Jim Baen's Universe 1 Vol 1 Num 1: June 2006



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Travails with Momma, Part 1


Written by John Ringo
Illustrated by Phil Renne


 

1: Paradise Sucks


"JOSH!"

Josh Parker ignored his mother, leaving his eyes closed as he kept reading.

The book was pretty good, a collection of short biographies of the space aces of the Second Orion War. It was split between the Ortulian front and the Joostan so there was a lot of variety. But the basic theme, Terran superiority in space combat, was what Josh liked. That's what he wanted to be, a fighter pilot.

He brought up a toolie and began blasting the wicked Ortulians that had started the war by the sneak attack on Diamond Haven. Ortulian fighters fell around his invincible Devilspray space fighter as he flew among the stars . . . but he had to rescue the beautiful princess . . . Cindy Goodhead. Cindy was so cute. She was in his reading class and . . .

"JOSH! COME DOWN HERE THIS INSTANT!"

The image of his mother's face appeared in the middle of the combat and with a wave of her hand the fighters and stars disappeared, along with the picture of Cindy tied up in the middle of ten bug-eyed, octopoid Ortulians he was just preparing to defeat in bloody hand to hand combat after which, if he was lucky, he might get a peck on the cheek from Cindy and then they'd have about a half a dozen children . . .

"I have to talk to you, Josh. Now."

"Oh, Mother," he memed. "Can't you talk to me here?"

"Now, Josh. Downstairs."

Josh opened his eyes, wiping the toolie, and shuffled across the room disconsolately. He kicked a datacube out of his way and a blue tunic, making a path through the clutter to the room iris.

The house was old fashioned and to make his way to the kitchen he had to walk down stairs instead of using a bounce tube. Sure, it was only one floor, but everybody had bounce tubes.

This was the third house they'd occupied in the Alu Islands. Dad was working on the new Malt Whiskey Corporation theme park outside Greater Papua and after the project got extended by another year, and their lease was up on the house outside Papua, Mom had picked them up and brought them to the Alu. It meant a one hour air-car commute each way for Dad, but Mom was in charge of housing and she could be less than subtle. From her point of view, it was Time To Leave.

"What do you want, Mother?" Josh said as he entered the kitchen. "Couldn't you just meme me?"

"Mouths are for talking," his mother said. "Implants are for learning."

He hated that expression.

Mom was just pulling a roast out of the fresher and his stomach growled.

"Can I have a snack?"

"No," his mother snapped. "You won't have any room for supper."

"But all I want is a choco-bar," Josh whined.

"Two or three, more like it," his mother said with her standard sniff. "We're moving back to Bowan."

"They're finished?" Josh said. "Gosh."

"With phase three," his mother replied. "So we're going back to the home office."

"Do we get a house this time?" Josh asked. "I'd really like a house. I want a dog, Mom."

"No, we'll be in an apartment," his mother replied. "It will be an hour until supper. You need to do something besides read in your room. Outside."

"Oh, Mom," Josh whined. "It's boring!"

"It's a nice day out," his mother answered. "Go."

Josh schlepped out through the back iris and frowned at the view. Waving coconut palms and a pink sand beach surrounded a crystalline cove. The houses around the cove were set back from the beach so that they were barely in view and, except for one or two locals out catching the sun or fishing, the cove was almost deserted. The trade winds blew in a constant stream, lowering the temperature to what most humans considered idyllic.

Josh went down to the waterside and kicked at the sand. When they'd first come to the Alu Islands, he'd gone swimming nearly every day and turned brown as a nut, his dark brown hair shading to almost white at the tips. It still was bleached and he still had the tan but he'd hardly swam a week at a time anymore. Even swimming in crystalline water could get boring day in and day out. And while Alu was one of prettiest places they'd ever lived, and he'd lived in a bunch of places, there weren't many kids his own age around.

If they could just settle down for a while. A year here, a year there, by the time the local kids had gotten over beating him up and stealing his lunch money and started to let him steal other kids', it was time to move. They'd lived for two years in Greater Papua, right on a river, and that had been great. Sure, he had to take getting beaten up a time or two not to mention the ritual jokes about having his head collected, but he'd made friends. Had a bunch of kids to play with.

He wandered along the beach in a deep funk, watching the animals along the waterline. He saw a purple and pink crab in the water and stopped.

"That's what I want to be," he said. "A superhero! Crab-man!" He held his hands up and made clacking sounds. "Crab-man! With pincers of . . . super hero stuff!" Clack, clack. By day, Crab-man was an unassuming fourth grade student. But by night he . . . rescued damsels in distress. Especially Cindy Goodhead!

"Oh, Crab-man, you're my hero," Cindy said, breathlessly.

"Well, there were only a hundred of them," Crab-man said in a deep voice. He had the arms and legs of a crab but his body was rippling with muscles and he had a really handsome face and black hair and bright green eyes . . . "You know, Cindy, by day I'm really . . ."

No, that wouldn't work. Super-heroes never gave away their secret identity. She'd just have to work it out herself and then they'd live in a big house on the top of a mountain and make pancakes while the snow fell and have about . . . oh, nineteen kids . . .

* * *

Steve Parker sent a command to the airtruck, shutting it down, and dilating the door. He climbed out and stretched his back, wincing. Flying an hour either way to work was . . . well, when he'd started it nine months before he'd called it a pain. Now he had an entirely new appreciation for the term.



But that was about over. For good or ill. Working on the Malt Whiskey project had given him a billing rate that was astronomical. Yara and Barchick had been happy as hell about it. Unfortunately, the number of fifteen billion credit projects to be had on Terra was . . . small. The planet had all the infrastructure it could handle and there just wasn't room for the sort of massive projects he specialized in.

The term he was groping for here was "redundant." As in, "I'm sorry, Mr. Parker, you're simply redundant to our current needs."

With five kids in college or just starting out in independent life, not to mention a wife and kid at home to support, that was not a conversation he was looking forward to. Which was why he'd pulled every string he had to keep working on Malt Whiskey, long after less competent, and less expensive, engineers could have wrapped it up.

Before Malt Whiskey he'd spent three solid years doing failure analysis on other planets, especially ones with harsh soil and working conditions. It had been fun, figuring out what other people had screwed up always was, but he'd seen his wife and kids exactly eighty-seven days in those three years. He wasn't looking forward to that, either.

Something would come up. Something always did.

* * *


"How was your day, dear?" Jala said, ladling spaghetti sauce onto Steve's noodles.

"Fine," Steve said. "Whiskey Corporate sent another hot-shot out to reinvent the wheel . . ."

Josh tuned out his parent's conversation, twirling the spaghetti. Wrapped in rings of . . . really strong stuff, Spaghetti-man . . .

"Do you have another project?" Jala asked, in a tone that bespoke calm disinterest overlaid with worry.

"No," Steve replied, calmly. "They want me to do . . . sales for a while."

"Oh."


Josh had learned to not even turn an ear or look up. Grownups would drop the most important information if they were sure you weren't paying attention. And knowing where you were going to live, for a kid, was really important information.

"So, we'll be at the home office for a while."

"Do we have an apartment, yet?" Jala asked.

"No, we'll stay in a hotel while you look for one."

