Copyright © 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
"LANDS-END" BY PAUL S. GIBBS
My day began with a bizarre incident--and kept on getting stranger.
Over the years I've met many people who claim to enjoy sleeping in zero-G--but I am not one of them. Though I can usually manage the trick, I find myself coming wide awake at least a dozen times during the night, gripped by that peculiar--and unpleasant--"which way is up" panic. For my money, a truly restful night requires at least half a standard G.
Slightly hard my bed may have been, by Sah'aaran standards, but it was extravagantly large, the automatic temperature controls worked flawlessly, and the satiny covers felt almost indecently smooth against my fur. Had I been able, I would have remained between them indefinitely--but unfortunately I had a job to do.
I had been supplied with a bathrobe, a silky mauve garment which I was seriously considering stealing when my job was done. I slipped it on and knotted the sash, and then I stepped out into the sitting room, making a wide circle around the pool and ignoring sharp complaints from calves grown too used to micro-gravity. Seating myself at the computer terminal, I keyed for the breakfast menu. The results were unfortunately predictable.
On Combined Forces vessels, food is supplied by the "auto-kitchen," a remarkably complicated device which juggles carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, adds herbs, spices and flavorings, and spits out reasonable facsimiles of a wide range of dishes from many worlds. Even on so Spartan a vessel as Yerba Buena, I ate fairly well within my dietary restrictions.
No such equipment existed in the Government Building. What did was a well-staffed kitchen which prided itself on having the "freshest ingredients available"--and a pneumatic-tube delivery system. No ersatz maxigrazer liver for me this morning--more's the pity.
I scrolled back and forth through the menu several times, with a growing sense of dismay, and finally settled for fish. Well, the British still eat kippers for breakfast. Noting that my order would take about fifteen minutes to arrive, I rose and strolled out to greet the dawn. Too bad my balcony faced the wrong direction.
Did I say that Lands-End lacked variety? From a kilometer up, perhaps but not at sea-level, as I had gradually begun to learn. Sometime during the night, a fog-bank had settled over the southern tip of the single continent. Nowhere near as thick or damp as the well-remembered fogs of San Francisco Bay, this mist, glowing pink in the early-morning sunshine, served mainly to soften outlines and blend colors, lending the harbor and the ocean beyond an atmosphere both slightly surreal and decidedly romantic. In the stillness I heard the soft mutter of engines, and saw the dim pearly outline of a small vessel departing the harbor. A fishing boat, I assumed. Off to catch my breakfast?
Below my balcony, the promenade lay almost deserted. Whatever schedule the public market kept, it apparently did not include today. The few passersby included small chattering groups of children with waterproof book-bags over the shoulders, no doubt on their way to school; and adults, singly or in pairs, walking swiftly, clearly intent on business of their own. Several times I saw individuals emerge from the sea, shed a sparkling shower of drops, and walk away. Once or twice the opposite occurred. As I watched, I found myself shaking my head. Strange, strange planet, I thought. All the stranger for being full of people so typically human
I noticed the garbage-collector at once, as he emerged from the mist. Whether he was the same one I'd seen the previous afternoon I didn't know, but I rather thought not: this man seemed slighter of build, and moved somewhat more quickly. Younger, perhaps. He was having a much easier time of it than his predecessor too, not having the public-market crowd to contend with. I watched as he methodically removed the lid of each receptacle, lifted out its inner liner, dumped the refuse, replaced liner and lid, and then gave the handle of his floating bin a push. Always just enough of a push, I saw, to move the cart on to the next can.
These people aren't slaves, I reminded myself. They get paid for their work. Their living conditions might not be luxurious, but they must be adequate. It may be that a good number of them are perfectly satisfied
But no matter how hard I tried, I could not make myself believe that. Not now that I had seen the palpable contempt with which their "superiors" treated them. No property, no right to vote or run for office, no possibility for advancement if not slaves, what were they?
I shook my head again, harder, and my unbound mane whipped my muzzle. The governor is right, I told myself sharply. It's none of my business. No matter how much it rankled, there was absolutely nothing I could do to remedy the situation.
