science fiction and fantasy writer

Extracted journal notes for an ethnography of bnebene nomad culture

Journal: 244813.03 (DAY 7#2)

On the move, the caravan inevitably kicks up a lot of dust. The hunter-males walking up front are no more than indistinct silhouettes from my already habitual vantage at the rear of the line. I couldn’t tell which of them it was who raised both arms to point ahead and gave the first cry of, “Yoom!”

The rest of the clan echoed the call. The word translates approximately as, “Oh, happy thing!”

“Yoom!” boomed Bubba, beside me.

“What is it?” I asked.

He peered down at me from his three-and-a-half metre height, craning his neck to see past the fringe of his leaf collar.

“A river,” he answered. He drummed woody fingers on the sides of his torso. “Yoom!”

His armaments clanked with the movement of his arms. Like the hunter-males, Bubba and his neuter-brothers wear harnesses hung with a variety of ranged and close-quarter weapons. They and the non-related hunter-males travelling with the clan refer to each other mutually as “hadhagnug”, meaning, loosely, “threat”. Even with the weapons they carry and the size of the male neuters, the term is much easier to reconcile with the hunter-males than with Bubba and his neuter-brothers. I speculate that perhaps Bubba and his brothers, having been told that I’m female, have rationalised my presence with their clan by adopting me into their sphere of protection.

Intriguingly, the non-related males do not apply “hadhagnug” to the clan’s hunter-males, referring to them as “mnagmanag”, the same term they use for the clan’s breeder- and neuter-females. Raffarin’s definition of “mnagmanag” as “fit for breeding” may require revision.

The pace picked up as we neared the river, both the bnebene afoot and the ondrordore that carried the neuter-mothers and most of the clan’s juveniles growing excited at the prospect of fresh water. Hanging back a little to watch, I was struck by a powerful and very specific sense of strangeness.

Anthropocentrically speaking, bnebene have the “right” number of arms and legs, but these seem far too large and long for their torsos and heads – the heads really just a fifth limb that houses binocular eyes and frond-like olfactory organs. By far the most disconcerting thing about both bnebene and their “plants of burden” is the way they move. The locomotion and gestures of both species tend to be quick, but have a curious jerkiness, as though one is watching poorly made stop-motion animation. Added to that, the ondrordore look like something Cinderella would ride in, shaped like giant garlic cloves with feathery leaf tufts at their pinnacles.

Reaching the river, the ondrordore rotated with ponderous dignity to put their rearmost pairs of vine-legs in the water, before folding open their front wall segments to disgorge their passengers.

The older juveniles climbed down with a kind of staccato flow, then they and the breeder-females helped their neuter-mothers to follow. Bubba and his neuter-brothers retrieved the very youngest saplings from inside, still planted in soil tubs and not yet sapient or animate, and carried them to the water.

The whole clan lined up with their toes in the river, leaf collars raised towards the afternoon sun. Within a few minutes, all had become quiet. What had been a bustling caravan of people was now suddenly transformed into a stand of unfamiliar trees of various sizes, silent and still.

In the distance, around the rim of the bay, I could see a small cluster of buildings. A fish farm’s grid of nets and jetties criss-crossed the discoloured water at that end of the bay. Rochefort is the town’s name, according to my mobile, all of seven years old and claiming a population of a couple of hundred.

The afternoon was getting on, and it was a Sunday, which mattered in these parts. I dusted the pebbles from a patch of dirt and settled down to write while the bnebene finish their drink.


244813.04 (DAY 8#1)

I walked into Rochefort today for supplies and stopped in at the post office to hire a terminal for half an hour, enjoying the luxury of a full-sized interface – even a cheap, outdated one – compared to the basic pad I hook up to my mobile in the field. I tried to ignore the way the postmaster kept staring at my chest while I worked. At my age, sexual attention could have been flattering.

There were a dozen new video, audio and text messages forwarded from the faculty office at the university, from overseas and even offworld colleagues who wanted to crash my research. I sent back via the office my blanket text-only response, “Research is progressing well. Subjects are accepting but sensitive. Further disruption would be counter-productive at present.”

I came back to the counter with a handful of articles printed on cheap synthetic vellum for later reading. The postmaster squinted at me – at my face, for once – while he processed my credit. “You travellin’ with them aliens, ain’t you?”

“Bnebene,” I corrected him, managing to keep my tone light. “We’re all aliens here.”

He grunted. “Tinkers, ain’t they?”