Josh conjured up his memory of Bowan. Tier upon tier of skyscrapers and megascrapers reaching for the sky. Green? Some of the signs were green, maybe. Water? Sure, it comes out of a tap. Bowan. Well, at least there were kids his age. Approximately nine billion.

He actually sort of liked Bowan, what he remembered of it. Mostly an apartment and the airbus to school. He'd only been in kindergarten and first grade in Bowan, though. He couldn't remember much. The megascraper had a pool, several actually, but one he could go to. Not by himself, of course, but maybe he'd be old enough, now. And the subcomplex they lived in had board tracks. He wanted to ask if they were going back to the same complex but then they'd know he'd been listening.

Worst of all, though, he knew the tone. This was a temp. Dad would just be hanging out until they figured out what to do with him next. He might be around for a month but more likely he'd be gone all the time. When they'd lived in Bowan before, there had been brothers and sisters, mostly Anna and Cho. Sure, Cho had been a bastard most of the time, but at least he was somebody to nag. A brother was a brother.

This time it would just be him and Mom in an apartment.

They'd kill each other in a week.

Spaghetti man wraps tendrils of . . . really strong stuff around his mother's neck.

Bad.

* * *


He'd learned the hard way. The bungalow was rented so this time they didn't even have to wait for movers. The next day the back of the aircar was packed with stuff, so was the trunk and most of the backseat; Dad had already sent the company's airtruck back to the site on remote. Josh had packed his stuff the night before; his clothes, some data cubes and his real, honest-to-gosh, bound, paper, copy of Tarzan Lord of the Jungle. The family had furniture and other stuff, but the company had that stored for them. Maybe they'd get some of it out for the apartment. Maybe not. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

It was going to be a long flight to Bowan. It was a sub-orbital hop but once you've seen one you've seen 'em all. So Josh lay in the back seat, his foot propped up on a bag of clothes, his head on a pillow, closed his eyes and started reading.

They left early, stopping for breakfast at a greasy spoon in Samoa and lunch on the outskirts of Bowan. It was a McFries outlet on the forty-seventh floor of one of the outer megascrapers. From the window, Josh could see way off in the distance some hills. They were green. He took one more look at them and bit into his McWhopper.

The earliest memory he had of his dad was him bringing home McWhoppers. It was a big deal, then. He didn't know why; they ate them all the time these days. That had been in Durban. Durban had been pretty cool, from what he could remember of it. The house had been small and old but it was surrounded by trees and he could still hear the screams of the monkeys sometimes when he thought hard. And most of his brothers and sisters were still home so they'd been crowded. But it was in the country and it was near a river. And they had a pool. His earliest conscious memory was of nearly drowning in the pool. Mom and Dad always had a pool, a lake, a river, somewhere to swim. They might move a lot, but they always got to swim.

There had been a big party when they moved to Bowan; everybody was really happy. He didn't know why, he'd liked Durban. And he'd gotten to like Bowan even if it was different, too. Bowan was cold, most of the time, it seemed to him. And they'd moved into a really small apartment in the megascraper. But the complex had a pool. He'd nearly drowned in that one, too, when Cho had been wrestling with a big null-grav player from school and he'd jumped in to "save" the brother that was ten years older than he was. The next thing Josh could remember was being stuck under the struggling bodies and not being able to get to the surface.

But this time there wouldn't even be Cho to play with, or at least nag. Cho was married. He lived in Bowan, though, so maybe they'd get together.

Josh glanced out of his eye as a pretty girl sat down across from them. She was wearing the current fashion which was, as his dad put it one time, "two bangles and a feather." The girl caught him looking and Josh turned away and took another bite out of the burger, blushing.

He'd never been one of those boys who didn't like girls. He could remember in Durban when he was, maybe, five, getting married to some girl. Just play-acting but they'd been really serious about the vows. A couple of days later she'd wanted a divorce and he'd had to go get the term "annulment" explained to him. He still didn't get it.

But getting the girl was what it was all about. He knew that from his graphnovs. The good guy got the girl and the bad guy didn't, that's how you could tell the difference. Oh, the bad guy might have some girl hanging around, but he was always after the good guy's girl. Josh wanted to have a girl. One that wore "two bangles and a feather." And he'd save her from evil Jootans by sneaking into their secret base…

"Time to leave," his dad said.

 

2: Durance Vile


This was just wrong.

Josh looked out the plastic-crystal windows and sighed. It was pouring down rain and it looked cold. Not that it would matter because he'd probably never go outside again in his whole life.

The apartment was fine, but it was small and seemed dark after living for three years in the tropics. And the complex didn't have a pool. Oh, the megascraper had two, but they weren't members of those. So he was left to sit in the apartment all day and read or tool or meme. And with the meme restrictions his parents had put on his plant, he could basically talk to Sati the Clown fans or nothing. And what he considered appropriate for Sati the clown, a Jootan wouldn't do to an Adoo.

And today was the first day of school. He hated school but "first days," especially when you were already two weeks into the school year and all the kids had broken up into cliques already, were the worst.

Worse and worse and WORSE Mom was walking him to school.

"Time to go, Josh," his mom said from the door.

"I'm sick," Josh said, coughing unconvincingly.

His mother sighed. "Come on, Josh."

"Really, really sick," Josh said, slouching towards the door. He coughed again and tried to hack up a gob like Cho could do. No dice.

They walked down the corridor and to the bounce tube then took a slideway to the November quadrant. As they got closer there were more kids, none of them being led to school by their mom, heading for the big double doors.

Josh kicked his heels and watched the other kids as his mom checked him in and uploaded his records.

"Welcome to the Mary Smith Primary School, Josh," the lady behind the counter said.

"Hi," Josh said after a prod from his mother.

"He just takes a while to settle in," his mom said.

"He's certainly been in a lot of schools," the woman replied, frowning at the records. "And there's a six month break . . ."

"I was homeschooling, then," his mom said. "He's met all the standard test requirements," she added, nervously.

"Yes," the woman said, still frowning. "I hope, though, that he can keep up. We have a very active academic program, one of the highest rated in Bowan. He may have . . . problems."

"He's very bright," his mother said in that hard tone she took when somebody was being unusually stupid. "Just log him in. He'll do fine."

"Very well," the woman replied, blinking her eyes. "He's in Mrs. Datlow's homeroom. Room 17395."

Josh closed his eyes for a moment and downloaded a map of the building along with the directions to the class. He was just stepping out to head there when his mother took his hand.

"Mom," he whined, terrified of the aching embarrassment of having his mother lead him to the class by hand. "I can find it on my own. Look, it's down this corridor, take a left, take the second bounce tube, turn right out of the bounce tube . . ."

"Come on, Josh," his mother said, dragging him along.

Josh slumped into the hopeless slouch of an Adoo being taken to the Jootan salt mines and followed along.

* * *


It barely took him two classes to find his niche. Complete and total loser.

"Your assignment for today, class," the teacher said, smiling brilliantly as she passed out pieces of lined plascrip, "is to write a story about what you did on your summer holiday."

Josh looked at the plascrip in disbelief and then picked up the pencil. He hadn't actually written anything since kindergarten! What was this, the Outer Limits?

