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Depths of Perception
Interlude I - Coloni
He knew his duty. Every moment of exsomnis he was absorbed by each infinitesimal millimeter of his assigned area. He was not yet an overseer, but he didn’t worry about such things. He had plants to prune, lights to check, soil to clean. His farm was a delicate ecosystem of overlapping roots and algae nurtured by carefully-set UVbulbs that had to be constantly tended in turn. He had to peer at each rounded facet, his inner lids shielding his eyes, and check for any hairline cracks. The monstrators taught that on the seafloor, even a hairline fracture might doom a UVbulb. And, as he had often been drilled, there were too few resources to replace them. So he worked ceaselessly during all the hours of exsomni, snacking sparingly on a seaweed cake or two, just enough to keep him going.
His eyes were often strained, his spine unable to straighten from the long hours he spent curled obsessively over his field. He thought endlessly of the health of his plants, joyful at every new growth or successful harvest. Of his own health or physical problems he thought not at all. It was his duty to provide food for the city so that it could remain strong against all predators. And he had seen with his own eyes the leviathans that sometimes wandered too close to the Outer Gate. He knew exactly how important his work was.
My duty to feed.
So when the first signs of missing seaweed and algae appeared, he immediately became suspicious. Only one who had been as careful as he would have noticed the difference, but in his mind, it was a significant transgression against all he was taught. Upon discovering the theft, he wavered for a moment, his tails lashing as he tried to decide if it was better to leave his precious field to report the missing plants to his overseer, or to double his efforts that day in an attempt to make up for what was lost.
In the end, he knew his duty was to provide food, and he couldn’t waste time by finding an overseer and filing a report. It would take hours away from his work, and he couldn’t bear the thought of missing some vital part of his inspection, perhaps leading to the loss of a UVbulb, his lovely plants replaced by chaulidius-macoundi or something equally able to thrive in the darkness. No, he would stay and work. Perhaps the missing seaweed was from some passing animal. Though rare, given the safeguards around the city, it wasn’t impossible.
So the coloni returned to his pruning and sowing and tilling, peering carefully at every square millimeter of his area, from roots to strung UVbulbs a two meters above, adjusting and repairing and husbanding.
But then it happened again.
This time, he didn’t worry about leaving his field for hours. He knew he had to make a report. Thus he swam out of his field and headed to the entrance of sector two. His myopic eyes struggled to make out the figure of an overseer, used to as they were to the blue glare of the lights for his field instead of the natural semi-dark of that all other zones except the Complex existed in. Uncertain, he finally called out, using a mindvoice rusty from disuse.
There was a moment’s silence as his mental echo resonated outwards before it was absorbed.
State your designation.
He realigned himself to the direction from where he felt the mindvoice and swam closer as he responded, his bent body unable to straighten itself fully for inspection.
C’Gen23ff, sector twosubfourteen hedophyllum sessile-algal hybrid field four.
Why have you left your field unattended, C’Gen23ff?
To report a theft.
Very well. Prepare yourself to be scanned.
The coloni opened himself up for a psi-scan, creating a mental picture of what he had seen that exsomnis as well as the previous one in which he’d discovered the first theft. He showed the missing stalks and bare rock that should have been covered by algae.
He felt the mental vibration of the psi-scan, but kept his mind calm, just as he’d been taught. He needed to get back to his field, and the only way to do so was to make his report as quickly as possible.
The mental intrusion withdrew. C’Gen24ff couldn’t see what the overseer was doing, but he knew better than to interrupt. After what felt like hours of wasted time, the overseer addressed him.
C’Gen23ff, you are to return to your field immediately and continue working.
He was being dismissed.
But what about the thefts?
The outraged cry sprang from his mind, so unlike his usual placid disposition. He immediately cowered down, expecting punishment for his disobedience. But the overseer didn’t move.
The ‘thefts’ you report are not considered significant enough for investigation, the amount of missing food negligible. Now, return to your field.
C’Gen23ff responded automatically.
My duty to feed.
He turned around and began swimming back to his field, his mind numb with disbelief.
They aren’t going to check. No, they don’t believe me!
He struggled to grasp that the overseers, and through them the monstrators and praesdium would not protect their food supply. Oh, he knew it was little enough taken, but hadn’t he been drilled that every harvest counted for the good of the city? How could they just ignore the incident?
