I can usually get a handle on what someone’s deal is within a few minutes of discussion with them. The topic doesn’t matter, it’s all about inflection, word choice and body language. There was never anybody so far beyond me that I couldn’t suss them out, until now.
“All that aside, wouldn’t you say it’s magnificent?” He slapped the hull of the saucer shaped craft, making a hollow, echoing metallic sound. “A dream come true. All of our hopes and dreams, pooled together into this vessel. Not just a flying machine, but a dream machine.”
I could appreciate what it represented, but had nothing to add. “They have no idea we’ve built this. Every step was carried out in absolute secrecy. Let them sleep, those fools, who do not know that their final day approaches.”
My ears perked up at that last part. I glanced at Tlalo, who hastily clarified. “The day when our dream machine rises. The day when our ambitions are at last realized, all of our preparations will bear fruit. Even if in the end we are defeated, it will be glorious.
Simply to have toiled in secrecy together, more closely knit than our people ever were before the war. To pour ourselves so completely into something, as brothers and sisters in arms. Training our bodies together, raising them to the peak in anticipation of the coming battle. Truly, it will have been enough to possess the strength and the knowledge to raise our dream machine into the sky.”
His voice had that inflection common to the speeches of demagogues. The contagious passion for a cause which could either inspire or terrify, depending on the degree to which you buy into their worldview.
Tlalo then gave me over to the care of Drena, who informed me that the rest of the day would be spent training in the use of the Vril staff. I complained that I was hungry. She frowned briefly, but did accommodate me in the end.
The soft, steady golden glow of a nearby Vril lamp cast Drena in elegant relief as she prepared a modest meal. Chopped vegetables of a species unknown to me, and a bean paste which tasted considerably better than it smelled.
“I wish I had something better to give you, dear.” Drena sat down opposite me, though she’d prepared nothing for herself. I answered that I never expected a lavish banquet from a people literally driven underground, fighting for survival.
She smiled. Was I funny just then? She had the facial features of a Sphinx, and increasingly seemed to share its cryptic nature as well. Between mouthfuls of the leafy, spinach-like greens and what could pass for unusually fragrant hummus, I assured her that I appreciated every ounce of hospitality, and joked that it was at least vegan…to which she raised an eyebrow.
“I had my reservations after Neil died in the crash. I miss him, if I’m honest. But I knew nothing of your struggle then. I had some idea of the monsters Neil pledged his life to, but not the extent of their crimes. I had to see what they’ve done to your people, to your home with my own eyes.”
She glanced out the window, and I followed her gaze. Tufts of deep red grass waved gently in a breeze coming from one of the many tunnel openings around the perimeter of the immense cavern. Scaly six legged beasts, which I assume must fill the niche of scavenger down here, picked through the debris between the nearest burnt out buildings.
They all must harbor painful memories of the war and subsequent occupation, like Tlalo. All of them, in order to keep their fires burning under these bleak conditions. To make them join such a desperate movement, with seemingly pitiful numbers and even more dubious odds of success.
Yet here I am, having cast my lot in with them. One madness heaped upon another, upon another, countless layers deep. After the meal, Drena took me out into the field, soft blades of rich red grass tickling my ankles as we walked. A gust of wind sent visible ripples across the grassy expanse.
What a strange sensation, for there to be wind underground. I’ve been in caves before, there’s sometimes a gentle flow of air if there’s another opening elsewhere, but rarely did it feel so much like natural wind as this.
It lightly tossed Drena’s hair about. She’d have looked captivating right then, except that she was studying me with worrying intensity. Eventually I had enough of her eyes burning a hole in me, and asked what it was about.
“It’s just…something you said earlier. That you don’t eat meat.” I reaffirmed that I’ve been a vegan for some years now, which only further befuddled her. “The enemy we now share…in their mind, all living things are arranged on a hierarchy of value according to their intelligence. Their awareness, their capability.”
I nodded, adding that in my own estimation a cow’s life has the same value as a human’s. That disregarding an animal’s right to live just because it’s less intelligent is exactly the sort of vicious, exclusionary barbarism I’d committed to fight.
“But you eat plants because they are less aware. Dim enough that you feel comfortable disregarding their right to live.” I stopped in my tracks to process it, feeling sure she’d gotten turned around in her thinking somewhere.
“Plants are barely even alive, it’s not comparable.” She conceded that. “Certainly, I did not mean to say that a plant is as aware as a cow. But that isn’t the point. The point is that deciding plants are the most morally acceptable organism to consume because they are the least aware implicitly validates that mode of thinking which you claim to oppose. That there exists a hierarchy of organisms, the value of each being tied to its degree of awareness.”
I disputed it at first. When she used the word awareness, it sounded somehow more correct and less harsh than when she used the word ‘intelligence’ instead. Yet it still effectively came down to the complexity of the animal’s brain, or the plant’s nervous system. So I tried a different angle.
“Take that hierarchy, and do away with proportional quantities of value tied to the intelligence of each species. Instead, draw a line between the plant and animal kingdom. Everything on one side of the line has no value, of the kind that you mean. Everything on the other side has infinite value.”
She frowned. “Is the placement of that line objective? Where might a species of intelligent plants place it instead?” I told her I’d let her know when I met some. She was unamused. “Can you conceive of some species as far in advance of your own intellect as humans are with respect to plants? What would you say to their conviction that it is morally acceptable to eat you?”
Absurd. I said as much. “If we’re having a conversation, then it should be apparent that I’m conscious. That I am sentient, I have ideas about things. That should be enough.” She shook her head. “That just means you meet the human criteria for personhood, which conspicuously means anything which closely approaches, matches or exceeds human mental capability.
You’re not allowing that there could be creatures to whom mere consciousness is nothing. On the same level as the rudimentary awareness of a plant. They might be ‘metaconscious’, ‘hyperconscious’, whatever you’d like to call it. Sentience would not impress them.
That you can speak with them would be no more meaningful than your own scientists’ ability to discern the intentions of ants. You’re thinking about personhood from a rigidly human perspective, which implicitly privileges your own species as the standard against which all others are measured.”
I threw up my hands in exasperation and asked what her diet is like, if she has such involved feelings about the morality of food. “Our meals are instantiated from raw atomic elements using vril staffs, obviously. Even before the relevant technologies could be condensed to a portable size, there were caverns dedicated to sophisticated recycling infrastructure which broke down all waste into its constituent molecules, sorted them, then reassembled them into whatever we desired.”
Oh. Of course. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. “Forgive us savages for not having magical machines that solve every problem” I groused. She seemed unexpectedly wounded, so I qualified it. “…I mean, we do our best. That’s all I’m saying. Many of us do, anyways. Some of us. We’re trying.”
Stay Tuned for Part 19!