I don't know if it was the sudden motion of my head which caught his attention, or perhaps the flash of mauve against the pale-green walls. Or neither. Whatever the cause, the result was definite and dramatic: beneath my balcony the trash-collector abruptly paused, turned, and gazed up at me.
I'm not certain which of us was the more surprised. Instinctively I reached up and squeezed the lapels of my bathrobe together, covering my neck. I saw the young man's jaw drop and his eyes widen with shock. The garbage can fell from his hands and bounced noisily away, scattering trash.
For a second or two we regarded each other; long enough for me to notice that his eyes and hair were brown, his face strong-jawed and deeply tanned. Then he hurriedly turned aside. He dropped to his knees, gathered up the scattered waste, and practically flung the can back into its place. Then he grabbed the handle of his bin and took off at a run, ignoring the rest of the receptacles along the walk. A few seconds later the mist swallowed him. Astonished, I watched him go. What in the Goddess' name--?
A second later I shrugged. This planet is pretty isolated, I told myself. Probably never seen a Sah'aaran before. Somehow that explanation didn't ring quite true--but then a quiet ding announced the arrival of my breakfast, and hunger drove the incident from my mind.
Hesitantly at first, but with increasing enthusiasm, I tackled my meal of smoked fish, something resembling scrambled eggs, seaweed-flour toast, and vaguely citrus-like juice. Not bad--but after less than a full day on Lands-End I already found myself with an unbearable craving for red meat. Good thing my stay looked to be short. I could see nothing to hold me here, once I'd presented my schematics
Or is there? Governor Odyn's invitation had said nothing about time but Captain Thunumm still craved information, something to mull over while he waited for orders. Perhaps I could contrive to play tourist for a while. I knew someone who would probably be very happy to act as my guide
Sah'ahl. I winced, ever so slightly, as I recalled my talk with Captain Thunumm the previous night. Somewhat less than impressed with my skill as a secret agent, the captain was at least surprised and intrigued to learn of my friendly rival--though hardly more so than I'd been myself. And of course I'd also been able to fill in some of the blanks in our study of amphibian history. With little else to discuss, our conversation was short--but not quite short enough, because it ended with the one question I'd hoped he wouldn't ask. "Commander," he'd said, in quiet, almost apologetic tones, "I hate to raise the issue, but I'm afraid I must. With a fellow Sah'aaran as the Chrysaoan representative, will you be able to maintain your objectivity?" And it's a very good thing he couldn't see my tail make a liar out of me when I replied, "Yes, sir, I will."
Sah'ahl looked me up and down, and smiled. "To be honest," he said, "the day-robe suits you better."
"To be honest," I told him, "I agree with you." I raised my arms and turned, giving him the full benefit of my grey uniform jumpsuit. "But I am here to represent the Combined Forces."
Evidently the Chrysaoans did not indulge in uniforms: my opposite number was dressed exactly as he had been the previous evening, in a beige day-robe and a plain black collar. The only addition gleamed from the right side of his chest: a small pin, an orange-and-yellow sunburst which I assumed to be an emblem of the Hegemony. He smiled. "Then perhaps it would be best if we don't arrive at the meeting arm-in-arm," he said. He beckoned. "Come--I know the way."
As we walked--the opposite direction down the main hall from last night's stroll, and up a wide spiral ramp topped with a skylight--Sah'ahl asked, "How did you sleep last night, Ehm'rael?"
"Very well," I told him. "In fact it was the first decent night's rest I've had in weeks."
"That's good," he replied. He walked in silence for a few steps, then went on, "Mine was somewhat troubled, I fear."
"Dreams," he replied simply. "In my sleep I occasionally relive the days following my accident. They were unpleasant. Pain, dislocation, depression, confusion. And fear, of course. Most of the time I manage to keep those memories buried but not always."
"Oh," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Because I'm the one who stirred them up."
He smiled. "Perhaps," he said. "But as you were most definitely the cause of my other dreams, it seems to have evened out."
I glanced away, feeling the rising heat in my ears--because my own nocturnal excursions had also been interesting, shall we say. A fact which I found oddly troubling.
