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Alien Earth

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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He glanced back the way they had come. Another group of Mariners were coming along behind them. “Damn. No going back now. Okay, then. You shut up. Don’t say a word, no matter what. Maybe we’ll manage to get through this with our licenses and minds intact. Then again, maybe not.” His words were grim, his eyes bright with anger, but the forced smile never left his face. Still gripping the tote bag, he strode toward the security clerk. Connie followed in his wake as if towed.

They stopped in front of the security check.

The guard glanced up at them. “Ship?” she asked disinterestedly.

“The Evangeline. Owned by Tug.” Connie listened to John calmly giving the answer.

“Names?”

“John Gen-93-Beta, ship’s captain.” John palmed in.

His glanced nudged Connie. “Connie Gen-103-Castor-Horticol-six. Crew.” Connie set her palm to the reader panel.

The attendant keyed in the information lazily, received a green flash to both. A match. “Station products?”

“Uh, garments. Entertainment tapes.” John lied with practiced ease. Connie saw that suddenly. As she would have tried to lie, if he hadn’t come along. But somehow she knew she’d have been caught. And it would have been the last lie she ever told. They could do that, on a Readjustment, take away the capability to lie. What truths would I tell, Connie wondered. John swung up the carry sack, thumped it down on the counter. Connie heard the heaviness of the thud as an involuntary truth.

“I have to clear it all,” the clerk told them. She seemed annoyed at actually having to work. She touched the fabric of the scarf, fingered loose a fold of the skirt’s lightness. “Pretty. Wish I could afford it on a stationer’s pay.” She glared briefly at John with unconcealed hostility for rich spacers. The clerk’s hands started to delve deeper into the bag.

“So keep it,” John said, smiling down on the clerk. “I think it will do things for your eyes.”

He tugged the scarf loose, leaned forward to lazily place it on the clerk’s shoulder. She goggled up at him, and Connie was suddenly aware of how tall John must seem to people unused to him. The clerk shifted suddenly, spilling an entertainment block from her lap to the floor. “Naughty, naughty!” John chided her as she scrambled to pick it up and hide it from the other oncoming Mariners. “Don’t want to get caught doing that on duty time! Remember, port security depends on you. Our lives depend on you.” He seemed incredibly sincere in his gentle rebuke. He picked up the carry bag casually, winked at the girl.

“No, sir,” she all but gasped, and smiled sickly at him. Her hand stole up to caress the scarf at her throat.

“Connie!”

She realized she’d been standing there, staring at the clerk as John walked off. At his voice, she jerked and followed him, aware of the clerk’s venomous stare on her back. She had to hurry to catch up with John. Even then, she walked behind, not beside him. Neither of them spoke.

For crew or passengers, there was a tube lift to Evangeline’s gondola. Connie stepped into it with John, felt the brief muffling as the door hummed shut and the air in the tube lift repressurized to match Evangeline’s gondola. Then she was moving slowly and smoothly aloft, away from Delta’s tunneled corridors and toward the ancient doming that protected her. A brief pause as fail-safes opened and closed, and they moved through a lock and into a second tube. The lift proceeded.

“Let me tell you a thing or two about old Tug,” John said suddenly. He spoke softly, and she had to strain her ears to hear him. “He can be charming and warm. Comes across as a great person. You’ll think you’ve eliminated the barriers between Human and Arthroplana and found a true friend. Well, don’t believe it. He doesn’t give a damn about you or me or anything but himself. If they’d caught you at that checkpoint, he’d have denied all knowledge of what you were up to.”

Connie found she had come to attention and was standing as still and silent as if this were a formal dressing down. From the moment John had called to her, she’d felt paralyzed by his presence. Now it came to her that if she had committed a crime, he had just aided and abetted her in it. A little tingle of anger ran through her, that he could act so superior about it. Her gaze met his and she saw the jolt of surprise he felt at the coldness in her eyes.

“How did you know what I was doing?” she demanded softly.

John recovered well. “You’re not the first crew member Tug has seduced. I recognized the type of carry tote that Talbot uses, and guessed by the weight of it. But you’re the most naive. The others usually had the sense to disguise what they were carrying for Tug. I guess that’s why I stepped in?”

