by Michael Bard and Quentin 'Cubist' Long
1 2 3
4 5 6 7
8 9 A
Well. He hadn't died after all, a fact which greatly puzzled
both his own physician, Dr. Derksen, and Ad Astra's medical staff;
by rights, his hyperactive metabolism ought to have consumed every
free oxygen molecule in his bloodstream and tissues within tens
of seconds of his submergence beneath the Pacific Ocean, if even
that great a span of time. Given what was known of his biological
peculiarities, it was quite simply not possible for him to have
survived the 53 minutes of total aqueous immersion that immediately
preceded Sylvia's recovery of his body from the ocean floor! It
was not possible, and initially not even considered, for his body
was inert, unmoving, unresponsive.
It was also several degrees cooler than ambient temperature, a fact which made no sense even given his metabolic capabilities.
First Angelo, and now Jubatus had suffered for my misjudgments... I wasn't there when Sylvia brought him to shore. I had work to do, and if performing my duties kept me from something I had absolutely no desire to see, that could only be a happily coincidental secondary effect.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Okay, where the hell am I? I couldn't see a damn thing. Couldn't hear or feel, either --
in fact, none of my senses were working, as far as I could tell. Might as well
have been a disembodied viewpoint, floating over black velvet
in a sealed room at midnight. Maybe I'd reached satori? Naah.
By any name, heaven wasn't in the cards. Not for a devout, hardshelled
atheist like me. No light, no sound, no time, no dreams, no pain...
Pretty dull, if you ask me. Not a problem. Dull is good; there's
a lot of things worse than dull. At least, I think there are... My memory seemed to have fuzzed out on me, so I couldn't say
for certain, but I was fairly sure that 'dull' was relatively
low on the Things Worth Avoiding scale.
I think I could get used to this...
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
With the sun streaming down I slowly walked towards the infirmary
thinking about yesterday, keeping as much weight as I could on
my cane so as to favor my injured leg. I was in an odd conundrum
-- the only reason the terrorist attack had come so close to succeeding
was that I had taken the plane off to pick up Jubatus and it had
been disarmed; contrariwise, if I had not gone to pick up Jubatus
the plane would have been here, been armed, and the attack would
not have been an issue. Thus did Jubatus simultaneously bear some
of both the blame for the assault's near success and the credit
for its ultimate failure. It was just such contradictions as that
which made real life so interesting compared to mathematics. No
matter how good the predictive algorithm, a single individual
could (and probably would) screw it up; thus went SCABS, mutants,
and Asimovian psychohistory.
I was coming to see Jubatus because I had an idea that was only safe for me to test. I had no trouble getting into the building, nor yet reaching Jubatus' bedside as he wasn't dying, or at least he wasn't getting any worse. He was alive, but his pulse and respiration, in fact all his autonomic functions, were so slow that they had initially been rejected as random noise by the monitors. Of course his room wasn't the most comfortable place for me as the pretty flowers at the windows hissed at me and I hissed back at them.
Sandra, the chief medical officer, turned to me as I entered but before she could say anything, I asked, "Have Derksen's people been able to pry him out of that emergency consultation yet?" We had been in constant contact with the arthropoid physician until some 4 hours ago, when one of his other patients collapsed in his waiting room. Whoever it was, he had chosen a quite inconsiderate moment to deprive us of Derksen's expertise.
"Still nothing from the Clinic," she said, referring to Derksen's office. "As for our patient, his condition hasn't changed, for better or for worse. There are some drugs we could try, but since he is stable for the moment, we're holding them in reserve until we have more information. According to what we have, he should be fine."
Ignoring the plants I turned and looked at his apparently dead body. "No physical wounds, broken bones, or other trauma?"
"Nothing worse than contusions and abrasions."
In other words, his injuries were minor and strictly superficial. Certainly nothing that would account for his current condition... I held out my hand. "Needle." I'd have to do it as I had the pheromones and Sandra didn't.
"Dr. Carter, I don't think we should risk any drugs without..."
"Sandra, all I need is an empty needle. It won't even pierce his skin. Now."
Once I felt the needle in my hand I swiftly moved to stab Jubatus with it, controlling my motion so that the point wouldn't penetrate his flesh in case I was wrong. As expected, I wasn't. I had thought (correctly, as it turned out) that Jubatus' control over his metabolism worked in both directions; just as he could significantly accelerate his life processes, it was now confirmed that he could likewise decelerate them as well, and in that manner had reduced his metabolic requirements to a level sufficiently low that he could indeed survive a 53-minute oceanic immersion. That being the case, it was clear that all he needed now was a shock to his instincts as a kind of jumpstart, something to force him to shift his metabolism back to the conventional level of activity. A good 12 centimeters before contact Jubatus was a blur, the needle was gone from my hand, and I could just feel the touch of his fangs around my neck --
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
...light? Kind of blurry, but definitely light. No -- "Lights!"
[who said that]
And "Camera!" and "Action!"
[where am I] I seemed to have picked up a body from somewhere -- I'm a fleet-footed, long-leggedy cat. No time to explore the new corpus, because I'm in the middle of some Godforsaken wilderness [how'd I get here] and the Klieg lights are so flaming bright I can barely make out the camera crew [who are they] and I don't want to miss my cue!
There's a new voice, familiar, even if I'm not sure where I know it from: "This is Marlin Perkins [isn't he dead] for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. [but it's off the air] Tonight we've got a rare treat for you folks at home! You'll be watching the first-ever footage of the extremely rare Relativistic Cheetah [no such animal] the only living creature whose sheer, raw, speed is great enough to make Time itself slow down! [no that's wrong] Native to the trackless, inhospitable wasteland of Silicon Valley, this elusive beast..."
Perkins blathered on [but he is dead] just like he does every week, providing educational context for whatever gory spectacle the audience was about to see. [ what audience] Except that this time there's no blood, just cubs like me having fun. [but I'm no cub I'm too old]
Damn! [what's wrong what's wrong] Almost missed my cue -- but I bounded into the camera's field of view, and my brother was there [I have no brother] so we tussled, [something's very wrong] play-fighting [no no no no no] for the home viewers -- NOOOO! --
That's when reality went into a tailspin. Where'd the cameras go -- I'm inside? -- what the hell -- this isn't Africa -- Carter's okay! -- bad dream, a hallucination, something, it had to be -- who are all these people!?
Strangers: Not knowing who they were, or what their intentions might be, I took a defensive position between them and the dryad, then downshifted to talk. "Back off. Back the hell off! Good. Now stay there. Nobody moves --"
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
"-- and nobody has to get hurt."
Quite unexpected! The pheromones had ensured that Jubatus' subconscious mind, presumably including his instincts, would regard me as a littermate, hence interpret that 'threatening' needle as nothing more than a playful feint. Unfortunately, said pheromones did little for his conscious thought processes, and it appeared as though I had seriously underestimated the full extent of his suspicious nature (not to say 'paranoia'). At least the cane enabled me to keep standing.
Behind me I heard Sandra scream so I turned to face her. The cheetahmorph stood before me, not recognizing anyone save myself as an ally; with claws deployed meaningfully, ears flat to his skull, and tail twitching, he was clearly no more than milliseconds away from acts of unspeakable violence. "It's alright, Mr. Jubatus," I said, hoping I could defuse the situation. "There are no enemies here."
