A Mountie Astray, Cpt 1-3 (SF)

4,00 Stern(e) 1 Stimme


A Mountie Astray

I. Be Careful with Your Wishes...

Nowadays, the life of a Mountie is not exactly what it used to be when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was founded more than two centuries ago. Not only we have cashed in our beloved horses for various motorized vehicles, even the traditional red coat has given way to black and tan. Our tasks have changed as well. Russia’s joining the European Union has awarded us with a new route for drug trafficking, immigration and other modern comforts of civilization. The polar route is now open for any kind of trade that does not want to be noticed or controlled by our authorities. Ruthless gangs, mostly of Russian origin, are providing us with everything they think we are lacking: Heroin, prostitutes, automatic weapons, cheap illegal labor and lots of dead bodies in God’s Great Freezer. Many of them illegal immigrants, seeking jobs in our great country. God only knows what these gangsters promise to the poor wretches they are smuggling across the eternal ice. Those I can find won’t talk any longer, if I find them at all. Sometimes, all I see is a red stain on the ice or some pieces of cloth, that’s all what’s left of another life full of despair, loneliness and, maybe, a spark of hope.
Today, I came home from a weeklong campaign, as we used to call our trips to the Northern border, where we collected our stray immigrants. If we caught them alive, our policy was to shove them back to wherever they came from, not thinking for a wink that this might work.
Cheryl, our office secretary and good spirit gave me a wink and told me I had to report to the Superintendent rfn. It was the “rfn” I found disturbing, her being a lady who almost never used any salty language. That could only mean something bad was cooking. When Superintendent O’Hara saw me approaching, he jumped to open his office door for me, a sure sign for trouble.
“Good afternoon, Inspector Kermarec, Did you have a nice trip?” That kind of nose browning could not mean anything short of disaster.
“Could be worse, Superintendent, at least nothing new in the body count. Not even tracks this time.”
“Good. May I introduce you to these gentlemen?” He pointed to two plain clothed individuals I hadn’t even noticed before.
“Monsieur Chevier, Mr. Jorgensen, meet Mr. Kermarec, Mr. Kermarec, meet Monsieur Chevier and Mr. Jorgensen.”
“Nice to meet you.” I had never before realized how good a liar I could be.
“How can I assist you?”
“Well, to be frank, you can be of great help in a complicated matter.” My superior officer jumped in. “These gentlemen are representing the European Union here and there is an issue we think you can help us solve.”
I wasn’t really interested in helping the bloody Europeans to shut down their borders as long as poor wretches galore had to risk their lives in order to earn a decent living.
“We’re sure you’ve heard about a foreign intervention on one of the newly-settled worlds called Protectorate New France, didn’t you?”
“Well, I heard some rumors.”
“To be honest, we have no real idea what has happened there. Most of the troopers were massacred, the few survivors don’t tell credible stories.” The second mentioning of honesty in such a short time made me suspect really foul stuff.
“So why don’t you send a secret agent up there and investigate?”
“Commisioner Kermarec, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Don’t protest, the promotion to Commissioner is already official.”
“I am no citizen of the European Union and I don’t intend to become one.”
“You see, that is the greatest asset you have. They won’t suspect anything as you will come as a Canadian.”
He shoved a large pile of red tape into my direction. “There is not much to do. Just go there, look for a job, work a while and ask questions. Any information will be valuable, and, of course, appreciated. Your rank is permanent and your rise in salary as well. You will get a travel budget you won’t have to account for and you’ll get an address where you can mail the information to without being under suspicion. As far as we are informed, there is no real risk in that mission.”
“So why don’t you go yourself and rake in the travel expenses, honor and glory?”
“I am an officer of the European Intelligence Agency. Especially the “European” makes these folks in the Protectorate New France a little, let’s say, upset.”
“Sure, intelligence isn’t a thing you folks will bother to. So you’re scared. But why me?”
“Commissioner Kermarec, you have a Breton name, you are a fluent speaker of Breton Gaelic and you are citizen of a neutral state. That’s a good qualification. Superintendent O’Hara has already signed your marching orders. You’ll depart on Monday from Kennedy Space Port, Florida, USA.”
“Seems I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”
“As an officer and gentleman, an order is an order.”
Superintendent O’Hara gave me a look I will never forget. We had never made to being friends, but he was a superior I could accept. He had returned my acceptance with half a dozen commendations and kept my file neat and clean. Now he looked like a cat at a dog show.
“So you’d better start packing your things and look that you’ll get the nine p. m. plane to Miami.” He produced the tickets.
“By the way, you won’t need your uniform. Mufti.”
“All right. Doesn’t exactly make it more palatable.”
“You can bet your next ten years’ income tax that nobody cares.”
“So I thought. Good-bye.”

