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“Tug,” he said softly, staring at the screen. “Tell her she’s beautiful.”
“Tell whom, John?”
He didn’t lift his gaze. “Evangeline. Tell her she’s beautiful.”
“I can’t do that, John. For one thing, she wouldn’t understand it. For another, we have found that any kind of communication with Humans, however indirect, is most unsettling to a Beast. Your culture is still, unfortunately, much too disharmonious.”
“Telling her she’s beautiful would upset her? What’s disharmonious about that?”
Tug sighed audibly, purely for the benefit of the listening Humans. John was suddenly aware of how still Connie was, how tuned in she was to this old argument between Tug and him.
“John, it is so simple. Think about it and even you will grasp it. Evangeline sees neither beauty nor ugliness, in herself or in anything else. She sees only things in their correct places, doing as they should. To speak of beauty to her would be to imply to her that this was a thing to strive for, somehow, at the expense of being harmonious with all around her. It would confuse her.”
John was silent. Tug wasn’t going to give Evangeline the message, was never going to let John have any kind of communication with the Beast that powered his ship. No, Tug kept it all for himself, and John often felt little more than an errand boy.
Sometimes, when he thought about it, it almost made him bitter. John Gen-93-Beta, captain of the Beastship Evangeline, sitting in his command lounge watching his ship rendezvous and dock with the station. And he didn’t lift a finger to control or assist it in any way, didn’t need to issue a single command, didn’t even really understand how any of it was done. The fact that the entire Human populations of Castor and Pollux and all four dirty-tech stations shared his ignorance did nothing to abate his frustration with it. The poor quality of the screen’s image only rubbed his nose in it. It didn’t matter what the Human captain saw, as long as the Arthroplana who owned her, and the Beastship herself, could perceive the correct docking coordinates. They were the ones doing all the real work. John had been more of a real captain when he had been operating one of the little scooters that performed duty maintenance on the exterior of the stations. On board the Evangeline, seated on the bridge, he was captain only of the gondola ship attached to Evangeline’s body. He did not navigate, he did not stand a watch. He was more of a social interface than anything else: a portable component of the ship that Tug could send forth to negotiate contracts, to make physical contact with Humans and other aliens, to supervise loading and unloading of any tangible cargoes they might carry. He thought of the years he had struggled to reach this position, the machinations he’d gone through, and felt his gut tighten. And yet he wouldn’t change what he had for anything else. Because it was as close as any Human could come to mastering an interstellar Beastship. As close as the Arthroplana would ever let a Human approach the freedom of the spaceways. He didn’t know any other Beastship captain who didn’t feel the same frustration with the biologically imposed ceiling on ambition. He’d reached the pinnacle of his career, but his fingertips would only brush mankind’s ambition to roam the stars.
He spared a glance for Connie, the only other Human inhabitant on the Evangeline. She was the crew, as he was the captain. Tug was the owner, and Evangeline herself was no one knew what. According to Tug and the other Arthroplanas who owned them, the Beastships were alive and almost sentient. And horribly sensitive to being peeked and probed at, which was why despite their two-thousand-year acquaintanceship, no Humans had ever been allowed more than the most cursory of inspections of one. No Human understood the mechanisms by which a Beastship fed or communicated with another Beast or with the Arthroplana within its body, let alone how they achieved light speed. When questioned by Humans about the Beastships’ method of locomotion, the Arthroplanas either professed not to understand it either, or retreated into a semantic jungle of words that had no Human equivalent, interspersed with concepts that seemed more philosophical than physical. Their “explanations” served only to give those Humans who specialized in Arthroplana psychology more to argue about among themselves. Once, during one of their quarrels, John had accused Tug and the Arthroplana in general of dissembling with Humanity merely to keep their monopoly on interstellar travel. Tug had laughed, in his most annoying simulated giggle. For ten solid minutes.
He reflected that as captain he still knew little more than the very first Humans who had boarded a Beastship “lifeboat” for the evacuation of Terra. He shifted restlessly, and tried to focus his mind on his more immediate problems.
“Check back with the ship every twelve hours while we’re in port. I don’t think our layover here will be very long. Norwich Shipping has picked up their contract option the last dozen times we’ve been here; I expect they’ll do it again, if I go in and argue with them. If they do, I want to be ready to go. And if they don’t, I want you to be ready to go with whatever I do find for us. But Norwich will be my first effort. I wonder what the hell they want to renegotiate. Probably want to lower the risk bonus again. Same old damn thing. They think because we haven’t had any accidents, there isn’t any danger in these weird runs they find for us. I’d like to see them find someone else who’d be willing to take on one of their little errands.”