"You vouch for 'em?"
"I do. All of them. They are my co-workers."
Upon hearing my words he relaxed dramatically, all of his considerable tension visibly draining out of his body. "Good," he said as he stumbled back against me to slump back onto the bed. Unfortunately that pushed my centre of gravity onto my bad leg and I began to fall. He caught me before I fell on top of him, his paws warm and comforting on my side as he helped me reacquire my balance. "Hospital?"
"Thank you. If you're inquiring as to whether you are within one, the answer is 'yes'."
"Also good. I feel like shit -- I've got a migraine headache that covers my entire body."
Just then, a pair of doctors walked in, led by Drew, his fur bristling, as Jubatus covered the bed like nothing so much as a boneless puddle of cheetah.
"Drew, please accept my apologies; I should have clarified what I was going to attempt with Sandra first and allowed her to take whatever precautions she felt was necessary for both the patient's and my health. I was not in any danger, and it was simply Dr. Miesel's concerns over her patient's instinctual reactions that caused her to call for backup."
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
No doubt about it, my unknown assailant had struck again. Whoever
was responsible, I looked forward to ripping them a new orifice,
or maybe two or three. They'd earned it. In spades. But that was for a later time; for now, all I
wanted was to lie down until it stopped hurting. It felt like
every muscle in my body was chronically overstressed, every joint
painfully raw. And then there was my headache on top of it all;
reverting back to my default tempo of 6 helped a little...
Someone new had come in while I was absorbed in my own pain. A lupine SCAB with a lot less wolf in him than, say, Wanderer. This new guy's fur was redder than the Caped Canine's, also a lot shorter, whether because of trimming or genetics I couldn't say -- looked like a wire brush. Seemed like he was chatting with the dryad; I downshifted to eavesdrop.
"...please accept my apologies; I should have clarified what I was going to attempt..." Apologizing? Carter? Okay, they gave her a booster shot, too. Bastards.
When she was done with 'Drew', she turned to me: "Mr. Jubatus, I'd like you to meet Mr. Drew McGregor, Ad Astra's head of security. I believe that you met Sylvia Wigley last night. She was the orca you ran into and she brought you back to shore."
'Ran into' -- oh. Right. So that did happen, it wasn't just a nightmare... "How's she doing?"
"Quite well, actually. Her blubber dissipated the force of the impact sufficiently to prevent any serious harm."
Drew held out his hand. Definitely not so lupine as Wanderer; all-over fur coat aside, the security guard's fully wolflike head was his only non-human part. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Jubatus."
I had to smile (sadly and cynically) as I shook his hand. Sure, he's pleased to meet anyone who threatens his colleagues. "I doubt that, but thanks for the sentiment. Honestly, I don't intend to make a habit of this sort of thing."
He turned to the doctor who was cowering behind the dryad. "Can he leave the room?" She nodded, and he spoke some code into a radio from his belt before he got back to me. "Mr. Jubatus, before we continue I need to ask you some questions."
It must have been serious, otherwise the dryad would be taking him down a peg or three. I shrugged. "It's your nickel; ask."
"Chemical sensors have detected some volatile materials in your personal effects. Could you please let us have a clear look at what it is?"
I sighed. If he's detected the stuff, what's he need to bother me about it for? Come on, Jube, he's just doing his job... "What's the problem?"
"If you'll come outside I'll show you. It is possible that somebody slipped something into your luggage without you knowing it, or with you knowing it."
"Ah! 'Tis sweet Paranoia, come to stay a while --"
The dryad cut me off: "We don't take potential threats lightly, Mr. Jubatus, and neither should you. On matters of this nature Drew's word is law. If we can get going we can get this settled quicker and try and get back on schedule as we've already lost a day."
I stared at Carter for a moment -- A day? What in Cronus' name -- no. Let the doctors worry about it, that's what they're paid for -- then closed my eyes and sagged back onto the bed for a little more recovery time before I climbed back onto the fuel-injected merry-go-round I call my life. "Right. Gimme a few seconds --"
"You've just had 29 solid hours of bedrest. Get up. Now."
I peered curiously at the wolf, through major pain and half-open eyes. "McGregor?" I asked in a conversational tone. "You got any idea what a Mach-speed collision with an adult killer whale feels like?"
"Ah... no..." he said, puzzlement added to his hostility.
"Wanna find out?" I asked in the same bland voice. He opened his mouth but had nothing to say. While he was speechless, I tuned everything out and slipped back to my default tempo of 6. Let the dryad handle him, I'm still hurting too much. Not hungry, or at least not that hungry -- why? Deep breaths. 29 hours? That's insane! Prob'ly fed intravenously. What the hell was I doing... And the pain ebbed as seconds ticked away on the slow, slow clock, McGregor's and Carter's voices rumbling along as a basso continuo --
-- hostile approaching from 2 o'clock --
--and my claws were at the guard-wolf's neck. Don't really want to rip his throat out; getting shot by Ad Astran justice would spoil all my plans. At least I don't feel like shit any more. Crap, yes, but not shit. Now you be nice, Jube... I smoothed my fur back down and sat on the bed, then I took one last deep breath and matched their tempo once again.
"-- going to -- ah!" Apparently, he hadn't expected me to blink into a different position. I spoke up before he could go on.
"Outside, right? Fine."
He soon recovered his poise. Very professional. "Yes. Sir. If you please."
I stood up with care, and was pleasantly surprised that my headache didn't worsen. McGregor's ears flicked, and I caught a hint of a snarl (suppressed near-instantly) to go with the anger on his scent. Sorry, pal, I'm an outside contractor; I don't have to grovel before you like... Hmm. A security chief that wants to control the people he's guarding? Could be. Okay, the wolf's on the short list of suspects. "Not a problem. Lead on, MacDuff."
One hallway later, we were outside in the cold pre-noon air, about 50' away from the Fokker 10, the incessant wind blowing waves in the low grass that covered most of the Island. Two guesses which piece of my carry-on luggage was there before us on the ground.
"Sir, this is the suspect item. Our scans have detected volatile material inside. You will please open it, slowly and carefully." He motioned at the case.
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
I followed behind Drew keeping a wary eye on Jubatus. Our security
chief most vehemently denied the alpha wolf that was an integral
part of his psychology, but that denial did nothing to alleviate
its influence upon him; I had no intention of allowing Jubatus
to spoil the control I'd gained over Drew by the years-long process
of cultivating a submissive posture towards him. It was always
good practice to keep those with power happy, an age-old truism
which SCABS had done nothing to alter, and by manipulating Drew's
subconscious mind into regarding me as the alpha female of his
pack, I had a significant amount of freedom and support from him,
without questions, when needed.
Outside the sun was approaching the zenith, and it was indeed going to be a bright, and (to members of the animal kingdom) happy day. Unfortunately for me, the brighter it was, the more tired I became. Early experiments had confirmed that given correct conditions of soil and light my body would root itself; I still did it occasionally under controlled conditions, when I needed to heal or when confronted with an extremely complex problem which my other methods of approach had failed to overcome. It wasn't long until the three of us reached Jubatus' case, the other one that had been commented on at the airport. Always careful, Drew had placed it in the middle of a field, and left it closed. Knowing him it had already been scanned and rescanned.
