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“Pseudo-meat. A reconstruction based on chemical analysis. We assemble the vegetable nutrients to resemble the original components, and add fiber to simulate the texture of flesh. Those orange cubes approximate an Earth vegetable called carrots. The noodles are a simulated wheat pasta with artificial sea-life meat, and the salad is a salad. But, to get back to the monkeys, they were deprived of their natural mother, and offered only the companionship of other infants. They developed an unnatural pattern of clinging to one another in groups. Adults from those experiments were incapable of the behavior necessary to successful mating. When they did reproduce, say by artificial insemination, they either neglected or abused their children—I mean offspring, of course.”
“Of course.” John had managed to swallow what had been in his mouth. He looked at what was left on his plate in distaste. He could eat it. Intellectually, he knew it was only vegetable protein, no matter how they had prepared it. His training in following local customs was good. He could eat it. But. “Isn’t this sort of thing illegal?” He waved his fork at his plate.
“Not anymore. First, when I was very young, there was a legal decision that one would have to prove intent to stimulate carnivorous interest rather than mere culinary experimentation. And, more recently, there was a legal decision that substance was more important than appearance. As we’re the only animals on Castor or Pollux, any attempt at becoming a true carnivore would have to involve cannibalism of some sort. There are separate and totally adequate laws to prevent that sort of thing. No one’s trying to encourage cannibalism; this is just satisfying a historical curiosity for most of us.”
“Still.” John poked at the pseudo-meat with his fork, then took a bite of the salad instead. Even it tasted strange. He sampled the noodles, trying to miss the pink flakes of pseudo-meat. It was good, very good. He looked up to find Deckenson pouring himself some stim. John cleared his throat. “There’s a point to all this, I take it. I mean, making me feel like an outmoded, brutish sort, and then feeding me pseudo-meat and telling me that the Human race has improved itself to the brink of extinction.”
“Of course. I just don’t know that you’re ready to hear it yet.”
“That sounds familiar. In fact, the last time I dealt with anyone from Earth Affirmed, I recall our negotiations ending in just this way.” John made a show of pushing his chair back.
“I know,” Deckenson said quietly. “My father kept very complete records of the meeting. As he did of everything he did.”
“Then you won’t be surprised when I walk out of here.”
“You think I used that word as an honorific. I was referring to a biological fact. The last contact you had with Earth Affirmed was through my biological father.”
John resettled slowly into his chair and stared at Deckenson. He supposed it was possible. The light hair was the same, but he couldn’t recall what color Jarred’s eyes had been. But what Deckenson was suggesting was high treason against the race. From the very earliest settlement of Castor and Pollux, personal children had been forbidden. Individual families led to ambitions that favored personal survival and comfort over the survival of the total ecology. One could lose the sense of oneness with one’s species if one cultivated a personal family. To deliberately seek out the knowledge of which child you had genetically contributed to implied that you would put that child ahead of other children. As Jarred obviously had; how else the immense coincidence of Deckenson holding the same company position his male parent had held?
“I’ve shocked you, haven’t I?” Deckenson asked softly.
John didn’t have to nod. His wordlessness was answer enough.
“It’s going to get worse.” Deckenson attempted a wry smile; it looked like a death grin. “It’s been going on for hundreds of years; since the evacuation, in fact. And it’s not just keeping track of our offspring, and passing on our beliefs.”
John watched Deckenson take a brief sip of stim. He pursed his mouth at the bitterness. He glanced up at John and their eyes met. Deckenson’s were hesitant, almost pleading. John kept his eyes empty. He’d hear him out, then decide what to do: Turn him in and feel virtuous, or take what had to be one hell of a bribe for whatever it was Earth Affirmed wanted done. Deckenson wouldn’t be putting himself this much at risk if he didn’t have the cash to buy John’s silence.
The cash, or the force. John’s whole body suddenly felt very quiet and cold to him.