II. Home, Sweet Home

I got out of the office and managed to keep calm until I found myself in the comfort of privacy in my car. I didn’t bother to drive home, I headed for my ex-wife’s farm, a few miles out of town. We had split up a few years ago, when my extended absences made her think that she was married most probably to a ghost. She did not waste time and before I realized that our marriage was at a stake, she already had disposed of me. We are still at friendly terms, but as folks say, the magic is gone.
She was not at home, but here no-one locks his hind door. I slipped into the kitchen and left her a notice that she might use my car and look after my small house I had bought when I had to move out. She would do it.
I put the car keys on the kitchen table and called a taxi.
On the way home I read the sealed order my former superior had handed to me when I left. It was short enough. My task was to listen to anyone who might yield any information, bragging, legends, anything. Write it down, send it to an address on Earth. My trip was scheduled for a year; expenses quite generous, they’d even pay off my mortgage. Nice. I asked the cabbie to wait and packed the few things I was allowed to take with me. Space transport guidelines allow five kilograms of baggage, so the choice was not exactly difficult. I even managed to sneak one of my favorite books into my bag.
I left my home with a cringe and set the cabbie going to our airport. A plane would already be waiting for me in order to take me straight to Quebec, where I was to board a liner to Miami. All arranged and paid for. The pilot was as mute as a clam; the plane bore a private registration number, something you won’t see very often these days. At Quebec International, I was checked through in the usual routine, including orifice check. Must be a gay man’s paradise, that job. The flight to Florida was less than thrilling, which I wouldn’t mind. My backside was itching. That was enough to keep me distracted.
I welcomed the landing in Miami, so I could get out of that narrow seat and walk a few paces before I hit the customs. A bored black woman in a black uniform asked me the usual questions and insisted to have my credentials as a RCMP officer checked. At the office, they had surprised me with new credentials, matching to my new rank, now I knew why. It took her a quarter of an hour but finally, she had to wave me through. That was immigration, now came customs. Two dogs were sniffing around, utterly disinterested, no drugs, no explosives, though. Then every other passenger was sent to the cabin, another orifice check. Nice. There was some confusion as my rectum was bleeding thanks to the same treatment in Quebec, all kind of folks suddenly donning OP gloves and holding me down, face down on a bench, while fingering at my eyeless face. I even had to undergo BSE and HIV checks, which kept me up another hour, but finally everything was settled. I was not considered a risk to the United States. At least for the time being.
When I was allowed to put on my clothing I felt raped. Was this really necessary?
As soon as I passed the barrier, the entire world seemed to become friendlier, all the shops and businesses in the free trade zone looked like friends to me.
Thus distracted, I bumped into two stone-faced suits who were apparently looking for me.
“Mr. Kermarec, we’re here to escort you to Kennedy Space port with no delay.”
No welcome, no friendly words, just plain orders. I just nodded, they did not seem to doubt who I was. They accompanied me to a black SUV waiting at the cab driveway. No number plates, no markings of any kind. Black windows. The interior was a little more pleasant, at least the seats were much wider and much more comfortable than those in the plane.
We had to pass through several road blocks, where we as an exception did not have to show our ID cards to bored policemen. At every road block, cars had been sorted out for search. They were being virtually dismantled. Even the tires were slashed. I asked one of my guards how they were supposed to continue if the search would yield no results. “Who cares?” was the reply.
I was glad to see the open air at Kennedy Space Port, where my guards handed me over to two other black-uniformed men who were utterly disinterested in my person. They shoved me through as if I were some large flower, just not one of the good-smelling sort.
For a change, at KSP I was photographed, fingerprinted and had to give a few epithel cells from my mouth mucosa for DNA prints, just in case everything that might be left of my body would turn out to be a little overcooked. Didn’t exactly raise my confidence. Oh, for another change, here they made a manual weapon check. I congratulated myself to the idea to leave my government-issue gun at home with my uniform. Finally, with all orifices thoroughly examined, a coagulating cream in my sore rectum which made sure I would not be able to sit comfortably for the next two days, we were herded to the bus. We were ordered to take our seats, no mercy, and made the fifteen minutes trip to the shuttle. It looked like the overgrown version of the shuttles they were using at the turn of the last century, except these would take off horizontally.
Since I checked in at Quebec, I had no idea where my luggage was. When I found time to worry, it was too late. Fortunately, I had all my credentials, credit cards or the few official documents I was allowed to take with me, in my shirt pocket. So I would not be completely at loss if anything would go wrong. With no further ceremony, we were fixed in our seats and – ignition. The thrust of the rocket engine was hard and loud enough to stifle all communication. These folks did not waste energy for the well-being of their customers, apparently something that occurs only if a business experiences competition.
A short period of free fall during which our shuttle was refuelled in mid-air, an impressing sight, a 747 at each side, long hoses dangling from the wingtips, connected to the shuttle’s beaks. I didn’t know that this was necessary, but the engines blew out the fuel at such a rate that they could not reach a low orbit without either booster rockets which were apparently too heavy or a fuel stop in mid-air. Scary.