"Mr. Jubatus," he pointed at the case, "this is the suspect item. Our scans have revealed material of a volatile nature inside. Would you please, slowly and carefully, open it?"
Thankfully, the cheetah nodded and complied without any resistance. "Thought so. Okay, here goes." So saying, he opened the case and removed its contents, competently laying them out on the ground. "I'll bet this is what rang your chimes," he said, indicating one particular item. It was an ordinary 3-litre dewar, an insulated container for liquid chemicals. "Congratulations of the sensitivity of your chemical sensors, by the way; the seals kept volatile leakage down below what the airport's detectors could handle."
"Could you explain exactly why it is that you're carrying a supply of a dangerously flammable chemical with you?"
The cheetah rolled his eyes and raised up one end of a roughly cylindrical 60-centimetre-long object from where it lay on the ground. "Fuel for this sucker." The indicated object was a small rocket, oddly familiar -- of course; a scale model of the Saturn V booster! "It's fully functional, and I'm gonna fire it off as soon as I settle in upstairs."
I could tell that Drew wasn't happy with the notion of this rocket-propelled projectile flying about anywhere near the vicinity of Ad Astra's orbital assets; before he could say anything, I spoke up. "Are you quite certain that this device won't present any hazard to Brin Station?"
"Pretty much. Payload's a couple of hundred grams, nothing dangerous, and I've got the course laid out to avoid hitting anything solid along the way."
"'Pretty much'?" Drew's suspicions were more than evident.
"Yeah, 'pretty much'," Jubatus replied with cynical amusement. "Never plotted this kind of ballistic trajectory before, and since I'll be down here a couple weeks, I figured I could get one of your orbital mechanics to double-check my work before I leave."
"See that you do," the wolf commanded, repeatedly looking from Jubatus to myself and back again. "In fact, I'll see that you do."
Interesting, but potentially a source of conflict. I decided to interject before Jubatus and Drew went too far. "For the moon dust I take it? I don't know many people who'd spend millions of dollars just to send it shooting off towards the stars, other than NASA anyway."
Jubatus shrugged. "It's that, or let it gather interest in a bank vault."
"Very good. Drew, is this all satisfactory for you?"
I could see Drew glaring at Jubatus... "Everything's fine but..."
...I slightly lowered my head in a sign of submission to help relax him...
"...I'd prefer to keep it under lock and key, just to be on the safe side. I'll put it on the shuttle and give you the lock code so that you can give it to him when needed."
"Mr. Jubatus, is that acceptable?"
"If it's okay by you, Carter, it's okay by me."
"Drew, is there anything else you need to know about Mr. Jubatus' baggage?"
"Not any more."
"Good then. If you'll take the fuel storage tank, I'll help Mr. Jubatus to his quarters."
"Are you sure..?"
"I'll be careful, and the day of the tests is the day I've put aside for my own healing. My only regret is that I won't be present to see you torture our guest here."
Drew smiled, and then waited for Jubatus to hand him the dewar and I looked at him until he did. Then Drew nodded and walked away, leaving me alone with my guest. "Feeling all right now, Mr. Jubatus?"
"Better than you," he said with one of his customary wry smiles.
"It'll heal in time for our flight -- don't worry about missing it." I saw him relax slightly. "If you'll grab your luggage, I'll walk you to your quarters and go over the schedule for the next two weeks, hopefully without any further interruptions. Your tests and training are scheduled to start at eight am tomorrow -- I think we both need some rest today."
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
The by-play between McGregor and Carter was interesting -- and
a little frightening, too. Ordinarily, the dryad was as fearless
and arrogant as an inbred Russian Tsarina, but here and now she
was polite, even submissive -- hell, she'd even bowed her head! Yeah, the wolf was definitely a primary suspect for the mindgames
culprit. At least she was taking it easy; the bullet wound in
her leg looked nasty, but the doctors here wouldn't've let her
walk around if it was serious. I upshifted a little to get the
benefit of reduced gravity while I repacked my luggage, then went
back to tempo 1. "Let's roll, doc."
And we did.
I could've played crutch again, but I was still hurting myself, and her cane was all the support Carter needed. We headed towards a three-story rectangular grey lump. "That's the main residential complex, which is where you'll find your quarters, along with the main cafeteria. Given your basal metabolic rate, the volumetric capacity of your stomach, the most probable time and content of your last meal, and taking into account a downshift factor of approximately 1:25, you should be hungry."
Right on cue, my stomach rumbled. "Thanks for the effort, but there's a much easier way to tell if I'm hungry: Check my pulse. If I've got one, I am." I surveyed the buildings, a set of isolated, greyish bunkers randomly scattered across a lake of knee-high grass with no footpaths and barely any connecting roads. "No paths?"
"Any paved walkways would damage the ecosystem of the Island, and provide easier means of traverse for invaders."
"If that's your reasoning," I said with a sardonic half-smile, "I'm surprised you haven't laid down any pavement to draw them into a killing ground."
"Actually, we've done that near --"
"Forget I said anything." That'll teach me to make that kind of joke around her...
"As you wish. Defensive considerations aside, we also have a large number of SCABs on the Island, most of whom find it more comfortable to walk on natural grass than on asphalt or concrete."
Carter's cane tapped the cement at the entrance before we hit the door. There was a camera over the jamb; thinking back, there'd been another over the door to that bunker Carter got shot at. She pulled a black, oversized PDA from her purse and held it under a scanner below a keypad near the doorknob until the door clicked and swung open. "Data confirmation to ensure we're authorized for access to the interior -- there's one for you in your room."
"Any kind of activation procedure I should perform?"
"No, we've already taken care of all the necessary programming and adjustments."
The door swung shut behind us. Interior decor was Late 20th Century Light Industrial: Linoleum floor, fluorescent tubes overhead, pale monochrome walls, and a bulletin board with some random bits of paper tacked to it. Morbid curiosity got the better of me; sure enough, there was a lot of data about the recent attack. Casualties, both dead and wounded, and who on our side was credited with how many kills. Yep, there I was at the top of the list:
10:1 // ACINONYX, J // MIS_SPEC // 7(8?)SD + 3AD + 0SI + 4AI
Let's see, "SD" was "solo deaths"... never mind the rest, this cat's curiosity had just killed itself. A quick upshift got me back to Carter, where the black hole in my gut made it easy for me to focus on the aromas of food, cooked food-like substances, and stuff that food eats.
She looked up at me. "Please don't wander at random; we're rather cautious about access, which means that at best, you'll find very little other than closed doors."
"And at worst, I get shot and wake up dead."
"Yes. By the way, you should be aware that new faces are not common here, hence your presence is likely to attract a disproportionately high level of attention from Ad Astran employees."
I nodded. "Thanks for the warning."
