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Alien Earth

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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“Uh, about why she went for Adjustment.”

“She went in for Adjustment?”

“Yeah, that’s the story.” Andrew sounded totally miserable now. “Swear I hadn’t heard about it when I recommended her. Uh, why don’t we leave this for dinner, okay?”

“Sounds like we’d better,” John replied. Already he was regretting his generous impulse toward Andrew. “Let’s clear this channel, and I’ll see you after I dock, okay? I got a few things to set up.”

“Right, John. See you then.” As John switched back to the hobby channel and Ginger, he wondered just what Andrew had to tell him.

“Penny for your thoughts, my dear?”

Connie jumped, and only her harness kept her from clearing out of her lounge. It took her a moment to realize it was Tug who had spoken. He did such bizarre things with his voice synthesis. Some of it seemed to be imitations of accents or well-known voices, but she didn’t recognize most of them. And his use of antique idiom seemed expressly for the purpose of irritating John. This, at least, was an expression she recognized.

“I wasn’t really thinking, Tug. Just staring I guess, and daydreaming.”

“Already making shore plans?”

“Not really,” she replied, and realized suddenly this was true. Her plans consisted mostly of what she wouldn’t do. She wouldn’t look up old friends; she wouldn’t go to places she had once frequented; she wasn’t even going to check in at the Mariners’ Hall to see who else was in port. So what was she going to do? Just drift through the corridors, she supposed. See what was new in portable entertainment. Maybe get a massage, just for the body contact. She toyed with the idea of sex, but easily dismissed it. Masturbation sufficed. She didn’t even need that as often as they had taught her was healthy. But a massage would feel good, Human hands against her skin, manipulating her muscles. It had been part of her therapy during Readjustment; the only part she had enjoyed, and the only part of her shore-side regimen she was still faithful to. But none of this was anything to share with Tug. Arthroplanas were generally disinterested in the personal aspect of Humans’ lives, and even if Tug were interested, she wasn’t ready for the owner of the Evangeline to know that much about her.

“You are silent, again.” Tug made it sound like a rebuke.

“Just keeping an eye on our approach.” She tried to sound professional.

“Evangeline is doing that as she always does. Despite John’s command, you need not be concerned about it. He was merely being, as I commented before, a prick.”

Connie wiped sweaty hands down her uniform trousers. To have something to do, she switched the image on her screen. Now instead of Delta Station, she saw Evangeline. She had heard it said that no two Beastships were alike; looking at Evangeline, she could believe it. It wasn’t just that each Beast was the product of its diet. It seemed to Connie that some sort of intent entered into it. Trotter, the first ship she had ever crewed on, had been spiky and forbidding. Trotter had looked like some sinister weapon set adrift in space. His constantly rippling spikes had always looked threatening to her. But Evangeline was all crystal delicacy and airy beauty. Connie compared the graceful swaying of her trailing spinnerets to the blocky functionality of Delta Station. There were myths that some Beastships actually used those long filaments as some sort of weaving device to extrude fine threads that became nets or webs, and that the Beasts laid their eggs on those nets and set them adrift to snare mineral food for their hatching offspring.

Connie considered it all a pretty fancy. No one had any idea how the Beastships reproduced, or could even prove that they did. Still, to look at Evangeline made one wish that there could be others with her airy grace.

“Oh, she doth teach the beacons to shine bright. It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich gem upon a black-skinned ear. Beauty too rich for use, for Humans too dear …”

Tug paused, waiting.

It took Connie a moment to realize Tug was quoting something at her. Probably old Earth poetry. John had mentioned something about Tug being interested in the Humanities. She shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t recognize it. The ancient literatures are John’s interest, not mine. I don’t even know if you’ve got it right.”

“It’s by a Human called William Shakespeare. And I’ve got it right, although John would disagree and fume and fret. He loses sight of the need for poetry to be contemporized in order for it to retain its beauty and its sense. Who is your favorite poet?”

“I don’t think I have one.” Connie kept her eyes on the gentle wafting of Evangeline’s draperies and lines.

“Well, we shall have to remedy that. I’ve made a study of Human literature, although John despises my abilities and infers that one must be Human to appreciate the Human creations. It is, of course, only his jealousy because I excel him. But as a Human, you should have some appreciation for the works of your race. I shall instruct you on our next trip.”

