearing before the Taleweaver.

"Oh, the air is so sweet out here, so..." Morgi took a deep breath. "...Yeah, that's what I've been waiting for. All right, let's get the hell out. This your ship?"

Jennifer stared blankly at the oversized scarred rodent. "That's it? You tell them you're fixed and they let you go?"

"Hey, Epochi as a group are gullible," said Morgi. "They're not used to their fellow cells lying to them, so it's real easy to do. I assume that's how you got in, yeah?"

"Yeah, but..." Jennifer shook her head. "Does this mean you could have escaped at any time? Why were you so afraid?"

"There's more to escape than just getting the cuffs off. Speaking of which..." Morgi dug his fingers into the muscles of his arms, rubbing away the pain of the shackles. "Those things hurt more every day, I swear. Anyway, it's not enough to get out of the facility, I need a way off the planet entirely. If I did this yesterday, with no outsiders around, they'd reassign me to some agricultural post or something like that. You think I can fake this forever? It'd only be a matter of time before I laughed or did something else to give away the game, and then there wouldn't be any lockup. They'd bump me off on the spot or else cook my brain like they were planning before you guys turned up."

"Surely you exaggerate," said Yang Yizhen. "No advanced society would punish a soul for mere laughter."

"Why not? That's how they caught me the first time." Morgi walked to the Taleweaver. "Now can we get the hell off this horrible planet? These trees are as freaky as I remember and I don't want to think about them any more."

Tommy stuck his head through the entry hatch. "Hey, is this the guy? Morgi! Name's Tommy Harkennian, swell to meet you."

Morgi glanced at Jennifer. "This is your pilot?"

"If you want to complain, we can leave you here," said Jennifer.

"Feh." Morgi locked his teeth and rubbed the back of his ear. "What are we waiting for? Let's the meet the rest of the crew."

"Thus far, we are the only crew," said Yang Yizhen.

"Great," said Morgi. "This should end real well."