Deckenson set his stim down. “Earth Affirmed hasn’t been idle these past years. We’re not just beliefs and talk. Six years ago we applied for a colony permit. It was denied, of course. We were naively open about our purposes, and the Conservancy ruled us counterproductive. So we attempted a renegade colony in one of Castor’s wastelands; you needn’t know which. Nothing’s left of it, anyway. We were trying to see if, freed of the growth inhibitors we’ve all be ingesting since we were zygotes, Humans could recover enough to reach puberty, mate, and give live birth. It failed. We did managed three pregnancies, but two spontaneously aborted and the third ended in both mother and unborn child dying. But we believe natural fertilization could be accomplished, if we had more time, if we had access to younger children, fresh from the creches, and chose not to feed them the growth inhibitors and …”
“I don’t want to hear any more.” John felt chilled at the enormity of what Deckenson was telling him. It wasn’t so much what they had done; he didn’t particularly care what risks fanatics took or what deviations they performed upon their own bodies. No, it was the size of the crime he was confessing to John. Just listening to what Deckenson was saying and failing to report it would be construed as a crime meriting Readjustment. Forget Earth Affirmed. There had to be other work he could find for Evangeline. He stood.
“Of course not.” Deckenson stood with him, gesturing at a plant draping a window and nodded as he spoke, as if commenting only on it. “For you needn’t listen to me at all. Others will. I could start with something minor, say, by going to the Conservancy and reporting all those contraband entertainments you favor. It’s a shame you’d put your passion for collecting obsolete information over the good of the ecology. Didn’t you know that information hoarding directly leads to excessive possessions, and thus unfrugal consumerism? Both charges carry mandatory Adjustment sentences. And it’s been going on so long.”
John sank down into his chair slowly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not.” Deckenson seated himself and picked up his fork. “You’re a straightforward man, John. You think it’s luck when you happen to acquire some, uh, collector’s item of literature. Such good luck you have! Or such bad luck, as when Norwich suddenly drops your contract. It’s dawning on you now, isn’t it? We’ve had a ‘finger in your pie,’ to use an old idiom, for a long time. We’d hoped to draw you in gradually. But, those two little errands you did for us, way back when, must have spooked you. We’ve tried to take our time to regain your trust. But now we’ve come down to necessities. We know things about you; we’ve made it possible for you to do things you wanted to do, things the Conservancy frowns on. We’ve helped create who you are, John. And now we intend to use what we’ve created.”
John suddenly felt gravity sick. Everything was too heavy; he could scarcely keep his head up, and the food was a gelid mass in his novice stomach. He tried to keep his face expressionless, to speak calmly. “Deckenson. None of this is rational. It sounds like you’re threatening me, but I have no idea what you’re implying I’ve done.”
Deckenson lifted his small glass of stim again, sipped from it delicately. This time he appeared to enjoy it. “Interesting flavor. Originally an imitation of an old Earth drink; did you know that?” He raised his eyes to meet John’s. Deckenson’s eyes were pale and curiously unanimated, but he smiled slightly at John’s tense expression. “I told them you’d have to have it spelled out, one word at a time. It’s simply this. We’re dying. All of us. They can terminate me tomorrow, or I can die two hundred years from now. It makes little difference to me. But whether or not you listen to me will make a big difference. Basically, we’re offering you the chance to save our species. And yourself.”
John forced himself to sit quietly, to unclench his fists under the table. How much could they know for certain about him? How careless had he ever been? Not very careless. Not ever. Earth Affirmed might suspect but they’d never be able to prove much. So what was the worst the Conservancy would do to him? They wouldn’t terminate him. No. At most, they’d adjust him. Adjustment wasn’t so bad. People went through Adjustment all the time. John tried to think of someone he knew who’d gone through Adjustment. Unfortunately, he knew very few people. They tended to die or get very old while he was gone. Of the other Mariners he knew, he couldn’t recall any who had gone through Adjustment.
Except Chester. And he wasn’t marinering anymore.