“Oh, really, I wouldn’t want you to trouble yourself.” Connie demurred. There was a terrible sinking in her belly, the feeling that somehow she had just stepped out into a void. She didn’t want Tug trying to get close. It was easier not to have friends than to deal with the questions and misunderstandings that always arose among them. Wasn’t that one of the reasons she had become a Mariner, and the reason why she had slept so much this last trip? She couldn’t let Tug spoil her fresh start.

“I would be no trouble,” Tug began, but she dared to interrupt.

“Oh, no. I couldn’t ask it of you. Besides, you would soon find I had no aptitude for it at all. It was one of my lowest scores on the options test. I gave up trying to understand contemporary poetry or literature long ago.”

“We’ll see, shall we?” Tug suggested with such firmness that Connie grudgingly nodded. She was unsure as to how much authority the Arthroplana had over her. John was the captain, and theoretically the final authority over Humans on the ship. But Tug was the owner. Could he fire her? Could he report her as uncooperative, even maladjusted? The coldness squeezed up from the pit of her stomach. Don’t take a chance.

“Actually, it might be interesting to discuss Human creations with an Arthroplana. Perhaps a new viewpoint is what I need in order to enjoy them.”

“A delightful opinion! One that John, unfortunately, does not share. Which makes him most intractable about doing simple favors for me, when they involve Human literature, but perhaps you would be more helpful?”

This doesn’t sound good, Connie warned herself. Go carefully. “I’d like to be helpful,” Connie forced herself to say.

“Marvelous. It’s a simple favor, I assure you. I am in contact with certain collectors and enthusiasts on Delta Station. They have for me fresh copies of some very old Human literature. Copies which they say are remarkably intact and close to the originals; almost free of that annoying biotech drift that infects material stored too long on biodegradable media. And they’re offering it at quite reasonable prices. I can authorize your use of my station funds. It’s merely a matter of having you pick up the copies for me and bring them back to the ship.”

“Copies? From collectors?” Connie asked dubiously. Didn’t he realize what he was asking was unthinkable?

“Of course,” Tug assured her. “I told you it was a simple favor. All I need is for you to go and pick …”

“Couldn’t you just access from the public banks?”

Tug sounded disgruntled. “I suppose I could, on a very temporary basis. For whatever paltry number of hours we’re to be in port this time. A totally insufficient way to do research in depth.”

“But I thought Beastships were allowed to save from the public information banks onto the ship’s banks, because we’re away so long.” Connie didn’t just think this; she knew it. Every Beastship was allotted library space and privilege according to crew population.

“That? Our ship’s allotment was filled long ago. John’s reading habits and my needs for reference materials for my great work demand a vast amount of material. Unfortunately, having filled our legal allotment, neither John nor I can agree on what volumes can be dispensed with from our limited space to allow us to copy other material. And the Conservancy will allot us no additional space. It’s a very frustrating situation, especially as the Conservancy continues to delete books and information as they become Irrelevant or Outdated or Unnecessary. That’s by their standards, of course, not mine. As a scholar of your Humanities …”

“Information hoarding is no better than any other kind of hoarding,” Connie informed him, almost prudishly. The words came out automatically, like a conditioned response. My Readjustment? she wondered, but went on anyway. “Private collections of outdated information, especially fictional work, can have no benefit to our worlds, and only encourage consumer excesses, artificial values, and economic speculation, and …”

“Pish-tush, my dear. You forget to whom you’re speaking. As if I would ask for anything improper or disharmonious! Were we talking of ordinary Humans indulging in a mania for possession, I would concede your fundamental correctness. But we are speaking of myself, an Arthroplana. My life span lasts a multitude of yours, and my study of the Humanities will truly transcend time only if I have full access to the entire historical spectrum of Human creativity. I am sure the Conservancy would recognize my need were I to petition them. But until I have time to do so, I take my own small shortcuts. They needn’t concern you. Consider this: the material I bring aboard is then copied onto organic memory filament secreted by the Beast for precisely such a purpose, and the original medium is then biologically degraded with a thoroughness your technology can never hope of achieving. No one suffers, least of all the environment. I am surprised that I need tell you this. Another Arthroplana might actually be offended that you would even consider that one of our race might deliberately choose to do something that was not totally harmonious with the natural environment.” His tone had become progressively colder and more formal.