He looked at the teacher and pinged her. When she didn't reply he hesitantly raised his hand.

"Yes, Josh?" the woman asked, smiling.

"You want me . . . you want me to write?" he asked, holding up the pencil hesitantly.

"Yes, Josh," the woman replied, still smiling.

"Bu . . . but . . ." he looked into the corner of the room and pointed. "There's a printer."

"I know, Josh," the teacher said, speaking to him as if he were an idiot. "But you have to write it."

"I can meme it in about ten seconds," Josh said, composing the first sentence and pinging her again.

"Josh," the woman said, gently but with a tone of anger. "Everyone doesn't have implants. You have to write it."

"They don't?" he said, horrified. He sent a general ping and the woman shook her head.

"Josh! Do not broadcast! It's very rude!"

"But . . ."

"Josh just write the assignment!" the teacher said, angrily.

Josh bowed his head and picked up the pencil like a dagger, pressing it into the plascrip and trying not to tear it.

W . . . H . . . A . . . T—

* * *


Math wasn't much better.

"Miss Rodinson?" Josh said, raising his hand after repeated pinging didn't work.

"Yes, Josh?" the woman said, smiling.

"That's wrong," Josh said. "It's a nested set. Marsupials are a subset of mammals which are in turn a subset of animals." He got sent a command to the projector and rearranged the teacher's careful work, which she had been laboriously inputting with a keyboard and stylus, showing the nested set. "It's like that. Or in Leet . . ."

"Josh," the woman said, angrily. "Do not rearrange the board. Understand?"

"Yes, but it's wrong," he insisted. "All marsupials are mammals. All mammals are animals. Ergo supper."

"Josh, the way that I had it was right," Miss Rodinson said, frantically tapping at the input board. "Drat, I didn't save."

"It was like this," Josh said, rearranging the projection. "But that's wrong!"

"It's right, Josh!" the woman argued.

"No it's not," Josh said, mulishly.

"Josh, access the answers at the end of the assignment. The even numbered ones have answers. It's in the book."

Josh accessed the pad in the desk through his plant and then frowned.

"It's still wrong," he said. "I don't care what the book says . . ."

* * *


Then there was lunch.

"What did you bring me to eat, dweeb?" the bully said, snatching the bag out of Josh's hand. "Think you're smart. What do smart kids eat?"

"Ham sandwich," Josh sighed. "Apple. Bulb of choco-cola. Frits."

"Guess I'll be eating well," the kid smirked at him, vanishing into the crowd.

"Yeah," Josh said, getting in line to buy lunch. He'd learned to keep some money the first few days of school. 'Til kids figured out not to steal his lunches. "And I'll be eating near the teachers. Really near the teachers."

He was just finishing his jello when he heard the howl at the other end of the cavernous room.

* * *

But, that of course, leads to . . . recess.



"What was in that sandwich?" the kid said, panting as he smacked Josh again.

"Ow! I dunno! My mother made it!" Fighting wasn't going to do any good. The idiot had shared the sandwich with friends.

"You're lying!" the kid said, kicking him in the side.

"Ow!" he said, covering his head with both hands. "Okay, okay! It was habanero sauce . . ."

* * *

"Miz Parker . . ." the assistant principal said.



"Mrs.," Josh's mom replied. "Not Miz. Not Miss. Mrs."

"Mrs. Parker," the woman continued, "we have been getting a number of complaints about Josh. While he is . . . quite bright, he has shown some . . . antisocial tendencies. Specifically, he has been arguing with teachers . . ."

"Subsets?" Jala said, smiling tightly. "He took that in second grade in Papua. If you have any knowledge of them and access the question and answer you'll find that they are wrong. I've got a PhD in mathematics, I got it when I was sixteen, by the way, Miz Chaberk and I can tell you that in my professional opinion the person who made up your textbook shouldn't be allowed a job as a window washer."

"Then there is the problem of his lack of basic skills," the woman continued, firmly.

"Writing?" Jala said, amazed. "You consider writing by hand to be a basic skill? What next? Driving? Long division? Quantum mechanics?"

"Writing is a basic skill, Mrs. Parker," the woman said, angrily.

"For whom?" Jala cried. "In every other school district that Josh has attended, meming was considered 'writing,'" she continued, speaking slowly and carefully as if to a complete moron. "You can't get a job in a McWhopper franchise without the ability to at least handle a trace set. There is not a job on Terra that requires the skill of writing. If you give me a pencil and some time I might be able to trace out my name. Can you write?"

"And he was found defacing the anti-bullying posters," the woman continued, somewhat desperately.

"Maybe that's because he's come home three days this week with bruises and torn clothes!" Jala snapped.

"We have a very strict anti-bullying policy . . ."

"MAYBE YOU SHOULD TELL THAT TO YOUR STUDENTS!"

* * *


"Josh," his mom said as he walked in from school. "Sit down."

"Yes, Mother," Josh said, sighing theatrically. He sat across from her and leaned forward, avoiding the cushion of the float chair and examining his sneakers.

"I was called to your school today, to talk to your principal," Jala said. "Did you know that?"

"Yes, Mother," Josh said, apparently fascinated by the sight of his toes.

"I know it takes a little time to settle in," Jala said, "but you seem to be having more problems here than in Papua."

"That's because they're stupid!" Josh said. "They're just stupid! All of 'em."

"They're not stupid, Josh," his mother said. "They're just . . . it's a special kind of . . . well it's what they call 'parochialism' that you get in major cities. And poor quality education, yes. Things are too large so it's just easier to work for the least common denominator."

"Okay," Josh said, having no clue what his mother was talking about.

"I'm . . . if we stay here long I'll probably try to get you in a private school," Jala continued.

"If?" Josh said, picking up on the word that seemed most important in the conversation.

"Oh, we should be staying here for a while," Jala said, smiling.

"Here, here?" Josh asked. "In the apartment?"

"Yes, Josh," Jala replied. "Here, here."

"Oh."


Josh was working on swear words. He knew some but he also knew better than to say them to his mother.

* * *


School went on as school always did. The bullies stopped taking his lunches, since they never knew what they were going to be laced with. The transition period was . . . tough. He ended up having to both bring a lunch and buy one a couple of times. He had a real aversion to habanero and an even worse aversion to uncooked oyster sauce. He stopped getting beat up so much, but that wasn't the same as making friends. He didn't. Usually he'd find at least one person to hang out with, but not in this school.

The school was in a state of societal flux; even Josh could tell that. Most of the kids were from the local area and tended to be the children of up-scale urban professionals. But a solid core had been transferred from an adjoining scraper, one that had more than its share of low-pay, semiskilled workers and their children. Josh couldn't make friends among the kids like "him" because they had all been going to school together for years and had closed ranks in protection against the "new" kids. Josh, by default, was considered a "new" kid but the children of the relative "poor" had little or no use for some snotty brain. Except as a punching bag.

He figured this out after about a week and quit trying. Most of the bullying came from the low-class kids so he avoided them as much as possible. It was a tightrope every day of school and it was wearing him to a frazzle. No friends in a school where people pretty much ignored you was one thing. No friends in one where you needed them to back you up was hell.