About 30 feet on was another door, and given the thickly layered aromas that oozed forth from it, the cafeteria had to be on the other side; one more pass of Carter's PDA got us in. The room was large, well lit, and full of wooden tables and chairs, people (maybe 40% of them being SCABs), and the aroma of food. A good selection of potted plants, which I noticed the dryad went out of her way to avoid. The walls held various photos of Brin Station and the Babylon spaceplane, scattered around whatever vertical area wasn't taken up by some of the biggest damn picture windows I'd ever seen. Nice, clear view of the outside, sun shining down... Hold it. No way Ad Astra would tolerate that kind of weak point in a structure like this, and even if they did, this is an interior chamber!
I pointed. "Those aren't real windows, are they?"
"Correct. One of our purchasing agents got an exceptionally good deal on a shipment of LCD displays which turned out to be unsuited to the purpose we intended; this is how we ended up using them, rather than scrapping or storage or resale. We've found that the psychological value --"
"Excuse me?" a mid-range alto interrupted. Female norm, about 5'6", black. Instincts must not've judged her a threat. "You're Jubatus Acinonyx, are you not?"
"That's me. How'd you guess?" Amazingly enough, she didn't flinch when my voice assaulted her ears.
"No guess," she said with a smile. "You're the only cheetahmorph on the Island! I'm Khalisha Stoneham, life systems engineering, and I just wanted to say 'thanks' for helping out during the recent attack."
I did not think of the precise form of assistance I'd given; she meant well, it wouldn't have been polite for me to rip into her even figuratively. "You're welcome. Of course, if it'd been up to me, you wouldn't have needed that kind of help..."
"I hear you, Mr. Acinonyx. Anyway, thanks again, and 'bye!"
After Stoneham started back to her table, I whispered to Carter, too quiet for anyone else to hear: "Put her up to that, did you?"
The dryad's reply was equally low-volume. "I hardly think I'd need to, Mr. Jubatus. You're a new face, which alone would make you a point of interest to our rather insular society, as I said previously. Add in your contribution to our most recent defensive action, and -- best to continue this later," she concluded as another well-wisher stepped up to offer an expression of gratitude.
Our progress through the (thankfully short) line was obstructed many times, as one or another of Carter's colleagues intruded on my space. Not so good for a crowd-hater like me; fortunately, it wasn't as bad as I would've expected. Most of them just couldn't keep from reminding me of the murders I'd committed, but even that was tolerable. Might've been the personal touch -- every one of these people had been at risk from those neo-Luddites, any one of them could easily have been maimed or killed by one of the eco-zealots I'd wasted. Like I said, personal touch. I don't get that a lot. When I'm on a troubleshooting gig, it's usually just me and the machines, and sometimes I never even see a human face...
If I hadn't actually seen any SCABs around here, I'd have still known Ad Astra had a few, from some of the more unusual food offerings. I mean, how many cafeterias offer raw meat heated to body temperature? In between well-wishers and an occasional autograph hound, I collected a trayful of protein, even decided to take a chance on sausage and what was labeled "carnivore's meatloaf". Contrary to popular belief, we carnivores can eat veggies -- we just get the runs. As for me and my accelerated digestive processes... Let's just say that when I munch on plants, the end result ain't pretty.
Fluids: Carter went for orange juice, I grabbed three apiece of OJ, apple juice, green tea, and Jolt Classic. No cash register (meals were part of the benefits package), and then the dryad got us a table. I still wasn't sure I believed what she was eating, and I'd seen her pick it out: Cheeseburger, heavy on the cheese and mushrooms. After inhaling my meal, I downshifted to watch her attack her hamburger.
She noticed me noticing her. After swallowing a neat, symmetrical bite, she asked, "Is something the matter, Mr. Jubatus?"
I smiled. "Your burger. I see fungus, onions, lettuce and tomatoes, and I'll bet there's wheat in the bun. Seems like cannibalism to me!"
She took another geometrically precise bite, chewed, and swallowed before answering: "My fare is no more cannibalistic than yours, Mr. Jubatus. My physiognomy is a curious mixture of plant, animal, and inanimorph, which means there is little that I can't eat. If you want more, go and help yourself."
I nodded. "Not a problem. Time enough for that later."
"Very well. Now that you've had a taste of the normal routine, what do you think of Ad Astra?"
"It's... different. Seems kind of informal."
"What were you expecting, uniforms?"
"Well, yes. I mean, even the Green Lantern Corps at least had a standard color scheme!"
"Green Lantern Corps? Who were they?"
Sigh. "Before your time. Never mind."
I could practically see her brain filing that reference away for later research. "We're here because we share a dream. We don't need anything else to bind us together; unfortunately we're few enough that we know each other at least in passing. Keeps ringers out too." With that she swallowed the last of her juice. "Let's go to your rooms, you need to rest, and I have some work to get done."
"Sure." I upshifted and put both our trays on the rack, and was back picking up my luggage before she finished standing.
"Thank you. And now there's something I'd like to ask you, Mr. Jubatus. I've noticed a faint aura when you adjust your metabolic rate. Do you know why there's a visual effect?"
Oh great, she's getting curious. Play dumb, and hope that throws her off. "There is?"
"Faint, but yes. It's in either the near infrared or near ultraviolet. That might be why you never noticed it; perhaps your body temperature suddenly shifts."
"Maybe so," I said with a dismissive shrug. "Say, when's the cafeteria open?"
She stood up and stumbled a bit before catching herself with her cane. "24 hours. Off peak times the choice is more limited, but there is always meat available. Some of the staff require it."
"You need any help?"
"I'm fine Mr. Jubatus, but I'll take you up on the elevator rather than by the stairs."
"Perfectly sure. Really, I'd be in a wheelchair all the time if Sandra had her way. I'll be fine for the time being."
Curious, I looked at her. She swallowed, and then answered with just a hint of embarrassment in her voice. "I'll be undergoing some treatment to get it healed tomorrow."
Well, it's none of my business anyway... I nodded and followed her down the hall, past the stairs, and to the elevator. Then it was up to the 3rd floor and a door at the end of another hallway. She ran her PDA under the scanner and the door clicked open. "Your new home. Once you run your PDA under the scanner, the door won't open except to you or to those with override privileges." I followed her in.
The room was about 3 meters square, with a neatly made bed, a compact desk that doubled as a table, a chair, and a computer. A twin to Carter's PDA, this one's LED blinking, was on the bed.
"Bathroom's down the hall and to the right, it comes with shower if you need to use it. Soap is also there. The computer only has internet and e-mail access, and all graphics and script are removed before being displayed so you'll only get bare text."
I thought for a moment. "Scripts I get -- I can live without any virus delivery systems -- but why stop graphics?"
"Our bandwidth is not infinite, Mr. Jubatus, and it is purely by Ad Astra's courtesy that we are allowed to make use of the company net for personal purposes at all."
"Okay. Can I set a size threshold? Only block images over maybe 100K?"
"Yes. I've set the default to absolute blockage, inasmuch as many of my colleagues don't seem to know the meaning of '100K'."
I rolled my eyes. "Typical. Don't recall who first said so, but technogeeks should have to work with last-generation equipment, so they're forced to solve problems, and not just throw more megahertz at 'em."
"An interesting philosophy, Mr. Jubatus, but I am unsure how one would go about implementing it. As well, problems of practicality aside, it is unclear whether the greatest waste of bandwidth is due to technocrats or technopeasants. I once launched a search worm to find the biggest file on the internet; thus far, the single largest item found is 1.27 terabytes in size."
