Authors: A. Bertram Chandler
Tags: #Science Fiction
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
by A. Bertram Chandler
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen EBook
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
First printing, June 2007
THE GIRL LAY SPREAD-EAGLED ON THE ALTAR . . .
"The white goat!" they shouted . . . "The goat without horns . . ."
Two men set the animal down on the girl's naked body, its back to her breasts and belly, its head between her legs. The drums throbbed softly, insistently. The priest's knife swept down; the animal's cries ceased in mid-bleat, although its now released limbs kicked spasmodically. The girl, free herself from restraining hands, held the dying body to her.
Grimes—Lieutenant John Grimes, Federation Survey Service, to give him his full name and title—had the watch. Slowly, careful not to break the contact of the magnetized soles of his shoes with the deck, he shuffled backwards and forwards in the narrow confines of the control room. Captain Daintree, commanding officer of the cruiser
was a martinet, and one of the many things that he would not tolerate was a watchkeeper spending his spell of duty lounging in an acceleration chair, not even in (as now) Free Fall conditions. Not that Grimes really minded. He was a young and vigorous man and still not used to the enforced inactivity that is an inescapable part of spacefaring. This regulation pacing was exercise of a sort, was better than nothing.
He was a stocky young man, this Grimes, and the stiff material of his uniform shirt did little to hide the muscular development of his body. His face was too craggy for conventional handsomeness, but women, he already had learned, considered him good-looking enough. On the rare occasions that he thought about it he admitted that he was not dissatisfied with his overall appearance, even his protuberant ears had their uses, having more than once served as convenient handles by which his face could be pulled down to a waiting and expectant female face below. To complete the inventory, his close-cropped hair was darkly brown and his eyes, startlingly pale in his space-tanned face, were gray, at times a very bleak gray.
So this was Lieutenant John Grimes, presently officer-of-the-watch of the Survey Service cruiser
slowly shuffling back and forth between the consoles, the banked instruments, alert for any information that might suddenly be displayed on dials or screens. He was not expecting any; the ship was in deep space, failing free through the warped continuum induced by her Mannschenn Drive through regions well clear of the heavily frequented trade routes. There was only one human colony, Grimes knew, in this sector of the Galaxy, the world that had been named, not very originally but aptly,
and two ships a standard year served the needs of that fabulous planet.
El Dorado . . .
Idly—but a watch officer has to think about something—Grimes wondered what it was really like there. There were stories, of course, but they were no more than rumors, exaggerated rumors, like as not. The El Doradans did not encourage visitors, and the two ships that handled their small trade—precious ores outwards, luxury goods inwards—were owned and manned by themselves, not that the vessels, space-borne miracles of automation, required more than two men, captain and engineer, apiece.
Grimes looked out through the viewports, roughly to where El Dorado should be. He did not see it, of course, nor did he expect to do so. He saw only warped Space, suns near and far that had been twisted to the semblance of pulsating, multicolored spirals, blackness between the suns that had been contorted into its own vast convolutions, sensed (but with what sense?) rather than seen. It was, as always, a fascinating spectacle; it was, as always, a frightening one. It was not good to look at it for too long.
Grimes turned his attention to the orderly universe in miniature displayed in the chart tank.
"Sir!" The Lieutenant started. He hadn't heard the old bastard come into the control room. He looked up to the tall, spare figure of Captain Daintree, to the cold blue eyes under the mane of white hair. "Sir?"
"Warn the engine room that we shall be requiring Inertial Drive shortly. And then, I believe that you're qualified in navigation, you may work out the trajectory for El Dorado."
Lieutenant Commander Cooper, the Navigating Officer of
was in a bad mood, a sulky expression on his plump, swarthy face, his reedy voice petulant. "Damn it all," he was saying. "Damn it all, what am
supposed to be here for? An emergency alteration of trajectory comes up and am I called for? Oh, no, that'd be far too simple. So young Grimes has to fumble his way through the sums that
should be doing, and the first that
know is when somebody condescends to sound the acceleration alarm . . ."
"Was there anything wrong with my trajectory,
asked Grimes coldly.
"No, Mr. Grimes. Nothing at all wrong, although
was brought up to adhere to the principle that interstellar dust clouds should be avoided . . ."
"With the Mannschenn Drive in operation there's no risk."
"Isn't there? A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Mr. Grimes. Inside some of these dark nebulae the Continuum is dangerously warped."
"But CCD736 can hardly be classed as a nebula . . ."
"Even so, the first principle of all navigation should be caution, and it's high time that you learned that."
Doctor Passifern, the Senior Medical Officer, broke in. "Come off it, Pilot. Young Grimes
learning, and this idea of the Old Man's that every officer in the ship should be able to take over from the specialists is a very sound one . . ."
"Ha! It might be an idea if some of us were encouraged to take over
A flush darkened Passifern's already ruddy face. He growled, "That's not the same and you know it."
"Isn't it? Oh, I know that ever since the dawn of history you pill peddlers have made a sacred mystery of your technology . . ."
Grimes got to his feet, said, "What about some more coffee?" He collected the three mugs from the table, walked to the espresso machine that stood in a corner of the comfortable wardroom. He found it rather embarrassing when his seniors quarreled—the long-standing feud between the Navigator and the Doctor was more than good-natured bickering—and thought that a pause for refreshment would bring the opportunity for a change of subject. As he filled the mugs he remarked brightly, "At least this acceleration allows us to enjoy our drinks. I hate having to sip out of a bulb."