He slouched through the door of the apartment and went to his room, not even bothering to go by the kitchen and to try to cadge a snack. He had another stupid writing assignment due in the morning and it was driving him nuts. He'd figured out that he could use the plant to paint the words better than he could actually write them. He actually had the assignment memed. All he needed was a printer but they cost like a gazillion credits. The only one he could get to was at school and he'd tried the old "I wrote it at home and scanned it dodge" only to be told to go get the original. What he needed was a dog to eat his homework.

He got out the paper he'd been writing on, which had about a hundred tears in it, and frowned. He really, really didn't want to write right now. It hurt his hands and he was embarrassed by the way the words looked. He kicked off his sneakers, which ran to the closet and put themselves away, and then lay down on his float bed, closing his eyes and bringing up a book by some guy called "Dickens." It was really old, almost as old as Tarzan, but it was pretty good.

He opened his eyes when his dad came home and pinged him to say hi. Then he closed them again until he heard the magic word: "project."

He crept to the room iris and put his ear against it. He could hear them talking, faintly.

"Nari . . ."

" Nari? Accompanied?"

"If we want. It's a minimum two year project."

"But . . . Nari? That's . . ."

"In the Peshawn sector, I know. But there are some choices. It's either double my Terra salary or I can take one and a half with benefits. The benefits are housing allowance for spouse, a generous one, and a driver. I can probably swing an education allowance since there are no public schools. There are travel benefits, too. One ticket back to Terra per year for myself and one on the odd six months to Charon Sector or equivalent for myself and family. You get to travel, Jala; I know you've wanted to. And the pay is . . . great."

"The pay would be great and we need it; we're barely keeping up with the Visam Card payments. But . . . Nari . . . That's sort of . . ."

They moved away towards the kitchen and Josh frowned. "Nari." What the hell, or where the hell rather, was Nari?

He carefully accessed the net. His parents had all the usual filters in place but looking a place up wasn't going to get him in trouble. Unless they caught what he was looking up. He never talked about his eavesdropping but when you didn't know from one day to the next where you were going to be sleeping, eavesdropping became a habit.

Nari . . . too many hits. Nari, place. No. Nari . . . geographical . . . Nothing. Where on Terra was Nari? It didn't ring a bell. Nari. Okay, just go through them. Popular singer. Most of those sites were blocked for some reas . . . oh. Woo-hoo!

He spent a little time accessing some sites on the pop-singer Nari Senescenes. Two bangles and a feather, INDEED. My.

But that didn't tell him where they were moving. Or maybe moving. Nari. What did Dad say? Peshawn? Ah. Nari. The Narians. Try that.

Nari, a planet in the Peshawn Sector . . .

WE'RE GOING OFF-PLANET!

Oh, man, but look at those natives . . . UUUUUUG-LEE.

* * *


"Nari is a planet in the Peshawn Sector," Josh said, tooling the data and throwing up a holopic of the sector then zeroing in on Nari. "It's a hot world which has a green sun. It's mostly arid—that's dry like a desert. The natives are insectoid forms, ten extremities, including two true arms and two false arms, a curved head sort of like a banana . . ."

When he'd told his social studies teacher where they were going she'd asked him to do a presentation for the class. And herself. With as many planets as were known to Terra, she couldn't keep up with all of them. The teacher seemed interested but most of the kids were bored. Until he got to the next bit.

"The Narians reproduce by implanting their eggs in mammalform hosts," he said, showing a video of the implantation. The Narian looked something like a giant wasp and the ovipositor it extended appeared to be about two meters long. "When the eggs hatch, the babies eat their way out of the hosts . . ." And, sure enough, there was a tridee of the young Narian bursting out of the side of a thing that looked like a six legged cow.

"Oh, gross!" "Cool!" "Are you going to get eaten, Josh?"

"Okay, Josh," the teacher said, hurriedly, shutting off the video as the baby Narian extended a labial probe and began ripping chunks out of the shuddering former host. "Thank you very much for that . . . interesting presentation . . ."

"The Toolecks had a war with them about fifty years ago . . ." Josh continued.

"That's enough, Josh."

* * *


 

Josh had only been at a spaceport a couple of times before. They'd shuttled up to visit his Nana in one of the orbital nursing homes once and had a vacation on the Terraformed Mars colony. Other than that, all his traveling had been on Terra and most of that by aircar.



But now here he was in the Bowan Spaceport, getting ready to head to Nari via Toolecks. All he knew about Toolecks was that the people there were one of Terra's staunchest allies and they had five eyes. They all spoke Terran with a funny accent, but it was going to be neat.

"You're going to be well over gross cubage, ma'am," the cargo-bot said as the floater transferred their bags to the conveyor.

"Check our record," Jala replied politely, as if the machine was a human. "We're cleared for excess cubic."

Mom had bought him gobs of clothes because she didn't know what she could get in Nari. Not only clothes that fit but some that were too big so he could grow into them. It made a respectable pile of bags.

After they got cleared by the baggage handling system Mom headed for the gates. They passed through the security tunnel then down a bounce tube to the lower levels. That was when Josh started to pick out the aliens.

There was a group of spiderlike Grantin, clustering together as if to avoid the horrible mammalforms around them. There was a tall, spindly Barick, striding through the crowd waiting for the tram. A couple of Toolecks, short and lobsterlike with five eyes extended on eye-stalks, waving their mandibles and clacking away in Tool.

There were more. Harons and Sjoglun and Beetoids and Nalo and . . . too many to count and in all different shapes, sizes and colors. It was just so cool.

Dad joined them as the grav tram arrived. He'd been held up by a ping from his home-office. But they got on the tram together, careful to take the oxy-nitrogen sector one, and headed for the out-terminal.

"Problem?" Jala said as they hung onto the grab bars. There was a stabilization field so those were more for psychological benefit than anything.

"Bank of Heteran wouldn't take the transfer," Steve replied, shrugging. "So we're going to be paid through Bank of Donlon on Tooleck. Not a problem, there's a branch in Heteran and you can access from anywhere on Nari. But you'd better get used to the fact that Nari uses more physcreds than Terra or Tooleck. They've got a local money called the rayel and they mean real money. Sheets with the local ruler's face graved on them."

"How . . . interesting," Jala said, her eyes widening.

"You can carry enough to get around in your pouch," Steve said, shrugging. "And hotels and things in Heteran will take Visam or a Bank of Donlon . . . well it's a piece of plastrip with writing on it called a 'cheque.' You fill in how much money you're paying them and then thumb it. Hand it over to them and it's like doing a trans but you have to keep track of them so you don't overdraw the account. We'll pick some up in Tooleck while we're there and I'll get one of their comps to explain it to you. Bank of Donlon 'cheques' are accepted in some of the strangest places." He paused and grinned. "Welcome to the Outer Limits, honey."

"Hey, Dad?" Josh said. "Can I get some of those rayel?"

"We'll see, squirt," Steve said, rubbing his head. "We'll see. You're going to be in a different part of the ship from us, Josh, you know that?"

"I am?" Josh said, his eyes widening.

"Yes, you're going to be up front," Jala replied. "I'm going to be riding with your father in the back. Don't worry; you'll be fine."