"Ymir's bones! What the hell is that monstrosity!?"
"When I was on the mainland once I took a look at it -- it was apparently a video of somebody's dog sleeping."
I stared in disbelief. "One. Point. Two. Seven. Terabytes?"
"Correct," she said in an amused tone.
"Of some idiot's comatose mutt."
"So it would seem. I must admit I didn't watch the whole thing in its entirety; the Dalmatian may have woken up and chased its tail or something."
"A ter'-and-a-quarter... gaah! Anyone who thinks a bleeding dog is worth that much disc space is obviously too stupid to be on the Net. Please tell me you wrote and deployed a worm to atomize that moron's host machine."
"I didn't see a need to take extreme measures. Rather, I simply wrote a nice polite letter to the person's internet host."
I clicked a pair of claws together (the closest I can get to snapping my fingers these days). "Drat. Oh, well; we're drifting from the topic anyway. What's next on the agenda?"
"Today, your only agenda is to eat and rest, in accordance with doctor's orders. As for tomorrow, Drew will be expecting you at precisely 8am in the morning."
She picked my PDA up off the bed, and indicated one of the controls. "There's a map function you can access by pushing this button. As well, you'll find a hard copy in the top drawer in case you need it," she said, pointing at the desk. "Green areas you have full access to; blue areas you may be present in only while accompanied by myself or other authorized persons; red areas are off limits."
The map was a sea of green with a few islands of blue and red.
"If you don't have access the doors won't open. It shouldn't surprise you that both security and the server room are red zones, nor yet that most of the technical areas are blue."
"What's the blinking for?"
"In this case, it means you've a message, and that specific long/short pattern indicates that the message is from Ms. Wigley -- press the 'right arrow' icon for Play. When you leave run your PDA under the reader and that'll initialize the lock, it's preset for all the other basic functions and your access permissions." Pointing out a specific spot on the case, she went on, "Be aware that you need to touch your thumb to this point here when you pick it up so that it recognizes you. Otherwise it'll shut down." Here she stopped and looked at me. "Are you alright, Mr. Jubatus? You appear to be somewhat less animated than usual."
I blinked. "Mmmm. Yeah. Guess I'm still a little out of it."
"Very well; briefing you on your schedule can wait until such time as you are fully recovered. As for myself, I need to get to work, so I'll let you rest." And then she let herself out.
Once safely alone, I collapsed onto the bed -- the food had done me some good, ditto the passage of time, but I still ached all over. Haven't felt this thrashed in years. What the hell happened, anyway? Gotta talk to what's-her-name, Miesel, maybe she's got a clue... so damn tired...
...mmm... Must have fallen asleep. Clock on the wall said I'd been out for 9 minutes. My wall-to-wall ache was still there, just decayed from 'world class pain' all the way down to 'semi-trivial discomfort', and I was hungry. More precisely, I was hungry-er than I would ordinarily be within a half-hour of filling my stomach; something else to ask Meisel about. Derksen would be better, but he wasn't here and I wouldn't feel right sucking up as much of Ad Astra's bandwidth as that kind of consultation could require. For now, might as well find out what the orca's got to say. That's interesting, it looks like AA's email client is a Hogwatcher clone...
Wigley's message was short -- "COME DOWN AND SEE ME SOME TIME. RSVP BYOB MOUSE" -- and came with a couple-dozen K of graphics, a map indicating a particular spot on the Island's shore. A nice, casual invitation, but did I really want to take her up on it? I mean, I'd come this close to punching a Jubatus-shaped hole in her hide...
I thought about it as I put the toilet to a practical test.
I continued thinking as I made another pass through the cafeteria. It was a little more crowded than the first time, and a nontrivial percentage of the mob were people I'd seen here before. Another nontrivial percentage got in my face to show their appreciation for my pest control services; I managed to keep my temper, and made an upshifted escape with my food while I could still restrain the impulse to give the morons an up-close-and-personal demonstration of what I'd done.
I thought some more, back in my room, as I set the door to keep everybody out and ate in peace. Do I see her or not? How do you make amends to an almost-victim..?
Hell with it. If you can run into her, you can damn well look her in the eyes as she tells you what she's gonna rip out of your hide as a result.
I checked the time and sent a reply: "WILL BE THERE 1400 TO 1430." I could've written more, but... no. Some messages just aren't suitable for the medium of email. That done, I had more time to kill, so I unpacked my bags...
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
With a thunk I let my door close and hobbled over to my work
chair (one of those 24-hour ones) and sat down, letting the cane
rattle onto the floor. A rocket. He was actually taking a volatile,
hazardously inflammable chemical up with him in a rocket! Well...
Touching a key brought my terminal out of power saving mode, and a complex series of keystrokes displayed the status of various projects, due dates, e-mails, system messages, flight plans, mathematical queries, additional reports on cheetah biology, a few personal messages from old colleagues, a CC from Sandra to Dr. Derksen regarding Jubatus' recovery, a collection of speed and resistance data from Jubatus' supersonic flight yesterday... The terrorist attack had backed everything up. Tossing Sandra's CC and the speed/resistance data into the file I was building on Jubatus, a particular tone confirmed that the analysis of the system messages hadn't revealed any problems. The personal mails were shunted into a dedicated box -- at least my filters kept all the crap from getting through -- and I went into the math queries. Dr. Morris down in Moscow had run into an iteration of the Shimura-Taniyama-Weil Conjecture that looked odd and had sent it to me for my opinion. A first glance confirmed that it wasn't a trivial problem, even for me, and I really should have put it aside, but then... Instead I started on it, though I linked the data on Jube's flight path into a flow dynamics analysis program that would check the Ad Astra and NATO databanks for matching patterns.
It wasn't until just after midnight that the first level pattern match was complete and a window popped up displaying matches in order of probability; fortunately that dragged me out of Dr. Morris's problem. Interesting, the closest match was a theoretical NATO submarine with layers of semi-permeable skin whose varying surface characteristics would provide different drag co-efficients in water, the precise value being a derived function of the sub's velocity. That meant... what? Layers of air in his fur? It didn't make sense yet the match was too close. Maybe...
A yawn interrupted my thoughts. Enough putting it off. I sent an e-mail to Sandra (she'd just be getting up) to meet me at the usual place as I answered the various personal greetings. My typing speed is well within the range of human norms, but I had a pack of aces up my metaphorical sleeve; a set of macros, currently 1,572 in number and each one triggered by a unique keystroke combo, for common actions and to type common words, phrases and even sentences. The e-mails went out and I stretched and leaned down and picked up the cane from where it had rolled to on the floor.
At least I'd be able to catch the morning dew.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
After another cafeteria run to replenish the jerky supply in
my vest, I put the map and my PDA into separate pockets and headed
out to the shore. If you like your landscapes with a minimum of
obvious human intrusion, Easter Island's is the kind of landscape
you'll like; most directions are just wind-blown grass as far
as the eye can see. You can have as much of that as you want,
with my compliments -- I much preferred the poured concrete of
Of course, I was early. With nothing to look at but waving grass, a few seagulls hovering in the breeze, and the decaying ruins of older (maybe even pre-Collapse) docks, I knew I should have brought something to read. Would've been better than replaying my memories of the attack and wondering about possible consequences of my actions...
