From the unpublished Voyages to Qoq, Rehik, and Djg, by Thomas Atall, with the kind permission of the author
THE PLANE OF QOQ is unusual in having two rational, or more or less rational, species.
The Daqo are stocky, greenish-tan-colored humanoids. The Aq are taller and a little greener than the Daqo. The two species, though diverged from a common simioid ancestor, cannot interbreed.
Something over four thousand years ago the Daqo had what the Planar Encyclopedia refers to as an EEPT: a period of explosive expansion of population and technology.
Before it, the two species had seldom come in contact. The Aq inhabited the southern continent, the Daqo were in the northern hemisphere. The Daqo population escalated, spreading out over the three landmasses of the northern hemisphere and then to the south. As they conquered their world, they incidentally conquered the Aq.
The Daqo attempted to use the Aq as slaves for domestic or factory work but failed. It seems the Aq, though unaggres-sive, do not take orders. During the height of the EEPT the most expansive Daqo nations pursued a policy of slaughtering the "primitive" and "unteachable" Aq in the name of progress. Settlers of the equatorial zone pushed the remnant Aq populations farther south yet, into the deserts and the barely habitable canebrakes of the coast.
All species on Qoq, except a few pests and the insuperable and indifferent bacteria, suffered badly during and after the Daqo EEPT. In the final ecocatastrophe, the Daqo population dropped by four billion in four decades. The species has survived, living on a modest scale, vastly reduced in numbers and more interested in survival than dominion.
As for the Aq, probably very few, perhaps only hundreds, survived the rapid destruction and final ruin of the planet's life web.
Descent from this limited genetic source may help explain the prevalence of certain traits among the Aq, but the cultural expression of these tendencies is inexplicable in its uniformity. We don't know much about what they were like before the crash, but their reputed refusal to carry out the other species' orders suggests that they were already working, as it were, under orders of their own.
There are now about two million Daqo, mostly on the coasts of the south and the northwest continents. They live in small cities, towns, and farms and carry on agriculture and commerce; their technology is efficient but modest, limited both by the exhaustion of their world's resources and by strict religious sanctions.
There are probably fifteen or twenty thousand Aq, all on the southern continent. They live as gatherers and fishers, with some limited, casual agriculture. The only one of their domesticated animals to survive the die-offs is the boos, a clever creature descended from pack-hunting carnivores. The Aq hunted with boos when there were animals to hunt. Since the crash, they use boos to carry or haul light loads, as companions, and in hard times as food.
Aq villages are movable; from time immemorial their houses have been fabric domes stretched on a frame of light poles or canes, easy to set up, dismantle, and transport. The tall cane which grows in the swampy lakes of the desert and all along the coasts of the equatorial zone of the southern continent is their staple; they gather the young shoots for food, spin and weave the fiber into cloth, and make rope, baskets, and tools from the stems. When they have used up all the cane in a region, they pick up the village and move on. The cane plants regenerate from the root system in a few years.
The Aq have kept pretty much to the desert-and-canebrake habitat enforced upon them by the Daqo in earlier millennia. Some, however, camp around outside Daqo towns and engage in a little barter and filching. The Daqo trade with them for their fine canvas and baskets, and tolerate their thievery to a surprising degree.
Indeed the Daqo attitude to the Aq is hard to define. Wariness is part of it; a kind of unease that is not suspicion or distrust; a watchfulness that, surprisingly, stops short of animosity or contempt, and may even become conciliating.
It is even harder to say what the Aq think of the Daqo. The two populations communicate in a pidgin or jargon containing elements from both languages, but it appears that no individual ever learns the other species' language. The two species seem to have settled on coexistence without relationship. They have nothing to do with each other except for these occasional, slightly abrasive contacts at the edges of southern Daqo settlements—and a limited, very strange collaboration having to do with what I can only call the specific obsession of the Aq.
I am not comfortable with the phrase "specific obsession," but "cultural instinct" is worse.