"Okay," Josh said as the tram pulled into the R terminal. They got out and went up another bounce tube to the terminal then through an emigration scanner to ensure they weren't carrying any of the fourteen billion, one hundred and twenty three million known forms of replicating biologicals and hazardous nannites. The scanner buzzed on a Sjoglun ahead of them and the floor opened up under the large caterpillarlike creature, dropping it into a bouce tube and down to the medical quarantine facility.

"No danger, ma'am," the Youtoon beetling the terminal shrilled by rubbing two of his back legs together. "Just a minor case of Purple Spot Fever. Not contagious to Terraoids. Move along, please."

* * *

When they reached the gate area they took a tube to the Gamma boarding level for oxy-nitrogen, 10 kps gravity, travelers. Then his mom led him over to a roped off section.



"This is my son, Josh," Jala said to the Tooleck attendant. "He's boarding in first class, oxy-nitrogen Terra/Tooleck mix."

"Yes, Mrs. Parker, I have the note in my memory," the Tooleck said, bending down to Josh's level and waving all five eyes at him. "Hello, Josh. Is this the first time you've been in a spaceship?"

"Nah," Josh said, puffing up his chest. "I've been to the orbital colonies and Mars before!"

"We're going to Tooleck for a couple of days," Jala said nervously. "Then on to Nari."

"Nari!" the attendant said, whistling through his breathing snout. "That's a long way, Josh, nearly six thousand light years! You're going to have fun, aren't you!"

"That's right," Josh said. "And I get to stay out of school till we find a house!"

"Always a pleasure," the Tooleck said, whistling in humor. "We'll take good care of him, Mrs. Parker. Josh, why don't you sit over by that Sjoglun over there where I can keep an eye on you."

"Okay," Josh said, skipping over to the seat.

The Sjoglun was about the size of a rhinoceros and looked something like a gray caterpillar, with a tapered tail and head. It had ten stubby legs that were stretched across two sets of conformable chairs and eighteen more stubby pseudo arms ranging from about the length of a human forearm near the base to very small ones the size of a hand at the upper quadrant. It was rocking back and forth with all fourteen compound eyes on short, retractable, eyestalks waving in different directions and appeared to be asleep.

"Hi!" Josh said, jumping into the seat next to it and leaning back as the seat figured out his squirmy body conformation. "I'm going to Tooleck! My name's Josh!"

"We are all going to Tooleck, young Terran," the Sjoglund grunted, whistling faintly from spicules along the side by Josh and rotating a handful of eyes in his direction. "And my name is . . ." it let out a complex whistle.

Josh tried to whistle the name and then gave up.

"I'm just gonna call you Pilly, okay?" Josh said. "I can't say that name."

"That is fine young Terran," the Sloglund replied. "Few Terrans can. And how old are you, young Terran?"

"I'm ten!" Josh said. "I'm in fifth grade. Well, not right now, I'm out of school until we get to Nari and find a house!"

"Ten!" the Sjoglund said, whistling from both sides of his body. "Why, you are barely a grub! When I was ten, I had not yet come of mind. You are lucky to be traveling so young, Terran. There is much you can learn, in school or out of school."

"I guess," Josh said. "Hey, what's Purple Spot Fever?"

"Why?" the Sjoglund said, suspiciously.

"The guy in front of me at security had it," Josh said and was amazed at the speed with which the massive creature could move. "Nice talking to you!" Josh yelled at the retreating form. "Bye!"

* * *


Josh watched the world dwindling into space until the stars began to move faster and faster. Just as promised, the ones to the front got red and the ones to the rear got blue and then they vanished. What was left was a swirling purple like the stuff you got with your eyes closed if you weren't reading or meming or something.

"Ladies, gentlemen, neuters and ?T*Reen," the captain said in a clipped Fordoss Galactica accent. "The ship has entered hyperspace and you may now unbuckle your restraints and feel free to move about the cabin. Please keep minimal restraints in place when seated in case we encounter subspace turbulence or black holes."

Josh tapped the command and the enveloping body cover retracted into the seat. Then he leaned the seat back and closed his eyes. It was a pretty good book but it had been a long day and eventually he went to sleep.

3: When In Rome


"Excuse me, young sir," the Tooleck said, prodding at his arm.

Josh opened his eyes and looked out the window but they were still in hyperspace.

"Mwuff?" he said, sitting up. "Sorry, I must have fallen asleep."

"Here is a hot towel," the Tooleck said. "Dinner will be served in a few cycles." It was apparently a Tooleck female, slightly larger than the males and less ornate in body etching with the blue and green stylized starship of Tooleck Spaceways graved on her carapace. She handed him a towel and then turned to the seats across the aisle from him continuing her service.

Josh washed his face and hands with the hot towel and then rubbed the back of his neck. That not being enough, he dug in both ears, washed behind them for the first time in months, then stuck the towel up under his shirt and gave himself a good rub-down. When he finished the formerly white towel was a dark gray with some yellow etching.

He dropped it in the basket as the attendant came back through and then decided to look around at his fellow travelers. There were two Terrans across the aisle from him, an older man and a girl Josh figured was his daughter. They didn't look alike or anything, but she was way younger than he was. She was really pretty, too, but kind of old, maybe twenty, wearing "two bangles and a feather," with her hands folded demurely on her lap and her eyes closed. Reading, tooling or meming, not sleeping, from the ways her eyes were moving under their lids.

Josh caught the man looking at him and he looked kind of angry. So Josh decided to look somewhere else. He lifted himself up on his seat and looked at the seats behind him. There was another couple, there, two catlike Nalo, a male and a female. Again, the male must have been the dad because he had the really deep black fur of an older Nalo with gray around the jowls. The female was younger, Josh couldn't even guess how young, with light tan, thin, fur. She was reading a pad, one pointed ear twitching occasionally. Nalo mostly wore a sort of long robe but hers was short, barely reaching the tops of her thighs and was cut low in the front so he could see her cleavage. It was the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen. When she inhaled the little hairs on her breasts sort of bristled.

After a moment, as if reading his mind, she looked up from the pad. He grinned at her and she slowly drew her lips back, revealing a mouth full of perfectly formed, extremely sharp, teeth. He wasn't too sure about Nalo expressions, but he didn't think it was a smile. So he smiled again, lips closed, sheepishly, and slid back down the back of his chair.

The fresher was at the front of the compartment so he strolled up there and did his business. There were instructions in Galacta explaining how a human should use the flusher. He followed them carefully, confused and, at times, horrified by some of the other instructions. When he was done he wandered more slowly down the aisle, looking at his fellow passengers.

Most of them were Tooleck and most of those were females, probably businesswomen from the pads and chart-holos. There were a couple of lizardlike Jootan, one of them sitting right next to an Adoo! He wondered if the sluglike Adoo was being taken to the Jootan salt-mines but probably not. The war had been over for a looong time. Terra and the Toolecks won, beating the Jootan and the Ortulians over a sixty parsec sector, and the Adoo had mostly moved to Goolagam which was their ancestral world. It had been taken over by Adyl while they were gone, since they'd lost control of it nearly three thousand years before to the Yemnor, and there'd been quite a few wars there since they'd moved back. Each of which the Adoo had won with embarrassing ease given that the Adyl were about three meters tall, heavily armored insectoids related to Narians. Getting beat up by a bunch of slugs had to be embarrassing. It wasn't far from Nari, come to think of it.

