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Alien Earth

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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The wide white corridors of Delta Station swarmed with people of all ages, dressed in every imaginable garment. The brightness diffusing from the high-domed ceilings made it eternally a summer morning. A light wind stirred the plantings and people’s garments, carrying with it a scent of flowers and only a trace of machine oil from the fans that generated it. The utilitarian corridors he remembered had blossomed into something more reminiscent of a botanical garden. Even the people looked cultivated for their diversity. Riotous colors and swirling fabrics of every sort had replaced the sedate white togas and brown leggings that had been in favor when he left. Even stranger was the population change. A Rabby had been a rare sight when last he’d been here. Now they made up about one quarter of the population, and at almost every corner there were discreet jets where they could recharge their breathing tanks. The Arthroplana had recently and somewhat grudgingly granted Humans the privilege of having unsupervised contact with selected Rabby individuals on a face-to-face basis. The grant had been accompanied by many dour warnings that Humans were as yet still too disharmonious in nature to be granted general access to the Rabby race as a whole. From the few Rabby John had ever communicated with, he wondered why anyone would want to talk to any of them, unsupervised and face-to-face or any other way. They were boring as hell. Yet the fact that the Arthroplana had the power to restrict Humanity’s access to the other sentient species still galled him. It all came back to the Arthroplana’s monopoly on interplanetary travel. Didn’t everything? he reminded himself sourly.

The population diversity wasn’t the only change in the corridors. Decorative art seemed to be enjoying a renaissance. The austerity of slag sculptures had given way to living embellishments. John could remember when the export of live plants to any of the dirty-tech stations, for other than edible use, had been a grave offense. He could still remember his very first trip to one of the tank rooms, his small hands secured in front of him lest he yield to any disruptive unadjusted impulses. He’d hated the plants then, because he’d believed they could never be his, could never be touched by him. So often they’d told him he could never be allowed around any living thing except another Human.

Now vinery draped doorways and blossoms dangled from sculptures. Fountains spattered and danced in enfoliated basins at every intersection. Music was playing, at an audio level that was so low he was barely sure he could hear it, yet it was annoyingly pervasive. Last time he’d been in port, public music had been illegal in the corridors. Noise pollution, they’d called it. All music had been confined to private residences and offices, so that those who didn’t enjoy it didn’t have to be annoyed by it. John turned to ask Deckenson about it, only to realize the man was a dozen steps ahead of him, still blithely chattering. Spotting him and catching up to him were not problems; John was taller than anyone he’d seen in the satellite corridors.

“Oh, there you are!” Deckenson exclaimed with asperity as John loomed up beside him. He reached up and took a firm grip on the right cuff of John’s orange flight suit. “Don’t wander off again. I’m trying to explain our position to you, and why this must be handled so delicately.”

The small man’s grip on his cuff annoyed John, but he didn’t shake it off. Part of why Mariner was his first option was because he could adapt to new customs, even within his own species. And this casual physical familiarity seemed to be the current custom. Everywhere, people clung to one another as they hurried down the corridors. Trios and quartets, all gripping hands or clothing as they bustled along, were not uncommon. Huddles of people cuddled on benches as they talked. So he tolerated Deckenson’s grip and tried not to put any emotional tags on it. Male/male bonding had also been unpopular last time he was here, but that, too, seemed to have changed. Or perhaps it was only that every time John docked somewhere, it seemed that the prepubes looked more asexual. He knew Deckenson was a male only because his secretary had referred to him as “him” when John had been waiting to see him.

He looked down on his escort as Deckenson hustled him along. At least the smaller man was trotting; John’s longer legs matched his stride effortlessly. Deckenson’s hair was long and pale and flounced with every step he took. Looking down on it made John feel like a giant in contrast to Deckenson’s fine-boned stature. He lifted a hand to his own scalp and ruffled up the scant growth of dark hair on it. Shaving the scalp and treating the follicles with inhibitor was a standard procedure before entering Waitsleep. His hair was as long as it ever got, and would soon be stripped back to bare scalp again; that is, if his negotiations with Deckenson went well, and he contracted a mission for the Evangeline.

For the hundredth time, he wished Norwich had renewed their shipping contract. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out what had gone wrong. “Sorry. Our company no longer has any need for your services. We’ll be happy to supply you with an excellent reference.” John hadn’t even got past their outer offices. And that was it. No explanations. The only thing he could come up with was that someone had undercut his price. But no other Beastship in port had the vast cargo capacity that Evangeline had. She was practically the only “lifeboat” left unmodified since evacuation days. He couldn’t figure it out, and it was keeping him from concentrating on his dealings with Earth Affirmed.