John paused and waited for Connie to make some sort of response. He saw her eyes flicker in his direction, then fix on her screen again. Come on, kid, have an opinion about something, will you? He filled in the conversation himself.
“The only reason we don’t have accidents is because we’re good. No one else could handle their business for them as smoothly as we do. They’ll find that out quickly enough. In any case, I want to keep our port time and expenses as small as possible until we know where our next contract’s coming from. If we do get something, I don’t want to be held up waiting for you to report. So check back in, uh, every six hours,” he amended, and watched her.
She looked up from her own screen that was giving her an exciting view of Delta Station’s smelting and refining quadrant. Her brown eyes were huge. The stubble of hair on her scalp was dark and would possibly be curly if she were ever out of Waitsleep long enough to let it grow. John stared at it and wondered idly what she looked like with hair. She was still almost a stranger to him, for all that this was their second trip together. He wondered if she had deliberately set up her waking intervals so they wouldn’t coincide with his. Of course, that would have taken Tug’s collaboration, but he was sure she could get that with no difficulty. Tug routinely suborned crewmen almost as fast as John could hire them. Hell, Tug would probably have suggested it to her. Anything that needled John delighted the Arthroplana. And John reciprocated. He considered replacing Connie just to make Tug wonder why, then shrugged the thought away. It wouldn’t be fair. He’d hired her because Andrew had said she was quiet, competent, and would respect his privacy. Andrew knew that loud, overly friendly people drove him crazy. But Connie didn’t seem to want or need any social interaction at all. Even that he could live with, if he could ever get her to see what needed doing and just do it without waiting for a specific command from him for every separate task. Right now, she was still staring at him. “Every six hours, sir?” she asked uncertainly.
“Yes, six hours,” he replied testily. “Do you have a problem with that?” He waited for her to object that Delta Station was on a standard Terra period of twenty-four hours and that she was technically only required to report to him once each period, but she didn’t She glanced away from him.
“No problem, sir,” she said meekly, and that was that.
John resisted the urge to needle her again. He stared at her deliberately, and watched her hunch herself deeper into her station screen. The standard shipboard smock she wore strained across her wide shoulders. She’d probably been hunching like that ever since she was a child, in an effort to look smaller. It didn’t work. Even the loose uniform trousers were snug on her and too short. She was big, for a woman of her generation, but John would still be bigger than she was when they were both full-grown. After all, he was the ninety-third generation, and she was hundred and third. People had gotten a lot smaller in those ten generations.
His eyes roved the command chamber’s Spartan walls, bare monitors, functional control panels, seeking something, anything, to hang his attention on. But in Conservancy-approved fashion, there was absolutely nothing within the chamber that wasn’t necessary. Every item had an indispensable purpose. He looked at Connie and wondered briefly if that was what irritated him about her: perhaps she had a Conservancy-approved mind, all functionality, all imagination pared away in the interests of efficiency and conservation of resources.
“Connie!” he said, more sharply than he’d intended. She flinched again.
“Keep an eye on things. I’m going down to my quarters.”
She didn’t even dare to ask him what she should keep an eye on. Or maybe it never occurred to her to ask. For a moment he thought about asking her exactly what she would watch, but then decided he was too hungry to enjoy prodding at her anymore. If he got any extra time in port, and if the Beastship Trotter was in, too, and if Andrew had any extra time, maybe John could pry a little more out of him. For now, let it go. He had a few personal chores of his own to take care of before they docked. He unhooked from the harness on his lounge and swung clear on a transverse cleat. It felt good to stretch his muscles, and he flung himself out of the command chamber with more force than was necessary. Maybe he was growing, he thought as he made his way through the corridor that led to the gallery. Maybe he was even getting ready to go through the change.
“Prick,” Tug observed.
Connie flinched again. She hated herself for that. She should have been over it by now, should have been used to both John and Tug, and have stopped jumping every time one of them spoke. But John was always so caustic and critical, and Tug was always saying such unexpected things. Like now.
“Repeat, please, Tug,” she requested.
“Prick.” When Connie frowned, he continued helpfully, “Dick. Prod. Sticker.”
The last term she recognized, and giggled nervously.
“All terms for the Human male’s sexual organ,” Tug continued gravely. “And all used to express contempt for a person who receives unusual satisfaction out of being unpleasant when in a position of authority. What do you suppose we can infer about Humans from that?”