-- incoming: 10 o'clock: threat level minimal --
-- and a Peter-Max-on-acid rainbow was rising out of the ocean, a psychedelic collage of streaky spectra and bizarre glints of sunlight -- it actually took me a couple of seconds to recognize it as the splash of a full-grown orca's entrance. I moved out of the line of fire (okay, "water") before I downshifted.
She was an impressive sight; even with SCABS, a 20-ton carnivore isn't something you see every day. "Hello, Mr. Jubatus!" she said in a high, squeaky voice right out of Day of the Dolphin. "Thanks for coming out here. I don't see as many guests as I used to. I'd apologize for my overly formal attire, but I don't have anything else to wear. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find clothes in my size!"
I stared. Don't just stand there -- say something, damnit! "You... you're okay. Right?"
She squeaked, ducked underwater, and blew a roar of bubbles, then surfaced by the dock to inhale.
"Thank you, Jube. I can call you 'Jube', can't I?"
I had no idea what she was driving at. "Ah, sure. Thanks for what?"
"For the chance to laugh. Everybody's so serious around here. Some days, no one even smiles!"
I looked to the East, towards South America. "I can see how regular helpings of death and destruction might have that effect."
She rocked from side to side -- an orca's shrug, perhaps? "Death is a part of life. Happens to everyone." Here she paused to re-align herself in the water to give one eye a better view of me. "But you're not worried about death in general. You're worried about the people you killed, aren't you?"
"Maybe. Seems to me, that's the kind of thing you should worry about."
She rocked again. "Don't see why. They attacked, we defended. No cause for complaint if we kill them."
"You sure you got all of the attackers?"
"Yes, we --" Suddenly her sentence died between words, then air hissed quietly from her blowhole. "Ah. I think I see the real problem now. Okay. You ran into me, and that bothers you -- why? You didn't really hurt me. Just gave me a major headache for a few hours. No harm done, so why do you care?"
"It's called 'unprovoked assault on an innocent person'. I damn well better care!"
"No harm done," she repeated, "and I forgive you anyway. You've got no reason to feel guilty. But you still do..." She paused, then asked: "Jube, are you Catholic?"
I whipped my head around to stare at Wigley for a moment, then I broke out laughing and collapsed onto the dock. After a while, the orca went on, "Feeling better now?"
I sobered up a little. "Like it matters. Drop the other shoe, Wigley. "
"Can't -- I don't wear shoes!"
I moved to the edge of the dock to sit, letting my legs hang down. "Come on, you know what I mean. I launched a lethal attack at you, and that's got to violate Ad Astra's criminal code. Why am I still alive?"
"You've been talking to Sue about our legal system." Another low hiss (her version of a sigh?). "The affected party doesn't have to press charges. Did she mention that?"
"No, and so what? That still doesn't tell me why you, the 'affected party', chose not to waste my sorry ass."
"Took too long to find you."
Say what? Curious, I looked at Wigley. "Carter didn't mention that you guys even have a statute of limitations, let alone that it applies that quickly."
A Bronx cheer blasted out of her blowhole. "We don't. Sure, I was angry at first, but it took me 42 minutes to find you. By that time --"
"Hold it," I interrupted. "You found me. You expect me to believe I was underwater for almost three quarters of an hour?"
"No. 53 minutes total. Search began after my head stopped ringing. I thought you were dead when I found your body! But you weren't, of course. And then Sandy, I mean Dr. Meisel, discovered you were alive. That's when I decided God didn't want you dead yet."
"Of course not! He's not done fucking with me yet," I snarled, then upshifted to give myself some time to calm down. Cut it out, Jube. She's not an enemy, so don't make her one... Back at a tempo of 1, I sighed and continued: "Sorry, I just..." I shook my head and stood up. This isn't going well. Best to leave before any more harm is done. "Never mind. Thanks for hauling me up out of the ocean, and thanks for --"
"Jube. Mister Jubatus. Don't go. Please."
I stared at her. She knows I'm alive; she's made noise about forgiveness; what the hell else could she want with me? Only one answer came to mind. "Sorry, but I didn't come here to be proselytized at."
"And I didn't come here to proselytize at you! If you want to talk religion, that's fine. But if not, there's lots of other topics we could discuss."
Given the background level of conversations in the cafeteria, I almost asked her why she felt any need to talk to me -- but it was just us two at the dock. Not even a scrap of litter drifting on the breeze. And her body locked her out of any conceivable landbound activities... "You must be really hard up for companionship, if you're willing to pal around with the SCAB who came this close to giving your corpus callosum a military haircut."
She shrug-rocked. "Like I said... I don't get many guests these days."
"Okay." I resumed my seated position. "You should know that I'm a little out of practice with this conversation thing, so I probably won't do it right..."
Wigley rose up out of the water a little, so that a big ripple spread from her on the downstroke. "That's okay, Jube. Like the man said, 'we're all bozos on this bus'."
My ears perked up at the quote. "You know the Firesign Theatre?"
"Sure! My grandpa had all their CDs, even a couple of LP records! It's been years since I heard any of their stuff, though."
"Why? There's plenty of audio files you can download off the net -- or would that violate Ad Astran policy?"
"It is against policy, but I could get a waiver if I wanted..."
"But you haven't? Why not?"
"Jube... I'm aquatic. And I've got no hands," she said sadly.
"So what? Voice recognition should still work for you. For that matter, there's tongue controls, eye-tracking or breath switches."
"Voice works, but my blowhole gets sore after a quarter-hour on the Net. As for the rest, that needs equipment the company won't cover."
"Because you've already got a working solution? Right. Damn accountants. Can't you pay for it yourself?"
"Not yet. The tech that makes me a productive team member ain't cheap, you know. Anyway, I wouldn't download any Firesign Theatre if I could. I don't think a security officer should be a scofflaw, do you?"
I almost asked her why she didn't just buy a legit copy. Obvious solution, except she couldn't play it herself and she's got no friends to convert it to something she can use and... "Shit. I think SCABS worked you over almost worse than it did me."
"Almost worse? I don't get it. You've got hands, you're a convenient size. I'm neither. What have I got that you don't?"
Even at this late date, sometimes I get surprised by what sparks my temper. "You're safe," I growled at Wigley. "If you go feral, you're not going to hurt anyone who didn't damn well put themselves in harm's way!"
"Hmmm..." the orca mused. "Sounds like carnivore shock to me."
I blinked, and just like that, I went from 'royally pissed off' to 'calm and curious' -- the flipside of having an über-active endocrine system. "'Carnivore shock'? What's that?"
"Something you've got real bad, Jube. It's like this. One day you're a normal human being. The next, you love the scent of raw meat and part of you wonders if your friends taste as good as they smell. Carnivore shock. It's worse for SCABs like us, who also got the looks. I'll bet the psychologists have a different name for it."
"Probably -- but you said, 'SCABs like us'?"
"Yes. Been there myself. But I'm okay now."
I waited for her to continue, and she didn't. There, she stops? When she pretty clearly wants to say more? "Come on, Wigley. Let's have the rest of the story."