But that didn’t mean anything; people who had been adjusted almost always took a career change afterward. He could be adjusted, and survive it, and go on to do something else. Something else that meant no more Waitsleep. Not that tough. Just wake up every single morning, and live every single day, one at a time, knowing that death crept closer with every passing hour, every passing minute. He was sweating. He wanted, more than anything, to be back inside Evangeline, safe in a womb, outbound to anywhere. Deckenson’s insistent voice sounded strangely gentle.
“John, you’ve been brought up to believe in the Stewardship of the Conservancy; to think that those in charge of our destiny had the essential sweep of vision necessary to plan wisely. Now, I have to tell you, in a few short hours, that you’ve been misled. That the Conservancy has placed the ecology of Castor and Pollux above the survival of Humanity. Wait, no, that’s not quite fair. It’s placed a premium on Humanity making no impact on that ecology. To that end, they’ve altered us. Altered us possibly past the point of no return. In their efforts to make us the perfect guests on these planets, they’ve made us totally temporary. None of the structures, on Castor or Pollux are regarded as permanent. Take away the Humans, and they biodegrade back to nothing in just a few years.”
He paused, and looked at John measuringly. “As you well know, not even information is stored permanently. It has been constantly recopied onto biologically harmonious material. They can say that nothing ‘essential’ has been lost or changed, but only a fool would believe them. And look at how much knowledge has been declared obsolete and deliberately destroyed. We have only a smattering of the Greek and Roman classics in public repository. The last information purge declared excess most of the fictional writing prior to the nineteenth century. The battle to keep the records of the flora and fauna on Earth is gradually being lost. With strict limits on the use of plastics, and ‘hoarding of superfluous information,’ an offense that carries horrendous fines and Readjustment sentences, the old records are being crowded out of repositories. There are supposed to be permanent master copies somewhere, but access to them is strictly limited. So when the present public records of it begin to biodegrade, it won’t be recopied. Earth Affirmed has managed to surreptitiously copy some of it; it’s labeled as mining transactions. But we can’t hope to save it all, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Deckenson’s voice trailed off and he stared past John, brow wrinkled as if staring after a departing dream. John was silent for a long time. He could hear his own heart beating, one thud after another, counting out the moments of his existence. His throat was dry, and his voice came out raspy. “No.”
Deckenson looked startled. “No what?”
“I’m not going to be coerced this way. I don’t think you’ve got the arm twist on me that you think you do. I haven’t done anything wrong, and I’m not going to be blackmailed into whatever you’re trying to get me to do. I don’t need you. I can get a legitimate contract with someone sane.”
Before he had even finished speaking, Deckenson had lifted an inquiring finger. John watched the waiter react to it, darting forward with a credit slate for Deckenson to authorize. He left it discreetly on the corner of the table and retreated to seat some new arrivals. Without a word, Deckenson lifted it and glanced at it. He frowned, then presented it to John.
“Dostoyevski?” he commented inquiringly. “That doesn’t sound like you.”
John took it numbly, glanced at the display. It wasn’t the restaurant bill. It was, instead, a complete listing of his last three transactions with Ginger, including his most recent order. Dates, times, and even the exchange rendezvous points were listed. Deckenson reached across the table to take the slate from John’s lax grip. He tapped a few keys, then turned the slate to display for John their itemized restaurant bill. John made no comment as Deckenson turned the slate back toward himself.
“I would have expected you to choose Shaw over Dostoyevski,” Deckenson observed coyly as he keyed in an agreement of credit transfer.
“Perhaps you don’t know me as well as you think you do.” John had intended to sound defiant. But the words caught in his throat and he finished his attempt at bravado with a cough.
“We know you well enough,” Deckenson assured him quietly. To make the threat less subtle, he offered, “Would you like to see a copy of your pre-Academy transcripts?”
John’s mouth went dry. “What is it?” he demanded, his voice cracking on the question.
“What do we want?” Deckenson’s eyes were back on him, suddenly hard in their triumph.