I ground my teeth. The term is Raffarin’s, whose theory of the Universal Metaperson dominates scholarship of bnebene as it does that of other communicative sapients. Still, I told myself at this particular moment, it’s better than ‘aliens’.

I tried not to touch the postmaster’s skin when I took back my card. He stared at my chest while I thanked him and wished him a good day. Outside, I paused to take a deep breath before crossing the road to the town’s general store. From the post office steps, I could just make out the silvery thread of the space elevator disappearing into the upper reaches of the sky, anchored on the far shore of the inland sea at Persepolis.

I came out of the general store with a thoroughly unappetising collection of dehydrated ration packs in a thin sucrose bag that might last the walk back to the campsite. I wondered if perhaps I could convince one of the hunters to go and rustle me up some rabbits, imagining their amusement if I did so. A day is yet to pass that one member or other of my bnebene clan doesn’t remark on my inefficient physiology, with its daily demands for material sustenance.

Still, ration packs are a small price to pay, and I am determined to make more of my once-in-a-generation opportunity than Golovlyov did.

The riverside camp is about an hour from Rochefort, travelling on foot. I walked beside the vast, pungent enclosures of oysters and sardines that are the town’s sole reason for existing.

The silence of Aralsea on a still day, and of the dry plateau that surrounds it, is intimidating. Not much has made it out here yet to alleviate the monotonous pale umber of dust and stone, only lichens, grasses and a few insect species – and rabbits.

The sucrose bag gave up the fight about three quarters of the way back to the camp. I had to fill my pockets and nurse the rest inside my jacket like a pregnant belly.

Approaching the camp, I spied wisps of smoke from campfires. Bnebene only make fires to cook with, which meant someone had been out rabbiting. My mouth watered.

I took off my boots, socks and trousers to wade across the thigh deep water, as I had on the way out. The ondrordore still stood with their back ends in the river. When we arrived, their wall segments had a shrivelled look. A day later, they’re as plump as inflated balloons. Most of the juvenile members of the clan were still in the river beside them, unmoved from the day before. Consistent with Golovlyov’s observations of ship-borne bnebene, young caravan nomads typically remain less active than the adults, even after they uproot from their planter boxes.

Nimble breeder-females and tall hunter-males hunkered around the fires, holding out small, rapidly charring carcasses on skewers. Bubba and Jolly squatted among them, while Big Red stood like a solitary watchtower on a low rise a short distance from the camp. Pixie, the middle in age of the clan’s adult neuter-mothers, squatted on a stool to rest her legs while she dipped her toes in the river.

Old Chook and Chuckles, her sisters, struck identical poses a couple of metres away. All three had tucked up around their hips the hems of the silk ponchos they wear to cover their Venus Fly Trap mouthparts and the several seedpod organs around their torso-trunks. Other genders, with only mouths and genitals on the front of their trunks, wear aprons instead.

I waded out of the river near Pixie and her sisters and lifted my jacket to let the foil packets spill onto the ground at the water’s edge. The three neuter-mothers observed this performance, beady eyes unblinking in their small triangular faces. The slight ruffling of their leaf collars indicated they were amused.

“Are sedentary bnebene cultures as hidebound as sedentary human ones?” I said.

This prompted a brief discussion of the term “hidebound”. According to the Babel in my ear, their consensual definition was reasonably accurate. Once satisfied, all three of them adjusted their ponchos, looking like nothing so much as human grandmothers straightening their frocks.

Pixie turned to me. “You had a poor experience of your fellows in the town, gunnug?”

According to the Babel, which uses Raffarin’s bnebene lexicon, “gunnug” means “undesirable”, as in “not fit to mate with”, the semantic opposite of “mnagmanag”. The caravan nomads apply the term equally to Merchanter bnebene as to humans and other non-bnebene sapients.

I recounted my conversation with the postmaster.

Old Chook murmured something that the Babel didn’t pick up. Pixie said, “This bnebene is familiar with such attitudes among the gunnug of the towns.”

“Bnebene gunnug?” I asked.

“Gunnug is gunnug,” she said.

Her use of the term compels me to concur with Raffarin that bnebene don’t maintain a clear ideological distinction between culture and biology as means of differentiation.

I ate my dinner of charcoal-baked rabbit and re-hydrated vegetables with Bubba and Jolly. To take food, bnebene squat with knees up behind their shoulders, their plates on the ground, and delicately pick at the surprisingly tiny morsels with their long fingers. The food is lifted up underneath their aprons to their mouthparts, which adult bnebene rarely uncover. Most of their meals consist of sitting still while they go through the early parts of digestion. The waste that remains in the mouthparts is discreetly spat out a couple of days later into shallow pits the bnebene dig with their toes.