Connie shrugged and stared into her screen. She didn’t know what to make of Tug. She had only had direct contact with one other Arthroplana, and that one had never conversed casually with the Human crew, let alone been uncouth enough to criticize the captain. She tried to believe that as long as she didn’t verbally respond to it, she couldn’t be considered a party to it. If John ever overheard it, there would be big trouble for her. It could be construed as mutinous behavior. She frowned, then consoled herself that it was very unlikely John would overhear any of Tug’s comments. Tug was aware of their every movement within the gondola, of the status of every bit of their equipment, and the placement of every piece of freight within the cargo bays. He even monitored them during the time the Humans were actually inside Evangeline herself, in her Waitsleep wombs. He’d have to be supremely negligent to make such remarks in John’s hearing. Or, and she felt her spine tighten, supremely careless of what John felt. Now that was something she could imagine, and it made her mouth go dry.
“Tug,” she said abruptly, trying to sound professional and nothing more, “could you give me a status report, please? How long until we dock, and does the station have the unloading crew ready?”
“Thirty-seven minutes until docking. The unloading crew will stand by in twenty-five minutes. Really, Connie, this is a very routine docking. Although we don’t usually carry the tago-root shipments from Castor, the station receives them for processing about every ten days. It was more or less as a favor to the Beastship Hector that we stopped and picked up this shipment. For the docksiders, it’s just another routine, regular shipment to unload. It’s a very mundane task for them. Simplest sort of cargo run, and thus precisely the kind John hates. He much prefers the type of run that Norwich Shipping comes up with: quick profits from obscure or bizarre cargo, preferably after a very long trip. That’s why he’ll swallow his pride and go into Norwich’s offices and practically beg them to reconsider.”
“And if they don’t?”
She could almost hear the shrug in Tug’s voice. “We’ve already had another offer. Not that John likes it much. It’s an unspecified contract with Earth Affirmed. We made a few runs for them, quite a long time ago, back when John and I first started working together. But I gather that their reputation made John uneasy; politically, they’re quite unpopular with the Conservancy. They’ve tried to rehire us the last few times we’ve been in port, but Norwich always had an option on us. That was enough excuse for John to refuse some excellent offers from them.”
“So you think he’ll refuse them again?”
A synthesized snort. “Hard to say. You see, the only other contract he’s likely to get right now is for something rather mundane and boring, such as ore hauls. But both he and Evangeline have a very low tolerance for repetitious tasks and routine schedules. It’s one reason why I keep John, in spite of all his flaws. He harmonizes very well with Evangeline. He usually manages to get us unusual contracts that involve long-distance hauls and new places. She likes those, and so does he. John can spend the years dreaming in Waitsleep while Evangeline gets to see new places. So, I expect he’ll negotiate with Earth Affirmed rather than take anything stable and normal.” There was a trace of derision in the Arthroplana’s voice.
“I see,” Connie said softly. “Long runs.” She thought of the run they had just completed. She’d come aboard at Delta Station, thirty-seven years ago, newly hired. On the run out to Rabby and on the trip back, she’d chosen the minimum Wakeup routine. For her, a matter of days had passed. But for Delta Station and everyone on it, thirty-seven years had passed. She felt a sinking in her belly as she mused on it. Tug was mercifully silent. Thirty-seven years. The longest she’d ever been gone before had been five years, and she’d taken maximum Wakeups on that trip, so it had seemed like a year’s trip. This time, while she’d slept and then docked at Rabby and supervised the unloading of the Human-manufactured textiles and ceremonial robes that the Rabby Geltehan queen had ordered for her trouba’s rejuvenation ceremonies, and then slept and waked again, thirty-seven years had passed on Delta.
She’d chosen Waitsleep, and she told herself firmly that she didn’t regret it. “Time is a greater distance than space.” So the saying went, and she hoped she’d prove it true. She had seen her generation slowly aging away from her, two and three years at a stretch, until most of them had been twenty-seven years older than she was when she’d last left Delta. But this time, when she got off the ship, they’d be sixty-four years older than she was. They’d be ninety-seven years old now. Sexually mature. Physical adults. They might recognize her if they saw her, but she probably wouldn’t know them. And that was how she had decided she wanted it. Not to know them anymore. Not to have any contemporaries, not to have anyone who came up and looked searchingly into her eyes and complimented her on how much more relaxed she seemed since she’d gone through Readjustment. Too damn many of them had heard about her Readjustment. It would be better to go on with her life, to make new connections and friends, ones that didn’t look curiously at her and wonder just what had been wrong with her to require Readjustment.