“Yeah.” John begrudged everything he gave this man, every word, every second of his life.
Deckenson leaned forward, and spoke with soft fervor. “Earth. We want the Earth back. We want to live there, as Humans were meant to do, as a part of the ecology, filling the niche we evolved to fill.” Fanaticism reddened his pale cheeks.
“Earth is dead.” John spoke as if Deckenson were an unadjusted child, uninformed of the basic facts of ecology.
Deckenson shook his head. “No. She’s not. And even if she were, we could revive her. With all we’ve learned from our exile, we could do it. Imagine it, John. We re-create the Earth, and Humans could have a real home again, instead of existing as we do, as very precarious guests of Castor and Pollux. Children could run through fields of plants instead of following pathways, pick fruit from trees without counting each piece, interact with lower life-forms without being accused of interference or damaging the planet. Or can you imagine it, John? You, who’ve never even been allowed on the open surface of a planet.”
John closed his eyes for half a moment, pushed down total panic. How the hell much did they know about him, and how had they found it out? “That’s none of your business, where I’ve been or haven’t been,” he said flatly.
“Perhaps not,” Deckenson said in a suddenly mild voice. “But nonetheless, we do know. Instead of being terrified of our betraying you, think what we’re offering you: the chance to finally stand on the surface of a planet and look up at the sky. And that planet is our own homeworld, Earth.”
“Not my home.” John said it flatly.
“John,” Deckenson chided. “It is. Yours and mine, and we could live there again. Earth Affirmed knows it’s true, despite all the official reports. All we need to do to prove it is sidestep the Conservancy. For years, they’ve given lip service to our requests for updates on Earth’s condition. We finance a Beastship there, we put up the money for the satellite surveillance and send in the probes. But the results always come back the same. Toxic. Poisoned. Dead and deadly. You know why? Because all our raw data becomes the property of the Conservancy, goes directly into sealed files. We aren’t even allowed to see the readings we get. All we’re allowed is the Conservancy’s interpretation of what the raw data meant. It’s been very frustrating and very expensive. But the solution is obvious. Get permission for another reconnaissance. But this time there’s a man on the ship who’s ours, one who can step in and pirate the data before they can steal it from us and ‘interpret’ it to their own liking. We’ve set up ways for it to be done.” Deckenson paused, and John wondered what worse thing he was about to introduce.
“And there’s one other possibility, even more exciting. We have reason to believe there exists a time capsule that was left for us, created by those who stayed behind when we evacuated, in the faith that someday we’d come back for it. Firsthand data about Earth’s ecology. We believe it’s there, waiting for us. You can retrieve it. Or try. That’s all we ask.”
All they asked. The words seemed to echo in John’s ears. He couldn’t imagine anything worse they could ask of him.
“Deckenson,” he said pleadingly. “It’s completely crazy. Earth’s dead. Any ‘time capsule’ that was left there is destroyed, centuries ago. And it’s treason. If I do it, I’ll return to condemnation. There won’t even be a pretense of adjusting me. They’ll simply eliminate me like a contagious disease. And my crew.”
Deckenson didn’t smile. The very flatness of his mouth was somehow more intimidating. “No. Because you won’t fail. And when the information you gather is released, eliminating you will be impossible. You’ll be a hero. We’ll see to that. Refuse us, and we’ll see you’re condemned. So focus on this. If you serve us, you’ll return to wealth and acclaim. We promise.”
“There isn’t really a choice for me, is there?” John said slowly.
“Not really,” Deckenson agreed. His flat eyes smiled at John over the rim of his stim mug as he drained it off.
SHE WAS WALKING TOO FAST. Connie consciously slowed her stride and surreptitiously glanced around to see if anyone had noticed her hurry. She caught one pair of eyes staring at her, but the young woman seemed to be studying her orange coveralls rather than her face. Normal, Connie told herself. She was in a residential section of the station. It wasn’t an area usually frequented by the merchant marine. The standard coveralls that blended in among the port traffic made her stand out here. That was all. Nothing to worry about.