We reached the top of the ramp (another strange congruity with my own culture: we are not overly-fond of stairs either) and entered an area clearly not intended for the public. There, on the Government Building's third floor, the ceilings were low, the lighting direct and rather harsh. The narrow corridors had plain, off-white walls and floors of non-skid tile, and were lined with numerous, normal-sized doors. I found myself smiling as I gazed around: bureaucratic offices are the same everywhere, it seems. Only the workers themselves gave a slightly twisted aspect to an otherwise familiar scene. As Sah'ahl and I made our way up the corridor we passed a number of people, bureaucrats, minor functionaries and clerks I assumed, and amphibians all. And even for a day at the office they did not alter their standard costume--as if their jobs might require them to dive into the water at any minute. Which, now that I think about it, was entirely possible.
Rather more ominous--at least to my eyes--were the security guards who stood at almost every intersection. An equal mix of men and women, they had three things in common: skullcaps, large sidearms, and stern, wary, suspicious expressions. The hurrying minions ignored Sah'ahl and me almost entirely--but they did not. Their unwavering eyes all but burned holes through me.
At exactly five minutes before eight, local time, we came to a halt before a pair of large dark-colored doors. Rather more decorative than the others on the third floor, they were inlaid with shells, something like a Terran scallop but smaller and almost black, set in neat rows alternating convex and concave. Without hesitation--clearly he'd been here before--Sah'ahl entered, and I followed.
The space beyond was nearly as large as the governor's "private" dining room, and almost as attractive, though in a sparser, more utilitarian way. Elliptical in shape and with a considerably recessed ceiling, almost half the room lay on a large balcony overlooking the harbor. The ceiling, patterned like a sand-dollar, glowed brightly. The floor was carpeted in sandy brown. A huge oval table, its surface a mottled malachite green, occupied the center of the room. Seven chairs stood on one side, their backs to the balcony, and on the other side two--an arrangement which seemed obvious enough, if somewhat judicial. The far wall was occupied almost entirely by an exceptionally large video screen.
As Sah'ahl and I entered the room had just one occupant, a slim, obviously female figure standing on the balcony looking down at the water. As the door clacked shut she turned and stepped forward, and with no particular surprise I recognized Governor Odyn.
She crossed the room quickly, and before I knew what was happening, she grasped both my hands. That's a dangerous thing to do to a Sah'aaran, and I had to fight to keep my claws from expressing. "Governor," I began, "I want to apologize for my behavior last night--"
She cut me off, shaking her head firmly. "No," she said. "No, Ehm'rael, I'm the one who should apologize. You're a visitor here, and many things about our life must seem strange and different to you. I certainly can't fault you for asking questions. I ought not to have been offended."
I peered closely at her--but those monotone eyes were almost unreadable. Finally I nodded and smiled. "All right," I said. "Geeri."
She gave my hands a quick squeeze and released them; then she turned to Sah'ahl, who was gazing at us both in amusement. "And you," she said, "thank you for showing the commander back to her room last night. It was inexcusable of me to leave her without a guide."
Sah'ahl bowed his head. "My pleasure," he told her; and something about the gleam in his eye made me turn away, embarrassed. The governor's gaze shifted back and forth between the two of us, her eyes widening slightly, and it wasn't difficult to guess what she thought she knew. I was spared the necessity of refutation, though--and just as well, because I strongly doubt it would have been believed--by the arrival of Odyn's experts.
There were six of them, three men and three women, and they marched in silently, like a particularly well-behaved scout troop, followed--herded, perhaps?--by Dail Akad. Seeing them, the governor brightened instantly. "Ah," she said. "Commander Ehm'rael, Representative Sah'ahl, may I present my unofficial evaluating committee."
She made her way down the line, laying her hands on each pair of shoulders in turn. First a man and a woman in their mid-sixties, silver-haired, distinguished, and as well-matched as a set of bookends: "Tarel Ybin and his wife Jaal are professors of mechanical engineering at our University." Then a younger man, fortyish, with sharp features and a sardonic smile: "Maluim Gule, a marine biologist from our Fisheries Service." A morose-looking woman in her mid-fifties, short and with a definite Asian cast to her pale features: "Ceely Lau, a meteorologist from our Weather Bureau." A man in his late twenties, almost as well-built as Akad, but with a much friendlier face: "Rafe Adal, a hydrologist, also with the University." And finally a woman who must have been well into her seventies, her hair snow-white, her turquoise eyes rheumy, and her body rake-thin. She walked with a cane which appeared to be pearl-handled. "And Lura Flass, our most respected marine geologist."