At about two and a half or three years old, Aq babies begin building. Whatever comes into their little greeny-bronze hands that can possibly serve as a block or brick they pile up into "houses." The Aq use the same word for these miniature structures as for the fragile cane-and-canvas domes they live in, but there is no resemblance except that both are roofed enclosures with a door. The children's "houses" are rectangular, flat-roofed, and always made of solid, heavy materials. They are not imitations of Daqo houses, or only at a very great remove, since most of these children have never been to a Daqo town, never seen a Daqo building.
It is hard to believe that they imitate one another with such unanimity that they never vary the plan; but it is even harder to believe that their building style, like that of insects, is innate.
As the children get older and more skillful they build larger constructions, though still no more than knee high, with passages, courtyards, and sometimes towers. Many children spend all their free time gathering rocks or making mud bricks and building "houses." They do not populate their buildings with toy people or animals or tell stories about them. They just build them, with evident pleasure and satisfaction. By the age of six or seven some children begin to leave off building, but others go on working together with other children, often under the guidance of interested adults, to make "houses" of considerable complexity, though still not large enough for anyone to live in. The children do not play in them.
When the village picks up and moves to a new gathering ground or canebrake, these children leave their constructions behind without any sign of distress. As soon as they are settled, they begin building again, often cannibalising stones or bricks from the "houses" a previous generation left on the site. Popular gathering sites are marked by dozens or hundreds of solidly built miniature ruins, populated only by the joint-legged gikoto of the marshes or the little ratlike hikiqi of the desert.
No such ruins have been found in areas where the Aq lived before the Daqo conquest. Evidently their propensity to build was less strong, or didn't exist, before the conquest, or before the crash.
Two or three years after their ceremonies of adolescence some of the young people, those who went on building "houses" until they reached puberty, will go on their first stone faring.
A stone faring sets out once a year from the Aq territories. The complete journey takes from two to three years, after which the travelers return to their natal village for five or six years. Some Aq never go stone faring, others go once, some go several or many times in their life.
The route of the stone farings is to the coast of
The Aq stone farers gather in spring, coming overland or by cane raft from their various villages to Gatbam, a small port near the equator on the west coast. There a fleet of cane-and-canvas sailboats awaits them. The sailors and navigators are all Daqo of the south continent. They are professional sailors, mostly fishermen; some of them "sail the faring" every year for decades. The Aq pilgrims have nothing to pay them with, arriving with provisions for the journey but nothing else. While at Riqim, the Daqo sailors will net and salt fish from those rich waters, a catch which makes their journey profitable. But they never go to fish off Riqim except with the stone-faring fleet.
The journey takes several weeks. The voyage north is the dangerous one, made early in the year so that the return voyage, carrying the cargo, may be made at the optimal time. Now and then boats or even whole fleets are lost in the wild tropical storms ofthat wide sea.
As soon as they disembark on the stony shores of Riqim, the Aq get to work. Under the direction of senior stone farers, the novices set up domed tents, store their sparse provisions, take up the tools left there by the last pilgrimage, and climb the steep green cliffs to the quarries.
Riqimite is a lustrous, fine-textured, greenish stone with a tendency to cleave along a plane. It can be sawed in blocks or split into stone planks or smaller tiles and even into sheets so thin they are translucent. Though relatively light, it is stone, and a ten-meter canvas sailboat can't carry great quantities of it; so the stone farers carefully gauge the amount they quarry. They rough-shape the blocks at Riqim and even do some of the fine cutting, so that the boats carry as little waste as possible. They work fast, since they want to start Home in the calm season around the solstice. When their work is complete they run up a flag on a high pole on the cliffs to signal the Daqo fleet, which comes in boat by boat over the next few days. They load the stone aboard under the tubs of salted fish and set sail back south.
The boats put in at one Daqo port or another, usually the crew's Home port, to unload and sell their fish; then they all sail on several hundred kilometers down the coast to Gazt, a long, shallow harbor in the hot marshlands south of the canebrake country. There the sailors help the Aq unload the stone. They receive no payment for or profit from this part of the trip.
I asked a shipmaster who had "sailed the faring" many times why she and her sailors were willing to take the Aq stone farers down to Gazt. She shrugged. "It's part of the agreement," she said, evidently not having thought much about it. After thinking, she added, "Be an awful job to drag that stone overland through the marshes."