Not that he especially wanted to concentrate on them. Earth Affirmed had a reputation among Beastship captains, and it wasn’t good. In a word, they were crackpots. Always stepping on the Conservancy’s toes, always pushing to the limits of the law. Fines, warnings, and cargo seizures seemed to follow in the wake of any deals with them. Earth Affirmed itself had too much funding to feel much of the Conservancy’s displeasure. So when their high-handed ways needled the Conservancy badly enough, the Conservancy’s wrath usually fell on Earth Affirmed’s minions. Like their ship captains. Years ago, Chester on the Beastship N’raltha had taken the scorching for bringing Rabby imports into Beta Station. The Conservancy had ruled them environmentally dangerous, and the captain, ultimately responsible for his ship’s conduct, had undergone complete Readjustment and two years of intensive environmental respect classes. Nowadays, the same raw materials routinely came into the dirty-tech stations for processing, under the supervision and taxation of the Conservancy. John idly wondered what Chester was doing now; whatever it was, it wouldn’t have anything to do with marinering.

John tried to sigh away the uneasiness the thought gave him. He wished he could just get a contract and be out of here. Too many rules in the stations, and if John was going to bend any of them, he was going to do it for his own benefit, not for some big corporation that would leave him to take the heat if things went bad. He didn’t need that kind of complications in his life. He didn’t need any complications in his life.

In fact, the older he got, the less time he liked to spend in port. The light and bustle of the corridor was already making him think longingly of the privacy of the Waitsleep womb and the quiet of Evangeline’s crew quarters. He still had his pickup of Ginger’s wares and his rendezvous with Andrew to look forward to. Even those errands carried some nerve-wracking risks of their own. About the only thing he was actually looking forward to was a visit to a semiscrupulous dealer for a rather esoteric poetry recording that he intended especially for Tug’s edification. He grinned at the thought, and found Deckenson was smiling back up at him, in mistaken interpretation of John’s expression.

“So, do you approve of the changes in living conditions here? We’ve been instrumental in lobbying against the Conservancy’s ridiculous ban against all but sentient life-forms in station corridors. Quite a switch from when you were a boy, I imagine. The plants make quite a difference, don’t they?”

“Yes. They do,” John replied awkwardly. He hoped Deckenson hadn’t been talking about anything more important than interior decoration. He realized he hadn’t been listening to him. How could he, while wandering through this chaos? He wished the man would settle down somewhere and talk. But no, first it had been a meeting at his office, which accomplished little more than actually making contact with this representative of Earth Affirmed, and being endlessly introduced to office staff. He’d expected to have to sit through some kind of negotiating meeting there, but abruptly Deckenson had insisted that he and John had to go out to lunch. They’d been walking now for twenty minutes but Deckenson showed no signs of stopping.

“You’re impatient with us, aren’t you?” Deckenson suddenly asked, as if he had read John’s mind. He didn’t wait for John’s cautious nod. “That’s in our files about you; that you have an impatient nature. It’s a fault, John, one you should work on. At least, for our business, it is. Think on this …”

And he was off again, looking all around and talking as they walked, so John could barely follow his words. Earth Affirmed seemed to have an affinity for garrulous, busy little men. Their last representative had been just like this; he could have been Deckenson’s clone. John began to believe he’d have turned down their last two offers even if he hadn’t had Norwich’s contract.

“Earth Affirmed has had to be patient. Even to gain these small concessions from the Conservancy has taken lifetimes. Patience, John. It’s one of our virtues, and the chief reason why we still exist, so many years after Earth’s Evacuation. We’ve been here since the very first Humans came to Castor and Pollux; we’re a contemporary of the Conservancy itself, if you would credit it. Very few other Human institutions have managed to exist as long as we have, and most of them were religious organizations that merged into the Conservancy’s philosophy; scarcely separate entities at all anymore. But Earth Affirmed has stood firm. All we’ve had was our dream and our patience to sustain us. It’s our sense of mission that’s kept us going. A mission that’s needed a certain kind of man to reach fulfillment. And now, we think, we may have our man.”