There were polite, meaningless murmurs of greeting all around, and then we took our seats, the six experts and the governor on the far side of the table, with Odyn in the center; Sah'ahl and I faced them across that expanse of green. As before, Akad took up a watchful position next to the door. As we all settled in, and as I sorted through my data cards, Sah'ahl caught my eye and winked, and I had to firmly suppress a most unprofessional giggle. For some reason that too troubled me, more than it should have; perhaps because it served to prove that the captain was right. Stop behaving like a mooning schoolgirl, and do your job! I told myself angrily.
Governor Odyn rose and cleared her throat. "This committee is now in session," she said formally. "Our purpose is to examine two plans for the construction of a deuterium refueling station on--and above--our world. One proposal has been made by the Terran/Centaurii Alliance; the other by the Chrysaoan Hegemony. I would like to remind the panel that they are to judge the proposals solely by their engineering, economic and environmental merits." She gazed across at my opponent and me, and flashed her famous smile. "Who," she asked us, "wants to go first?"
"I'm ashamed to admit it," I told Sah'ahl, "but I know next to nothing about water-craft."
He chuckled. "Neither did I, when I first arrived," he said. "But I've been learning."
I quirked an eyebrow. "Why?"
We stood about two-thirds of the way along the western breakwater, he and I, looking out over the harbor. The late-morning sun was rather strong, making me wish I'd taken a moment to change into my day-robe; but the breeze, driving before it the last shreds of the morning mist, took the edge off the incipient heat. Before us, spread out across more than a kilometer of calm water, lay a bewildering variety of vessels. The smaller ones, near at hand, lay tied to docks or nestled into slips. Farther out, toward the channel which led to open water, much larger craft were moored to floating buoys. A nearly constant stream of water traffic passed in and out of the harbor. Not exclusively mechanical either: more than once I witnessed amphibians surface like seals alongside a floating craft, climb aboard, shake themselves dry, and vanish into the cabin. Launches and rowboats, it seemed, were seldom needed here.
Sah'ahl shrugged. "I make it my business to learn whatever I can," he said nonchalantly. "You never know what might come in handy." He pointed to one of the slips, where lay a long, slim, white-hulled craft with a towering mast. "That's a sailboat," he said. "Usually a pleasure craft."
I nodded. "That much I know," I said. "I used to see them all the time on San Francisco Bay during my Officer's Academy days."
He indicated one of the more distant vessels, much larger, with a high prow and a low, flat transom, not nearly so attractive or graceful as the sailboat. "And that's a fishing boat." He nodded to the craft's stern, where a huge horizontal drum was thickly wrapped with nets. "That one is probably after the local equivalent of shrimp." His hand shifted, indicating a smaller, wedge-shaped vessel moored to a dock directly below us. Black-hulled, the craft appeared to be jet-propelled, and had a small front cabin and an open rear deck. "I suppose you'd call that one a utility boat," he said. "That's what the amphibians use when it's too far to swim--to reach their floating villages, for example--or to carry light cargo."
I smiled. "Thank you, Captain Hornblower," I said, and he bowed.
"You're quite welcome, Commander."
I stood silent for a time, watching hulls bob up and down and mast-heads describe crazy arcs. Then I said, "Well? Who won, do you think?"
Sah'ahl shook his head. "That," he said, "is an excellent question."
It took the two of us less than ninety minutes to make our presentations. He won the toss and went first; which one of us benefited from that, I still could not decide. My opponent's presentation surprised me, though--on a number of levels. Knowing his employers' reputation, I might have expected him to employ what used to be known as the "hard sell," or at very least to sneak in a few digs at the Alliance. Perhaps an exact reversal of what I'd always been taught about the Chrysaoans: "They will steal your resources, enslave your people, rape your daughters " and so on and so forth. As Captain Thunumm put it, propaganda.
But to my surprise, he did not. His speech was straightforward, to the point, not one word longer than it needed to be. In short, slightly dull; or at least it would have appeared so to a non-engineer. Myself, I found it fascinating; and if while he talked I was frantically scribbling notes on the palm-reader I held in my lap well, can you blame me? The Chrysaoans were indeed excellent engineers--frighteningly so. When my turn came I felt almost embarrassed to present such inferior material.