"You sure you want to hear it? I did promise not to proselytize..."
I rolled my eyes. "Which means your religious beliefs are involved. Okay, fine, spill it. I think I can tell the difference between personal testimony and an attempt at conversion."
"Thanks, Jube!" she said cheerfully. "I was born in Montana, raised Protestant. Didn't give it much thought; I went to church 'cause my parents took me, you know? Never really paid attention, any more than a trout pays attention to water.
"Anyway, Montana is so beautiful, I never wanted to live anywhere else. Always liked science, but..." The orca sigh-hissed. "This was just after the Collapse. You know how it was back then."
"Still is, to some extent."
"Yeah. So. I ended up teaching high school algebra. Married my childhood sweetheart; no children, not for lack of trying. Regular churchgoer, but no real belief. I just recited the words like a parrot. Had my whole life planned out. Have kids, retire from teaching, grow old with Dan..."
"And then you caught the Martian Flu."
"That's right. 2025, that's when God decided to mess up my life. Had the 'Flu in February, but I thought it was just a cold. So did everyone else. We all learned different in September, three weeks after class started. We were doing the Quadratic Formula, when I got the shakes and collapsed. Next thing I knew, I was in the nurse's office. 103-degree fever, black splotches down my spine and arms, and half an inch taller than I'd been that morning.
"It took 40 days and 40 nights. The whole change, I mean. The first week or two, I wasn't very coherent. Not even when I was awake. Growing pains all over, all the time. Pins and needles in arms and legs, all the time. Always clumsy, knocking into bedframe and stuff, when I moved. And always, always, always hungry. You get hungry enough, anything looks like dinner. Anything. You got any idea what it's like to look at a person, and have to keep reminding yourself that they're not food?"
"Yeah," I said, shuddering a little. "You could say I've been around that block a time or two. So the bastards were starving you to death, huh?"
A concussive snort blasted from the orca's blowhole. "Jube, I went from 117 pounds to 40,490! Takes a lot of food to put on that kind of weight. Sure, there's polymorphs can pull mass from nowhere, but I'm not one of 'em. It was just me and what I could shove down my throat. Doctors tried IV feeding, but that didn't work very well. My blood vessels kept shifting around as I grew, and my layer of blubber kept getting thicker. So I ate what they gave me, as fast as they gave it, and wanted more. But they just didn't have more! They tell me I was eating as much as the rest of the hospital put together, at one point.
"Like I said, that was the first couple of weeks. Then something happened: I got enough to eat! Didn't know why, didn't care. I was just glad to not be hungry all the time. Wasn't all good, though. Growth rate before, about one inch per day; after, 10 or so. Growing pains got bad for a while there. Senses got weirder, too...
"Anyway. Got transferred to a local aquarium before I was too big to fit through the doors and halls. Change finished. Learned how to swim, breathe, talk, all over again. Never saw anyone but keepers and doctors."
"Wait. Nobody came to see you during your recovery?"
Wigley shrug-rocked. "Yeah. End of the year holidays. People get busy with Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving and all. Pretty easy for a SCAB to get lost in the shuffle."
"I guess, especially if she's a science-loving scumbag. Even so, why didn't your husband bother to show his face?"
"I... don't know. He might've, but I was pretty much out of it. If Dan ever did visit me, I wouldn't remember and nobody told me. I guess we're still married, officially..." A quiet sigh-hiss. "We don't have a lot in common, these days. You know?"
I thought fast. "Betcha he's ripping off the State by collecting money for support of --"
"Jube!" she shouted. Then, very quiet: "Don't. It's been years. You gotta let go some time." Another sad sigh-hiss, and she continued at a normal volume. "Moving right along. Middle of December, 2025, and SCABS was done with me. There I was, a perfectly healthy orca. Now what? Couldn't teach any more -- no budget for the modifications they'd need to make for a killer whale in Montana. My marriage, well, what kind of wife can I be to a human? We swore 'to have and to hold', but he was too small to hold me, and without arms I couldn't hold him.
"That's what I miss the most; physical contact. What with the blubber and everything, touch is so different now... Anyway. At that point my world was pretty small. Just a tank of salt water big enough to turn around in. Nothing to do -- nothing I could do -- but float and think. Couldn't see much of a future for myself. Didn't want to just float in a tank, alone, for the rest of my life. But what other options were there? Not a lot of employment opportunities for orca..."
"More than you'd think -- but if you didn't have anyone to do the legwork for you, reading the papers or netsearching or whatever, how could you know?"
"Yeah. That tank wall cut me off from human society, real good. I didn't like it. Heck, didn't like much of anything! Lost my faith in God, not that I had much to start with. Especially with Christmas coming. It's the season everyone's supposed to be merry. Happy happy joy joy. But what did I have to be happy about? I should thank God for cutting off my arms? Wrecking my marriage? Permanently exiling me from the human race? Why didn't He just kill me and be done with it?
"I thought about suicide once or twice. Couldn't see how to manage it in the tank with this body. If I'd known how, I might have done more than think about it.
"Thinking about death. That was my frame of mind when my first visitor showed.
"Guy said he was from Ad Astra, the company that'd paid for my food and spacious new quarters and all that. He said they had a job for me, as I was. Offered to fly me out to Easter Island, at company expense, to see how I liked it. I said yes. Nothing to lose. Change of scenery at worst. And if he was for real, it was a way out of the tank!
"Well, he was for real. Job was aquatic security. Patrol, keep an eye on stuff. Sometimes fight and maybe kill. Didn't like the killing part, but it was something I could do. And it was out of the tank! So I signed on, and been here ever since."
I nodded. "Okay, you have your happy ending, but I don't see where God enters into it. What's the deal?"
The orca spun on her long axis and blew bubbles -- was that her version of laughter? -- splashing water all over. "The fastest SCAB on Earth is impatient! Who'd'a thought?"
I shook my head and leaned back against some kind of piling, waiting for her to sober up. "Very funny, Wigley."
"It is! It is! Best I've heard all month!"
I almost set her straight, but... maybe it was the best joke she'd heard, Momus help her. "I'll take your word for it. And the God thing?"
"It's coming, Jube! Don't worry! Anyway. They gave me a video tour of the Island. Set up a screen for me, gave someone a camera to walk around with. Closest I'll ever get to the moai," she said, referring to Easter Island's world-famous, oversized, carved stone faces. "And I saw something I won't forget." Now she moved around a little, aiming her eyes in a search pattern. "Okay. See that cliff? I'd point, but..."
I pointed for her. "That the one?"
"Yes. Look up at the top of it."
I looked, squinted, and could just make out some pale dots. "I see some white specks. What about 'em?"
"They're graves. The last of the natives. Most died in the Martian Plague. When Ad Astra took over, we left the survivors alone. Greenpeace didn't. They launched a major attack in 2024. Native village was just... in the way. We tried not to hurt them, but Greenpeace thinks anyone not fighting for them is a target. When the smoke cleared... five natives left. None survived the year. I think they died of loneliness. All very sad. If I'd had any faith in God, that would've shaken it."
"I would hope so. If people getting wasted for no good reason isn't enough to sour you on the whole God hypothesis, you must be insane. Why do you think I'm an atheist?"