"Do you?" asked Cooper nastily. "I'd have thought that one of your tender years would enjoy a regression to the well-remembered and well-beloved feeding bottle."
Grimes ignored this. He set the mugs down on the low table, then dropped ungracefully into his easy chair. He said to Passifern, "But what
the hurry, Doc? I know that I'm only the small boy around here and that I'm not supposed to be told anything, but would you be breaking any vows of secrecy if you told us the nature of the emergency on El Dorado?"
"I don't know myself, Grimes. All I know is that there shouldn't be one. Those filthy rich El Doradans have the finest practitioners and specialists in the known Universe in residence; and they, by this time, must be almost as filthy rich as their patients! All
know is that
knew that we were in the vicinity of their planet, and requested a second opinion on something or other . . ."
"And our Lord and Master," contributed Cooper, "decided that it was a good excuse to give the Inertial Drive a gallop. He doesn't like Free Fall." He obliged with a surprisingly good imitation of Captain Daintree's deep voice: "Too much Free Fall makes officers soft."
"He could be right," said Passifern.
Cooper ignored this. "What puzzles me," he said, "is why these outstanding practitioners and specialists should call in a humble ship's quack . . ."
"As a major vessel of the Survey Service," Passifern told him coldly, "we carry a highly qualified and expert team of physicians, surgeons and technicians. And our hospital and research facilities would be the envy of many a planet. Furthermore,
have the benefit of experience denied to any planet-bound doctor . . ."
just love to be planetbound on a world like El Dorado?" asked Cooper.
Before the Doctor could make an angry reply, Grimes turned to the Navigator. "And what
El Dorado like, sir? I was going to look it up, but the Old Man's taken the Pilot Book covering it out of the control room."
"Doing his homework," said Cooper. "Luckily it's not everybody who has to rush to the books when the necessity for an unscheduled landing crops up. We specialists, unlike the jacks-of-all-trades, tend to be reasonably expert in our own fields." He took a noisy gulp of coffee. "All right. El Dorado. An essentially Earth-type planet in orbit about a Sol-type primary. A very ordinary sort of world, you might say. But it's not. And it wasn't."
It was Passifern who broke the silence. "What's so different about it?"
"Don't you know, Doc? You were hankering for its fleshpots only a minute ago. I suppose you have some sort of idea of what it's like now, but not how it got that way. Well, to begin with, it was an extraordinary world. It was one of those planets upon which life—life-as-we-know-it or any other kind of life—had never taken hold. There it was, for millions upon millions of years, just a sterile ball of rock and mud and water.
"And then it was purchased from the Federation by the so-called El Dorado Corporation.
"Even you, young Grimes, must know something of history. Even you must know how, on world after world, the trend has been towards socialism. Some societies have gone the whole hog, preaching and practicing the Gospel According to St. Marx. Some have contented themselves with State control of the means of production and supply, with ruinous taxation of the very well-to-do thrown in. There have been levelling up processes and levelling down processes, and these have hurt the aristocracies of birth and breeding as much as they have hurt the aristocracies of Big Business and industry.
"And so the Corporation was formed. Somehow its members managed to get most of their wealth out of their home worlds, and much of it was used for the terraforming of El Dorado. Terraforming? Landscape gardening would be a better phrase. Yes, that world's no more, and no less, than a huge, beautiful park, with KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs posted insofar as the common herd is concerned."
"What about servants? Technicians?" asked Grimes.
"The answer to that problem, my boy, was automation, automation and still more automation. Automation to an extent that would not have been practical on a world where the economics of it had to be considered. And on the rare occasions that the machines do need attention there are a few El Doradans to whom mechanics, electronics and the like are amusing and quite fascinating hobbies. And there will be others, of course, who enjoy playing around at gardening, or even farming."
"A world, in fact, that's just a rich man's toy," said Grimes.
"And don't forget the rich bitches," Cooper told him.
"I don't think I'd like it," went on Grimes.
"And I don't think that the El Doradans would like you," Cooper remarked. "Or any of us. As far as they're concerned, we're just snotty-nosed ragamuffins from the wrong side of the tracks."
"Still," said Passifern smugly, "they requested
"God knows why," sneered Cooper.
There was silence while the Doctor tried to think of a scathing rejoinder. It was broken by Grimes. "Ah, here's Mr. Bose. Perhaps he can tell us."
"Our commissioned teacup reader," grunted the Navigator sardonically. "Singing and dancing."
Mr. Bose, the cruiser's Psionic Radio Officer, did not look the sort of man who would ever be heard or seen indulging in such activities. He was short and fat, and the expression of his shiny, chocolate-colored face was one of unrelieved gloom. On the occasions when a shipmate would tell him, for the love of all the odd gods of the Galaxy, to cheer up, he would reply portentously, "But I
too much." What he knew of what went on in the minds of his shipmates he would never divulge; insofar as they were concerned, he always observed and respected the oath of secrecy taken by all graduates of the Rhine Institute. Now and again, however, he seemed to consider outsiders fair game and would pass on to his fellow officers what he had learned by telepathic eavesdropping.
"What cooks on El Dorado, Bosey Boy?" demanded Cooper.