White steam fell off the hoses, liquid gases are cold, even here, at the brim of the stratosphere. When the hoses were disconnected, the 747s took a sharp turn and we fired our engines another time. This time, we took a much steeper angle and the sky turned black. It took quite a while until we could dock to the station in LEO, which once had been founded as a scientific project and had now become the gate to the universe.

III. Sky or Heaven?

The very moment acceleration ceased, I forgot my anger about having skipped breakfast. My stomach was turning inside out and I was one of the luckier guys, having nothing to spill inside.
The reception was friendly, though. Most of the passengers were first-timers, so Kleenex were at hand and the staff was really eager to help us. We didn’t have to spend much time at the station, the IST ship had already been waiting for us. To move under zero-gee was entirely new to me and so I got several bruises and ripped up my shirtsleeve. An American National Aerospace Line employee handed me a copy of their by-laws to make clear that any liability for these damages was excluded. Nice service.
The contrast to the Interstellar Transport Union ship could not be greater. The ANAL shuttle was crowded and lacked comfort, the IST ship had a large passenger section offering ample space for everyone, even artificial gravity. It bore the name ‘Spirit of Free Enterprise’, for which its owner would have been crucified two hundred miles below. I checked in, to my surprise, there were no further controls or searches; just to present the ticket was sufficient to receive a cabin key card and a small bottle of champagne.
Alcohol is a controlled substance in Northern America and one of the favorite merchandises in the EU – Canadian, er, make that ‘free trade’ I used to earn my living with to subdue. As soon as I entered the cabin, a TV screen came to life and informed me about the ship, its shopping and recreational facilities, the fact that no goods on board were taxed and the time schedule of my trip. I was to enjoy the ship’s facilities and opportunities for three days before I had to transfer to another line, which would take another few days to deliver me to Kemper/Tara station.
These two planets shared the same sun and the same station – and the same history, as far as human beings were concerned. Barely fifty years ago, both have been populated with people from Ireland and Brittany, as a compensation for a reactor excursion, which had rendered both countries practically uninhabitable. The restitution payments had been extended by donations, mostly from Irish people in the USA and Canada, and both planets were thriving communities ever since. Tara was mostly settled by Irish and some Scottish folks, Kemper by Britons. This was to be the target of my investigation. I still had no bloody idea what I had to investigate, the sealed orders I had received were vague to say the least; however, I had seen no way to refuse the generous offer. I didn’t exactly look forward to this assignment.
The ‘Spirit’ was a pleasant experience, though. There were sports, even a baseball stadium, a theater, several cinemas, casinos, various restaurants, even pubs and several bars. Alcohol was being served anywhere I found myself peeking into. All facilities offered a continuous 24-7 service, as there was no such thing as day or night in space. I recognized not one brand name, especially in the spirits department, but after I had tried several flavors, I found it rather hard to recognize anything at all. Food was ample and cheap, so I was completely satisfied when I found myself ‘home’ in my cabin, ready for a long and pleasant nap.
The straps on my bedsheets should have reminded me of the fact that I was in space. Well, the jolt, which catapulted me out of my dreams, did. I should have read the Space Tourist’s Manual the line had provided every passenger with, sure, but I had been overwhelmed with too many impressions to think of the most essential things. No problem, I found the walls being covered with soft but firm foam. Apparently, they were used to wet-nursing bloody greenhorns like me. When I woke up, this time unassisted, self-esteem and curiosity had been restored, so I ventured for a breakfast. Whatever I had read about food in space turned out to be out of date. I perused the menus of several restaurants, finding a lot more than I was looking for. Being a true 24-hour society, these folks offered everything at any time. Even the coffee was tasty. When I asked where all this food came from, the replies were unanimously: “not from Earth”. I found regular shops selling vitamins, Q10, melatonin off the shelves, no sign of control, not even a prescription required. What puzzled me even more was the absence of security personnel. I could not see any surveillance cameras, but I wasted no thought about this, I assumed they were better hidden than in Canada, where most houses have been built before the necessity to install security cameras had come into being. Not to mention merry old England. All over Europe, people had to register and have RFID chips implanted which recorded every move they made. Worse than the travel restrictions in the USA.
Here everyone seemed to roam free. There were a few gates with “Staff only” signs on, but I could not see any further restrictions. Several cinemas were crowded, mostly showing pornography, so I decided to waste my time on “Casablanca”, the black and white classic I have never understood. When I left for a cup of coffee elsewhere, it took some time to regain my composition. Not only that the movie was almost an hour longer, I would never have imagined that the story was so moving and consistent. I really felt with Victor Laszlo and Rick. Especially the final scene touched me. The entry fee included a pack of paper blowrags.