"And how can I not be, right?"
"Well, not to be rude, but... yes."
Wigley shrug-rocked. "Maybe I was atheist at that point. Doesn't matter. I was part of the team, and a few days after the tour, I got to see my first launch."
"Let me guess: That happened on Christmas Day, and God revealed himself to you in the roar of Agamemnon's engines."
She spun and bubble-laughed for a while before speaking. "You think you're just scoffing, but you're right! That's exactly what happened! The pressure wave hit, and suddenly God Himself held me safe in His hands. And I had a revelation: God wants us to go to space! A fetus grows, leaves the womb. A child grows, leaves their parents. Humankind grows, leaves the Earth. That's God's plan. Why is the dream of spaceflight so compelling? Because the Dream is an echo of God's Voice! We who share the Dream are the chosen few who hear it.
"And I knew why God did this to me: He chose me for a soldier in His service. Why me, not anyone else, I don't know. Doesn't matter why, 'cause I know my purpose, and I will protect the Dream. And on my watch, those who would kill the Dream better not be crunchy or taste good with ketchup."
I decided not to ask if she was serious -- she might tell me. "That's, uh, that's very interesting, Wigley."
"No need for diplomacy. Call it 'stupid' if you want, Jube," she said, her voice amused. "That's nothing, compared to what Sue says. I don't mind anyway. Doesn't matter if you believe in God; His plan has a place for you anyway!"
It almost sounded good. Except... "And 'six feet under' was the Islanders' place in His glorious plan."
"You really think the Lord wanted them dead?"
"Look, Wigley. He's all-knowing and all-powerful -- it says so, right on the label. By definition, He knows everything, and He can change anything He doesn't like. So how the hell could He not want them dead?"
She shrug-rocked. "Do I look omniscient to you? If I had to guess, I'd call it mercy killing. Their time was past. They were miserable, forgotten, afraid to change. They died in the Plague -- it just took them a while to stop moving."
I shook my head. Religion was the opiate of the people, and Wigley, just another addict. Clearly, buying into the God hypothesis had warped her mind so badly that it wouldn't surprise me if she could cobble up a rationalization to justify the Martian Flu. "And God moves in mysterious ways, so no matter what goes down, it's all good. Is that it?"
"Mmm... Pretty much, yeah. Of course, that's not counting what happens when we humans decide we know better than Him. Things'd be so much simpler without free will, huh? Dunno why He lets us get away with it. I'm just glad He does!"
"For the moment, sure."
Silence, eventually broken by Wigley: "So you don't trust the Lord. Anyone you do trust?"
I shrugged, gave her a cynical smile. "What do you think?"
A sigh-hiss. "I think... you are worse off than me."
"Yeah. Sometimes being right is a real pain --" I broke off, shook my head. "How do you do it?"
"Everything," I said, gesturing out towards the ocean. "SCABS may not have hit you as bad as me, but your life still sucks rocks. Here you are, an economy-sized fish, permanently locked out of the Dream you say is God's plan for the human race. That's the same God who ruined you for practically any career but professional killer. And in spite of everything, you not only believe that that Divine son of a bitch is benevolent, but you're actually happy about what He did to you! How the hell do you do it, Wigley?"
"You gotta believe in something, Jube. Me, I believe in the Lord. Not always easy, and so what? If it was never hard, it wouldn't be worthwhile. So I believe in God, and I believe in the purpose He gave me. Good thing you don't have to believe in God to share the Dream, huh? We all do, you know. Christian, Buddhist, atheist, all of us share the Dream. Even you, Jube -- if you didn't, Sue wouldn't have wanted you here."
"Bets on that?"
"Sure! We all share the Dream," the orca repeated. "You, me, Sue, the techs who clean up Babylon between missions, all of us. Beliefs, politics, even species, that's all different -- but the Dream is a purpose we all have in common. All of us. Even the ones who'll probably never have a chance at freefall... You know, Jube, I envy you."
"Envy me?" I growled. "What's the matter, you don't think your body count is high enough?"
Her voice was quiet. "Again with the killing. Can't let go of that, not even for a minute, can you?" Then Wigley sigh-hissed at me. "I'm alive, Jube. You didn't kill me. I'll bet there's lots of people you haven't even scratched! What's done is done. Live, enjoy, deal with things as they happen. Like the man said, 'Always look on the Bright Side of Life'." An actual Monty Python reference, and I'll be damned if she didn't manage to work a British accent into her squeaks!
I shook my head. "Me following that advice is a good way for people to end up maimed or worse. Thanks, but fuck off."
She inhaled and ducked under. A moment later, she splashed water all over the dock and I had to upshift to stay dry. Back on the surface, she paused, looked, sigh-hissed, and then continued. "I'm sorry, Jube. I just wanted to say hello, welcome you to the Island, but it's not really working..."
I got a grip on my runaway emotions. Maybe I had a temperament like a hair-triggered bomb, but she didn't deserve to get caught in the blast radius. "Not your fault. Like I said at the start, conversation is something I'm not much good at. If anyone should offer an apology here... it's me."
Ducking under she let out another roar of bubbles before surfacing again. "Well, if you really want to apologize, come down sometime and read to me! Anything from the library will do. I haven't heard any Niven in years."
She wanted me -- wanted me -- to read to her!? What the bloody hell? Impossible! "I... What Niven do you mean?"
"Larry Niven. You know, Ringworld, Protector, Dream Park, Mote in God's Eye..." She stopped, ducked under for a moment, and breathed again. "It's the voice, isn't it?"
Damn her oiled hide! I upshifted, closed my eyes, and spent a good long while taking deep, slow breaths until my pulse dropped back to the usual rate. Back in control once more, I returned to the conversation: "Yes. It's exactly and precisely the pitiful, substandard excuse for a voice that I've been stuck with for the past 20 years, exactly and precisely because that's the goddamn best I can fucking do. You want to be read to, there's gigabytes of voice synthesis software does the job infinitely better than I'll ever be able to."
"No, there isn't," she said sadly. "I've tried plenty of electronic aids, but they just don't feel right. There's always something missing. I wish Sue'd come more often, she has such a sweet voice...
"Jube, the Pacific Ocean is beautiful. Awe-inspiring, even. Never dull. But... water is really lousy company, you know?"
Okay, she was lonely -- but that lonely? Enough to even consider voluntarily subjecting herself to a lengthy, concentrated dose of the noise I make? Fat bleeding chance. Carter might have put her up to it, or more likely, the orca wanted another shot at converting me. Never mind. No point in analyzing Wigley's motives -- as a hired gun, I wouldn't be around long enough to make it worth the effort -- when there was one bedrock truth which ruled out taking her offer at face value: Nobody could like my voice. Nobody. 'Come down and read to me' -- yeah, right! If she'd played it straight, said she just wanted my company, that would be one thing, but I had no stomach for this kind of hidden agenda crap. "If I have time," I answered as I turned away.
Behind me I heard another whoosh of breath, and more splashing as she submerged and surfaced. "Please come and visit. Either way, I'll pray for you. Everyone can use a little help from high places, don't you think? Come any time. Bring Ringworld, I'll make sure not to splash..."
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