In deference to the sensibilities of my hosts, I hang a gauze veil over my head and shoulders while I eat with them. The size of my meals is as much of a source of astonishment for the bnebene as is their frequency. Jolly and Bubba tapped each other’s torsos while they digested and I was still shovelling food up under my veil.

The evening was warm, so I had left my trousers off, underpants sufficing for modesty in this non-human company. It was the most of my skin they had seen, as all my outer clothes consist of full trousers and long-sleeved shirts. My legs look superficially similar to bnebene limbs, with smooth thighs and calves and wrinkled, knobbly knees, although bnebene dermis has a waxy texture and hardness like that of a smooth-barked tree.Bubba, beside me, reached out two fingers to prod my thigh. He recoiled. “Hree!”

“Hree!” Jolly echoed. Their leaf collars flared. A heartbeat later, I heard an identical, distant, cry from Big Red, out on sentry duty.

My Babel translated the word as a diametric opposite to “Yoom!”

Around the camp, the head of every hunter-male snapped around to look our way. I suddenly felt like the person who’d farted noisily in the busy silence of an academic library. Or, as the flat gazes of the hunter-males remained fixed in our direction, the person who had tried to tiptoe through a lion’s cage and kicked over a metal bucket halfway.

A pulse pumped in my neck. “My skin is softer than yours,” I said.

Abruptly, Bubba and Jolly settled down, as though my explanation had bridged a conceptual gap that they couldn’t cross by themselves.

“It is,” said Bubba. “This gunnug differs from this bnebene.”


244814.03 (DAY 14#1)

I remain at a loss to explain my clan’s gender disparity. During Golovlyov’s sojourn with his merchanter clan, he established, if only by the verbal evidence of his interview subjects, that bnebene genders are determined chromosomally and that bnebene have three chromosomes to determine gender, resulting in four viable combinations: two male and two female, with a fertile and sterile caste in each pair. Thus:

TU – breeder female

ST – breeder male

SU – female neuter

TT – male neuter

Golovlyov’s observations of his host clan and other Merchanter bnebene confirmed roughly equal gender numbers.

The same should be true of my caravan clan. Yet the clan includes four neuter-mothers (three adult, one juvenile), three adult neuter-males, nine breeder-females (including three juveniles) and six related breeder-males (in caravan nomad society, the “hunter-males”, two of which are juvenile). There are another four unrelated hunter-males travelling with the clan at present. I discount planted saplings, since they do not begin to express gender until after they uproot.

When I asked Bubba if he has any hunter-brothers who are not currently travelling with the clan, he replied, “There are seven little-brother-subfractions of this bnebene that are elsewhere.”

Observations of other caravan nomads indicate that the clan’s gender balance is usual for Tinkers, with breeder-male numbers consistently forty to fifty percent higher than breeder-females. The difference is not readily explicable. It would be remarkable for females to be significantly less viable than males.


244815.05 (DAY 23#2)

Bubba fell into step beside me as the clan ambled along beside the river after breaking camp. In his hands, he cradled the pot of a young sapling, its not-yet-animated trunk resting against his shoulder.

“Good morning,” I said.

Bubba’s habitual response to this greeting is to consider a moment before replying, “It is.”

This morning, he hummed deep in his torso – a pre-verbalisation, from the fact that my Babel offered no translation. After a lengthy pause, he asked, “What fractions has this gunnug?”

I felt a little thrill. Following from his prod at my leg a fortnight ago, this was the only second indication I’d had from him of active intellectual curiosity about me.

I answered deliberately, “I am one and whole.”

“One?” he repeated.

I watched him closely. “Yes.”

“Hree!” he cried, making me jump, and strode away, his leaf collar flared trembling stiff around his head.

“Hree!” I heard from his neuter-brothers further ahead.

I took a couple of deep, slow breaths, then jumped again as two more tall figures appeared abruptly on either side of me. A pair of the clan’s hunter-males – Moose and Black Pete – their long rifles cradled in their arms.

Black Pete said, “Come, gunnug.”

Bnebene hunter-males are very different creatures to their neuter-brothers. Bubba’s “little brothers” exude a palpable aura of purpose, the way a gun has a sense of purpose. These I can well imagine as the clan’s warrior defenders.

Moose and Black Pete steered me, sandwiched between them, over to where Pixie rode at the open front of one of the ondrordore. My mouth was very dry. Hell, I thought, they’re going to kick me out. My bright future career was fading before my eyes.