All of a sudden, a door sign caught my attention: “Marie Obeid, M. D., specialized on rape and OS injuries”. My south pole still itched like an anthill and I could not resist the impulse to enter the door. I found a nice young lady sitting at the reception, addressing me in a heavy accent I could not locate: “Hey, stranger, I’m Annie, how can I help you?”
“Well, how long does it take to get an appointment?”
“Office opens in ten minutes, if you happen to have time, your turn will be in, let’s say thirty minutes. Like to wait here, we’ve got a decent library, like to go a-walking, we’ll charge ten SC as a deposit in case you rethink. Refundable if you keep the appointment.”
“I’ll wait.”
“You’re welcome, the library is right over there, activate and use “guest” as a password.”
She ushered me into a dim-lit room where several terminals were in sleep mode, waiting for another client. The seats in front of each terminal were heavy leather and the upholstery was soft and comfortable. Seems there were more OS injuries than rapes to treat. I logged in and lost myself in the depth of cyberspace. News of dozens of worlds I never really have heard of, music, movies of any kind. Apparently no censure and no kid-protection.
“I really hate to disturb you, but the doctor would like to keep the appointment...”
Another young lady, as pretty as the first, but this time in OP green had approached me unheard. I followed her into a thing called “Examination room” which revived quite a few bad experiences in my short-term memory.
Inside the room, I found it surprising homely. Nothing in here reminded me of the doctors’ offices I was used to, everything either wood or leather upholstery of the more expensive kind.
“Orifice Search victim?”
“Yes, er...”
“Don’t worry, just put off your clothes and lay down, butt up. The doctor will arrive in about three minutes.”
“I, ...”
“Don’t panic, we can’t sue US gummint, but treatment is cheap and you don’t have to feel ashamed of anything. So relax!” She gave me a warm smile and vanished.
I took off my clothes, found quite a large red stain in my pants and tried to relax on the leather bench. To my surprise, it was even heated. Wasn’t that difficult at all to relax.
“Good day, sir, seems you’ve got a special treatment by govgoons down on Earth, let me see. Nice fissures, no wonder that it itches, inflammation, looks superinfected. Good idea, sir, to come early. Most of my clients are so ashamed that they wait too long. Attention, that’s cold!”
She sprayed some cooling liquid between my buttocks, then she poked something into my rectum. This time, it felt less ashaming and absolutely painless.
“Lucky guy, though, nothing torn inside, just superfacial lesions and a perforated hemorrhoid. You bound for Centauri or further?”
“I’m bound for Kemper, I’ll have to change vessels in Alpha Orionis.”
“Good, that’s the three day tour. If you like it, you’ll be back in eighteen hours and I’ll fix your hemorrhoids as well. Costs you another twenty-five. This treatment will be twenty.”
“We don’t accept US or Canadian currency here, either SC or certifieds.
“No problem. What’s “Certifieds”?”
“Product certificates backed up by either a mining company or a bank. Relax! I’m not yet ready. So, now the bleeding will stop, I’ve disinfected the wound, you didn’t even need stitches, and you’ll feel happy within thirty minutes from now.”
“Twenty SC sounds a little bit on the cheap side.”
“Hell, you’ve chosen the most exclusive and expensive doctor in an area of twenty-five cubic light years. Not kidding, you don’t have to pay taxes here, that makes you pay only the goods you shop for, and we’re not choking the market by professional licensure. Competition keeps prices low and quality high. And me rich.”
“How many doctors are on this ship besides you?”
“Some thirty, eight of them specialized on gummint rape. Now you’re ready, if you want to sign for the hemorrhoid treatment, please tell Annie to make up the appointment.”
I stood up and turned around to look into the face of a five foot tall, pretty lady who did not make a secret of her Arabic roots.
“I am very grateful for your treatment, and I’ll sign up for tomorrow, thank you!”
“I can see that when I look down, see ya tomorrow!” Then she gave me a warm smile that matched my blushing and left for the next patient. I got back into my clothes, still dark red behind my ears, and left for the reception.
“You’re Annie?” I asked.
Sure, can I do anything for you?”
“Yes make up another appointment in, how did she say, eighteen hours.”
“Okee; so for today it’s twenty bucks, ten as a deposit for tomorrow and at twenty-one-hundred ship time we’ll se you again. Thank you for being our client!” She smiled as if she meant it.
I handed her thirty SC and left the office, feeling comfortable for the first time for two days. On my way out, I set my wristwatch to ship time. Funny, the watch said 3 am, but the alleys were as crowded as in any rush hour. Later, I found that nobody really cared for daytime or seasons here. I found my first impressions surpassed by my second exploration. They even had a red light district here, not shamefully hidden in the back alleys, but discreetly blended in among other kinds of businesses. I decided to try the local Chinese cuisine, which, if you like that way of cooking at all, is always a safe guess. This one was outstanding good, tastier, hotter and much better service than I was used to. In addition, much cheaper.