I had also seldom before faced such a tough audience. As I spoke, the board-members,--and Odyn too, sat with their arms crossed, silent, staring owlishly at me. I'd given many such presentations, and usually found it possible to gauge the responses of those I addressed, and modify my approach accordingly. But not this time. My only consolation was that they treated Sah'ahl no differently; him, though, it didn't seem to bother. After a time their faces began to blur together, and I found that I could no longer remember their names, much less their individual specialties. Truly, the only thing memorable about them was how good they all looked. The amphibians aged remarkably well, I found. Maybe it was in their genes. Their green hair faded gracefully into silver, their wrinkles merely made them look reverend and wise, and they never developed anything so humiliating as a pot-belly. All that swimming, I guess.
Traditionally speaking, speeches of that kind are followed by question-and-answer sessions, which can often go on much longer than the proposals themselves. But this time, to my extreme surprise, there was none. Or--to be absolutely accurate--almost none. I had just finished speaking when Tarel Ybin, the male member of the husband-and-wife team of mechanical engineers, cleared his throat. "Commander," he said, "perhaps you can explain something "
I smiled. "I'll certainly try, sir," I said, with a levity I didn't feel.
"Ever since this project first came to my attention, I've been wondering one thing: why bother?"
I blinked. "Pardon me, sir?"
"Why bother building refueling stations at all?" Ybin said. he gazed at me challengingly. "As I understand it, the Alliance is designing vessels which will be almost entirely self-fueling."
Suddenly I found myself in the midst of a minefield. I glanced quickly at Sah'ahl, and he returned my gaze blandly. "You're referring perhaps to the Bussard ramjet experiments, sir?" I asked carefully.
"That's correct, Commander."
I hesitated, wishing mightily that Captain Thunumm was there to advise me. What are the chances that the Hegemony doesn't know about this already? I asked myself. Very damn small, I'd say. I smiled again. "The operative word is 'designing,' Professor," I told Ybin. "Ramjet-based ships may someday be practical--but it will be years before the first is launched. It will probably be decades before they form a significant part of the Combined Forces fleet. Until then, refueling stations will continue to be needed."
Sah'ahl stirred. "As for my masters," he said, with a glance at me, "they have determined that Bussard ramjet vessels will probably never be practical for their purposes. The Chrysaoans are a physically fragile species, unable to withstand the degree of acceleration required to make a ramjet truly efficient." He gazed at me again, a little longer this time. "And so their ships will probably always need refueling stations."
So they don't have grav-plates yet either, I realized. Very interesting.
"Thank you," Ybin said. "That answers my question."
And a few others you didn't ask, I thought sourly.
But that was the only inquiry forthcoming from any member of the board, and a moment later Governor Odyn cleared her throat and stood. "Thank you," she told us quietly. "We will now retire to consider your proposals. Please hold yourselves available for further consultation."
And with that the seven of them--and Akad--left the room, as silently as they had arrived, once again leaving Sah'ahl and me staring at each other across an empty table. And once again he smiled, rose, and offered his arm. "Let's take a walk, shall we?" he asked. "If they need us, they will find us."
And now, leaning against a railing, gazing down at the harbor, Sah'ahl stroked his one-sided whiskers thoughtfully. "My employers' design makes use of magnetic separation, in a particle accelerator. It's more efficient, perhaps, but it will require more energy, and seems certain to cause more thermal pollution. The Alliance's design is less efficient, and therefore less profitable, but more environmentally friendly." He glanced at me and smiled. "To be honest, though, and despite the governor's pious words, I suspect that their decision will be based on something other than the relative merits of the designs."
I looked at him quickly--then I sighed, smiled, and nodded. "You're right, of course."
"Which takes the matter out of our hands--fortunately for us."
I fell silent then, gazing at him sidelong; then I said, as casually as I could, "It would be interesting to know what your employers offered them "
He spoke without turning. "Ehm'rael, if I knew I'd tell you." He shook his head. "But I don't."
He turned. "I don't," he insisted. He quirked a grin. "What makes you think I do?"