Pixie said, “Gunnug, you must be circumspect in your dealings with big-brother-fraction. Big-brother-subfractions are the simplest of this bnebene and easily upset. They struggle to grasp that a gunnug person may have only one body.”

“They are prone,” said Black Pete, “to conflate ‘confusion’ with ‘threat’.”

“This bnebene is concerned that the consequences for this gunnug, having only one body, could be very great,” concluded Moose.

I swallowed a couple of times so that I could answer, relief tempered by an entirely new fear. The clan wasn’t going to expel me, but, even as alarming as their recent reactions had been, I had not considered that the neuter-males’ intellectual confusion could trigger an outburst of actual physical violence. I had no doubt over the amount of damage a bnebene neuter-male could do to an unprotected human. “I understand.”

“It is well that you do,” said Pixie. “Sister-fractions will be watching”

 I am uncertain whether this was intended as a warning or a reassurance, or why Pixie’s statement excluded the clan’s hunter-males. Perhaps the female genders have greater sway over the neuter-males when they were distressed?


244815.05 (DAY 23#4)

I avoided Bubba and his neuter-brothers for the rest of the day, but they came to me as I ate my dinner of dried apricots and yesterday’s leftover rabbit.

The three of them squatted around me. Bubba put his potted sapling down by his side and repeated his question. “What fractions has this gunnug?”

For the first time, their great size seemed intimidating. I was sitting away from the main part of the camp, my mobile and interface pad propped up on my pack while I ate. None of the female bnebene were near. Black Pete stood in the river about twenty metres away with Silent Bob, one of the unrelated hunter-males. My mind raced.

I said, “I have many fractions and subfractions.”

“Where are they?”

Damn. I wetted my lips. “Here.”

In near unison, the three of them half stood, squatted again. “But where are the rest?”

Black Pete looked towards us. He started to wade out of the water.

“They are all here,” I said.

“Hree!” Bubba rose, leaf collar stiffening and arms spreading wide in an obvious threat display.

“Hree!” Jolly and Big Red crowded in beside me.

Black Pete splashed ashore with stop-motion speed.

“How many subfractions has your fraction of this bnebene?” I asked Bubba, quickly.

His arms lowered. Their leaf collars drooped. Bubba squatted again. Black Pete slowed his charge.

“Three, now,” said Bubba. “Four, soon.” His fingers reached absently for the sapling.

I held out my bowl of dried apricots, knowing that they enjoy the flavour. Bubba took a wrinkled fruit and tucked it under his apron. Jolly and Big Red copied him, reaching over me. Trying to control the shaking of my hands, I resumed eating.

This interaction – along with my other, less alarming observations – supports the conclusion that the bnebene “person” is synonymous with the matrilineal kin group – encompassing both the eusocial, matrilocal clan and any related hunter-males living autonomously. Each gender set within the clan is, in Raffarinian terminology, a ‘fraction’ of the person, and each member of the set is a ‘subfraction’. The actual bnebene words translate literally as ‘essential part’ and ‘smallest part’, respectively. I have not yet observed any evidence that my clan members conceptualise themselves as anything other than parts of the collective whole.

That said, the fact that at least some of the clan can readily grasp that my personhood is contained within my single body, superficially weighs in favour of Raffarin’s position that the “dividual” bnebene person is an ideological construct and therefore consistent with her theory of the Universal Metaperson. However, even these members seem utterly perplexed that the label “Irene Matsui” should apply only to me, and that other Irenes are not then synonymous with me (not all ‘this Irene’).

I have tried to explain to Pixie my conceptual need to apply nicknames to her and her clan members. She seems unable to distinguish which member of a gender set any given nickname refers to, even when I say, for example: “Chuckles is that sister-mother-subfraction that is older than this sister-mother-subfraction.” She grasps the kin relationship I’m referring to, but seems unable (or unwilling) to associate this with the label “Chuckles”. It is the extremity of this behaviour that led Golovlyov to his proposal that since bnebene are biologically eusocial, therefore their “dividualism” is biological – that is, bnebene personhood fundamentally resides at a group level and they can only conceptualise themselves in terms of their relationships.

Unfortunately, while I am inclined to sympathise with his view that Raffarin’s theory is anthropocentric, because of Golovlyov’s widely derided supplementary claims, intellectual association with anything more than his basic observations is a greased slope to scholarly oblivion.