Satisfied, I turned back into my cabin and found some sleep. When the alarm woke me up again, I wondered if I had missed my appointment, but it was a general alert as we were approaching Centauri Station. Windows there were none, not even in the computers, so I watched the approach on TV. To call this a station was kind of understating. The entire rig was about ten miles long and looked quite like stations of ancient science fiction movies. A graphic comparison between the ship and the station showed they were matching partners. Neither of them was designed to land on a planet, both were worlds on their own.
I had some time to kill until my appointment and took another venture to the ship’s microcosm. ‘Spirit’ would stay for some eight hours at Centauri Station. Considering the fact that several hundred thousand tons of cargo would be unloaded in that period, I guessed this would be a rather busy time. Not many passengers were to leave or board here, so most of them would not notice very much. The only noticeable things were several jolts in the artificial gravity system, which made some folks stagger as if drunk – and several drunks actually stumble and fall. Nobody cared, these are the minor inconveniencies a space traveler had to cope with.
When I met with Dr. Obeid, I blushed as soon as I entered the office. She stood at the reception and, seeing my face turn infrared, had to stifle a laugh.
“Hey, you don’t have to blush here, relax, or I won’t stitch you straight.” She smiled at me and Annie shoved me into the library to wait for the quarter hour I had come too early.
When her nice colleague came to take me into the examination room, the doctor was already waiting for me.
“I know, it is never easy to keep emotional distance. So don’t worry, you did neither offend or embarrass me with your reaction, it’s absolutely natural. Let’s get to business and help me earn my money.” She hid her smile behind a surgical mask, a crime, I thought, to cover that pretty a face. I undressed, stooped over the bench and let her work. This time, it seemed to be a trifle more delicate, she kept silent until most of the job was done.
When she had finished, she gave me some ointment and told me not to take a full bath until next morning.
“Don’t you make any files of your patients?”
“What do you think, name address, serial number or such? Never more than necessary. The probability that I will meet any of my clients again is rather small. I recorded my treatment, of course, took notes about the circumstances, but you won’t need my files, because you can’t sue Terrestrian governments for raping you. So you’d better write that off. Complications? I’ve done my best and I can guarantee you that you will not have to undergo hemorrhoid surgery for a long time. We’re pioneer territory, but we’re no hillbillies here. Scientific research is done anywhere and in most parts of the inhabited universe much better and faster than on Earth. Within days, I have access to whatever is published in medical research – except from Earth. These publications take years to reach space. I know, this is policy in order to monopolize science, but who cares? I can get what I need, better, cheaper and faster than via government. Most planets are owned by large companies who don’t care for Earth any longer or small ethnical or religious groups who do neither. The companies are interested in results, so they take care of efficiency.
“Mr. Kermarec, as soon as your wounds will be healed, you’ll forget me and what I’ve done, mainly because you probably never will set your feet on this vessel again. So why should I bother to excessive records? The only effect bureaucracy has is to lower the profit margin. I can work better and earn more when I concentrate on healing instead of administration.
“IST is not quite a free market, but a good approximation. You’ll drop your jaws when you’ll arrive at the Celtic Worlds.”
“You are emphasizing the monetary value, aren’t you obliged to ethics as well?”
“You mean the hippocratical oath? Sure. Moreover, the most ethical thing, by the way in any profession, is to deliver a good job for good money. Old Hypocrites, as I frequently nick him, did not say anything about working for free. Honor and glory is nice, but a real business is being paid. By the way, Annie will tell you how much you owe me. Concerning ethics, what do you do for a living? Don’t you exchange your abilities for money? That’s one of the most natural acts in human life, to exchange values. That can be love, sex, food or other products. Sometimes it’s money. However, with everything you do, you’ll create values. You exchange them for other values you’ll need to sustain your livelihood – or you simply desire to have. Here, we don’t have an intrusive government to steal most of what we are producing, and prices are real. You get what you’re shopping for, no less, no more. How does your soup taste where there is no government in it?”
“There are some points to consider in your calculation, but what about the poor, who can’t sustain their livelihood? Don’t they deserve some protection?”
“Awww, don’t give me that protection racket, sir. The essential way to protect the poor is to maintain a free society where they don’t become poor in the first place. Don’t steal their income, don’t tax it away and folks become richer and richer. Most people love to work, to earn money and to be proud of their achievements. Just let ’em do and they’ll thrive. Except for a few bums and gangsters, of course. The reason we don’t need a police state is that you can do everything what you want, as long as you are willing to bear the consequences.