He said the last sentence wonderingly, almost to himself, as if he truly were not sure why he had intervened.

“Thank you.” The words came from her reflexively, and then she realized she meant them. “I promise nothing like this will ever happen again. I realize you compromised yourself to get me out of a stupid situation. If there’s ever anything …”

John signed and looked away from her, out the side of the tube over the bleak machinescape of Delta Station. “The last time you do something like this? I hope so, but I doubt it. Connie, don’t be stupid. You’ve given him a handle on you. Don’t think he won’t try to use it. Luckily for you, our next mission is an Earth reconnaissance. I don’t think he can find much trouble for you there.”

They stood in silence, Connie too shocked to speak.

“I’m … sorry.” John’s words sounded awkward, as if it were a phrase he had heard before but never had to say himself. “I suppose I should have found some way to warn you about Tug. But you wouldn’t have believed me.”

“No. That’s true.” Even now her mind struggled with the idea that an Arthroplana could have asked her to do something so illegal. It came to her slowly that that was why she had gone through with the errand despite her misgivings: Arthroplana were so totally adjusted, so harmonious that she’d never totally believed what she was doing was wrong. Surely, there would be some explanation for this, some technicality that permitted Tug to request such things. Even now, she found herself clinging to a shred of hope that John was mistaken, that Tug would clear all this up when she delivered the recordings to him.

Her mind veered suddenly. “Earth?” she said aloud to John. “Terra?”

“Yeah. Should be different, huh?” He coughed and turned aside from her to speak as he gazed out over the station. “Uh, Connie. Don’t take this wrong. I know you value your privacy, because I value mine. But beware of solitary Wakeups, of time spent alone with Tug. He … toys with Humans. Long friendly talks that aren’t at all friendly. Not really.” His eyes swung back to her. “You know what the word ‘vivisection’ means?”

She shook her head.

“Look it up in an unabridged dictionary. Do it before we leave port; you can access one from the ship’s terminal. And think how it could apply to a mind.”

The doors slid open abruptly, and Connie emerged into the already-familiar corridors of Evangeline’s gondola. Pastel corridors, much smaller than any on Delta Station, radiated out from the embarkment lobby. She stepped out of the tube, held the door open for John.

He didn’t move.

“Aren’t you boarding now?”

“No. I still have a few things I want to get done before we leave. That’s only seven hours from now. I want you to get down to cargo level and supervise some specialized equipment we’ll be loading. Make sure they stow it the way I showed you. And bring our basic supplies up to twice standard. I want a wide margin for error on this trip.” He was suddenly the captain again.

“Yes, sir,” she found herself saying. His eyes met hers once, and she was puzzled by their opacity. She tried to find the honesty she had earlier glimpsed there. “About what I did for Tug …”

He stared past her, eyes cold, into the empty corridors of the ship. “That subject is closed,” he told her flatly. And there was no mistaking the command when he added, “We won’t be speaking of it again.”

She let go of the door and it hissed shut behind her. She took a deep and sudden breath, and realized she was shaking. She’d done it. She was home safe, back to the ship with her illegal tapes for Tug. Despite all John’s seriousness and warnings, a wicked excitement raced through her. For the first time since her Readjustment, she felt a savage little thrill of personal triumph. They didn’t fix me, she thought to herself. They didn’t get all of it. And then wondered why the thought brought her such gladness.

As the lift descended, John leaned his forehead against the transparency of the wall and tried to find some shred of calmness or complacency within himself. But as he looked out over the clockwork busyness of the multilevel port around him, he could only grasp that the coolness of the wall felt good against his sweaty forehead. Forty-eight hours ago, he’d been in the warmth and peace of a Waitsleep womb and all had been right with his world. Now it was crumbling around him, and he was helpless to stop it.

His “lunch” with Deckenson had been followed by a briefing at Earth Affirmed offices that had only left him more sure of how untenable his position was. Their instructions had been precise to the point of insulting; they’d had no doubt that he’d obey, that they owned him. He’d walked away from it feeling both numb and shaky, and convinced that nothing much worse could happen to him.