244816.02 (DAY 27#4)

Bubba and his neuter-brothers have been bringing their sapling to awareness. When we camp, they spend most of their days gathered around its planter box, singing low, rumbling songs from which my Babel is unable to discern any words. On days when the caravan moves, they have taken to carrying the sapling by turns, rather than loading it into the ondrordore with the rest. At the beginning and end of travel days, they sing to it for at least an hour.

The clan’s several saplings are at varying stages of maturity and the progression is fascinating to see. At first, they have an appearance akin to sunflowers, having a long, straight stem and large, single flower head with two leaves just below it. As they mature, the lower part of the stem bifurcates, the leaves lengthen and shape into arms and the flower head hardens, olfactory fronds unfurl and it grows into a face. By the time the sapling is ready to uproot, they look like a perfectly rendered, skeletally thin statue of a breeder-female. Visible gender characteristics, including the massive size of the male genders, develop after uprooting.

While Bubba, Jolly and Big Red have been singing to it, the sapling has slowly grown more animated, beginning with small flexing of its fingers and mouth parts, followed by full movement of the arms and head and, finally, articulation of the stem at the knee and hip joints. The climactic moment came this afternoon, when the sapling finally added its voice to those of its brothers.

“Yoom!” they all cried.

“Yoom!” the rest of the clan echoed.

A meal was had this evening, and the neuter-males took theirs squatted beside their new brother. It will be several weeks yet, I understand, before the freshly sapient bnebene is ready to uproot.


244817.02 (DAY 34#4)

I am acutely aware that this opportunity is mine because Utopia is still a young, fringe colony at the arse-end of the Line, and Nieu Bactria is the arse-end of Utopia. I am the only qualified cultural sapientologist at NBU. Being Johnny-on-the-spot, I’ve locked in the gig before more distant and better-credentialled colleagues could even hear of the opportunity. But even with this ethnography under my belt, I need to add something to the body of knowledge if I am to use it as a springboard up to that esteemed rank of scholars that includes Raffarin and the rest – that should have included Golovlyov. Now I have it.

Tonight I witnessed an event from which even Golovlyov was excluded: a mating ceremony.

Towards sunset, all of the adult bnebene gathered in the river. The neuter-males stood behind the neuter-mothers in an obvious protective position. The crowd of breeder-females and males, related and unrelated, faced them in a rough crescent. They sang, a low murmur without – to my human ears – any discernable melody, although I could feel a rhythmic pulse of their sub-sonic vocalisations. “Yoom” was repeated, and several semantically related words.

At the moment the sun’s orb touched the horizon, three couples separated from the crowd and approached the neuter-mothers. Each couple comprised a clan member and an unrelated hunter-male. The three mating trios then waded out of the river and made their way to the ondrordore, each party shutting themselves inside a different vehicle-creature. The neuter-males followed, to stand guard outside.

Most remarkable is that one of the pairs who had approached the neuter-mothers was male-male – Black Pete and Silent Bob, who I observed in the river together a few days ago.

A final, curious, point of interest is that the remainder of the adults stayed in the river after the mating trios had shut themselves away. They remained quiet for some time, then gave three collective intonations of “Yoom”, close together but not equally spaced. Shortly after, the breeder members of the mating trios emerged from the ondrordore.

That a neuter-mother is included in a non-breeding union prompts the speculation that homosexual relations among bnebene are required to follow the pattern of breeding relations in order to be socially sanctioned. The presence of some interstitial or malleable gender characteristics is also a possibility, but less likely. Previous ethnographic evidence indicates a remarkably strict alignment between ideological and biological gender categories among bnebene and occurrences of intersexuality have not been recorded.

Since I have been permitted to observe this ceremony, I’m hopeful that Pixie and the other participants will consent to speak with me about it as well.


244817.03 (DAY 35#1)

At dawn, Black Pete and several of the other hunter-males took their juvenile brothers out rabbiting. The neuter-mothers were carried down to the river and planted on their stools. When I tried to approach, Bubba and his neuter-brothers flared their leaf collars in a threat display. I retreated promptly. I was, however, able to observe that Pixie and Old Chook did not appear fully conscious in any case.

Interestingly, Chuckles – who had gone with Black Pete and Silent Bob – exhibited the same behaviour. This suggests that intercourse, rather than impregnation, is what triggers catatonia in the mothers. A more intriguing possibility is that Chuckles’s behaviour is an act, part of the ritual of sanctioning the homosexual mating.


244817.03 (DAY 35#2)

More excitement today: towards midday, as the camp drowsed, suddenly every member of the clan (except the neuter-mothers, who remained catatonic) leapt to their feet in the same instant and gave a collective cry of, “Hree!” Several minutes of intense agitation followed. The unrelated hunter-males, after their initial surprise, appeared unaffected.