He looked up at John suddenly as he said this, and there was such fervent hope in the man’s face that John drew back from him. Looks like that always meant the same thing. Someone was about to put grapplers on you and hold on, to depend and ask favors and demand promises. It was a look no Mariner could fairly accept or return. To see it on this businessman’s face was doubly unsettling.

If Deckenson noticed John’s withdrawal, he didn’t comment on it. “The restaurant’s here,” he declared suddenly. “Let’s go in.” Without waiting for John’s response, he ducked into a doorway nearly obscured by a vine trellised over it. John followed, ducking more deeply than Deckenson had.

Deckenson was already following the host to a table. John fell in behind him. Damn. The whole place was scaled down to the size the Human race had become. The walkways between the tables were narrower, the tables lower, the chairs more spindly than any John had ever seen. All the furniture and screens were of woven tika vine, hardened with tika syrup into a glossy finish. He’d never seen it used for chairs and tables before, and wondered if it would take his weight. He felt disoriented, like the time he had wandered into an older part of Evangeline’s gondola and encountered the formidable couches and work surfaces his ancestors had used. Only this was like being invited into a creche’s playroom. Eyes turned to him as he passed. He hadn’t felt stared at in the corridors, but here the attention was impossible to ignore. His close-cropped hair and traditional orange flight suit were enough to mark him as a Mariner; his hulking size advertised his great age as well. He wasn’t sure which trait was drawing all the attention.

The host was very smooth about bringing a larger chair for John, but couldn’t do much about how low the table was. John waved off his apologies and accepted a small menu. He was studying its ornate print when he realized Deckenson was looking at him. John met his gaze.

“Feels odd, doesn’t it? To be so big in a world of tiny people. Like you’re an outmoded piece of equipment. Obsolete. Archaic.”

“So?” John asked coolly.

“So I brought you here on purpose. To emphasize it. To get you thinking. What will you find next time you come back from space, John? People that look even more like children? Will you be able to walk among us, to sit in our chairs, to drink from our tiny cups? Look at me, John, and see what we’re doing to ourselves.” Deckenson held out his hands, spread-fingered, as if to emphasize the slenderness of his fingers, the delicacy of his pink nails, the fragility of his white wrist with the pale blue vein pulsing in it.

John shrugged. “I’m a Mariner, Deckenson. It was my first option, and I’ve been with it for twenty-three years, my wake time. Yeah, every time I come back, things have changed more. But I’m adaptable to it. That’s why Mariner came out number one on my options.”

“There are also the factors that you don’t form bonds easily, and don’t seem to regret not having any close personal relationships. Are not those also prime personality traits for a Mariner?”

John took a sip of water from a narrow glass. “Of course. You say it like I should apologize for it.”

“No. I merely think it odd, in a man whose second option was Poet. One would think a man with a predilection for poetry would be closely enmeshed with humanity. I always thought of Poets as speakers for their species.”

It irritated John that they had somehow dug out this odd bit about him. Rubbed him worse that Deckenson placed importance on it. He wondered what else they knew about him. How intrusive were these people? His irritation came through in his reply. “Skill with words isn’t chained to love of one’s fellow man.”

“Poetry is more than skill with words. The option tests for Poet are quite exhausting mentally, and very demanding emotionally. I ought to know. It’s my first option.”

John should have known. “Really? Well, perhaps times have changed in that, also. When I took the tests, I came away feeling I had been the victim of a scam. All the questions seemed to ask one sort of thing while digging information of a very different sort out of you.”

“Exactly.” Deckenson took a quick breath as if he were about to go on, then paused abruptly. He let the breath out slowly, then breathed in twice, slower still, through his nostrils. John recognized the calming exercise. Deckenson looked up at him across the table and smiled suddenly, disarmingly. “Look, John. This isn’t going at all the way I’d planned, and I’m not going to let myself get sidetracked. Poet might be my first option, but Executive was my next, and that’s what I have to be right now. For the sake of poetry later. I have so much to convey to you, and such a limited time. And I desperately need to have your commitment.”

This sounded familiar. It would go like the last two meetings he’d had with Earth Affirmed people. There would be the same old song of their idealistic concept of a Human-centered civilization, usually followed by a monologue about how they had John’s best interests at heart and that was why he should give them cut-rates. It irked him that this time he might have to strike some kind of deal with them.