I shrugged. "You're their representative."
"Their engineering representative," he reminded me. "As you are the Alliance's. So you tell me: what did they offer?"
I sighed and turned away. "I don't know the specifics," I admitted. "But in general "
He nodded. "The standard package," he agreed. "My masters know all about that. But if you weren't made privy to the details of your own government's offer "
I shook my head firmly. "Different situation," I said. "The Alliance's deal was negotiated months ago--long before I even heard of the project. But you've been on Lands-End for two weeks, and I haven't heard of any other 'representatives' of the Hegemony visiting here."
He grinned. "You missed your calling, my dear," he said. "You should have been a detective. You're half right. When I arrived I brought a package for delivery to Governor Odyn. Obviously it contained materials relating to my employers' offer. But exactly what, I have no idea. The governor tried to question me about the contents--but I was forced to tell her the same thing I've just told you."
I glanced away, down at the rippling clear water and the algae-encrusted rocks beneath. Captain Thunumm will just love this, I thought bitterly. Maybe I'd better stick to being an engineer after all I've sometimes wished, though, that I had paid greater attention to my companion's use of the word "forced." It would have explained a great deal.
He reached across and grasped my hand. "I had an early morning, and I'm getting hungry," he said. "I've established a line of credit with a little café across the harbor "
Startled, I looked down--because it was his prosthetic hand which rested atop mine; gentle, yes but cold and hard nonetheless. "Sorry," he said ruefully. "Sometimes I forget." But before he could pull away, I laid my other hand atop his, clasping those four coppery fingers tightly between my palms. He gazed at me quizzically and then, very slowly, he smiled.
"I'd like that," I told him.
"Lunch--that sounds good. I'm hungry too."
"Oh, yes--lunch. By all means, lunch."
We turned to go--and walked headlong into a situation which I hope someday to forget.
I heard the sound of clattering footsteps first, unusually loud on that world of bare feet. Startled, I looked up--to see a pair of white-garbed, booted figures charging directly toward us. Normal humans, a man and a woman, they ran full-tilt down the breakwater, the former grim-faced and the latter terrified. The man clutched something under his arm, a cloth-wrapped parcel a little smaller than my shrine.
The woman was perhaps ten paces in the lead, and as she raced past me Sah'ahl jerked me out of the way, lest I be run down. Not bothering with the ramp, she vaulted over the railing onto the dock below, and leaped immediately onto the deck of a small vessel--in fact the same "utility boat" Sah'ahl had just pointed out to me. A powerful engine roared to life--and simultaneously I heard a high-pitched shout from the shore end of the breakwater: "Halt! In the name of the law, halt!"
I spun, and saw two male amphibians running toward us. Like the security guards I'd seen earlier, they wore skullcaps, and their large huge sidearms were drawn. As their shouts rang out the man stopped but surrender was not in his mind. Appearing not to notice either Sah'ahl or me, he leaned over the rail and tossed his package down to the woman. She caught it, set it aside carefully, then ran forward to struggle with the mooring lines.
The man smiled grimly, then turned--and came face to face with me. For an endless second we stared at each other--more than long enough for me to recognize that morning's garbage collector. His jaw dropped; then suddenly, convulsively he grabbed at my lapels, even as I scrabbled frantically in my pocket. "You," he said desperately. "Don't destroy us. Please--don't destroy us!"
By then the policemen--I could only assume that's what they were--had drawn near. "Halt!" one of them cried again. My assailant began to turn toward them, dragging me with him but I resisted, digging in my toe-claws, and he never completed that motion. I heard a soft sound, a muted phutt, followed immediately by a much louder pop! The man jerked, his eyes bugging out; and then he was falling toward me, his hands coming loose from my uniform. From behind I dimly heard Sah'ahl crying my name, and the quickly-receding roar as the boat shot away from the dock and tore through the harbor. Instinctively I reached out my arms, and the man sagged against them. For a second or two I bore his full weight, and my knees began to buckle; then Sah'ahl grabbed me around the waist and jerked me back, gathering me protectively into his grasp. The man fell flat on his face at my feet, twitching at first but rapidly growing still. In horror I watched the wide circle of crimson spread slowly across the back of his gleaming white jumpsuit.