I waited for a while after they’d settled down (and my own heart rate had returned somewhere near normal!) then approached Moose to ask what the outburst had been about.

“One subfraction of the hunter-brother-fraction of this bnebene has broken his leg.”

“Did your hunter-brothers call the news to you?” I asked. I hadn’t heard anything, but bnebene hearing is known to be more sensitive than human and has a wider auditory range.

Moose rapped on his shin. “If one subfraction feels a hurt, all subfractions of all fractions must feel it. Is it not the same for humans? If one part of this gunnug is hurt, are not all parts aware?”

“All parts of me are in the same body,” I said.

“It is the same,” he said.

His answer, I note, did not preclude the possibility of a distress call.

I was therefore surprised when the rabbiting party returned to the camp whole and unhurt. I returned to Moose.

“Which hunter-brother-subfraction injured his leg?”

Moose raised both arms to point. “The subfraction that hunts to the north, by the sea.”

“At the shore we have recently left?” I asked, thinking that an infrasound cry from a bnebene on the south shore of Aralsea could conceivably reach us here.

“No. By the sea,” he said. With a woody finger he sketched a quick map in the dirt, showing our river, Aralsea and a blank swathe between it and the squiggly line he drew for the oceanic coast. He made a dot beside the river (us) and another up next to the north coast. “By the sea,” he repeated, “That which surrounds this continent.”

I do not, from this, concede to Golovlyov’s postulated “psychic dividualism” – his unsubstantiated and oft-ridiculed contention that a bnebene clan is more than merely eusocial, but at the most fundamental level a single being. Given the sophistication of the geneered tech the Tinkers use, it is entirely probable that they have integral communication devices to maintain contact with separated members.


244817.07 (DAY 39#3)

After the warning from Pixie, Moose and Black Pete, and Bubba’s subsequent alarming approach, I have taken some pains to avoid he and his neuter-brothers. Curiosity trumps caution, however. I took my plate and ventured over to join them.

“Yoom,” I said, aware that I am only capable of a small part of the vocalisation. They appeared to understand my attempt or, at least, welcomed me into their group.

“Four, now,” said Bubba.

“This fraction has four subfractions,” I said.

“Four subfractions of this fraction of this bnebene,” he agreed, amiably. “This fraction that is brother-uncle-son.”

Moose and Black Pete were watching, as were several other hunter-brothers. The line of conversation seemed safe enough for the moment, though.

“This bnebene has many subfractions,” I ventured, ready to backpedal quickly if they showed signs of agitation.

“Many,” said Bubba.

“Most are here and some are elsewhere,” I said.

“Most here,” Bubba agreed. “Those parts that are brother-father-son are elsewhere.”

The statement confused me. I glanced at Moose and the other related hunter-males. “Some of those subfractions that are brother-father-son are elsewhere, and some are here?”

Bubba’s leaf collar rose a little – as did those of his brothers, including the sapling – then settled. “No. Only brother-father-son of other bnebene,” he said. “Only hadhagnug.”

“But what about…?” I began, raising my arm to indicate Moose and Black Pete and the rest.

I stared at Moose and had one of those vertiginous moments where sudden insight yawns like a chasm beneath one’s toes, where one had previously perceived only an unbroken field ahead. It took me a moment to find my voice.

“How many sisters have you?” I blurted, then corrected the question: “How many sister-fractions has this bnebene?”

 “Three,” said Bubba. He and his brothers shifted their feet. The sapling shivered. Reacting to my reaction – not understanding it, necessarily, but sensitive to the change in my body’s rhythm and scent.

 I asked one more question to check. “And how many brother-fractions?”


I beat a hasty retreat before they could begin to ask awkward questions of me.

I took my plate over to Pixie who, along with her sisters, had fitfully emerged from her catatonia over the past couple of days. My legs were shaky as I squatted beside her.

“There are eight adult hunter-subfractions travelling with the clan,” I said. “Four belong to this bnebene, four of them do not.”

She looked at me for a few seconds, no doubt sensing the same disturbance in my body as the neuter-males had begun reacting to. “Yes,” she said.

“The four that are subfractions of this bnebene are female,” I said.


Not evidence of homosexuality or intersexuality. Black Pete and Moose and the rest are female. A third female gender. The trio of Black Pete, Silent Bob and Chuckles was a breeding trio. I said, “This bnebene has three fractions that are female and two that are male.”