“ About six weeks ago, I had a case of rape. Make that attempted rape. The girl had cut off the assailant’s dick before he could give her one single scratch. Hell, did that guy howl when some Samaritans carried him into my office. Tough luck, he couldn’t pay, so I threw him out again. Later I’ve heard, one of the less lucky competitors of mine has sewed him together on credit. Next IST station, that guy vamoosed without leaving a forwarding address. So my colleague had to work for free. Won’t do him any good, his best friend has been cut into half, and you can’t stitch the corpus cavernosum of a penis. The girl, a waitress of barely sixteen years, was left utterly unharmed.”
“Would it not have been better to hand this over to the authorities?”
“First, what authorities? Second: he got what he deserved, and he got it hard. He won’t have fun with sex for the rest of his life and he won’t enter this ship again. His face has been photographed and for the entire future, service of any kind for this man will be declined. Not even if the Spirit of Free Enterprise were the last vessel to leave a burning station, this guy would be taken on board. Tough luck, most probably he’s stranded on that IST station. If he continues that way, he’s most probably dead now.”
“Isn’t that unethical to refuse help to a wounded man?”
“Isn’t that unethical to help a criminal?”
“It is ethical to refuse service to anyone who thinks he can break the few rules we have. We don’t like to be coerced here. I won’t work at gunpoint. So, always when I refuse service to a criminal, I am protecting the people who live by moral standards. I can’t punish anyone. I don’t have the right to. I don’t take revenge for other people’s suffering. Whenever some lout tries to pull such a stunt, he deserves to fail. Keeps the world much cleaner than prisons and firing squads.”
“How did you know what happened?”
“That fool was dumb enough to tell me. To tell me that a rape has gone sour and that he had no money to pay me. Furthermore, the girl was here even before the passers-by could drag that fool into my office. I know her, she’s a waitress in a restaurant I patronize, and I have no reason not to believe her.”
A beep reminded her of another client waiting and she had to see me off.
“Maybe we’ll meet again to discuss it further. My best wishes!”
“Thank you!”
When I saw Annie at the reception, she beamed a two-megawatt smile at me, cashed in another ten SC and wished me good-bye. I left the office a little upset, but not for medical reasons.
Back in my cabin, a heavy red wine sent me asleep, and the alert system woke me up in time to hear the landing at Alpha Orionis Station. In fact, we were already docking. I collected the few things I had as luggage and got ready for another rectal examination. I found no customs barrier at the gate, it was crowded with peddlers instead who tried to sell souvenirs and other cheap items.
Even the station staff did not bother to search anyone, so my cramped behind could relax. The process of changing locations had already lost its moment of surprise. I had to wait a couple of hours on that station, but nothing invited me to explore the location. Finally, I was glad to hear my vessel’s arrival announced.
I was not exactly happy when I learned that the second part of the trip would last six days ship time. I was told that this was an unconventional shortcut, paid by some officials on earth. Nice. The regular tour would have taken an entire month. Ships would travel from station to station, taking and dropping passengers at the most convenient places. The IST system was organized as a network of independent lines, serving the busiest routes in the highest frequency, but the less frequented systems were served whenever a profitable cargo or a certain number of passengers were available.
After loafing around in the IST lobby, not exactly bored but somewhat impatient, I could board the Ilya Prigogin, a passenger-only ship, destined for three other stations before heading to the Celtic Worlds. I was greeted with a compassionate smile, checking in with only a small bag and the stewardess, a nice, chinese-looking doll, handed me s check card. “As you don’t use more than ten per cent of the 500 – kilogram baggage limit, all your drinks, alcoholic or otherwise, are on the house. Have a nice trip!”
Since the New Christian Movement had taken over in Canada and the United States, alcohol had been upgraded from “overtaxed” to “controlled”, which meant, any hillbilly moonshiner was as ‘dangerous’ a criminal as any Heroin dealer.
And here, all I had to do was to take care that I was sober enough not to miss my station.
Once or twice, I had tasted the produce of a busted moonshiner, and I would not like it. Here, I made an overwhelming experience: not only did I get drunk from just one bloody glass of wine, I even liked the taste. I would have to be careful not to get hooked. I used to wonder why folks might get addicted to alcohol, but now I saw myself in that very danger. Even smoking tobacco was not altogether unpopular on a spaceship. My nose told me it wasn’t always pure tobacco.
The reason why I spent almost the entire ship time in my cabin was not fear of drugs, though, but the fact that I discovered the ship’s library. I could read on the cabin terminal, play games, watch movies, but most important, use a giant database jammed full with facts about the universe, settled by man, prospected or otherwise.
I found out that most worlds were connected by a franchise system called “Interstellar Transport / Travel Union”. Wasn’t exactly what I understood under “union”, because it worked. There was no company HQ, no central institution, just a guideline by which to operate and a common interest. The lines themselves were more or less independent. The only tributes they had to pay were required to operate the stations in space from where the planetary lines were being served.