C’Gen23ff reached the seventy-by-seventy square meter expanse of seaweed and algae, appearing to glow in the light of the UVbulbs. Upon blurred sight of it, he realized what he needed to do in order to convince the overseer that someone was endangering the farms and through them, the city.
For the rest of that exsomnis, he toiled, working harder to make up for his missed time, ignoring the pain in his bent joints and his brief spells of dizziness. He had no time to eat or stretch. Finally, he deemed his crops ready for harvest the following day. Which meant it was time to put his plan into action, though he quailed inside at the thought of what was to come.
But it is the only way.
He returned to his tiny dwelling, ate a sparse meal, and closed his eyes in an attempt to relieve the pain knotting his skull. But he didn’t rest. Not yet. There was one more task left to complete.
Hours passed before C’Gen23ff finally stirred, his limbs heavy with exhaustion. He slowly pushed himself off his sleepnet and swam to the door. He peeked out, searching the darkness, knowing none but the praesidium would be out. And they would not be searching the farms.
Carefully, he eased himself out, swimming to his field and hiding himself within the shadowed growth. He worked his way deeper, to where the fronds grew highest, steeling himself.
It’s the only way, he repeated to himself.
He reached out with his webbed hands and began tearing out clumps of seaweed and algae, ripping apart the pale roots and fibrous leaves, clearing a ragged area about a meter in diameter. Enough to feed a nutritor for a month, a lautus for two. Surely that would get their attention.
The devastation tore at him, and he savored the sensation, storing it inside for the overseer to read in his psi-scan when he made his report the following exsomnis.
He carefully gathered the shredded foliage. He would have to eat it, because he couldn’t bear the thought of all his work going to waste. He took one of the floating strips and used it to tie the mass together into something he could take back with him. More slowly than he came, he returned to his dwelling and placed the bundle of stolen food inside his single chest. Only then did he swim to his sleepnet and allow himself to rest.
Exsomnis began only a few short hours later, the sonic blare from the Complex waking him from a sound sleep. He was groggy and hungry, so he allowed himself to eat a little more than he normally would, knowing it would be a long while before he got another chance.
When he arrived at his field, he decided to check the UVbulbs before beginning the harvest. He swam up over them, beginning his careful examination. It was then that he saw a deeper shadow within the field. He swam closer to see what it was.
An uneven circle of seaweed was missing.
Outrage filled him and he fixed the image in his memory, careful to think of nothing else. Then he turned and began swimming as fast as his tired body could. This time, when he reached the front entrance, he didn’t search for the overseer. He simply opened his mind and projected the image he’d carefully memorized.
This time the overseer was properly shocked. This time the overseer told him to stay while he fetched the praesidium. This time he was promised a full investigation. This time the culprit would be apprehended.
C’Gen23ff kept his elation locked deeply inside.
In less than an hour, a squad of praesidium entered the gate, their long, powerful bodies coming to rest before the overseer. From the bands wrapped around their upper limbs, he saw the mark of the Complex – a circle with two spirals circling each other, connected by thin horizontal lines that ran the entire length of the helical curves.
His glee knew no bounds. The Auctors themselves had deemed the theft severe enough to warrant the attention of the most highly trained force within the city.
The lead praesidium turned his helmed head and roughly psi-scanned C’Gen23ff. Again, he quashed the elation, striving to focus on his anger at the desecration of his field. There psi-scan stopped and there was a brief pause as the praesidium regarded him. Had some hint of the truth come out?
But the praesidium merely turned back to the overseer, letting C’Gen23ff overhear the conversation.
There is no need to see the field. The psi-scan had provided all the information necessary to conduct our investigation. Continue tending your fields. We will increase patrols during both somni and wakecycle. Do you comply?
Both the overseer and C’Gen22ff bowed deeply, their webbed hands held open above their finned heads, responding as one.
My duty to feed.
Satisfied, the patrol turned and left. The overseer turned and ordered C’Gen23ff immediately back to work. He meekly obeyed, turning and scuttling back to his neglected, abused field as fast as he could, working nonstop on the harvest until the signal for restcycle was sounded.
But deep inside, he rejoiced. The sacrifice had been worth it. His fields would be safe from the depredations of some unknown creature. That it might be a hungry citizen never occurred to him. He knew his teaching, knew he had made the right decision. In the somni that followed, he ate the stolen food secure in the knowledge that he had acted for the good of the city.
My duty to feed.