He'd just started to close his eyes to read again when the Tooleck stewards started serving dinner. A tray extruded from the back of the seat in front of him with the dinner covered by a crystal-plas warmer. When he took it off he sighed; proto-carb chicken in some sort of sauce. He picked up the prongs and prodded at it. Yep, proto-carb, had to be. No real chicken was ever that rubbery.

It was pretty good, though; the sauce was creamy and not spicy. There were noodles in some sort of cheese sauce, too. He avoided the vegetables on the basis that anything green had to be bad for you. There was some sort of fruit, though. It was kind of funny, sort of like an orange but purple and with a really thick rind. When he got that off, by biting into it with his somewhat prominent incisors and tearing, which he'd gotten good at in Papua, he found that the interior was filled with little globes. He popped one in his mouth, suspiciously, and was pleased to find that it was something like a kumquat, sweet and tangy at the same time. He ate all the little globes, greedily, getting juice all over his hands. But there was another warm towel in the tray and he used that to clean up.

When he was done he tooled the command and the tray folded back up along with his mess. Well, except for the stuff that had gotten on his clothes which he brushed off onto the floor. Small buglike bots scuttled out of the walls and picked up the debris, unnoticed.

Fed and happy he checked his plant and saw that they were about three quarters of the way to Tooleck, passing over the last bit of the Canalit Rift. They were just approaching Re'as, an underdeveloped planet that had been settled by Toolecks several thousand years ago. The Re'as were hostile towards the Toolecks, which had conquered them as part of the far-spanning, and fast decaying, Tooleck Empire. The Tooleck were in the process of slowly withdrawing from Re'as and not enjoying the experience. Re'as terrorists were always blowing up air-car bombs in Donlon or shooting Tooleck soldiers or something else to express their general dissatisfaction with the Toolecks.

On the other hand, when the Re'as weren't fighting the Toolecks they were fighting each other or singing about fighting or wandering around the galaxy as mercenaries or casual muscle. They called it "following the wild besleem." They spoke a version of heavily accented Galactica that was fairly similar to Tooleck, but coarser and, in extreme versions, nearly incomprehensible.

Josh kicked his feet and wondered what to do next. He had a couple of hundred books loaded in his plant but he really didn't feel like reading. He'd decided that spacing was boring. So much for being a spacer. Nothing but hyperspace to look at most of the time. What he wanted to be was . . . rich. Rich enough to buy a planet. Rich enough that he'd have a girlfriend like that Nalo girl, with really fine fur.

He brought up a tooling about the Second Orion war and spliced himself in as an Insertion Commando. The mission was to rescue . . . a pretty Nalo girl, a member of the resistance, who was being held by the Jootan secret police. He'd just gotten through the ludicrous Jootan defenses around their headquarters and burst into the room where the Nalo girl was tied up and being threatened by black-clad Jootan police when the tooling was automatically saved.

"Ladies, gentlemen, neuters and ?T*Reen," the Tooleck captain said, "we are approaching hyperjunction with Tooleck at this time. Please disengage all net connections and configure your comfort zones for landing."

Josh sighed and triggered the restraints, squirming a little as the plastic wrapped across his body, legs and forehead. He could turn his head to the side and he watched as the purple of hyperspace gave way to shifted stars and then the pinpricks came together into normal looking pins of light. The G class star of Tooleck was briefly visible as the window automatically polarized to prevent blinding. The ship was pointed at Tooleck on the way in but as they approached the planet it banked to enter the landing pattern and Josh got his first glimpse of a new planet.

It looked . . . gray.

* * *

"It's cold!" Jala said, wrapping her arms around herself. She was wearing a light environment cape but the warmer was having to really work in the brumous conditions in Donlon. The rain was sheeting down as they waited under a force dome for an aircab and she shivered and pulled Josh to her.



"We didn't bring any clothes for this," she said.

"My fault," Steve answered, shrugging. He was wearing a slightly heavier environment jacket and frowned as he saw Josh shiver. "We'll go to the hotel and then order some appropriate clothes. I'd forgotten it was autumn year in Donlon."

The pad they were waiting at gave a good view of the city of Donlon and to Josh the place looked not much different from Bowan. Fewer megascrapers and a cluster of very low buildings near the middle, but pretty much block after block of big buildings. It actually looked like Bowan, the part they'd lived in, in the winter. Lots of cold rain and fog.

"Revod Hotel," his father said when the cabrank got to them.

"Please to place your luggage in the boot," the cabbot said in a weird accent. "Your" came out as "you were." "Pleace to plass you were loogadge in ter boot."

"Why's it sound like that?" Josh said as he tossed his bag in the trunk of the cab.

"That's what most of the local Toolecks sound like," his dad answered. "It's called Norky."

"Cool," Josh said as he settled into the conformal backseat.

"Where you from, guvnor?" the cabbot said as it lifted into the air.

"Terra," Steve answered.

"Well, uh course, guvnor," the cabbot said. "Where 'bouts?"

"Bowan," Josh said. "Last. We travel a lot. We were in Papua before that."

"Papua!" the cabbot said. "Got a mate works in Papua as a loader. Name of C4T7J315. Don't suppose you ran into him, eh?"

"No, sorry," Steve said. "Doesn't ring a bell. Knew a Norky dozerbot named D89Y4I673, though."

"Revod Hotel's a swank place," the cab burbled. "Not far from Seak Park. Got to watch the changing of the guards, guvnor. The larva would enjoy it."

"We'll see," Jala said, looking out at the misting rain. "Don't you have weather controls, here?"

"Yes, missus," the cab said. "This is what we like for weather!"

The Revod Hotel turned out to be a series of two-story buildings taking up about a half block of prime commercial real estate. Josh couldn't believe that somebody hadn't already built a megascraper on it. Dad would clear the area in a heartbeat.

They pulled in under a portico that didn't even have a force screen and the cold mist and rain hit them as soon as they got out of the cab. Mom handled the transfer while he and Dad got the luggage and dumped it on one of the waiting bellhops.

"Right this way, guvnor," the float said, spinning around and heading for the plascrys doors.

The hop led them through the lobby and to a bounce tube at the rear of the building, then up to the second floor and down a corridor to one of the outbuildings. The corridor was surrounded by dripping plascrys and Josh could see that small gardens were set between the buildings. The vegetation was mostly purple and looked like variations on moss and ferns.

"Room B 219, guvnor," the hop said as they reached the room. The door was wood on hinges, something Josh had only seen in historical movies.

His dad keyed the lock and showed Josh and Jala how to use the doorknob thingy. There was only one bed and the fresher had some fixtures Josh had never seen.

"What's that?" Josh asked, pointing at one of them. It looked like a seat with a spike on it.

"That's for . . . Tooleck," his dad said, hastily. "You don't want to use it. And I'd better explain the fresher controls. You really don't want to hit the third button, son. Hop, we'll need a float bed for my son as well."

"I'll get one for the tyke right away, guvnor," the hop said then cleared his voice circuits. "Hem . . ."

"Sorry," Josh's dad said and transferred a tip.

"Right away, guvnor," the hop said, floating out of the room.