Funny construction, but at least it worked and a good entrepreneur could make a fortune. There was an IST bank where you could get a loan to build your own enterprise – several lines were parallel, competing at a one to one ratio with each other, or just have an account where you boss could transfer your salary on. They had issued a currency of their own, the ‘Stellar Credit’, a. k. a. SC. When I checked the exchange rate to the North American Currency Unit, a. k. a. Dollar, I gulped. The budget, which had looked quite generous on Earth, was frugal at best. I would have to look for work on Kemper, not only to support my legend, but also to be operational at all.
Therefore, I spent my time learning, by the way the cheapest way to spend my time here, though not the most entertaining. I found a concert hall, lots of multi-flavored restaurants, call girls and boys, cinemas, shops and pubs. Doctors, psychologists, astrologists and sports clubs galore, but no attorneys. Funny, where business was flourishing like here, legal counsel was scarce.
When the six days were over, I found myself prepared for my task and was really looking forward to getting on solid ground again. Artificial gravity was better than no gravity at all, sure, but feeling straight ground bulge just because you are on the rim of a force field can cause severe nausea. Some folks just never get used to that.
To my surprise, a beautiful female voice gave me an intercom call two hours before the ship would dock. Not only to announce my destination, but to ask if I had anything to complain about or anything to suggest. To improve the clients’ satisfaction was part of their business strategy. I told her that I was rather overwhelmed by the service quality and she sounded quite happy. Just before I could embarass myself, trying to invite her for a dinner, she said: “I am being generated by SynTelMan software release Thank you for listening.”
I was baffled. Such a sensual voice, flawless English, perfect pronunciation, even individual responses to my comments – by a machine. I blushed, and I was not sure at all that I was not being observed by this computer.
I left my cabin and headed for the station where I found my flight to Kemper being announced. I started to run, but a friendly woman in a green outfit told me there was no need to hurry, the transfer terminal was just around the corner. The station was not as big as the ones I had visited before, but still large enough to maintain artificial gravity.
The transfer terminal was a little airlock, and though my senses told me it was at a downward angle, my muscles insisted on having to climb upwards. Bloody artificial gravity. The ferry itself was under zero-gee, which was not more pleasant than the fist time. Two Jumbo-sized flight decks, scarcely populated by less than one hundred passengers. I friendly declined an offer of a glass of whiskey, I thought it better to have nothing inside to throw up.
The usual emergency lecture, a small rocket blast and we were on our way down to Kemper. The ride was smooth, and I could watch it in its entirety on the board screen. They had installed a camera into the edge of the tail fin, so we had an excellent view of the approach to the airstrip. The most impressive view was an array of five silos right besides the runway. Whatever they were to store, they were giant constructions, even compared to the shuttle, which was about twice the size of an old-fashioned Boeing 797. The runway was a toenail short of ten kilometers, but the shuttle turned to the right before half of it had been used.
The captain gave a short welcome, thanked us for not booking the competitor’s line and laughed about his lame joke, as Kemper had no competing line.
IV. Naked But Under Cover

The shuttle taxied to a terminal and we stumbled down a narrow gangway. The terminal building was fairly large, apparently designed to cope with far more passengers than today’s load. Most of them did not raise their eyes, but I spent some time getting acquainted with my first encounter with a new world.
I felt good, seeing a horizon corresponding with my feelings and breathing the heavy air of a full-fledged oxygen – nitrogen atmosphere. Gravity was at 1.02 gee, air pressure a trifle higher than on Earth. The sun a bluish-white spot far away, much smaller than good old Sol looked from Earth.
When I came back to reality, I found myself alone in front of the terminal building.
“Hey, stranger!” a male voice addressed me from behind. “First trip?”
“Have a good one, tonight there’s Ceilidh in ‘Kerouac’s’. ‘An Erminig’ playing.”
“Thanks. Where’s Immigration Office?”
“The WHAT?”
“Immigration Office, Customs and the like...”
“Hehe, next immigration office is on Earth, and as long as we have to decide, it will remain there.” With these words, he placed himself in front of me and reached out with his hand. Maurice Lemercier, welcome to Baile Kemper!”
He was one tall man, at least 6’ 8”. Curly black hair and icy blue eyes.
“You’re the official greenhorn reception committee.”
“Def’nitely not, you ain’t gonna find anything official here.” He slapped the holster at his side. The first Desert Eagle I ever saw as a real piece.
“Betsy here and lots of her sisters will make sure everybody is a private person here. Had enough officials here recently, shoved them back and don’t want them replaced.”
“Where can I get a license for a firearm?”
“Har, that’s a good one – go to Lester’s, he’s got a fine collection of weapons, so many, he has to sell them.”
“Where can I find a job?”
“Wanna stay here? Congratulations! If you don’t insist on that ‘official’ crap, you’ll like it here.” He looked at his wristwatch. “Eight in the evening, days take thirty-six hours here, so nobody bothers to daytime. Too bloody late for tonight, but let’s go to Lester’s anyway, his place is much more than a gun shop.”