“I didn’t mean,” Connie began, flustered. She felt chilled, almost threatened by his words. She’d never been lectured by an Arthroplana, let alone scolded like a child with poor manners.

“You are, of course, quite young,” Tug conceded generously. “Even by Human standards, your experience is quite limited. So I forgive you, as is more divine than Human. This time. I don’t think I even need mention it to John.”

“Thank you,” she managed numbly, wondering if she weren’t missing half the conversation.

“Don’t mention it. It’s no trouble. Now, the information I need you to pick up for me should be available within an hour of our docking. Of course, I don’t need it quite that fast. My supplier will be waiting for your visit, and …”

The communication station beeped an alert. “Delta Station to Beastship Evangeline. Dock at Gate Ten for unloading, please.”

“Affirmed,” Connie replied, knowing it was only a formality. Tug would already have relayed the message to Evangeline, and she would already be responding even as Connie answered.

“We’ll talk of this again, later,” Tug said quickly, and surely it was only Connie’s nervousness that made his synthesized voice sound hurried and furtive. Tug switched intercoms abruptly. “Captain John Gen-93-Beta!” His voice rang out throughout all levels. “We’re docking. Your ship has come in!” The heartiness in his voice almost sounded real. “Best come chat with the docking crew while Evangeline and I perform the docking.”

Within his quarters deep inside Evangeline’s body, Tug hunkered into position. Tiny anterior hooks secured him in position within his host. He drew his shortened forelimbs carefully down a nerve trunk. When the ganglion bundle bulged, he darted in to lock minds with her again.

[Docking with Delta again.]

“Yes. Pay attention to the frequency emanations so you line up correctly.”

[I do. Evangeline will have Beast time?]

“Perhaps. Line up correctly.”

[I do. Evangeline would like a mating.]

A mating? Tug decided it wouldn’t fit into the schedule. He matched one of his modified nematocysts carefully to one of Evangeline’s nerve centers and expertly discharged it. So much for that impulse. He monitored her, felt her interest in mating fade as the inhibitor took effect. Docility returned to the Beastship.

[Docking with Delta Station. Tug will play a game with Evangeline?]

“Later. If Evangeline docks well, and does not complain about the unloading, then Tug will play a game. Pay attention to the frequency emanations and line up to match them. Then you will dock well.”

[Evangeline pays attention. Docking with Delta Station.]

2

IN COMPARISON TO the quiet of Evangeline’s gondola, the corridors of Delta Station swirled with life and its accompanying cacophony of noise. John felt all the symptoms of sensory overload syndrome: the headache, the vague nausea, the lassitude of permanent gravity. None of them were enough to completely distract his mind from his most gnawing discomfort: Norwich had expressed polite disinterest in renegotiating their contract. John clenched his teeth and resolutely jerked his mind away from considering it. He had business to conduct, and he’d better be alert about it. He nodded agreement to whatever pleasantry the garrulous little representative from Earth Affirmed was mouthing as John followed him through Delta’s corridors. It irked John that no one else had expressed any interest in hiring them.

Time was when he and Evangeline would have had a dozen offers before he’d even docked. But they’d worked steady runs for Norwich so long now that no one even considered them anymore. He’d posted Evangeline’s availability on the listings screen, but didn’t hope for much from that. Every captain knew that the only decent jobs were the ones that came looking for a specific ship and captain, and they’d been off the open market too long. He’d already had a couple of calls from other captains, wanting to know how he and Norwich had fallen out. Well, he was damned if he knew, he reflected bitterly. The only other call had been from Earth Affirmed, reiterating their interest and setting up this meeting.

“… disorientation and sensory overload when you first come back into a station?”

“Usually,” John replied shortly, guessing at the man’s question. “It’s a hazard of the profession. One learns to live with it.”

Deckenson insisted on talking to him as they walked. John wished he wouldn’t. He was only hearing about one third of what Earth Affirmed’s man was saying, and couldn’t keep his mind on that much. The sights and sounds of Human activity in the station corridors were overwhelming after the years aboard Evangeline. That those years had passed as a matter of months for John didn’t diminish the effect, but intensified it. How could so much have changed so greatly in what felt like such a short time to him?
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