"Wow! A fountain," Josh said, examining the controls on the fresher.

"That's for . . . Nalo, son," his dad said, shutting down the jet of water that was coming out of the commode. "Females."

"And what's the third . . . OH, MY GOD!" Josh shouted as a claw came up out of the bottom of the commode, snapped at air and yanked downwards.

"I told you not to hit the third button!" his dad snapped. "Especially if you're sitting down!"

"That would of . . ."

"Yes," Steve said, exasperatedly. "It's an Adoo setting. Just . . . go check what they have on the tridee, okay? I think there's a human circuit."

Josh sighed and went to the tridee, sitting on the end of the bed and tooling it with his plant. He looked at the selections and pulled up Manny and Butch, a police show that had been extremely popular on Terra . . . five years ago. Since it was in a prime-time slot it was apparently brand new to the Toolecks. He watched an episode he'd seen at least three times before for a couple of minutes, mouthing the words to one scene, and was just about to change the channel when it cut to commercial.

A . . . very pretty girl with brown hair and . . . well . . . really . . . uhm . . . was holding up a bottle of something.

"Libro," she whispered, huskily. "Libro . . . for . . . men."

"Aaah," Josh whimpered, absolutely positive that the next thing he was going to do was go out and buy some Libro . . . whatever it was . . . "So that's what nipples look like . . . I didn't know they were pink . . ."

"What?" Jala said, turning around from where she'd been unpacking. "Joshua Damley Parker! What are you watching?!"

"A commercial," Josh said, reverently, as the channel was changed. "Oh, Mommm."

* * *

Breakfast was another new experience.



"Well," Josh's dad said, scanning the menu. "They've got . . . quite a selection . . ."

"What are nanhuch or what is a nanhuch . . ." Josh asked, hesitantly.

"Uhm . . . you wouldn't like it," his dad said. "The intestines of something like a local pig, looks more like an ant, stuffed with its book-lungs."

"Ooooo!"


"Better than haggis, trust me. Try the iravo*1*, that ought to be safe," his dad said. "And some . . . ollien*2*. That's . . . sort of like porridge . . ."

The iravo when it was served by a botwaiter turned out to be strips of . . . well probably meat. Fried. They were chewy but tasty. The ollien looked a lot like oatmeal.

"What's this made of?" Josh asked, suspiciously.

"Sort of wheat," his dad said, clearing his throat. "Put some of the keatle syrup*3* on it. That will . . . help."

There was a big pot of the stuff in the middle of the table and Josh suspiciously stuck a finger on some of the green viscous liquid that was stuck running down the outside. He licked the stuff nervously and then smiled.

"Hey! It's corn syrup!" he said, happily.

"Close enough," his dad replied. Dad was having the nanhuch. It smelled like fish.

After a breakfast of iravo slices and ollien with lots of keatle syrup, Josh was ready to admit that Tooleck wasn't quite the barbarian planet it had first seemed. Gosh knows they had some decent tridee channels.

Darohs was a famous shopping mall that was just down the street from the Revod Hotel. After breakfast and daring a brief break in the rain, the underdressed threesome darted down the street to the store.

Josh's dad picked up a heavier environment coat and Josh, after whining to get a fake lizibe fur cape just like Cilo the Barbarian wore, settled on a blue and green toggle button coat made from some weird, rough, material. It had a hood, and when he pulled it up he could pretend he was Cilo the Barbarian, making his way through the northern wastes and battling ice-worms. His mom at first was going to get an environment coat like his father and then Dad talked her into buying a fake neganah fur coat. It was light blue and glowed like fire under the sun-paint. She turned around in it, looking at it from all sides in the view screens and sighed.

"It's too much," she said.

"We can afford it," Steve replied. "We'll be able to, anyway. You like it, right?"

"Yes," she said, sighing again. "Okay."

"Josh, your mother and I have to go to the bank," his dad said as they exited the store. "You might as well stay in the hotel."

"I might as well go with you," Josh said unhappily. "You locked out all the good channels on the tridee. I'll just . . . read or something."

"Fine, but don't interfere or pester people," his dad said.

They took a cab to the bank, which was a low, stone building and Josh waited on a humanoform chair while his mom and dad talked to an Adoo. About half the people working in the bank were Tooleck and the rest seemed to be Adoo and Terrans.

Josh watched them talking for a while and then closed his eyes to read. Finally, they were done. It seemed to take hours. But when he checked his clock it was less than 45 minutes.

"Let's go, Josh," his dad said. "I've rented an air car and we're going sightseeing."

"In this?" Josh said as they stepped out of the bank. The rain had turned to sleet mixed with snow. The wind had picked up as well and icicles were forming on the traffic markers.

"Yes," his dad replied, dryly. "I checked the weathercomp and there's some procession today, something to do with the Queen. They wanted just the right weather for it so it will stay this way until at least tomorrow. Apparently they were forced to have some clearing, then, but it's going to get colder. Today we're going to go to some ruins, Rockdeng they call it, because we sure as heck don't want to go tomorrow."

"Rocks and sleet," Josh said. "What a perfect combination."

* * *

Rockdeng, when they made it, turned out to be really cool. It was set in the middle of a big open plain of purple grass and while there was a power-fence around it, tourists were free to wander through the area. There was just something about the arrangement of big, weathered, green-stone rocks that made him wonder.



 

Josh wandered around the assembly, climbing on rocks, carefully, it was still sleeting, looking up at rocks and generally having a fine time until his mom memed his plant and downloaded the standard historic spiel. Just for giggles he decided to access it.



Rockdeng, it turned out, was created by prehistoric Tooleck, possibly as a form of early solar calendar. The stones had come from more than sixty kilometers away and were pulled there by hand or possibly using early domesticated animals. The animals they showed looked like giant ants and there was a toolie of them dragging some stones across the plain.

It seemed like an awful lot of trouble to go to just to figure out what day you should celebrate your birthday.

"Greenstone is a metamorphic igneous rock," his dad said as he opened his eyes to go find more rocks to climb. "Originally an igneous rock similar to dolomite and then subjected to higher heats and pressure," Steve continued, pointing at the side of one of the rocks. "See? Very fine grain. Slow cooling."

"Okay, Dad." Josh sighed. To his dad it seemed that everything was down to the rocks. Or, sometimes, the history of a place. Josh rarely saw his father and when he did his one image of him was of a guy sitting in a float recliner with his eyes moving, scanning some text. Most of them seemed to be history or adventure fiction.

"It's getting late," his dad said, pinging his mom, who had been sitting on a rock patiently waiting for father and son to get done. "Let's head back to Donlon."

It had been a two hour air-car hop to Donlon but the ride back seemed shorter.

"Steve," Jala said, when they got back to the hotel and had released the car to go park itself, "we've hardly seen anything of Donlon. Let's go look around."

"Okay," Steve said, shrugging. The temperature was hovering right at five degrees Celsius, but they were well dressed for the weather. "Let's find something to eat, though. I'm starved."

"I'm sure we'll find a restaurant or something," Jala said, putting her arm through his. "But Donlon's such a fascinating city. So much history. It seems a shame to not look around."