“By the way, my name is Ian Kermarec. Came from Canada, Earth.”
“‘Nuther Celtic finding home.”
“In a way...”
“Lots come, those who stay more than a year will stay forever. Most leave after the first week here. It’s not exactly easy here.”
“What’s the problem?”
“You’re on your own, bro’. Folks here are nice, friendly to strangers, easy-going. But most foreigners who come here are not used to living on their own. You for example have apparently no experience with freedom. You can drive drunk here, ride a bicycle with no helmet, push Heroin, coke or speed, drink yourself to oblivion, wank ten times a day. You’ll find nobody caring. As long as you’re the one who wakes up with a headache, ok. MYOB. However, as soon as you make a scratch with your bike into the paint of someone else’s car, you’re dipped in shit. Either you pay in cash, right on the spot, or you vamoose ncb.”
“Never come back. They mean it here. And they have the hardware to make sure.”
“Guns, knives, flame throwers, RPGs, whatever. Scratch a car, they’ll be at you to make you pay. Harm a person, they’ll shoot first and ask questions later.”
“Seems to be a wild country.”
“Def’nitely not. As peaceful as can be. We had our last shoot-out well before the invasion.”
With these words, we had reached a fairly big machine with a cabin on top and a flat skirt around the bottom.
“Hey, that looks like a hovercraft...”
“Smart, it looks that way because it is one. Climb up to the left door while I’ll take the driver’s seat.”
“How far is it to Lester’s place?”
“About ten minutes. You wouldn’t like to walk that distance. Part ain’t yet plastered.”
He started the engine, astonishingly silent. A dust cloud rose to mark the place where the vessel had been parked.
“What kind of engine do you use?”
“Just a normal electric engine, fed by a fuel cell which converts hydrogen and oxygen into water. Cheap, clean and silent.”
“Aren’t you scared with all that explosive stuff?”
“Not really. H2 isn’t that bad at all.”
“We on Earth prefer radionuclide batteries.”
“Sure, little power, lasts long and gives helluva lot of trouble when it’s used up. Not to be used in an atmosphere you wanna breathe afterwards.”
The ride followed the mainstem of Baile Kemper, mostly through a loose collection of properties, connected by broad “roads”, covered with the resistant and hard-leaved autochthon vegetation, kept trimmed by fast rotor blades, which in turn had to be sharp-edged sickles with extra hardened surfaces. The houses were fairly large, with park-like gardens and mostly no fences around them.
The road was, as promised, partly plastered, but I learnt to prefer the unplastered parts – less dust flying.
“Better not walk here, the leaves are as sharp as broken glass, rip through your trousers in no time. Not to mention your tender peach skin. Not exactly nice wounds, the edges aren’t straight, more like multi-bladed saws.”
“Not enough surgeons here?”
“Hell, do you like to be cut to pieces?”
“Not really.”
“We’ve got a couple of really good doctors here. But you would not like the scars. These plants have a kind of exo-skeleton, made of silicon dioxide, better known as quartz. Fine needles, embedded in fibers. Really good for making plants which can withstand the propwash of a few hundred hovers an hour, but not good for anything else. Won’t even burn right. Can stop bullets or cut them up. That’s what drove these stupid invaders mad. Our folks were firing at them and they could not do us any harm with that kind of cover.”
“Must have been a hell of a war, then.”
“In a way, it took us eight full standard days to drive them to hell. It helped a lot to blow our airport up and their only shuttle. Killed a few thousand of them with one blow – and flattened the city center as a collateral damage.”
“How that? Or is it a secret?”
“Not at all, you’ve seen the five silos in a quinconce on your approach?”
“Sure, can’t overlook them.”
“They were filled with hydrogen and oxygen and blown up. Did the job for almost three quarters of the garrison.”
“Holy shit...”
“Yeah, quite a big hole afterwards.”
“And the rest?”
“Got rounded up and shot to smithereens, wasn’t much of a strategic masterpiece. They had lost most of their command structure and most of them were confused and could not think by themselves. So we could jam them into a camp and, in a final raid, clobber them. Not many survived. Next week, we’re going to inaugurate the Parc de la Liberté where their last stand used to be. Our folks aren’t good in public celebrations, but there will be a fair and a memorial.”
“You lost quite a few of your own soldiers?”
“Soldiers? Not one. Ain’t no soldiers here. Couple of folks were killed in our hospital when the power was cut off, some died in the cathedral. None of them in combat, though. We all are a militia, everyone defending his own life and property. We had a few minor injuries, mostly by own fault, but we lost only one man, the Catholic priest from our only church. He had disappeared, some say he has been taken prisoner by the invaders, but nobody knows for sure. So the Bishop will hold a public memorial on Jour de Libération. He does not exactly like it, but he’d better make a smiley-face if he does not want to lose his entire parish.”

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