I had to sit, tipping the short distance from my squat onto my backside. Pixie and her sisters watched me with evident curiosity. I took a couple of deep breaths and said, “The bnebene of the Merchant ships are different to this bnebene. Merchanter bnebene each have two female and two male fractions.”

“They are gunnug,” Pixie said. Feeling a little lightheaded, I asked her how many fractions the bnebene of the homeworlds have. She informed me that they are all gunnug, but added that some have as few as two fractions and others as many as seven.

My head is whirling with ways this might be achieved. The sex chromosomes postulated by Golovlyov for Merchanter bnebene could conceivably produce a third female gender if, for example, the hunter-females have an extra chromosome that masculinises them. A supplementary gender-determination method, such as temperature variance, or some form of haplodiploidy are other possibilities. But none of these would explain the homeworld bnebene with two or seven genders.

Different sex chromosomes would:

Merchanter Genders       Tinker Genders

TU – breeder female      PQ – feminine breeder female

ST – breeder male        PR – masculine (hunter) breeder female

SU – female neuter       RQ – breeder (hunter) male

TT – male neuter         QQ – female neuter

RR – male neuter

I asked Pixie, “Why five genders? Why does this bnebene have five fractions?”

“Because five is bnebene.”

“And why do the Merchanters have four?”

At this, Pixie and her sisters indicated amusement. “Because they believe four is bnebene,” Pixie said. “But five is bnebene. All else is gunnug.”

The bnebene species that we know (plural species), and at least some of those on the homeworlds too, are artificially self-created to express competing ideologies of racial ideals.

This is my springboard. I am made.


244818.02 (DAY 41#2)

I was bathing this afternoon in the river, downstream of our campsite, the backs of the ondrordore between me and the camp.

Bubba and his neuter-brothers waded out into the water and surrounded me. Jolly carried the sapling in its pot. Its flared leaf collar mimicked theirs.

“How many fractions has this human?” Bubba demanded.

I stood, covering my breasts and genitals in case they took offence at seeing them exposed. “Humans perceive ourselves differently to bnebene,” I said.

“How many fractions has this gunnug?” he said. “How many subfractions?”

I wished for Moose’s psychic powers to kick in right about now. I thought quickly. “Come ashore with me,” I said. “I will draw you a picture that might help you understand.”

They allowed me to pass and followed as I waded up to the bank. I considered making a break for it, but that would certainly inflame the situation. Besides which, on the riverbank we were in sight of the rest of the clan at the camp.

I quickly put on my shirt and trousers, not bothering to dry myself. I beckoned for the neuter-brothers to squat with me. To my relief, they did, Jolly placing the sapling on the ground at his side.

With my finger, I sketched a web of lines in the dirt, creating four intersections. I indicated the drawing, and then the four of them, “This is this fraction of this bnebene.” I indicated a line. “These are the relationships that bind the subfractions together.”

They sat silently for a long moment, then Bubba extended a finger and touched the intersection nearest to him. “This is this subfraction.”


Jolly and Big Red copied him. The sapling reached less certainly towards the intersection nearest to it. They retracted their fingers. Silence, again.

Encouraged, I drew more criss-crossed lines, another four sets, then lines to connect all five. “These are the other fractions of this bnebene,” I said. I drew a ring around the whole lot. “Everything outside this is not this bnebene.”

They stared at the picture. “This is this bnebene,” said Bubba.

Heart thumping, I rubbed the patch of dirt clear. I made another series of dots, then drew lines between them, but not quite touching the dots. I touched the dot closest to me. “This is this human.”

A muscle in my calf twitched, my legs tensed to spring away and run. Bubba extended a finger. “The lines do not touch.”

“No,” I agreed. I touched the other dots. “These are other humans. Each is one and whole.”

The moment seemed to last forever. Their leaf collars stiffened, relaxed. Then Bubba said, “This gunnug is different to this bnebene.”

I almost gagged with relief. They could understand. Even these simplest of bnebene could grasp a concept of the individual. Could Raffarin be right, I thought, after all? Could Golovlyov’s accusations of anthropocentrism be unfounded?

“This is how most humans see ourselves,” I said. “Humans and bnebene perceive ourselves differently.” I took the plunge: “Underneath, perhaps we are more similar.”

I let that hang for a few seconds. When they didn’t react, I rubbed out my sketch and began a third time. Once again, I made a series of dots. This time, I made a circle around each one and connected all the circles together with lines. Raffarin’s diagram of the Universal Metaperson: each individual distinct from but bound within a web of dividual social relations.