Before the Daqo boats have sailed halfway back to the harbor mouth, the Aq have begun loading the stone onto wheeled flatbed carts left on the docks of Gazt by the last stone faring. Then they get into harness and haul these carts five hundred kilometers inland and three thousand meters upward. They go at most three or four kilometers a day. They encamp before evening and fan out from the trails to forage and set snares for hikiqi, since by now their supplies are low. The cart train follows the least recently used of the several winding trails, because the hunting and gathering will be better along it.
During the sea voyages and at Riqim the mood of the stone farers tends to be solemn and tense. They are not sailors, and the labor at the quarries is hard and driven. Hauling carts by shoulder harness is certainly not light work either, but the pilgrims take it merrily; they talk and joke while hauling, share their food and sit talking around their campfires, and behave like any group of people engaged willingly in an arduous joint enterprise.
They discuss which path to take, and wheel-mending techniques, and so on. But when I went with them I never heard them talk in the larger sense about what they were doing, their journey's goal.
All the paths finally have to surmount the cliffs at the edge of the plateau. As the stone farers come up onto the level after that terrible last grade, they stop and gaze to the southeast. One after another the long, flat carts laden with dusty stone buck and jerk up over the rim and stop. The haulers stand in harness, gazing silent at the Building.
AFTER HUNDREDS OF YEARS of the slow recovery of the shattered ecosystem, enough Aq began to have enough food to have enough energy for activities beyond forage and storage. It was then, when bare survival was still chancy, that they began the stone faring.
So few of them, in such an inimical world, the atmosphere damaged, the great cycles of life not yet reestablished in the poisoned and despoiled oceans, the lands full of bones, ghosts, ruins, dead forests, deserts of salt, of sand, of chemical waste— how did the inhabitants of such a world think of undertaking such a task? How did they know the stone they wanted was at Riqim? How did they know where Riqim was? Did they originally make their way there somehow without Daqo boats and navigators? The origins of the stone faring are absolutely mysterious, but no more mysterious than its object. All we know is that every stone in the Building comes from the quarries of Riqim, and that the Aq have been building it for over three thousand, perhaps four thousand years.
It is immense, of course. It covers many acres and contains thousands of rooms, passages, and courts. It is certainly one of the largest edifices, perhaps the largest single one, on any world we know. And yet declarations of size, counts and measures, comparisons and superlatives, are meaningless. The fact is, a technology such as that of contemporary Earth, or the ancient Daqo, could build a building ten times bigger in ten years.
It is possible that the ever-increasing vastness of the Building is a metaphor or illustration of precisely such a factual enormity. Or the Building's size may be purely a result of its age. The oldest sections, far inside its outermost walls, show no indication that they were—or were not—seen as the beginning of something immense. They are exactly like the Aq children's "houses" on a larger scale.
All the rest of the Building has been added on, year by year, to this modest beginning, in much the same style. After perhaps some centuries the builders began to add stories onto the flat roofs of the early Building, but have never gone above four stories, except for towers and pinnacles and the airy barrel domes that reach a height of perhaps sixty meters. The great bulk of the Building is no more than five to six meters high. Inevitably it has kept growing outwards laterally, by way of ells and wings and joining arcades and courtyards, until it covers so vast an area that from a distance it looks like a fantastic terrain, a low mountain landscape all in silvery green stone.
Although not dwarfish like the children's structures, curiously enough the Building is not quite full scale, taking the average height of an Aq as measure. The ceilings are barely high enough to allow them to stand straight, and they must stoop to pass through the doors.
No part of the Building is ruined or in disrepair, though occasional earthquakes shake the Mediro plateau. Damaged areas are repaired annually, or "mined" for stone to rebuild with.
The work is fine, careful, sure, and delicate. No material is used but riqimite, mortised and tenoned like wood, or set in exquisitely fitted blocks and courses. The indoor surfaces are mostly finished satin smooth, the outer faces left in contrasting degrees of roughness and smoothness. There is no carving or ornamentation other than thin moldings or incised lines repeating and outlining the architectural shapes.