He thought about the previous times he’d been approached by Earth Affirmed. The first two times, way back when, he’d taken on consignments from them. Sticky ones. Never again. The last two times they’d approached him had been, oh, about sixty-five of their years ago, and again about thirty-seven years before that. They’d used the same pussyfooting techniques, long talks that hinted at a very profitable and exciting mission, but somehow never came around to making a direct statement of what that mission was. Each time, after protracted talks, John had gotten impatient and taken his option offer from Norwich and gone on his way. He wished it was that easy this time. He was starting to wonder why he even bothered with Earth Affirmed overtures. He hated to think it could be something as prosaic as curiosity.

The waiter came and hovered. Deckenson looked almost annoyed. “My regular meal. And John will have the same, but double portions. And more water, please. John, anything to drink besides water?”

“Stim.”

Deckenson turned to the waiter apologetically. “Do you have stim here?”

The waiter frowned consideringly. “Not in the old style, no. But I think our chef can come up with something that is both stimulating and refreshing. Will you trust us?”

“Certainly,” Deckenson replied without consulting John, and the waiter hustled away.

“So stim isn’t commonly drunk anymore, either?”

“I’m afraid it’s regarded as a bad habit. The better restaurants don’t encourage it.”

“I see. Last time I was in port, it was ‘purity of experience.’ Restaurants discouraged patrons from ordering more than one kind of food or drink at a meal. Background music was regarded as distracting one from the immediate experience. Wearing a perfume that could intrude on another’s olfactory experience was regarded as the height of rudeness. All of that seems to have been replaced.”

“So you see all this as merely another brief change of consciousness, a swing of the pendulum,” Deckenson indicated the whole room with a wave of his diminutive hand.

“For me, that describes it perfectly. For you, it’s your life.” The words came out more bluntly than John had intended.

“Exactly. But some things change in one direction, John, and keep changing. You’ve seen it, though you don’t seem to have attached any importance to it. The Conservancy’s ‘guided evolution’ has not swayed an iota from its headlong drive to keep Humans from having any effect on Castor’s and Pollux’s ecologies. They blindly refuse any of Earth Affirmed’s suggestions to integrate us into the ecologies, preferring instead to force us to live as outsiders, as parasites who try to sustain themselves on the natural flows of life here, without either contributing or detracting from that flow.” Deckenson’s voice was beginning to quiver with fervor. John braced himself against the current of fanaticism.

“Look what their breeding controls have done to us. People keep getting smaller, in an effort to make even less impact on the planet’s ecologies. Puberty keeps getting pushed back, a side effect of the growth inhibitors. We’re supposed to believe that’s good. The Conservancy talks about an extended juvenile period undistracted by internal hormonal riots, as if sexual maturity were a form of insanity. Our bodies have become little more than mobile containers for our brains.”

John tried a shrug. It only seemed to electrify Deckenson more.

“What was puberty when you were generated, John?” he demanded, almost angrily. “Onset at about fifty-two, fifty-five? I see you haven’t made it yet, so that has to be about right. Now it’s sixty-five to seventy, and climbing. Of course, the inhibitors have also pushed our life spans up beyond two hundred years, so that shouldn’t sound so bad. In fact, all the time a Human has before his hormones become obsessed with reproduction is supposed to be why we’ve advanced so far intellectually. We’ve successfully moved a bit farther away from our animal natures. Supposedly.” Deckenson drew breath, and sipped his water.

“Supposedly?” John was resigned now. The man was a typical poet: he communicated to use words, rather than the other way around. John would just have to ride out the chatter until Deckenson got down to business.

“Yes, supposedly. Look at me, John. On a scale of twenty, with twenty being the perfect achievement of the Conservancy’s ‘guided evolution,’ I score a seventeen point six-three. We’re not supposed to be able to get casual access to that data, but one can, if one is determined enough. And the interesting thing is that most of us who attain those high scores are determined enough. Perhaps because we, trapped inside these ‘improved’ bodies, sense, more than anyone else, that something is going wrong. Very wrong.”

“Looks fine to me.” John gave an offhand wave at the restaurant around them. “Things are going better than ever; or at least that’s what the update reports on the Wakeup line told me as we were coming in. Dirty technology is getting cleaner. Use of plastics is almost down to zero, what with the new cell-meld techniques and bacterial information storage system. Waste from harvested asteroids is down to less than six percent, and the on-rock mining techniques do even better than that. The interpopulation of the space stations by the Rabby is obviously a successful venture. The populations on both Castor and Pollux are stabilized at a constant that is ten percent under what was considered the population safety mean for human habitation thirty years ago, and …”

“Stop there,” Deckenson suggested quietly. “And think about what you just said for a minute.”