“Underneath the different ways we see ourselves,” I said, “perhaps we are both – humans and bnebene – both like this.”

They stared. Bubba uncurled a finger, hesitated, then touched a dot on the Metaperson diagram. “This is this subfraction.”

“Or this human,” I said.

“The lines do not touch,” he said.

I felt a sinking dread in the pit of my belly. I had taken them too far. “No,” I said. “But they hold us, nonetheless.”

“This…” His leaf collar shivered, as did those of his brothers. “This subfraction is… is… this bnebene.”

“This subfraction is this bnebene,” Jolly and Big Red repeated. The sapling mewled. Their distress was palpable.

“This subfraction is one,” said Bubba.

“One and four,” I stammered. “And many.”

“One!” he bellowed, rising.

“Hree!” they all cried, at different moments.

I leapt backwards, stumbling away from them as Bubba and Big Red reached for weapons.

“Hree!” they cried again, even more unsynchronised, and all did something different. Jolly fled at a staccato sprint towards the river. Big Red turned an energy blade on himself, stabbing himself in the trunk, while beside him the sapling waved its arms, frantically seeking contact with one of its brothers, and tipped over its pot. Bubba came after me, swinging a sonic mace.

“Hadhagnug!” he boomed. “Hree!”

The mace’s vibrations made me want to vomit. The edge of its effect radius scraped my shoulders, not quite close enough to draw blood.

Ahead, hunters charged from the camp. I saw Moose, standing still, her hunting rifle levelled, aiming past me. I jagged to the side. Hot pain seared my back as Bubba caught me with the full effect of his mace. My guts reacted violently, my bowel and bladder evacuating as vomit spurted up my throat. I fell.

Moose’s rifle whined.

“Hree!” Bubba cried, staggering.

Black Pete struck him feet-first, knocking him down with a crash like a felled tree. She aimed her handgun and fired a lightning-burst of blue light, point-blank into his trunk, then sprang after the rest of the hunters, off to subdue Jolly and Big Red. Bubba sprawled, fingers and toes twitching, making faint, broken noises.

“Hree!” the cries echoed from the camp.

I tried to stand, fell again as the world tipped up to meet me, crawled over to Bubba. “Oh, no. Oh, no. I’m so sorry.”

Hard fingers caught my arm, lifted me away.

Moose dropped me in the dirt a distance from Bubba, regarded me from her great height, rifle cradled across her elbow. “This gunnug has hurt this bnebene.”

“Will they be alright?”

“Perhaps,” she said. “But this gunnug must leave.”

Once all the neuter-males were stunned and quiet, Moose walked me downstream to wash in the river. Black Pete brought my pack of clothes and belongings and they helped me to apply a synthskin dressing from my medical kit to my back. Then they left me.

I stood on the riverbank, the breeze raising goosebumps on my bare skin, and watched the caravan move away. It was a couple of hours past noon, but they plainly had no desire to stay in this distressing place, or near me. The long legs of the neuter-males hung from the open doors of the ondrordore. None of the clan members looked back.

I dried myself and dressed, then built a fire, feeling colder than the day.

I have what I came for. I will overturn a generation of received wisdom about bnebene gender and evolution. What we had thought of as a single species is, in fact, several. And they have made themselves several, the ultimate expression of fundamentalism and eugenics.

My reputation will be made. Offers and opportunities will flow. It will be “Goodbye NBU, goodbye backwater”. The list of renowned sapientologists will begin Raffarin, Matsui…

But what have I let slip away? Where might the clues I’ve been presented have led me? I showed Bubba and his brothers how to see themselves as individuals and it broke them. Simple as they are, they hadn’t the resilience or sophistication to meet the challenge to their fundamental concept of self. Was it evidence of Golovlyov’s psychic dividualism? Of the first true hive-mind humanity has encountered in a communicative sapient, or just absolute indoctrination? Might I have loosened some bricks at the base of Raffarin’s intellectual edifice, her Universal Metaperson, as Golovlyov so spectacularly failed to do? Was the opportunity there to pull the whole thing down?

Might I still? Perhaps somewhere else, with another Merchanter or Tinker clan. There are experiments that could prove or disprove Golovlyov’s theory.

But even if bnebene dividualism is true, could it too be a construct, an artificial veneer over the natural bnebene person? Is that why it shattered so easily for Bubba and his brothers? Do the questions of gender and dividualism converge?

My mobile is blinking beside me as I tap out my thoughts on the interface pad, its memory full of unanswered messages. Those, and the long walk back to Rochefort, can wait until tomorrow.


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