Windows are unglazed stone lattices or pierced stone sheets cut so thin as to be translucent. The repetitive rectangular designs of the latticework are elegantly proportioned; a ratio of three to two runs through many though not all of the Building's rooms and apertures. Doors are thin stone slabs so well balanced and pivoted that they swing lightly and smoothly open and shut. There are no furnishings.
Empty rooms, empty corridors, miles of corridors, endlessly similar stairways, ramps, courtyards, roof terraces, delicate towers, vistas of roof beyond roof, tower beyond tower, dome beyond dome to the far distance; high rooms lighted by great lacework windows or only by the dim, greenish, mottled translucency of windowpanes of stone; corridors that lead to other corridors, other rooms, stairs, ramps, courtyards, corridors ... Is it a maze, a labyrinth? Yes, inevitably; but is that what it was built to be?
Is it beautiful? Yes, in a way, wonderfully beautiful; but is that what it was built to be?
The Aq are a rational species. They have language. Answers to these questions must come from them.
The troubling thing is that they have many different answers, none of which seems quite satisfying to them or anyone else.
In this they resemble any reasonable being who does an unreasonable thing and justifies it with reasons. War, for example. My species has a great many good reasons for making war, though none of them is as good as the reason for not making war. Our most rational and scientific justifications—for instance, that we are an aggressive species—are perfectly circular: we make war because we make war. Our justifications for making a particular war (such as: our people must have more land and more wealth, or: our people must have more power, or: our people must obey our deity's orders to crush the sacrilegious infidel) all come down to the same thing: we must make war because we must. We have no choice. We have no freedom. This argument is not ultimately satisfactory to the reasoning mind, which desires freedom.
In the same way, the efforts of the Aq to explain or justify their building and their Building all invoke a necessity which doesn't seem all that necessary and use reasons which meet themselves coming around. We go stone faring because we have always done it. We go to Riqim because the best stone is there. The Building is on the Mediro because the ground's good and there's room for it there. The Building is a great undertaking, which our children can look forward to and our men and women can work together on. The stone faring brings people from all our villages together. We were only a poor scattered people in the old days, but now the Building shows that there is a great vision in us. —All these reasons make sense but don't convince, don't satisfy.
Perhaps the questions should be asked of those Aq who never have gone stone faring. They don't question the stone faring. They speak of the stone farers as people doing something brave, difficult, worthy, perhaps sacred. So why have you never gone yourself? —Well, I never felt the need to. People who go, they have to go, they're called to it.
What about the other people, the Daqo? What do they think about this immense structure, certainly the greatest enterprise and achievement on their world at this time? Very little, evidently. Even the sailors of the stone faring never go up onto the Mediro and know nothing about the Building except that it is there and is very large. Daqo of the northwest continent know it only as rumor, fable, travelers' tales of the "Palace of the Mediro" on the Great South Continent. Some tales say the
King of the Aq lives there in unimaginable splendor; some say that it is a tower taller than the mountains, in which eyeless monsters dwell; others that it is a maze where the unwary traveler is lost in endless corridors foil of bones and ghosts; others that the winds blowing through it moan in huge chords like a vast aeolian harp, which can be heard for hundreds of miles; and so on. To the Daqo it is a legend, like their own legends of the ancient times when their mighty ancestors flew in the air and drank rivers dry and turned forests into stone and built towers taller than the sky, and so on. Fairy tales.
Now and then an Aq who has been stone faring will say something different about the Building. If asked about it, some of them reply: "It is for the Daqo."
Indeed the Building is better proportioned to the short stature of the Daqo than to the tall Aq. The Daqo, if they ever went there, could walk through the corridors and doorways upright.
An old woman of Katas, who had been five times a stone farer, was the first who gave me that answer.
"The Building is for the Daqo?" I said, taken aback. "But why?"
"Because of the old days."
"But they never go there."
"It isn't finished," she said.
"A retribution?" I asked, puzzling at it. "A recompense?"
"They need it," she said.
"The Daqo need it, but you don't?"
"No," the old woman said with a smile. "We build it. We don't need it."