John had more than a minute, as the food arrived just then. John recognized none of it, but it didn’t bother him. Styles in serving food changed just as styles of wearing clothes. There were twenty-two native plants on Castor and seventeen on Pollux that Humans could safely eat. Thirty-nine plants that met all nutritional needs of a Human when eaten in a judicious mix. John had eaten them all, and expected to continue eating them all for his entire life. They could make them look different, and they could vary the flavor somewhat, but what it came down to was that tapa lily was tapa lily, and it was the basis of your diet, whether your gourmet chef prepared it or you ate standard rations from the ship’s dispenser.

There was a brown rectangle in a brown sauce, a salad, small orange cubes of something, and a tangle of white noodles with pinkish flakes of something in it. The waiter refilled Deckenson’s water glass, and set a small steaming mug in front of John, then departed. John picked up the mug immediately and sipped at it. Stim. Sort of. A little too bitter. He sweetened it with taro syrup from the dispenser on the table and tried it again. Better. But already almost gone. He was beginning to see Deckenson’s point about a world scaled down to smaller people. He set the mug down, but Deckenson had already noticed his wry expression.

“I’ll order more. For both of us. I think I’d like to try it.”

“What did you mean, think about what I had just said?” John asked. He found he was hungry, and tried to fork loose some of the brown rectangle, but it clung together stubbornly. Fibrous. Probably tubers from Pollux barber cane, then. He found a small knife by his plate and used it to free a chunk while Deckenson signaled the waiter for more stim.

“Mostly your population statistic. While the information people are crowing about our population being stable yet self-supporting even if under mean size, others of us are seeing it as a very real danger signal.” Deckenson had been staring past John’s ear as he spoke, his eyes unfocused. Now he suddenly seemed to come back to himself with a start. “Pardon me if I review things you already know,” he said vaguely. “It helps me organize my thoughts.”

John nodded as the stim arrived. The waiter left a carafe of it this time. John kept sawing at the brown rectangle of food with the small knife as Deckenson talked.

“Consider this. Human reproduction used to be a simple matter of two people mating. A child was born from the female ten lunar months later. It was easy, it was efficient. No planning was necessary or artificial assistance of any kind. Unplanned reproduction was what the race worried about back then. Well, now it’s the opposite. By the time a female is ready to release a mature egg cell, the cell is actually too old to be viable. The average woman has no possibility of conceiving. So oogonial cells are harvested from females of twenty years or so and carefully pushed into oogenesis. The resulting ovum is fertilized with sperm that has likewise been harvested from young males and pushed into maturity. The zygote is transferred to an artificial womb and nurtured there for six weeks, before it is then implanted in a Mother. The Mother carries it in her Human womb for perhaps another six months. At least, if the embryo is lucky, its mother can carry it that long. At that point, the developing child is usually too large for our ‘improved design’ women to carry or to bear. Our reduced size comes from growth inhibitors, not a true evolution. So our embryos are disproportionately large to the Mother. So the embryo is again surgically harvested and placed in an artificial womb where it is tended until its caretakers decide the baby is mature enough to be born. It is then removed from the artificial womb and introduced to independent life by being placed in a creche with other infants of its generation. There has always been talk of finding a way to produce a child totally outside of a Human womb, but our research in that area is, as they put it, ‘economically unfeasible for the paltry success rate.’”

John had a piece of the brown rectangle in his mouth and was chewing it slowly as his mind worked through what Deckenson was saying. He swallowed it; slightly bitter flavor, and he still couldn’t identify what it was. But it was good. He started sawing off another piece. “You’re saying women can’t bear living children anymore. That the Human race can no longer reproduce without artificial aids.”

Deckenson closed his eyes dramatically and sighed. He opened them again. “Exactly. I am saying that the sexual act has become recreational only, totally unrelated to reproduction. I am saying that pregnancy is no longer related to mothering. That may be an even more serious breakdown than the separation of sex from reproduction. There are studies, quite ancient; I am almost afraid to ask if you know of them. The information dates back to Earth life, and was gathered when scientists still had access to other primates. Do you know what is meant by the phrase ‘together-together monkeys’?”

John shrugged. “Some subspecies of primate, I suppose. What am I eating?”
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