Only to arrive in time to spot his crew engaging in a felony at the behest of the ship’s owner. He’d had a brief but alarmingly detailed vision of the consequences of Connie getting caught; the port investigation that would turn up not only his own collection and the fact that half of the ship’s library space was devoted to contraband, but also dig into his recent dealings with Earth Affirmed. Some of the cargo they’d be loading into the Evangeline would be distinctively unusual. None of his recent doings could bear a sniff of inquiry, let alone a full-fledged investigation. And so he’d acted, extricating Connie as best he could. Only now did he wonder if it had been the wisest thing to do, or if he had just given another person a handle on him.

He became aware of the tube lift’s transparency and straightened himself, trying to resume a little professional decorum. And what now? Caution dictated he avoid his rendezvous to pick up Ginger’s wares, that he cancel his meeting with Andrew as well.

Caution hadn’t worked too well for him lately.

Besides, how could it get worse?

He nearly changed his mind when he found that the package left for him to claim at a port pawnbroker contained not only his requested volumes, but a “complimentary” copy of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. It was the only one in button rather than Ginger’s standard tube format, yet the package had shown no signs of tampering. In a waste recycler stall he transferred his purchases and the gift to the lining of his collar, save for Crime and Punishment, which fit neatly into his left cuff. The packaging went down the waste recycler.

He tried not to think about it as he walked to his meeting with Andrew. Had someone from Earth Affirmed added Crime and Punishment to the package? They’d known the drop off point. Or had they their own ways of contacting Ginger, and having it added? Would Ginger consider him a poor risk now? Was Ginger allied with Earth Affirmed? Was Ginger a part of Earth Affirmed? Did Ginger exist as anything other than a name? After this contract, would any of it matter to him anyway? He batted the questions away irritably and tried to walk briskly, but was fifteen minutes late meeting Andrew.

Andrew straightened from where he’d been leaning against a corridor bench to shake John’s hand. The only sign of his receiving the recording was a slight widening of his grin. But a few years John’s junior, his substantially smaller body and cheerful face made him appear generations younger. The first time they’d met, he’d insisted he remembered John from an Academy prep class, and John had never discouraged his delusion. Andrew was one of the few people John bothered to maintain contact with. His boyish enthusiasm and openness had always been a marked contrast to John’s notoriously somber moods. Usually John found his company and easy conversation relaxing. Today Andrew’s cheeriness was like a mockery to John’s problems. “No luck getting Norwich back?” Andrew guessed shrewdly.

John gave him a black look and Andrew held up a conciliatory palm. “We won’t talk about it yet. I’ve found the only place on this station that still has decent stim. Come on. I’m buying.”

“Damn right you are,” John informed him sourly, but let Andrew take his arm companionably.

Andrew’s stim shop was in the port district, and largely frequented by the maritime trade. All aspects of the port were represented, from longshoremen to oilers to other Beastship personnel, with a corresponding spectrum of sizes and ages. The fixtures ranged widely in styles and sizes to accommodate the varying trade. John sank gratefully into a proper sized chair. Two cups of stim and the familiar surroundings let some of the tension out of him. Andrew’s casual gossip of doings on the Trotter and the other short-run Beastships needed no more than a grunt and a nod in reply. He only realized how wandering his thoughts had been when a mixed platter of fresh greens and fruits was set before him. He glanced up at Andrew in confusion. Andrew’s dark eyes were frankly amused.

“The waiter asked you twice what you’d like. I ordered it for you, the second time you didn’t hear him.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve a lot on my mind.”

“No contract yet?”

“Actually, that’s not the problem. I’ve got a client.”

“Good one?”

John shrugged. He didn’t want to get into it.

“Then what’s the problem?”

John hesitated, wondering how much, if anything, he wanted to tell Andrew. But Andrew’s own face darkened and he set his cup down with a thump. “It’s Connie, isn’t it? Damn, John, I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I swear I didn’t know when I recommended her.”

“So you’ve said,” John answered, content to let the conversation wander down this channel for a while.

“So. What’s she done?” Andrew leaned forward, ready for a choice story.

“Exactly what she’s told, and no more,” John informed him grimly. He reflected it wasn’t exactly a lie. Tug had undoubtedly sent her out on her latest ill-advised errand.
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