A city was pretty much a city to Josh but he had to admit that there was something different about Donlon. Part of it was that the Tooleck seemed to walk more than Terrans; the streets were packed with them as the threesome made their way through the crowds. Most of them weren't wearing environment coats but they all seemed to carry rellas like Terrans carried pads. And for much the same reason, apparently, because they had to use them just about as frequently.

It was after dark, or maybe it was the incessant cloud-cover, but all the shops were open and it seemed his mother had to stop in every single one. She didn't buy much but she had a great time looking.

"Honey," Jala said, coming out of a shop that sold intricate jewelrylike timepieces designed to be planted on the Tooleck carapace. "I want to go to Offacro Road."

"They'll probably be closing up by the time we get there," Steve warned.

"I still want to see it," Jala said.

"Okay, okay, we'll take the tube."

They caught a gravtube to another part of town, took a bounce-tube down to ground level and then stepped out on Offacro Road.

The road was lined by buildings, most of them less than ten stories tall and all connected by walkways and catwalks. And it seemed to be one giant mall. But what a mall. No laser fitters for clothing here. No, the clothes were laid out on floaters with Toolecks and Adoo and bots shouting in competition to be heard. Clothes and jewelry and just . . . stuff.

"Oh, wow!" Josh said, darting to one of the open shops and pointing in the window. "A real, honest-to-gosh forty-watt plasma rifle!"

"It's a nonfunctional replica," Steve said, glancing at it. "They drill the barrel and the charging coils so it can't be used. Thousands of them got dumped after the Orion War."

"A bookstore!" Josh shouted, dashing across the street. The door was locked, the proprietor having apparently gone home early, or, it being a bookstore on Offacro Road, maybe not having come in all day. But Josh could see dozens, hundreds of real paper books in the store. Then he looked at some of the prices and gulped. Let's see. If he saved his allowance for fifty years . . .

Mirrors and pottery and handcrafts from a thousand worlds. Jewelry for wear or implantation. Plant shops where anyone from a Terran to a Vacalu could be implanted in a matter of minutes with anything from a Covas V to a Mamorak 3000 with the special tooling coprocessor.

"They say you can buy anything on Offacro Road," his dad said as his mother was dickering for what was purported to be an authentic Yemnor brooch. If it was it had to be at least five thousand years old. "Anything from a map to the Holy Grail to a fleet of destroyers."

"Gosh," Josh said. "How much would just one destroyer cost?" With just one destroyer he could . . . well, rather than listing the things he couldn't do it would be easier to list the things he could. Taking over the Terran Federation was out, but other than that . . .

"More than I make, Josh," his dad said, leaning over to whisper. "And stay close. Because one of the things they sell, or so it is said, is . . . special food. There are some species that think that . . . young Terrans are especially tasty." His dad waggled his eyebrows and winked. "What do you think about that?"

Josh thought about this for a second and shrugged.

"I bet that shop that had the nonfunctional plasma rifle knows where you can buy a real one, Dad," he replied, whispering back. "Maybe we should get one."

"Not on Tooleck, son," his dad said, laughing. "They really frown on that sort of thing."

"Speaking of food," Josh said, his stomach rumbling.

"I don't think I can get that," his mom said. "It had better be authentic for what that Kaffo wanted for it. I don't see many restaurants . . ."

"You don't go to restaurants on Offacro Road!" his dad said, grinning. "There's a vendor just down there."

The vendor was a Lemnor, a ratlike being with red fur and beady black eyes. He was banging on the floater beside him with a pair of tongs.

"NAMERSH! Get your namersh right here! Hot and fresh! FRESH namersh!"

"I'll take a namersh," Josh's dad said. "These are really good," he added.

"What are they?" Josh asked, suspiciously.

"They're like . . . sort of Tooleck hot dogs," his dad replied. "They've even got mustard. I'll have mine with mustard, onions and rask*4*."

"Right you are, guvnor," the Lemnor said in a squeaky voice. He pulled a long brown thing that looked like a very oddly shaped potato out of an oven on the side of the floater, then cut the end off with a swift flash of a viblade and stuck the thing on a long spike. The entire process seemed to be one continuous motion. He held the open end of the thing under three of at least a dozen spigots, shooting mustard, chopped onions and what must have been "rask," a purple viscous fluid, into the hole in the thing. Last he opened up the top of a steaming tureen and pulled out a yellowish brown tube. The tube was stuffed in the hole in the potato-thing and the Lemnor held up a finger.

"That's a dib, guvnor," he said, diffidently.

"The price has gone up since the last time I was in Donlon, then," Steve said, frowning. "It used to be a quatro!"

"Well, it's the price of rask, isn't it? And onions, now onions those are just out of this . . . well, they're from Terra aren't they? Taxes are terrible. Cutting my own throat at that. But, seeing as how it's you, I'll say . . . half dib and that's flat."

"Quatro, and six," Josh' dad said. "Not a pin more."

"You've got me over a barrel, guv," the Lemnor whined. "I've already made it up and all. Have to eat it myself and explain to my partner where our sliver of profit's gone. Nine less sixty-three. Can't do less! And that's cutting me own throat!"

"Tell you what," Steve said, shaking his head. "I know you've got pups . . ."

"Squeakers, guv, nine of them and their mother ill . . ."

"So, a dib and quatro for three, and that's flat. Or you'll have to eat your profit."

"Guv, you're a friend in need," the Lemnor said, holding out his paw for the money.

"Transfer?" Steve asked.

"With those fees?" the Lemnor squeaked. "It's ten percent over and I'll have to go to Mert the Butcher . . ."

"Oh, very well," Steve said, reaching into his pouch and pulling out a handful of metal coins. "Let's see, that's a quatro, three quatros and a nine make a dib and a six*5* . . ."

Finally the complicated money and food transaction was complete. Jala got mustard and ketchup and Josh got just ketchup. He'd just taken a bite out of the namersh, and been favorably pleased, when the Lemnor shook his head in sadness.

"Been a good night," he muttered then looked up in horror. "Not that I'm making money or anything, it seems like the more I make the less I . . ."

"I understand," Steve said, taking another bite and starting to walk away.

"Got to fill the tureen back up, though," the Lemnor said, pulling out a bucket and reaching in with his tongs.

What he lifted out of the bucket looked like nothing so much as a giant tong full of quarter meter maggots. They were long and thin . . .

The rodentoid raised the lid on the tureen and dropped them in to the sound of high-pitched squealing just as Josh realized what he was eating.

"Try to get it in the scuppers, guvnor!" the Lemnor called out to him. "It helps feed the breeders!"

TO BE CONTINUED

Footnotes


(1) Belly steaks of the jumis worm, a large maggotlike creature used for reprocessing of edible garbage.

(2) Regurgitation of same. So is honey.

(3) Sort of honey. Sort of. Don't ask.

(4) A hot spicy condiment extracted from the fecal matter of the Sinok beast.

(5) This interaction makes more sense if the reader is familiar with pre-Decimal English currency. In this case, four quatro equal a dib and ten pins or one hundred and twenty-six pins and a slup. Again, don't ask. Among other things, it's base seven.

 

John Ringo is the author of many novels, as well as a writer of short stories.

To read more work by John Ringo, visit the Baen Free Library at: http://www.baen.com/library/


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