John frowned around the cluttered walls of his awake quarters. Dammit, he was running out of room again. He thought he could fit one more restrainer shelf against the bulkhead by his lounge, as long as he always remembered it when he was sitting up. It wouldn’t leave him much head space. But the only other option was eliminating some of his reader tape collection, and he’d long passed the point in his collecting where that was really an option. Sometimes he felt he treasured the minor works of the ancient authors more than the major ones. The major ones stood a chance of survival on their own. The minor ones by the lesser thinkers would survive the Conservancy’s strict policies on information hoarding only in pirate collections like his own.
Once more his eyes roved his cluttered stateroom, so unlike the bare austerity that characterized the rest of Evangeline’s gondola chambers. There were gaps in the shelves that only his eyes could see, gaps that would never be filled: spaces for Kipling’s second Jungle Book, for Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, for the myriad sequels to Dumas’s Three Musketeers, for— He forced himself to stop thinking about everything that had been lost long years before he was born. Instead he cleared the litter from a hasty meal off his workspace, putting the packaging down the recycler and the tray itself through the cleanser.
That done, he seated himself and accessed the communications board from his terminal. He opened a private communications channel on the hobby band usually frequented only by adolescents and oldsters, and increased his security by coding it in for keyboard only. Only the most basic licensees operated here. If the Conservancy went looking for secrets, this would be the last place they’d check. He two-fingered out a message to Ginger and waited. Interminably. This had to be the slowest method of communications ever devised. The waiting was the most annoying part. But this was the only way she’d communicate with him. The “she” was an assumption on his part. He’d never met Ginger, and considering how long he’d been doing business with her, there was a distinct possibility she wasn’t even a single individual. He’d probably never know. She was so security conscious, she bordered on the paranoid. As he watched his unanswered message flashing on the screen, it dawned on him that perhaps that was why he dealt almost exclusively with her these days. One contact meant only one person could give him up to the Conservancy.
“Acknowledged.” It came onto the screen at last. Ginger used no signature at all.
“Available?” he tapped in.
Seventeen titles and authors came up on the screen. John frowned at the paucity of the selections. He knew they represented only a fraction of the works the Conservancy had decided to delete from the public information banks since he was last in port. If this was all Ginger had managed to salvage, she was either getting lazy or the Conservancy was getting more alert to the pirate salvage trade. As he scanned the prices beside her entries, his heart nearly stopped.
“Gouger,” he muttered. His frown deepened as he reminded himself that he’d better be careful with his funds until he secured a new contract for Evangeline. He set about the painful process of selection, idly noting that Crime and Punishment was on her list. Not to his taste, but … He paused, scowling as he tapped in his selections and received back no reply other than a drop location. He cleared the screen and debated a moment longer. It was stupid to take any kind of chances. But.
He leaned over, opened a standard ship-to-ship channel. “John Gen-93-Beta on the Beastship Evangeline, calling Beastship Trotter.” It was a long shot that Trotter was even in port right now. But a few moments later the answer came.
“Beastship Trotter replying. Jason Gen-99-Pollux-Agri-27 speaking. Your message, sir?”
“Just a personal call, Jason. Have Andrew call me back, will you, on my channel? He knows where I stand by. John Gen-93-Beta, Beastship Evangeline, clear.”
John listened to Jason clear, then shifted over to a quieter frequency. A few minutes passed before he heard Andrew hail him.
“Hey, John, when did you get back in? It’s been a while.”
“Just docking now.” John debated how to phrase his offer. “I wanted to know if you’d have time for a cup of stim and some talk while we’re in port? Because if you do, I think I can arrange a meeting between you and a mutual friend.”
“Who?” Andrew demanded in confusion.
“Fyodor.” John paused. “I know, you remember him as sort of an idiot, but he’s gotten past that now. But if you still consider it a social crime that merits punishment …”
“Oh, yeah. Yes, I do.” Dawning comprehension in Andrew’s voice, and the unmistakable lust and excitement of the collector. “Good old Fyodor. Will he be with you?”
John hesitated. But Andrew would be good for the money. Maybe that would be the best way, to keep Ginger and her dealings private. Besides, if she thought he had told anyone else how to contact her without her prior consent, she’d probably refuse to ever deal with him again. No, better pick it up himself and find a way to get it to Andrew. “Yes, he’ll be with me. I’ll meet you at, oh, just past the security checkpoint, at about 2100. You can take me to dinner, or whatever.”
“Sounds fair. I’ve wanted to talk to you anyway, for some time. Just didn’t expect to catch you in port for a while. Uh, you still have Connie on as crew?”
Was that trepidation in Andrew’s voice? A sudden uneasiness made John more formal. “Yes, she’s still on as crew. I meant to talk to you about that, too.”
“Oh.” John heard Andrew take a breath. “Sounds like you already heard the rumors.”
“Rumors?” John asked coldly.
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