She forced herself to take the relaxing breaths, told herself that her uneasiness was groundless. Her Adjustment counselor had promised her that these feelings of not belonging, of vague paranoia, would pass. A small side effect of the Readjustment, actually a very small price to pay for being adapted. Time, she had assured Connie, would erase all the uneasiness. Well, Connie had given it time. A year and a half, in her relevant time. Almost forty years elapsed time. And she still felt as if there were no place where she was truly comfortable and at home, no place where people couldn’t see she was a patched and mended thing, a repaired mind. Even if the corridor had been empty, she would still have felt the knowing eyes on her, the looks that pitied or condemned her.
“Connie.” She heard the soothing voice cut into her mind, the last fading vestige of all the post-hypno helps they’d placed inside her head. Guaranteed to expire within ten years. Usually. But maybe it wasn’t even a post-hypno anymore. Maybe her mind had obediently replayed it so many times, whenever her thoughts turned this way, that now it was just part of her. “Connie, dear. Remember this, when you feel out of place. Over seventy percent of the population will undergo Readjustment at some time in their lives. And our research indicates that percentage is rising. Therefore, a readjusted person is the norm, not the exception. Seeking Readjustment is the act of a responsible citizen. Relax. Know that you belong, and that good citizens respect those among them who improve themselves.”
Sure they did, Connie thought sourly. They respected you. They just didn’t want to be around you much, or talk to you, or work alongside you. Like your instability might be contagious. She glanced around herself, at the other people hurrying past her, and realized she hadn’t been paying attention to where she was going. Too caught up in her own interior landscape.
She stopped by a fountain, sat down on a slag bench beside it. There were fewer fountains in this section of Delta, and the plantings around it looked homelier, as if the neighborhood maintained it rather than a professional. She shifted uneasily, feeling almost guilty at suspecting this. “Rules change,” the counselor had told her, “but not right and wrong.” Connie pulled her mind away from trying to understand that. Rules she could comprehend and obey. Rules were simple. It was right and wrong that mystified her sometimes and had led to her need for Readjustment. Last time she had been on Delta Station it had been illegal for plants to be grown for other than oxygen production. Only professionals handled fauna. Now there were plants everywhere, being treated as decorations, and obviously being handled by laymen. If it had been illegal, hadn’t it been wrong? And if it was legal now, did that mean it was right? She felt a light sweat misting her palms and the back of her neck. She got up and began to walk again, trying to remember Tug’s directions for her destination.
She felt a sudden, almost-dizzying homesickness for the ship and the Waitsleep womb. Rules didn’t change on shipboard, not on the Evangeline. John was abrasive and bullying, yes, but his strictness was in itself a reassurance. Nothing was going to change on Evangeline, not as long as John was skipper. It was probably a personality defect, but ever since her Adjustment, she had found that she didn’t care how people treated her, as long as it was predictable. Consistency was all she asked anymore.
Unfortunately, consistency seemed to be the last thing she would get from Tug. Within the familiarity of the ship, his bizarre behavior had seemed merely capricious. Now that she was off the ship and performing his little errand, it had begun to seem strangely threatening. She took a calming breath and glanced around the unfamiliar corridor. She checked a clock set high in the wall. Seventeen forty-three. She wasn’t due back at the ship for another four hours or so. The familiar roilings of stress churned within her as she warred with the necessity of making a decision. She could pick up the recordings for Tug, and it would be behind her and done. And she’d have two or three empty hours to aimlessly wander the station before she went back to the ship. Or she could wander aimlessly for two or three hours, stewing about Tug’s errand, and then do it and go back to the ship. Neither schedule appealed to her. She finally decided to complete Tug’s errand and then simply go back to the ship. Would John notice how little time she had spent ashore and wonder about it? Probably not. As long as she didn’t bother him, he didn’t seem to notice anything about her.
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